God Has a Heart?! A Novel Idea!
"WTF? (Why the Flood)" Part Four: One of the major retcons in the Noah story is how it characterizes God as a caring, compassionate Creator.
RETCONS IN GENESIS 6-9
Last week I discussed the concept of the “retcon,” a term that came from the world of comic books that means, “retroactive continuity.” It’s when a present day author makes a change to a character’s backstory, or a previously established plot point, in order to serve the needs of the story they are currently trying to tell.
I propose this is how we think of the story of Noah and the ark found in Genesis 6-9. It was ancient Israelite’s retcon’d version of older Mesopotamian Flood Myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh—which we’ll turn to now as a way to highlight some of the retcons Genesis makes.
The goal of the retcons were to uniquely tell a Great Deluge myth that illustrates how Israel believed their God was different from the gods of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and so on.
I’ll be primarily focusing on three significant retcons over the next few posts, but quickly here are three minor tweaks to the story:
The duration of the flood: It rained for only 7 days and nights for Utnapishtim, but it rained for 40 days and nights for Noah—requiring Noah to remain inside his boat for a whole year.
This size and shape of the boats: Utnapishtim built a giant cube, whereas Noah was given dimensions much more like what a traditional boat would look like.
The sending out of birds: Both stories have the protagonist sending out birds after the flood to assess the situation, yet the types of birds differ.
While these (seemingly minor) alterations might have meant something more profound or interesting to the original audience, today they don’t strike me as all that meaningful.
But the following retcons? In my opinion, these get at the heart of how the Israelite storytellers were using the medium of the Ancient Flood Myths to tell the world all about why they worship and serve their God, Yahweh.
RETCON #1: THERE IS ONE MOST HIGH GOD (WHO ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT HUMANITY)
In the Epic of Gilgamesh we read about a council of gods who were fed up with wicked and noisy humans. When their attempts to control the population via drought and famine failed, they decided that in order to attain the peace and quiet they so desperately sought they would just wipe out humanity altogether. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the gods had no intention of telling humanity about their plans, either.
By contrast, in Genesis there is no council of gods. We read about one God, the Creator. Distinct from the Babylonian gods, Israel’s God is not annoyed at humans for such trivial matters like being too noisy. According to the Genesis myths, Yahweh is seen as loving, creative, caring, and compassionate.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Compassionate? Caring? Um, you do know that in the Genesis story God still killed everybody, right?”
I hear you. And that is part of the tension I’m hoping to address in this series. How it can be that a God who is said to have wiped out every living creature is, at the same time, described as loving and compassionate.
Keep in mind that the purpose of these stories (myths) in Genesis were not to preserve factual events of history that were supernaturally delivered to ancient Israelites in a vacuum. As we covered in Part One, these stories were a theological history for Israel, designed to give their sense of calling a backstory, a larger narrative in which they as a people-group resided and in which their beliefs about God uniquely stood.
My belief is that most people in that part of the world had an ancestral awareness of an actual event that happened in the distant past, i.e., a devastating flood. One severe enough to live on in the memories through the stories told and re-told around the campfire. Depending on where you lived, or how you grew up, you might’ve heard the story told slightly differently, but everyone just sorta knew it happened. Over time such stories took on a life of their own, and might’ve even been formalized or crystalized in larger more preserved narratives (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and, much later, Noah).
Specifically for Israel, then, you can imagine them living in a world where, like everyone else, they accepted a global flood happened a long time ago. Therefore, the point of an ancient myth—especially the retcons located therein—is to look back in time and attempt to ascribe some kind of meaning to past events. (Which, it should be noted, is still something we all do today. We look back in our own lives, or in the collective history of our nation, and we attempt to make meaning out of things that happened years ago).
At this time in history (when Genesis was finally edited and recorded) Israel was hard at work discerning who they were and what they were called to be in the world. Which meant—among other things—contrasting their God with the other, lesser gods of the surrounding nations (specifically the Babylonians, who was likely Israel’s captors during the time when Genesis took final shape).
It should be noted, since my belief about the inspiration of the Bible does not include scenarios in which God beams purified information of truth into and through human meat puppets, I don’t read Genesis 6-9 as though it is a story being told directly by God themself. Rather, my intuition goes something like this: There existed Israelite poets and priests and leaders who sat around discussing and pondering events they believed happened, such as a Great Flood, and tried to comprehend why Yahweh would do such a thing.
Because remember, if something happened (especially something in nature), then it was assumed that of course the gods/God did it. The question was not, “Did God send a flood to destroy the earth,” the question was, “Since God sent a flood to destroy the earth, what does that mean? How might that fit within our growing understanding of a God of compassion and love and creativity?”
With that in mind, then, it isn’t a big stretch for me to believe that one of the conclusions they landed on was that since God destroyed everything with a flood, and due to the fact that they believed God was fundamentally good, then therefore the only logical explanation is that humanity had to have gotten that bad.
Which is precisely how the writers described it,
“The Eternal One saw that wickedness was rampaging throughout the earth and that evil had become the first thought on every mind, the constant purpose of every person. At that point God’s heart broke, and He regretted having ever made man in the first place.” -Genesis 6:5-7
Read today, with our modern minds and western, post-enlightenment sensibilities, we read words like that and can only see a God who “regretted” making humans and therefore chose to wipe us all out. To us, this oozes with injustice, and paints a picture of a God too easily offended, and monstrous enough to kill everybody.
But can you put yourself in an ancient Israelite’s sandal for a moment?
Is there a way that you can hear in those words that Yahweh, in contrast to the Babylonian gods who were annoyed at the noisy humans, is said to have a heart?
A genuine, real, heart?
One that even holds the capacity to be broken?
The way the story gets told is to propose that the Creator of everything cared so much for humanity that his heart literally broke and he wondered if perhaps he never should’ve created us because the breaking hurt so much.
If that’s not the truest thing ever, I don’t know what is.
They say it’s better to have loved and loss than to never have loved at all, but I’m not convinced.
If you’ve ever lost someone you loved with every fiber of your being, then you know the unique pain that such an experience holds.
Now imagine scaling that up to a cosmic degree. A God who IS love, and who loves ALL humans with the deepest and truest love, simultaneously experiencing a deep rift in the relationship. A breaking of the covenant. A rupture of the connection.
All I can say is, if I were God in this story, I too might ponder if the price of suffering is too high to pay.
For in the moments of my most agonizing heartbreak I recall regretting the choices I made that led me to experience a kind of love that would one day be capable of hurting me so deeply.
So when I read these opening lines to the story of Noah, I hear an ancient insistence that there are not many gods who machinate the trivial lives of humans, there is one God who’s solely responsible.
And I hear an old echo of truth that pushes against claims found in sources like the Epic of Gilgamesh, declaring that God is neither petulant nor trite. Our God, the Israelites insisted, is not the kind of deity to destroy humans on a whim because they didn’t get enough sleep the night before.
Rather, we read about a Creator who cares and loves deeply. So deeply, in fact, that even after a great flood is used to reset the population, this God wants to try again.
Which is when Noah enters the picture.
And that’s where I’ll pick it up next week for the second Genesis retcon.
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What do you think of the series so far?
I’d love to hear your thoughts as we’ve been exploring Noah now for four weeks.
What’s stood out to you?
What have you learned?
How are you feeling about the ideas I’ve proposed so far?
Leave a comment and let’s discuss!
CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
PART 1: The Myth of the Great Flood
PART 2: There’s More than One Ancient Flood Story
PART 3: Changing Well Known Details to Make a Point
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
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I love that we are able to compare and contrast
The Noah story with the other ancient stories. That is not something I have been exposed to previously. I have always wanted to look at the Bible through a historic lens, looking at it culturally is so helpful!
Your take on the Israelites trying to figure out how their god “behaved”(for lack of a better word) in the world and toward humans in particular, makes so much sense. The fact that the Hebrew writings continued to unfold a generous and loving Being, carefully preserved and edited throughout their history continues even today. In that way, it is a “living and transformational word” to all. Early Christians took the loving version of god to a new level in the person of Jesus and it certainly transformed the world! My thought, however, begs the question, is it time to move beyond ascribing only human characteristics to the Creator? This seems to me, the next unfolding that is necessary for faith to continue in the generations to come. Perhaps the current theological mystics will be the primary source of this unfolding?