Wild Lectionary: Beware the Cataclysm!

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Photo by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, Abide in Me

For readers of Wild Lectionary, there is hardly a Scripture passage more fitting than Genesis’ account of the Flood. The powerful, terrifying narrative is often reduced to a kids’ story, replete as it is with “cute” animals in the Ark. But, of course, beneath the surface is a story of divine near-omnicide, revealing a deep rift between the Creator’s vision and humanity’s response to God’s gift of the earth. In combination with the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7.21-28), this week’s texts offer a sobering reminder of the cost of human violence to the earth and its creatures, including sapiens.

The Common Lectionary begins at Genesis 6.9, but to gain a sense of what is going on, we need to go back a few verses. After the mysterious story of the Nephilim and their reputation as well-known warriors, we hear this chilling pair of verses:

YHWH saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And YHWH was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen 6.5-6)

The Hebrew phrasing emphasizes the depth of the alienation that has grown since the killing of Abel by Cain. Before thoughts even form, humans are said to be leaning toward evil. And there seems to be nothing YHWH can do about it. God cannot “fix” the “problem” as if it were amenable to a technical solution. All YHWH can do is grieve and seek to put an end to the mushrooming of human violence upon the earth. God decides to “blot out from the earth the human beings I have created…for I am sorry I made them.” Apparently, the divine project of granting humans stewardship over creation (2.15) has come to a crashing halt.

After we learn that Noah is a “just man” (Heb, ‘ish tsaddiq) “blameless in his generation,” we are told that human evil has become contagious, for “all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (6.12). Creation itself has become a cesspool of violence, an evil inverse of the divine intention. Indigenous Australian writer Wali Fejo, writing from the perspective of the earth and earth-based peoples, says that “[t]he Earth needs to be healed so that it can be renewed and unpolluted life can again replenish the land. The flood is the cleansing, the covering.” (Fejo, “The Voice of the Earth: An Indigenous Reading of Genesis 9,” in Norman Habel and Shirley Wurst, eds., The Earth Story in Genesis [Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000], p. 142)

The Greek translation of the story (the Septuagint) renders the Hebrew for “flood” with kataklusmos, “cataclysm.” Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a momentous and violent event marked by overwhelming upheaval and demolition; broadly:  an event that brings great changes…” In addition to being a cleansing, the Flood is a de-creation, an undoing, a returning to square one of YHWH’s creation experiment.

And yet, it is not a definitive cleansing. As soon as the Flood recedes, human violence returns, in the form of the hunter-warrior king, Nimrod, whose establishment of the first earthly empire is a counter-creation. Genesis subtly but clearly states that “the beginning (Heb, re`shith) of his kingdom was Babel…” (Gen 10.10). The only other use in Genesis of the Hebrew term rendered “beginning” is at 1.1. There is God’s “beginning” of creation, which is “good,” and then there is the human “beginning” of empire, which spreads more violence and domination across the earth, threatening to cover over the living planet with bricks and bitumen (11.3).

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see the repetition of this pattern: humans seek to control and dominate creation, and the earth, with God’s support, fights back. In Egypt, Joseph interprets pharaoh’s dream that he is “standing “on” (Heb, `al, not “by” as in NRSV) the Nile (Gen 41.1). The dream is transparent, although none of the Egyptian royal interpreters understand it. Pharaoh, like kings and emperors throughout the ages, imagines himself as the Lord of creation, controlling its fertility for the sake of his own power and wealth, a task for which Joseph helpfully offers advice (41.33-36). While the plan to profit off the people’s hunger “works” in the short term, the book of Exodus narrates the undermining of this claim to authority over the earth in the story of the Ten Plagues. The lush flow of the Nile, with its rich harvest of nutrients picked up along the way to the Delta, is turned to blood, rendering the water unfit for drinking (Ex 7.17-24). Later, in Leviticus, we hear a divine warning of the consequences of not living in harmony with the ways of the Creator, as expressed in the Jubilee (Lev 25-26). If people continue to be “hostile” to YHWH in refusing to allow the earth and its creatures the rest God intents, “the land shall enjoy its sabbath years…while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbath years” (Lev 26.34).

Matthew takes up this image in the Sermon on the Mount, and again later in his apocalyptic discourse (Matt 24.38-39). In the section of the Sermon in this week’s lectionary (Matt 7.21-28), the image of sudden waters pouring out over the human project is offered as a two-part simile, contrasting two types of “foundations” upon which to build a life. Jesus says that those “who hear these words of mine and act on them will be like a wise person who builds their house on rock,” while those who hear but refuse to act in accordance with the Word “will be like a foolish person who builds their house on sand.” In both cases, the rain becomes rivers (Gk, potamoi), washing away the sand-house while not damaging the rock-house. Of course, the rock-foundation is the Sermon itself, with its numerous admonitions to break the cycle of violence, both personally and politically.

The choice is clear: if our human projects are not grounded in the Creator, the creation itself will recoil against us. Our foolish and futile attempts to control nature will always be undermined by the wild, overwhelming power of creation itself.

We’re sure few Radical Discipleship readers need to be persuaded to reject the violence of war and of earth-exploitation, as challenging as that can be in practice. But the Sermon on the Mount inextricably links interpersonal violence with social and political violence. The very first example Jesus offers is the pattern of allowing anger at a sister or brother to lead us to dehumanize them with violent words (5.21-26). No offering to God is more important, Jesus says, than the urgent need to heal a broken human relationship. It is from this that the cycle of violence begins, and where it must first be interrupted so that healing and reconciliation can take place. Without that, the Flood is not far away, as Jesus reminds his hearers later in Matthew:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Human One. For as in those days before the flood (Gk, kataklusmos) they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Human One. (Matt 24.37-39)

As we move into the summer season, we often participate in re-creative activities on the earth, that replenish our bodies and spirits with the joy of sun and sand, wind and waves. As we enjoy these healing and delightful times, we might ask: what relationships have we left unhealed, wounded or broken by harsh words? There is no time like now to seek to restore those places of dis-ease that haunt the backs of our minds and hearts. The Human One comes to us like a flood. The choice is ours whether that arrival produces destruction or cleansing healing, for us and for all creation.

Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.

Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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