Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for October, 2012

The Symbols, the Symbols, the Symbols!

Genesis 8:1-12; 18-24:  God Knows Us Before We Know

Today is our last look at the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. The rain storms finally stop, the water levels lower, and a rainbow appears in the sky. This, of course, is the supposed happy ending, because Noah and company are saved. The horrific memory of the flood, corruption of humanity, and the destruction of the world is just that—a memory. This is how we want to the story to end. Rainbows and smiling animals are painted on Sunday school walls and everyone is happy. But I challenge all of us to think differently about Noah, the ark, the flood, and the rainbow. In the tradition of American Christianity we tend to ignore the difficult parts of scripture and limit the Bible stories to quotable quotes and easy-to-swallow symbols.

But this kind of shallow thinking about the story leads to problems. As I mentioned before, because of our often-sanitized interpretation of Noah and the ark, we leave plenty of room for confusion, theological missteps, and even violent results. If we don’t talk about the flood and what it means, why God was disappointed and sad over humanity’s corruption of a good creation, and that ALL humanity was corrupt, that even after the flood and the rainbow, humanity was still corrupt—then we are creating a different story. And in doing so we miss the point; and the grace in it. So let’s read the story as it is, and emphasize the important symbols in the story there for us, meant to help us get the message.

The symbols to note: the birds [a raven and a dove]; the ark; the mountain; the number 40; and of course, the rainbow. The birds are an oft-debated topic among Jewish and Christian scholars. Why a raven? The raven, as a bird in mythology, doesn’t always have the best reputation. It’s known for being a scavenger and therefore unclean, and in extreme cases, a symbol for evil. But in Noah’s story, I buy the more practical explanation. A raven has an important talent—it can fly high and far, and it can endure harsh weather conditions.[1] And so mariners or ancient sea captains would use ravens as their compass. A raven would find land or even scavenge dead animals available to eat, floating on the water. If a raven didn’t come back, it had found food. If it returned, there was nothing there but endless water.

Noah was connected to creation. He understood the raven’s important role; the raven went first. A dove, on the other hand, was more delicate—not as hardy as the raven. A dove also would not look for dead animal remains and would wait until the safety of land was near. The dove went out the first time and then came back. Seven days later, Noah released it again. This time, the dove returned with an olive branch, meaning that the waters had receded. A third time, the dove is sent out, and this time it does not return. All is safe for Noah and company. Of course, in American Christianity, the dove is often associated with the presence of God’s Spirit, due to a dovelike bird descending on Jesus of Nazareth when he is baptized by John. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, the dove is more of a symbol of sacrifice, caring, and gentleness. In many burnt offerings to God, indeed the dove was the sacrifice. References to doves were also meant to highlight a person’s caring nature.

The symbol of the ark is of course, an important one. This big boat, like Jonah’s big whale, was a place to be shut in for reflection. The ark contained within it the Biblical figure many see as a “second adam,” Noah. The ark also ended up on a mountain. That’s significant, because later on in the Genesis and Exodus story, another man named Moses is on another mountain where he receives special instructions from God. This Law, as it became known as, was eventually carried across many lands by the ancient Israelites, and was called the Ark of the Covenant. So the ark is indeed a special “meet God” kind of symbol—a place where God protects and reveals God’s self to humanity.

And the number 40 is of great importance to the Noah story, and to the whole story of the ancient Israelites. Moses was 40 days in conversation with God to receive the Law; the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 days. Goliath kept on strutting his stuff in front of the Israelite army for 40 days until David’s slingshot downed him. Elijah went to Mount Horeb to meet God for 40 days. Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh that they had 40 days to shape up. In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth’s time in the wilderness [often referred to as his temptation] lasted 40 days. After Jesus died, the book of Acts states that Jesus appeared to people over a period of 40 days. So you get it. 40 is important. But 40 is not just a number.

In Hebrew, letters have numeric values. The thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is mem. Here is what it looks like:

Mem has several meanings: waters, people, nations, languages, and tongues. But we also know that the Hebrew word for water is indeed a mem word. So mem is often very closely associated with water. In fact, in its most ancient pictograph form, the letter actually looks like waves of water.[2] 

All this starting to make sense now? The number 40 is the letter mem which means waters. Symbolically, the Torah [the law] also is represented by mem, meaning that the Torah is a sea of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. And mem’s numeric value of 40 is a period of time necessary to bring something to fruition—a time for humans to be in the presence of the Divine in order to find wisdom and understanding. And we keep going back to water, don’t we?

That brings us to the most well-known symbol of the story: the rainbow. The bow of rain in the sky is an ancient symbol that parallels a warrior hanging up his bow and arrow as a sign of the end of war. The rainbow, in the Noah story, has little to do with our Sunday school murals. It is a sign of a battle ending–of the end of destruction and war. The Hebrew word bow in rainbow is indeed the same word for the bow of war. And it is not the most ancient use of this word. In 1928 a huge quantity of Canaanite texts was discovered in a village on the upper Lebanese coast. In one of these texts, hundreds of years older than Genesis, the authors describe the world’s creation, and El, the high God, “hangs his bow in the clouds” after finishing creation—something El could only accomplish after fighting a long, bloody battle with other divine creatures.[3]

Many historical interpretations of the Genesis rainbow point to this symbolism. In the 12th century in Spain, an important Rabbinical work by the Ramban [Nahmandides] teaches that the rainbow is an upside-down bow. The feet of the bow are bent downward to show that the heavenly shooting [rain, in this sense] have ended. And still more insight from the rainbow’s shape: the rainbow, wrote the Rabbi, is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God can promise to never destroy humanity, but since humans are completely free to choose, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.[4]

So the rainbow of Genesis is intriguing, to say the least. Creation [animals, plants, earth, and human beings] is given a new beginning by God, a chance to live in harmony as it’s meant to be. But it is also a continuation of the good, in-harmony creation that God started in the first place. The really, really amazing part of the rainbow symbol is that God knows that humans are more than capable of screwing things up and turning harmony into disharmony. We seemed to be inclined to ruin a good thing. We’re meant to love and care for all creation and each other. Instead, we spend way too much time destroying animals, plants and creation. And we build walls of separation between our fellow humans on the planet. We invade, push down, hurt, and even kill. God knows this about us. And yet, in the Noah story, there is an eternal covenant made. It’s not an equal exchange, you see. It’s pure mercy on God’s part. The flood and the whole ark experience don’t make humanity perfect. But God still chooses to call humanity back to harmony and care and love. So God puts a bow up in the sky in spite of what God knows about us.

This spirit of believing in a harmony, wholeness, and peace that isn’t actually real yet has extended the rainbow symbol’s influence into modern-day culture. From the sky to banners and yes, flags—rainbows continue to inspire as symbols of diversity, inclusiveness, hope, and yearning. Years ago, Italy fashioned the peace flag.

 

 

 

 

 

In India, this flag, designed by spiritual teacher Meher Baba in 1924, is still flown during special times of year. The colors in the flag signify humankind’s man’s rise from the grossest of impressions of lust and anger – symbolized by red – to the culmination in the highest state of spirituality and oneness with God – symbolized by sky blue.[5] 

But of course, the world’s best-known version of the rainbow flag is sometimes called the freedom flag.

It became known as a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community’s diversity, struggles, and pride in 1978. And as the congregation I serve [United Church of Christ in Warminster] found out, though seemingly harmless in nature, a rainbow flag like this one does mean something. Shortly after hanging a United Church of Christ Open and Affirming rainbow flag on the outside of the church building, the flag was stolen. Of course, UCCW is not the only organization, church, or building to have a rainbow flag taken, defaced, or destroyed. Remember what I said about the Noah story in general—it’s not a sanitized, easy message. The symbols point us to a complicated and nuanced relationship between God and all humanity. God knows that we struggle with being good creations. We often resist caring for animals, plants, waters, and skies. We are often quick to judge and slow to include others. Do we put our bows in the sky as if to say, “I’m done with violence and destruction?” We haven’t. Our bows are still raised. All you have to do is open your eyes to notice that.

How could such an inclusive, beautiful, merciful symbol like a rainbow ever be negative or cause such division?

But that’s just it. That’s the Noah story applied to today. God loves; and recreates; and heals what is wounded; and repairs what is broken; and loves when love seems impossible; and God calls ALL of creation together. And God does this, knowing who we are and what we’re capable of. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t make me apathetic or jaded or hopeless. I actually feel more responsible; more connected; more inspired, because God gives us the freedom to bring harmony and mercy to others.

For there are rainbows in the sky and in our communities! There are opportunities to open the circle like a rainbow and invite someone in; there are moments in arks and in the wilderness when we find wholeness and perspective; there are birds that lead the way and offer new hope on the journey; and there are symbols shared by billions, across the planet–symbols like water–that bless, refresh, and heal. God knows us. And we still get the chance to know this merciful God, to know the harmony and balance of creation, to know each other.

The rainbow lacks a second half. It’s not completely whole. God has made the choice to love and recreate and bring together.

What will our choice be? Amen.


[1] The Mission of the Raven, David Marcus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

[2] NSW Board of Jewish Education, http://www.bje.org.au/index.html

[3] Opening The Old Testament: God’s Rainbow: Reflections on Genesis 9:8-17, John C. Holbert.

[4] The Ramban, Nahmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, (1194 – 1270), Andalusia, España.

[5] Lord Meher, by Bhau Kalchuri, Manifestation Inc. 1986, p. 618

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

Genesis 7:11-24

I love the rain. I have a lot of rain stories. I’m sure you do, too. I remember the afternoon rains in the summer when I was in Mexico City. The rain fell, and I could see mountains in the distance–clearly from the pedestrian bridge that I walked across on my way to the Mission Church Betél. When it rained, the busy, chaotic city transformed into a busy, chaotic, beautiful, wet mess. Some people hailing microbuses and cabs; others running with umbrellas in hand; some going about their business as if nothing had changed; kids skipped in puddles; students splashed each other and laughed; business men and women hurried to the nearest overhang for shelter. It was a collective halt to life and for me, a moment of Zen—complete peace and pause. The rain made us all stop.

But I have another story. I was in Des Moines, Iowa, just out of high school. The famous, great flood of 1993–the costliest, most devastating flood in U.S. history, according to U.S. Geological Survey. Sec Taylor Stadium, home of the AAA baseball team, the Iowa Cubs, was filled with water. You can see it here.

Floodwaters covered as many as 23 million acres of agricultural and urban lands in the Upper Midwest for weeks. The Des Moines River overflowed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I went to sandbag. I was able to make it into the northern part of Des Moines with  my parents to help in the great effort to block more water from engulfing the area. For hours we carried and stacked sandbags. Eventually, some official-looking vehicles pulled up. A man emerged from one of them, wearing a baseball hat, just like me. I didn’t expect this, but it was President Bill Clinton, surveying the damage. I admit to you, though, that while the president stood not three feet away from me, I couldn’t help but be more focused on the sandbagging. I was in flood mode. The rain had grabbed my attention, as had all the hard-working people who were giving their time and energy to help others save their homes.

And then, there are other rain stories that others have told me. I am sure some of you have heard stories about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, Louisiana and towns in Mississippi. Perhaps you remember the tsunamis that devastated Indonesia and Japan. And just recently, the storms that ravaged, once again, the island nation of Haiti. We cannot ignore these rain stories, though we may want to. And we cannot ignore the rain story in Genesis—Noah’s story. I want us to think about location, culture, and time. Think about Israel. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], Israel is described as the land of milk and honey. But it was not a land flowing with water, actually. The Holy Land was dry. Water was a limited resource. And this is why, in the Bible, we find water playing a central role in the theology of the ancient Israelites. Rain in Israel and Palestine was a sign of God’s covenantal-promise to the people. Like many ancient people of the world, the Israelites looked up into the great sky and hoped and prayed for rain. They were dependent upon the natural resource that proved to be so elusive. Take a look at Deuteronomy 11:13-15:

If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.[1]

The Israelites were not alone. People around the world throughout history have depended on rain to soak the land in order to grow things for eating. Our context is the Americas. The ancient people of Mesoamerica who lived in these lands also depended on rain, because their way of life hinged on rain-fed agriculture. Thus, they were devoted to pleasing the gods of rain, who were known by many names. The Zapotecs of Oaxaca, Mexico called the rain Cocijo; the Aztecs honored Tlaloc; and the ancient Mayans’ rain god was called Chaac. Here is a carved figure representing Chaac and an artist’s rendition.

Chaac–the god of rain, lightening, and storms–is usually shown holding axes and snakes that he uses to hit the clouds to produce rain.[2] His actions made it possible for the Mayans to grow maize [corn] and other forms of vegetation. They viewed Chaac’s work as part of the natural cycle of life. The Mayans also viewed violent rainstorms, hail, and hurricanes as visual manifestations of Chaac, meant to be seen and respected.

I bring us back to these ancients of Mesoamerica for a reason. Today you and I have trouble recognizing nature’s acts with awe and respect. Possibly it is because we predict the weather with sophisticated machinery and at any moment, you and I can check our cellphone for the latest updates. How will my morning commute be on Monday? Will it rain? I can find out in a second. Rain is more annoying than awe-inspiring, because it messes up our day. The thought about rain soaking the land in order to produce food so we can eat just doesn’t cross our minds. We’re disconnected from rain just as we’re disconnected from the natural order of things. After all, if it doesn’t rain, we can use our hoses or sprinklers to water stuff. Looking up to the heavens and praying, dancing, or singing for rain just doesn’t seem necessary.

And that’s a problem, if we really want to understand the rain theology of the Noah story in Genesis. Even though Jerusalem is far from the Americas, the Israelites also believed, like the Mayans, that there was an other-worldly source of rain. They too prayed for rain. You see, this kind of theology, or way of thinking about God, is much, much different than our modern-day theology. The ancient Israelites and Mayans understood that they could not control the elements of nature. They were fragile. They saw rain as a gift. And they depended on this gift. Rain was a symbol–a sign of God’s covenant promise to care for humanity. This belief is entirely evident throughout the story of the Israelite’s exile. For 40 years [hmmm…40 days and nights in Noah’s story!] they wandered in the wilderness—the desert. They were dependent upon God for life itself. This was part of how the Israelites understood their intimate relationship with the Creator of all things. They were vulnerable; they were humble; they respected nature and their God.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my first experience with a sukkah.

A sukkah is a temporary dwelling place for those of the Jewish faith to retreat to during the high holy days of Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles], right after Yom Kippur. A sukkah is built with natural things to remind us of our human vulnerability. It is symbolically returning to the desert and a spiritual state of humility and dependency.[3] Why do this? Because of what I said before—we are so disconnected from the natural world and our dependency upon rain, sunshine, air, etc., for life. I sat in the sukkah, made of tree branches and twigs, large leaves and tarps. On that particular day, ironically, it rained for the 2 hours that I sat and conversed there with a colleague. I did feel vulnerable. And my mind wandered to a certain week a few years ago in Hawai’i.

My wife Maria and I were with some youth from the Community Church of Honolulu, staying about a week at the UCC camp facility, near the place where they filmed the TV show Lost and the movie Jurassic Park. Now honestly, in the three years I lived on the island of Oahu, I did not experience much severe weather at all. Unless of course you count that particular week! It started to rain as it usually does in Hawai’i—very nicely in the afternoon for about 15 minutes. And I expected that after the rain, the sun would emerge suddenly and a Noah rainbow would stretch over the sky. But no such luck. It started to downpour. The wind was so strong that the famous “sideways” rain of the islands began and didn’t let up. For nearly an entire week, it rained. We were supposed to be at this camp so we could foster growth of native plants, clean trails, and help with conservation. But we just got wet. And we had no shelter. This camp was rustic—no buildings. Just tents and some tarps slung over wood walls to make a dining hall/slash meeting space. We were constantly outside. And it constantly kept raining.

The nights were treacherous. Thunder. Lightening. Sideways rain. And then, the realization on night #2 that our tents were not going to withstand it all. Water starting dripping inside and then water started seeping in. Our sleeping bags were soaked. We couldn’t sleep. Some of the youth in our group were scared. They yelled from their tent, “What are we going to do?” We had no way of dealing with this—at least not in that moment when it was completely dark and the rain was flying sideways in our faces. So we waited it out. In the morning we hurriedly constructed wooden platforms to place the tents on top of so we could at least be above the soaked ground. It was a helpless feeling. We had to no place to which to run. Nature was attacking us, we felt. Clothes were soaked. Shoes filled with mud and grass. Spirits were low. Frustrations and exhaustion were high. We were vulnerable.

Perhaps that is what rain theology is all about—no, not necessarily staying in tents for a week during a torrential downpour or wearing wet clothes for a week. But rain theology is all about being vulnerable—understanding that nature and God and life in general are really beyond our control. Maybe we’re meant to wander in the desert for a bit; or stay in an ark while the waters rise; or sit in a sukkah; or sandbag in a city. Maybe we all need to be shut in and shut down for a moment so we stop what we’re doing and consider how we’re living. I think the Noah story is more about reflecting on our lives and reconnecting with creation. So it’s sad that this story continues to be hijacked by lots of people. There is some awful rain theology out there—the idea that God is a destroyer of people and a saver of only the “good” people, whoever we define them as. Some even say that events like Hurricane Katrina or the tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan are signs of God’s wrath. Ironically, the Jesus they claim to believe in once said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[4]

Friends, rain is a metaphor for God’s mercy and grace. God sends rain—not to kill or punish, but to restore and provide sustenance. As the Psalmist writes: You sent abundant rain, O God, to refresh the weary land.[5] You and I are meant to be refreshed, too. So notice the rain. Embrace it. Be vulnerable. Stop. Pause. Be refreshed. Refocus and gain new perspective. Discover new ways to love people and to stand up for justice. Let the rain wash over you; let the rain heal the land and heal you; let the rain be a blessing. Amen.


[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler, 2006, The Ancient Maya. Sixth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

[3] Rabbi Lauren Berkun, SE director of educational initiatives, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

[4] Matthew 5:43-45, NIV

[5] Psalm 68:9, NLT

Bill Cosby Is RIGHT!

Genesis 6:5-22       Right?!

Yes, that is the famous comedian, Bill Cosby, doing one of his earliest and most well-known routines, Noah. That was part one of his routine which portrays the Genesis story in a more honest way. And for those of you who did not get the Candid Camera reference [very old school], just think about the Jamie Kennedy experience or Ashton Kutcher’s Punked. Listen, I really appreciate Bill Cosby’s treatment of a story that we often find painted on Sunday school or nursery walls. What we see on those walls or in kid’s books is only a cartoony end to the story: the rainbow with smiling animals and humans. And yet, the majority of the Noah story is about a flood—a deluge that destroys everything and everyone because the God character isn’t pleased. It’s genocide in extreme form–horrific and quite contradictory to the God who just earlier in Genesis called everything good.

A couple of weeks ago I was carpooling with some of my fellow actors, on our way to perform in a show, and someone brought up the recent finding of an Egyptian Coptic writing referring to Jesus of Nazareth having a wife. Is it real, some were asking. Does it matter, others were saying. And that led to a conversation about Noah and the ark’s existence. This story is one that many people know. And still today there are people looking for that ark and they are not named Indiana Jones. You don’t have to identify as a Christian to know about this story and rightly so, because Jews and Muslims share it, too. And so do those of the Baha’i faith. Agnostics and Atheists are well-aware. And one big reason why is because Noah’s story looks a lot like a story in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a heroic poem much like Homer’s Odyssey. Written on clay tablets, it is known to be one of the oldest works of literature in the world—compiled by ancient authors anonymously—written as early as 2700 BCE and no later than 600 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in what is modern-day Iraq in Sumerian languages like Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite.[1] It was actually discovered in the mid-nineteenth century in the ruins of the great library at Nineveh. One just cannot over-emphasize this work’s importance in our historical understanding of ancient religious texts [like the Bible].

There are various parts of Gilgamesh that almost directly parallel parts of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures of the Bible. One such parallel exists in Tablet I of Gilgamesh, when the character Gilgamesh is described as part mortal and part god, just like the description in Genesis 6 of the nephilim, semi-divine beings often translated as sons of god. Look at Genesis 6:4, one verse earlier from where we began today: The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown {NRSV}. We tend to skip over these obscure, strange parts of the Bible, but they are there for a reason. This verse leads into Noah and the whole flood situation.

Both Genesis 6 and the Epic of Gilgamesh tell us that humans became like gods, semi-divine. Their arrogance led to a conflict with the creator gods—Elohim in Hebrew tradition, Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea in the Babylonian tradition. Noah’s flood story parallels much of the Babylonian story on Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic. The god of the Bible and the gods of Gilgamesh are not happy with humanity. The gods decide to destroy the earth by way of flood. In Genesis, of course, Noah is the character chosen to survive and has a conversation with God. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Ea warns the character Utnapishtimin in a dream. Both Utnapishtim and Noah are instructed to build a boat, sealed by pitch and multi-leveled. The boats were to be loaded with a few other humans and samples from species of other land animals. A great rain covered the land with water. The boats eventually landed on a mountain in the Middle East. Both hero characters sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was near. The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return. The heroes left the ark, ritually killed an animal and offered it as a sacrifice. God (or the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted sacrifice; the heroes were blessed. In the end, the Babylonian gods of Gilgamesh seem genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promises never to do it again. [2] 

I don’t draw this comparison to lessen the story in Genesis. But I’m being honest about how   flood stories are quite universal in the ancient world. If we decide to paint Noah and the ark on SS walls and read picture books about it to our children, we better understand that these stories are uniquely shared. Because frankly, just like with the Genesis creation stories, we U.S. Christians have a strong tendency to ignore the rich history, literary structure, culture, and language of the Biblical Noah story. This leads to all sorts of problems. Historically, it has led to genocide—based on thinking that natural disasters happen because God is mad and therefore punishes certain kinds of wicked people. It can lead to people assuming that they are the Noah hero characters saved by God, chosen to survive in an ark, while others are doomed to destruction.

Some of you might be wondering: Wow. Well, if Noah and the ark is not a TRUE story, then the Bible is just one big book of lies. Why care? Why meditate on it? Why read it at all? Or, on the other side: Wow. You are totally trashing faith in our Bible reading. The Bible is God’s Word. So this story has to be true. Why do you say these things, crazy preacher guy? Understand that the Bible is a sacred book to me. Its message gives life, encouragement, wisdom, and perspective. The Bible challenges me. But I really don’t care if the Noah story in Genesis was copied from an earlier Babylonian story or not. I actually think it’s quite cool that we can look at Gilgamesh and Noah on the same Sunday morning. I actually embrace the idea of faith involving the use of our brains and critical thinking. I even argue that the brain and the heart are harmoniously tied together. And friends, it matters how we look at the Bible and its stories. It matters how seriously we look at archeological discoveries, literary findings, clay and stone tablets, scrolls and cave drawings. All of these ancient stories matter. They matter as they inform our stories today.

That’s why I think Bill Cosby got it right. He treated this story as less of a sacred cow we have to tiptoe around and more as a metaphor for humanity’s confusing, crazy relationship with God and with itself. What would you do if you heard voices coming out of the sky; how would you react if out of nowhere some god told you to drop everything in your life and do something insane that made no sense? You don’t have to be a religious person to empathize–it’s crazy! Who me? What? Build an ark? Right! What’s a cubit? A flood? Right!  Who is this really? In an imperfect, broken world–an imperfect, broken character encounters the confusion of being called to do something insane by a god he does not see. Right!?

So Cosby helps me see the story as it is. Sometimes the chaos and uncertainty of the world so overwhelms me that I want to find a boat to jump in. Daily I look around me and see genocide, violence, destruction, and pain. I resonate with God’s sadness because I’m sad, too. I long for a world in which everyone has access to clean water, fertile soil, and clean air. I long for a world that doesn’t destroy habitats or ecosystems or steal the lands of native peoples in the name of so-called industrial progress. I long for a world that sees everyone as equally human—regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or whatever. I want to live in a world full of people who care less about Big Bird politics and selfish agendas; I long to share this planet with people who care more about human needs and human dignity. So I understand the sadness of God.

But our tendency is to focus more on God’s anger and vengeance, rather than God’s sadness. We see the ark and the flood as punishment. But in fact, it is God’s grief that wells up out of love for the good creation in the Noah story. This is what bewilders us and makes us say sarcastically: Right! God’s love for creation far exceeds our comprehension. Just think about the story. God creates all things good. It’s in harmony—all of it. And then we destroy; we hate; we kill; we abuse; we separate; we forget who we are and where we come from. Creation is broken and wounded. God, as great creator-parent, is saddened by such a turn of events. In this sense, the flood is a metaphor–not of destruction–but of tears.

Friends, so often we are disconnected from our creative selves and where we come from. The Genesis creation stories remind us that we come from the earth and are made to care for it. But we also have the invitation, all through the Bible, to join the still-caring God in becoming caretakers of each other. But we won’t care for creation and each other if we keep running around aimlessly, getting lost, obsessing over money, worrying about unimportant things, isolating ourselves from others, and shirking our responsibilities to care. Like Noah, we’re going to have to hear a still-speaking God interrupt our lives. And this God will ask us to do insane things: Love our neighbor? Serve the poor? Accept everyone as they are? Forgive? Tolerate? Embrace those who are different? Stand up against injustice and hate when no one else does? Believe that the sad beginning to the story can still have a hopeful and reconciling end? Right!? Who is this really? What’s a cubit?

The good news, friends, is that even though God may grieve over the ways we destroy a good creation, this God continues to be gardener, planter, and cultivator of good. I like the way Norman Wirzba, research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at Duke Divinity School, puts it:

But God continues to dig and plant, water and weed. The good news is that he takes the refuse of our mistakes, sloth and belligerence and turns them into compost that can fertilize his garden kingdom of life. When we take flight from the garden, shirk our gardening responsibilities, God remains faithful and merciful, hands in the dirt, delighting in a world made delectable and beautiful, always inviting us to join him in the gardening work that heals and sustains the world.[3]

Yes, this Noah story starts out quite awfully, but the story is meant to be read from beginning to end. So stand with Noah and recognize how easy it is for us to blame God for all the destruction that we cause—yes, that we cause. Recognize that we have a responsibility to care for creation. Stop what you’re doing. Pause a moment. Build something. Invite in and bring people and good creation together. Forgive. Reconcile. Right! Embrace the story that doesn’t end with a flood. Embrace the story that continues in our stories and in the stories of others. Enter into honest, real relationship with your Creator and recognize your ability to love, build, and include. To be continued…Amen.

 

 


[1] trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1972.

[2] The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh, Frank Lorey, M.A., Institute for Creation Research.

[3] Norman Wirzba, The gardening way of God’s keeping, Faith and Leadership.

We All Come from the Same Place…So Let’s Act Like it!

Genesis 2:4-25:  Children of Eden

 EVE: Like this brief day
My light is nearly gone
But through the night
My children you will go on
You will know heartache
Prayers that don’t work
And times of bitter circumstances
But I still believe in second chances
Children of Eden
Where have we left you
Born to uncertainty
Destined for pain
Sins of your parents
Haunt you and test you
This your inheritance
Fire and rain

Children of Eden
Try not to blame us
We were just human too error prone
Children of Eden will you reclaim us
You and your children to come
Someday you’ll come home

STORYTELLERS: Children of Eden
Where is our garden
Where is the innocence
We can’t reclaim
Once eyes are opened
Must those eyes harden
Lost in the wilderness
Must we remain

EVE: Oh my precious children
If you think of us try not to blame us
We were just human too error prone

STORYTELLERS:
Children of Eden you will reclaim us
You and your children to come
Someday you’ll come home

You just listened to the original cast of Children of Eden [Eve’s Last Song] from the Steven Schwartz musical Children of Eden. In this song, the character Eve addresses the people around her [humanity] who she considers her children. She speaks to the idea of our common ancestry, expressing regret, sorrow over mistakes, scars from painful circumstances, the loss of innocence, the desire for forgiveness, and second chances.

The last few weeks we have focused on the first creation story of the book of Genesis. Yes, that’s right—creation story number one. In Genesis, part of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Torah, there are two creation stories. The first one is in Genesis 1 and ends right at the beginning of Genesis chapter 2. Most modern scholars believe that Story #1 was written by an unknown author (called “P”) of the priestly tradition sometime in the 6th century BCE. This story tells us a tale of seven ages [or days] that make up the creative Elohim’s making of all that we see—sun, moon, plant, trees, animals, waters, and humans. People are created in Elohim’s image as both male and female. Story #1 is ambiguous for a reason—poetic, grand, so big in its scope that our own imaginations can create even as Elohim did. For six ages Elohim created. Age seven was the ending; the rest; the Sabbath. We explored this story not as a literal telling of how the world came to be, but rather a creation myth not unlike the Mayan story from the Americas called the Popol Vuh. Finally, in creation story #1 of Genesis we explored the word adam, [lowercase a] that means humanity from the earth and not an actual person named Adam.

And so today we look at the 2nd Genesis creation story, found in Genesis 2:4 to 2:25. This story is very different from the first. It is more specific, more human in its perspective. Many Bible scholars attribute this 2nd story to “J,” a writer who lived in the 9th century BCE [or perhaps the 10th century].[1] The tale tells us that at first, there were no plants or grain present on the earth, because Elohim had not yet sent rain. But there was a stream of water that rose from the earth and irrigated everything, and from that very ground Elohim formed adam [literally: human, non-gender specific] from the ground. And that’s not all—Elohim breathed into this human’s nostrils, giving life. So intimate; so wonderfully personal. Water, earth, and wind. Life from Elohim creates life in humans. And the whole earth is described as a beautiful garden. The human made from the ground now sees trees spring forth from the same ground. Food, oxygen, birds, and  much more for the human to enjoy. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The garden world is named Eden. It’s beautiful–lush with plants, life, and fullness. A river flows out of it and the river’s branches have actual names. The river’s branches flow into lands that also have names and contain specific mineral resources.

Then Elohim actually talks! Eat freely of every tree in the garden, but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. Two trees in the great garden: #1: the tree of life; #2: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is an order to creation. God created all things good. There was great harmony and love displayed in God’s creative act. Eating the fruit from the tree of good and evil was a metaphor for disruption of that lovingly created order and of that special relationship between humans and God. People were images of God. This understanding led to blessed relationship with all of creation. The caution was in not forgetting about this special identity—that humans were made to be in harmony with creation. Brokenness, destruction of creation, and separation from the Creator were possibilities. Thus the regretful words and notes of the song Children of Ede, expressing the great sorrow of broken relationships in creation.

In the story, however, things are still going well and are in harmony. But surprisingly, Elohim, for the first time, says that something is NOT good. A human should not be alone. So again, out of the ground, Elohim made animals for the human to name and interact with. And it was good. They were connected. They had a special relationship. But Elohim didn’t seem satisfied. Humankind needed a partner. So in another intimate act of creation, Elohim caused sleep in the human, took one rib and then formed another human. The word is not woman, but eve, meaning life. So thus far, we have adam [human from the earth] + eve [life] = living earth people. As I mentioned last week, both adam and eve are words in the lower case. They do not refer to actual names of a man and a woman. Actually, the story itself does not refer to one man or one woman at any point.

Though I do enjoy the Brick Testament’s depiction of God’s lightning bolt zapping a rib to make a female.

We laugh, but sometimes our attitude about this story, and namely our misinterpretation of it, can lead to sadness, too. People still say about this passage: See! I told you! It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve! Of course, I’m referring to the institution of marriage, and how some still use this passage to claim that marriage is only between a man and a woman, therefore disapproving of same sex marriages and unions. What a leap, don’t you think? How did we get to marriage from the plush garden, trees, animals, humans, and God? Again, part of it is in our ignorance of the Hebrew language. The word for helper in this case is ‘ezer and kenegdo in Hebrew. You can find ‘ezer in Psalm 121:2, referring to God as our helper. Kenedgdo literally means one next to him.[2]  But in the English language, this word helper has often been interpreted as someone inferior. Ah, so the “helper” created for adam [people insert a capital A, making him an actual man] is his servant. Man is superior to woman. But that is not true to the text. The 2nd creation story emphasizes mutuality and equality. The humans together mean no more loneliness, no more emptiness and isolation. They are connected.

Really, this story isn’t about marriage at all. Let’s be frank. It is about who God is and what it means to be God’s creation. The maleness and femaleness of the human characters come together to create full humanity. They become one flesh. Their intimate relationship is valued by the Creator, though we’re not talking babies. Companionship, harmony with each other—is the aim. God facilitates this relationship. Being male and female is part of God’s good plan. The maleness and femaleness of humanity are responsible for caring for creation together.[3]

But honestly, I often hear people exhibit quite the opposite attitude towards our common humanity. Sadly, society and the church have gone to the well too many times. Genesis has become a weapon for some to use against others—a way to push down some and promote agendas. Individuals use Genesis to fix norms for gender roles and relationships. Though it is painful to admit our brokenness, we must. We have, at one time, contributed to what we see as harmless thoughts—that women should be subordinate to men and marriage [committed relationship] is reserved for only a few people who follow our rules. This kind of interpretation of a creation myth is more than just opinion, for it can lead to even more destructive behavior and even violence against others. A woman is stoned to death without a trial. A man makes double the salary of a female doing the same job. A committed gay couple is denied the ability to marry. A woman cannot visit her female spouse in the hospital. A young girl is violated and someone mutters, “She asked for it.” A woman’s reproductive system is looked at as a political agenda and nothing more. We are broken. Creation is in disharmony. We’ve forgotten who we are. Children of Eden. We come from that place of creative love and care. What happened?

Friends, truth be told, our way of life in this society disconnects us from our creation, our identity, and each other! We are meant to be connected. We are meant to believe that God’s goodness is present in all creation and in all of us.

I experienced connection this week while I was in Princeton for the Institute for Faith and Public Life.

Religious leaders from various countries and U.S. states gathered to hear speakers, attend workshops, and engage in dialogue. The theme of the institute dealt with how our theology [the ways we think about God] inform and inspire our public life—including politics, society, home, work, and school. In some of my workshops there were arguments—for some of us couldn’t have been more different from each other. We didn’t agree on things like how our worship spaces display social levels, political opinions, and social perspectives. We did not see eye to eye about preaching on certain hot button issues like sexuality, immigration, and yes, politics.

In the end, though, on the last day of our time together, we realized that in spite of our differing opinions, perspectives, social ideas, political viewpoints, theologies, backgrounds, languages, and cultures—we shared something incredibly important and wonderful: our connection to each other as good creations of God. We were connected, eating lunch around a table and sharing about our lives; we were fully human as we prayed together, some of us crying, laughing, and learning in the process; our differences became secondary when we shared our struggles, joys, and honest doubts about faith, church, and life in general. Our theological stances, denominational ties, and political affiliations faded when we touched each other via a handshake, a hug, a pat on the shoulder, a clasp of a hand. At the close of the institute, each distinguished panelist was asked to offer closing words from his/her presentation. We expected summaries, theological statements, or socio-political challenges. Instead, Luke Torian expressed what we all felt. Luke is the pastor of First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Virginia, close to Washington DC. But Luke is also a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 52nd district. He could not get many words out. He leaned forward to the microphone with tears in his eyes.

I’m glad that came here, he said. It was good for me to be with all of you. I’m glad that I came.

Friends, we belong to the earth. We belong to the trees, the plants, the waters, the skies, the animals, and all living creatures. The good creation is part of us. And we are part of good creation—you and me. Different, unique, and wonderfully made are we—made to be connected to creation and to each other. Don’t forget this. Live this. Remind others that they are connected to you and you to them. Show them with your love and care; show them with your healing touch; show them with acts of justice; show them mercy and compassion; connect to them. And connect to your good God who isn’t finished creating connections and calling them good. Amen.


[1]Kee, H.C., et al, The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, New York, (1997).

[2] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p. 89.

[3] Patrick D. Miller, “What the Scriptures Principally Teach,” in Homosexuality and Christian Community, edited by Choon-Leong Seow. Copyright 1996 Westminster John Knox Press.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century