Why Does God Send Rainbows and Not Just Walk Away

I’m really not that far into the Bible yet since I’m only writing on Genesis 9, but so far the story hasn’t exactly been what I call uplifting. I’m only through a little portion of the story and it’s already been established that humanity is going to continually mess this whole living in relationship with God and His creation thing up.

Adam and Eve are presented as not even being able to follow one restriction and resort to blaming everyone else (justified or not); Cain murders Abel, his own brother, in jealous anger; and I’ve just finished with the flood which presents the idea that humanity was so wicked God wiped most of them out. Sometimes in all this I wonder why doesn’t God just walk away from it all?  It seems like the smart thing to do, to let the flood overtake or to simply say “You know what Noah, enjoy your life and grow your family, but I’m done trying to have anything to do with humanity. You guys are on your own.”

Truth be told I feel this way even without having to read up to Genesis 9. I mean I feel I’m still living this story. I feel like I fail and flounder  to even keep up to human standards of what people think I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking, let alone what God may desire from me. It doesn’t take long to look at the news to see stories that make it all too clear that we aren’t exactly living in harmony with each other, let alone God.

So when we get the end of the flood and God is interacting with Noah, we don’t see him turning his back. We don’t see a God who says “You’re on your own.” Instead we see a God who makes a covenant with Noah and by extension all creation in Genesis 9:8-17. Instead of breaking off relationship, God re-establishes it.

Now you could say that this isn’t too big of a deal, all God is saying here is that he won’t destroy the world by the flood again and using the rainbow as a sign of this agreement. However, the reason for the flood in the first place was the wickedness of mankind. It isn’t that everything is now going to be great and wickedness will never show it’s face, because it does and it doesn’t even take long to see it again in Genesis. I’m willing to bet that God knows this will be the case, but still says that He won’t take action like He did with the flood.

This isn’t the only time that God tries to re-establish a relationship with humanity either. It happens a number of times through the creation of the nation Israel and in their history. The pinnacle of this attempt to connect with humanity is seen through the person of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. God doesn’t give up on us, he doesn’t walk away. Even though it can seem that way at times, he is still attempting to have humanity be connected to him as much as we are able to be.

This attempt to connect with humanity may look like a rainbow (which I find interesting because rainbows are made from rain which could produce a flood) or may look like Jesus. I’m pretty sure that both examples are signs that God is not turning his back on creation and humanity, but rather moving forward and hoping that there will be those who reciprocate his love and desire for relationship.

It may seem misguided to keep seeking after us sometimes when we look at the history of humanity and the present state of humanity, but I’m also glad that is how God acts. I’m glad that God hasn’t washed his hands of us. I’m glad that he is seeking to be in relationship with his creation. I’m also glad that this attempt to establish relationship doesn’t seem to be coming from naivety, but rather a God who knows what we’re like and what we’re capable of.

 

Decreation vs. Recreation

Looking at the flood last time I did it in one large chunk, but this week I’m looking at a smaller passage and wanting to think about what it is trying to say a bit. That smaller passage is Genesis 8:20-22. It deals with the promise of God to never destroy all living creatures as he has done here.

After Noah has left the ark that he built to endure the flood, he then sacrifices some of the clean animals that God told him to bring seemingly for this sacrifice. This sacrifice smells pleasing to God and causes Him to say that he’ll never again curse the ground because of man, despite our wickedness and that he will never again destroy all living creatures. This seems a pretty straightforward promise, so what am I limiting it to these three verses for?

Well a few weeks ago, I ran into a comment online (I can’t remember where) that talked about the fairly common idea that God says he won’t destroy the world again after the flood, at least until we reach the absolute end when he destroys it all again. For some reason the comment stuck with me, and it made me wonder if that is true or if there is something a bit different going on in the two different occasions.

With the flood there appears to be the idea of reversing creation. A decreation if you will. The water that God separated into sky and sea earlier was coming back together and was going to set the world back into the state we saw it at the beginning of Genesis 1. This would result in the death of all living things, and honestly we aren’t given any hint of what was going to happen if Noah didn’t find favor with God.

When we get to Revelation talking about how the first heavens and earth will pass away (Revelation 21:1), we’ve already found that there is a new heaven and earth. The idea here isn’t one of decreation, where we’re simply destroying what’s present and taking it back to the beginning, it is one of recreation or maybe a better term would be renewal. Yes, there is judgment associated with the path to the new heavens and earth, but largely the new heavens and earth are a sign of hope and fulfillment rather than just resetting creation back to the beginning.

I wonder though if sometimes we don’t focus too much on the whole judgment and destruction part. I mean so often it seems like we’re just itching for something like the flood to come again so the world can get destroyed and Christians can go up to heaven, preferably before the whole destruction thing happens. We can so easily teach and embrace God’s promise to Noah here while simultaneously be hoping for the final destruction to come. However, is the end of the world really about its destruction or about its renewal? A renewal that removes the curses of death (even for those already dead), mourning, and pain. A renewal that sees us living with God in our midst, as children of God.

Maybe I’m wrong and there isn’t much difference between the two. After all, as I said both seem to indicate a judgment of the wicked. However, I see no promise of withheld judgment coming from Genesis 8:20-22, just that the judgment will not be the destruction of the earth and of all life.

They do both involve destruction (assuming that the plagues mentioned in Revelation are literal and/or reflect any kind of destruction of the earth), however I think they have different intentions. The flood was resetting the world back to being formless and void with the waters of the deep covering the surface. In comparison, I see the end of Revelation as a renewing of heaven and earth to an idealized state, not one that is formless, void, and covered in water (in fact Revelation 21 also mentions that there isn’t going to be a sea, which is an interesting contrast as well).

I’m not sure if this little rumination has any kind of practical insight that goes with it. I’ve just been wondering if the flood is the same as the destruction to come at the end of the world. I don’t think it is, but I could very well be wrong, and I’m sure there are those who don’t agree with me. I’m certainly not saying that I know what the end of the world is going to be like or that there aren’t ideas that make me uncomfortable about such topics. I’m simply saying that I think of the flood as an act of decreation, of resetting back to default as portrayed in Genesis 1:1-2 with no human life, and that I think of the end of the world portrayed in Revelation as a recreation, or a renewing of creation into an idealized state that includes human beings, even ones raised from the dead.

Have you ever thought about this contrast? Any thoughts of your own to add?

 

So There’s This Story About a Flood

I’ll be honest, I’ve had some trouble figuring out how to approach a story like the flood. You can get bogged down in the arguments over if it really happened or not. Then if it really happened was it a local flood or a worldwide flood. These are interesting avenues and I’m not saying that they aren’t important, but I guess I don’t want to waste my time trying to wade into that.

The best idea I’ve had is to look at what I think some themes and issues are in the story and what point it is trying to make. This, I would imagine, should be important to anyone reading it regardless of it being a symbolic story or factual truth. Even this way it is difficult, but it seems like it would be more fruitful. So let’s take a look at Genesis 6:14-8:19 and see what’s going on here.

What makes the flood story so hard, at least in my opinion, is related to what I talked about last time. It’s a story about judgment and obedience. Such stories can make us uncomfortable. It often seems to me that you get people who love talking about God’s judgment and our need for obedience or you have people who want to avoid it at all costs.

I don’t know that I love talking about God’s judgment and obedience, but that is not hard to find in the flood story. God sends a flood in judgment for the wickedness of humanity. Noah, however, has gained God’s favor and is saved. As we follow Noah’s story we see him following the details of what God tells him to do without deviation. The question really becomes one of how are we going to use this story today?

For some it seems the story of the flood is simply a picture of why we need to be obedient to God. If we are disobedient and wicked then God will send calamity to punish us. I’m not so sure this is what we’re supposed to take from the story. This leads to us trying to pin God to any tragedy that happens in the world and then coming up with some reason that it happened. I’m sure we can all come up with an instance where this has happened.

Usually in these cases we set ourselves up as the ones who are like Noah and the rest of the world as wicked. I’m really not sure this is healthy. After all it wasn’t Noah who decided that he had God’s favor, that was up to God. It wasn’t Noah who decided that the rest of the world was to be flooded because it was wicked, it was God. So when we decide that we’re the ones with God’s favor and whoever else is the wicked, then I think we’re giving ourselves far more authority than we should.

This is not to say that God doesn’t judge. As I said we clearly see it here, and it’s a theme that continues through to Jesus and even the final book of the Bible. I just think that it is a theme we need to approach carefully and not carelessly. The same goes for obedience.

Noah was clearly obedient to God here, but again it is something to be careful about. Was Noah’s obedience moral or practical here? I mean most of the instances are simply waiting on God for instructions on what to do to survive the flood. There may be a moral aspect to listening and obeying God, but the areas of obedience were largely practical. So does it compare well to using it today for morality?

Even if you’d answer yes I think there are other questions that arise. Are we better than others simply because we obey certain things? Does that automatically mean we’re following God more? Do bad things happen only because we disobey? Do the nuts and bolts of our disobedience or obedience matter more than our desire to follow after God?

These aren’t questions answered in the flood narrative, but I think they can be raised. I think there are answers elsewhere in the Bible for these questions, but the flood narrative doesn’t give us those. We see this mix of evil, judgment, and obedience when we’re told about the flood. It’s tempting to codify it or turn it into a formula, but that may raise more problems than solve them.

What do you think? Do you have any of these conflicting thoughts regarding the flood story? How do you deal with them if you do?

 

 

 

Wickedness, Righteousness, Destruction, and How it All Fits Together

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these posts about Genesis. Last time I looked at the idea that Genesis 6:1-4 may not really be part of the reason why the flood took place. So in my post for today we’re going to be looking at Genesis 6:5-13. Here we’re given a direct reason for the flood, although even here we’re not dealing with too many specifics.

Here we see God looking over his creation and finding that every inclination of the human heart was evil. This fact causes God to regret making mankind and describes how he is grieved, troubled, or even in pain as John H. Sailhamer renders it in his commentary on Genesis for the Expositors Bible Commentary series. This passage always seems to create some discussion.

Such discussion tends to revolve around questions like the following. How can God regret? Doesn’t this go against the idea that God always the same and can’t change his mind? How can God regret his creation of humans and subsequently decide to destroy his entire creation because of their wickedness?

I don’t entirely know how to answer all these questions. I don’t necessarily find answers that deny the events of the passage or simply saying that God can do whatever he pleases particularly helpful. To be honest I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that God regrets that his creation is saturated in wickedness than I am with the idea of Him sending a flood to destroy all of them.

To me a God who is able to feel regret and pain due to our sin, rebellion, and wickedness is one who cares about us and has an investment. At the same time destroying humanity because of that wickedness seems an odd way to show you care. This aspect of the story of Noah always seems to be overlooked or rushed by a bit fast.

In the popular children’s version of Noah all we’re typically given is that there was a flood, God told Noah to build a boat, so Noah built a boat and there are lots of nice animals on the boat getting saved from the flood. For some reason the purpose of the flood is usually neglected in this telling. God just seemed to think it was a good time for a flood or something and decided that Noah should be saved as well as two of each type of animal.

Even in the more serious treatments of the flood we tend to move a bit too quickly past this whole setup and say as Sailhamer does that, “The central themes… in these opening verses are God’s judgment of man’s wickedness and his gracious salvation of the righteous…” While I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment, it just seems so casual. Yeah there’s judgment, but they deserve it and then we’re on to Noah.

It’s at this point where I don’t entirely know how to progress. For one there is a tension in this passage that isn’t easy for me to diffuse. I mean a few chapters ago when Cain killed Abel we didn’t see God act with swift justice, but grace. He even put a mark of protection on Cain. Yes, God did exile Cain, but his wickedness could have warranted death if we take what’s written later in the Old Testament or even Genesis into account. So we see grace with Cain, but here with the nameless multitude of the wicked we do not see that grace given to them, it is only given to Noah and his family, because of the favor Noah found in God’s eyes.

The second is that no matter which way you move on this passage it is troublesome. If you think that the flood happened the way that it is told then God was involved in sending a flood (be it world-wide or local but I’m not even going to get into that) because of the wickedness of mankind. To some this is one of the events of the Bible that turns God into some violent monster. You can’t really believe that this happened, after all look at Jesus and what he preached and how he lived. Jesus was the greatest revelation of God, so this stuff can’t be right.

It’s a tempting line of thought for me, but there is a tension between grace and this justice even within the first six chapters of Genesis, you don’t even have to get to Jesus. Sure he may up the ante quite a little, but I also don’t remember seeing Jesus saying, “You know the Torah that you believe in? Yeah, most of that you just made up.”

Instead most of the time I see him affirming what would have been the holy scriptures of his day, which would have been our Old Testament and the half of the Bible we have the most trouble with. He made laws apply to the heart just as much as the actions, he tweaked the way that interpretations of the law had been made, but Jesus never really just tossed everything aside and said that stuff is worthless and makes my Father look like a monster. That should give us some pause, at least it does to me.

However, if you think that this wasn’t up to snuff, that God really didn’t do this it is troublesome in different ways. If you lean this way you have a different set of people coming out with the pitchforks and torches saying you’re a heretic or you don’t believe the Bible or whatever. Any human element of doubt or questioning is a reason for great suspicion and we’ve got to try to root that out as fast as we can, often with poorly implemented methods and attitudes.

You see I kind of get this reaction though, even if I think the attitudes and ways that doubt and questions are handled in some Christian circles are harmful and poisonous. I mean if the flood and the reason for it are not real, why do we have it in the Scriptures? Why didn’t we see Jesus condemning certain passages as distorting God’s image and character? Is it only to tell a symbolic story about God’s justice and mercy? If that’s the case the example is still pretty extreme and, at least in my eyes, conveys the same message regardless of if it actually happened or not.

So yeah, I feel the tension and discomfort of a passage like this, but I’m not willing to push it aside or discard it completely. I don’t have a perfect way of removing that tension or discomfort, but I do have some thoughts that at least help me. It may or may not help anyone else, but this is what I have to offer at the moment.

First, if I’m going to believe in a God that’s bigger than me and can see much more perspective than I can, I have to acknowledge that I don’t have a complete perspective. I mean even on this passage, we’ve given very little information other than the people were wicked enough to cause God regret and pain in his heart. Do I trust that a God who showed mercy, at least the way I see it, to Cain a few chapters ago has a good reason for doing what he’s doing here? Who am I giving more benefit of the doubt God or my own doubts and discomfort? (I admit that here I am believing that the story is truly about God either in the events actually happening or being a story or allegory that accurately describes God’s character.)

Second, I find no place here rejoicing for the wicked being destroyed. Sometimes that seems to be the tone that some Christians take as they talk about the “wicked.” “They deserve it”; “they had it coming”; and “that’s what they get”are phrases that sometimes get tossed around or come into my own mind at times, but I find no place for it here. God is pained to have to do this, it seems like a last resort kind of thing to me. God is not cackling manically like some super villain, but seems rather painted tragically as given a choice between doing something like this or allowing even worse to go on. It may make me or us uncomfortable, but God’s not exactly pictured as enjoying the whole thing either.

Third, I’m willing to admit that I don’t have all the facts. Whenever the flood might have happened I know one thing, I wasn’t there. If it did happen and I was, well my name isn’t Noah, so I imagine that you’d know how that would have turned out. There are people who, for reasons I can understand, view Genesis 1-11 as non-historical stories telling us important things about God, but not really happening as historical events. I’m not completely one of them, but I’m not willing to dismiss them quite so quickly.

We’re all wrestling with something much larger than ourselves here, even if some of us aren’t so willing to admit it. To simply dismiss people who take one view or the other seems a bit like jumping the gun to me. Trading barbs or talking points back and forth seems to get nowhere. There are issues with both interpretations we have to own. Is one right and one wrong? Yes I imagine so, they might even both be wrong somehow, but I certainly don’t know with any kind of certainty which it is.

This has gone longer than I hoped, but it wound up being a challenging topic for me to approach. I don’t come as an expert and having all the answers. I simply come, hopefully humbly, and say I’m not sure but this is what I’ve got. If you’d like to share your thoughts or opinions on the passage or surrounding issues I bring up here, feel free. All I ask is that it is kept respectful even in disagreement.

Introducing the Flood?

Do you ever run into passages that make you scratch your head wondering what they mean? They may not even be greatly important passages, but they just seem to be confusing and have a history of ambiguous or maybe even strange interpretations. Genesis 6:1-4 is one of those passages (of which there are many) for me.

It’s a verse that I’ve always taken to be a precursor of the flood. In Genesis 6:5 it talks about the wickedness of man and how God is going to do something about it. The way the chapter is divided causes many to view that it is the events of Genesis 6:1-4 that are the reason for the wickedness. So we get all kind of interesting interpretations of what “sons of God” mean.

If you were to look around you tend to get three main views. That the “sons of God” are angels who have children with humans, which just sounds rather out there. The other two are less fanciful, but view the “sons of God” as either ancient kings, or that they are men descended from the “good line” of Seth. The problem is that these interpretations either seemed far fetched in the case of the angels; rather benign in the case of the kings marrying women, or just something that made me a bit uncomfortable with the whole godly line of Seth and wicked line of Cain idea.

I had never really heard any other interpretations of this passage, so I pretty much didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. I mean if there was something negative here that caused the flood do we need to know exactly what? It’s not like a major aspect of faith so I pretty much left it at that.

However, John H. Sailhamer in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis presents another option. He takes Genesis 6:1-4 as the epilogue to the genealogies rather than an introduction to the flood. Now you might be asking what difference does this make? Well, what if the author is just saying that as males and females, human beings just had children?

I mean we just spent over a chapter talking about descendants and who begot who. Why does having a little wrap up indicating that human beings are having children and getting married have to be a negative thing? It makes a lot more sense to me than the other options, but there is still one problem. God doesn’t seem to be happy with humans in Genesis 6:3.

Here’s the verse, “Then the Lord said ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty days.'” So it seems like this is a negative thing, but even if the verse preceding was negative, what would change from this statement?

Genesis presents our mortality entering the picture when God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. After all the reason given for why God’s Spirit isn’t going to contend with humans forever, is their mortality not necessarily their wickedness. Sailhamer wonders if the Spirit wasn’t given to people for a period of time which enabled longer lifespans, but that this was going to end. Really I have no idea what to make of the long lifespans, but the point here is that it doesn’t seem like this is necessarily a direct punishment for the previous verse.

On the subject of “I have no idea,” let’s talk about the Nephilim (aka the men of renown”). Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on with them. Sailhamer tosses out the idea that they could be the ten men that were just talked about in Genesis 5. However, he also admits that the existence of Nephilim in Numbers 13:33 may complicate matters.

My question is does the “men of renown” mean it’s a different race of man or giants or whatever? Could the men in Numbers simply be men that had great reputations and renown in that day? Not to mention that the spies report on Canaan isn’t exactly trying to be put positively, so could their use of Nephilim be for effect? I certainly don’t have concrete answers to these questions, but I think they’re valid questions to ask.

Now as I’ve said, this isn’t much of an important section really. I don’t know if Sailhamer’s idea is right or not, and either way it’s not going to affect my faith all that much. Personally, Sailhamer’s idea sounds like it has a little less baggage with it than some of the other interpretations of the passage. Does it mean that it’s right? Not necessarily, but it may be the way I go for the moment.

However, all this revealed something to me. It’s easy to assume a certain interpretation of a passage just by the way that it’s been divided and the way that you’ve heard it interpreted before. I mean if Genesis 6 started with what is now verse 5 it could totally alter the way that we’ve read this passage. Since it doesn’t we tend to read and interpret it differently. It’s something that I’ve known, but Sailhamer seems to do a good job of challenging some of the ways I’ve come to view a number of passages. I’ve quite enjoyed the challenge to be honest.

How do you take the passage in Genesis 6:1-4? Have you heard of this interpretation before? What are your thoughts on it?