I’m working on a song — a children’s song, no less — about the Genesis story of Noah and the flood. (Genesis 6-10, more or less, if one includes all the genealogy of which people are descended from which sons of Noah.) And I’m always still a little shocked at how we sanitize scripture for our children. A story of God destroying the world becomes a series of cute drawing of a man with a beard, a bunch of animals (the kind you might find painted on a nursery wall), a great big boat, and a rainbow.
God being sorry for human wickedness and vowing to eradicate it all becomes the animals went in two-by-two.
We don’t just do this for our children, either. This sanitizing of scripture becomes something we as adults do, too. There’s a lot of violence in scripture. God does a lot of violence in scripture. To God’s people. God threatens, cajoles, throws tantrums. God is at God’s utmost worst in Numbers, behaving much like an abusive parent who you dare not offend or annoy lest you get struck down with plague or by an angry, deputized Levite wielding a sword.
I try not to shy away from this. Whatever the nature of God, the human experience of God, as related in scripture, at time is a very violent one. That is, we understand God to be violent or we understand God in violence. I do not quite know why we have sanitized scripture. I like to blame the bourgeoise sentimentality of modernity for such sanitizing, and maybe there’s something to that. Bourgeoise moderns like to believe they are civilized and non-violent, but really, most have exported and abstracted their violence to the state, where it becomes bureaucratic and impersonal — drone strikes, mutually assured destruction, the fine grinding violence of systems of administration, law and so forth that destroy those who cannot or will not conform. None of this, however, is the point of this essay.
So, as I have been trying to find a hook for this song, I have been asking myself — what is the meaning of the Noah story in scripture? Why is it there?
And I think I have found it. The story explains why there is evil in the world.
Let’s start at Genesis 6, which begins with some strange allusions to Sons of God making babies with “daughters of man” and creating “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”* The authors/editors of Genesis outline the situation this way:
(5) The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6) And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (7) So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (8) But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8, ESV)
God is sorry. God is angry. God regrets all this creation that was, only six chapters earlier, “good” (טוב). God tells Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,” which is clearly a lie, since God is saving Noah and his family and gives explicit (though confused — two of every sort or seven of the sacrificial things, “clean animals,” which have not been specified because it isn’t Leviticus yet?) instructions on how to be saved. God is going to destroy the world, and make an end of most flesh. But not all of it.
And it rains. And rains. And rains. And everyone and everything dies. (La la la la la!) This you know. God eventually remembers Noah, and finds a place for the great big boat to land. And once the waters subside enough, Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering to the Lord. (God and the Lord are not interchangeable terms, and seeing where a one is used to the exclusion of the other can help you figure out where scripture was edited.) At that point, the authors/editors of Genesis 8 write:
(21) And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (22) While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)
This, so far as I can tell is the point of the story. God is sorry for having created, and now God seems to realize that God acted in haste and anger in destroying everything. God’s actions here changed nothing. People are evil from their earliest days. And so, knowing this, God promises so long as there is time, as there are seasons, as long as the earth remains, God will tolerate evil. Because the Good God moved to rid the world all of evil was the same Good God who was moved to regret having done just that. And moved to regret by the smell of a burnt offering, no less. God would later protest God didn’t need burnt offerings. But on this day, God needed the smoke of a barbecue.
* And leaving aside for now the fact that Genesis 10:8 says: “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.” Consistency is not one of scripture’s virtues.