Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Flood Story: Why We Named Our Son Noah

The flood story in Genesis is one of my favorites. We named our son after this biblical narrative. I know, cliche for a youth pastor to name his kids after something or someone from Scripture.

Deal with it.

Yet the reasons we chose Noah may be different than you expect. The story of the flood, as one of my students remarked Sunday morning, has been taken for granted and thereby misunderstood. We often read into the narrative details that are not actually present, such as God being "angry" at "sinful" humanity and so bent on their destruction. [1] Compare that to, "the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:6). In the words of another student, God grieves?

Yes. And you only grieve for that which you love.

Still more, God saves through this story. God promises in this story. God makes all things new through this story, which is in need of being lifted out of its own waters of misunderstanding.

Noah as Agent of Salvation

The flood story is one of deliverance. God is grieved because humanity, who was supposed to bear fruit and multiply as the image of the Creator, has become intensely violent and oppressive. They are taking life versus birthing life. God knows this cannot continue. Enter Noah, the son of Lamech, who committed murder more grievous than Cain (Gen 4:23-24). Noah, despite ancestry, finds favor in the eyes of God and is called to lift a remnant of humanity and all created things above the waters so God can start again. Much like the wind of God in the very beginning, the ark "floated on the face of the waters" (Gen 7:18) in anticipation of the creation made as good being set free from all things violent.

But there is still violence. A lot of violence. And God continues to invite all of us to be lifted from systems, cycles, patterns, and behaviors bent on violence. God reminds us that we are to value human life, of both friend and foe. Even if we were born into a violent family or culture of violence, things can be different. We can be saved from destructive cycles and become representations of a fuller way of being human.

A fresh question: Will we respond to God's invitation to be saved from violence or will we continue to perpetuate animosity in our rhetoric, school hallways, neighborhoods, families, or vengeance against our enemies near and far?

Again, the flood story is about God's saving activity. A good reason to name your kid after it...

Noah and the Animals as Recipients of God's Promise

We often take for granted that God has, from the very beginning of time, chosen to be in relationship with us. God does not create us purely for God's amusement. God does not create us simply to satisfy some sort of divine need for reaffirmation of God's power and might. God creates humanity because God's love and generosity overflow and God wills to share such love and generosity...with us. The flood story takes this affirmation to new heights when God covenants for the first time with Noah (Genesis 6:18). Noah and his family, much like in Genesis 1, become partners with God in caring for all of creation. The passengers on this great ship become co-workers with their Maker in God's saving activity. Take it a step farther, God covenants with all of humanity and creation, too. (Gen 9:10).

And what God has made good God promises to never again wash away and destroy.

May we never forget this covenant, wash away the shared promise, or neglect the very relationship we have with our Creator. May we weather the storms of suffering, transcend encounters with chaos, hold strong to God's promise to forever lift you, me, and the animals, too, out of despair and into the new creation.

Again, the flood story is about God's covenant. Another good reason to name your kid after it...

Noah as First Theologian of New Creation

If you poll most Christians about how it will all "end," most will probably say something related to going to heaven when they die. If you push them on what will happen to the earth, you will probably get at least a shrug of uncertainty and possibly a reference to destruction. That is, we will leave this place just before it goes up in smoke...or waters...

"I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Gen 9:13).

What about the earth's destruction?

What I love about the story of Noah is that it is all about new creation. That's right, neither Isaiah nor Paul were the first to embrace a theology of God making all things new. It was Noah.

"God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided" (8:1).

Sounds a lot like, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2).

The writer of this story hopes the reader takes notice to the familiar lyrics.

Then, as if to hit home the point again, the writer reinserts the poetry from day six of creation, "for in his own image God made humankind. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it" (Genesis 9:6-7).

God's dreams for the world are for new creation not wiped-out creation.

We live into this new creation whenever we extend solidarity with the poor, advocacy for the oppressed, voice to the unheard, forgiveness to the enemy, concern for the environment, compassion to the bullied, and friendship to those who may feel alone.

We live into the new creation when we remember that this world, the here and now, matters.

And God's sacred wind, known to us as the Holy Spirit, continues to breathe new life (John 20:22) into the faithful, enabling us to dream together new creation opportunities near and far.

That's why we named our kid Noah.

His twin is Lily. But that's for another day and another post (Mt. 6:28).


[1] As an aside, I think much of our misunderstanding is because we actually have substituted the ancient Babylonian story of Atrahasis for the biblical story of Noah. In the story of Atrahasis, humanity and the gods are pitted against each other, for humans are making too much noise and disrupting the slumber of the gods. The human hero, Atrahasis, saves humanity from the wrath of the gods through a similar narrative as the one in Genesis. In other words, this story is about angry gods, vengeful gods, and gods whose only grief is that humanity is too loud and cumbersome. I think the contrast of these two stories is precisely why this the biblical narrative was held so near and dear to the ancient Israelites; it's portrait of God and God's covenant with humanity are central to the whole Jewish story. This story is to be differentiated from the competing stories that surrounded them while exiled in Babylon. This story is to differentiate us, in the twenty-first century, exiled in our own oppressive and violent empires.

[2] Image above is from Early Christians in Their Own Words, "The ship stands for the church. Its meaning is derived from the ark of Noah, which saved humankind from destruction, and from the fishing boats associated with stories of Jesus and his disciples in Galilee. The mast and sailyard form a cross, as does the chrismon at the bow of the ship. A bird (the Holy Spirit) guides the vessel from the top of the mast" (3).