If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Survivors Tale: Genesis 6-9

Many of you have probably seen Steven Spielberg's powerful movie Schindler's List. The novel by Thomas Keneally, upon which the movie was based, was originally entitled Schindler's Ark. The image of the ark is an appropriate symbol for Oscar Schindler's factory, which was a safe haven for hundreds of innocent victims of the Nazi holocaust. Unlike the description of Noah in Genesis 6-9, Oscar Schindler was no "righteous man," at least in the usual sense of the word. He was a philanderer and playboy. And yet, Schindler turned his factory into an ark, a refuge in the storm. It provided a safe place for a remnant of Jews to survive the carnage and destruction that overwhelmed them like a devastating flood. The story of Schindler's ark is a story of survivors. The story of Noah should be read as a survivor's tale.

Before reading the story as a survivor's tale, it must be first read as a story for adults. Our first reading of the Noah story was probably as a child in Sunday School. Our childhood images of the Noah story have stuck with us. Ark floating peacefully on the water. Smiling animals stuffed inside the bobbing boat. Giraffe head poking through the ark window. Noah's hand reaching out to feel for drops of rain. Dove with olive branch. Rainbow arched across the clear blue sky. And all is well on the earth. That's the children's version. And unfortunately, many of us still read the story through the lens of our childhood. Understandably, our children's version leaves out the utter destruction of the story. As children we didn't read Noah and the flood as the tale of those who survived the total annihilation of all creation.

If we read the story of Noah as a children's story, we will continue to avoid the interpretive work of struggling with the questions it raises. We need to face head on the problematic issues in the text as we reread this story as adults. To read the story as an adult may mean reading it as it is read within the Jewish tradition---with a freedom to raise questions about the story without feeling our faith will be denied, the Bible will be denigrated, or God will be disturbed. And raising questions doesn't mean we will get satisfactory answers to all our questions. An important part of adult faith is wrestling with our holy texts and living with the questions that remain.

An adult reading might begin with some of the problematic issues surrounding the Noah character. The text says that the world was irredeemably wicked and Noah was "alone righteous, blameless in his generation." Was Noah really the only righteous person in the whole wide world? Of all the people in the world was there not at least one other person worth saving? What about the children in diapers who perished under the waves? Were they all "bad seeds," mere fish food? Must they have suffered along with the wicked? Should we, and even more so God, ever look at humans as irredeemable? Was humanity really more wicked and beyond saving than other countless moments in human history?

And was Noah really a tzaddik, a righteous person? In a utterly wicked generation, Oscar Schindler was a womanizer and scoundrel, schmoozing with the Nazis. Yet, unlike Noah, he didn't simply think of himself, but tried to save others from the flood of the holocaust. Was Noah more righteous than the womanizer Oscar Schindler? Can we consider Noah a mere "innocent bystander," not uttering a word of protest amidst the screaming, gurgling and gasping for air, the clawing and pounding at the gofer wood door, and remaining silent at the sight of all the muck and mess and bloated bodies lying in front of the ark's open door? Can anyone be called "righteous, who stands by silently, protecting themselves while others suffer tragically? Would we call "righteous" those who stood by, said and did nothing during the holocaust? Doesn't righteousness mean speaking up or doing something for the victims and concern for others beyond ourselves?

Abraham was a tzaddik, a righteous person. He argued with God in an attempt to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were facing annihilation. Was Noah really all that blameless? After leaving the ark he got stinkin' drunk, lay in his tent naked as a jay bird exposing himself to his children, then overreacted by cursing his grandchild because his son saw him in his birthday suit! Would we want such a man as President, or should I say church leader? Was Noah that righteous or just the most righteous in his generation, which was probably not saying that much? Or, as the biblical text and Jewish commentary indicates, did Noah merely find favor in God's eyes? That is, was he saved by God's sheer grace?

And what of God's hand in this shetef (flood), this "humanicide"? In our story we have a God who regrets having made humanity. People, supposedly we're talking about the God of the universe, God with a capital "G." God regrets having created humanity? Shouldn't God have thought this through before Genesis chapter two? A little forethought might have been nice before wiping out all of creation. I mean it's not like God didn't have time to figure out that we humans were going to blow it. I could have told God that! Wasn't God being just a bit rash? What would you think if a parent looked at their own children and said, "I regret having created these children. It makes me so sad they turned out so bad, so I guess I'll just have to wipe them off the face of the earth and start all over again. Oh, but I will spare little Johnny"?

We would consider childish behavior the child who doesn't like the sand castle he made, so he says, "I don't like this!" and throws a fit and knocks it down. The problem is after God knocks down the sandcastle of this world, the new one isn't a whole heck of a lot better. According to the story, after totally destroying all of life on earth, except in the ark, the text says God finally learns something about us humans that God didn't seem to know before the flood---we humans are evil from the start. So, as long as the earth lasts and the seasons change, God will not kill us all with a flood again. Does the God of Noah need an education at the expense of all of created life?

Or, we might ask of the text, was the destruction of all living things really necessary? Total annihilation? I mean, this was a cataclysm beyond the help of the Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service! Wasn't this overreacting a bit? Could not God have been a little more selective in judging the world? Remember the children in diapers outside the ark? Well, tell me also, what horror had the hippos done? What was the sin of the sparrows? What crime had the kangaroos committed? And someone wants to know, "Did all the fish drown in the flood?" Isn't nondiscriminating, mass genocide or "cosmocide" overdoing it a bit? Like Noah, does God need to learn some self-restraint and to not overreact so much?

Now, we realize that the ancient writer of the story presents God from a very human point of view. I have been questioning the text from a modern viewpoint, wrestling with the text, probing for its truth. As adults we may need to ask these kinds of questions of the Noah story. Remember, this is not a child's story. It's a story for adults.

Even more so, the Noah story is a survivor's tale. Leaving aside our questions for a moment, it is possible to view this story as the tale of a survivor. Noah and his family survive the greatest tempest to ever come upon the face of the earth. In a real sense, there are many today who are in the same boat as Noah and his family. They are the survivors of the Nazi holocaust, nuclear blasts, the Vietnam War, childhood abuse, rape, or survivors of divorce, family upheavals, poverty,accidents, tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters. When you come out on the other side of such traumas, which turn your world on its head, you are often not the same person as you were before.

Survivors are often traumatized people. It is possible to read the story of Noah psychologically as the tale of a survivor, one traumatized by a world cataclysm. Traditionally, we have read of Noah's building an altar and offering a sacrifice immediately upon departing the ark as an act of lighthearted, joyous praise. Read through the lens of a survivor, it may be the response of one traumatized, an act of propitiation to placate a God of Terror, who can at any given moment wipe out all of creation. Might we also read Noah's drunken stupor as evidence of survivor's
syndrome, the reaction of someone pushed beyond the limits of what humans can endure? In most urban communities you can find disheveled, homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts who are Vietnam vets, victims of abuse, or family traumas, who years later are still anesthetizing themselves because of the calamities they survived.

We may not attribute every tragedy, trauma, or tribulation to God, as is the case with the story of Noah's flood, but the tales of survivors are strikingly similar. Survivor's are often haunted with the question, "Why me? Why was I spared, while others were not?" Could Noah have been haunted with such questions? Surviving traumas inevitably leaves some scarred. There are adults who have gone through childhood neglect or abuse who still bear the open wounds of their ordeal, having lost all respect for authority or who still have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.

Some fearful hearts, whose world has been overturned by a tornado, run in terror for the basement at any hint of green tinge in the gathering clouds. You may know someone who has lived through the Great Depression, who is practically obsessive with collecting and hoarding things that seem trivial to those who have lived without want. But, who among us has not been through some life trauma that has tossed our boat sideways and caused us to come out on the other side a different person? Aren't we all, in differing degrees, survivors?

But, the survivor's tale is not always a sad story. Being a survivor is not always a negative experience. It may create within us a heightened awareness of the gift of life and the grace of God. Noah's offering, after he left the ark, may have been a sheer act of gratitude for having been saved through the flood. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote this entry:

April l lth, 1945.Buchenwald. Hungry, emaciated, sick and weakened by fear and terror, Jewish inmates welcome their sudden freedom in a strange manner. They do not grab the food offered by the American.liberators. Instead, they gather in circles to pray. Their first act as free human beings was to say Kaddish (blessing), thus glorifying and sanctifying God's name.

We may come through the floods of our lives able to smell the freshness of the morning air, sigh a prayer of praise at the coo of a dove, or catch our breath at the sight of a rainbow. Being a survivor may cause our tongues to tell of God's goodness, our hands to do what God commands, our feet to walk more closely in God's paths, our heart to love more dearly God's world. We may begin to understand how God grieves over this wicked, wounded world. Having come through the wind and waves of life's overwhelming floods, some have set their feet down on solid ground and
have built new worlds, started new jobs, accomplished tasks once perceived as too daunting. Living through trials, traumas, and tribulations can cause us to renew our covenant with life and all of creation. Some survivors have turned to others who are struggling with life's swelling and swirling and helped lift them up from the wind and waves.

In the midst of a life that can come over us like a wild wave and tip our boats, we need stories to keep us afloat. Stories of survivors, from those who have come through the holocaust to a friend who has made it through a difficult family situation. We need stories of hope that give us the strength to keep on keeping on; stories like the one of Noah, that offer hope for strugglers and survivors.
Maybe we need this story because it brings to us a sprig of hope and causes a rainbow of promise to arch over our lives. Amid the flood of life's traumas and tragedies there can always be found a twig of hope, a sign of promise. They were there for Noah and his family; an olive branch in the beak of a dove, a bow of many bright colors. These small signs of hope and promise are there for you and me. These sprigs of hope give us the assurance that life will continue, that hope will prevail, that our God is a God of life. As we drown in a sea of TV news depicting tragedy, violence, war, political deception, and a world in turmoil, God may hold out a sprig of good news----a child raising money to help others, a church that feeds the homeless, a block party in a rough neighborhood that instills hope.

Even in the midst of the dark clouds of life's predicaments, God offers a twig of peace, a ray of light. Those who have endured childhood traumas may see on the horizon of adulthood the faint colors of an emerging rainbow. Young people today often speak of literally surviving their teen years. God offers to us teenagers who not only survive, but thrive as models of hope. God's sign of promise may come after an earth shattering divorce, as we begin to heal and create new relationships. Amid the loss of a loved one the branch of hope may be found in family and friends that become a refuge against the grief that seems to drown us in sorrow. God will always hold out to us the sprig of hope or arch over our lives a rainbow, however faint.

Whatever you have come through, endured, survived, the very fact that you are a survivor is a sign of hope. And because you have survived it may mean you are a sign of hope for someone struggling to make it through a similar life trauma. Such people, who have survived through life's turmoil have within them the bud of hope. To these hope-filled people God says, "Be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth with your kind."

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