Genesis 9

There is something curious at work in this chapter. The Great Flood is over, Noah and his family emerge from the ark and have the task of starting human society over again from the beginning, and towards this they are instructed by God/“God” to increase in number and fill the earth (9.1, repeating the command from Genesis 1). Yet verse twenty-one of chapter eight – the second to last and hence right there on the page just above where we start now – and its condemnatory divine statement “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” remains fresh in our memories. (If only this really were a comment purely about men rather than all of humanity!) What might God/“God” be up to? What is the purpose in having us sweep across the planet if we have nothing in our brains but ill? Moreover, what is the connection between that ascertainment and another repetition from the creation account that we have been made in God’s/“God’s” image (verse six; see also 1.27)? There seems to be a rather large disconnect here.

The lesson perhaps is in might. Take this charming story, from verses twenty to twenty-three:

9.20-23: “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

Ham – evidently by chance – got a good laugh out of Noah’s unplanned and sloppy nap (twenty-four has: “When Noah woke up from his wine…”) and wanted to share the joke with his brothers. They, however, used the cultural information they had been raised in which dictated that one shows respect for one’s parents by keeping to certain boundaries (perhaps we think these prudish, perhaps not; the point here is of course elsewhere) and thus undertook to cover up dear old dad in such a way that they would not themselves see what Ham had beheld. Three brothers, two responses: might.

We read in verse six of chapter six that God/“God” regretted having made humanity and therefore decided to destroy everyone, inclusive of all other animal, insect, and bird life on land. The determination had been that (6.5) “The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” The Flood ensues, death and destruction are total save (somehow) plant life and those in the ark, and then once more – immediately after this horribly extreme corrective had been completed – comes the judgment that (8.21) “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth”; there is no escaping that the Flood failed in its design, it did not meet its objectives, in short it was a failure, a mistake. God/“God” acted in error? A close reading makes this conclusion unavoidable; but it also makes it precious.

Ham made a bad choice (and in the following verses his son ends up cursed for it, something the rabbis have been creative in explaining), Shem and Japheth made a good one. God/“God” apparently made a bad choice too: both initially and then in trying to make up for that. In this at least we are certainly “made in God’s/‘God’s’ image” (and in thinking about calamities like climate change we heartbreakingly even approach God’s/“God’s” scale in havoc); but also I think in this: That the option is always there to do right, or if not “right” then better. Might: We learn as we go along, and these literary heritages we have received from our forebears (in this tradition but naturally in every other too) present opportunities for reflection and conceptual realignments. We read, notice and meditate on what the text does to us, and then move out into the world. Call it a phenomenological hermeneutics, call it an exegetical interaction, call it simply an intelligent and open approach; however one wishes to label such, there it is within and alongside the text, whether taken as “scripture” or otherwise.

Genesis 8

The waters recede, the Great Flood ends, things start again. We mentioned the novelist Kurt Vonnegut at the outset of our remarks on Genesis, and here too we might think on him with his famous phrase of “And so it goes.” The flood came, wiped out all life absolutely (except apparently – illogically but making for a good story – vegetation, because the dove brings back an olive leaf in verse eleven to indicate that the drying out has progressed to the level of trees poking through the waves), and then the cataclysm ended, the ground reappeared, and those on the ark got off: the whole shebang began once more.

What’s remarkable is that the text seems to indicate nothing much had changed. Consider 8.20-21: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.’”

Lessons have apparently not been learned, we have not become creatures other than we had been pre-annihilatory flood, and moreover these words are thought by God/“God” in very universal terms for all of humanity; and that at the precise moment when all of humanity consists merely of Noah and his family. Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law must not have been of the highest caliber! Joking aside this is worth some reflection, because of course none of us are of the “highest caliber”. Still, if this is the verdict delivered after the entirety of the unfathomable death and destruction wrought, then we might find in this story another presentation of a divine who does not foreknow (or anyway not perfectly) and does not (cannot) do everything perfectly. This is our “weak God/‘God’”, it whom we have been pursuing. (See my explanation for using the impersonal pronoun “it” in reference to concepts of divinity in the same Genesis 1 post.)

To the ancient mind performing a sacrifice in this manner would have been entirely appropriate to the occasion, and it was generally imagined that deities partook of such via smell (and thereafter the priests and/or celebrants would actually consume the food that had been offered), so in those senses the quoted portion should not surprise us. We may, however, wish to meditate further on this non-omniscience and indeed non-omnipotence. God/“God” wanted to correct humanity’s perceived faults, a plan was made to kill off “everything alive” on the earth (human animals and nonhuman animals, but again evidently not plant life) in order to achieve this, such was carried out but the results were not as expected (“the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth”; verse twenty-one’s description: the grammar current and ongoing (and gendered)). What could such mean for us readers today?

We cannot count on anything to be done for us; not even God/“God” is up to the task of fixing ourselves and our societies. We have to work. Yet there is hope, I think, and we can rely on some things: As evidence of such (or anyway as a pointer), here is the final, beautiful ending to the divine soliloquy cited above, the closing to the “Never again”:

8.22: “‘So long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease.’”

And so it goes. This world will keep on spinning, God/“God” will see to that, but we are the ones who need to make it better.

Genesis 7

We cannot call this justice. If anything, I think the lesson to be learned from this chapter of Genesis is how not to think and act. The given trajectory is thus:

7.1, 21-23: “Then the LORD said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation.’ …And all flesh that stirred on earth perished – birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out – man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.”

The repetitiveness of these verses only adds to the shock of reading them. Every scrap of non-water based life on the planet – save those in the ark – is asserted to have been utterly destroyed due to the failure of the human population to attain to the standards of righteousness which, we must presume, they had not even been properly instructed in since by the outline of this very Genesis narrative after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden the discourse with the divine was sundered as well; the only exception up to this point is the dialogue between God/“God” and Cain in Chapter 4 (remarked on in our earlier post). Further exceptions would of course follow – the entire line of prophets and some amongst the priests – but not yet. If we wish to find a reasoning here we might suggest that perhaps everyone failed to live up to the voices of their own consciences, and those were the communicative and educational methods employed; but even if we try to thereby find some redeeming quality to this myth as told in the way it is, there remains the intensely disturbing fact of the treatment of non-human life-forms. What faults were theirs?

We are naturally never given an explanation for that: Genesis, and arguably the entirety of the scriptures in the various Western traditions (spread across numerous religious systems), operate from the point of view of non-human animals – from the “creeping things” on to elephants – being mere tools for human consumption and use. Whether deemed “clean” or “unclean”, no non-human life is given any dignity beyond that gained from her/his (gender being present everywhere) utility. This line of thought is directly foundational to factory farming, mass slaughter, growth hormones, feedlots and the rest. Such is as obvious as it is horrific, and we do not need to belabor the discussion further; instead let us note it and turn to some related concerns.

As the previous chapter detailed, Noah is the recipient of a divine audience wherein he is directly told that God/“God” plans to exterminate “all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life” (6.17), but he does not argue the case for mercy as Abraham and Moses were later to do for the sake of the city of Sodom (Genesis 18) and for the nation at large following the infamous Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32). Some sages have faulted Noah for this; others have emphasized the high praise he receives as “blameless” (6.9) and his obedience in building the ark. None of this, however, is history; these are stories meant to relate certain qualities, to promote and encourage this over that. Thinking along those lines we might find a few facets for reflection: For me firstly is the utter importance of forgiveness and grace: no one was seemingly given a chance in this tale, the humans were not taught what they ought to do and the non-humans form an unbelievably massive collection of collateral damage. Secondly I think is the dual importance of taking a stand for what one finds right and worthy while accepting how very much is outside of one’s control. Thirdly might be that justice must be aimed at individuals, and whatever policies are established to pertain to such they should seek to be blind to categorizing: for instance, in verse one we are told that Noah alone has been determined righteous, yet his family is still saved with him; lest we conclude that Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law should also have been drowned, we remember our initial aspect of forgiveness and grace. Cherish life and try to advance it.

There is undoubtedly much to be gleaned from the book of Genesis, but in this chapter – my goodness – I can only conclude that we learn negatively, that we are pushed oppositely. From there though we may find an encouragement to treasure each other in these short years we have. After all, one never knows when a “flood” might come.

Genesis 6

The beginning of the Flood story cycle (continued in the next two chapters) is found here, prefaced by a somewhat bizarre and probably truncated version of a larger fable regarding an origin tale for the “Nephilim” who were “heroes of old” (verse four). That this entire narrative is an adaptation of an older and quite widespread Mesopotamian myth is well known and we need not dwell on that, nor on the implications of such cultural borrowing (and we certainly do not need to discuss the ark). Rather, what is intriguing to me from the perspective of someone interested in the phenomenological ramifications of a “weak” theology is found in verse six, which serves as at least partial cause for what follows in the text. The verse reads:

6.6: “And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.”

I wrote that this is given as “at least partial cause” because the case could be made that retributive justice was also reason for the destruction listed in these chapters, but however one may wish to make a presentation for this or that what remains is this very peculiar and quite striking description of God’s/“God’s” emotional state and frame of mind, as it were. God/“God” regretted what it had done and was additionally made to feel a very human-esque grief at such (one could “regret” in an intellectual and non-emotive way, after all: e.g. “I should not have done X” stated flatly, or the like). For some it might be easier to think on God/“God” as an angered judge meting out deserved consequences than to imagine it as regretful. Why so?

The enactment of punitive measures has no direct and necessary connection with a failure on one’s own part or an acknowledgement of something having been done in error: a mistake. To regret a deed, however – and especially when that regret is conjoined with sadness – is to admit not only that one should not have done X but that doing X was itself wrong: such was not only an act that ended up badly – perhaps this was purely circumstantial, for which one could not be blamed – such was an act that in hindsight was erroneous to start with, that was flawed in its essence. To think that God/“God” could have committed such is not only to infer but to actually state an imperfection on God’s/“God’s” part, in conjunction with a lack of a particular sort of omniscience. If God/“God” knew what would result then obviously God/“God” should/would not have committed the blunder. (On another understanding of omniscience – where all the various possibilities are foreseen but not which specific one will ultimately come to fruition – God/“God” could have suspected that humanity might go astray but been willing to give us a chance; note however that this does not reduce the important corollaries of the regret and the sadness.) In reading this verse we must conclude therefore that God/“God” did not know – maybe not even in the sense of one possibility out of many – just how humanity at large would set about behaving, and that is why God/“God” was capable of the ascribed regret and sadness; much as you or I may feel if we do something that results in what we did not suspect and which is displeasing, harmful, or unfortunate. Imagining God/“God” like that is a startling event.

Allowing ourselves to trace our own reactions to thinking God/“God” in such a way could be instructive. We might learn what it is that we want from our ideas of God/“God”, how the ancients may have thought about that themselves, and moreover how the scriptures they produced are reflections of those concepts and lifeworlds. They evidently considered – and therefore no doubt felt – God/“God” in far more human ways than how many do today; is such right or wrong? Need it be “right” or “wrong”? These are proddings, and if we are aware of how they push and pull us we may discover entirely unexpected horizons. Such journeys, I think, are well worth the effort.