Sunday, September 1, 2013
So, let me be clear. I am a huge fan of the Bible, and believe it to be an incredible resource for understanding God, ourselves, life, the world – everything. The approach I take is simply one that is highly – and appropriately – contextualized. Some passages are meant to be read as poetry. Solomon, for instance, compared his beloved’s breasts to two fawns of a gazelle. Was he saying she had a hairy chest? TMI! We know better than to read poetry literally. The Bible is full of different genres that need to be appreciated for what they are. The book of Genesis starts with more theologically-toned passages and then moves toward more historical (yet still theological), which has to be recognized. The author’s agenda needs to be respected. The culture, the time in history, and all that influences the setting of the text needs to be examined to get the most from it. God works powerfully in this process. I believe the primary reason this truly ancient approach is so startling is not because it is new or wrong, but because it challenges the very powerful, 118 year old/young fundamentalist position that the Bible is inerrant, which itself was a reaction to post-Enlightenment fear of higher criticism perceived threat to the faith. I think we need more eyes on the text, from various fields of study, so that we might get the most complete view of what we study.
With all that said, I must now confess that while there apparently was a catastrophic flood that took place in the Ancient Near East somewhere around 2900 B.C.E., I do not think it covered the entire world – only the world they could see. I also do not believe that an ark was built to hold all of the animals of the world. I also am not certain of the historical merit of an actual person named Noah who experienced what the story communicates. And yet I believe the story is true. Not in a Greek, historical/factual sort of way, but in a Hebrew, Eastern religion kind of way. A way that provides room for Noah to be referenced by prophets, Jesus, Apostles and the writer of Hebrews without regard to historical credibility.
Competing Stories in Antiquity. If you have done much research at all, or had conversations with non-fundamentalists about Noah’s ark, you are certainly aware that the Bible’s flood story does not stand alone. Many cultures have similar stories, the most famous of which is the Epic of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim as the human deemed worthy of salvation. Google it and read it for yourself. The Gilgamesh Epic was written far earlier than our Hebrew story of Noah and the Ark. The differences are significant. In Gilgamesh, human beings are carrying on normally – not doing anything terrible, just doing life. The gods, however, are annoyed with them because they are apparently noisy, and this was long before noise-cancelling headphones were created. What to do? Flood the earth and kill off noisy human beings, start over, and see if less noisy creatures can be created so the gods can enjoy naps whenever convenient… The gods in Gilgamesh are petty, immature, displaying bold adolescent behavior deserving of a “time out” at least. Maybe even no cell phone for a week or two for such behavior! The Hebrew writer, wanting to communicate a different understanding of God that they had experienced for a thousand years at that time, paints a very different picture. God is holy and good, but the humanity God created has gone off the deep end. So much so that the only reasonable thing to do is to start over. In the Bible’s version, humanity is the reason for the flood – not God – and God is seen as more or less innocent. There aren’t many petty gods, there is one good, just, holy God. Human beings aren’t innocent as in Gilgamesh – they have squandered their God-likeness for an unrecognizable alternative and deserve whatever they have coming. This theme is consistent in the Bible: obey God whose ways are good and things will go better for you. Go against that good way – disobey God – and it will catch up with you and bite down hard.
Genesis as Israel’s Story. Peter Enns and Jared Byas, authors of Genesis for Normal People, note that when we read this book, we need to keep in mind that its writers had an overarching theme in mind: to tell the story of Israel. The themes we see in Genesis represent Israel’s ongoing struggle with God – living up to their namesake throughout her history. Noah’s story is a dramatic story of God hitting the reset button. At the beginning of creation, there was chaos – darkness over the face of the deep with God hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). What are we left with after the flood? Water covering everything, and God starting over. This cycle of Israel starting fresh, flourishing, then failing, then paying the price, then being redeemed by God as they endured consequences, then starting fresh once more happened over and over and over and over. And it still does with us.
God’s Wrath: Windows in Heaven? Our ancestors in the faith approached God continually, wanting to learn more and more as time passed. They expanded their understanding of God as they mulled over the stories of their heritage, sometimes agreeing together that they didn’t have a clue what a passage was about, at which point they tabled it. Sometimes they changed their position on critical issues – going against earlier interpretations of scripture – after sufficient time had passed to give the perspective they could not have had earlier. This is reflected in black and white as anyone can identify changes in “God’s Law” over time concerning women, children, and foreigners. As time passed, the law became more compassionate toward these vulnerable groups. This also happened in a massive way in the first century after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire. The Jewish faith required sacrifice to atone for sin. With the temple gone, sacrifice was no longer viable. After many games of chess, the ancient rabbis and theologians concluded that redemption’s cleansing could come from devotion to the scriptures. This was congruent with past theologically themes, but certainly was an indicator that a new form of Judaism was emerging from the old. We have the responsibility to be in dialogue with the writers of our ancient text, bringing all we know about the cosmos into play. The ancient authors would gladly have corrected themselves if they knew better. For example, the ancient world had a primitive view of weather. When a thunderstorm, tsunami, tornado, earthquake, lightning happened, etc., it was an act of the gods. I don’t believe that, do you? I think natural weather phenomena happen due to all sorts of natural variables, without manipulation or intervention from any god. So, whatever flood may have occurred, while the ancient, primitive mindset would naturally attribute it to the work of the gods, I don’t, and I don’t think they would, either, if they had all the information we have to work with. Rather than God, I think we need to take our share of responsibility about our impact on weather in light of increasingly undeniable global warming issues. By extension, I don’t attribute cancer and other diseases, traffic accidents, mental and emotional disorders, physical abnormalities, job loss, etc. to “God wanting to teach me a lesson.” I think that is a position of antiquity reaffirmed by some of Calvin’s powerful theological work hundreds of years ago given new life by fundamentalists over the last 200 years. Long sentence there to simply say I think traditional thinking has maligned God and hurt our relationship with God who is portrayed as blessing us one moment while afflicting us this next.
Campfire Talks: Righteousness Quotient. What do we do with this text now? How do we apply it to our lives? As I just noted, I don’t think we’re headed toward another flood of God’s wrath. But we may be heading toward multiple disasters of our own choosing if we don’t pay attention. Karen Armstrong, in her book In the Beginning: A New Interpretation, focuses her attention on Noah as the only one righteous enough to be saved from the flood. She wonders by what measure Noah was found to be righteous. When Noah hears of the impending doom, we do not see a righteousness witnessed in the likes of Abraham, who bartered and begged for a more lenient approach toward Sodom and Gomorrah. While there have been unsubstantiated legends told of Noah’s roaming around decrying the end of the world, the scripture itself gives no such testimony (2 Peter 2:5 says that Noah warned his culture, but that may have simply been his act of building a huge boat in the middle of a desert). Noah is held in high regard in the Bible, but I join Armstrong in her struggle at Noah’s lack of remorse before the flood came, and no apparent mourning afterward. The righteousness that makes sense to me is one that looks more like Jesus who wept at the brutality of death in its myriad forms. As a person sitting around the campfire, I think I want to ask how comfortable we are with the deadly prognosis so many in our world have been given simply by the zip code into which they were born. Is my heart broken (like God’s) at the site of extreme poverty, knowing that our beloved, Calvinism-fed Capitalism perpetuates it? Am I wrenched by the painful curse of domestic violence that carries on for generations unless someone does something about it? How wrecked am I that innocent men, women, and children died a terrible death from chemical weapons in Syria? Is my lip service response simply that we need to care for our own backyard before cleaning up someone else’s? That’s a nice deflection, since we really don’t do much to clean up our own backyard, and since we can handle both if we care enough. Do I realize that my disengagement from the world around me – looking primarily only after my own – is disengagement from God? Do I realize that when I say with my true, lived values, I am not interested in bringing redemption to the world around me, I am really saying I am not interested in God? What questions about life and faith does the Noah story stir in you?