Tuesday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Gen 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10

The story of the great Flood.

Is there some deep memory behind this story and then reading into it a religious meaning?  What was the cause of the Flood?  Or was it pure myth?  Was it some overflowing of the rivers going through what is now Iraq?  Was it the result of a tsunami caused by a mighty earthquake in the Mediterranean?  In any case, it is another Fall story.

 The New American Bible introduces the story in this way:

 The story of the great flood is a composite narrative based on two separate sources interwoven into an intricate patchwork.  To the Yahwist source, with some later editorial additions, are usually assigned 6:5-8; 7:1-5,7-10,12,16b,17b,22-23; 8:2b-3a,6-12,13b,20-22.  The other sections come from the “Priestly document”.  The combination of the two sources produced certain duplications; also certain inconsistencies, such as the number of the various animals taken into the ark and the timetable of the flood.  Both biblical sources go back ultimately to an ancient Mesopotamian story of a great flood, preserved in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic.  The latter account, in some respects remarkably similar to the biblical account, is in others very different from it. (edited)

 The New Jerusalem Bible also comments:

There are several Babylonian stories of the Flood which are in some respects remarkably similar to the biblical narrative.  This last does not derive from them but draws on the same source, namely, on the memory of one or more disastrous floods in the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris which tradition had enlarged to the dimensions of a worldwide catastrophe.  But there is this fundamental difference: the author has used this tradition as a vehicle for teaching eternal truths – that God is just and merciful, that human beings are perverse, that God saves his faithful ones (see Heb 11:7).  The Flood is a divine judgement which foreshadows that of the latter days (Matt 24:37ff; Luke 17:26ff), just as Noah’s salvation prefigures the saving waters of baptism (cf. 1 Pet 3:20-21).

The setting is that mankind has become steeped in sin and immorality.  As the reading opens, we are told that God saw how great was the wickedness of mankind on the earth.  “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  There was moral corruption everywhere.  (And, because human nature did not change after the Flood, the situation did not greatly improve.)  At this time, too, there is as yet no distinction between Israel and everyone else.

God, described in very human terms, regrets not only the creation of human beings but of all the “animals, creeping things and birds of the air” as well.  Though morally innocent, the animal world, as creatures under human corrupted rule, shared in being judged.  The heavenly bodies and the plants were excluded (because they would not have been wiped out by a flood).

Saying that God ‘regrets’ is a human way of expressing the fact that tolerance of sin is totally incompatible with his sanctity (1 Sam 15:29 reminds us that God, unlike humanity, never has to repent).  In a far greater number of passages the expression means that God’s anger has been appeased and his threat withdrawn as soon as his people change their ways (cf. Jer 26:3).

There is one human exception to the universal corruption.  Noah was a good man, who “had found favour with the Lord”.  The destruction to come will, through him, become a reconstruction.  Noah and his family will become a righteous remnant which will survive and regenerate, paving the way for the appearance of God’s people in the person of Abraham.

Much of the full story is left out in our readings.

Before the rains come, Noah and all his family are to go aboard the ark.  The actual building of the ark according to instructions given by God is omitted in our reading.  The English word ‘ark’ comes from the Latin translation arca, meaning a ‘box’ or a ‘chest’. (We have mentioned the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ several times.  It was a kind of wooden chest.)

Noah is told to bring with him and his family seven each (male and female) of clean animals and two each of the unclean and seven each of birds.  (For an explanation of the number ‘seven’, see tomorrow’s reading.)  The ceremonially unclean animals would only have to reproduce themselves after the Flood, but greater numbers of ceremonially clean animals would be needed also for the burnt offerings that Noah would sacrifice and for food.  One might have thought that God would have got rid of all the “unclean” animals altogether but their continuing presence after the flood had to be accounted for.

We need to remember that we are not dealing here with a historical event but with a myth.  Myths play a very important role in human life and culture.  A myth is basically a story which expresses a deep truth that cannot really be expressed in any other way.  It is a way, too, of presenting deep truths to people who are uneducated and illiterate (but by no means unintelligent).  Much of the Old Testament takes the form of myth but we should not be concerned about this.  In fact, it is this realisation that opens up to us the full meaning of passages.  Fundamentalism and literalism have the opposite effect.

Seven days after they went aboard, God said he would send rain on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights and every living thing on the earth would be wiped out.  This period of time is often used to indicate a significant period in salvation history (cf. Deut 9:11; Matt 4:1-11, the temptation of Jesus in the desert).

Noah did everything that God had told him to do.  Seven days later the rains began.

The message is clear: God protects the virtuous and punishes the wicked.  However, we might modify our way of saying that now.  Based on many other passages both in the Old and New Testaments, it is difficult for us to accept a God who takes vengeance on those who go against the way of life he proposes to us.  It contradicts the teaching that Jesus, the Son of God, gave us, especially in his sacrificial death for us sinners.  As Paul tells us, it is easy to understand a person dying for a good person but not for a wicked one.  That is exactly what Jesus, with the full approval of his Father, did for us.

There is indeed punishment for sin but it flows out of the sinful acts themselves.  Evil is destructive; good is nurturing and growth-inducing.  Evil brings division; goodness brings peace and harmony.

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