Wednesday, October 10, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 6: Laws for Life (Gen 9:1-17)

Address 6: Laws for Life (Genesis 9:1-17)

It may seem strange to pass over one of the most famous stories in the Bible, Noah and the Flood, but I intend to cover it only as it connects the life of Man, of Adam’s heirs, before and after God’s judgement fell.

The following connections stand out:
  1. Before the Flood, the human race had a “millennial lifespan,” closer to 1,000 than to 100 years. After the Flood, the normal lifespan fell precipitously to 120 years. Death became more and more an imminent and everyday occurrence.
  2. Indeed, the whole patriarchal generation was wiped out in the Flood, with the odd exception of the Nephilim, who seem to have survived somehow as a reminder of how bad the olden age was.
  3. God chose Noah and his family to preserve the world, even though God had declared, before and after the Flood, that “every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil all the time” (6:5; 8:21).
  4. Noah saved all the animal kinds in the ark, but when he emerged out he offered up a token from each clean species as a sacrifice. This act led God to pledge not to curse the ground by flood, although the reason for lifting the curse God gives is man’s unworthiness rather then his merit.

The Importance of Life-Blood

Chapter 9 starts out: Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth (verse 1). It almost seems that God is starting over again, with a new harmonious creation. But immediately we realize that this is the fallen world that brought on the Flood when it goes on to say:

The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. (verse 2)

Even though the animals and man had lived together many days on the ark, once back on solid earth, their relationships are changed a fundamentally way: they are characterized by “fear and dread.” In the beginning, man, who is himself an animal, was a herbivore, eating only plant life. Though uniquely made in the image of God, he was to love his neighbour animal as himself. Now this changes:

Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. "But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. (verses 3-4)

Now man and some other animals have become carnivores, eating each other’s flesh. In one way this is a step downward into violence and barbarity. Man and lion and hyena now resemble each other as they tear into a piece of meat. But there is a difference, which is noted: they are not to eat meat with the blood. Of course, animals who live by instinct cannot be held responsible for breaking this law, but it may explain why people are prepared to hunt down and kill a man-eating lion. For us, however, it is important that we not rip into a still breathing animal like some beast of prey. We are allowed to eat meat, but it will be distanced from the animal it came from through butchering and roasting. To some this may seem a weak concession to our respectability, but by preparing our meat, we are in a sense respecting the dead, just as we do at a funeral ceremony. The blood is the principle, the sign or sacrament, that separates the living from the dead, and just a corpse is usually drained of blood, so the meat we eat is distanced from the life which God alone can give.

The rule about eating meat now turns to the taking of human life:

And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it." (verses 5-7)

Cain, we might remember, shed his brother’s blood and escaped with his life. Lamech boasted to his wives that he had killed a man. Dubious as these acts of violence were, they were not punished or declared deserving of death. Now that changes: God declares the principle called lex talionis “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.” If God permits killing of animals, he forbids killing of fellow human beings, or rather he requires tha the killer be killed as well.

This law has huge ramifications for human society. First of all, it means that “all men are created equal” in the image of God, at least in terms of their right to live. No man has the right to murder another, no matter high and mighty he may be. Secondly, the life of a murder is itself to be required. This poses a dilemma: how can one carry out retribution against a murderer without becoming a murderer. The answer is that God has authorized certain killing to uphold justice. St. Paul puts it this way: “The ruler does bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:6). This situation of justified killing is, of course, fraught with danger. How do you know the executioner is not himself arbitrarily bumping off his enemies.

Nevertheless, with these so called Noachic laws, mankind has entered into a world of rights and laws which is recognizable to us today.

Terms and Conditions

Let’s face it. Law has a grim face, Law usually says “No, thou shall not…” rather than “Yes, you may…” The best law is “blind,” no respecter of persons, but it is also devoid of mercy, of hope.  It is therefore important to note that God follows his declaration of law with a promise of grace.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you-- the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you-- every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." (verses 8-11)

God does not smile at or overlook sin, nor does he refrain from ultimate judgement. However, he does make a unlilateral promise that he will never again bring a cosmic disaster on the whole world. At least by water. An old hymn says: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” He also promises regularity of the seasons: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22). This may not seem like a very firm promise, when the rain-clouds gather day after day, or when an extended drought threatens a particular reason. But we know, worldwide, that God has committed himself to the continuation of the life of the earth until “the sky vanishes like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island is removed from its place.(Rev. 6:14).

While God has uttered blessings before in the creation of the world, here is the first time he makes a covenant. A covenant is a most important biblical term, which we find all the way down tot the New Testament, i.e., the New Covenant. A covenant combines law and grace. It is binding commitment on the party that offers it, and sometimes a binding commitment on the party that receives it. In this case, Noah is not asked to sign on to the covenant, but he has no choice: seasons will come and seasons go, whether he likes it or not.

The covenant is accompanied by a sign:

And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (verses 12-15)

Word and sacrament go together. Few people hear God speak directly. To be sure, we have God’s Word recorded for us in Scripture. But there is a reality, a communication, which only a sign can convey. The Anglican Prayer Book describes a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us as a means by which we receive the same and as a pledge to assure us thereof.” The first sacrament was a rainbow. What is curious is that it seems as if it served to remind God as much as man of his promise. No doubt this is figurative language, but it does remind us that God will not forget his promise.


We have travelled a long way since the simplicity of Paradise. If Paradise was a university with no rules, not even a dress code, the post-Flood world is neither completely happy nor completely hopeless. Fundamental principles of law, the basis of what we call human rights, has now entered the picture. A wall has been erected between man and the animals: a wall which divides but also sets limits. And finally, we see that God’s way forward for the human race will involve a covenant relationship: a relationship that will have a legal character with obligations and punishments but also one that will include a gracious promise. God’s mercy will be extended even in the midst of evil, and he will lead Noah and his sons to a fuller understanding of his will.

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