YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between May 29 and June 4)
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
The lectionary reading for the day is an account of Noah and the flood. The full story of the flood in Genesis 6:5-9:28 is woven from two accounts, one by the Yahwist or J writer, and one in the Priestly stream (the same stream as responsible for the account of creation in Genesis 1). Our passage is drawn from the Priestly stream, but it may be helpful to compare the two accounts to draw out the particularities of the Priestly account.
In the Priestly account, only one pair of animals enter the ark, while in the J account, there are seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of unclean animals. While we might expect the Priestly writer to be concerned with clean and unclean foods, the writer in a sense recalls that the regulations on clean and unclean animals were not yet given at the time of the flood. The Priestly account is also more on a cosmic scale than the J account, with J focusing on Yahweh’s anger and human wickedness, while P sees the whole earth as violent. In J the flood is caused by a great storm. In the Priestly account, however, the waters held back above and below the dome in the creation story (Gen 1:7) are allowed to inundate the earth.
As often happens in the lectionary selection of Old Testament texts, the flood story here skips over parts of the story, the killing of all life save that in the ark, the receding waters, the beautiful motif of the dove sent out. In the parts that we have for the reading, we find Noah described as righteous and blameless, and the description that ‘Noah walked with God’. God describes the measure of the ark that will save Noah and his family from the flood.
The flood itself is described as a reversal of the creation as noted above, of the letting in of the waters being held above the heavens. In the deluge, the flood will destroy all that is under heaven, save Noah and his family and the animals in the ark. The bleak picture of life being taken back is mitigated by the promise of the covenant which God will establish with Noah. The covenant here is described not so much in terms of an agreement as a promise of deliverance from the waters of chaos and death.
The selected verses for the set reading gloss over a beautiful reversal in the story. In Chapter 8, we are told, ‘God remembered Noah...and made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided’. This echoes the wind of the Spirit (or mighty wind) blowing over the waters of creation (Gen 1:2), as the world is now re-created anew. In the verses for the lectionary, we are given more of the unfolding plot, in which Noah and his sons and their families leave the ark in response to God’s command.
Like much of the Old Testament narrative, there is a pattern of violence, punishment, and then a gracious note of deliverance undergirding this story. Sometimes readers focus on the violence and especially that which can be a way of speaking about God’s judgment on the violence of the world. We must remember in this context that the flood story is as much a story about a God so deeply opposed to the violence generated within creation that in bringing new life to the world, a new creation, a good deal of excision has to be made. As people of the New Testament, we know that God bears in himself, in Jesus Christ, the pain of that action.
Reading the story of the flood, and considering it for preaching, memories of the tsunami in the region north-west of Australia a few years ago are not far away either. Given that a near part of the world has lived through a deluge, this passage no longer so much evokes a children’s story with matching toy animals, as a tragedy in which the naiveté often associated with things ante-diluvian are stripped away. Only a bare remnant is kept alive to begin again. It may seem a minimal affirmation, but in the end death does not have the last word; the promise of life again flourishing on the earth remains. Nevertheless, in the often heartlessly slow response by some governments to the needs of their people, be it following tsunamis or other disasters, we also see confirmation of the end of the biblical flood where human violence was not changed by the disaster of the flood (cf. Gen 8:21).
In this flood story, the violence of the earth is the reason for God’s bringing the flood. Perhaps in the recent memories, there has been a sense of the violence of the earth itself, the forces of nature uncontainable even in our time of technological expertise.
Connecting the Old Testament reading and the Gospel is the theme of doing the will of God, as it is said in Gen 6:22 that Noah ‘did this’, i.e., he did all that God commanded him. Likewise in Matthew, the one whose house endures the storm builds on the rock of doing the words of Jesus (Matt 7:21-29). This is not to be understood as some easy fix for our struggles. Rather, what it reminds us is that in the midst of struggle in society or even from time to time against the forces of nature, God remains offering hope and calling for a life which expresses that hope and works for all that it holds out before us.
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