Two dear friends of mine reject the God of the Bible because of passages like this one. It don’t blame them. Over the years I too have grown fatigued with callous doctrinal academics or simplistic Christian clichés. I feel like a child trying to describe mysteries, like an adult grappling with God amid the beauties and true horrors in the world.
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”(Genesis 6:13)
Does the God of the Old Testament need anger management? I have no easy answer. But I do know that we must take the text as it actually presents itself. If we let it stand on its own terms, we begin to find clues.
- The entire tone of Genesis 6 is lament. Repeatedly, we are told that God is sorrowful. The situation “grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6) Likewise, what made God sorrowful was the sexual and physical misuse that neighbors were making of one another. We too cry outrage when persons are victimized by violence. We grapple with death penalty questions, but none of us doubts that such perpetrators require judgement and incarceration. At minimum, Christians and thoughtful non-Christians can agree that this passage does not provide a picture of a deity lustful with vengeance that “gets off” on making innocent people suffer. Nor are we dealing with “small sins” of stealing candy bars when we were ten years old. Men, women and children are joining in and committing violent crime.
- God is not presented as throwing a tantrum. Typically a tantrum arises from a spoiled heart that does not get what it wants. A toddler who wanted ice cream and was told to wait until after dinner; a man who was fired from his job, buys a gun and then kills his co-workers before turning the gun on himself; or King Triton in the Little Mermaid who in a fit of rage destroys Ariel’s room only to say to himself later, “what have I done?” this is the stuff of tantrums. But the text reveals God as patient, measured, expressing his mind on a matter that is of trouble to Him, and having a plan that must be adopted because to Him there is no other way. This scene reveals one doing something that one does not want to do but feels there is no other way forward. Those who tantrum avoid the hard road of difficult thought and measured feeling. Tantrums are easy. Entering the mess of our condition with heartfelt and reasonable conclusions is not.
- God is not presented as a dictator hungry with exerting his power. When Hitler flew his Blitzkrieg over London or Stalin created the man-made famine for his own people in Ukraine, men, women and children were killed solely at the whim of the dictator who intends to demonstrate his power. Disregard and happy cruelty are the means a dictator uses to exalt himself. But this picture does not seem to fit Genesis 6 either. God personally created these people who are dear to him. His issue is the harm they are doing to one another. His intent is to stop widespread violence and defend neighbor-love. Dictators share no such concern.
- Genesis 6 presents a picture closer to that of a lamenting judge. We know something of this in our own lives. We teach our boys and girls to go get help when facing a bully. But we also teach them that if everything else fails and there is no help to be found, here is how you use pepper spray, or here is how you throw a punch. We do this recognizing the truth of what Genesis 6:5 says. A part of living in this world sadly requires us to learn what to do with a bully who will not stop when our milder means invite him to. As a last resort, eventually, a person, a community or a nation must take stronger means to stop the carnage. All I know is that Genesis six puts us in a situation more like what a lamenting but good judge must face and choose with those who insist on counting their violence, rather than a childish tantrum or a dictator’s lusts.
- We all instinctively long for judgment. If God is a lamenting but good judge, this is good news for us. Those of us victimized in our families long for the family secret to end. We wish someone in the family would stand up and say, “This is how it really was.” Those of us victimized by crime profoundly desire someone to declare what was right and what was wrong and for consequences to occur accordingly. We are rendered mentally troubled when someone tells us we deserved the beating we got, when we didn’t deserve it, and that the perpetrator should be excused, when in fact the perpetrator was wrong. We will not long watch our favorite police drama on weeknights if it regularly resembles No Country for Old Men. Something inside us wants the bad guy to get caught and the good guy to be defended even if the good guy dies in the end such as in Gladiator. It is a hard thing for an animal to dwell among a violent people. They cut off the wings of bees for fun. They attach fires to the tails of cats for humor. Noah, his extended family, and the animals are defended by God’s action against those who would willingly victimize them. I do not understand everything here. But the Bible presents God as opposing violence and therefore resisting those who would willingly create an environment of harm. The Bible also presents God as rationally judging the violent with lament after long years of forbearance which renders vigilante justice in his name erroneous. We cannot simply take up violence into our own hands nor think of such horrific things gleefully.
- Finally, God begins to un-violent us through Jesus. Gradually as the Old Testament unfolds, God makes the battles of his people look silly. He takes their weapons, teaches them that the battle belongs to him, and has them sing, march about, blow trumpets, hold up Moses’ arm, smash jars or use slingshots. Then he makes the ongoing Old Testament mantra, “the battle belongs to the Lord” shed its physical clothes exposing the spiritual reality underneath. The battle is not fought with flesh and blood. Not really. Something larger violences us. Something inward agitates and seethes us. The same God who judged Noah’s perpetrators and vindicated Noah and the animals, sent his own son. That son, Jesus teaches that violence comes from the heart. He then surrenders as an innocent man to the full violence and cruelty of humanity with the cross. From there He seeks God to forgive the violators of neighbor-love. He dies at the hands of murderers, rises from the grave and then his followers teach what he lived. Our weapons are not material. Our battle is spiritual. Grace is our hope . . . Never again will God the lamenting Judge flood the violent earth. Instead, he will give himself to take the punishment we earned and to defend the victimized. He will rise. And finally, will we.