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Why Did God Send the Flood?

10/30/2012 01:10 pm 13:10:00 | Updated Dec 30, 2012

The scenes of floods from Hurricane Sandy are shocking. Someone from New York said, "It's gettin' pretty biblical 'round here." Some cranky fundamentalists credit God with sending floods to punish the Northeastern states that support gay rights, just like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

It seems natural for people to invoke the Bible at a time like this, whether to describe the massive devastation or to preach about its cause. Some of this can be ascribed to habit: The Bible seems to be a book of extraordinary events, and so it gives us a vocabulary to describe extraordinary events when they actually occur.

The great flood in Genesis is the paradigm of a devastating event. Shortly after God creates the world, he decides to destroy it. The literary critic Edmund Wilson observed that God seems to be a bit manic-depressive in this episode. First he rejoices that the world is "very good," then a few chapters later he regrets the whole thing and brings back the primeval waters. Why does God do this? While manic depression may be a plausible diagnosis, a close reading reveals that the picture is more complex. There are actually two different motives, which raise some questions about the kind of story the Bible is telling.

In one strand of the story, God brings the flood because the human imagination is evil all the time. This pains his heart, and God regrets that he made humans. He then resolves to wipe out humans in a flood, and so he does, with constant rainfall for 40 days and 40 nights. At the end, however, God seems to have a change of heart. He saves Noah and his family, and resolves never again to send a flood. He says, "The imagination of the human heart is evil from their youth," but he promises, "Never again will I curse the earth because of humans." It seems that God's heartbreak at the evil of humans has healed. Now he is resigned to the flaws of his children and expresses a newfound compassion for them. The human heart hasn't changed; it was bad before and will always be so. But God's heart has changed. He can now live with the flaws of his imperfect people.

In the other strand of the story, God brings the flood because the earth has become corrupted by the violence of all creatures -- not only humans. The precise nature of this violence is unspecified. But after God brings a massive flood, which pours down from the windows of heaven onto the earth for 150 days, God gives some clues about the violent acts. After the earth emerges from the cosmic waters, beginning a new era of creation, God decrees the first laws. He says that people can now kill animals for meat, but they must not eat the blood, which is the life-force. And he says that humans must not kill each other. In retrospect, the problem that caused the flood seems to be the violence of bloodshed. Shedding the blood of animals and fellow humans has polluted the earth. Now that the earth has been washed clean, a new era can begin with laws regulating bloodshed. Now people may eat meat (in Genesis 1 people and animals are commanded to be vegetarian), but murder is prohibited. These are the first laws in the Bible. With these laws regulating violent bloodshed, a new era of civilization begins. The rainbow is God's sign that he will never flood the earth again.

These two strands are actually two independent flood stories that have been carefully combined in Genesis. Biblical scholars have noticed this for over two centuries, but most people still aren't aware of the complexity of the book. We call these two strands J and P. But no matter. We don't have to know the story's compositional history in order to perceive its intricate senses.

Does any of this shed light on modern floods and disasters? Well, insurance companies call such devastating events "Acts of God." (I think this means they won't pay, because it's God's fault.) What Genesis says is that modern disasters aren't a repetition of the great flood. God says that he won't destroy the world again -- once is enough. Even though we are flawed creatures, prone to evil thoughts, God will maintain his compassion. Even though we are violent creatures, God will send his rainbow after a storm. A disaster may be of biblical proportions, but according to the flood story -- and both strands of the story concur on this -- it was a one-time event, which God promises not to repeat. His heart and his law are in harmony in this promise. In a beautiful poetic crescendo, the story evokes the future unceasing rhythms of farming, senses, seasons and days: "For all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." Sandy will soon be over, and the cycles of the world will go on.