Noah’s Thanksoffering, Joseph Anton Koch, c. 1803
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021
The story of Noah and the Ark has been the source of so many movies, children’s toys and stories, and memorable New Yorker cartoons that we can forget that it addresses many serious issues. As we look at this in Lent, we should remember that it is the first time that “covenant” is mentioned in the Bible. A covenant then as now is the way that the LORD wishes to express the kind of relationship he wants with us.
Christian and Jewish scholars agree that covenant is the legal means by which kinship is established between another individual or group. This is not a contract, a mere sharing of goods and services, but a sharing of life. It usually consists of the stipulation of what this sharing will mean, a sacrifice of an animal, and the swearing of oaths of one or both parties. There is often a visible sign of the covenant and a common meal.
Covenants recognized the stark realities of ancient life. There was no citizenship as we would have it today and people needed to be part of a larger group or clan. For this, absolute acceptance by a group and absolute dedication to it would be required. Sometimes this would be “individual” but other times a larger group would make a covenant for mutual protection. When it was between larger entities, the stronger would alone take the oaths and accept the sign of the covenant. Nonetheless, this was always a recognition of intimacy. The Hebrews would have had great and personal experience of these arrangements on many levels.
Thus, they would have understood the radical nature of this invitation by God. He wants to share his love with them not just his majesty.
Yet they would have seen that some of the major elements of a covenant listed above are not found in the Noah story and would have wondered why. The answer was found in the wider context of pre-historic floods.
There were many flood stories in the ancient world. The most famous is Gilgamesh. It also contains a “creation” myth for humans that is very telling. There were higher gods and lower gods. The lower gods thought that they were working too hard for the higher gods. They persuaded the chief god – Enil – to create humans to do the work for them. The humans however became very noisy and disturbed his sleep. He wanted to cull the population and sent plagues and famine, but this did not work. He then decided to destroy them outright with a flood. Another God however told his favorite human to build a boat for his family and all species of animals to ride out the flood.
There are obvious similarities between this and Noah but notice the differences: for the pagans, human beings disturbed the god’s tranquility; for the Hebrews, humans became corrupt. The pagan god tried several times, the LORD only once. Most importantly, Enil wanted to destroy all humanity forever; the LORD wanted to start anew with the righteous Noah.
This would have been interpreted that LORD wished to establish a new relationship with humanity. Thus, a covenant but one based on the power of love. For us this may seem like exceedingly tough love but love, nonetheless.
It is important to remember that the last version of Genesis indeed the entire Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) were completed after the exile c. 450 BC. The editors had the whole history of the people before them and emphasized the development of the Hebrews and their relationship with God.
Thus, this first convent is made not with a tribe or nation but with the whole of humanity indeed the whole of creation:
See, I am now establishing my covenant with you(Ge 9:9–10)
and your descendants after you and
with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
Although he has just established that he is the superior party it is the Lord who takes the oath:
I will establish my covenant with you,(Ge 9:11)
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.
Also sign of the covenant, the rainbow, is directed to him not to humanity.
Let us compare this with the convent with Abraham later in Genesis:
Abram has been told to bring several animals including a 3-year-old heifer to an open place. (Gen 15:9) He split them in two and God placed him in deep sleep. In that sleep God promised to make him a great people then:
When the sun had set and it was dark,(Ge 15:17)
there appeared a smoking brazier and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces
The text implies that Abram walked with God through the animals and, most likely, ate the animals afterwards.
We see an addition here of a convent made with a specific clan – that of Abram – and clear terms and promises: the LORD will make Abram the father of a great nation. In return Abram promised to follow the LORD. The implication here is that if he does not, he will be torn apart like the animals for sacrifice.
Several chapters later Abram, now Abraham, will make another covenant with the LORD and here he and his clan will take on the sign of the covenant: circumcision.
A covenant however to fulfill the requirements of ancient usage will need more specification. This is obtained with the covenant with Moses on Mt Sinai (Ex 32 and 34) The Jews were not only to follow the Lord in general but to prove their fidelity by obeying the law of Moses.
The editors in Jerusalem have gently led us on a journey of understanding of God’s invitation to intimacy with him. He first declares his love and promises to “work with us.” He then chooses Abram to be his tool of salvation. The editors recognize more clearly than Abram that the honors and blessings given him, and his clan are to make them the people the LORD will use to save all. With Moses we see that this will require accepting a way of life – the Law – which will direct them to their purpose and bind them more closely to the LORD and each other.
They would have known the teachings of Second Isaiah that they were called to be a “light to the nations” (Is 42:6) but experienced their own failures along the way and known that the law had taken them as far as it could.
They may have reflected on the prophecy of Jeremiah written a century before them:
The days are surely coming, says the LORD,(Je 31:33)
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
that I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to bring them out of the land of Egypt
a covenant that they broke,
though I was their husband, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the LORD:
I will put my law within them, and
I will write it on their hearts; and
I will be their God and they shall be my people.
The Jews of the 4th Century BC knew in their bones that the LORD wanted an intimate relationship with them. They knew as well that they could not live up to their part of the covenant without divine assistance. The law would need to be put within them. But what could this mean? It took 400 years to understand enough that the message of Jesus, although well beyond what anyone would have dared to hope, could at least be vaguely understood. This was certainly a creative tension. And it can be one for us as well. Lent is the perfect time to look at the gap between what we want and what we can do and the Lord who fills it.