Beginning the World Over Again
(Chris Schelin is the Dean of Students at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland. At Lakeshore, he is better known as Emma and Isaac’s dad)
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed,
for in his own image
God made humans.
7 “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and have dominion over it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand…”
So wrote Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense, America’s first bestseller. When it was published in January 1776, Common Sense made the first serious argument for independence from Great Britain and for a highly democratic, egalitarian government. Paine saw the Revolution as an opportunity to overcome old patterns of hierarchy and oppression that had plagued Europe for centuries. A new era was dawning.
Paine alluded to the Flood Story in Genesis 6-9 as another moment of new creation. In fact, our text for today deliberately echoes the creation accounts in chapters 1 and 2. In Genesis 9:1-3, God blesses the occupants of the ark, encourages them to “be fruitful and multiply,” pronounces their authority over the animal kingdom, and sets their diet. These four declarations occur in the same order in Genesis 1:28-30. God provides a strict command enforced by a death penalty verses 5-6, just as we find in Genesis 2:16-17. Humanity will once again descend from a single pair (Adam and Eve before, Noah and his wife now) and spread across the earth from a single point of origin.
What is new is not always better, as the differences between the stories demonstrate. In Genesis 1, God is depicted as creating an idyllic paradise and can’t help but name its goodness over and over. But the post-Flood creation now accommodates human frailty, and no such divine compliment is spoken. Humanity’s benevolent governance of animals gives way to terror as God allows the consumption of meat. The one law in Eden was simply not to eat fruit from a tree. Now God is trying to keep people from murdering one another. God must even impose limits on himself, promising not to commit genocide on the human race for its wickedness.
I expect that most of us are approaching Advent and the close of this year with the feeling that life is more like Genesis 9 than Genesis 1. As we take stock of 2022, where do we find ourselves – spiritually, emotionally, physically? In our personal lives, we may ask: Did I stick with that diet and exercise regimen I set for myself? Can I name and set aside the voices in my head that tell me I am not worthy of love? Have I made time to sit silently in the presence of God? We can assess the health of our communities, how we have worked together with our neighbors and contributed to the mission of the church. We may ponder the fragile nature of our nation’s democracy and wonder how to make it just a little bit better, or at least not worse, knowing all along that Thomas Paine’s envisioned utopia is beyond our grasp.
Amidst all our worries and disappointments, God has set a rainbow in the sky. Genesis 9 describes this as an “everlasting covenant” with all creation. It is a promise of peace and a guarantee that, as we both stumble and stride forward, we do so in the context of divine care. In an imperfect world, we have been granted the opportunity by God to make of it, and of ourselves, what we will. But as we walk our own paths from Ararat to the valleys of our personal and collective rebirths, we never do so alone. May we see heaven’s beauty stretched out above us and hear the words of blessing that accompany our steps.