Saturday, January 21, 2006

Noah and the Ark

Genesis 5:28-9:29

The story of Noah and the Ark is familar enough that I won't comment on the text itself, but instead will reflect on the implications of this story.

It is a story that reflects the human tendency to interpret great natural disasters as "acts of God." Are they? Modern science calls such interpretations into question (since they can be interpreted in relation to "natural" causes, we do not have to consider them "supernatural" in origin.) And yet a new version of the old myth begins to be reborn in today's world. Now, after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, we wonder if we are somehow responsible: but the way we ask it is in a "scientifically updated language": are we responsible for global warming, and was global warming responsible then for the unusual intensity of this hurricane?

In other words, have we been living so badly that terrible things then happen to us?

But there are other ways of thinking layered into the Noah story, and it can be helpful to pull out the different assumptions and consider them each in turn.

  1. First of all, the image of God so far forming in the Bible greatly troubles me, because it is a God who is portrayed as punishing.
  2. Secondly, one major form of punishment is death.
  3. Thirdly, it is not at all clear why some are punished more severely than others. (This concern will actually become clearer as we continue forward in the readings, so I will not say much about this point yet.)

Now, it could be that the stories, as translated (not only into our language, but into our cultural assumptions) portrays a punishment theme more clearly than was originally intended. Or it could be that regarding events in terms of punishment reflects a stage of moral development that individual human beings sometimes move beyond.

What I'm getting at here is that we can think of cause-and-effect patterns in (at least) two very different ways: (1) as expressing predictable mechanisms in how processes unfold, or (2) as expressing patterns of moral relationship. It's probably a mistake to read all of reality as either just the first or just the second. The challenge then is in distinguishing: what kinds of thing just happen (maybe predictably and regularly, but not morally), and what kinds of things happen for moral reasons? It is very common to blur this distinction, as when we say, for example, "little Johnny must learn that there are consequences for his behavior!" Usually that's meant as a moral threat of punishment, rather than a pragmatic observation that, for example, if he doesn't go to bed on time he will be pretty tired tomorrow.

So, in my interpretation of the second creation story, I was actually trying to move beyond a moral reading of the unfolding of events (since Adam and Eve were amoral beings before eating the fruit, and therefore should not have been held morally accountable), and into a pragmatic reading (it is not punishment that life becomes hard after the dawning of moral awareness -- it's just built into the very nature of moral consciousness).

So, to what extent should we take God to be a guide through the predictable patterns built into life, teaching us about these patterns -- and to what extent should we take God to be a punisher?

Some of my students who claim that they want to reject religion have said that what troubles them about religion is the view that God has made this complicated world structured by moral rules, but doesn't give us a very clear instruction book, and yet punishes us for not being able to figure it out. I've heard others then argue that the Bible is that clear instruction book. But what strikes me so far is that the moral lessons in the Bible are not at all clear, and I will be pointing out some of the confusing passages I see as I go along.

Second point (this one troubles me even more): using death as punishment. Lately, I've been noticing how often people ask, "how can God allow this to happen!" when someone they love dies. "This person was so good!" people often say. They may then fall into a crisis of faith -- because a good person died. It makes no sense that God should have "punished" that good person while all these other "bad" people keep living. My careful response has been to nudge in the direction of pointing out that everyone eventually dies, and so it can't be right to interpret death as a sign of God's punishment. To Christians, I point out that even Jesus Christ died on the cross. God surely was not punishing him. And so I've gotten very puzzled. Where does this line of thinking come from: that death is the ultimate divine punishment?

Now that I am reading the Bible, the answer is very clear. In the Noah story, for example, the Lord very clearly decides to wipe out most of the human race because of people's wickedness and violence. But, again, is it punishment, as such -- or just a way of trying to wipe the slate clean?

And even if "the Lord" is portrayed as using death as punishment, what is also odd is how the Lord does not always use it immediately. For example, Cain is not killed for having killed Abel.

Now that I've shared some of my concerns about the image of God, let me come back to the point I started with: how should we interpret natural events, such as floods and mighty storms? Part of what is prized about the Bible is that it tells a story of God's involvement in the world and in human history. The God portrayed in the Bible is not a God who set the world in motion and then stands back and watches how things unfold from a distance. It is not a God who is indifferent to human matters. It is a God who is intimately involved.

I myself am attracted to the general idea of God's continuing involvement in our lives, and in the dramatic events that shape our lives. But exactly how, and why, and in what ways God is involved are not easy questions with simple answers.

I worry that these famous stories do present a really problematic image of what God is like, and of what morality is like. So, what do we do with this?

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