YEAR B: LENT 1
Each year the lectionary takes us back to the early stories of Genesis at or near the start of Lent. They remind us either of the beginnings of human sin according to the biblical story (Genesis 2-3; Year A), or of God’s promises and covenant with creation and his people (Genesis 9, 12, 15 and 17 in Years A, B and C). These same texts are among those set for the Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter Day) which recounts the story of redemption from creation through the resurrection of Jesus. In our Lent readings, as we prepare for the Easter remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we anticipate the retelling of that great story of salvation which culminates in the Easter cry: ‘Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!’
Today’s reading is the conclusion to the Flood story according to what scholars have designated the P(riestly) source. In this tradition, God has caused the flood to recede, has re-established creation again from all that was preserved within the ark – plants, animals, humans and even time – and now establishes a covenant with all creation (v. 10). Several things should be noted about this covenant: it is with all creation, not just humans; it is an eternal covenant; and, unlike the covenants of Genesis 17 (see next week) and Sinai, it is a covenant in which only God has an obligation. It is precisely at these points that we can see why this text comes at the start of Lent. It not only looks back to a story concerned with human sin, but looks forward to the resolution of that problem.
The reasons given for the flood in Genesis vary slightly between the two sources used for our biblical version, although essentially the same point is made. In the P source ‘the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence’ (Gen 6:11). God determines to destroy the earth with all its inhabitants because it is filled with violence because of humans. In the other source (J; the Yahwist source) we are told that the wickedness of humankind on the earth is great and that ‘every inclination of the thought of their hearts was only evil continually’ (Gen 6:5). While J is concerned specifically with the condition of the human mind and heart, P sees the wider implications of the human propensity for sin. Human sin, according to P, corrupts all creation around it.
Likewise in the resolution of the flood, J is concerned with the ongoing condition of the human heart (8:21). The latter has not changed but in response to the worship of one faithful human and his family God has now determined in his heart never again to curse the earth because of humans, but to let it return to its cycle of life (8:22). It is as if God struggles with the problem of sin in his own heart and determines to initiate another means of resolution, one which does not involve blind destruction.
In the P source, the condition of humankind does not seem to change through the flood either as there is still the prospect of human sin typified in murder (9:4-6). Nevertheless, God bids humankind and all creation to continue in his blessing of filling the earth (9:1, 7) as he did in Gen 1:22, 28. The covenant in 9:8-17 has only God as obligated because there can only be a resolution to human sin and earthly corruption within God himself. This is not some faint, simplistic anticipation of the redemptive events surrounding Jesus, but it is an indication of the consistent way God deals with us and our sinful natures, a way encapsulated and dealt with in its entirety in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only God can deal with human sin. Only God takes on that obligation in the covenant with Noah. His solution is not detailed in the flood story. Things are only spoken of in terms of what God will no longer do. But the story as a whole is about to turn to the account of God’s call to Abraham and of the lives of his descendants. In that story, which will culminate in the life and death of Jesus and then move on to incorporate our story in the church, will we see the resolution worked out.
We noted too that this covenant made with Noah is a covenant with all creation. The P source makes it clear that human sin, with its devastating effects and insidious trait of corrupting all around it, is a problem of earth-size dimensions. We know all too well of the ecological consequences of sinfulness as we hear again and again of the effects of global warming, or, in Australia, we see how our treatment of the land in the past has exacerbated the effects of drought and flood. As we begin to prepare for the coming of Easter and its remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we remember the effect of sin on all creation and we look for the redemption of all that God has created – plants, animals, and humans as well as the planet itself, not to mention the universe.
But we also note that this covenant with Noah (on behalf of all creation) is an eternal covenant. It is not conditional upon our living up to certain standards as only God himself is obligated by it. Nor is it conditional in terms of time. There is no time in the future when it might cease to be in force. It is eternal. That means that it is there forever, as far as our minds are capable of perceiving a never-ending continuation of time, and beyond even that. But it also means that it is anchored in ‘eternity’, that realm of God’s kingdom that goes beyond the limits and possibilities of the space and time which we experience. This covenant is founded on that word which proceeds from God and comes from beyond to break into the limited sphere of our earthly existence. This too is the message of the Gospel as the word of God proclaims Jesus as beloved Son at his baptism (Mark 1:11) and then proclaims in Jesus the fulfilment of the time and the coming near of the kingdom of God, things which find their ultimate fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Jesus. What we will celebrate at Easter is anticipated already at the start of Jesus’ ministry, and is anticipated even in the stories of the beginnings of creation.
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