[Personal Note: Sorry for the late post this week, but I wasn't feeling well earlier in the week.]
The Noah story holds an interesting place in the Christian imagination, at least in my experience. For many people of faith, we grow up hearing the Noah story in Sunday school and at Vacation Bible School and we sing songs about it. “The LORD said to Noah, build me an arky, arky…” We learn the story as if it is just a cute little story about a boat and animals and a rainbow in the sky. We decorate children’s classrooms with Noah’s Ark murals and put it on the front of children’s bibles.
Then we get older and we re-read the story of Noah, and we’ll stop and think, “Wait! We teach this to children?” When we think of approved Bible stories for children, we often don’t think about stories featuring God’s judgment on the entire creation and God’s initial resolve to wipe it all out and start all over again. We are surprised by the utter destruction depicted, by God’s anger and wrath and God’s desire to destroy all life on the earth, images that clash with our childhood memories of sheep and cows getting on a nice boat built by the nice, long-bearded man.
Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative. Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it. In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place. Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.
But in doing so, in focusing on the theme of judgment, we miss the deep pain expressed in the story. That pain, of course, being the pain at the very heart of God. The flood narrative is not one that is about a vengeful God, watching and waiting for a screw up so that God might smote the evil-doer, which is the image a lot of people when we speak about the judgment of God. If that is the understanding of judgment that you bring to the flood narrative, then you’ll quickly miss the point.
Judgment is not something God revels in, takes pleasure in, especially according to the flood narrative. God does not chuckle gleefully as God throws lightning bolts at random sinners. Instead, the reality of evil and God’s judgment of it is something that breaks God’s very heart. “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).
The flood narrative stands as a testament to the tension that we humans see in the character of God, and the tension that we struggle to live with in ourselves, namely the tension between righteousness and justice versus love and mercy. But at some point God must declare evil and evil and must do something about it else, as Miroslav Volf noted in his book Exclusion and Embrace, God stands complicit in it.
The theme of judgment in the flood narrative is counterbalanced by the theme of covenant, namely that God will not destroy the creation. Instead, the exact opposite is promised, that the creation is spared God’s wrath, that God places God’s bow in the sky, that the weapon is laid aside for a new way. This is the counterbalance to God’s observance that the earth was “full of violence” (6:11); God will not fight fire with fire as it were. Instead of destroying violence through more violence, God seeks the new creation promised in the covenant with Noah, which would then be enacted through the later covenants with Abraham, Israel, and brought to fullness in God’s work in Jesus.
“That,” Walter Brueggemann observes, “is the substance of the gospel. The God who rules over us has turned toward us in a new way” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, 85). In the flood, the biblical narrative makes its case for why evil persists in the world, where the Bible gives the answer the great question of “Why doesn’t God just do away with it all?” And this is because God has chosen not to but instead has committed God’s self to this creation.
What God termed “very good” in creation is something God has chosen to not abandon, but chose to enter into covenant with in order that it might be redeemed and restored. And I don’t know about you, but in this world “full of violence” I find that to be good news.