Imagination of Man's Heart
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 9, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 8: 13-22
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Most of us, if we grew up in the church have known and loved this morning's story. The story of Noah is one of the first ones we teach our kids. It has so many vivid images that warm a child's heart. There is the rainbow and the dove. . . the kindly old bearded man, working away at his ark, and of course there are the animals, lined up 2 by 2, the humpbacked camel and the kangaroo. "Cat's and Rat's and elephants, and sure as your born" no one could forget the legends of the unicorn, magical creature lost forever because they just didn't make it on board. Noah is a magical story for kids, it's a great story in a Sunday School room, great craft potential, great songs, you can rise and shine and give God your glory, glory, all morning long, but out here, it's much more difficult. Out here we have questions. Out here we have some concerns. Out here the animals and the rainbow are paralleled with the destruction of the world, the cost of wickedness and violence, and most troubling for me, God seeming to change His mind, at least twice, showing remorse, at least twice, and that is troubling. . . for a God who the story has shown so far to be a perfect, sovereign, unerring, creator of everything. So I've been dreading this one. It is the story, probably most of all the stories in the Bible, that I have the most trouble with, the hardest to make sense of, but this week reading, rereading, praying, and thinking I feel much more comfortable with it than I ever have before, so we're at least getting somewhere. So I chose a passage from one of the endings. I chose it because it has a very interesting phrase for what God is up to. . . I'll point it out as I read.
13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18 So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19 And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
That jumped out at me as I was reading. . . "the imagination of man's heart." By a stroke of luck I was reading the Revised Standard Version, but the King James also uses that translation, but they are the only versions that put it that way, which is the more literal translation of the Hebrew word, which is "yetser," having to do with being formed, or shaped, as a potter, paired then with the heart, the source of intellect, rather than emotion to the Hebrews. The NRSV, says "The intention" of the human heart" the NIV says, "every inclination of his heart," Imagination, though, is such a cool image I thought, and what it means helps me with this troubling passage, but let's put that off for now to focus on the troubling parts, and some other key background details that may help put it all into perspective. Let's walk through my week of thoughts.
One issue of the story is the text. There seems to be at least two accounts of the story superimposed and jammed together to produce one connected though disjointed narrative. The biggest most glaring difference, though often ignored, is the amount of each animal brought on board. The all so famous two by two is only one version, the other claims instead 7 pairs of each clean animal, but only one pair of each unclean. And they are back to back, at the end of chapter 6 with the 2 by 2, and then the beginning of 7 with the 7 pairs. It makes for difficult reading because it gets to be repetitive and contradicting all together. It can be troubling, but the story is there, and it has power even with the contradictions. Any reader of the gospel should know that often a Bible reader has to take such things in stride. Multiple versions of stories being placed together seamlessly is part of the Bible's charm really.
But these two aren't the only two versions of the flood narrative that exists. One of the oldest pieces of literature that we have in existence still, found in its primary form, carved in a tablet of lapiz-lazuli is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian epic. It too includes the flood in its story. I read that every year with my World Lit students, and they are always blown away to think that there is another source for the Noah's ark story. They are always like, hey isn't that Noah's ark from the Bible. I always ask them the same question. It's the beginning of the year, and a good time to plant these kinds of seeds. I ask them, and I'll ask you as well, "Do you think the fact that more than one civilization attests to the story that it is more or less likely to have actually happened in history?" It gets them thinking. Remember they are all mostly skeptical teenagers, so they are moving from doubt usually to faith. . . What about you, does it make you think anything different? The honest answer is that it really shouldn't make much difference, since it is all a leap of faith anyway, evidence for or against isn't really what it's all about. . . perhaps someone should have told Bill Nye and Ken Ham before they had their three hour debate earlier this week. . . there is a lot of noise, it's a fun argument, but not a whole lot of movement happens, on either side. Faith comes from other places, than facts, like the cross.
But it is cool to take the Noah story and look at how it is different from the one in Gilgamesh. The biggest difference is all about why it all happens. From a Sumerian point of view there isn't one god, first of all there are many, and they have a council, and the council decides to flood the Earth because human beings are becoming too strong, and may challenge their dominance and authority. They are the jealous god types, and want to make sure that those uppity humans stay in their place. It is actually very similar, in a very pagan way, to the "Tower of Babel" story that we'll look at next week. The Hebrews though bring in the idea of moral correction being at stake. That God is correcting the behavior of people. . . hating violence. . and wishing to once and for all make a statement about the consequences of violent behavior. It is an important an poignant distinction about the difference between this Biblical Creator God, who Bara's and the gods seen by the rest of the world. So that important distinction has been in my head this week.
But then I've always known, most of us would claim, that God has an eye toward the ethics and morals of his people, that God doesn't like wickedness, that isn't anything new. How could a God of Justice not revile wickedness? But let me get to the biggest difficulty I've always had with this text. Most people would think it would be about the destruction of God destroying the world, and though that is troubling, the bigger issue I have isn't that God would destroy the world, but that he would change His mind, not just changing his mind, but changing it based on His reacting to human beings, human beings He created, to which his knowledge should be perfect. A reactive God isn't free. . . and I think God's freedom is an important aspect of his sovereignty. It gets in the difference between consequences and punishment, and then also then the difference between manipulation and love. Here is what I mean.
It all starts with the difference between punishment and consequences: We touched on it a little bit before when we were looking at Adam and Eve, but I didn't really get into it then, to any real degree of depth. Here is what I mean, there are times when Coralee, she's gotten better, so maybe Clara is a better example, she does something, usually climbing up something she shouldn't, and she needs learn so, invariably she falls, and the first words out of mine or DeAnna's mouth is, "That's what happens." This is how I see the "lest ye die" in the garden, the expulsion and the result of that original sin. . . It is also how I saw last week's situation with Cain, yes Cain you killed Abel, the ground cries out, now you must head out on your own. Hey it's what happens. . . we often see it as punishment from our limited perspective, but it is simply God's system, God's perfect system unfolding, and God's presence with us always stays. Punishment on the other hand happens afterwards, is reactive, becomes about manipulation, teaching yes, but through changing the reality. Sometimes it's a good thing, and a necessary thing, thinking again about Clara, sometimes the natural consequence is too great, so teaching through punishment can curb bad behavior before the results get real. Like slapping the hand before it touches the stove, the slap is much less serious than the burns, but how does that apply to flooding the entire earth and saving one family? God seems to be reacting to the poor behavior of humanity, by destroying humanity. . . if it's reactive punishment. . . it doesn't seem to be inspired and instructive, but destructive and defeated, like God was giving up. . . Genesis 6:6 "And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." How can God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, grieve a mistake? How is that love? See this story is a little troubling, huh. . . but then God changes his mind again, and vows never to destroy the world again, at least not in the same way, and puts a rainbow in the sky to prove it, placing his bow in the sky, laying down his arms, a surrendering action of peace, and the beginning of a new theme in the Old Testament, the first covenant. We'll have more. . . but the interesting thing about this first one, is that it is all on God. There is no bargain just that fact. God won't do it again. So good for us, yeah, but again God grieving and regretting an action, which is still very troubling. Are there other mistakes?
I said that I didn't really have a problem with the action God takes. The world being in abject rejection of wickedness is a good thing. It's justice, the workings of a just God. But isn't consistency and blindness a few of the aspects of justice that we hold so dear? Lately in my World Literature class we've looked at the concept of Judgment Day because we were studying Islam, and now this week we were looking at Dante's Divine Comedy. I was explaining to them how logically these are necessary elements to a world that is free and just at the same time. They logically flow and stem from the basic idea that God equals Good. Justice equals Good. Creation though isn't Good now. . . and so Dante's Inferno and the doctrine of Judgment Day are based on the idea that Creation will one day be Just, the rights will be rewarded and the wrongs fixed. It's harsh right, but logical. We grow squeamish around such concepts, but we must ask ourselves honestly why that is? We have our doubts, right. . . about the whole thing, and our place in it, we have a dread about our own wickedness, and our comfort, our comfortable lives built on wickedness, nuclear weapons keeping us safe, systems kept alive by greed and envy, using violence to buy our security, and we like to say, "Thank God for Jesus!" And here the lights went on this week in this story.
A change in perspective. . . not to the many perishing in the flood, but to the one small simple family spared. It is so easy to take for granted the one, that Noah was just chosen at random, like we see the animals are, but no, God sees in Noah a noble heart, an honest character, and that matters to God, too. It matters enough to God to save one just because he was good in a bad world, and that is so hard. Now we find out as the story progresses that Noah isn't perfect and he messes up, too, but there was something about Noah worth saving. The name, Noah, means "comfort, rest" let us seek to take rest in the fact that God cared enough to spare Noah, truly amazing, and truly important. . . so love maybe within the inconsistencies.
Now I've been all over, and I posed a few issues only to change gears, not dealing with the issues, but showing some of the happy side of it. And that brings me to my favorite line, that image, of "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." God says this twice. At the beginning in Chapter 6 and then here in Chapter 8, both around God's decisions. First to destroy, and then never to destroy again. Now I'm not saying that the issues of this text aren't real and troubling to us, but is that not the imaginations of hearts? The same imagination that leads us to doubt God, to eat the fruit, to see the world as an illusion, rather than what is real. The truth is there is much to this story that isn't understood, and there is also a certain arrogance in trying to understand it, rather than simply seeing the rainbow in the sky and knowing that God is. The inconsistencies fall aay, as mere figments of our wicked imaginative hearts, and the spectrum is real in our true vision. The Sunday School lesson becomes the more important. The faith of a child becomes the real lesson. There may be some inconsistencies, but the truth of God is all through this story, and the truth of Christ is all through this story. What could be more consistent than that? In honor of the children to whom we should aspire to be more like. Let me close witha line from a great children's song, usually sung by a familiar frog. . . "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?" Because God's still on the other side. Amen!