Seven. I only got seven chapters in before Genesis broke me.
When I was in seminary I learned that Genesis is a tricky book. After all, the book begins with two competing creation stories each featuring a different order of events. My way of dealing with that, for the purposes of blogging, was to suggest that the order was poetic. The two accounts were a pair of literary methods that each emphasized the importance of humankind in different ways.
For six chapters I’ve worked to package Genesis into a unified narrative; on the seventh chapter, I rested.
The original goal I set for my contributions to #TroubletheWaters (which is by no means a requirement for other contributors) was to approach the text honestly and courageously, letting the words speak to me without the noise of my own prior knowledge and the teachings of others. I had been doing pretty well at this endeavor, but then, like I said earlier, Genesis broke me.
It’s not like I’m saying me and Genesis are done forever. I actually harbor quite a deep love for the Hebrew scriptures. When I say that Genesis 7 broke me, I mean that I am no longer able to read the Bible as one continuous and consistent drama. In other words, I am no longer attempting to see a meta-narrative in this text, one story that binds all of the other stories into a logical, cohesive whole. The unavoidable truth that we find in the book of Genesis, as in many other books of scripture, is that multiple voices are found therein and they each speak a different tale for a different purpose, and what they are saying is quite often logically inconsistent.
Genesis reads like my mom and dad’s arguments while watching TV. At my parents’ house there is invariably some sort of CSI or Law and Order playing on the screen in their living room, and my dad will be certain that a guest actor is the same person he remembers from some earlier show like Columbo, Perry Mason, or Rockford Files. My mom will chime in claiming that the actor my father has in mind died two years ago and that my dad is really thinking of so-and-so from Murphy Brown. After that, they just go at it. The last time I witnessed such a dispute I actually looked into the actor’s history using IMDB (internet movie database). When I settled things, I expected my parents to be happy, but in actuality they seemed far more annoyed than relieved. What I had perceived (perhaps wishfully) as a collective pursuit for the sake of understanding was for them a competitive sport, a sport that I had just ruined.
The voices in Genesis compete with one another as well, each claiming to have access to a more true, more compelling version of events than the other. They agree that the subject matter is that of Noah, his wife, their sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives – though none of them can seem to remember the names of the female protagonists – how they lived in an age of violence, that God’s hatred of violence is the reason for the flood that will destroy all life on Earth, and that God helps eight humans and a whole mess of animals to escape extinction in an ark. What they don’t agree on is big. Dad thinks no humans live for longer than 120 years, but mom keeps saying that Noah was 600 years old when the flood hit. Uncle Howie says there were two of each animal, but your mom (his sister) corrects him that there were more of the domesticated animals.
“They had to eat,” she shouts.
Uncle Howie shouts louder, “They were vegetarians!”
Your cousin Willy interjects that there were extra birds too.
“Nobody asked you!” everyone else shouts in unison. Because of the power of their conviction Willy doesn’t even raise the question of what happened to all of the fish, but it was certainly on his mind how God intended to drown all the fish.
Some of you may join me in seeing this text as irresponsible. My reasoning is that the argument among the various Biblical sources as to the age of this or the headcount of that is so loud that it covers up any account of the suffering experienced by all the people who weren’t privileged enough to get on the boat, all those “wicked people.”
I don’t claim to know what it was like to be one of these people who drowned because of God’s wrath, but I have lived through a flood. On the day I proposed to Amy, April 19 of 2014, the flood waters began to rise in Lowell. You get used to water pooling in low places when it is raining, and it is not that uncommon in Michigan, as elsewhere, to drive through water that might just be too deep for your car to safely get through. These are common, every day fears. But when the puddles start pooling together and creeping ever so slowly toward you, it is a different story all together. By the time we evacuated, many of the roads we’d normally take had already become impassible, and I was struck with a feeling of terror. If we couldn’t get out of town, what could we do? Drive to the highest point in town and hope that we could wait it all out in our car? And what if the flood waters reached us there…
I have the beginning of an understanding of what the flood might have been like. There are some important differences between my story and the ancient flood story. The Genesis account depicts a time before there were emergency early warning systems or motor vehicles that could spirit you away from the floodplain. Most importantly, those who attempted to escape had nowhere to escape to. I never had cause to give up hope, but when a flood can submerse even the peaks of the highest mountains you are faced with a completely different situation. The only thing these people had to look forward to was an ugly death by drowning.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when all of humanity deserved to die. I have trouble listening to a story about the corruption of every species on the planet without imagining exceptions, and I’m not talking about Noah and his family. Am I to believe that even out there among the wicked there was not a single soul willing to help a neighbor out from under an overturned oxcart? Is it possible that there was not a single champion of mercy available to carry the injured to a place of relative safety? While we’re talking about Noah and company staying high and dry on a luxury cruise with all the cute little animals, God is murdering humankind. That includes children. That includes babies. And, yes, that includes the unborn in their mothers’ wombs. Perhaps you’re OK with God perpetrating the largest scale mass murderer in the history of everything – we’re told they had it coming, after all – but how does it feel to know that God just aborted every last innocent, ensouled, helpless human fetus in this same fit of rage?
This is not something to turn away from. This is something we need to think about every time we talk about a righteous God delivering a great hero of faith from destruction. This is something not depicted in our pretty children’s picture Bibles, but nonetheless we must consider the human cost of God’s wrath. To do anything less would be pretty darned irresponsible.