Quite often, the Creator in Judeo-Christian tradition is referred to as “Father,” but that doesn’t really capture the immense readjustment the character of God goes through in the first books of the Bible. God’s first action is to create the universe, but as the story progresses, he loses quite a bit of control. After all, humans make the choice to eat of the forbidden fruit, and it all goes downhill from there. By the time that Noah has a family of his own, God has a group of teenagers, essentially, destroying his creation. Not exactly an auspicious beginning for something that was created in his image.
The problem, like always, is free will. Really, it’s the same reason that people have problems with the First Amendment today. It’s easy to let someone make decisions when all of their decisions agree with yours, but when that someone else is, say, Westboro Baptist, freedom of speech becomes significantly less appealing, but no less important. Or, if you’d like to look more internationally, it’s easy to not bomb a country when they believe that apple pie, civil liberties, baseball, and the Fourth of July are good things.
But true free will must not be intimidated, if it is to be truly free. When God is confronted with a world that has gone wrong, his first instinct is to destroy (an instinct he repeats several times throughout Genesis, in fact, if we are to look forward to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). So he gathers his faithful together on the ark with enough supplies to last them for the journey.
When the floods are over, before God renews his covenant with Noah and his family, he says:
“I will not again damn the soil on humankind’s score. For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as all the days of the earth— seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease.” (Alter, Genesis 8)
First of all, God does not believe that he has eradicated evil through the flood. Rather, he takes the pessimistic view that there will still be evil in the human heart. But he still decides not to “strike down every living thing.” God makes a conscious decision not to overreact, as it were. Alter’s notes in his translation emphasis the oath-like nature of the repetition. I will not again, I will not again. But there is also the promise of the seasons. Here, God is not saying that he will leave the seasons the way that they are, with their ebb and flow. There will be a balance, as the paired phrases suggest, but it will not be interrupted.
In the next chapter, God affirms this silent pledge with Noah:
My bow I have set in the clouds to be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth, and so, when I send clouds over the earth, the bow will appear in the cloud. Then I will remember My covenant, between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a Flood to destroy all flesh. (Alter, Genesis 9)
The language God uses here is very much about the excess. It is too much to “destroy all flesh,” and to punish everything for the sins of a few. This is not a lesson that will carry through all of the time, but it is a start. God the character is starting to learn that just because you can blow up the world doesn’t mean you should.
But what do the limits an omnipotent god places on his powers have to do with anything else? For the past seventy years, we have been wrestling with the idea of the atomic bomb. Like the flood, it has an ability to destroy everything in a great deal of excess.
Even the survivors experienced long term effects, especially when it comes to cancer (Kodama et al). Ever since the first bomb, we as a national consciousness have been debating whether it was justifiable, and whether they would ever be a cause to use it again. In the world we live in today, where men wield God-like power, it becomes important for us to look at the lessons of Genesis not only from the vantage point of the follower, but also from the viewpoint of the leader. For, as Genesis 9 points out, we have power over the earth. In this power, we must find the strength to be responsible, however, and to refuse to let what we can do affect our judgment of what we should do.
Kazunori Kodama, Fumiyoshi Kasagi, Yukiko Shimizu, Nobuo Nishi, Midori Soda, Akihiko Suyama, Toshiteru Okubo. “Long-term health consequences of atomic bomb radiation: RERF Life Span StudyInternational.” Congress Series, Volume 1299, February 2007, Pages 73–80 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ics.2006.09.011
Featured image is “odi et amo” by MyMaSs