““Climate Change””

One morning last week, I was eating breakfast with our two girls. During the brief moment of peace that happens as we all much hungrily on our peanut butter toast, I unfolded the paper to take peek at the day’s news. A young woman with black eyes, rosy cheeks, long braids and strong shoulders smiled at me from the page. Samantha Burnett radiated the seeming immortality of the young. But for her, a long and fruitful life was not to be. As I sat there with my own children, reading about how this young woman’s life was stolen as if it were just another smart phone, I found myself at the edge of tears. Envisioning her last moments in an alley, cradled in her sister’s arms, I realized how deep and lasting the trauma would be for Samantha’s loved ones, for the friend who lured them into the robbery—even for the robbers who pulled the trigger.

In our larger culture, the tale of Noah is thought of as a story for kids. Many a daycare facility and church nursery is decked out with its iconic images: the engineering marvel of the ark itself, the animals neatly marching two by two, the dove bearing a fresh sprig of olive, the rainbow bursting forth happily from the clouds. And yet, Noah’s ark is not really what all the murals suggest. It’s not a “nice” “cute” story. It’s more like an old-fashioned fairy tale, such as “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Three Pigs.” When we sit down to really listen to it and analyze it, we realize that it is full of disturbing violence and difficult questions about humanity and divinity. The way we often present this narrative to children glosses over a lot of really hard stuff. Of course, our kids are smart, and they see through that! They ask us why God sent a flood in the first place. They want to know what kind of God would do such a thing. They are aware that there were people and animals who didn’t make it on the ark. They grieve for all those lives lost. They realize it’s not fair.

As we’ve been delving into the big stories of Genesis, I’m reconnecting with the writings of Tikva Freymer-Kensky, one of my professors at the University of Chicago. As a feminist, a scholar, and a person of deep faith (the wife of a Rabbi), she was unwilling to let our sacred texts go—and unwilling to allow destructive interpretations to stand unchallenged. In an essay comparing the Genesis story to the other flood narratives of ancient Babylon, she describes the similarities between them and the account in Genesis; many of the details, she explains, are the same. She draws our attention, however, to what is distinct about the Genesis story, which is the reason God brings the flood. The text says the flood happened because “the earth was corrupt and filled with violence.” She points out that there is an inconsistency within the story itself. Even as the violent corruption of humanity is given as the cause of the flood, it is also named as the reason why God promises never again destroy the world. Professor Freymer-Kensky concludes that it does not make sense to say that God brought about the flood in order to punish humanity. She argues that we can understand the problem the flood was designed to address by considering what was different after the flood. What changed is that God gives humanity laws prohibiting murder and affirming the sanctity of all life, both human and animal life. Freymer-Kensky writes:

The flood is not primarily an agency of punishment…but a means of getting rid of a thoroughly polluted world and starting again with a clean, well-washed one. The idea of the pollution of the earth is not a vague metaphor to indicate moral wrongdoing. On the contrary, in the Biblical worldview, the murders before the flood contaminated the land and created a state of physical pollution which had to be eradicated by physical means (the flood). The idea of the pollution of the earth by murder, of the physical pollution caused by “moral” wrongs…underlies much of Israelite law. The author of Genesis 1–9 has reinterpreted the cosmology and the early history of [humanity] in light of these very strong concepts.[1]

Though we have a different cosmology today, we still know in our bones that failing to honor the sacredness of life causes profound injury to our bodies and our spirits. Taking a life is an offense against the image of God that resides in each of us. Lives are stolen as the bullets of rival gangs fly. Lives are stolen when war forces the flight of refugees. Lives are stolen through physical and emotional abuse. Lives are stolen when policing is biased, when the justice system as a whole is corrupt. Lives are stolen when families lack a living wage or affordable health care. The hard truth is, murder is rampant on the earth in our time, just as it was in the days of Noah. Our world is utterly polluted.

In Understanding the Bible, Stephen Harris writes: “Geologists have found no evidence that a single catastrophic flood ever overwhelmed all of Mesopotamia, much less the entire planet.” (p. 65) I don’t think Noah’s Ark is really an account of a natural disaster. I think it is a metaphorical epic that probes deep spiritual questions. The questions I hear in this story are, how is life restored once its sanctity has been violated? How can we live, and live well, live as children of God, when such violence pollutes our hearts and our world? Can God make a new creation out of this old one, so very wounded and scarred? What must be washed away, drowned even, to bring this cleansing, this climate change, we need? How is it that the sun can shine through rain to bring a rainbow, that a fresh olive branch can spring from desecrated soil?

A video is circulating the Internet, depicting an intimate moment that has made a global impact. A young man, a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the “White Helmets,” sits in the back of an ambulance, his clothes and skin coated with dust. He clutches a month-old baby to his chest. Her little head is scraped and bloody, but she is clearly alive and well, even after being trapped for hours under the rubble of yet another bombing. He tucks his head down next to the baby’s and just cries. Tears run down his face. As he continues to weep, others clean and bandage her wounds. “Dear God,” he keeps repeating[2]. The Civil Defense’s motto is adapted from the Quran: “to save one life is to save all of humanity.” Similarly, in the tears of this one man, weeping in sorrow and exhaustion and relief and consolation and longing, we see with our own eyes that God is at work, washing the world with a cleansing, saving flood. And in the resilience and beauty and potential of one tiny child, we know we can trust the promise, the sacred covenant: God pulls us from the rubble of our own polluting violence; God renews and restores the creation.

Our baptism into Christ is a call to participate in the ancient epic of our ancestors, both its reckoning and hope. A baptismal life is lived at the heart of a cleansing torrent that continually washes away the corruption and violence that pollutes our souls, and destroys the heart of our world. Amid the waters, we hear the voice of the Spirit-dove calling out our belovedness, and that of all creation, promising the renewal of all that is sacred within and around us.


[1] http://cojs.org/what_the_babylonian_flood_stories_can_and_cannot_teach_us_about_the_ genesis_flood-_tikva_frymer-kensky-_bar_4-04-_nov-dec_1978/

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/30/health/syrian-white-helmet-defense-volunteer-breaks-down-trnd/