Genesis 7-9, Psalm 3, Matthew 3
God behaving badly
Genesis 7 – 9
The story of the Flood can be a stumbling block for some readers of the Bible. Did God really order the destruction of the entire planet? What kind of being would such a God be who would destroy every human being and animal in existence with the exception of a few hand-picked survivors? How can we describe God as all loving when we read the story of the Flood that God created to destroy the earth?
In many areas we do not need to have a strong background with history and ancient literature to appreciate the Bible and to allow it to inspire and shape our lives today. In some cases, however, it can be helpful to know some of the history of ancient literature in order to put parts of the Bible into perspective. This is one such case.
Scholars have discovered over 40 stories similar to the Flood story told in Genesis 7 – 9, which covered the entire earth and destroyed all but a small portion of creation. The most famous of these stories in addition to the one found in the Bible is called The Epic of Gilgamesh. The key thing to understand in these stories is that there is what the Swiss psychologist C.J. Jung would call an archetype found in the telling of a story that resonates from one culture to the next and from one generation to the next. The Bible is full of archetypes and characters whose lives become mirrors in which we see our own life’s story reflected and from which we can learn important lessons.
Each reader must ultimately decide whether or not to believe that the story of the Flood is real. There are people who have devoted their lives to finding Noah’s ark in an attempt to verify the truth of this story. The most famous cases involve discovering wooden timbers belonging to a large boat uncovered on the top of Mount Ararat in Turkey.
The story, however, begins like a tall tale with a taste of reality and then evolves in such a way that it seems highly improbable at times. Could Noah or any human being manage to corral thousands of animals into a large boat, insuring that there was a male and female creature of each species? How much food would be needed to feed these animals for the two months or more that they spent on the boat?
What animals were offered as a burnt offering upon discovering dry land? Were they animals born during the flood or were they some of the original species that Noah had preserved?
Our faith does not hinge on believing the veracity of a story such as this. This is not the heart of the Christian faith. It is not of the same magnitude of importance as believing in the divinity and the Resurrection of Jesus, which lives at the heart of Christianity. Rather, the flood narrative drives home to us that humans are capable of great wickedness, and this truly grieves the heart of God. God is intimately connected to us. God cares for what we do and say and what we fail to say and do. Our actions matter.
The first thing that Noah did upon discovering dry land was to build an altar and offer thanks to God for sparing his life and those of his family. This is a model for each of us to emulate. My father attends church every Sunday in a town outside of Boston, where he has lived for several decades. The first thing that he does each Sunday when he enters the church is to kneel in the pew and thank God for the blessings in his life and in the life of his family, his church and his community. It is this kind of model of stopping to give thanks and acknowledge the blessings that have come our way and have been showered upon our family that is at the heart of the Christian life.
God then creates a rainbow as an outward and visible symbol and reminder that God will never again create a flood that eradicates almost all life on earth. Of course, there have been deadly floods that have occurred over the course of the centuries that have killed thousands of people. Was God behind any of these? Insurance agents refer to these as “acts of God,” which are not covered by insurance, but are these truly acts of God? It is vital for Christians to realize that a loving God would never willfully intend to cause harm to any human or creature on earth. Whenever one of us suffers, God is always the first to shed a tear.
As we read through the Bible, we will deepen our understanding of how God works. We are wise to read parts of both the Old and New Testament together in order to obtain a fuller view of God. Throughout the Old Testament we will discover more violent and wrathful images of God, but these can be found in the New Testament as well, if we look carefully. We must remember at all times that the Bible was inspired by God, but written by human beings who are fallible and prone to project upon God their own ideas of God’s true nature. One key litmus test is to abide by the belief that God would never knowingly harm a human or creature. When a story or a saying suggests differently, we must strongly question whether or not this story squares with the true concept of a loving and forgiving God.
What we are left struggling with, however, is the fact that bad things to happen to good and bad people alike. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, mudslides and tsunamis occur, often taking human lives unexpectedly. I believe that God is never behind any of these occurrences, but rather that God works through humans to bring relief when these terrible situations occur. We do, however, live in a world where God has created a universe where tragedies can occur and where humans have the power to do great evil to one another. It is all the more reason why it is vital for us to set our moral compass and strive to be part of the force of good seeking to bring healing, compassion and love to those who have been wounded, harmed and hurt in the world around us.
One of the great things about the psalmist is that the author of the Psalms rarely holds back. He writes instead from the heart, pouring forth emotions that at times are raw and often very powerful. We in our pain and struggles can relate often to the words found in these poetic prayers, which the ancient Jews set to music and sang in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
You break the teeth of the wicked. (Ps. 3:7)
Here we find more projection of humans casting their own image upon God, who is deemed to be one to take vengeance on our behalf. What is vital is that we have all felt like this at some point in our lives. We have all been injured at times and have wanted to take revenge or have someone such as God take revenge for us. Reading the Psalms helps us to connect with our emotions, which is sometimes a challenge for religious people to do. We think that we have to paper over our emotions and be pleasant and even-tempered at all times. While this is a wonderful thing to strive towards, the fact is that life presents each of us with great challenges and knowing how to live faithfully with our emotions and not stuff them away or pretend that they do not exist is part of the art of living as a faithful believer in God.
Before we get to meet Jesus, we are introduced to one of the more colorful characters of the Bible. Reading the Bible is a bit like being a medieval pilgrim on the road to Canterbury. We are going to meet a lot of interesting characters along the way. John the Baptist wore a camel hair coat and a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey. The image we conjure is of a wild man who lives in the desert and crawls out into the sunshine from under a rock shelter, where he survives on bugs and honey. Scholars note, however, that locusts refer to the fruit of a plant that is a natural source of food in the desert. John was not as wild a character as we might imagine.
He is, however, Jesus’ cousin, as Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt. Jesus and John are linked by blood. Scholars believe that both Jesus and John may have spent time living among the Essenes, a group of ascetic Jews who lived in a monastic setting by the Dead Sea. It was in this community in 1947 that a shepherd boy discovered caves filled with clay jars containing papyrus scrolls, which today are known as the world famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
In this community, members ate lean diets of vegetables, took ritual baths for spiritual cleansing, spent significant time in prayer and copied sacred scrolls similar to the way medieval monks copied ancient texts in their scriptoriums. Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can read and understand the kind of sacred writing that was being spoken and written between the time of the writing of the Old and the New Testaments. This was the very time in which John the Baptist and Jesus lived.
Here we find writings that echo the message of John and Jesus. Both used words of judgment, spoke about light and darkness and warned the people of wrath to come. John’s language is especially vivid. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3: 7) John the Baptist’s language is straightforward and harsh. His doesn’t hold back, but speaks candidly and forcefully to capture the attention of those who rest casually upon the belief that they already are safe and sound in God’s embrace, simply for being descendants of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people.
John is aware that God wants more. God wants our integrity, honesty, compassion, faithfulness, generosity, patience and kindness. These are not given merely because our parents and grandparents were Jewish or Christian. They are traits that must be developed and practiced by each person of faith. John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” God wants our very best.
Throughout it all, John is very clear that he is not the Messiah, but merely the one who is preparing the way for someone much greater to come. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt. 3:11) Jesus instructs his cousin John to baptize him in the Jordan River. Why would Jesus, the Son of God, perfect man free of all sin, need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins?
Theologians have noted that in entering the muddy waters of the Jordan River with those whose lives were full of sin and imperfection, Jesus made a profound statement that he is one of us. He has come not to lord over us, but to walk beside us and to be our companion along the way as we journey toward God. He will not ask of us anything that he is not willing to undergo himself. He is at one with us. He is Emmanuel – God is with us.
In this moment, God is delighted and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus. If you visit a Colonial church in the United States or a 17th or 18th century church in England, it is not uncommon to see a wooden dove suspended by a rope and a pulley above the baptismal font. When the lid of the baptismal font is lifted, the dove descends downward, symbolizing that we, too, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit when we are baptized.
Then God spoke and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) I believe that these are among the most important words that are found in the Bible. These are words that every parent should memorize and try to instill in their children. There is no greater gift that we can give our sons and daughters than the understanding that they are God’s own creation and that God and we are well-pleased with them. When we provide this as opposed to conditional love which says, “I love you as long as you succeed in school or excel at sports or do exactly as I say,” then we give our children a firm sense of self-love and of being loved and embraced by God and by us. When a person experiences this, they are far less likely to have emptiness at the center of their being that they try to fill with things like fame, sex, money, drugs, alcohol or other things.
This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased. (Matt. 3:17)
Use a highlighter to mark important passages that strike you and that you want to remember. God would much prefer to have you own a Bible that is underlined or highlighted and well-used than a pristine Bible sitting on a shelf in your house gathering dust and benefiting no one.
What is your guiding image of God? Is God all-loving or sometimes malevolent or wrathful? Is God out to get you like a traffic cop waiting to bust you when you do something wrong, or is God the ultimate force of love and instruction in your life, attempting to form your soul and guide you along paths that will bring you joy and help you to be a blessing to others?
Almighty and all loving God, life is not about us. It is about You and about others. Help us to focus on those around us so that we might be a blessing each day to them and in so doing we might discover the deep joy and bliss that you so long for us to experience. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania