Reading: Genesis 8:20-9:17
Three months really isn’t enough time to cover Genesis — one has to either just focus on the familiar, or just quickly mention the familiar and give attention to those parts of the familiar story that we often forget. In the case of Noah’s flood, this study has chosen to do the latter; we followed Cain and Abel with the command that Noah build an ark — and today we find ourselves jumping forward after the flood has happened, after 6 weeks of rain, after 5 months floating on the flood waters with no land in sight, and another month floating seeing mountain-tops, and after the ship, with it’s cargo of 8 people and animals ran aground on Mt. Ararat, after Noah sent out the birds and a dove brought back leaves, and eventually, the ground is dry and God tells them that it is safe. If I read this passage correctly, Noah, his family, and the animals spend about a year in the Ark; 6 weeks in the rain, almost half a year floating around, and another half year or so waiting on the top of a mountain for the land to dry.
The reading in the Sunday school lesson starts when this all ends, after everybody left the ark, after Noah made a sacrifice to God, and after the text tells us that God decided “Never again,” and that even though humanity is always evil, all the time, the world would go on; never again would the world be destroyed because humanity fails to live up to what we were created to be.
Our Sunday school lesson picks up after the sacrifice when God makes a covenant with Noah. The word covenant isn’t exactly the same thing as a promise, it is more like a contract; covenants are conditional, both parties have a part to fulfill. God’s side of the agreement was that God would not destroy the Earth with a flood, and the rainbow is the sign of this covenant. What people rarely seem to talk about is Noah’s side of the deal.
I guess why people don’t talk much about Noah’s covenant is that nobody really follows it. It would be fair to say that not only is it not followed, but when this story was told to the Israelite’s who escaped Egypt, this covenant would not match their experience. Noah is commanded to do three things:
- Be fruitful and multiply, filling the Earth
- Do not eat blood
- Murder should be unthinkable, and murderers executed
I’d say, we’ve done pretty well at accomplishing the first of these commandments. Humanity lives everywhere on Earth, including places that are not very hospitable. We have even built places to live in the most extreme of climates, even now in the dead of an Antarctic winter, there are dozens of people living at the South pole in Amundsen-Scott station. There are about 7 and a half billion people living on the planet, and it often feels like there are no new frontiers for humanity to explore.
The other two, not so much. I would go so far as to observe that there was not much of an attempt to follow these at the time that Israel was led out of Egypt, and to be fair, there is some nuance that has developed over these. Christianity, for example, has not eliminated the eating of blood. Black pudding is served in nations that have been Christian for over a thousand years. Christians in the United States go to steakhouses all the time, without caring how the meat was butchered, nor if there is blood left in the meat. We just don’t think much about eating blood — even though this command was repeated by the church council in Acts 15.
Blood would have also been a familiar food to those in the Egyptian courts. When there were sacrifices to the Egyptian gods, the sacrificial animal was butchered and processed as food. Blood sausage was made from the blood of cattle that were sacrificed, and there is some written evidence that fresh blood was sometimes consumed in magic rituals hoping to gain life.
Honestly, this is one of the more confusing things to me; it is part of a major covenant, it is important enough that the command is repeated in Acts 15, and yet most of Christianity does not consider it very important. It seems strange that blood is an ingredient for various European foods, and Christianity never removed black pudding or other blood sausages from the European diet. Why didn’t we change our diets?
As you know, the Jews were careful about their diets. They had rules about how to butcher the animals to remove as much blood as possible from the meat. Kosher salt was used in the butchering process to draw blood out of the meat — so, I guess I might call it Koshering salt, as it was part of the process of making meat kosher; though, if you absolutely forbid blood you must forbid meat, because no process will strip every bit of blood from the meat. In the strictest sense, obeying the rule requires one to become a vegetarian.
Christians also accept the teaching of Jesus when it comes to things such as dietary laws. When Jesus’ disciples were accused of breaking dietary laws by “eating while unwashed,” Jesus said to the Pharisees: “It is not what goes in the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean.” People also quote Paul in Romans 14:14 where Paul writes: “there is nothing unclean, of itself,” suggesting that dietary laws do not apply to Christians.
Another thing we see that murder is far from unthinkable, and there is not much that we can do to make it unthinkable. The loudest voices to end the death penalty are the very voices that believe that humanity is created in God’s image. Many Friends have called to abolish the death penalty, including official statements and sections in books of discipline. I grew up knowing this because there was a section in Mid America Yearly Meeting’s faith and practice. Pope John Paul II called for the abolition of the death penalty writing in Evangelium Vitea: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” Pope Francis went so far as to say that the death penalty is contrary to the gospel because it “attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
One thing that surprised me when reading about the death penalty is that Rabbinic Judaism is opposed to it. Even though there are a number of capital offenses mentioned in the Torah, and even though those that are mentioned happen on such a regular basis that nobody is surprised when they happened, the Talmud insists that it be applied rarely. Talmudic writings suggest that if the state puts somebody to death once in 7 years, the court has blood on their hands, and if they put one person to death in 70 years, it is too many.
Perhaps the reason that Rabbinic Judaism and many Christians shy away from the death penalty, even though it seems to be commanded is that this isn’t the way that God dealt with murderers. There are a number of people in scripture that I can definitely describe as murderers; that is they chose to kill people who did not deserve death. It was neither an accident nor was it preceded by a trial that condemned the person to death. We don’t see a legitimate capital trial in scripture outside of the laws to hold one, but we do see a number of murders. Most of the murderers either vanish from the story or die in battle, or in cases such as Judah and foreign leaders, there is simply no punishment. There are some that God deals with directly: Cain, Moses, David, and Paul all hear directly from God after murdering somebody. Cain is given protection by God. Moses is called to lead the people out of slavery and speak for God to the people. David is restored and grows to be the king who ruled over Israel’s golden age, and as we all know Paul the murderer of Christians became the greatest of Christians, writing more of the New Testament than any other person. Who are we to kill when God keeps insisting on forgiving?
God’s covenant with Noah has consistently been one of the hardest passages for me because I keep seeing that it has never been kept and that there are few who have any interest in keeping it. If this were collected by Moses, then why would Moses include a covenant with God where humanities part would be to kill Moses for his crime of murder? Why is the Torah strict in commands, yet the response to even clear guilt is grace and forgiveness?
What I do know is that any time that God has made an agreement with humanity, humanity broke the contract. We, humans, are apparently not that good at living up to our end of the bargain, even when that bargain seems to be in our favor, yet God finds a way for restoration. We are exposed as lawbreakers and contract breakers — we are in God’s hands; God treats us better we deserve. The law shows us that God truly is merciful.