Jesus declares in his first sermon in Mark’s Gospel, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near.” To me it is an incredible beginning that has me wondering if he is going to tell us what the kingdom of God looks like and how close is it anyway? The new Common English Bible has this translation: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom!” Notice the double exclamation points, which make the whole thing rather breathless.
The simple answer to what it all means, at least for Mark, is that there is a very real hope, anchored in Jewish thought, that God’s power will soon overwhelm Rome’s. Those of you spending significant time with Mark this Lenten season will be able to trace the evolution of this phrase. So, rather than place my thoughts into what you have been reading the past few days, I thought we could talk about the flood – And no, I don’t mean the one during September, 2013.
In Genesis, the stage is set for the flood by means of a powerful sound reference. Before today’s reading, in 5:29 Noah was named, ostensibly to comfort his elders’ “sorrow” over human “pains” in tilling the soil. But in 6:6 however, the meaning of the name has been ironically reversed. The one who was supposed to bring comfort only heralds God’s own being “sorry” and “pained” (v.6-7) for God’s own creation of humankind and everything else on earth.
I don’t know about you, but I struggled for a long time to try and figure out the entire flood thing. I mean, if God created everything and declared it to be very good, and even if, in 6:5, “YHWH saw that great was humankind’s evil doing on earth…,” Why did everything have to go? In fact, although there are ample multicultural references to some great destructive flood, and there is evidence of a sever flood in the Tigris-Euphrates valley ca. 3000 BCE, why are there really two flood stories and what is the purpose of the entire narrative? I mean, God being God, one would think he could have gotten rid of us and kept the unicorns. So here it is probably time to look at the structure of the flood story and tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic.
Let’s start with Gilgamesh. The Epic was a literary classic of the ancient Near East, with the earliest extant copy from the 18th century BCE, about a king of Uruk, Mesopotamia, who lived sometime between 2800 to 2500 BCE. In the epic, Gilgamesh is a demigod of superhuman strength who built the city walls of Uruk to defend his people and travelled to meet the sage Utnapishtim, who survived the Great Deluge. The story was read far and wide, either in the original Akkadian (Babylonian) by people educated in that language (even if it was not their native tongue) or in translations into other languages such as Hittite or Hurrian and so on. This lengthy, by Near Eastern standards, composition is an epic poem about the search for immortality of the legendary king, Gilgamesh. Among the scenes narrated toward the end of the epic is Gilgamesh’s visit to Utnapishtim, the “flood hero” and the only immortal human ever, according to the story, who relates to Gilgamesh the story of the flood in tablet XI of the 12 tablet composition. There is also some evidence that the Epic of Gilgamesh was not the first flood narrative, but was edited into the story from a very slightly earlier epic called the Epic of Astra Hasis (or “exceedingly wise.”)
There are multiple parallels and two very important differences between the flood stories in Genesis and that of Gilgamesh. The two stories share the same building materials, the same dimensions and number of decks; the same population of the ark and the detailed description of the flood; the mountaintop landing and the sending of a series of birds to determine that the land was dry; and, finally, the fact that the hero sets everyone free and offers sacrifices to the deity.
All biblical translations agree on two building materials for the ark: pitch and wood. The third item is the subject of some discussion. The Hebrew word is kinnim which is literally “compartments,” but can also be “reeds,” but it seems likely to me and others that it means “compartments” like the Gilgamesh Epic. Not only do all of these elements appear in both the biblical account and the Babylonian version, but they parallel each other in the same order as well. Even where there is room for some variation the order in the two stories remains constant.
For instance, at the beginning of the story, the first three elements appear in the order: materials, dimensions, number of decks. In both stories, the mountaintop landing appears before the sending forth of the birds, even though the alternative order is possible. And, at the end of both accounts, all are set free and the flood hero offers sacrifices, even though, once again, the alternative order is easily conceivable.
The two crucial differences in the list are key to our understanding of the flood narrative in the Bible. First, in the Gilgamesh Epic, it is not clear why the gods decided to destroy the world and it is also not clear why Utnapishtim was chosen to survive the flood. The biblical account includes the morality factor – the world was destroyed because of its immoral state, and Noah was chosen to survive the flood because God judged him “righteous.” Second, at the end of the story in the Bible, God makes a covenant with Noah and there is no such item in the Gilgamesh epic.
The most likely explanation for the striking similarities between the two versions is this: The biblical account is borrowed from the Mesopotamian flood tradition for the following reasons:
“So what?” you say. “You are only looking at the flood account as a type of ancient myth.” I agree, and if we just stopped here in our evaluation of this story, we would be guilty of only answering the literary questions of the text about its origins. We have not answered the more important questions I alluded to earlier, about how this story would have been received by its original hearers in ancient Israel and how we are to interpret it today for 21st Century Christians. To those questions we now turn.
What we are interested today, knowing the book of Genesis to be a theology book and not an historical record of events or a science book, is what happens next, after the landing on the mountain, after the release of the birds. What does it all mean?
The covenant mentioned briefly in Genesis 6:18 is treated in more detail today’s reading in Genesis 9. Let’s examine the covenant with the idea that it was the key to understanding the flood story for the ancient Israelites.
Gods in the polytheistic world were, by and large, seen as nature deities, associated with the earth, sky, sun, moon, desert, sea, and so on. YHWH by contrast, was perceived by the Israelites as a god of history, exalted above all of nature, manifesting himself in human history. One can point to the Aten cult developed by Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh c. 1350 B.C.E., as an example of another monolatry. However, the god Aten was still a nature deity, the god of light. Akhenaten ruled for about a decade and when he died, the old priesthoods came back and reestablished the worship of the other Egyptian gods in their temples.
A key passage to understand the distinction is I Kings 19: 11-12, in which Elijah makes a trip to Mount Sinai to visit God. There was a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire-all elements of nature-but nowhere was God to be found in those powerful displays of the natural world. God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice- communicating directly with human beings through the divine word. The concept of covenant (berit) - a bond between God and man - was possible because of Israel’s unique view of the deity.
The first covenant in the Bible is between God and Noah, representative of all mankind (see Genesis 9). The second covenant in the Bible is between God and Abraham, representative of the people of Israel (see Genesis 15 and Genesis 17).
The concept of covenant speaks to the closeness between God and man in Israel's understanding of the world. By contrast, the other peoples of the ancient world saw a distance between man and the gods.
Finally today, we all must remember that God is always faithful to the covenants God makes. I think this is best illustrated in Genesis 8:1 “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and cattle that were in the ark.” Because we know God is “mindful of human hearts” (Psalms 8:4); From those words, there came a prayer: Sampson said, “Lord God remember me;” and Jeremiah cried, “Remember and visit me;” and the thief on the cross near Jesus, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
Because of the covenants God has made God won’t forget and will welcome us to the kingdom.