Genesis 8.15 – 9.17
The story of a flood wiping out life on earth and a man who was rescued, along with breeding pairs of animals, is one of the great human stories. It exists in different forms in a variety of ancient cultures. The story evokes two basic fears: fear of God and fear of water.
The story of Noah is usually treated as a story for children about a nice man who saves animals in a big boat. This reading from the end of the story reveals its dark underbelly.
- 20, 9.3 – Noah’s barbeque is the first time in the bible that people have eaten meat. No wonder that “fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal” (9.2).
- 20 is also the first time that fire is referred to in the bible.
In the violent division between human and non-human, and in the introduction of burning stuff, does this story show us the roots of the human devastation of the earth?
In 8.21, God is persuaded by the “pleasing odour” of roast meat never again to destroy every living creature or curse the ground. God’s promise is described in the text as a covenant (i.e. agreement). Because this covenant is usually identified in 9.8-17, with obligations only on God’s part, it is often described as an unconditional covenant. But it can be argued that these verses are linked to verses 1-7 by covenant language: “As for you …” (v.7) / “As for me …” (v.9). This would make it a more usual, two-party covenant.
God’s side of the covenant, never again to destroy the earth by a flood, is accompanied by the sign of the rainbow. The bow, appearing at the edge of a storm, will act as a reminder to God of God’s promise.
On the other side of the covenant, Noah has to be representative of all creation (9.10 – the covenant is made with all living creatures, and in 9.13, with the earth). Noah’s task of rescuing animals has not ended. In 9.7, Noah’s obligation sounds easy enough: to be fruitful and multiply. However, Noah must bear in mind the verses that came before. They, too, form part of Noah’s side of the covenant. He must respect the life-blood of human and non-human. He must remember that humankind is made in God’s image (v.6). In the covenant, God promises not to destroy life. Therefore, Noah and his descendants (and by implication in this story, that includes all humanity (see 9.19)), in our “abounding on the earth”, should always act according to that image of God. Our burning and our eating, i.e. our relationship with non-human creatures, as well as with the air, water and soil, must be hallowing and respectful, caring and life-affirming, never destructive. This may act as a balance to God’s permission to eat “every moving thing that lives.” Just because we may, it doesn’t mean that we should. Humans are enormously powerful, but can we learn to temper that power according to the image of God? The co-existence of the colours of the spectrum in the rainbow could serve as a reminder to us: to live creatively and peaceably, that all life might be abundant on earth. If human abundance comes at the cost of the image of God, or at the cost of the life of another person, animal or plant, we break our side of the covenant.
Saying that, however, is to go further than the text, which distinguishes between the value of human life and other life, not least in 9.6. The story clearly condones the killing of animals for meat and for religious sacrifice. As we have seen, it is the smell of roasting meat that seems to soften God’s heart in 8.21, expressed in God’s somewhat kindly statement that even though humans will always be bad, God won’t destroy every living creature again. This is the sentiment that is then expressed in more stately, covenantal language in 9.8-17. God is essentially saying, “I won’t do it again!”
In fact, in the story so far, Noah is the hero and God is something of a villain. God’s punishment of violent humanity is itself violent and enormously wasteful, causing the death of every living creature. In 6.7, God explicitly resolves to blot out animals, creeping things and birds because of human wickedness and it’s hard to see the good or the justice in this. It’s one thing to say that other creatures bear the consequences of human action, but in this biblical story it’s not just cause and effect: God is the personal, moral actor causing the annihilation of land-based animal life on earth. The text even goes to some length, in 7.21-23, to spell out this destruction. The story has, in fact, been dark all the way through, because this is a dark, fearsome God; so holy that he cannot tolerate sin to the extent that punishing human sin must be so complete as to incorporate the punishment of the animals too. This is a God who changes his mind: who is sorry that he made humankind (6.5-6) and then is sorry that he wiped them out (admittedly implicitly, in 8.21(because continuing human sinfulness is acknowledged)). This is a God who trusts himself so little that he invents the rainbow to remind himself of his promise, whenever it starts to rain. Humans are right to fear God, just as we are right to fear water, and animals are right to fear humans.
So righteous Noah is the hero of the story. But we see that Noah is righteous because, without arguing or complaining or, indeed, any speech at all, he just gets on with doing what God tells him to do. He builds the ark, he rescues breeding pairs of every species, he lives with them in those cramped conditions and looks after them for half a year and if, at the end when back on dry land, he sacrifices some of those animals to God, that is simply what you would expect of anyone in the ancient world who had come safely through a disaster. Building an altar and offering a burnt sacrifice is the first thing Noah has done on his own initiative, and it is the first time these things have been done in this biblical book of origins, Genesis. It may be that God’s instructions to Noah and Noah’s obedience, in which life on earth is saved from complete destruction, go some way to mitigating God’s action in bringing the flood. Life could continue after the flood because God told Noah to save every species and Noah was obedient. But it is Noah’s initiative in making a sacrifice that persuades God to make the first ever covenant, and to include all flesh in that covenant. God in this story is alive and prepared to listen and change. God not only acts through human agency, but responds to human worship and at the end of the story is kind and protective, enshrining that kindness in an everlasting covenant with all flesh.
I think this is how the bible works. It is a pluralistic anthology, sometimes even within a short story like this one, where two stories have been fairly crudely cut and pasted together. It is not so much the word of God as words about God: people reflecting on their experience of God. As a colleague once said, the bible is not the maker’s instructions but a collection of product reviews. We’re meant to engage with it, wrestle with it, argue with it, and through all that, be alert for the word of God to emerge. So it’s OK to object to the idea that God’s mind was changed by the smell of Noah’s barbeque and it’s OK to set against this text another text like Isaiah 11.1-11 or Psalm 148 that upholds the sanctity of animal life, and out of that engagement listen for a word from God to emerge for me, for us, today.
The story of Noah is a great story. It raises important issues like the nature of God’s engagement with the processes of the universe and the way human action, not least our burning and our violence, is harming animals and all creation. It challenges us: if God was wrong to send the flood but right to promise not to flood the earth again, what about human morality when our over-consumption heats the earth, destroys habitats, causes extinction, melts the ice and raises the sea level? What about our side of the everlasting covenant? The story of Noah could also inspire us: in what ways can we, individually and as communities, act like Noah in these days of the early Anthropocene? What would be the equivalent of an ark you could build to rescue animals or other creatures, human or not, from ecological disaster? There is a challenge in the story to seek these answers in collaboration with God, if we are going to be Noahs in our times.
A shortened form of this bible study was originally published as part of the United Reformed Church’s Commitment For Life Sunday worship resources for 2015.