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.

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