What does the Flood that God speaks forth mean for those of us today? What is God speaking and promising when Noah and his family emerge from the Ark to a new world? What does it mean for God to make a covenant that the world will never unravel completely from the Flood?
This is the conclusion of the second arc of this season, which spans between episodes 8 to 12. If you put the titles of these episodes together, it should read: “When Life becomes your enemy, and Death becomes your response, so that everything unravels into the Flood, what will save you from the Deluge, (is the reason) why Flood will not destroy the world.”
(Genesis 7 ~ 9)
2:04 Floods threatening our modern world
8:47 How God ends the Flood
16:35 Meaning of Noah's offering after the Flood
20:43 Why the Flood will not destroy the world
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We are fascinated by stories of our demise. Perhaps it’s because more than any other species, we are not only aware that each of us will eventually die, but that our entire societies, and even our species, will also eventually end.
So, we are drawn to such stories: the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the collapse of the Maya city-states, the silent Moai of the Rapa Nui. Our imagination is captivated by such stories; explorers searched for the lost continent of Atlantis that sank beneath the ocean; the Norse bards sang of Ragnarok, the war between the gods and the giants that will one day consume our world. And peoples across the world told stories of the Great Flood that engulfed our entire world.
Maybe that’s why we often miss the significance of how the Genesis account of the Flood ends. We focus on how Noah built the Ark and took in a pair of every creature that breathes, how the Flood burst into the world, engulfing all the lands, and how Noah and every living thing in the Ark survived the Flood. Yet, the story does not end there—not even with Noah and his family emerging from the Ark after the Floodwater recedes. It ends with God setting a rainbow across the sky, declaring that the Flood will never again destroy the entire world.
And that is the strangest part of this story. Let’s find out why in this episode of…
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…"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our twelfth episode of the second season, "The promise painted in the Sky: Why the Flood won’t destroy the world.”
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We now live in an era where there is a real and terrifying possibility that our world will end with a catastrophe of our own making. No longer is such a world-spanning destruction in the realm of religious, apocalyptic imagination; nor is that destruction caused by something like, super-volcanos, or meteor from the sky; the imminent and dire threats we now face are things of our own making—nuclear wars, mass extinction of species, destruction of the oceans, global climate catastrophes.
Now, it isn’t that our entire planet—let alone “all of creation”—is in danger of being destroyed. The stars will continue to shine on, and the planet Earth will still spin around the sun, and even Life as such on this planet will survive, even if many of its species will become extinct. But, the world as we know it—the world with us in it—can end, and end by our own doing, because of our greed, injustice, apathy, or hostility toward each other, or even by our sheer malice and spitefulness toward Life. (You know the kind: the ones that say they want to “burn the world to the ground”? )
And that’s the account of the Great Flood in Genesis; that’s God bringing the Flood in response to the self-destructive world that humanity builds for itself; that’s how reality unfolds when we collectively build a world so toxic that it inevitably unravels in hostility, deceit, and neglect. And when that happens, it will affect everything we have touched. The problem is, as our reach increases, that world becomes larger and larger, so that now, it encompasses the entire surface of our planet. I’ve said that the story of the Great Flood is about every catastrophe that we bring upon ourselves, as a society or a civilization—or at least, make it far worse than it could have been: every such catastrophe, including the first one, points to the story of Noah. But, nowhere in the living memory of our species, have we been so close to matching or even exceeding the scale and scope of the Flood depicted in Genesis. This is important because this means, there is less and less place we can flee to, when the destruction comes, to “ride it out,” so to speak. It isn’t enough to simply survive it; after all, in nearly every post-apocalyptic story we tell ourselves, the survivors have terrible lives—not the kind most of us would ever want to live.
But, we shouldn’t limit the Genesis Flood account to only the global-scale, physical catastrophes; it is about societies unraveling. We experienced quite a number of those. From the beginning of the twentieth century, economic and social injustices and unrest pushed a number of societies into revolutionary forms of government and policies, which proved far more catastrophic than the ills they claimed to cure. The inequalities were corrected not with fairness and justice, but with vengefulness and violence; the newly formed society sustained itself with oppression and terror, enforcing its rule through unquestioning fanatics who were willing to strike down any sign of dissent—even their own family and friends. Millions were executed, tens of millions more died in avoidable famines and wars, untold millions simply… disappeared from record. If you are wondering, I’m speaking of both Fascism and Communism, extremes of both the Right and Left of the political spectrum; I’m speaking of both religious theocracies like the Taliban, Boko Haram, or the ISIL, and the secular or even anti-religious states, like the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, or the Khmer Rouge. No extreme of the spectrum is exempt here.
Now, living in such a society is like trying to stay afloat on a vast expanse of dark, murky waters, with terrifying whirlpools you can see, and deadly undercurrents that you can’t, which can pull you down at any time. There are mass detentions and purges you know of, but even if you lay low to avoid those, you don’t know what else can pull you under. So, you become afraid of everything. Anything you do, any word you speak might bring down the enforcers upon you, and you don’t know who to trust because anyone can betray you—even family members. Any news of ill events terrifies you, because even a small crisis can become unmitigated catastrophes. Even those in power live in terror that they may one day lose their hold and be killed; Josef Stalin, who ruled over the Soviet Union with an iron fist, suffered from intense paranoia, and repeatedly purged his close confidants, and the upper echelons of power likewise lived in abject fear, perpetually maneuvering themselves against each other, just so that they won’t be next to die. This is a society that is drowning in the floodwater of its own blood.
There’s a character archetype that appear in certain stories—perhaps you can recognize it. It is a figure of a hermit—but, not one who is merely choosing to live apart from society. These figures are heroes, or sages, or respected leaders; they could have taken positions of power and authority—a seat of prominence in the Royal Court, the command of the army, and so on—but they left it. And people seek them out, and beg them to return and somehow save their land. And their answer is: it’s too late. The center of power has become so corrupt, so inundated with innocent blood, with deception, treachery, and violence, that those who want to do the right thing will just be the first to perish, and die for nothing. Only thing left is to let everything unfold to its bitter end—let that world tear itself apart, unravel and perish, and then and only then, there may come a time to begin anew.
Until then, they advise, stand away from that world. Stay in the Ark.
But, there’s more to it than that. The Ark isn’t simply some kind of fallout shelter, where Noah and his family can hide away during the Flood—if that’s all it was, they wouldn’t have been tasked with bringing aboard every creature that breathes on land—including unpleasant ones—in order to save them. As we explored in our previous episode, the structure and purpose of the Ark suggests that the Ark represents a version of the world as it can and should be, before it became filled with violence and marred with corruption—a world where humanity still upholds their responsibility to protect and care for the rest of Creation, where they relate to each other as family, and where they can still hear God speak. So, what God spoke to Noah is to build a version of a world that won’t bring forth the Flood.
In a sense, Noah building the Ark is what Mahatma Gandhi was saying when he said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Yet, the reach of this world—Noah’s world—that will not unravel into the Flood, encompasses only the barest minimum: no more than Noah’s immediate family, and no more than just a single pair of each living creature that breathes. It does not extend beyond that single, wooden Ark; if it was capable of reaching further, changing the course of the entire world, God would not be bringing the Flood. Nor can Noah forcibly impose order upon the corrupt world, to say, forge an Empire for himself, which will make the world right again; doing that would just make him into yet another child of Cain, another Lamech who boasts of his power to kill anyone that oppose him, just another tear upon the world that brings in the Flood. The Genesis narrative of Noah and the Flood depicts a worst-case scenario where the world has fallen to such a dire state, that the changes that this world desperately needs to save itself from unraveling, seems to be confined to only a single family, and what they are able to do.
So, the question is, is that enough?
When the entire world is flooded, leaving only a single Ark, and the small world it holds, is that enough? Can the world possibly recover and heal? Or, has Noah and his family labored in vain, waited in vain, hoped in vain?
That question would confront them as the waters burst from below the world, and pour down from above the sky—no just mere rainwater, but fathomless, untamable waters, which in Genesis, is the very substance of chaos, the primordial expanse of possibilities that only responds to what God speaks. And these waters engulf the world, and it turns every ground that humanity has tread, everything humanity has touched, once again into formlessness. As Noah and his family waited in the Ark, they would have asked: will the Flood stop? Or, will everything unravel until their small world, their Ark, also finally perish? But, Genesis recounts that God remembered Noah and every living thing in the Ark, so that God sends the “wind” to pass over the world. Then, the waters that burst from the deeps below, and poured from above the sky, stop and subsided, leaving only a formless expanse. This is a reference back to the Genesis Creation account, where the “Spirit” of God blows upon the endless deep of primordial waters until God speaks for the Light; in fact, the Hebrew word for the “Spirit,” and the word, “Wind” that passes upon the world that ends the Flood, is the same word: ruach. So, the world—at least, the world that humanity inhabited—is back to what it was in the beginning.
And upon that formless expanse, the remnant of the world floats. Now, that the Flood has stopped, will the world return? Will the waters recede, and lands—a world with shapes and forms, a world we can tread, a world where we may again live—once again emerge from this expanse? Because there is no guarantee that it will! But, if it does not, even the remnant of the world, the Ark, would perish.
Genesis recounts that when the Flooding ceases, Noah then opens the window of his small world, the opening at the top of the Ark, and sends out a raven, and then, a dove. What sending the raven means is unclear to me; ravens are depicted in the other parts of the Bible as unclean birds, and feeders of carrion, but also as creatures that God calls to provide bread and meat to one of his prophets. Doves have a much more clear and significant meaning, at least for this narrative. In the ancient Near-East, doves were feminine symbols of divinity; images of doves were often engraved on the shrines of mother goddesses. And the Bible draws upon this imagery of the dove to describe the Spirit of God. The “Spirit” of God, which blows upon the endless primordial deep in the Genesis Creation account, and the “wind” from God that stops the waters of the Flood, is likewise the same feminine noun in the original Hebrew; and moreover, the imagery of this “Spirit” of God upon the waters, again in the original Hebrew, is that of bird-like hovering. This symbolism becomes clearer in the Christian New Testament, where the Gospels report that the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus Christ “like a dove.” And throughout the Bible, this Spirit of God, depicted in the imagery of the wind, and the dove, moves among the people to whom God speaks. And Noah takes this dove to the window, opened to the heavens, and sends it out to see if the Flood will recede.
The first time, the dove returns empty. A full seven-day cycle later, Noah sends the dove again. This time, the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf. That fresh leaves are sprouting on trees is a sign that there is Life in the world; but, there is a larger meaning to the dove bringing specifically an olive leaf. English-speakers may recognize the phrase, “extending an olive branch”; it denotes a gesture for peace or reconciliation. The “olive” was a symbol of peace in the ancient Mediterranean world, and so, what Genesis suggests is that the dove, which is closely associated with the Spirit of God, brings back a sign of peace when the world still remains a formless expanse from the Flood. Another seven-day cycle later, Noah sends the dove again, and this time, it does not return, which tells Noah that the world is becoming habitable once again.
So, time passes, and after a long while, Noah removes the top covering of the Ark, and finds that even he can see that the world is recovering—the waters receded, and the ground was drying. Then, after waiting a little while longer, God speaks to Noah, “Go out of the Ark, you and your wife, your sons and their wives, every living thing with you—birds and animals and creeping, crawling things—so that they can fill the world, be fruitful, and multiply.”
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Remember that, more precisely speaking, the Ark held not just a single pair every creature that breathes, but also seven pairs of what is called, the “clean” animals? This is rather anachronistic, since the distinction between the clean and unclean animals are only given to the people of Israel in the time of Moses; this is Jewish Kosher laws, and these would not be the terms Noah and his family would know. I think the reason for the inclusion of this rather out-of-place terms is to describe what Noah does after he and his family come out of the Ark.
Noah builds an altar and takes the “clean” animals and birds as burnt offering to God. This practice, which is a religious ritual of Israel, signifies giving a portion of one’s livelihood that, in their culture, would be considered worthy before God. And if you think back to our account of Cain and Abel, and their offerings, sacrifice and offering is about bringing a part of your life—your time, your abilities, your actions, and your words—in order to engage reality in good faith; it is to bring your life, take a portion of your world that you have built, and bring them before God, in order to truthfully and courageously hear what God speaks in response. So, for the ancient Hebrews, to bring “clean” animals for offering, represented bringing something worthwhile and truthful in their lives, to That which speaks forth everything that happens and everything that exists around them.
And it also meant recognizing that when we do so, we find that we’ve failed to live up to a kind of life we know we could’ve and should’ve lived in relation to God; the burnt offering of the animal thus represents the loss of that life, that possibility, which is returned—symbolically by being burnt up—to God. We’ll return to this when we explore the people of Israel and their relationship with God. For now, this is what sacrifices and offerings generally signify.
This is why the prophets in the Bible frequently addressed the people of Israel with the following rebuke. “What’s the point of bringing expensive livestock for offering when you’re not bringing to God what truly matters?” They asked. “You don’t deal truthfully to each other. You don’t act justly. You don’t show mercy and care to the poor. And you are not faithful toward God!” And this means, they warned, God will in response bring judgment upon their nation. A true offering in this situation then is repentance—to recognize their wrongs, and make changes in their lives that are meaningful. This is also why the Christian New Testament urges the people of God to offer what it calls, a “living sacrifice.” This rather ominous term simply means to live out a life that the offering of “clean” animals really represents—a life that relates to God whole-heartedly, engaging reality truthfully and in good faith, relating to other people with justice, mercy, and love, and not hiding our face from our own inadequacies and wrongs.
So, all of this is what it means for Noah and his family to make an offering of the clean animals and birds from their version of the world—the Ark. It is a religious ritual of the nation of Israel, and not of Noah, but Genesis is written for the people who lived in that religious culture. And so it presents what Noah is doing after the Flood in terms of the rituals that would be familiar to them. At least, I think that’s what makes the most sense to me. At any rate, Noah makes the offering to God, as with the offering from Abel, God responds with favor.
But, then God says something quite strange.
“I will never again curse the ground, for humanity is bent toward evil from an early age,” God speaks. “Nor will I destroy every living creature because of them.”
God brought the Flood in response to the evils of humanity, and it turns out that nothing has really changed. Just as the human world became filled with violence and corruption as the time passed from the generations of Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, down to Lamech and then Noah, their world after Noah will repeat what has happened. God says this, but, declares that God will not destroy them.
But, this raises a problem.
It is not out of caprice, or from loss of temper, that God brings the Flood in Genesis. As I observed in the seventh episode of this season, there is something seemingly impersonal about how God renders judgment upon the world. This is especially so in how this series has been construing these accounts so far, so that judgments that God speaks forth upon human beings, such as the Flood, unfold almost like moving objects obeying the laws of physics—which is actually fitting in a way since the laws of physics is also the Logos of God, God speaking. For Christianity, just as there are laws that govern Nature—like the movements of the stars, or the evolution of different species—there are principles that govern how our future and our world is shaped by our moral actions and character. Both are God speaking. And in that sense, the Flood—or the unraveling of our world that the Flood represents—is something that has to happen if our moral failures reach a critical mass. It is how reality unfolds—what God speaks—in response to what humanity does. This is why the Hebrew poets in the Bible repeatedly sing that “God has responded according to our deeds.” This is what it means for God to be just.
But, this means that if humanity repeats their mistakes—if they form the kind of world that brought the Flood upon themselves—then, God has to respond likewise. Yet, God specifically says that humanity will fill the world with evil and violence— that is their nature now. But, God will not bring the Flood—or at least, to the extent that it will unravel the entire human world.
God instead makes a “Covenant.” Simply put, God makes a promise. God speaks to Noah that there is now a promise between God and humanity, and all the living creatures on the earth. God will not speak forth the kind of Flood that unraveled the entire world; there will not be a Flood that will undo everything and destroy all of Life in the world that humanity inhabits. God sets the rainbow on the clouds, and speaks to Noah saying, “This is the sign of the promise I am making with you, and all living creatures with you. I am setting aside the Bow on the clouds, so the waters will never again become a Flood to destroy all life. This is a covenant I am establishing with humanity, and all living creatures in the world.”
There are different sides to God speaking. On the one side, what God speaks may seem impersonal, and law-like, unfolding reality and all of history unfailingly and impartially—like the working out of the Laws of Nature. On the other side, for those who engage reality in good faith, God may speak personally, responsively, though within the parameters of how reality is unfolding, as a guide or a figure that beckons us toward truth, toward a better way of life, and in time of crises, toward a path forward. But, there is at least one more side to what God speaks; the Bible reports that God may at times, speak forth personal promises that go beyond the law-like way reality unfolds—which is to say, beyond what God speaks impartially;
This means that God needs to redirect the course of how everything is unfolding, because God is promising something that would otherwise not come true. God needs to speak forth new things; reality must unfold in a new way, because that is what such covenant calls for. And in the case of the covenant with Noah, God is promising that there will not be a Flood that utterly unravels the entire world, even though we are the kind of beings who build a violent, deceitful world that inevitably unravels. But, for that to be true, God needs to take some necessary steps.
First step was Noah and his Ark. As long as there are those who hear God, who build a version of the world in which they can hear God speak, and relate to each other and every other living creature as the representatives of God, there is hope for the world. They will be like anchors holding the world from drifting into the deep; they will be the “salt” of the world, keeping the world from rotting away. As long as they are among those who shape the human world, God does not bring the Flood. But, that is not enough. As it happened with Noah, there may not be enough of them to keep the world from falling apart.
Second step is that God speaks forth new laws for humanity, which makes their world—for lack of better words—more “flexible” to the weight of human evil. In the Genesis Creation account, God gives humanity plants and fruits as food. Human beings may have eaten meat of other living creatures, but this was not, as far as Genesis reports, officially sanctioned to humanity as the representatives of God, and as caretakers of Creation. But, after the Flood, God speaks anew to Noah; now, all living creatures—the land animals, the flying birds, creeping things on the ground, and the sea creatures, will fear and dread humanity—and God officially gives every living thing as food for humanity. But, God adds sternly, we are not to eat these creatures with their lifeblood in them. Again, this isn’t simply some rule against becoming vampires or something; for the ancient Hebrews, just as water represented something like the primordial possibility of things before they have a form, blood—the water in living things—was the essence of its life. It is in a sense, a living thing’s very Life and substance. So, what God is saying is that, even though humans can eat other living creatures as food, the Life of these creatures do not belong to humanity; there is a sanctity to their Life, which we must respect, even when we hunt, and kill, and take them as food.
God then also speaks anew that anyone who murders a fellow human being will now require reckoning. When Cain killed his brother, God marked him with a sign to protect him from also being killed. This is because killing begets more killing, and such vengeance will in the end fill the world with violence; this is why in the New Testament, Jesus teaches his disciples to love their enemies, and not pay evil with evil. But, the descendants of Cain instead abused this principle to fill the world with unconstrained violence. So, God speaks that those who take another’s life is now subject to the same fate; another shall take their lives.
In both cases, God is in a sense, making a compromise. God is speaking forth a new structure to the human world that is basically more tolerant of the stresses of evil and violence that humanity can heap upon it. More is the key here. This world is comparatively more tolerant, but not limitlessly so. At some point, the world will still unravel. God cannot uphold the covenant with Noah with these alone.
However, it turns out that there was something that is unfolding in the background. God has been preparing something; God has been speaking forth a new course of history, a new theme and melody, which is at this point too soft to be heard. There was a secret project in the works.
There was a glimpse of it; when the first humanity turned against God in distrust and hostility, God speaks to the serpent that deceived them—or rather, whatever it is that the serpent and its deceptive venom and cunning represents. “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; you will strike his heel, and he will crush your head.”
And according to the New Testament Gospels, this emerging melody, yet hidden from hearing, this new course of history, led to the one that would crush the very head of that which led humanity eventually into the Flood; God would bring forth something—someone—that would keep the human world from unraveling, by shouldering the weight of all human failings and sin. Jesus Christ.
But, when God makes the covenant with Noah, the path of that new history is still being cleared, and will require a new people. A people who will live by a covenant with God. But, they too, will start from a single family, generations after Noah.
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So, I hope you will continue to join us, as we journey on toward their story, but we will need to first make a visit to a towering vision and ideal humanity has aspired for, beyond the Flood. A new singular Empire that will tower above all people.
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