The story of Noah and the Great Flood has got to be one of the most iconic stories in the Bible. I went into a toy store over Christmas to get a present for my young nephew in a completely secular, high-end toy store and saw a wooden ark on wheels complete with animals, Noah, and a handy fold-up ramp to get in and out of the ark. Oh, and did I mention the Noah and the Ark lamp that I spied in a Cracker Barrel gift shop a while back?
Aside from the way the world of kitsch has exploited the story, I get equally frustrated at the the tendency to get hung up on the relatively insignificant details, about whether it happened or nor, about the dimensions of the ark, where the ark might have landed and whether it will ever be found, and a hundred other littles that distract us from the heart of the story. It’s not really about Noah, the animals, the ark, or the flood. It’s a self-revelatory story about God.
The story about God reveals something about God that is usually missed in the baggage we bring to it. The conventional plot line goes something like this: humankind was wicked; God got mad; God destroyed everything. Except that there’s not a single indication in the entire story that God acted out of anger. Really. Go look. It wasn’t anger. It was grief. The whole thing begins with God’s grief. God had concluded that the good world that God created had betrayed God’s intent. The decision and the will of God had been treated shabbily by a recalcitrant humanity. People had become wicked, evil, corrupt, and filled with violence. In a profound passage that piles on the extent of the corruption, “Yahweh 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.” (ESV, emphasis mine) Creation had refused to honor God as God.
The indictment is followed by God’s uncompromising resolve to destroy the creation that had refused to be faithful and obedient. God did, does, and always will take seriously God’s own purposes for creation.
Still, the overwhelming emotion the narrative attributes to God is not anger, but grief. It won’t do to picture an angry tyrant who has a cosmic temper tantrum and sweeps all the dishes off the table, breaking everything to pieces. Instead, there’s the image of a troubled parent who is heartsick over the alienation of the her rebellious child. God is not enraged, but saddened.
That’s an extraordinarily important distinction to be made. The stereotypical, one-dimensional view of God seems to be embedded in our cultural DNA: God as the angry judge whose sole vocation is to sniff out the sinners and punish them.
The God I see in this story (and not coincidentally throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures) is of a much different character; the image is much more nuanced and much more relational. God’s heart is full of love for what God has created. In fact, God is persistent and determined to draw humanity, indeed, all of creation back into the reach of God’s purpose and will. God does that through a determined, persistent, dogged pursuit of us in love.
I’m thinking about that view of God in light of the all too present and all too palpable evil in the world. There are too many examples to name, but the one that sticks in my mind is the image of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians taken to the beach in Libya and beheaded. Surely God must be grieved, and surely we are grieved.
In my Ash Wednesday sermon, a sermon in which I introduced the theme of forgiveness that is the ground of our parish-wide reflection during these days of Lent, I raised the question of forgiveness for great and horrible communal evil like the beheading. Is it possible to forgive? Is it required to forgive? A parishioner made the comment after the service that our response ought to be to “bomb them back to the stone-age.”
I get that. It seems right. Tit for tat, eye for eye. It’s the human formula balancing the equation that begins with guilt and typically ends with punishment.
But what happens when we see a God whose heart is grieved at evil, rather than angry at evil. It means that the whole guilt and retribution formula gets turned upside down. And that’s good news. In fact, it’s gospel truth.
That’s where I’ll go in part 2. Come back next week and check it out.