Readings: Genesis 8: 20 - 9: 17 and Matthew 5: 17-20.
I am delighted to be talking to you about Noah today. I think the stories of Noah that we find in Genesis are much neglected. Particularly the story of Noah’s drunkenness – which comes just after the passage we heard just now. And the story of Noah and the Ark seems to be, these days, a story that is only deemed suitable for children. Perhaps this is because scientists - and I consider myself a scientist – have told us repeatedly that the stories couldn't possibly have actually happened – at least in the way they are told in Genesis – and so they are at best, considered as being of minor significance, compared with other stories in the Bible, and at worst, discounted as irrelevant.
All the stories in the Genesis are there to explain why things are the way they are. They are all creation stories if you like. Not just the creation of the natural universe, but of things like speech and reason, agriculture, cities and nations, music, technology, law and justice, and so forth. And the stories of Noah are no exception. Today I am going to concentrate on the story of Noah and the Rainbow. And this is a story about the origins of law and justice.
The meaning of the Noah stories – and the other stories in Genesis - doesn’t really depend on whether they are actually happened or not. Although to my way of thinking, it is not implausible that there was, at some point in history, a man called Noah who built a large boat for his family and some of his animals to escape a great flood, then saw a rainbow, then got drunk in front of his kids, etc. But I do not think that the flood covered the whole earth or that there were woolly mammoths, if not dinosaurs, on that boat as some people do.
First, and before turning to the story of Noah and the Rainbow, a few words about the meaning of the story of Noah and the Ark because that story is the context for the story of Noah and the Rainbow.
The story of Noah and the Ark always seems a bit barbaric to me. I have difficulties with the idea of God destroying most of humanity in an almighty cataclysm – and yet of course we know that there have – over the course of human history – been many natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, plagues and epidemics and indeed floods – which have killed vast numbers of people. The 1918 flu epidemic killed between 50 and 100 million people across the globe - more than three times as many as were killed in the First World War.
The Noah and the Ark story also seems to suggest that whether we survive such natural disasters depends upon our moral character. In Genesis Chapter 6 verse 13 God tells Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’ But God also tells Noah that he and his family are to be saved because he has, ‘seen that you, Noah, are righteous before me in this generation’ (Chapter 7 verse 1).
I find these verses disturbing and seeming to contradict the notion that you find later in the Bible – such as in the book of Job - that people suffer whether they are righteous or not – and indeed that the most righteous person – in the shape of Jesus – ends up suffering the most.
But Genesis is about creation and origins and surely we all appreciate that there is a basic connection between the life well lived and the benefits thereof, and conversely the relationship between man’s tendency towards violence and the evil that brings. With Noah, God, essentially starts again. It’s a new creation of the world.
In the first creation God – according to Genesis - started with a clean sheet, and out of nothing and made a world fit for the first humans – Adam and Eve – to live. With Noah he starts with a pre-existing world seemingly washed clean of violence through the Flood, and with a new first human, Noah. Adam was initially neither good nor bad, but Noah we are told was a righteous man. And this brings us to the story of Noah and the Rainbow.
You might say it’s not much of a story, there’s not much of a plot. I suppose that’s true but it’s an important and meaningful story nevertheless. The Flood is over. Noah and his family, having spent 40 days afloat, have left the Ark so what happens next? Well, firstly Noah builds an alter and sacrifices some animals, and secondly God says some important things to Noah and his family: firstly he gives the new first humans a promise, secondly he gives them the first and probably most important set of laws we know of, and thirdly he gives them grounds for hope for the future.
So firstly that odd sacrifice that Noah makes. Remember that the Ark was built to accommodate, not only Noah and his family, but at least a pair of every living animal. We are told that God instructed Noah to bring enough food for them all for 40 days. Because Noah follows God’ instructions he, his family and all the animals survive. But no sooner than they have all left the Ark to take up their new lives we find Noah killing some of the very same animals he has just spent the last 40 days feeding and cherishing. Why on earth did Noah do this? The death of the animals is, I think, a reminder that violence – the violence that God wanted to wash away in the Flood - is here to stay, despite Noah being a righteous man.
Did God want this sacrifice? I don’t think he did. God doesn’t demand the sacrifice. The sacrifice is Noah’s idea: presumably because he thought God would like it. We are told that the smell of the sacrifice was pleasing but pleasing to whom? To God? Perhaps only to Noah and his family. Certainly not to the animals concerned.
God does not thank or praise Noah for the sacrifice of the animals. On the contrary he almost immediately complains that ‘the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’ (Chapter 8, verse 21). But the sacrifice does prompt God to give Noah some important information and in effect, it’s at this point, that God establishes a new world order.
Firstly he gives Noah a promise. A promise of a stable world, where never again will all living creatures be wiped out, and where seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, shall follow one another in an orderly fashion.
In the days between Adam and Noah – and despite Adam’s transgression - we saw the beginning of agriculture, the foundation of the first cities, the origins of technology and of music. Nevertheless humans' tendency to violence – beginning with the death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain – began to get out of control, culminating in the violence that preceded the Flood. This led to chaos and destruction.
In the new world order, after the Flood, human beings are accepted not for what they ideally might be but for what they are – including their tendency towards violence. But God promises that never again will this violence and the resulting chaos be allowed to get out of control. The law that God gives to Noah is to ensure this. This law makes explicit and also regulates what is implicit in Noah’s violent sacrifice of the animals.
So next this law. The most important part of this law is, ‘Whoever sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.’ In the service of both safeguarding life and securing elementary justice this law, for the first time, prohibits murder and compels its punishment. Note here that this law demands one life for one life and no more. It is thereby designed to prevent vicious spirals in violence. It protects society against family feuds, for example, where one murder leads to another and then to another, and then to another. It is designed to stop wars. Note too that that intent or mitigating circumstances do not come into this elemental form of justice. Indeed human bloodshed even by an animal must be avenged. Rather strangely to modern ears God says, ‘At the hand of every beast will I require it’ i.e. their life too if they kill a human (Chapter 9 verse 5). So strictly speaking the deed that is to be avenged is not just murder but any human death at the hands of another human being or animal whether intentional or accidental.
Of course the ‘life for a life rule’ given to Noah sounds harsh and unforgiving to our way of thinking and later Mosaic law, and Jesus’ interpretation of the law will modify it but, as the verses from St Matthew’s Gospel we heard just now suggest, the basic principle remains intact i.e. that life is sacred. And here we learn why ‘That human beings are made in God’s image (Chapter 9 verse 7) and that the killing of another human being is to disrespect that image.
However Noah’s law – if we can call it that - was not just about containing our violence towards one another but also about our attitudes to the natural world. This is the first time, in the Bible, where God gives express permission to human beings to eat meat. In the Garden of Eden we were given fruit from trees. After the expulsion from the Garden we had to till the ground and ‘by the sweat of our brow’ grow plants, such as corn, for making bread. Only at this point, when Noah, has demonstrated his violent tendency towards animals and his desire for a celebratory roast dinner, does God, permit humans to kill and eat animals, and then only under controlled circumstances i.e. without blood, that is with respect for their life. The respect we should show for the rest of God’s creation is thus intimately tied up with basic rules about violence towards one another.
I think that we should look to Noah’s law to tell us more about how we should treat creation. I.e. we now know that eating excessive amounts of meat – particularly cows and sheep - is contributing significantly to global warming and that to eat less meat and more reverently is clearly going to be good for the planet.
But the law – important is this is - is not the end of this story. Noah’s law is prefaced by a promise of stability. And after the giving of the law God reiterates and elaborates upon this promise. This promise is not any old promise it’s a covenant or a binding promise. The Hebrew word ‘berith’ translated covenant in Chapter 9 verse 8 and repeated six more times before the end of the chapter comes from a root meaning ‘to bind together’. The covenant announced here corrects a dangerous cleavage in the pre-Flood world. After the unspoken bonds which should have unified the world in that world were broken, they had to be replaced by explicit bonds. God here explicitly binds himself never again to destroy all life and in effect to limit creation’s indifference, if not hostility towards us. God’s promise is unilateral, one-sided, and unconditional. It thus provides humans with the hope of a terrestrial future secure against global natural catastrophe.
Belief in the covenant is crucial to the new world order. It is of equal importance to the law. Just as human nature in the absence of law always threatens human life and the life of the planet through violence, so the natural world, in the absence of covenant, always threaten human life through cataclysm. Thus the hope that we will not ultimately succumb to global warming, or whatever next turns out to be the biggest threat to human existence is absolutely indispensable for human life. In the absence of such hope, why would humans be inclined to accept the restraints of the law? And this is why God’s promise, though it comes after the law is pronounced, does not depend on humans following the law. On the contrary, our following the law rests on our belief in God’s remarkable promise: no more floods: or at least a flood that we cannot recover from.
Yet Noah and his family, hearing God’s promise make no response. They are either dumbfounded or disbelieving. God must speak again and this time he gives them a visible sign of his promise – a rainbow. The spoken promise of a secure future is insufficient. Noah and his family require a sign.
Just in the days of Noah we too require a sign of God’s promise, and in the light of that promise, the need to obey God’s laws. Our sign is not the rainbow. Remarkable as a rainbow is – it quite quickly fades. It is ‘just’ a natural phenomenon brought about the refraction of light through rain drops. Our sign is Jesus. He is our permanent sign, the physical sign that God rescues us from the floods and other adversities of life; that he is with us, preserving us from ultimate catastrophe – just as God promised Noah that he would be. Jesus is our new covenant.: on which more later.
With thanks to Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, 2003, Univesity of Chicago Press.