Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
For future reference: It's never a good sign when the only other vehicles on the interstate happen to be a convoy of storm chasers. I came to this unwelcome realization just a little too late on my way to Lincoln last night, traveling east on I-80, just as happy as you please. Sure, the clouds in the distance were a foreboding shade of obsidian, with wispy strands of white reaching downward like the boney fingers of some Halloween skeleton, but it was nothing I hadn't seen before. In Nebraska, watching tornadoes is a spectator sport, second only to cheering on the Huskers, in another season, as they romp up and down the college gridiron. When I moved to this state seven years ago, a novice, I used to heed all the warnings of the town sirens whenever the skies turned dark and ominous, but it wasn't long before I was out in my lawn chair with the rest of my neighbors, sipping a cold one and watching a twister skip through some cornfield ten miles away. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a state whose unofficial motto is, "Nebraska: Bring Something to Do!"
It seems appropriate, then, as I sit down to ruminate on this week's lectionary texts, that I recall my experience last night of gale-force winds and blinding rain pelting the side of my truck like so many tiny bullets. I can certainly understand what the Priestly writer had in mind as he described the kind of wrath that descended from above in Noah's day. "Then all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of heaven were open" (7:11b). Creation was coming undone. This is what our author was trying to convey to a post-exilic community intent on the righteous observation of the Torah. In the time of Noah, the very cosmos itself was falling apart at the seams due to the corruption of "all flesh"; it only took God's command to finish it off for good. It did not take much imagination among the Jews who were trying to reconstruct their ruined Temple to conceive of what this must have been like.
As many commentators have noted, this series of passages can best be understood as an appendage – a conclusion, really – to the creation narrative found in Genesis 1:1-2:4a (see my previous blog entry, A Lot Lower Than God). If we were to read the Priestly text as a whole – removing the Yahwist material that features the creation of Adam, the fall, and the murder of Abel, and then picking up with the passages for this week – we would find a number of very striking similarities and parallel references. The author's characteristic penchant for repetition would certainly be evident, as well as the familiar litany of "every kind of living creature – the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground." But more important than this would be an otherwise obscured chiasmic structure that begins with the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the deep, and ends in a return to the very stuff from which the world was formed in the beginning: water – dark and mysterious, the source of both life and death, and utterly at the command of the Creator. We move, in other words, from chaos to order to chaos again, and from creation to destruction. The only difference, of course, is that in the end we arrive not at the Spirit of God hovering over the primal waters, but at Noah and his ark, floating above the depths, the hope of a new creation, the seeds of a new shalom.
It is interesting to note that in this same Priestly account of creation and destruction we can discern a surprising change of attitude in the One who brings all things into existence, and we aren't given much of a clue as to what's behind it all. At the conclusion of each day of creation in Genesis 1, God surveys all that God has made and sees that it is good. On the sixth day, however, God creates humans, male and female, and gives them the commission to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth and have dominion (Gen. 1:27). God then blesses the pair and gives them some important instructions about what has been provided to them for food. The diet appears to be strictly vegetarian. But notice the subtle nuance here: nowhere does it say that God looked upon the primal couple to see that they were good. The lights in the heavens made the cut. The birds and creepy crawlers: check. The living creatures of every kind: ditto. Humans, blessed though they be? No comment. God's pleasure with the man and the woman can only be inferred from the concluding lines of this creation elegy: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31).
When we finally get around to scene two of the Priestly text (6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19) – with only a brief genealogy of Adam serving as a bridge – we discover that God is not at all happy. The pleasant cosmic artisan of chapter 1 has now become a grumpy old man harboring a grievance over the work of his own hands. Given the preceding narrative, it doesn't take a genius to figure out where the source of the problem lies. But humans are never singled out, never identified precisely as the reason for all the distress. Despite the age-old adage about one bad apple, the "whole bunch" in this case appears to be the cause of God's great disappointment. "The earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence" (6:12a). The damage is so extensive, we are told, that the Creator has no other choice than to do away with the whole ball of wax. Everything. The birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the creepy crawlers – it all stinks. And it is at this point that precocious boys and girls will often confound their Sunday school teachers with the painfully obvious question: "What did all the ponies and puppies do to deserve this kind of treatment?" The easy answer – though it masks a complex theological anthropology – is this: the ponies and puppies didn’t do anything. They were simply guilty by association with the ones who had forsaken their dominion.
While I cannot admit being entirely comfortable with what the Priestly author had to say about the seemingly capricious character of God, I can feel a sense of satisfaction when I reflect on what all of this implies about human beings and our relationship with the "the birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." Throughout the history of the church, theologians have gone to great lengths to demonstrate the unique character of the ones who were fashioned in the image and likeness of God (imago dei). Augustine and Aquinas both believed that our capacity for reason sets us apart from the rest of creation, giving us the status of aspiring angels, as opposed to highly developed animals. We have souls, they argued; the puppies and ponies do not. Thus a theological gulf of separation was created between humans and the rest of the world. In the end, our true home would await us in heaven, or so the reasoning went. So long all you birds and animals, and especially you creepy things that crawl on the ground. We're outta here.
How reassuring, then – at least to those of us who now recognize the dire ecological consequences of such an anthropocentric theology – to read one of the oldest stories of human history (whether its form be that of the Gilgamesh epic or the Priestly narrative) and realize that, despite our hopes for some heavenly glory far removed from nature, we are in fact all in the same boat – two-legged, four-legged, winged, finned, green, mineral… all of us. In this story, God does not make any qualitative distinction between humans – created "a little lower than God," as the Psalmist tells us – and the rest of the world. In the Creator's eyes, they are of a piece. "The earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence" (6:12a). We can fool ourselves all we want, that somehow we are the ones who matter most in God's eyes, but we can't get around the fact that when it came time to till the soil and start all over again, God chose not to distinguish humanity from the rest of creation. It all had to go. But like a wise gardener, God saved the good seeds of diversity to be planted anew. It was a righteous man, Noah – one who knew the true meaning of dominion as resting first in God's command – his family, and a pair of every living creature who were set apart, sanctified, for God's new creation.
And so we are left with an oft-overlooked affirmation of our peculiar destiny: as human beings and all other living creatures are destroyed together, so also are we saved together. This being the case, then perhaps we should begin to think more inclusively about what it means to be a "new creation" (II Cor. 5:17). Is this simply a metaphor for an internal change of heart, a personal metanoia, as Paul seems to imply, and as the history of the church has attested? Or should we begin to broaden our ego boundaries to include, not just the human members of the body of Christ, but also the nonhuman others who have been sharing our ecological boat all along?
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul states that the earth itself groans in travail, like a woman in labor, awaiting the revelation of the children of God (Romans 8:19). I can imagine that this anticipation was not unlike the anxiety that Noah felt, brooding in his ark over the face of the deep, wondering if the dark waters would ever subside, or if the undone creation could ever be put back together again. All he could do was to watch and wait and to continue on the path of righteousness, of dominion as servitude toward those who had been entrusted to his care.
Today, the ark of a new creation has become our spaceship earth, but unlike Noah we have been unsuccessful in building the bridge between what we believe and what we know we must do as ecologically responsible stewards of the planet. As in those diluvial days of old, however, the winds are blowing and the waters are swelling – creation is coming undone. The question that now presents itself is this: if God were to look to the church to build an ark, would God find those whose faith and fortitude are equal to the challenge, or is the body of Christ simply being swept away in the rising tide of consumerism and ecological destruction? On what side of the boat do we find ourselves in the present undoing of creation? Can we join with Rabbi Arthur Waskow in rekindling God's promise of old, in affirming the convictions of a new Rainbow Covenant?
Those of us who, like Noah, are no experts
must begin the building of the Earth as Ark.
We must turn away from metaphors of military and economic warfare.
We must consciously permeate every aspect of our lives
with the effort to preserve life on this planet.
All this so that we can fulfill the promise of the Rainbow Covenant.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. When you read the flood narrative as an appendage to the Priestly account of creation (i.e., moving directly from Genesis 1:1-2:4a to 6:9-22 and 8:14-19), are there any new insights that you gain that were not evident to you before?
2. What are your earliest memories of the flood narrative? Why is this one of the first stories we teach our children in Sunday school?
3. What would it mean if the church were to begin thinking about the body of Christ in a new way, as consisting not only of human beings but also of the nonhuman creatures who share our biotic communities? Would the church then be a new kind of ark?
4. What are our moral responsibilities toward animals?