Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 6:5-13) transports me to the haunted memory of one of the early horror stories of humanity, God’s judgment on the people of Noah’s time and the watery grave destruction of all living things (save those in the ark). Nothing like a divinely inspired holy holocaust for us to transform into a cute children’s story, complete with music about the arky arky made of gopher barky barky. No, this is not kid’s fare, it is definitely R-rated nightmare-inducing material when you get right down to it. What has captivated me for many years is how different communities of faith throughout Jewish history interpreted the story, and how at least two different versions were woven into the final compiled story we have in our Bibles. Scholars of the Hebrew Bible have studied this story, and note how some aspects of the story are repeated, and how some of the details in the story appear to come from different story-tellers. They conclude that for many centuries the story of Noah was transmitted orally, and when the faith community divided into different theological camps, similar to our different denominations, the various camps told the story differently, to reflect those different theological emphases. Hebrew Bible scholars are sort of like handwriting experts who can examine a text and see how parts of it were written by different people, based on the style of writing, the different use of language, etc. In the case of the Noah story, two sources have been identified, called the Priestly and Jawist traditions, based on how the various storytellers referred to God and the particular theologies they espoused.
Here’s one example, one which has long interested me. It involves what made God angry enough to kill off the world in the first place. For the Jawist community (named so because they consistently use the name Jaweh for God), the capital sin of humanity was their wicked hearts and evil thoughts (6:5). For the Priestly story-teller, the capital sin was the systemic corruption of the earth and violence (6:11-13). This interests me because these two different accounts of what was wrong with humanity match up perfectly with the ideologies of conservative and liberal theologies. Conservative theology believes that the primary problem with humanity is the heart, and if every individual could simply receive Christ and transform their hearts, the world would be ok. Liberal theology, on the other hand, sees the problem in terms of systems of corruption and violence, in other words, community or corporate sin. For them, salvation involves doing work for justice to rid the world of corruption and violence. The beauty of the Bible, the inspiration of the writers, is that they wove both perspectives into one story. It is not an either/or proposition. God is not happy with wicked individuals who harbor evil thoughts; neither is God is happy with corrupt systems that promote violence and break down communities. For the biblical writer, the personal is political and the political is personal. They are not separate.
Pardon the lengthy essay on biblical authorship and theology, but it seems relevant to what we teach and preach today. As Christians, we can claim that Christ defeated all sin on the cross, not only that individual sin manifested in the wickedness of hearts, but also that systemic sin manifested in corporate corruption and cultures of violence. Jesus, who incorporated the Noah story in his teaching on readiness for the incoming Kingdom, helps me re-imagine the nightmare story of the flood in my journey of faith. I can envision every baptism as a miniature flood, a few seconds that encapsulate 40 days and nights of rain, representing a virtual genocide of the principalities and powers of sin – individual and corporate. The newly baptized believer is raised to new life with a transformed heart and announces a new vision of community. The flood is still a frightening story, but as the song says, If I can’t swim after forty days, and my mind is crushed by crashing waves, lift me up when I am falling.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.