God’s Beautiful Idea
When the LORD saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. So the LORD said: I will wipe out from the earth the human beings I have created, and not only the human beings, but also the animals and the crawling things and the birds of the air, for I regret that I made them.
But Noah found favor with the LORD. … God said to Noah: I see that the end of all mortals has come, for the earth is full of lawlessness because of them. So I am going to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood, equip the ark with various compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. … I, on my part, am about to bring the flood waters on the earth, to destroy all creatures under the sky in which there is the breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.
I will establish my covenant with you. You shall go into the ark, you and your sons, your wife and your sons’ wives with you. Of all living creatures you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, one male and one female, to keep them alive along with you. Of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal, and of every kind of thing that crawls on the ground, two of each will come to you, that you may keep them alive. Moreover, you are to provide yourself with all the food that is to be eaten, and store it away, that it may serve as provisions for you and for them.
Noah complied; he did just as God had commanded him. … Together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, Noah went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. Of the clean animals and the unclean, of the birds, and of everything that crawls on the ground,two by two, male and female came to Noah into the ark, just as God had commanded him.
…In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month: on that day all the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and the floodgates of the sky were opened. For forty days and forty nights heavy rain poured down on the earth…. The flood continued upon the earth for forty days. As the waters increased, they lifted the ark, so that it rose above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth, but the ark floated on the surface of the waters.
Higher and higher on the earth the waters swelled, until all the highest mountains under the heavens were submerged. The waters swelled fifteen cubits higher than the submerged mountains.
All creatures that moved on earth perished: birds, tame animals, wild animals, and all that teemed on the earth, as well as all humankind. Everything on dry land with the breath of life in its nostrils died. The LORD wiped out every being on earth: human beings and animals, the crawling things and the birds of the air; all were wiped out from the earth. Only Noah and those with him in the ark were left. And when the waters had swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days, God remembered Noah and all the animals, wild and tame, that were with him in the ark. So God made a wind sweep over the earth, and the waters began to subside.
…In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the water began to dry up on the earth. Noah then removed the covering of the ark and saw that the surface of the ground had dried. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah: … Bring out with you every living thing that is with you—all creatures, be they birds or animals or crawling things that crawl on the earth—and let them abound on the earth, and be fertile and multiply on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives;and all the animals, all the birds, and all the crawling creatures that crawl on the earth went out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and choosing from every clean animal and every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, the LORD said to himself: Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done.
All the days of the earth,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
and day and night
shall not cease.
God said to Noah and to his sons with him: …I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth. …This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living creature with you for all ages to come: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living creature—every mortal being—so that the waters will never again become a flood to destroy every mortal being. When the bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature—every mortal being that is on earth.
God told Noah: This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and every mortal being that is on earth.
Gen 6: 5 – 9: 17 (abridged)
If, perhaps, you don’t have the time to read this entire reflection I can boil it down to a single sentence: An encounter with the Word of God, if it is authentic, is always characterized by an invitation to conversion.
What are we trying to accomplish when we study scripture? In this passage, we recall a story you’ve probably known since childhood. Perhaps, as a child, you were told this story as an explanation of how the rainbow came into being. If you learned the story when you were very young you probably didn’t realize, at first, how completely preposterous the events depicted are. As a child, your credulity wasn’t put to the test by the idea of a little family sharing a boat for a year and ten days with more animals than live in a hundred zoos. It didn’t strike you as strange, back then, that there could be a flood that covered the entire world and rise higher than the highest mountain, a flood that would require more water than all the oceans combined. You took the story at ‘face value’, which is a fine thing for children to do, but a mature believer has to work harder than that if he or she wants to sustain the kind of faith that an adult needs. A mature believer needs to encounter God in a way that will enable her or him to be transformed.
You’ll need more than a child’s innocent and eager desire to believe in the magical in order to bring the light of truth into the darkness of ignorance.
Here’s a conundrum: We study scripture in order to know God, but we have to know God in order to understand scripture properly. How is it possible to get a handle on that one? Fortunately, getting to know God isn’t a do-it-yourself project. Other disciples have preceded us. The Church is rich in experience and wisdom. Chances are, you first encountered God through an encounter with the faith of another believer. You can continue to encounter God that way. We support each other. We build each other up.
So how shall we study scripture? It seems to me that you’re likely to end up on a blind alley if you read this account as a story about Noah and his family, or about the survival of the various forms of life on our planet, or even if you read it as the tragedy of those who perished in the flood – although that’s a tempting approach since every one of us is vulnerable to sudden death from a natural calamity. The story is about God. It is as if God is saying, “Let me tell you about my life.” If we can open up our ears and listen to what God is saying to us we will change. We will come to resemble our Heavenly Father.
What does God want us to know about His life? We know that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but knowing that may present an obstacle to knowing God Himself.
God wants you to know Him. God brought the universe into existence for the purpose of making Himself known to you. There is no joy greater than the joy of knowing God, and knowing God’s will; but to know God requires more of you than the simple acquisition of information. To know God, you must stop being the person you were and become the person God wants you to be. The person you were is incapable of knowing God. Until you decide to cooperate with God’s invitation to conversion, your only response to God will be one of misunderstanding.
When you didn’t know God, when you feared a god of condemnation and punishment, the story of Noah seemed to you to be the story of God’s desire to destroy the world. As you came to know God better, you discovered that the story is about God’s determination to preserve the world despite every obstacle and despite the cost that God suffers to patiently endure our failings – from the trivial to the calamitous.
“Let me tell you about my life.” The universe is God’s masterpiece. The human race is the masterpiece of this masterpiece. God has filled the universe with his glory, and God desires to fill humanity with even more glory. Even we, blind and ignorant as we are, get a glimpse from time to time of the potential that human beings, and human relationships, and human society have to show the glory of God.
The problem is that there is a gap, an enormous gap between what we could be and what we are. You don’t have to look too hard before you yourself observe “how great the wickedness of human beings is on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceives is always nothing but evil”. But oh what we could be! Oh, what we would be if God’s will were done!
The fact that we know what difficulty is, and what frustration is, gives us a clue to understanding God. The starting point of this story is that of a master craftsman up to his neck in the troubles that an artist confronts when he tries to bring his beautiful idea into being. We know what that feels like. We know what it feels like to want to destroy the work of our own hands. Guess what? God knows what that feels like too. If all we knew about God was that He is all-powerful, we would never suspect that He knew anything but ease and success. The god who gets everything he wants without ever having to lift a finger is a god who only exists in our imaginations. The real God, the God who is trying to move us past the childish ideas we have about Him in our heads, is a God who’s at the end of His rope.
God has a beautiful idea. It’s the idea of a world of people dedicated to peace and justice rather than selfish gain. God has thrown Himself into the job of turning this beautiful idea into a reality. God knows what it’s like to risk everything in the hope of creating something magnificent. The magnificent creation He wants is His relationship with us, His relationship with you. And God wants you to know how He feels, loving you and wanting to have a wonderful relationship with you. He wants you to know that He feels, sometimes, like wringing your neck! That idea that you carry around in your head, the idea of a god of ease who succeeds at everything, is an idea you will lose as you experience the conversion from someone who guesses who God is to someone who knows who God is.
Every child who’s ever tried to draw a picture only to discover how hard it is to draw a good picture knows what it feels like to want to rip it all up. Where does the impulse to give up, and to plunge yourself into hopelessness come from? Turns out that it’s not a divine impulse, it’s a human one — but we could never grasp the divine experience if we didn’t start by imagining it in human terms. Those human terms are rendered in this story.
I don’t have the time to elucidate all the reasons why it’s a bad idea to read this story as if it were an accurate historical account, but one reason it’s a bad idea is that by reading it that way you’re going to get the idea that the flood is far removed from you. The flood, if it’s an historical event, is something that happened a long time ago, far away, to somebody else – not you.
The truth of the matter is that the flood is happening right now, even as you read these words, and you’re the one it’s happening to. The flood teaches us, simultaneously, what an incredibly difficult thing it is to be transformed from what we are to what God wills us to be and, at the same time, teaches us that He has no intention of giving up on the hope of making us vessels of His glory.
Everybody knows God just about as well as he or she is capable of knowing God. If you want to know God better than you do, if you want to stop seeing God as the destroyer of life and start seeing Him as the preserver of life, it does no good to hope for a revision of the Bible. It’s not the Bible that has to change. It’s you.