Friday, April 4, 2014

From Noah to Easter

The following is a column I wrote for our Parish newsletter in April 2014:
...and the earth was filled with violence. -- Genesis 6:11
"I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." -- Genesis 9:11
Jesus said [on Easter Evening], "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. -- Luke 24:26-27
I'd like to connect the dots on these Bible passages, drawing a line from the story of Noah and the Flood to our Holy Week journey this month. (We will read the Flood story during our Easter Vigil worship April 19.) The Bible's Flood story (Genesis 6-9) is getting significant exposure in our culture right now because of the Hollywood version in the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe. This exposure is an opportunity for today's outspoken atheists to make their claim that humanity no longer needs gods who perform genocides that include drowning babies.

Have you ever tried responding to such challenges among your friends, or family? Perhaps you've struggled with such questions yourself. How is it that the loving God we meet in Jesus Christ drowns basically everyone in trying to solve the problem of violence?

Let me be blunt: if we don't let Jesus himself teach us to read the Scriptures according to himself, then our Christian faith will be lost. The story of the Flood is a prime example. Christ came to show us who God truly is. So we should be able to understand that gods who command genocidal floods are the gods of old -- the gods who in every culture command a good and sacred violence to stop the flood of human violence. The God who places a rainbow covenant in the sky -- precisely as a promise to never try to solve the problem of violence by inflicting more violence -- is the God we meet in Christ. God on the cross suffers our violence.

So what do we say about all the parts of the Bible where "God" kills or commands killing? This, to me, is the most important question to get right in learning to read Scriptures according to Christ. During the Easter season, we will also read heavily from the Book of Acts, where the first half features five sermons from the Apostle Peter. Despite the varying situations and overall messages of these five sermons, each one of them contains the central point we need to see in undergoing the story of Christ's death and resurrection. In all five, Peter says, 'we kill, God raises.' It's human beings who have the problem with violence, not God.

And a huge part of our problem is that the only way we human beings have ever been able to fully trust in solving our problem with violence is to use a counter-violence -- just like God supposedly did with the Flood. What I'm saying, then, is this: if we don't learn to see the God who slaughters everyone in the Flood as the false gods of human cultures, then we are losing the revelation of God in Christ -- the God who is revealed in the rainbow promise at the end of the Flood story.

Which brings us again to the essential importance of anthropology to our faith. We must understand what the Bible, coming to fulfillment in Christ, is trying to show us about ourselves. The Flood story is an ideal example, because similar flood stories are present across the globe. It gives us the opportunity to see how the Bible's Flood story is different. The Bible's story is the same in seeing a god who uses violence to try to stop violence. But it's different in showing us a God who promises never to do this. God on the cross in Jesus teaches us how to understand this difference.

And it's growing more urgent that we do so, because we now possess the technology to destroy ourselves with our own violence. Actually, that's precisely why flood stories are so universal in human culture. Since our beginnings as a species, we've feared wiping ourselves out through our own contagious violence. A common image for this fear has been an all-engulfing flood. The Genesis story names this flat-out: "The earth was filled with violence." Just like the flood by which God supposedly uses in trying to stop it! But god using a flood belies that age-old human answer of trying to stop violence with violence.

Without going into all the details of the anthropology here, let's at least name God's startling alternative to our human answer of stopping violence by inflicting a counter-violence. God suffers our violence on the cross, shows it to be impotent compared to God's life-giving power of love on Easter, and enacts the healing power of forgiveness in the giving of the Spirit. The cross and resurrection is God saving us from the flood of our human violence that threatens to destroy us.

Where is that salvation? Why is the world still so filled with violence? Remember, God's way is not to use counter-force, so the transformation will not happen with the speed or methods we typically choose. It might look more like the movement Gandhi began in having faith in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. That's why we emphasize faith in God's way, trying to understand the ways in which it's different from our ways.

Let me finish, then, by suggesting that the cross and resurrection can turn the Flood story into a different sort of parable. Learning to interpret the Scriptures according to Jesus might suggest the following kind of twist that Jewish philosopher Günther Anders offered under the shadow of nuclear proliferation. He pictures Noah as prophetically making a public show of mourning in advance of the Flood, and writes,
Soon a small crowd of curious people had gathered around him. They asked him questions. They asked if someone had died, and who the dead person was. Noah replied to them that many had died, and then, to the great amusement of his listeners, said that they themselves were the dead of whom he spoke. When he was asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he replied to them: "Tomorrow." Profiting from their attention and confusion, Noah drew himself up to his full height and said these words: "The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will no longer be anyone alive. And so there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who mourn them. If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow's dead today. The day after tomorrow it will be too late." With this he went back whence he had come, took off the sackcloth [that he wore], cleaned his face of the ashes that covered it, and went to his workshop. That evening a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: "Let me help you build the ark, so that it may become false." Later a roofer joined them, saying: "It is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that it may become false." (1)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may our journey through the grief of Good Friday and the promise of Easter call us to work on the ark of God's salvation in Christ, the work of love and forgiveness, so that our way of violence may become false.

Paul Nuechterlein

1. This version of Anders' parable is from Jean-Pierre Dupuy's The Mark of the Sacred (Stanford, 2013), p. 203, who makes the following citation (footnote 14): Quoted in Thierry Simonelli, Günther Anders: De la désuétude de l'homme (Paris: Editions du Jasmin, 2004), 84-85. The emphasis is mine. Simonelli very closely follows Anders's German text, found in the first chapter of Endzeit and Zeitenende (Munich: Beck, 1972), a work that has not yet been translated into either French or English. Anders told the story of the flood elsewhere and in other forms, particularly in Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Beck, 1982).


  1. It is good to compare the story of Noah's flood with other stories we hear in the Easter Vigil that seem to implicate God in violence: the story of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the story of the Hebrews crossing the sea ahead of the Egyptian army. All these stories are meant to illuminate the central story that night, the story of the Passover of the Lord.

    It is pretty obvious why the Red Sea story is included, for it is a Passover story. Moses leads a defenseless crowd of striking labourers through the threatening flood to new life, clearly foreshadowing what Jesus will do. The army, intending to violently punish this illegal strike, foolishly drive their chariots into a bog and suffer the consequences of this resort to violence. The Hebrews, who do not yet appreciate God's rejection of violence, attribute their deliverance to the vengeance of God; but that is not surprising, at this stage of the biblical revelation.

    But what do the other two stories contribute t the understanding of the Lord's Passover? The flood is portrayed as a violent solution to the problem of violence; and the sacrifice of Isaac looks like a violent response to some unidentified crisis in Abraham's relationship to God.

    The clue, I suggest, is that in both these stories, we're told that in the end God changes his mind. Yet it is a well-established Christian teaching that God does not change. Are we mistaken about this? Or are these stories actually profound signs of ancient Israel changing its mind? Are these not examples of the slow and continuing conversion of God's people to a God who is utterly different from all their traditional notions of deity?

    The other notable feature to note is that both the story of Abraham and Isaac and the story of the first Passover entail the death or sacrifice of the first-born. In fact both are about deliverance from the death or sacrifice of the first-born! Clearly, there is an echo here of the death of God's first-born, yet the echo must not be misunderstood: it is we who slaughtered God's first-born, and God who raised him up, triumphing over our evil, in order to deliver us from such evil.

  2. So are you saying God knew about the flood, but didn't send it, and Noah communicated God's heart incorrectly?

    1. Pat Robertson interpreted the earthquake in Haiti as a punishment from God. Such a view was unquestioned in the time of Noah. We question it today. And yet Genesis seems to question it in its own way -- the point of the story being the rainbow promise not to use violence. There are contrary views of God at play in this story. Do we still accept both today after the cross?

  3. Yes. After all, our age-old habit has been to attribute all catastrophes (even military ones) to 'God'. Jesus has taught us not to do that, but to recognize the peril of trusting in violence to quell other violence.

    So consider Paul Nuechterlein's observation, above: 'Since our beginnings as a species, we've feared wiping ourselves out through our own contagious violence. A common image for this fear has been an all-engulfing flood. The Genesis story names this flat-out: "The earth was filled with violence." '

    Whatever the original devastation may have been, the picture of an engulfing flood may have been a metaphor of that more insidious crisis of violence.

  4. Awesome piece. I am so tired of the assumption of "accuracy" as applied to the Bible, and most often to Old Testament stories. comment above asking about "God knowing about the flood" as if it were an actual event seems like an example of the problem we have when it comes to "Bible truth" and failing to recognize the role of myth and archetypes in the ancient world. The "re-reading" in light of the cross is THE KEY , I think. Thanks for this.