A story is told of a young boy who came home from Sunday school having been taught the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing from Egypt and crossing the red sea. His mother asked him what he had learned in class, and he told her: “The Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. They got to the red sea and they couldn’t cross it. The Egyptian army was getting closer. So Moses got on his walkie-talkie, the Israeli air force bombed the Egyptians and the Israeli navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross.” The mother was shocked. “Is that they way they taught you the story?” she asked. “Well no,” the boy admitted, “but if I told it to you the way they told it to us, you’d never believe it.”
You would be hard pressed to find a children’s Bible in which the Noah story, although greatly redacted, does not find a prominent place, including sometimes being placed on the cover. If you go into a store that sells items for babies’ rooms, you will find plenty of items based on the Noah story. But like the boy with Moses we too have completely changed this story around as to make it unrecognizable from what scripture actually says, in order to make it more palatable. Even in Sunday school I’ guessing that your felt picture telling of this did not include the death of all humanity, except Noah and his sons, or the vengeful and angry God seeking out his retribution on mankind, and if some teacher were to do that I can only imagine all the calls of complaints from parents that the minister would received the next day.
I think some of the hesitancy in trying to deal with this story is not just because of the destruction wroth by God, and we’ll get to that, because also because of the character of Noah himself. We are told that Noah was the most righteous person of his generation, which sort of sounds good, but really it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s like saying someone is the most honest politician. When the competition is so despicable, what does that truly mean? One of the things I have enjoyed about preparing for this series on genesis has been reading lots of Jewish commentators, after all they have been interpreting these passages for a lot longer than Christians have, and the rabbis have a nearly universal disdain for Noah.
A lot of the criticism comes in comparing Noah to others, especially Abraham, who is the next major figure in Genesis. When Abraham is told that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story we will get to in June, Abraham argues on their behalf to try and save them, and not only does God listen to Abraham, but God goes along with what Abraham requests as well. That does not happen here. In fact Noah is silent the entire time. Some of you may remember Bill Cosby’s famous routine between Noah and God. But none of that happens. Noah doesn’t talk to God. The first time we hear Noah speak is well after the ark is safely back on dry ground. Legends have arisen that the neighbors mocked Noah, or that he tried to warn them but they were so wicked that they failed to listen to him, but that is not what the story says. We are never told that Noah tries to warn others, tries to get them to repent, or even tries to get God to stop the action. He doesn’t even pray for those who are not chosen. Instead all we are told, repeatedly, is that Noah does what God requests of him. And he does it without question, complaint or even voice. And I have to say I’m a little sympathetic with the rabbi’s position on this, because for whatever reason Noah does nothing to help humanity, even his extended family.
One of the charges leveled against the survivors of the Titanic was that those in the boats didn’t go to help those who were in the water. The claim was made, and probably rightfully so, that had they rowed back that the boats may have been swamped by people trying to clamber in, and they too would have been lost and so they had to leave the area. But in making the decision they then had to ignore the cries of their brothers and sisters, and husbands and sons, and friends who were crying and dying just beyond where they were and they chose to do nothing to help them. One survivor, who was a young boy at the time, later lived near the baseball stadium in Detroit, and he said that whenever the stadium erupted in cheers over a homerun or some big play, that the sound was just as loud as it was on that night as those who were not in the boat cried for help. And then there was silence. God doesn’t even speak while Noah is on the ark, and the silence had to be deafening in its completeness. A famous essay on the Noah story by Trevor Dennis, who was an Old Testament scholar, is called “Only the sound of rain.”
And what about God in this story? Does God get any judgment here from us? In Star Wars, the worst crime committed by the empire is the destruction of the planet Alderan by the Death Star, in which Obi One Kenobi utters his famous line “It’s as if a million voices cried out and then were suddenly silenced.” And yet I don’t think we see God here as being like Darth Vader, even though the reality is the same, and I wonder why?
The passage begins with these two very unusual stories about the sons of God, or the Nephilim, mating with women and having children, which scholars have puzzled about for a longtime, and then we are told that “the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth.” And because of this wickedness, God was sorry that humans had been created, that this “grieved him to his heart,” and we are told that God decides to destroy all of humanity in remorse for the creation. But what is the evil that is being done? We don’t really know. There are some sexual issues of some sort taking place, and we should note that these involve heterosexual acts. But other than that all we know is that the “inclination” of people’s “hearts was only evil continually.” Notice that it doesn’t even say that it was actions, but instead inclinations. I find this striking in comparison to the story of Cain and Abel that we heard last week, when God warns Cain about his inclinations, that sin is at the door lusting for him and that he must master it, but Cain is not punished for his inclinations, he is punished for his actions, and even then the murder of his brother doesn’t get him killed. Instead he gets protected by God.
There are lots of destructive forces in the world. Fire is devastating, but fire eliminates most things in its path, but as we have seen from flooding it doesn’t eliminate things it just makes a bigger mess. Just think of any of the images we have from flooding, or typhoons or tsunamis. I think that one of the reasons that there is only one window in the ark is to make it difficult for Noah and his family to see the destruction which would have been everywhere they looked. There would have been floating debris covering the surface, wood and other things that float, including bodies. Humans and animal bodies would have covered the water, and the stink would have been awful, and I’m not talking about what’s going on inside the ark, and the refuse would not go away when the waters receded, they would have still been there, and that’s what would have affronted Noah and his family when they left the ark. When we think of the Noah story we don’t really think of the bodies, we don’t think of infants drowning, along with the animals, and how wicked could animals and infants be that they deserve to die? This is not the cuddly story we so often think of, and that we were probably taught as children. This is a scary, terrifying, disgusting, troubling story that should strike us to the core. And yet, at the end of it, there is the note of hope, there is the new covenant and the rainbow.
And although most of the animals and the rest of creation are destroyed because of our actions, something we should take very much to heart these days, the animals are also protected. There is a lot of detail offered in the story about the protection of the animals and assuring their survival, as Noah is ordered to bring how many pairs of animals onto the ark? (1 pair) That’s right in one version, but many scholars believe, and I am in agreement with them, that there are actually two different stories of Noah that have been combined here by an editor at some point. In one version all the animals go on the ark two by two, but in the passage we heard today, Noah is ordered to bring one pair of unclean animals, and seven pairs of clean animals, that is animals that are able to be eaten under kosher laws. Of course one of the problems is that kosher laws have not yet been given, and second is that at the point everyone is vegetarian, as one of the things that Noah will be told after he gets off the ark is that humans now have permission to eat animals, and thus become omnivores.
So God protects the animals as well as Noah, and then God makes a covenant with all of the creation. This is not just a covenant between God and humans, instead God says this is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.” While we as humanity can bring destruction upon ourselves, upon animals, and even upon the earth itself, and that’s what has happened since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, God is going to work to save and preserve the creation and us, and God covenants with us to that effect. While this is the first covenant offered between God and humanity, it is not the last, and this morning we will be reminded of these covenants. When we gather at the table we are reminded that God made covenant with Noah and the prophets, and God made covenant with us by water and the spirit and we take the bread and we take the cup of the new covenant and we remember God’s mighty acts in Christ Jesus. This is the new covenant that God has made with us, it is our sign of hope and the promise of life, life abundantly and life eternally. This table is the sign of our new covenant, it is our rainbow in the sky.
I honestly don’t know what to make of the Noah story. Some want to say that this story is all about the rainbow, the covenant and the hope, but it can’t be just about that because that then is to ignore everything that comes before. I can’t just ignore the angry God who destroys and kills everything out of regret. And yet even with that, at the end of the day as I struggle with this, I too am left with that image of the rainbow, the vision of hope, the proclamation to all of creation about God’s covenant, and I am reminded of what Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Mark, in Mark’s version of the great commission, where Jesus says “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to all of creation.” The good news is not just for us, the covenant is not just for us, it is for all of creation, because God has called it all good. So as we gather at the table today and remember the new covenant given to us through Christ Jesus, may we remember it deeply in our hearts and in our minds and in our bodies and in our souls, and may we proclaim it to all of creation. May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.