Sermons since the New Year: 26 February 2012

An X-Rated Story Hidden in the Nursery – Gen 9.1-17; Isa 2.1-4; Mt 5.38-42

The flood narrative is a familiar one, whether we grew up in church or not. Humanity’s violence increases until God grieves creating humanity and allows the forces of chaos and disorder—symbolized by water—to be un-leashed and overwhelm the world in a massive flood that destroys everything.  Or nearly everything.

One human family survives on a boat, an ark, along with two of every kind of animal (Gen 6.19).  Or was it seven pairs of some animals and a single pair of others (Gen 7.2-3)?  The text doesn’t agree.  Either way, everything else perishes, except for the sea creatures, of course.

Most of us know this story well and could likely re-tell it on command.  And yet we are not surprised to find Noah and his ark of animals plastered on the walls of nurseries, which says one of two things.  Either we don’t know the story as well as we think or we are so terrified by it that the all we know to do is to try and make it palatable and tame, cozy and cuddly by hiding this x-rated story in the nursery.

We’ve sought to domesticate the tale by brightening it up with a beautiful wooden boat filled with smiling people and animals on a calm and leisurely cruise.  By contrast, the Bible describes a worldwide flood that would have elicited terror not smiles and would have been anything but calm or leisurely.

What is more troubling about the presence of this story in the nursery is the fact that our sanitized, anesthetized version is often encapsulated on wallpaper borders.  And where do wallpaper borders usually go?  At the top of the wall just under the ceiling, right?  What does that say about everyone who walks into the room, including the newborn baby?  It says that they weren’t lucky enough to be on the boat and did not survive the flood.

And here is where it gets really dark and twisted, so much so that you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity.  In a futile effort to brighten up the story by depicting a boat full of smiling people and equally jovial animals, we’ve actually made the story more horrifying.  How? Noah and his ark of animals sit on the wallpaper border near the ceiling looking down at us, the people under the water, and they have big, broad, beaming smiles on their faces.  How horrifying is that?  Who would want that as part of the décor in any room, much less a child’s nursery?

Noah and his ark is not a children’s story, even though we’ve hidden it in the nursery.  It is an x-rated, adult story in which the good, ordered world established by God falls apart with devastating consequences.  To see how this is about the undoing of creation, let’s look at Genesis 1, verses 1-2 and 6-10.

 

In the beginning when God began to create…there was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind or breath from God swept over the face of the waters….God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters and let it separate waters from waters.’  So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome (the waters of the earth) from the waters that were above the dome (the waters of the heavens).  And it was so.  God called the dome “sky.”  And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let dry land appear.’  And it was so.  God called the dry land “earth” and the waters that were gathered together he called “seas.” God saw it was good.

 

In Genesis 1, God took the formless, deep, dark, watery chaos, gave it shape, structure and boundaries and declared it good.  When we come to the flood narrative that precedes our text for this morning we find these boundaries falling apart.  Listen closely to Genesis 7, verses 11-12 and 17-19.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened….The flood continued forty days on the earth and the waters increased; bearing darkness and rising high above the earth…swelling so mightily that even the highest mountains were covered.

When you read the texts together, you notice that Genesis 7 depicts the startling return of the watery chaos from Genesis 1.  This is a terrifying metaphor for the complete undoing of creation.  And to make sure the reader doesn’t miss the fact that the flood is a metaphor for the return of chaos and disorder, listen to how the writer describes the waters subsiding in Genesis 8 verses 1-3.

God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him, and made a wind or breath blow over the earth.  The waters subsided as the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed…and the waters gradually receded from the earth.

Read together we can see that the watery chaos is that which threatens to undo and destroy the world, and which God’s wind or breath subdues.  This begs the question, what does the watery chaos represent?

I believe the watery chaos represents violence, for reasons that I will share.  You may or may not agree with my interpretation, which is perfectly fine, but at least hear me out before deciding.

In Genesis 1, God orders the watery chaos and harmony is established.  Humans, animals and nature live in a relationship of mutuality and symbiosis.  There is balance, sustainability and accord, and God sees goodness everywhere.

But then a snake, a serpent appears in Genesis 3 and disrupts the good order.  That a snake upsets the harmony is significant.  Can you guess what the snake symbolizes in the earlier creation narratives of other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, vestiges of which can still be found in the biblical creation narrative that was adopted and adapted by the biblical writers?  The snake represented the violence of chaos and disorder.  And what does this snake, this chaos, do?  It distorts the harmonious relationships of Genesis 1-2.

The negative effects of the snake, the chaos, the violence begins in Genesis 3.  God and humanity become estranged, humanity begins playing the “blame game” and the created order suffers.  In Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel as further violence, ironically and tragically, becomes the means by which humanity seeks to control the disorder and division caused by the snake.  The ever-increasing chaos of violence is revealed in Genesis 4.23-25:

Lamech (the great, great, great grandson of Cain) said to his wives: “Hear my voice, listen to what I say—I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

A few generations after the first murder, the first act of ultimate violence that not only diminishes but terminates life, the snake, the watery chaos has increased dramatically, so that one offense, one violent act leads to seventy-seven more.  In this way, Lamech is a literary archetype representing unrestrained human violence, unhindered chaos that threatens to undo the world by loosing the watery serpent of chaos that was restrained but has begun to press upon the boundaries that are on the verge of collapse.

With Lamech and his generation the narrative reaches a breaking point.  God regrets creating humanity and decides to try to overcome their ever-increasing violence with an ultimate act of violence in order to rid the world of all violence and corruption.  In Genesis 6 verses 5-7 and 11 we read about this decision.

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great and that every inclination of their heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was grieved for creating humanity.  So the LORD said, “I will blot out the humans I created…because I am sorry that I have made them”….[For] the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and filled with violence.

At this point the dam breaks, and the serpent-like watery chaos of Genesis 1.1 returns in full, unbridled force.  The boundaries of harmony have been pushed to their breaking point by the superfluous violence of Lamech’s generation and “all hell breaks loose.”  The waters burst forth from the depths of the earth and from the heights of the heavens where God had restrained it.  God pours out violence in an effort to put an end the violence of humanity by ridding the world of all the violent, preserving only the righteous Noah and his family (Gen 6.8-11).

In short, God decides to use violence (the chaos that floods the world) to put an end to violence (the chaos that creatures have caused) by destroying all of creation save one family of righteous persons and at least one pair of every creature.  This is the logic of violence to end violence pushed to the most extreme limits, which makes it possible for the story to reveal whether this logic is appropriate or whether it is anemic.

The conclusion to this extreme, disturbing test of the logic of using violence to overcome violence is found in this morning’s text.  The flood subsides and God immediately places prohibitions and limits on violence, which, again, reveals that the serpantile, watery chaos is a metaphor for violence.  First, God declares that humanity is fashioned in God’s image so every life is sacred, precious and irreplaceable.  Therefore, humans are not to enact any kind of violence on one another.  This is the intent of the confusing guidelines given in Genesis 9, verses 5-6.

Then, God offers a promise to the post-flood creation, the first covenant encountered in the biblical narrative.  This unconditional and unilateral covenant, that requires everything of God and nothing of creation is found in Genesis 9.8-17. 

 

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the flood waters and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.  This is the sign of the covenant that I make….I have set my bow [my weapon of war and violence] in the clouds…When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen, I will remember my covenant…and the waters, the violence, the chaos, the serpent will never again become a flood to destroy the world.

This is a wonderful promise with a wonderful sign—the divine war bow unstrung and set aside, forever pointing away from the earth.  But why does God change course so radically and decisively?  Why was God so eager, in chapter 6, to use a flood of violence to put an end to human violence and now, in chapter 8, so eager to place an everlasting, unconditional ban on such actions?

We don’t have to guess.  The answer is found in Genesis 8 verse 21, where God offers a post-flood assessment of the world.  Keep in mind that this is right after the water, the violence has subsided and the only living creatures remaining are the divinely-proclaimed “righteous” persons on the ark (and the marine life, of course).

I will never again curse the ground because of humanity, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever gain destroy every living creature as I have done.

In short, God’s post-flood assessment reveals that absolutely nothing changed as a result of the flood.  The ultimate use of violence—the destruction of all but one, divinely declared righteous human family—in order to overcome and end violence failed.  Both before and after the flood God’s assessment is the same—“the inclination of the human heart is evil” (cf. Gen 6.5; 8.21).  As one commentator playfully put it, God realizes that the flood—the use of violence to end violence—was a “wash”[1] and so God unstrings the war bow, places it in the clouds and vows never to use it again.  A different course will be, must be taken.

In the end, the Genesis flood is a story about how to change the world for the better, how to overcome the serpentile forces of chaos and violence that corrupt and threaten to destroy the world, how to transform the evil inclinations of the human heart.  It is a question answered by a terrifying process of trial and error that nearly destroys the world before the answer is found.  As one commentator notes: by the end of the narrative, “one response to the problem of human violence—greater and greater violence—has been tried both by humans and God and found wanting.”[2]

The new approach God chooses is to set aside violence by placing the war bow in the clouds forever and choosing a path of non-violent, long-suffering, self-sacrificing love in order to redeem and renew the world and all its inhabitants from the serpent, the chaos, the violence that continually threatens to destroy.

This path is the same one found in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of weapons of war being dismantled and transformed into tools for cultivation (Isa 2.1-4).  And this is the path proclaimed by the prophet Jesus who offered a way to resist injustice and violence through non-violent means in order to offer healing and hope for everyone involved (Mt 5.38-42).

The belief that non-violence is the only hope for a true and lasting transformation and redemption of world is not new.  In fact, non-violent redemption, non-violent atonement is the path to which God has been committed since Genesis 9 when God’s war bow was placed in the clouds forever.   The fact that we resist the path of non-violence and disregard its proponents as foolish idealist reveals that we are slow learners who stubbornly refuse to set our own war bows next to God’s.

The tragedy is that this story has tried to show us the way, and yet humanity has refused to turn from violence and, as a consequence, has too often been one word, one decision, one push of a button from undoing the world by unleashing the watery chaos of violence that has the potential to destroy the world.

The triumph is that we are also one word, one decision, one brave act from securing the order of the world and unleashing the triumphal celebration of shalom that might just heal the world for good by placing our bows in the clouds next to God’s.

The choice is ours.  The destiny of the world hinges upon our decision.

May we choose wisely.  AMEN.


[1]                   W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 73.

[2]                   S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 73.

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