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The Cross-Shaped Ark: A Christ-centered, Nonviolent Interpretation of the Genesis Flood Narrative

The Cross-Shaped Ark: A Christ-centered, Nonviolent Interpretation of the Genesis Flood Narrative

Fundamentalists often assume, and would have others believe, that the flood narrative is a straightforward account of divine violence. But such a wooden interpretation does theological violence to the character of God. So, instead of approaching this story with either the pseudoscientific or "plain meaning" hermeneutics of Fundamentalists, a trained Christian student of biblical interpretation will instead seek to get inside the story and understand it from the perspective of its original hearers. And secondly, Christian interpreters will interpret the story in the light of Christ's Advent, Passion, and Mission of New Creation. Christian interpreters ask "What does the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ have to say about this?" Therefore, the Christian hermeneutic necessary for understanding this story is one of historical, cultural insight combined with a Christian perspective of the whole biblical narrative. 

First, the flood narrative is about God's judgment of humanity. Fundamentalists who seek to use this account as a clear example of divine violence often quickly skim over the reason given for God's judgment of humanity: violence (Gen. 6.11-13). So Fundamentalists would have us believe that God hated humanity's violence so much that God decided to commit violence against humanity to judge them. Perhaps God is wiser than this simplistic reading—a reading that would have us believe God is fighting violence with even greater violence. What exactly would this teach humanity about violence? Is a parent who models nonviolence for her or his children a better teacher than God? And is this what Christ—who is God incarnate—taught and modeled?

Second, it should be noted that the flood is not as much destruction as it is re-creation. The earth, meaning the local area affected by this deluge, is being given over to the primordial and chaotic waters of pre-creation (cf. Gen. 1). Before God brought order to the cosmos, it was overrun by chaotic forces the Genesis creation account calls "waters". In fact, throughout the Hebrew Bible, water is continually used as a symbol for chaos and even evil. This should come as no surprise considering how treacherous sea voyages were to ancient peoples. The sea was rightfully seen as a powerful, untamed force. Unpredictable storms and the resulting waves constantly threatened to swallow up ships and their passengers. Therefore, ancient hearers of the flood story knew that a great deluge was a symbol of chaotic forces being loosed upon the earth—or in this case the local affected area.

How are we to understand this unleashing of chaotic waters upon the earth? Does the good God of Israel command evil? Is God's character in question? Perhaps Paul, a brilliant Hebrew scholar trained in Torah far better than any modern Gentile interpreter, and someone who met the Risen Christ, could help shed some light on how we are to understand God's wrath. In Romans chapter 1, Paul gives a historical and theological overview of humanity's decent into sinfulness and rebellion against God. Paul also details God's response to humanity's sin, which he calls God's wrath. So, how does Paul teach that God demonstrates God's wrath? Three times in this fourteen verse pericope, Paul teaches us that God's response is a "giving over" of humanity to the consequences of their own sin (v.24, 26, 28).

Since God is good, rebellion against God carries with it its own punishment. Sin is inherently destructive, because sin is a breaking of God's shalom, and broken shalom is chaos. When Paul summarizes humanity's descent into sinfulness and rebellion against God, he does not teach that, in response, God commits violence against humanity. No, in stark contrast, Paul teaches that God lovingly allows humanity to experience the consequences of their free moral choices. Which is a wiser pedagogical approach: To punish violence with even greater violence, or to allow violent people to experience the effects of their own violence? Is God a wise teacher, or a spiteful child?

In the case of the flood narrative, humanity has become corrupt and violent. God is patient and slow to anger, but "God's Spirit will not contend with humanity forever" (6.3) —which means God's patience has limits. And when God's patience runs out, Paul teaches us that God will cease to contend with humanity and withdraw God's protective grace, allowing humanity to experience all the effects of their own sinful rebellion. The waters of chaos will come crashing down on them.

Third, a righteous family, represented by its patriarch, is chosen by God to be the microcosm of a new creation. This too is highly theological.

Sidenote: Fundamentalists who believe the "Fall" in Genesis 3 resulted in "total depravity" for all human beings from birth have no explanation for how Noah managed to remain righteous. Perhaps Noah was born on a different planet, or to non-human parents? Surely if every human being is born sinful, Noah too was born sinful. And if Genesis 6.5 is to be used as a proof-text for the "total depravity" of all human beings, Noah could not be considered "blameless." But I digress…

The theme of God choosing a righteous family, represented by its patriarch, to be the microcosm of a new creation is not accidental to the story. Instead, it is the theme that students of the Hebrew Bible will note time and time again. It is the chosen method of God for dealing with the problem of evil. God covenants with humanity through a representative man and his family to bring about transformation throughout the world from the inside. Noah here is a new Adam who prefigures the Last Adam, Messiah Jesus. When Noah fails, as all human beings inevitably do, God chooses another representative man and his family to be God's covenant partner: Abraham. And through Abraham, God covenants with an entire nation to be God's chosen people: Israel.

But the story of God's covenant does not end there. No, Israel too will fail in her mission to be a light to the Gentiles and to show forth God's praises throughout the whole world. Israel would rebel against God over and over, and the God who is patient and slow to anger would redeem them from their own sin over and over. Until, finally, God's patient had run out. God took matters into God's own hands, and came in the Person of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth to live the life of covenant faithfulness that Israel could not, and to atone for the sins of all humanity. After giving his life for humanity's sins, Jesus was raised to new life and ascended to heaven where he rules and reigns as the King of all the earth. Now, in and through Messiah Jesus, God has established a new covenant family who are bringing about the recreation of the whole world: the Church. To be included in this new family, one must enter into the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus. To do this, one must be washed in the waters of baptism—a participation in Jesus's death and resurrection—becoming a member of the Church and committing to a cruciform life of discipleship, in humble imitation of the Lord. God is transforming the world, not through armies or violence, but through the revolutionary power of the Cross—by which Jesus disarmed and humiliated the Powers (Col. 2.15).

In the same way, in the Genesis flood account, God provided humanity with a way of salvation from the flood of their own rebellious sin crashing down on them, and an escape from the evil, chaotic power of the sea: the Ark. Just as the Cross is the means by which God has made salvation available for the whole world, the Ark was the means by which Noah's family and anyone else who repented could be saved. Like the Cross, The Ark was a symbol of God's grace and loving provision of salvation.

God's wrath does not last always. Eventually, the rain ended and a dove delivered the Good News that dry land was now surfacing. Noah's family was filled with hope for a new beginning, a brand new world was opened up for them. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, in bodily form like a dove, descended and alighted upon Messiah Jesus at the time of his baptism, signaling to all who witnessed it that hope for a new beginning had come—the Good News was preached by a dove!

And after the waters receded, a new journey began for Noah's family. They shared in a covenant relationship with God and God called them on a mission. That mission continued to Abraham, and on through Abraham to Israel, and through Israel to Messiah Jesus. And in and through Messiah Jesus, God's mission continues for all those in Messiah Jesus's covenant family: the Church. Jesus is the "Last Adam" (I Cor. 15.45) and the One through whom God is re-creating the world again.


Photo credit: Tony Bowden used in accordance with creative commons license

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Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, Associate Pastor @NewCityChurch of Los Angeles, sometimes web designer, writer, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.

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