Chapter 5

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In Over Our Heads

Chapter 5

Genesis 4:1–17; 6:5–8; 7:1–5; 8:1; 9:7–17

Psalm 51

James 4:1–8


Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

In the ancient Genesis stories, our species was created in the image of God – to reflect God’s character faithfully in the world, both to our fellow creatures and to one another.

Soon, though, we wanted to be little gods ourselves. We wanted to judge good and evil for ourselves, to decide who would live and who would die, who would rule and who would be enslaved. Consumed by the desire to grasp what others had, we became rivals of God and our neighbours. That crisis of desire has led to great shame, pain, suffering, violence, counter-violence and fear... in our lives, our communities and our world. Today’s headlines tell the same story in a hundred different ways.

In the Genesis story, the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, started building cities, and those cities reflected the violence of Cain. As city-states competed with each other and defeated one another, the winners created growing empires that elevated a few to god-like status and reduced most to oppression and slavery. The situation became so unbearable that in the story of Noah and the flood, God felt sorry for making the world in the first place. Eventually God decided to wipe the whole slate clean and start again. Maybe Noah’s descendants would do better than Adam’s had.

Although many people think of this as a cute story about animals and a boat ride, those who think more deeply find it deeply disturbing. The image of violent oppressors and innocent victims drowning together seems only to make a bad situation worse. At the very least, one would think God would have more creativity, moral finesse and foresight than to create a good world only to destroy it because it went so bad so (relatively) quickly. Shouldn’t God be better than this?

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'ancient cultures were oral cultures

To understand this story – and others like it – properly, we need to remember that ancient cultures were oral cultures. Few people were literate, and oral storytelling was to them what reading books, using the internet, going to concerts and watching films and TV shows are to us today. Ancient stories had a long life as oral compositions before they were ever written down. As oral compositions, stories could evolve over time. In a sense, writing them down ended their evolution.

For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation. Less helpful stories would be forgotten like a failed theory, or adjusted and revised until they became more helpful. Sometimes, competing stories would stand side by side like competing theories, awaiting a time when one would prevail – or both would fail, and a new story would arise with more explanatory power. In all these ways, storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking the truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change.

In this light, we can reconsider the story of Noah as an adaptation of even older stories from the Middle East. In one of those earlier versions, a gang of gods unleashed a catastrophic flood as a personal vendetta against some noisy people who kept the gods awake at night. Ancient Jewish storytellers would have found that story repulsive. So they adapted it to reveal more of God’s true character, replacing many vindictive gods who were irritable from lack of sleep with one Creator who unleashes a flood to flush out human violence.

That’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the process doesn’t need to end with the Noah story. After all, God’s violence doesn’t really solve anything in the Noah story, since Noah’s family quickly starts cooking up more trouble so that soon things are just as bad as they were before the flood. Again, we can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t God be better than that? To answer that question, we need to bring in another story. Later in Genesis, in the story of Joseph, God responds to violence in a very different way – not with more violence, but with kindness. Another big step in the right direction!

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'The ancient world was filled with huge structures...'

We see the same pattern in the story of the Tower of Babel. The ancient world was filled with huge structures – towers and pyramids and temples and the like – that were built with slave labour. Just about everyone in those days assumed that the gods chose a few high-echelon people to sit pretty at the top of the pyramid. The masses were destined to be slaves at the bottom, sweating to make bricks or haul stones or irrigate fields so that the elite could have a nice day. Everyone assumed that the gods supported these slave-based economies of empire, and everyone understood that the towers, pyramids and temples both pleased and honoured the gods of the status quo.

But in the Tower of Babel story, the storytellers realise that the living God must be better than that. So in their story, tower-building is exposed as another form of rivalry with God. God opposes their soaring ambition of assimilation and domination. God diversifies the languages of the Babylonian Empire so that its ambition of global empire fails, memorialised for ever in an unfinished tower. This new version of an old story is a big step in the right direction. Later, when we come to the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we’ll see another giant step forward, revealing God even more beautifully and fully.

As we progress through the biblical library, these stories interact with one another again and again. Together they reveal an ever fuller and deeper vision of God. We come to know a God who consistently refuses to support a pyramid economy with a few at the top and the masses at the bottom. We come to trust a God who consistently opposes the oppressors and consistently takes the side of the humble, the vulnerable and the poor. We eventually come to understand God as one who consistently prefers non-violence over violence, equality over dominance and justice over injustice. Taken together, these stories make one of the most audacious claims in all of history: the living God doesn’t uphold the status quo . . . but repeatedly disrupts it and breaks it open so that something better can emerge and evolve.

Do you see what’s happening? Generation after generation, people are telling stories that improve upon previous stories and prepare the way for even better stories to emerge. The process leaps forward in the story of Jesus. He comes proclaiming the message of the commonwealth – or kingdom, or alternative economy – of God. He shows how in God’s way of arranging things, the last are first and the first are last.

Leaders serve, and the humble – not the arrogant – inherit the Earth. In word and deed, in parable and miracle, Jesus shows that God is at work in history to heal what is broken – on the personal level of individual lives, and on the societal level of economics and government too. And he proclaims God not as a reactive avenger who sweeps away the innocent with the guilty, but as a forgiving, merciful, gracious parent who loves all creation with a perfect, holy, faithful, compassionate love.

No wonder he told people to ‘repent’ – which means to ‘rethink everything’. No wonder he was known as a brilliantly creative and original storyteller. As with the parables of Jesus, the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, flood and tower stories in Genesis don’t need to be factually true to tell an actual truth about us and our civilisation. Those ancient stories courageously expose how all civilisations were founded on violence and oppression, producing luxury and ease for a few but exhaustion and degradation for the many. They warn us that unjust structures are unsustainable. They advise that floods of change will sweep injustice away and internal conflicts will thwart arrogant ambitions. They promise that in the long run, justice and reconciliation will prevail over injustice and rivalry.

If we aren’t careful, we can grow comfortable and complacent with a status quo of injustice, oppression and violence. That’s why we are wise to gather often and retell these ancient stories. Rather than being conformed to this world and its mixed-up priorities, we can seek together to be transformed by a different and better story so we can join with God in the healing of our world. To be alive is to join God in caring about the oppressed, the needy, the powerless, the victims and the vulnerable. To be alive is to believe that injustice is not sustainable and to share God’s desire for a better world. To be alive is to look at our world and say, ‘God is better than that!’ – and know that our world can be better too. 

And so can we.

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Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story where you felt like someone at the top of the pyramid, or like someone at the bottom.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between stories and scientific theories, or to the distinction between factual and actual truth?

4. For children: Have you ever known a bully, or have you ever been a bully, or have you ever been bullied? Tell us about it.

5. Activate: Look for moments this week when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘God must be better than that.’ And look for examples this week of the powerful exploiting the vulnerable when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘We can be better than that.’

6. Meditate: Ask yourself, in God’s presence, ‘What desire to acquire may be driving me into trouble?’ After a few moments of silence, acknowledge the desires that come to mind. Then ask for other, better desires to replace the desire to acquire.