6:1-13 – Lots of confusion and none of it good.
Who are “the sons of God”? Some think this is mythologically confusing – Greek mythology has gods mate with women. Monotheism does not. Others think these are angelic members of God’s court. Still others think this refers to a merging of the lines of Cain and Seth (scholars disagree which line represents the sons of God: is it Seth because his line "walks with God"). Still others think of Jewish purity laws that look down on mixed things and think that a half god and half human would be unclean. The casual attitude the sons exhibit in pursuing the “beautiful daughters” is grounds for God to shorten their lives. Does God shorten lifespans because there is mischief when men live for hundreds of years?
The identity of the Nephilim is also confusing. Some think the term means “fallen ones,” others think they are Giants, and still others semi-divine offspring of the sons of God and the beautiful daughters. Some think they die in the flood and others that we spy them again in Numbers. Passages such as this remind me that the Bible comes from a different world and that it is hard to bridge the gap. It keeps me humble. Likely verses 1-5 are meant to be an example of the wickedness that gives God regrets.
6 – 7 – Regrets and Flood
You may or may not know there are other Mesopotamian flood stories. What’s interesting is how they differ. In the other flood stories, the gods capriciously destroy the earth (in one account noisy humans interrupted their sleep) and, just as capriciously, save one. Here God exercises righteous judgment to punish evil behavior and rescue Noah (who, as was noted last week, is the first person born with knowledge of human morality). Noah does not design his own ship but executes God’s design. Nothing is made of Noah’s skill as captain. In other stories, the gods are terrified by the forces of nature they unleash. Here God rules over nature. Noah does not just save civilization; he saves life in its great diversity. Other stories end with the gods famished for burnt offerings, but here God smells the fragrance that the flames consume. It is very likely these differences are central to the point Genesis is trying to convey. God rules creation, and Noah is an obedient servant.
When we read the story of the flood in light of what has come before, it is terrifying. God smashes the separations of the waters and the waters and the dry land. Creation literally is torn apart at the seams. Did you know that one of the most common Christian symbols for Christ in the early church was Noah?
9:1-7 – Original Vegetarianism?
Humans are given the okay for eating animals after the flood.
“Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (vs. 9:3).
Many consider this a new development. They believe Genesis teaches an original vegetarianism. In Genesis 1:29-30, God gives herbs, grass, fruit, and seeds. Similarly, the first humans are given the fruit of all the trees (except one). “All flesh” in verses 6:11-12 (your translation may say “all people”) suggests that the animals have gone to eating one another, which would justify the judgment that falls on the animals as well.
There are counter indicators to the vegetarian drift. In 3:21, God makes garments of animal skins. (Is this okay because God does it?) Abel keeps flocks, though since flocks provide fleece and milk, this does not necessarily mean he is eating them. Abel makes the pleasing offering to the Lord (Is this okay because he is making an offering to the God of life?) Of course, we also have Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9).
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
What did the animals eat on the ark? Did the lion and ox share straw? Was it possible that there could be a new creation without violence? How does the story read if you think about the raven as omnivorous and the dove as herbivorous? Was the raven's delayed return mean that it was still looking for meat?
9:6-17 – Covenant and Law
Is Noah responding to the terrible flood by trying to appease God with a sacrifice? Do you think God is or is not happy with a sacrifice that he did not command? Upon smelling Noah’s sacrifice, God responds by issuing a law. Notice that the law and the covenant apply to all creatures, all people, even of the animals. Blood is forbidden because it symbolizes/is life.
On first blush, the command not to kill seems pretty limited (and suggests that killing was the problem that the Flood was supposed to solve). In Reformed Theology, God’s commands are typically 1) expanded, 2) turned inward, and 3) considered positively.
Consider these three questions from the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).
105. Q. What does God require in the sixth commandment?
A. I am not to dishonor, hate, injure, or kill my neighbor by thoughts, words, or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another; rather, I am to put away all desire of revenge. Moreover, I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself. Therefore, also, the government bears the sword to prevent murder.
106. Q. But does this commandment speak only of killing?
A. By forbidding murder, God teaches us that he hates the root of murder, such as envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge and that he regards all these as murder.
107. Q. Is it enough, then, that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. When God condemns envy, hatred, and anger, he commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him, to protect him from harm as much as we can and to do good even to our enemies.
This is the first mention of covenant in the Bible. God puts a bow in the sky (turned away from the earth) as a reminder to God. How do you remind yourself of God’s covenant?
9:18- 10:32 – Family Matters
Noah is a kind of second Adam. The first thing he does is plant a vineyard, and the next thing you know, we have a drunken sailor. No one has figured out exactly what Ham has done to Noah to curse the whole line. Notice how Canaan replaces Ham. This story, retold in Genesis 10, was likely used to justify taking the Promised Land.
11 – Babel
The story of Babel is the last chapter in the universal human story. After this, God will choose to work with one nation. In some ways this is a confounding story: aren’t building a city and a tower worthy projects? Is the tower for defense? (See last week’s take on Cain’s city.) Protection against a future flood? A temple to reach the heavens? Or is it mere self aggrandizement? Where do we see pride and the temptations of collective pride at work today?
I normally read this story in light of Pentecost and view the confusion as simply bad and view Pentecost as hope that we can overcome this failure of communication. But as I read it this time, I think the story portrays communication (speech) as ambiguous. It can do good (the Pentecost promise, so to speak) but apparently harm as well. Speech doesn't just name the world; it also conveys interests. Speech can allow collaboration on unworthy projects.
As I read this, I think of a line from the song, Laughter, by Bruce Cockburn.
Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
Who thinks he can make things work
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
And ended up with New York.