Relating, Creating, Transforming

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.

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Comments on: "Bill Cosby Is RIGHT!" (1)

  1. Well-said, Josh. I wish more folks thought as you do.

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