15 February 2012

Forty days in the flood, in the wilderness, in Lent

Edward Hicks, ‘Noah’s Ark’ (1846), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

The Sunday after next, Sunday 26 February 2012, is the First Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that Sunday are: Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25; I Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 9-15.

To summarise these readings:

1, The Old Testament reading (Genesis 9: 8-17) tells of the covenant that God makes after the deluge not just with Noah, but with all of humanity, and with every living creature.

2, The Psalm too calls on God to save us in the midst of the floods of life. Although there are no direct references to water or a covenant, the psalmist is visibly in a covenant relationship with God (see Psalm 25).

3, In the New Testament reading (I Peter 3: 18-22), we return again to the story of Noah, and the waters in which Noah and his family are saved are compared with the waters of baptism.

4, The Gospel reading (Mark 1: 9-15) then tells the story of the baptism of Christ by John in the waters of the River Jordan.

In our Bible study this morning, we are looking in particular at the Old Testament reading in the lectionary for that Sunday morning.

Genesis 9: 8-17

8 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς τῷ Νωε καὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς αὐτοῦ μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ λέγων, 9 ἐγὼ ἰδοὺ ἀνίστημι τὴν διαθήκην μου ὑμῖν καὶ τῷ σπέρματι ὑμῶν μεθ᾽ ὑμᾶς, 10 καὶ πάσῃ ψυχῇ τῇ ζώσῃ μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν ἀπὸ ὀρνέων καὶ ἀπὸ κτηνῶν καὶ πᾶσι τοῖς θηρίοις τῆς γῆς ὅσα μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν ἀπὸ πάντων τῶν ἐξελθόντων ἐκ τῆς κιβωτοῦ. 11 καὶ στήσω τὴν διαθήκην μου πρὸς ὑμᾶς καὶ οὐκ ἀποθανεῖται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἔτι ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος τοῦ κατακλυσμοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι κατακλυσμὸς ὕδατος τοῦ καταφθεῖραι. 12 καὶ εἶπεν κύριος ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Νωε τοῦτο τὸ σημεῖον τῆς διαθήκης ὃ ἐγὼ δίδωμι ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ ὑμῶν καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον πάσης ψυχῆς ζώσης ἥ ἐστιν μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν εἰς γενεὰς αἰωνίους. 13 τὸ τόξον μου τίθημι ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἔσται εἰς σημεῖον διαθήκης ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ τῆς γῆς. 14 καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῷ συννεφεῖν με νεφέλας ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν ὀφθήσεται τὸ τόξον μου ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ, 15 καὶ μνησθήσομαι τῆς διαθήκης μου ἥ ἐστιν ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ ὑμῶν καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον πάσης ψυχῆς ζώσης ἐν πάσῃ σαρκί καὶ οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι τὸ ὕδωρ εἰς κατακλυσμὸν ὥστε ἐξαλεῖψαι πᾶσαν σάρκα. 16 καὶ ἔσται τὸ τόξον μου ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ὄψομαι τοῦ μνησθῆναι διαθήκην αἰώνιον ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον πάσης ψυχῆς ζώσης ἐν πάσῃ σαρκί ἥ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. 17 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς τῷ Νωε τοῦτο τὸ σημεῖον τῆς διαθήκης ἧς διεθέμην ἀνὰ μέσον ἐμοῦ καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον πάσης σαρκός ἥ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12 God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17 God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

The story

The Book Genesis begins with two versions of the creation story, telling us why we are on earth. In the story of Adam and Eve, it tells us that we are responsible, under God, for the care of all creation. It then continues with the stories of the patriarchs: Abraham, who enters into a covenant or treaty with God) Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

In the first creation story (Genesis 1: 1 to Genesis 2: 4a), we are told that at the beginning the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters (1: 2), even before God separated the waters from the waters (1: 6), and that all living creatures emerged from the waters (1: 20-21).

Then we are told poetically:

God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and God said to them,

“Be fruitful and multiply,
and fill the earth and subdue it;
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the air
and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
(Genesis 1: 27-28)

This first creation story is often known as the priestly creation story. The second creation story, which is attributed to the Yahwist source, is much older in Judaism and is found in Genesis 2: 4b-25.

This morning’s Old Testament story is then a story about the re-creation of the creation. Over time, “the earth was filled with violence ... all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (Genesis 6: 11-12). Now, once again, the waters have covered the whole earth, as a consequence of human violence and corruption.

God repents of or regrets his creation. But his search for justice is balanced by his mercy. In his mercy, God wants to save all living creatures, and not just humanity from this violence, corruption and destruction that has gone against the creation order. Now, the waters have receded, and – as in the creation stories – plant life, animal life, and human life emerge from the waters on dry land.

In Genesis 9: 1-3, God has already renewed the promise of Genesis 1: he again commands: “Be fruitful and multiply.” We humans now have complete dominion over all creatures, but we must have a greater respect for human life, because humanity is made in the image of God, and wilful bloodshed must be accounted for to God.

God makes a “covenant” (verse 9) with Noah, his sons and “every living creature” (verse 10). Because it is from his sons that “the whole earth” (verse 19) shall be “peopled,” the agreement is between God and all humanity. He will never again destroy humankind (verses 11, 15, 16).

This is a covenant with all creatures and with “the earth” (verse 13) itself. This is a covenant that speaks of ecology, and it is an “everlasting covenant” (verse 16).

Ancient people imagined a rainbow as a divine warrior’s weapon, his “bow” (verse 13), and that his arrows were lightning. God gives the “bow” as a visible “sign of the covenant”. That God’s “bow” is “in the clouds,” and not on the earth, shows how God is no longer angry with humans. When the rains come, they will end – with a rainbow. The rainbow is not just a nice, multi-coloured diversion for Sunday school classes. It is promise of hope, and God’s call to us to forsake violence, corruption and oppression.

Telling the story

Do our Sunday School images deal with the ugly reality of the causes of the flood?

Many of us are so familiar with the story of the flood and the ark that we may it difficult to come this Old Testament reading with fresh eyes if we are going to preach on it on Sunday week.

In Sunday schools, we often teach this as a story that children can use to learn about animals and rainbows and big boats – with accompanying fun-songs about “Father Noah” and the animals going in two by two, or making arc-shaped rainbows coloured in the full spectrum of rainbow colours.

At the beginning of the Disney version, Noah, his wife and their sons and daughters break out into song. As the short goes on, more attention is paid to building the ark and the inventive ways the animals try to help. Two monkeys help to make boards by unleashing a rhino on a tree that shaves off a board. They capture the rhino, turn him around and do it all over again. Or one of Noah’s sons picks up the timber planks and drives them to the ark in a car with wheels made of snakes biting their own tails.

These are entertaining images, but they downplay the serious nature of this story and allow us to forget that these characters are preparing for a flood that threatens to end all life on Earth. How can they do things with such a song in their hearts?

As the rains start and all the animals board the ark, Noah and his family pull up the plank, leaving a pair of skunks stranded. It seems out of place to have a gag that could be seen by children as callous and mean.

Ultimately, of course, things turn out alright. But not before we see Noah and his family in the ark, during the rainstorm, praying and pleading to survive. This is such a tonal shift from the light-hearted scenes earlier that it seems out of place.

The Whimsical Ark … all you ever needed “for a smooth sailing party” with that “fresh new look”?

Even Hallmark has a range of products in a design called “Whimsical Ark.” You are invited to “make an ark-size statement with an adorable, whimsical Noah’s Ark birthday party and matching party ware ensemble. For a smooth sailing party, bursting with vibrant colour, this Noah’s Ark pattern offers a fresh new look for birthday parties, children’s parties, Vacation Bible School events or other church celebrations. The Noah’s Ark birthday party paper plates, Noah’s Ark birthday party paper cups and other Noah’s Ark birthday party supplies feature playful animals on board the floating ark, with a symbolic rainbow and special dove.”

We are told: “A Noah’s Ark birthday party promises loads of fun for all your crew.”

But, fun apart, when do we ever make connections with the topics that are also built into this story? Topics such as:

● Concern for justice and injustices – topics that are the very heart of explaining the deluge.
● Our responsibility for creation – animal life, bird life, plant life and the whole cosmos.
● Or even with global warming and the climatic changes and floods we are experiencing throughout the world.

Drawing out the story

This passage is often referred to as the “Noahic Covenant.” But if we read the passage closely we see that God is clearly including not just humanity but with “every living creature” in God’s creation in a covenantal relationship. This is repeated four times: verses 10, 12, 15 and 16. And – to be sure, to be sure – it is not just God’s covenant with “every living creature” but with all flesh. This promise is repeated for “all flesh” five times (verses 11, 15 and 15 again, 16 and 17). Indeed, we are told twice that it is a covenant with the whole earth (verses 11 and 13).

Yet, so often we read this passage as if it were only about Noah and his immediate family. Why do we do this when there are so many similar passages throughout the Bible that constantly remind us of God’s care for all his creation, including passages in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Job, the Psalms and the Book of Revelation?

These connections were made creatively by the American Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849), in his paintings of Noah and the Ark and The Peaceable Kingdom. The first painting, which he painted and painted over and over again, is based on our Old Testament reading. The Peaceable Kingdom, which he painted between 60 and 100 times, is based on one of those other Old Testament passages (Isaiah 11). And these paintings are best considered together.

Were Noah and his family spared because they were good-living and middle class?

Were they spared because of their own innate decency?

Or were they saved because they represent everything that is good and worth saving in creation, on the earth, in the whole cosmos?

God’s concern for creation is not restricted to humans exclusively. God makes a binding, irreversible commitment to stay with us no matter what, and to refrain from destroying us no matter what we do.

How is this reflected in the Gospel reading for this morning?

Connecting with the Gospel reading

The Epistle reminds us that the waters of baptism are a new way of owning the promises made to all flesh and all the earth in the story of Noah and the flood. Both the flood story and Baptism remind us that we stand in need of God’s cleansing and of God’s saving plan for the whole cosmos.

If the waters of our Old Testament story are telling us that God constantly wants to start all over again with the creation, then surely that is even truer when it comes to Baptism?

In Baptism, God says: “Let’s start all over again with creation.” And the story of the Baptism of Christ is a new creation story.

In the Gospel reading, Christ enters the wilderness as a man who is discovering his baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God at his Baptism. He has no family where he is, but at his Baptism, God the Father calls Christ his beloved son, and the Son hears the Father say: “With you I am well pleased” (verse 11).

A little later in this Gospel, he is going to find his natural family coming after him to drag him home as a crazy man who is shaming the family name (see Mark 2: 21). But at his Baptism, Christ has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God’s will (Mark 3: 32-35). Christ is leaving house and home, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God’s reign. Christ is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.

There are wonderful children’s cartoons about the dangers of woodworm, woodlice and woodpeckers on the ark. But did Noah need any protection from the wild animals on the ark?

In the forty days he spent in the wilderness after his Baptism, we are told in this Gospel reading that Christ was tempted by Satan, but we are also told that “he was with the wild beasts” and that “the angels waited him” (verses 12-13).

It is almost as though Satan is a threat but the wild beasts sit comfortably with him in the fulfilment of the post-deluge covenant and the vision of Isaiah.

In Lent, we are called to follow Christ into the wilderness to listen carefully to what God has to say to us through our Baptism. And if that is God’s call, the wild beasts in that wilderness are not going to destroy anything worth keeping. Indeed, God’s promise is for all of God’s creation, including those wild beasts.

Who brought the woodpecker on board … and who protects us from the wild beasts in our own lives?

Reading Scripture in Lent

These readings come after we have already entered Lent on Ash Wednesday and entered the spiritual pilgrimage of Lent that calls us to join Christ on his entry into Jerusalem, at the Last Supper in the Upper Room, at his passion in Gethsemane, at his trial, on the Via Dolorosa, on Calvary, in the tomb, and then to share in the triumph of his Resurrection.

I knew a priest who, when asked what he was doing for Lent, used to reply he was giving up the slice of lemon in his gin and tonic – “But I intend remaining bitter and twisted for those forty days.”

So often we turn Lent into a domesticated exercise in pious self-improvement that is in danger of leaving us feeling spiritually smug and superior or of becoming bitter and twisted.

So often we ask: What are you going to do for Lent? What are you going to give up for Lent? So seldom we ask: What am I preparing for during my Lent?

It is reasonably easy to give up chocolate, alcohol or swearing, when I am going to lose weight, improve my health, or gain a little more respectability or acceptability.

We often think of the liturgical colour of Lent, purple, as penitential and mournful, when we should also emphasise that this is a time of preparation that turns to joy. Purple is a royal colour, and in these forty days we are preparing for the royal revelation of Christ as King.

Forty days are significant throughout the Bible – think of:

● The 40 days spent in the ark between the deluge and the floodwaters receding.
● The 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness ... more than a generation.
● In our Gospel reading, the 40 days Christ spends fasting in the wilderness ... more than a lunar month or, in other words, a long, long time (Mark 1: 12-13).
● The 40 days between Easter and the Ascension ... in contrast with the wilderness, we are now called to join Christ in living out the vision for the Kingdom.

A note on Edward Hicks

Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was born into an Episcopalian (Anglican) family in Pennsylvania. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was then cared for by a slave until the age of three. When Elizabeth Twining found him, he was taken in and raised in her Quaker family, although Edward and Elizabeth Twining never formally adopted him.

Hicks did not do well at school, and his parents sent him to work with a coach-maker, where he learned to paint signs and coaches. But he was interested in becoming a minister and became a popular preacher. As he studied the Bible, he concentrated on the Book of Isaiah, especially Isaiah 11, and its image of the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the lion and the fatling, and the young child. This was the inspiration for one of his best-known paintings, The Peaceable Kingdom. In fact, he painted 60 to 100 pictures with this title, many showing children playing safely with the wild animals which have become tame and harmless. In some, in the background across a chasm, William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, is negotiating a treaty with the Indians.

In his own lifetime, Edward Hicks was better known as a minister and preacher than as an artist. He painted primarily for his own pleasure and for his neighbours, and only became an art teacher later in his life. He died at the age of 69.

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 15 February 2012.

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