29th January 2017
An oft-cited quotation from a well known figure, described by one newspaper as ‘former biologist turned cult-leader’, reads “The God of the Old Testament is… a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” All of which, is entirely correct with the exception of one assumption. That there is such a thing as the God of the Old Testament.
The Hebrew Bible, which Christians adopted as their Old Testament, is a compilation of at least 39 pieces of literature, compiled over the course of at least a thousand years. Literature that is varied in genre, in tone, in provenance, in outlook and in belief. So that the conceptions of God are enormously varied. The medieval church flattened this varied literary landscape with the imposition of chapters and verses. Imposing chapters and verses onto Scripture allowed Christians to lift verses and stories out of their context, out of their genre and out of their place in the wider scriptural narrative. Add to that claim that each isolated unit constitutes the ‘Word of God’ (a claim that the bible itself never once makes about the bible itself), and you’re left with a bizarre religious document that can be used to justify anything.
It’s like claiming that every piece of the jigsaw contains the entire picture!
No, the pictures of God we find in Genesis are often different from the God Jesus describes, leaving those inflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Literalism to perform all kinds of interpretive acrobatics to defend the infallibility of isolated verses and stories. But if the New Testament pictures of God are different from Old Testament pictures of God – who has changed? God? Or human understanding of God? I can’t help thinking of Mark Twain’s famous quotation. “When I was 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21 I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in 7 years.”
Some Biblical scholars have described the Old Testament as a ‘gradual revelation’, where modern readers are invited to work their way through the entire narrative to grasp the fuller picture of God. Only in that fuller context, can we make sense of the partial pictures adopted along the way, and the story of Noah is one of the earliest partial pictures of the apparently genocidal God of Richard Dawkins.
Genesis is distinctive from other Ancient Near Easter flood narratives, principally because it is seen as an act of justice (against violent
humans) rather than divine impatience (because humans have started making too much noise). In fact, woven through the Genesis story is a tale of enormous reluctance to administer such terrible justice. It goes all the way back to a character called Enoch, the first real prophet. At the age of 65, Enoch fathered a son and gave him a prophetic name – Methusaleh… a name that alludes to the flight of an arrow. And Methusaleh’s life would be like the flight of an arrow, but on the day he died, something would happen.
At 187 years old Methusaleh became the father of Lamech. When Lamech had lived 182 years, he became the father of Noah. So how old was Methusaleh when Noah was born? 369. Now in Genesis 7:8, we read that when the flood came, Noah was 600 years old. So how old was Methusaleh when the flood came? 969 years. Methusaleh’s life had been like the flight of an arrow, and Enoch knew that God would judge the evils and injustices of the earth. And when Methusaleh died – that is precisely when the flood came. Those of you who have heard the name, Methusaleh, may know it as a piece of trivia since according to Scripture, he is the oldest man who ever lived. But the point of his great age is less well known – because it shows God’s patience, and reluctance to administer judgment that was coming upon the human race.
But finally judgment does come – in the form of a deluge. Do you know how many of each animal entered the ark? Most think it was two, but it was in fact, 14. Even if they went in ‘two by two, hurrah, hurrah’. In any case, what seems to follow is an act of indiscriminate divine genocide because God is good, and people are not. (Nor are the animals:
What about the fluffy kittens that didn’t get in, hurrah hurrah, not to mention the people?) The raised sea-levels were awash with corpses, not to mention a future cursed with an irreversible lack of genetic diversity.
So what was the first thing the godly Noah did when he disembarked?
Well, he’d witnessed a holocaust – he was a genocide survivor, so his first project was to build a vineyard, to establish a means of taking refuge from his scarred memory with the excessive consumption of alcohol. And Noah’s godly family? His son Ham, found the inebriated Noah lying naked and went round gossiping about it – a serious crime in an honour culture. And sure, God had promised never to wipe out humanity again, because the human heart is inherently evil. Which happens to be precisely the same reason he caused the flood in the first place.
So what on earth do you take from a story like that? Joseph Campbell’s classic the Hero with a Thousand Faces, reduces the foundation narratives of multiple cultures to a single formula – the monomyth – and claimed that the Noah story is the perfect example. That at the end of his adventure, Noah returned to a happy life and order is restored. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Life in the new, post-apocalyptic utopia was no better than life before it. Human beings are human beings. Had God’s radical and extensive exercise in ethnic cleansing made the world a better place? Seemingly not – hence the rainbow, God’s promise that he would never not repeat such violent action. It clearly hadn’t worked – and that is what’s really distinctive about the Biblical flood story. From the outset, the new order was no better than the old.
Violence is not a strategy that works.
Joseph Campbell’s biggest fan was probably George Lucas who produced the Star Wars movies. Yes, there is the standard adventure story – evil is rife so you have to destroy it. Just as God wiped out life in Ancient Mesopotamia, so Luke Skywalker wiped out the evil Death Star. Had that worked, the real sequel should have had second Star Wars film with Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Princess Leya fighting in a town hall meeting over who would take responsibility for the allotments. The morning after the revolution, the day after the apocalypse. Most narratives (like most revolutionaries) don’t give you much of a blue print for the post-apocalyptic utopia. Instead you get more of the same, The Empire Strikes Back, new cycles of violence.
Read in this light, the Noah story is about the futility of making the earth a better place with violent, genocidal ethnic cleansing – pretty much a norm in the Ancient Near East – we are confronted with the portrait of a God who says, ‘No – that does not work’. And it’s precisely that God in whose image humanity is forged. To be good is to reflect the character of this non-violent God. And it may well be for this reason, that the entire story climaxes with God forbidding anyone to shed human blood.
In this light, the God of the Noah story is the exact opposite of the infanticidal, filicidal, genocidal bully imagined by Richard Dawkins.