Noah: Teaching us to Look to the Future Not to the Past

During this 3rd week of Great Lent, the daily scripture lessons from Genesis are focusing on the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22).  Modern American Christians are often obsessed with trying to prove the historical accuracy of the flood story, doing archaeological studies to try to find the ark, or even building arks to show it all can be done.

Interestingly the New Testament makes use of the Noah story but shows none of the interest in the Noah narrative that we see in much of fundamentalist or biblical literalist thinking.  We can look at 4 New Testament references to Noah and glean what use the earliest disciples of Christ made of the Noah story.

First, we do have one instance in which the Lord Jesus Himself refers to Noah.  Here we will look at the version from St. Matthew’s Gospel (there is also a parallel version in St. Luke’s Gospel).  Jesus is teaching about the end times and says:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.   Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”    (Matthew 24:36-42)

Jesus uses the Noah narrative to teach his disciples to be vigilant – alertly watching for the Lord’s second coming.  Jesus is using the great flood as a prophecy to prepare us for what is going to come.  Jesus is using the Scriptures in the manner advocated in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:    “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”   The Old Testament is profitable for many things, but its most important role is not necessarily to teach history.  Jesus uses the great flood narrative as prophecy to exhort us to be prepared for the end of the world.  The Noah scripture is important because the return of Christ is going to come in the same way that the flood arrived: unexpectedly.   The people of old were not prepared for what happened, but we are forewarned.  We see what happened to them, and we are not to be caught unawares.  Thus Noah is a lesson gearing us for the future and what is coming, not mainly a way to investigate the past.

The second text comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.”  (Hebrews 11:7)

Here we have presented to us Noah as an example of a man of faith – he was faithful in preparing for what was for him the unseen future:  no great flood had occurred before.  Noah had no idea what was going to happen, but he was faithful to God in preparing for the future eventuality.   Once again the Noah story becomes for us a lesson in faithfulness as we await the future and the coming again of the Lord.  Noah give us an example as to how we are to behave now as we await the end times.

 Third we have a reading from St. Peter:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.   Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

In this reading St. Peter engages in a form of scriptural interpretation which is called typology.  The flood story is significant because it tells us about something Christians now experience: baptism.  The Noah narrative anticipates the salvation story of Christ and the Church.  It’s significance is not in the past but in what was for it future events, including our own baptism.

Finally, a 2nd reference from St. Peter to Noah:

“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if  by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”   (2 Peter 2:4-9)

The Noah story is being used by St. Peter again as prophecy – it is a lesson about God  saving and rescuing godly people from the time of trial.  What happened to Noah is a lesson for us to prepare us for current problems and for the future day of judgment as well.  Noah’s story from the past is not there to have us look backwards in time to search more into the past, but rather to teach us how to live in the present and to prepare for the future.  For the New Testament authors, the Noah narrative, inspired by God, prophetically prepares us for the future and turns our gaze not to past history but to the future eschaton.

Throughout Great Lent, the Old Testament scripture lessons are being read to help us anticipate what we are preparing for during the Great Fast: namely, the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.   Great Lent is trying to shake us from a wooden, literal reading of equating historical facts to truth, and making truth co-terminus with these facts, and replacing such thinking with an acknowledgement that Truth is eternal.  Truth encompasses all the facts of the universe, but is not limited by it.  Truth ultimately transforms facts by revealing their place in God’s plan of salvation.   Jesus was making a cosmic claim for the universe when He declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I’ve written other blogs on the story of Noah and the great flood, including a long blog series in which I commented on and offered Patristic comments on every verse from the Genesis chapters on the flood.  You can begin reading that blog series at God Questions His Creation:  The Story of the Flood (a).

All of the blogs in the series on Genesis and the flood are also available as PDFs, a few of them are:

Reading Noah and the Flood through the Source Theory Lens (PDF)

The Story of the Flood (PDF)

The Conclusion of the Flood (PDF)

You can find a complete list of PDFs with links to them at  Blog Series available as PDFs.

How Original Sin Impacts Christianity

Alan Jacobs, English Professor at Wheaton College, in his book, ORIGINAL SIN, takes an in-depth look at how, since the time of St. Paul,  thoughts on original sin have shaped the history of Western thought.  The effects of “original sin” have not just been the dominate influence on human behavior as Western Christianity sees it, nor is its influence limited to theology and preaching,  but reflections on and reaction to the idea of original sin have shaped the notions of governance, hierarchy, law, punishment, the 18th Century Enlightenment, child rearing, education, philosophy, ideas of what it means to be human, debates on nature vs nurture, psychology, sociology, and evil.

Jacobs presents a detailed look at how various Christian spokespersons have applied their thoughts on original sin to their times and flocks.  This is not always a pretty picture, for the curative reaction against original sin has at times been a justification for abusive forms of punishment, the mistreatment of children, and the idea of assigning unbaptized babies to the eternal fires of hell.  Jacobs does offer a few ideas from outside of Western Christian tradition at how others have dealt with the notion of original sin in their own scriptures and myths.  He touches upon the Jewish reaction against such teachings, and acknowledges that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has not embraced the same ideas as the West, though he admits to not comprehending the Orthodox view.

The notion of original sin and its impact on Western civilization can be traced back to the writings of St. Paul and his exegesis of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.  It is the interpretations of his writings which so influenced Christianity, and pushed notions of “original sin” to the forefront of Christian theology.

Why humans are not “naturally” inclined toward doing good, toward pleasing God, is something that has puzzled those inspired by God in the Jewish tradition from the beginning.  Logically, it has something to do with free will –  for free will to be true, there must be the possibility that humans can choose between good and evil, AND good and evil must be equally attractive, or otherwise there is no real freedom of choice.  Yet Scripture presents the disappointing story that humans do not even seem to arise to goodness 50% of the time, as mere randomness would have it.  Rather, humans are attracted to the evil.

Before the Great Flood annihilates all life on earth:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.   (Genesis 6:5-6)

After the Flood waters have resided:

… the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”   (Genesis 8:21)

The scriptures have it that even God the Creator does not know what to make of or how to deal with His failed human creatures.  God seems to acquiesce and accept that He will have to work with these beings He created, but who stubbornly gravitate toward wickedness, even when that harms them.  

Though Augustine and the Christian tradition tried to make sense of humanity by working out causality, God Himself does not speculate about human nature;  rather, He adapts His plans and thinking to the errant nature of these creatures He has made. In Genesis, God does not blame Satan, the serpent, or original sin for the wickedenss of humans.

God’s first attempt at dealing with human free will is simply to give them a rule – don’t eat from the Tree of Good and Evil.  But if He expected the humans to intuit goodness from this rule and to simply obey it, He was greatly disappointed.  God, however, does not attempt to stop the humans from taking the forbidden fruit, which can make us wonder why, since He will intervene and prevent the humans from taking fruit from the Tree of Life by expelling Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden.   Humans are not automatons, and God allows them to follow their hearts and to experience the grave consequences of their behavior.  This seems part of His plan, however irrational it appears to us.   The Bible is comfortable with mystery, though Bible readers often are not.

God’s next effort at dealing with the inclination of the human heart is the story of the Cataclysmic Flood whose purpose was to drown wickedness in the world.  This too as noted in the Genesis passages above (6:5-6) does not have the desired impact on humanity.  God recognizes that there is something about humanity which defies logic (8:21). 

Next in the series:  Original Sin: The Allure of Death

God Questions His Creation: PDF

For any who followed the release of GOD QUESTIONS HIS CREATION: A LOOK AT GENESIS 4-11 through the blogs of the last several months, I also made the blogs for  each chapter of Genesis available as a PDF.   If you would like to see the entire manuscript as one PDF document, it can be found at the link above.  

Just a note, as I was releasing the reflections as a series of blogs, I did edit a very things in the texts – a very few additions and also corrections of typing and grammatical errors.  The text in the PDF documents do not have these edits/corrections.    The PDF is the document as originally produced in a series of emails to the members of St. Paul Church, Dayton, OH, and to anyone who asked to be included on that email list.

I thank everyone who noted edits which needed to be done, especially Brad M from St. Paul Church.

The reflections began with the blog  God Questions His Creation.   You can find links to the PDFs of each Genesis chapter at  https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/god-questions-his-creation-genesis-11-as-one-pdf-document/

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11 as one PDF document

Your comments, corrections and reflections are always welcomed.

The last blog on Genesis  11 was Genesis 11:10-32 (d)  and there you should find a link which enables you to trace back through all of the blogs on Genesis 11.  You can also find all the comments on Genesis 11 as one PDF document at https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/genesis-11.pdf

You can also find the Bibliography for my reflections on Genesis at  https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/gqhc_bibliograph.pdf

A Glossary of terms used in my reflections is at https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/gqhc_glossary.pdf

The Introduction to the entire series is at https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/gqhc_introduction.pdf

The reflections on Genesis 4 as one PDF document: https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/gqhc_gen4.pdf.

The reflection on Genesis 5  as one PDF documentt:  https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/gqhc_gen5.pdf

The reflections on Genesis 6 as ond PDF document:  https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/gqhc_genesis6.pdf

You can find “The Story of the Flood” as one single PDF document at:  The Story of the Flood

You can also read as a single PDF document,  Reading Noah and the Flood Through the Source Theory Lens, which also contains Genesis 6-9 separated as two stories following Source Theory and then set in parallel columns for comparison.

The reflections on Genesis 7 as ond PDF document:  https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/gqhc_genesis7.pdf

The reflections on Genesis 8 as ond PDF document:   https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/genesis-8.pdf

The reflections on Genesis 9 as one PDF document:   https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/genesis-9.pdf

Final comments on the story of the Flood are at:    https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/the-conclusion-of-the-flood.pdf

 The reflections on Genesis 10 as one PDF document:     https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/genesis-10.pdf 

The After Word is at: https://frted.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/an-after-word.pdf

God Questions His Creation: An After Word

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

Genesis opens with words of grandeur and mystery:  “In the beginning, God…”  God creating the heavens and earth is the beginning of space and time which are necessary for our own existence.   Genesis does not begin offering insights into this God apart from His creating and His creation; despite God’s revelation of Himself, He remains a mystery to us, with His essence beyond our capability of knowing.  (Fifth Century Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus postulates that Genesis does not begin with dogmatics because the ancient Israelites were not yet ready to understand the depths of such revelation and rather needed to learn about the Creator to refute the false worship of creation the Jews were coming to accept from the Egyptians at the time of Moses who is credited with writing the story). 

The story of God for us commences not in eternity but in His self-revelation in time and space.  We in fact can know nothing about God apart from creation:  all that we can know about God is known by us (mediated) through created things (including ourselves!).   When God chose to reveal Himself, He created that which is “not God,” that to which He can reveal Himself.  God’s initial action inaugurating creation is to speak His Word, and in doing so light comes into existence.  God’s spoken work is all about illumination and revelation, making it possible for those with eyes to see.  God brings forth life, which is to say “not God” into being, and also empowers this “not God” with the ability to perpetuate itself through procreation.  That which is “not God”, creation,  shares in the life of God and the life-givingness of God.  We create and procreate because God shared Himself with His creation.

While we logically read the Genesis story as the beginning of our story as human guests on God’s earth starting with verse 1:1, experientially the story of Genesis begins for us in its last line: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt”  (Genesis 50:26).  This last line of Genesis causes us to stop and ask, “Why do we die?  How did we humans created to live in Paradise, ever get to this point of lying dead in a coffin in Egypt?”  We started with God creating the heavens and the earth.  We started with God breathing His breathe into dust and forming a living being.  How did humans created in God’s image and likeness, placed in a perfect garden whose landscape architect and maker is of God, created by God to have dominion over the entire world, chosen by God to be His people and doers of His will, ever end up subject to mortality and lying dead in a coffin in the foreign land of Egypt?  Why aren’t we living in a perfect world, in which God clearly reigns over all, and in which humans are clearly regents over every other form of life on earth?  Why aren’t we living in paradise or at least the Promised Land?    The answer to that question is exactly what the Book of Genesis is about. 

Genesis is our spiritual sojourn to discover how we became the beings we humans are.  More than a historical accounting, Genesis is a spiritual sojourn – the unfolding of human interaction with God and with creation.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, sums it up this way:  “The book (Genesis) commences with, ‘In the beginning God created…’ and ends with the words, ‘…in a coffin in Egypt.’  These first and last words of the First Book of Moses, Genesis, are in themselves a summary of man’s spiritual history, for God is ever saving and man is ever falling; God is ever delivering and man is ever becoming enslaved; God is ever giving life and man is ever choosing death.”  (TCAF, p. 3).

We read Genesis to understand our human condition, our human nature, our human plight, and our common human experience.  We read Genesis to experience God’s role in the world in order for this to be the foundation for our faith in God and our hope in the future.  We read Genesis to understand Jesus Christ.   We read the first book of the Bible to learn how to live in this world with faith and hope, and to prepare ourselves for life in the world to come.  Genesis is thus much more about our present and our hoped for future than it is about the past.  “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  We read Genesis not so much to discover the past, which we cannot change, but to prepare for the future – for the eschaton which we change by our choices now.

I conclude with the same words with which I ended QUESTIONING GOD“We could say more but could never say enough; let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’” (Sirach 43:27, NAB)

God Questions His Creation: Glossary

God Questions His Creation: Bibliography

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived after the birth of Arpach’shad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.  …  26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

With the birth of Abram the Bible begins its clear focus on one particular people on earth.  That the Bible was moving in this direction becomes all the more obvious in the chapters that follow in Genesis.  Just as a Christocentric reading of the Old Testament reveals how the entirety of the Scriptures was moving toward Christ and in Christ finds its full meaning, so too with Abram the direction of the early chapters of Genesis becomes clear and pointed.  God’s plan for the salvation of His fallen creation is being put into motion and revealed.  This becomes clear in the genealogy Matthew placed at the very beginning of his Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25).   Matthew does not trace Christ back to Adam, the first human, but rather he traces back the genealogy to Abraham, God’s chosen servant, who is the father of Israel, the man with whom God makes an eternal covenant that is to be traced through his descendents, or more properly through a particular descendent: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many; but, referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).  In Orthodoxy we read Matthew’s genealogy on the Sunday before Christmas because we do believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.   Immediately after Abraham had shown himself willing to sacrifice his son, the God-promised heir for whom Abraham had so hoped, the Lord said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-18).  Jesus is believed by Christians to be the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecy.  All the nations of the world are blessed through Jesus Christ, not just the nation of Israel.  

God’s universal hope for all of humanity which is established with the creation of the first man Adam (the prototype of all humans) and whose fulfillment is promised through Abraham’s descendent is accomplished in Jesus Christ (the new universal man, the prototype of the resurrected human).  The genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel offers the world the sense of the continuity in God’s plan – the promise and the fulfillment are traceable through one Holy Tradition which is laid out in the Bible.   In the Gospel according to Luke the genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) is traced in the reverse order of Matthew.  St. Luke begins with Jesus, the divine God-man who also is the new universal man and the new Adam, and traces His ancestry through David to Abraham, Shem, Noah, Seth and back to the first Adam who was the first universal man and the son of God.  Thus Christ fulfils what God intended His humans to be from the beginning. The birth of Jesus is not merely the birth of a good or holy man.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the universal salvation of all humans, the reunion of God and humanity, and the restoration of humanity to their original and God-given role to be mediator between God and all the rest of creation, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to His chosen people.   The Nativity of Christ is the restoration of humanity to humanity’s God-intended role in the universe.  Finally a human exists who has Godly dominion over the rest of creation.

“For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’  Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one”  (Hebrews 2:5-9).

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. ‘For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection under him,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one”  (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Next:  God Questions His Creation: An After Word

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (b)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood;  …  26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

This section of Genesis brings us to the birth of Abram, whom many consider to be the father of the great monotheistic religions:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam.   Genesis offers that overarching metanarrative which ties all of humanity together.  It is a story that helps define our common human nature.  We are all part of God’s great unfolding narrative, and it is His story which gives our lives and our individual stories meaning.  Many think that at the beginning of the 21st Century, the philosophical outlook which shapes our current understanding of the world is “postmodernism.”  While the ideas of postmodernism are complex, as a philosophy it seems to accept the notion that there is no real way to “measure” the truth or validity of any story, since each person’s life experience is true to them and can’t be measured against any standard or canon as any one story is as true and valid as any other from the point of view of each person.   Postmodernism would say everyone’s story is true and right from some perspective and it would deny there is a shared human nature or shared human story to tie us all together.   This philosophy is a theory of intellectual and moral relativity.  As in the theory of relativity in physics, “truth” is limited to the vantage point of the observer – time and space are all relative to the position, speed and direction of the observer.  “Perception” of an event is completely shaped by one’s position relative to the event.  Any one perception can be true for that observer but others seeing the same event from other positions relative to the event will see the event differently and yet their perception will be true for them.  

In postmodernism we may all share the same planet, but our lives relative to one another are not all that connected.  There is no one perspective that is the correct perspective and so truth, right, wrong, good and evil vary from person to person.  A movie which captures this quite well is the 2005 movie, CRASH.  In that movie all of the characters live in the same city and their lives are tied together by a series of otherwise random events.  However, despite being tied together by these events, none of  the characters are aware of their connection to the others – only the viewer of the movie has the perspective of how they are all tied together.  But for the characters, their lives are a series of accidental “crashes” into one another.  The movie suggests that individuals longing for feeling some connection to others – longing to be sprung from the isolation and alienation of extreme individualism  – “crash” into each other, sometimes intentionally just to feel alive or to get some sense that they belong to something greater than themselves.  

In certain ways this postmodern thinking is an intellectual Darwinism where all events that happen are ultimately random not giving direction to life, not serving any purpose, but definitely shaping present experience and the future of humanity.  Like Darwinism, postmodernism, denies teleology (the idea that life purposefully moves toward some conclusion or end).  The Bible certainly accepts teleology – there is a purposeful beginning to humankind and there is a God who is guiding the world and this God has a plan for the world which includes an ending toward which God is guiding things.  The Bible offers the beginnings of the story, shapes the direction we are headed in, and offers some specific thoughts about how it all will end.  In postmodern terms, the Bible offers a meta-narrative, a story that ties together all peoples, all lives, and all human stories.  It is not one person’s story, it is rather the story of everybody,  a story that shows our common humanity and which ties together all the individual stories of humans.  It is a story with a purpose, in which it is possible to discern right and wrong, good and evil, beginning and end.  

Each life is important, not random, and not meaningless.  Even the use of typology or a prototype within the biblical narrative (that one story can somehow foreshadow a later story and help us recognize and understand later stories) argues against pure postmodernism.  Figurative thinking and symbolic thinking help us recognize patterns in life – they help us make sense of past historical events, they help us to recognize the significance of current events.  They help us realize each life is not totally unrelated to all other lives. Each life contributes to the bigger picture, the tapestry or mosaic or narrative.  No one life is self contained, no one life can measure the worth of all other things, because every life is part of a bigger whole, which is purposeful.  Each life and each person’s story will get measured and evaluated in terms of this bigger narrative, and it is this bigger picture which offers meaning to each life, no matter how great, how long, how short. 

The important insight of monotheism is that there is a meta-narrative; there is a way to understand all the individual stories, even if we can’t fully grasp that meta-story yet – even if there is mystery, even if there are unresolved contradictions in the Scriptures which contain the revelation of this one God.  The Bible contains in a written form the known elements of this revelation, and it gives us perspective on life, gives direction to life, gives meaning to life.  The Bible also tells us that the world is confusing, and at times every bit as uncertain as postmodernism would affirm.  The Bible does show us that events do occur which from our limited human perspective do appear to be random, unfair, inexplicable, and ambiguous.  

The Bible does take perspective – it traces history and humanity through particular peoples’ lives, and does not pretend to be neutral or objective, but rather is either biased or ambivalent or both.   Perhaps the most postmodern event in the Bible is when God creates light in Genesis 1:3.   There was light – it had no source, no direction, it simply was.  There existed no perspective in that verse, it is all about simply being.  And since nothing else existed it had no direction, no goal, no purpose, and no movement.  Even Einstein’s relativity didn’t exist in that event for light was all.  

Adam & Eve

The Bible however doesn’t end with this directionless and perspectiveless light.  That light serves to connect and illumine all else that exists.   The Bible says this is the truth of humanity as well – we each are not merely individuals, but we are communal beings.   We are created to be in communion with God and with each other.  We are by nature beings of love (meaning we are by nature oriented toward others).  Genesis tells us in narrative form the story of each of us and any of us and all of us.  It reveals to us our humanness and thus our interdependency on all else that exists.  It helps us realize there is a way, a direction, and it tells us we have lost that way, but it is still available for us to find.  Genesis helps put us on that right path.   Even the ambiguities in the story and the contradictions tell us we need to find a better perspective to understand what is.  That gives us purpose, motivation, and direction – we need to move to that new perspective.  And the Scriptures will help us find that way.

Next: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (b)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (a)

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived after the birth of Arpach’shad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 12 When Arpach’shad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; 13 and Arpach’shad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 14 When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber; 15 and Shelah lived after the birth of Eber four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 16 When Eber had lived thirty-four years, he became the father of Peleg; 17 and Eber lived after the birth of Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and had other sons and daughters. 18 When Peleg had lived thirty years, he became the father of Re’u; 19 and Peleg lived after the birth of Re’u two hundred and nine years, and had other sons and daughters. 20 When Re’u had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; 21 and Re’u lived after the birth of Serug two hundred and seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 22 When Serug had lived thirty years, he became the father of Nahor; 23 and Serug lived after the birth of Nahor two hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 24 When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; 25 and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

When we read the genealogy in the Gospel According to St. Matthew (1:1-25) on the Sunday before Christmas, we might be tempted as Christians to say that in that whole list of births, there is only one birth that really matters – the Nativity of Jesus Christ. That narrow thinking would certainly miss the point of the scriptural text.  The very reason all those names are preserved in Scripture is to show that all the births mattered, even those of nefarious characters, because they each were an essential birth in the history of humanity that led to the nativity of the Savior.  In fact all the births are of the utmost importance as the birth of Christ would not have occurred without this exact history unfolding as it did.  Of course in Orthodoxy, though Matthew’s genealogy traces Joseph’s ancestors, it really is the genealogy of Mary the Theotokos which is of genetic and human significance for the incarnate Word of God.  All the births in the Scriptural genealogies are thus essential and matter for the salvation of the world.  Furthermore in Christian thinking, the birth of every human since the time of Christ also is significant for the life of the world.  No human ever conceived is inconsequential to the world, every single human conceived and ever human who is born matters to God and to the people of God.

Genealogies remind us that each of us, every human being is born into a world which already exists, and is born in relationship to other human beings.  We are by nature relational beings.  Genealogies place each human in the context of humanity; giving each person a history and a place in the social order.  They also serve the purpose of reminding us that in biblical terms, as relational beings, we are beings of love (where love is always directed toward the “other” and is not directed toward self interest).   The Scriptures testify that God is love (1 John 4:8,16).  For Christians this also refers directly to the fact that God is Trinity – a Trinity of Persons who dwell in love and whose relationship with one another is love.  For humans true love then is not an emotion but an encounter with God (and in Orthodoxy we always encounter one of the Persons of the Trinity, never God-in-general).   God as Trinity is a relational being and we who are created in His image and likeness are created as relational beings, created to be in God’s image, created to love.  Genealogies remind us of these truths that we are born into and experience the world through interrelationships with all other human beings, but especially with specific humans, normally our parents and family.  We are by our births given context in the world, given a story, given a shared human nature and story.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:10-32 (a)

See: God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (d)  

 

A 560 year old Tree

Genesis 11:10   These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived after the birth of Arpach’shad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 12 When Arpach’shad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; 13 and Arpach’shad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 14 When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber; 15 and Shelah lived after the birth of Eber four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 16 When Eber had lived thirty-four years, he became the father of Peleg; 17 and Eber lived after the birth of Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and had other sons and daughters. 18 When Peleg had lived thirty years, he became the father of Re’u; 19 and Peleg lived after the birth of Re’u two hundred and nine years, and had other sons and daughters. 20 When Re’u had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; 21 and Re’u lived after the birth of Serug two hundred and seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 22 When Serug had lived thirty years, he became the father of Nahor; 23 and Serug lived after the birth of Nahor two hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 24 When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; 25 and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

 “…became the father… two years after the flood…”   The timing of the birth suggests no children were conceived or born during the year in which the flood gripped the earth.  Is it possible that the sons of Noah and their wives remained chaste during the duration of the flood?   Most of the Patristic writers who also happened to embrace monasticism believed Noah and his children all practiced abstinence from sex while in the ark during the nearly year long time of the flood. 

 Eber lives to be about half as old as Adam was when he died.   Serug lives to be about one quarter as old as Adam was when he died. The longevity of the humans is in a pattern of decline.  In verse :28 Haran dies before his father dies, one of the great traumas for any parent.  It introduces into the story of the fallen world a new sorrow that mortality causes – the natural (non-violent) death of beloved children.  Genesis 25:8 tells us that Abraham led a long and full life and dies at the ripe old age of 175.  By the standards of his ancestors his life would have been measured as short, but by his generation that indeed was a considerable age to have reached.   When Abraham was born there were 11 generations in his family tree alive – everyone from Noah to himself.    When Abraham dies there are 7 generations alive including Abraham’s children and grandchildren.  Shem, Noah’s son according to the genealogy outlived Abraham by 30 years, though after fathering Arpachshad two years after the flood, Shem plays no further role in the biblical history.

A genealogy is just a list of names.  That would probably be a common summation of what many modern readers get out of the various family trees listed in Genesis.  But in the ancient world, a name is not just a word.  The name of any being reveals the very nature of the being.  Every name is thus a revelation; every name is a thing, not merely pointing out the object to which it refers. The name reveals the meaning; it is the meaning itself, not just that which gets us to the meaning.   Each name thus reveals and represents its reality.  This is why the naming of the animals in Genesis 2 was such a significant story.  It is why the genealogies are so important thousands of years after they were originally remembered; it also explains why the naming of the children in Genesis is of such importance.  We, who are shaped by the mass industry of interchangeable parts, read the list of names and think anyone of those people could have been replaced by someone else.  In the Scriptures however each name is a reality which had to have been present for the coming of the Messiah. This also explains why the Name of Jesus is so significant to the authors of the New Testament.   “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).  In the Gospel, it is not merely His being the Messiah, which makes Him so important, but it is also his very Name which makes Jesus essential to us, to our relationship with God, and thus to our salvation.  As Matthew reports the Gospel, the angel reveals of Mary that “…she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

 Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (b)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:5-9 (d)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (c)

Genesis 11:5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

 “So the LORD scattered them abroad”   Not only does God create confusion among the humans by creating many different languages, He also scatters them abroad as He did to Eve and Adam by expelling them from Paradise.  Now God scatters the human from proximity to each other, moving them far apart so that they are separated both by language and geography which will soon give birth to cultural separation as well.   God who originally blessed the humans to fill the earth, now scatters them in such a manner that they will be pitted one against the other.  And instead of subduing the earth they will turn instead to subduing each other.

“…the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…”    The scattering of humans across the face of the earth and the rise of diverse languages will bring an end to the universal nature of the story unfolding in Genesis. Furthermore, humanity will lose its oneness and unity of focus after this event and become scattered not only geographically but also in terms of goals and agenda.   Although the story has paid special attention to one lineage of people, it still has generally been the story of all people, of any people, of humanity and of being human. 

At this point in the story however Genesis will cease being the story of all humanity and will concentrate its focus on the man Abram, toward whose birth the narrative was leading, and on his descendants.   Now the story is to become God working out His plan for the salvation of the world through Abraham and the Jewish people.  But the scattered people of the world will be reintroduced into God’s story at the Nativity of Christ: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2).   With the arrival of the Magi, we have the beginning of all the nations and people of the world realizing that they are indeed part of the promise to Abraham and are to be recipients of God’s special favor.  God promised Abraham,  “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves”  (Genesis 22:18).   The Magi lead all the nations of the earth to come to worship Abraham’s descendent and to enter into the eternal promise of God.

This scattering of people as an act of God in Genesis 11 contrasts with the more natural spread of the growing human population described in Genesis 10.  This is certainly indicative of there being more than one “source” contributing to the Scriptures.  The final editor of the Scriptures places both stories side by side in the Bible.  He doesn’t try to harmonize the stories nor did he choose between them.  Neither should we.  The final editor of the text accepts both versions – contradictions and all – as inspired by God.  So should we.  But what lesson are we to learn from the fact that texts with contradictions and inconsistencies get accepted into the Scriptures?   One possible lesson is not to read these verses purely literally.  Perhaps their true importance lies somewhere other than in the plain reading of the text.  As many Patristic writers suggested, the text is telling us to dig deeper beyond the literal – don’t reduce this text to a history lesson, it is about God’s revelation.  Seek out that deeper and more important meaning.   Our work is to interpret the scriptures we have received, not to change them or ignore them or to eliminate their challenges and mysteries.

Some speculate that in the modern world there is a new single language which is uniting humanity together.  It is the language of mathematics, which is the same in every culture and tongue.  It has a logic which is not based in any one language but is universally recognizable.  And it is sometimes said that the universal language of mathematics which dominates conversations around the world is closely linked to two other phenomenon.  First there is the Internet which is based in computers which are completely based in the language of mathematics.  The Internet has made global conversations a reality.  The Internet whose foundation is in mathematics makes it possible for the humans to again work for a common language for the world.  The other phenomenon related to math is finances and economics.  It appears in the 21st Century world that one form of economics – capitalism – dominates the language of commerce.  It is the bottom line which determines so much about what we think of things.   Will math, the Internet and capitalism – the modern trinity unifying humanity cause some in the world to create a new Ba’bel?  God has not forbidden humans from using their brains, but it has been His desire that knowledge will lead us back to Him.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (a)