Noah and the Flood Part 1 (History and Violence)

This morning’s reading in the The Bible in One Year was the bulk of the flood story from Genesis. It’s been a long time since I began with Genesis and started reading through it (at least since my last Disciple Bible Study Course in 2007). I remember thinking then (and previous Disciple courses) what I do now as I read through it, and there are a couple of things I still don’t know what to do with.

  1. Historicity: This isn’t a big concern for me as much any more, but was in the past. I grew up believing that Genesis happened as it says in the book. 7-day creation, Adam & Eve, and of course Noah. I have changed, and can see the first few chapters as much more poetic. Noah would be slightly different. I do believe something happened, as there are so many similar stories from the Ancient Near East. I think the conflict comes in when reading the story now is still read against the backdrop of 20+ years of thinking about this story and is still swirling around in my mind. I have a little bit of, ‘OK, what do I do with this story?’ as I read. Actually, the historicity doesn’t particularly bother me, but it has led me to think about the next point.
  2. Violence: In particular, God’s. Genesis 6:6 says, ‘And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.’ So in his grief, God chooses to wipe out every living thing. He regretted making them and after the flood, in the covenant with Noah, he seems to have regretted doing that, too, and promises that he won’t do that again. In my daughter’s children’s books that have the Noah story in them, these parts are generally left out. Perhaps where the historicity of the account bothers me is what if it did happen this way, what does it say about God? I generally don’t want to think through this, so I think about something else. This morning, I skipped on with relief to the New Testament reading – which was Satan’s temptation of Jesus!

Walter Brueggemann’s answer to point two (and much of the other violence in the Old Testament) was to say that God is a recovering practitioner of violence (he said this in a talk at the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation). That answer doesn’t sit well with me because of my belief (desire to believe?) in a God who has not changed and is the God of peace that we read in Jesus. Of course there are those who say God isn’t recovering and have no problem with the violence and will accept this story for what it is. Often, these are people who have no problem with military means of solving problems (here, I am not talking about those who believe war may be necessary and have no reflection on the atrocities of it – or second thoughts). So, I can’t take either of these.

Where I have been going lately (and this may change over time) is that this story is told from the perspective of people who themselves may be practitioners of violence, so when the story of the flood is told this is the lens through which they saw God work. The flood waters rose and people died. Hearing this story, the people reflected on their own sin and saw in it a God who needed to cleanse the world. Looking at the story differently, I’m trying to reach in and use Jesus’ interpretation of the people killed in the fall of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:1-9). Jesus tells them that it wasn’t because of their sin that they died, but it still was a call to remember how death can come at any moment, so we must be prepared by repenting. The people who heard the Genesis story did see reprimand of their own sin, but perhaps through a still violent lens that saw God as violent as well.

I recognise the weaknesses of my interpretation, not least that Genesis says that God regretted making humans and was ready to clear the board and start over. I’m still thinking this through.

13 thoughts on “Noah and the Flood Part 1 (History and Violence)

  1. I’m afraid that this is where the “liberal” comes out in me.

    I see the bible as stories about the human perception of the God human relationship. Stories inspired by the Holy Spirit, and stories that are more important than other stories for being canonical, but human understanding nonetheless. I emphatically don’t see the bible as God’s infallible word.

    This is why, for me, the idea that “When we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father” is so important. For me, if I want to answer the question “Does God really will violence?”, I look to Jesus and say “No, God does not. Jesus taught us a different way.” Jesus didn’t just come to “pay the price for our sins” he also came to show us in word and example what God was like because we kept getting it wrong.

    That’s my take, anyway.

  2. Hi Pam: Funnily, I don’t think your view all that liberal! Of course, what you have said comes close to what I am getting at. My thoughts are on how we still read the Noah story as Christian Scripture (in a non-infallible way) whilst taking the view of the God we see in Jesus.

  3. Well, I guess I’m one of those nuts who actually believes Gen 1-11 is historical and revelational. It definitely contains moral truth to be sure, but it is not limited to poetic allegory (imho). I’ve done enough research on my own to decide for myself that I believe the literal historical truth of a planetary flood and a relatively young earth and universe (thousands rather than billions). Regardless of what you think about the literary nature of Gen 1-11, there’s a couple of other issues to consider that are more important. First, Jesus spoke of Adam and Noah and various aspects of Gen 1-11 as historical events, not mere parables. Was Jesus just employing literature as a teaching tool or did he in his divine knowledge know directly? Was Jesus divine, an incarnation of God, the divine logos who participated in creation – or was he just a wise teacher who God exalted? Second, and more important to me, is the role of sin in death. Which came first – sin or death? The New Testament as well as the Old makes it clear that sin caused death. Death did not exist prior to sin. If the earth is old and man evolved, or if for whatever other reason the account of the fall in Genesis is not accurate and true, then the whole purpose and function of the crucifixion of Jesus and the means of his resurrection are pure fiction. In the end, it leaves us with the two questions you brought up (and others, to be sure) that have to be faced.

    God is Creator. He is also violent. He is also sovereign. God destroys. Who is the clay to tell the potter what to do? Yeah, that’s uncomfortable – if you’re the clay – especially if you’re a rather poor piece of pottery. Yet, in the hands of this potter we can, if we yield and trust, be redeemed. The problem of sin that has broken us can be solved – the solution is Jesus Christ. Sin must be broken and destroyed so that purification, holiness, and life can be given in its place.

    As to God’s sorrow, I would find it hard to imagine a Creator who loves His creation could feel otherwise. In spite of these feelings, in spite of foreknowledge, God still created, intervened, and came incarnate to live among us and fix our brokenness. God hates and loves simultaneously. God saves through destruction. God sorrows over what He must do. What seems a paradox or mystery may be beyond our understanding, but not beyond our ability to accept. Jesus didn’t command understanding, he commanded belief.

    …just a few thoughts from the crazy side of the isle…

  4. Lance: Thank you for your comment. First, I (nor Pam) never called you a nut. That is an assumption that you placed on me. The only reason I can assume that you would say this is to make it seem like I am looking down on you. I have many friends and family members who steadfastly believe in the historical accuracy of Genesis and usually, it’s they who have more concerns about what I believe than I have about what they believe. I am generally not bothered by what people believe on this issue. Oddly, a lot of people who agree with you generally began with ‘nut’ or ‘crazy side of the isle’. I sometimes, though, get the feeling that people express themselves in way to backhandedly say this about me. If that’s not what you’re doing here, I apologise. My comments in the post were a personal reflection and not an attempt to belittle you or anyone else.

    As far as what you say about creation, I believe you have done your research and have no reason that you have come to your conclusion as a nut or a crazy person. Likely, anything I would say has probably been better written/spoken in what you have already read and nothing I would say would convince you from your beliefs. Nor would I try to persuade you otherwise. There are, for me, much more important things we can talk about (and likely would agree on). That said, nothing you have said is anything I haven’t heard before, either. But, no, I don’t believe the creation story had to literally happen the way it did or else Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (two events I believe in quite strongly) are fiction.

    As far as the violence of God, I agree with Pam – we look at Jesus and we see who God is (because I believe in the incarnation as well). In Jesus, we see God who loves and is non-violent. I believe we have to then read the whole bible through the lens of the peaceful, non-violent God. Sin was indeed broken, but it was through the self-sacrifice of God to the violence of humans. I don’t believe this is the clay telling the potter what to be. I believe I am seeking the potter I see in Jesus.

    Our disagreement would likely be in our understanding of the atonement. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I detect an atonement theory that says that God had to punish someone in his wrath so Jesus took it. I don’t believe God hates and loves us. I believe he loves us – full stop and that Jesus took on the worst the world could do to him and God saved him through it.

    Lance, I honestly appreciate your thoughts, even though I disagree. There is no need, though, for calling yourself a nut or crazy. I do hope we can see each other as fellow Christians who want to learn together.

    • Oh my. I never imagined referring to myself as a nut would be construed as a reflection on you. I can see now how you might have thought that. I suppose I’m jaded after encountering so many who just assume I’m a nut because of my position on this particular issue. To be blunt I was attempting to self-efface in order to deflect criticism from other commenters in advance (I have encountered various vitriolic posters on other sites who were no reflection on the site host at all). My apologies.

      Yes, I think we would agree on far more than we would disagree if we take the time to talk through stuff. I tend to make certain remarks that sound off handed. I think that has more to do with the definitions I work with. For example, I see love and hate not as opposites, but as two different kinds of things altogether. Love is a verb best described as proactive choices and actions that are other-centered. Hate, on the other hand, is an emotional response. Hate is reactive. They are opposites in a sense, but not in the sense most people think of. God hates. The bible says so and I believe it. God also loves. The bible says so and I believe it. So, God is not His own opposite, so love and hate must not be true opposites. It isn’t a conflict in scripture, but in human understanding. See what I mean? I hope so.

      No, you don’t have to take Genesis literally to believe in Jesus literally. But I do believe it takes some mental gymnastics to do so after taking a serious look at the matter. I know many believers whose faith is quite genuine yet they do not hold a literalist view of Gen 1-11. I don’t think they are insincere and I do not hold judgment over them or their faith even though I do think they are sincerely wrong. I’m wrong about other stuff, so it need not be a problem.

      As for God being violent, you can ignore it. But He is. He destroyed the world once with water and He will destroy the world again. Jesus himself said he came not to bring peace, but a sword. There must be something to what he said in proper context with both that passage and scripture at large. I believe hell is real and that some people will join Satan there. How is that not violent? It is just, it is true, it is holy, and it is violent. Sorry, but on this one we will disagree.

  5. I also hope I would not call someone names.

    I grew up in a denomination that requires belief in the historical, scientific and factual accuracy of the bible so I also know people who hold these beliefs. As a hospital Chaplain, I also have to minister to people with a wide range of beliefs about the bible and about God and I wouldn’t be a very good minister in a time of crisis if I projected to them that I thought they were “nuts” (although it’s in times of crisis that I think we understand that we have a lot more commonality than we think and it’s also then that our facades about what we need to do to be orthodox drop away very quickly.)

    It’s hard to express how I feel about this, but “parallel universes” is how I often express it. And I don’t really know how to cross the divide, so I don’t try. But it doesn’t anger or upset me that someone holds a literal view. Although, for those of us who grew up in this environment (and I know that Will did not), it does get wearying when folk are trying to convert you to their point of view at best, or when they condemn you at worst.

    I genuinely do not think it takes mental gymnastics to believe in Jesus whilst not believing in a factual bible. But different strokes for different folks. Hatred takes energy (I think that thinking someone is “nuts” is a form of hatred) and I can’t see that energy is well spent on such a dispute.

  6. Thanks. I think we’ve got plenty of other things to chew on. I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to “convert you to my side” of the debate. I just wanted to be clear about my position. Agreement is not required, but clarity is sorely needed. Let’s forget the whole nuts thing. I was being flippant and that was wrong of me. I’m sorry.

    Hospital chaplaincy would be very challenging. Of course when you’re comforting folks you don’t get all deep into some of this. That’s what blogs are for, after all. ~_*

  7. I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to “convert you to my side” of the debate. I just wanted to be clear about my position. Agreement is not required, but clarity is sorely needed.

    I agree. We can discuss these issues in order to understand what the other person believes. This can open up insights not only into what they believe but it can also open up insights for us.

    Hospital chaplaincy is interesting and I love it. (Of course, those who take the bible literally immediately know that I’m a heretic by the simple fact of being an ordained female! *cheeky grin*). It’s true that one often can’t go deeply into doctrine, but I’ve had “deep” one-hour conversations with individuals facing immanent death reviewing their life and what they needed to do before they died. And there are people with medical conditions that keep bringing them back into the hospital and I keep seeing them.

    For me, personally, death is my own personal benchmark and it’s often – rightly or wrongly – how I judge the utility of doctrine. I promise you that I’m not going to lie on my deathbed and say “Thank God I believed in a six 24-hour day creation”. “Liberal” that I am, I *will* say “Thank God I helped others, and thank God I had an authentic relationship with God and other human beings.” I personally feel that asking the question “Is this important on my death-bed?” is clarifying for me.

    I say this all as a very personal comment and not in the spirit of doctrinal debating.

    • Oh, and fyi, I don’t have a problem with females doing God’s work, with or without ordination. My wife and I are both ordained on paper. Its the fruit you bare in the garden of God’s kingdom that matters.

      • Noted. I know that views vary on this, which is why I grinned. I’ve also had individuals not want to speak to me because I’m Christian instead of another religion, mainstream rather than Pentecostal or Protestant rather than Catholic. On the other hand, it’s always very heartening when individuals from another tradition accept my prayers. Anyway, peace, and I look forward to your further comments here.

  8. Thank you both for sharing, Lance and Pam. It’s a good conversation! Though, Pam, I did grow up in a fairly literal environment – not as hostile as the one you grew up in, but my recent trip back to the US shows they have moderated a great deal.

    • Will, thanks. The subject of creation and the flood were never treated as much beyond an interesting story for children’s time in the church where I grew up. I took it literally until I was in my teens, where science classes told me what to think. I never really did buy into the spiel they gave me, but since I didn’t know I sort of went along with it. It wasn’t until a conversation with a friend a few years ago made me think, and want to know “for sure” what was true. So, I don’t think there are all that many “literalists” out there, even among the more conservative evangelical community. I don’t see it as a liberal/conservative thing (politically or religiously). YEC (young earth creationist) people tend to be on the fringe today. It is easy, from the position of that fringe, to look down the nose at those who don’t hold the same views of scriptural authority. In some cases that’s valid, but in many cases it is most certainly not. I think Pam is right on when she talked about what’s important in life – and death.

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