October 11, 2015
Chapter 5 We Make the Way by Walking
“Testing the Hypotheses”
Rev. Pam Serdar
Genesis 4:1-17; 6:5-8; 7:1-5; 8:1; 9:1-17
This section of Genesis might well be subtitled, “Another Fine Mess,” as Adam and Eve have sons; God, without explaining the rules, choses Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s; Cain kills Abel; God protects Cain as he wanders; Cain and his wife have a son; humanity becomes evil in God’s eyes; God decides to destroy everything, but relents because he likes Noah; Noah builds an ark to save his family and every type of animal; floods come and abate; Noah and humanity become carnivorous; God covenants with Noah that God will not let God’s temper get the best of God again; and God sets a rainbow as a sign of a covenant. Any questions?
Where do we start? First, we need to remember that the Bible is a compilation of questions about God, humanity, and the universe, asked over time by a variety of people. Especially in these early chapters, which Bible scholars call “myth.” Be clear that myth isn’t a pejorative—myth is a story that brings truth to an issue or question, regardless of whether it actually happened in history. As I have said before, historical truth as we know it today was never a concern of the Biblical writers—that’s why we can move from Cain being born, killing Abel, and then immediately have him worried about being killed by other people in other cities as he wanders the earth. Where did all the other people come from? Even bunnies couldn’t have populated the earth that fast. Until the last 300 years or so, no one worried about that; it is our modern mindset that raises those kinds of questions.
I appreciated Brian McLaren’s understanding that the oral tradition, the early myths, were fluid—the people could come up with an answer to a question and float it out to the people. For example, “How is God close to us? How is God far away? Where did the unicorns and dinosaurs go? When and how did the world get so violent?” The Hebrew people did that for generations. But then, they were able to write the stories down. The fluidity then went away, and then the stories because fossilized. We can still see growth in the peoples’ understanding of God and themselves by going story to story, but once a story made the cut and became part of the text, it could no longer be revised within itself. We still see the growth in understanding when we see Biblical stories that contradict each other, but that often just leaves us confused. Interestingly, in the Hebrew tradition, the Talmud (consisting of the Mishnah and Gemara) consists of a kind of case law wherein different points of view are argued about the Biblical stories. These were compiled, and the struggles and viewpoints were kept—not necessarily solved. It is a wonderful example for Christianity today that even the Hebrew people didn’t lock down their own Holy Testament.
So, what do we do with these particular ancient stories today? What truth do they hold for us? Let’s start with the story of Cain and Abel. Have you ever had a family fight involving siblings, possibly involving sibling rivalry? Have you ever heard of a family fight getting so out of hand that siblings kill each other? This cautionary tale reminds us that anger within families can get so out of control that we can resort to murder. Murder isn’t the best way to solve our differences. Murder is not OK, and murderers will spend the rest of their lives with their action on their hearts and souls. However, the story tells us that God is merciful, even to murderers. God marks Cain so that others will know he is protected by God. That sounds like a loving God who is very disappointed in the behavior of humanity, but still forgives. But what about the cause of the fight to begin with? There are all kinds of explanations I have heard, but given that the offerings seem to be freely given, without rules on what is a good or lesser gift or sacrifice, I can’t find a reason for God to call Cain on the carpet. The family needed both meat and grain, and each son brought his offering correspondingly. I don’t think God sets us up, so I am more inclined to understand that life is not “fair” in the sense of everything being in our favor all the time. Even when we get the short end of the stick, we need to find healthy ways to vent our anger, and not to blow up and destroy each other. Then again, maybe this is a projection of Cain’s feelings onto God. Maybe Cain felt badly when Abel brought meat to the table, and Cain’s bread had turned out tough and flat.
The story of Noah is another fine mess. All ancient cultures in the near east have a flood story. Geologists have not found evidence of a world-wide flood, but there is evidence of flooding in many areas in the ancient near east that must have felt like most of the creatures and plants were wiped out. Think of the tsunamis and hurricanes of our day and the people photographed on top of their houses with nowhere to go. Might they not think they were the only ones left?
In the snippets of scripture we read today, you may have missed the part that said why God decided to destroy everything on the earth and start all over. In other culture’s flood stories, the reasons for the ancient flood vary from the god’s attempt to control overpopulation, to speculation that the humans were too noisy and kept the gods up at night. The Hebrew’s version is at least a little less vengeful: humanity had become thoroughly evil, corrupt and full of violence. We don’t know any details. There is no covenant to break; Moses has not yet been born nor have the people received the tablets of stone. God identifies Noah as a righteous man, however, and calls him out to be saved with his family and each type of animal. There are two writers involved in the story as we have it today—just like there are two stories of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. However, the flood stories have been combined, more or less successfully—you might note that one verse, 6:19, God tells Noah to bring a male and female of each species. In 7:1-2, God says, bring 7 pairs of each clean animal, and one pair on unclean animals. Since clean and unclean are not yet defined until the time of Moses, this is a bit confusing, and an obvious projection back when the stories were written down. It becomes clear that the Priestly (transcendent) source assumes animals are not yet to be eaten, so only one pair of each is necessary. The Yahwist (immanent) source needs more (7 pairs of clean animals), so that the people (and presumably the animals) can eat meat. The Yahwist solves the issue of what the lions ate while they were floating around. . .
As the Archeological Bible indicates in the footnotes, all of these stories about floods and the vindictiveness of God or the gods point to the anxiety about the seeming arbitrariness of the natural world. Chaos seems to come roaring back when least expected. Is our view today any different when a tornado or a hurricane drowns or blows away those too poor to escape the path of the storm? The question, “why me, God?” or “why us, God?” is no further from our hearts that it was from the hearts of the ancient Hebrew people. Why does one house on a block escape the fire when all the houses around it are only ash? Has God found favor with the residents? We see growth in the people’s understanding of God when Jesus says, much, much later, “God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45)
But, we have a tendency to revert to blaming God for natural disasters. You may remember a few years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Various causes were proclaimed:
· Ovadia Yosef, a prominent ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, declared that Hurricane Katrina to be "God's punishment for President Bush's support of the August 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip". He added, for good measure, that black people died because they did not study the Torah. Yikes!
· Al-Qaeda in Iraq declared of the hurricane that "God attacked America, and the prayers of the oppressed were answered.
· Minister Louis Farrakhan asserted that Hurricane Katrina was "God's way of punishing America for its warmongering and racism". He didn’t explain why most of those who died were poor African Americans.
· Pat Robertson implied on the September 12th broadcast of The 700 Club that the Hurricane was God's punishment in response to America's abortion policy. He suggested that 9/11 and the disaster in New Orleans "could... be connected in some way". Robertson did not say it was because Ellen Degeneres was asked to host the Emmys—that was from a satirical Dateline Hollywood article that became quoted as fact—but in that example we can see how these Biblical stories start and grown and stretch.
· Several people, Catholic and protestant, American and other, stated that it was God’s judgment against New Orleans’ lax sexual atmosphere, nightclubs, gay and straight sexuality, you name it. Again, the deaths of poor people in the areas where the levies failed as God’s retribution for the sins of others didn’t register. Really?
It seems we, as human beings need an answer when the earth rebalances through hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural “disasters.” We need someone to blame when they happen, and God’s vengeance is pretty handy when we want to rage at people who aren’t like us—those people must be to blame.
So again, the stories tell us something about God, even if is just a theory that we have written down and now call it a fact. Some theories I hold closely—like a good follower of John Wesley. Scripture, tradition, experience and reason come together for me.
· We have a strong tendency as human beings to violence and anger. Violence and anger are not a part of us being created in God’s image to reflect that image to the world. They are part of our human nature.
· God is merciful, even when we mess up, which is pretty much continually.
· We, as human beings, see ourselves at the very center of the universe. It is mostly all about us in our own minds.
· A corollary to that one is that anything that happens that is not in humanity’s favor is by its very nature “bad” or “evil.” Things, for example, that are part of the workings of the planet—weather, storms, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes.
· We, as human beings, have a difficult time with the notion that we are our brother’s keeper.
· We, as human beings, like to project our own feelings onto God—if we are feeling it, God must be feeling it too—especially, especially when it is about those that we don’t love. (See the Anne Lamott quote on the cover of your bulletin: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)
This week, examine your reactions to the events of the world. Wonder at God’s reactions so the same events. Tease them apart if you can. What are your theories about how God is? Have they hardened into fact against people who don’t look or act like you? I blush when I hear those little judgmental voices in my head when I am reading the newspaper or listening to the news. And that is good for me, because then I know that God is getting through the broken places in my soul, and challenging me to re-think my theories and facts once again. Thank you for blessing us with the ability to blush and learn from our mistakes and our wounding of others, O God. Amen.
4 The man Adam knew his wife Eve intimately. She became pregnant and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have given life to a man with the Lord’s help.” 2 She gave birth a second time to Cain’s brother Abel. Abel cared for the flocks, and Cain farmed the fertile land.
3 Some time later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops 4 while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice 5 but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? 7 If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
Cain said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?”
10 The Lord said, “What did you do? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 You are now cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you farm the fertile land, it will no longer grow anything for you, and you will become a roving nomad on the earth.”
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Now that you’ve driven me away from the fertile land and I am hidden from your presence, I’m about to become a roving nomad on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me.”
15 The Lord said to him, “It won’t happen; anyone who kills Cain will be paid back seven times. The Lord put a sign on Cain so that no one who found him would assault him. 16 Cain left the Lord’s presence, and he settled down in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
17 Cain knew his wife intimately. She became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain built a city and named the city after his son Enoch.
5 The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. 6 The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them.” 8 But as for Noah, the Lord approved of him.
7 The Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark with your whole household, because among this generation I’ve seen that you are a moral man. 2 From every clean animal, take seven pairs, a male and his mate; and from every unclean animal, take one pair, a male and his mate; 3 and from the birds in the sky as well, take seven pairs, male and female, so that their offspring will survive throughout the earth. 4 In seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights. I will wipe off from the fertile land every living thing that I have made.”
5 Noah did everything the Lord commanded him.
8 God remembered Noah, all those alive, and all the animals with him in the ark. God sent a wind over the earth so that the waters receded.
9 God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth. 2 All of the animals on the earth will fear you and dread you—all the birds in the skies, everything crawling on the ground, and all of the sea’s fish. They are in your power. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be your food. Just as I gave you the green grasses, I now give you everything. 4 However, you must not eat meat with its life, its blood, in it.
5 I will surely demand your blood for a human life,
from every living thing I will demand it.
From humans, from a man for his brother,
I will demand something for a human life.
6 Whoever sheds human blood,
by a human his blood will be shed;
for in the divine image
God made human beings.
7 As for you, be fertile and multiply. Populate the earth and multiply in it.” 8 God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, 10 and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. 11 I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12 God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. 13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”