Week 6 of Ordinary Time
February 15, 2017
Gen 8: 6-13, 20-22
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Noah built an altar to the Lord” (Gen 8: 20).
Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat
by Simon de Myle (fl. ca. 1570)
As you read the story of the great flood on your own, you’ll probably notice some duplications and discrepancies in it. You remember that Gen 1-2 give us 2 creation stories by different biblical authors. The final editor—the inspired sacred editor of Genesis, whoever he was—made no attempt to reconcile those stories; he simply included them both, one following the other. But with the Noah story, we have 2 versions of the great flood that that final editor kind of wove together, while leaving those duplications and discrepancies duplications and discrepancies. E.g., you all know that Noah took 1 pair of every animal into the ark, right? So God commands him in 6:19-20. But we heard in yesterday’s reading that he was to take on board 7 pairs of all the clean animals and birds and 1 pair of the unclean (7:2-3). Those extra pairs of the clean animals come in handy at the end of today’s reading when Noah offers a great sacrifice to the Lord; obviously it wouldn’t have done to have saved just 1 pair of sheep or 1 pair of cattle and then offered them up as a holocaust.
So what is God teaching us thru this story of the great flood? We heard 1 point yesterday in Fr. Dave’s homily: Noah was a man of faith who did what God commanded, even without knowing what God was planning.
What else? You know that anywhere you have a great river, like the Mississippi— sometimes even a small river or a creek—periodic floods are a problem, causing every now and then great destruction and loss of life. You can imagine what that was like in the ancient world before river control systems like dikes and dams, before weather forecasting and government warning systems. You also know that the stories of Gen 1-12 are set in Mesopotamia, precisely the “land between the rivers,” the great flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
So floods were a regular experience of the people who remembered and passed along these stories. In that ancient world, pagan peoples blamed natural disasters like floods on capricious gods who did whatever they wanted: while fighting with each other, deceiving each other, or just amusing themselves at human expense—like kids in the bathtub. Check your Greek mythology. Same was true of Babylonian myths, the context in which our Bible was born.
But the Hebrews didn’t believe God is capricious or uncaring. He has purpose. He has a plan. He is just. So the great flood—any natural disaster—doesn’t happen on a divine whim but as a just punishment of sinful humanity: “When the Lord God saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth” (6:5-6). But in his justice, God spares the 1 just man, Noah, and his family. Nature isn’t capricious but is an agent of God’s goodness or of his justice, and God takes care of his faithful servants. At the end, we see another aspect of God’s control of nature and his care for his creation: he begins the regulation of the seasons: “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter” (8:22), hitherto not mentioned as part of creation.
Another point is what Noah does after he and his family finally disembark: “Noah built an altar to the Lord” and offered a great sacrifice to God. This is the 1st time in the Bible that we hear about an altar. On it Noah burns numerous animals as holocausts, “from every clean animal and every clean bird” (8:20)—offerings entirely consumed by fire on the altar, given entirely to God and no portion kept for the ones offering the sacrifice, the most perfect form of Old Testament sacrifice. Noah is simultaneously adoring God thru sacrifice and giving thanks for his deliverance. Adoration and thanksgiving are 2 of the 4 universal purposes of prayer, purposes purer than atonement or petition. Noah is setting a pattern for the future patriarchs, King David, and Jewish religion in general.
Of course, on our altar we offer a perfect sacrifice, one incorporating all 4 purposes of prayer, as we offer the Body and Blood of God’s Son, grateful for our deliverance from the overwhelming flood of sin around us—and in us. May God preserve us thru his Son’s sacrifice!