Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 9, 2018
The winter of 1996-97 was quite harsh and long in the Upper Midwest. There was snow, and freezing temps well below zero for months. The record amounts of snow meant floods come spring. The spring of 1997 brought record floods throughout Minnesota and North Dakota wreaking havoc in various communities. One of those communities affected by the flood of ’97 happened to be Grand Forks, the state’s 3rd largest city. Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters of the Red River could not be held back. Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result. Houses and businesses were now filled with the waters of the Red. As the waters filled the city, another tragedy hit the downtown area. A fire started in one of the buildings downtown. Water everywhere and now a fire. The Grand Forks firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats. The situation looked hopeless.
A photographer for the Grand Forks Herald snapped a photo that became iconic. In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow. The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better. Things were bad and you couldn’t ignore that, but the rainbow said that there was hope.
The flood story found in Genesis is one that many know all about. But maybe the correct thing to say is that we think we know the story. Go into a Sunday School room at a church and you will see a drawing of the flood with animals smiling and a bearded Noah that looks like Santa Claus. It is a happy story.
But the thing is, it isn’t a happy story. This story has more in common with apocalyptic tales like the nuclear war drama the Day After than it does with any children’s cartoon.
However, like the picture of the rainbow amidst the fire and flood, the Flood story is one about hope, the hope of salvation for all of creation.
Engaging the Text
“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath.”
God isn’t happy. God looks on all of creation and sees a creation steeped in sin. It’s not included in today’s passages, but earlier in Genesis 6 we hear God express regret. in verses 5-6 we hear God’s anger and anguish. “ The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. 6 The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” The passage opens with God giving Noah instructions on how to build the ark and get ready for the coming deluge.
What God is doing here is undoing creation. The waters that were separated in Genesis 1 are brought back together again. God is winding down the world and that means getting rid of all life on earth save Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.
Even though the people who perished in the flood were considered sinful people who deserved to be punished, this story should bother us. We have to wrestle with the fact that God is not the merciful, loving, God that we think God is. Instead, we see a darker God, one that is so upset and sad, that God is willing to start over and rebuild the earth.
The flood story shows us two sides of God. Chapter 6 shows us the God who believes in justice. When we see in Exodus that God has heard the cries of the Israelites dealing with the misery of slavery, we are seeing a God that is a just God. God sees what is going on and God sees that there was injustice in the land. What we learn here is that God believes in justice. The sinfulness of creation breaks God’s heart. It’s easy to understand that, but where things get worrisome is that God’s justice meant destroying all of creation, including every man, woman and child in the world.
But the flood, God as judge is only half of the story. Yes, God is a just God, but God is also a God that loves mercy. God is also a loving God and we learn that even in the midst of destruction, God brings salvation and promises to relate to creation in a new way.
God tells Noah and his family that God will set a “bow in the clouds.” This rainbow will grace the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy creation. This is not a promise to humans, instead it is a reminder to God. In modern parlance God is placing a giant post-it note in the heaven to remind God to not unleash such violence on creation ever again.
When God makes this promise, it doesn’t mean that creation will never break God’s heart. All you have to do is keep reading the Bible to see how again and again creation disappoints God. At some point people would start being evil again and God would become angry at the injustice going on. God might want to send judgement, but God made a promise. No more hitting the reset button. From here on out in scripture, we see God trying to reconcile with God’s creation in a different ways. God will use a specific people, starting with the Israelites as an example to the world to return to God. Finally, God uses God’s chosen people to bring forth God incarnate, namely Jesus who would bring salvation to all of creation.
If you remember the Far Side comic, there is one where God is watching a man walking down the street on a computer screen. When you look at the keyboard, you can see that God is contemplating if now is the time to hit the “smite” button.
The creator of Far Side was on to something there, because that is how many of us see God. God is sitting there, waiting for us to slip up.
But what we learn from today’s study that God is more pained than God is angry at creation. God is angry to be sure, but we are so focused on God’s actions through the flood that we forget how all of this sin breaks God’s heart. As Geoff McElroy notes:
Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative. Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it. In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place. Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.
But in doing so, in focusing on the theme of judgment, we miss the deep pain expressed in the story. That pain, of course, being the pain at the very heart of God. The flood narrative is not one that is about a vengeful God, watching and waiting for a screw up so that God might smote the evil-doer, which is the image a lot of people when we speak about the judgment of God. If that is the understanding of judgment that you bring to the flood narrative, then you’ll quickly miss the point.
Judgment is not something God revels in, takes pleasure in, especially according to the flood narrative. God does not chuckle gleefully as God throws lightning bolts at random sinners. Instead, the reality of evil and God’s judgment of it is something that breaks God’s very heart. “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).
The story of the flood and the promise of a rainbow tells us of a God that is heartbroken and longs for a day when all creation will be made whole.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.