Seems like every time there’s a flood somewhere, somebody is on the news needing to be rescued after they drive into water over the road.
There are a whole bunch of reasons not to do this, of course. For one thing, roads occasionally wash out when it floods. It’s not entirely unthinkable that when you drive into floodwaters over the road, there’s no longer a road under them. And floodwaters can have strong currents; that water over your road doesn’t have to be very deep for it to push your car.
Many years ago a friend of mine arrived at Sunday school shook up. He had been driving his little car in a severe storm the night before, and came upon water over the road he needed to take. It was late, and he was in the middle of nowhere without any way to turn around, so he decided to try to drive through it. He didn’t think it was terribly deep, but it started pushing his car. He managed to keep control of it and get through the water, but he knew how close he had come to disaster.
(Just a reminder, in case you need it: DO NOT DO THIS. You can’t know how deep that water is or how forceful the current is, and bad stuff can happen, and happen fast.)
There’s some pretty good evidence that the story of the Flood in Genesis is based on fact, at least to some extent. Many cultures in the Ancient Near East had a story in their mythology or folklore about a catastrophic, worldwide flood. And there’s some actual scientific evidence that somewhere along the line, whether it was when the glaciers melted or at another time, there was a massive flood in that part of the world. And the rivers there routinely flooded at certain times of the year, which is counted on for growing healthy crops; but you would have to protect your stuff in some way if it was in the floodplain. So the notion of a flood and people having to get themselves, their family, and their livestock to safety made its way into the folklore of the area.
And a version of the story shows up in Genesis, too, beginning with God “repenting” (yes, really!) of creating people because they seem all to be evil and causing all sorts of mayhem. God decides to destroy the earth with a flood, but determines that one family, Noah’s, was righteous, so they were preserved.
The first five books of the Bible, which Christians call the Pentateuch (which is Greek for “five books”) and Jews call the Torah, are the product, scholars think, of four different traditions. The oldest stuff comes from a writer or group of writers the scholars call the Yahwist, abbreviated as J (because this idea first emerged in Germany, and “Yahwist” in German begins with a “J”). The story of Adam and Eve is from this tradition. For J, God is very active in the affairs of earth, walking in the garden, forming people and animals with his hands. God is also not all-knowing in the Yahwist writings—he seems to be learning as he goes along how to be God and relate to the things he has created.
The last group of writers to have worked on the Pentateuch were the Priestly writers, around and just after the Babylonian Exile. Their material is often called “P,” for “Priestly.” The Priestly tradition is responsible for the first chapter of Genesis. For P, the relationship of humanity to God can be defined as a series of covenants. They are very concerned with rituals—most of the stuff in the Pentateuch about what kind of sacrifices to bring when comes from P—and with genealogies.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because the story of Noah and the Flood as we have it today is a combination of materials from J and materials from P. If you read it carefully, you can actually pick out the two distinct versions of the story. For instance, J tells us that Noah is commanded to take two of every creature on earth into the ark. But in P’s version of the story, Noah is to take one pair of every unclean animal and seven pairs of every clean animal. (We’re not told how Noah was supposed to know the difference between clean and unclean animals, since that information wasn’t given to the people until the time of Moses.)
When the final editing of the story took place—probably by some editors connected to the Priestly tradition—they simply combined the two stories, without spending much time thinking about how they didn’t always agree in the details.
The first part of the story is from J, where the LORD looks and sees how awful things are on the earth, how corrupt and sinful the people are, and is sorry he ever made them. He decides to destroy the earth. As we go through the story, God sees the magnitude of destruction he has wrought, and he’s sorry about that, too.
Then the Priestly tradition steps in and finishes the story with a new covenant, in which God promises never again to send a flood to destroy the earth. That’s where we are today.
But beginning with 2 Peter, there has been a troubling interpretation of this covenant (2 Peter 3:5-7). That interpretation says, well, okay, God promises not to destroy the earth with water—but God reserves the right to destroy us in some other way, if we don’t keep our noses clean. As the spiritual put it: “No more water, but the fire next time.”
Maybe there won’t be another flood to destroy the entire earth, but, this interpretation says, there will be a next time. And if you thought the Flood was bad, just you wait. That leaves all of us in a state of perpetual waiting for the other shoe to drop, I think.
But is that really what the Priestly writers in Genesis 9 wanted to get across? Is that really the way the Flood story ends? The rainbow promises there won’t be another worldwide flood—the rainbow is actually meant to remind not us but God that he has promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood—but there will be some other kind of worldwide destruction?
I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s in keeping with what the text actually says. Nor, if we assume the tool for future destruction is fire, is it in keeping with how the Bible understands fire, not as a destructive but as a purifying force.
This covenant isn’t the same as the other covenants in the Old Testament, where God promises to do something but expects something from the people in return. This is one-sided—and it’s with not just humanity but with all the creatures of the earth.
In the part of the story right before our reading for today, God recognizes that humanity after the flood remains as corrupt and sinful as they were before. Just after today’s reading we discover that even Noah isn’t pure as the driven snow: The first thing he does when he’s out of the boat is to get really drunk and pass out naked in his tent (Genesis 9:18-28).
So this new covenant isn’t established because people have, as a result of the flood, learned their lesson. It’s established because God has, as a result of the flood, learned a lesson.
He decides to establish this covenant in spite of the fact that humanity remains unchanged. He establishes it with no expectation of a change in human behavior. God has chosen to be in relationship with humanity, even though humanity’s capacity for sin and evil has broken God’s heart and will break it again and again in the future.
We won’t hear the words steadfast love and faithfulness (or as they’re translated in John 1, grace and truth) applied to God’s orientation toward us until much later, in God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34, but the covenant made with Noah demonstrates those attributes. No matter how we break God’s heart, how much we rebel and sin and just generally misbehave, God will remain faithful to the promises God has made with us; and God will never again allow the forces of chaos to overcome the earth. That doesn’t mean the forces of chaos won’t erupt from time to time, but God will remain with us even through those eruptions, and will eventually bring chaos back under control as he did at the moment of creation.
When we talk about grace as simply “forgiveness of sins,” we forget that God’s grace is much more than that.
God’s grace means God will never forsake us, even when we are determined to have our own way, come hell or high water. God’s grace means that hell or high water cannot, ultimately, destroy us.
That’s what God promised Noah and all of creation…and us.