God Said to Noah….

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.

No apologies and no explanation from God. Just a promise. “I will never again curse the ground because of man … neither will I ever strike down every living creature as I have done.” And that is why there is evil in the world. God made a promise. So far, it appears to have been kept.
Now, I suppose someone could argue: God is all-powerful, and could strike the evil people down without destroying those who found favor. (As in the Noah story, or the story of Lot and Abraham in the unwelcoming cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.) As a matter of reason, sure, why not? Zap the wicked, leave the good standing. Or rapture the good away, and leave the wicked to suffer. But as a matter of experience, as relayed in scripture, God’s power seems not so tightly focused. It seems to catch the good and evil up in its midst at the same time. It’s a big jawbone and we all get smoted with it.
Or maybe there aren’t that many good people to rapture. There was just Noah, after all. His family seems to have been saved merely on his account.

* 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.

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac.