Rev. Joseph Connolly
“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” — Genesis 9:13.
I think we all know the first two Chapters of the work known as Genesis deal with what has been called the story of creation. But this should also be clear: Genesis was not written to communicate history nor to communicate science. Genesis was, therefore, not written as a description of what happened when the world was made, when the world was created.
In fact, creation stories had an entirely different purpose in the Ancient Near East. They were written to give people a vision of their place in the world, and to help them make sense of existence. The stories gave people a narrative in which and by which they could live their lives. This type of story, which helps people understand their lives is called a functional narrative.
Functional narratives are not an outdated idea. These kinds of narratives still influence people to see the world in a certain way today. Indeed, what may be the most forceful element of all creation stories, not just the creation stories in the Bible but outside the Bible also, is they explain the essence of what it means to be human. And the folks who wrote these stories down understood them that way.
Now, please notice: I just made a statement referring to creation stories both inside and outside of the Bible. I say that because we know there are multiple creation stories found in the ancient New East literature. Indeed, even in the Bible itself, the first two chapters of Genesis weave together two very different creation stories.
We know these two stores in Genesis were written in two different eras because we know what the original language looks like in those two different eras. And, just as English has changed from the time of Shakespeare to what we today call modern English, the same is true for Hebrew. The language was vastly different in different eras and the language used in these two creation stories are different.
And as I also indicated, when it comes to ancient creation stories we do know a number of creation stories are to be found outside of the Bible. Many of these stories were written before Genesis was recorded. In fact, the stories in Genesis rely heavily on those other ancient stories, stories which are found outside the Bible and pre-date Genesis.
All that brings me to the Noah story we heard a couple of minutes ago. To be clear, just as there are a number of creation stories in Ancient Near East literature, there are a number of flood stories in Ancient Near East literature.
Now, earlier I said the purpose of creation stories in the Ancient Near East was to give people a vision of their place in the world, and to help them make sense of existence, give people a narrative in which and by which they could live their lives. The flood story preforms the same task. It gives people a narrative in which and they coucl live their lives.
Indeed in that sense, all of the stories in Genesis are in some way creation stories. You seen the all the stories in Genesis are founding stories, foundation myths of the people of Israel.
The word myth in this context does not mean the stories are untrue. It means they are not written to convey factual data. And again, the people who wrote them down knew that! They are written to convey deep truth, visceral truth, truth about the reality of feelings, the reality of relationship, especially a relationship with God.
In fact, the reading we heard is not just a flood story. It is an oracle, a proclamation from the mouth of God, a decree about the intention of God, God speaking about those intentions.
Noah and the family of Noah have been rescued from destruction by God Who is faithful. The wonder of this text is the faithfulness God has for Noah is not disrupted, even by the flood, the quintessential disruption, the most violent of all the disruptions found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Now, having said these ancient stories are myth, the purpose of which is to convey not fact but deep truths, leads to the next obvious question. When was this text, this myth story actually written?
Based on the style of the underlying Hebrew we are fairly confident the story dates to around the Sixth Century Before the Common Era. And what was going on in the life of the Jewish community in that era, in their real life?
The people had been taken from their land and were living exile, in captivity, in Babylon. This text was written in the era commonly known as the Babylonian Exile.
In truth, the reality of the Babylonian Exile, being held in captivity in Babylon, is the quintessential disruption, the most violent of all the disruptions found in the actual history, the real history of the Jewish people. Thus the exile is a historical experience of sheer chaos. And the story of that chaos is here narrated through the account known as the flood.
Since that is a given, there are a number of things to note when it comes to this story being seen as a founding myth, a creation myth. And these things I am about to note only reenforce the story of the flood as both a myth which tells deeper truths and a functional narrative.
The words of God focus intensely on God’s person and God’s resolve (quote:) “As for me….” What follows is a peculiar, intentional, unilateral act of God.
God claims initiative for the relationship. God establishes a covenant. Noah has no part in this new covenant, no role to play and no obligation. The covenant is all the doing of God, an act of amazing graciousness, an act of the self-giving of God.
The unilaterally established covenant is now not only with the human community (this human community in this case narrowly embodied in the family of Noah, the only earthly survivors), but also the covenant is established with all the creatures of the earth saved from the flood. What we hear is the voice of the creator, God, who enacts a loyal bonding with creation.
Thus the speech of God here claims not just a creation but a new creation. This is, you see, a creation story, an establishing myth for the Hebrew people but also an establishing myth for all humanity.
All that brings me to the rainbow in the sky. The story ends with a symbol.
This is clear: the promise to exiles in Babylon, the promise to the Jewish people, the promise to all humanity, the functional narrative for all of us, is one which says the God of steadfast love is present because of the covenant pledge of God. And that covenant pledge is a promise. The promise says the will of God will be and is for peace, justice, freedom, equity, love for all people. And yes, the rainbow symbolizes all of that.
And these— God’s peace, justice, freedom, equity, love— these are, all of them, elements of the establishing myth, the deeper truth of God for the Jewish people, for all humanity and for us here today. So here’s an interesting question: was the flood real?
That’s a moot point. It does not matter. That’s a moot point since what is real is the peace, justice, freedom, equity, love of God for all people. Now that’s a function narrative, the myth of deep truth— that the peace, justice, freedom, equity, love— this love of God— is for everyone— that is a deep truth in which we can all abide. Amen.
Chenango Valley Home, Norwich, NY