Report on Victorian SCM discussions – Climate Change and Noah’s Flood

An ASCM group led by Morag Logan and Peter Rayner, and variously including Ann Ng, Ros Hewett, Andika Mongilala, Robbie Tulip, Zak Hanyn and Sandy Yule, has been meeting on zoom to discuss the story of Noah and the great flood, with theological questions about climate change in mind.

The story of the flood in Genesis, chapters 6-9, stands out as the biblical story which has the most immediate resonance with the catastrophic global changes that are predicted as a consequence of humanly induced global warming.   

We have held four sessions between March and June. The first focused on the reality of climate change. The second looked at the context and genre of the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-9. The third focused on the text of the stories of the flood (as two distinct versions can be found together in these chapters), while the fourth focused on the texts about the ending of the flood and the new situation in which Noah and his family found themselves, created by the decree of God for a covenant with Noah and all descended from those in the Ark. 

In the first session, Peter outlined for us where the scientific understanding of climate change has reached. It is no longer a matter for scientific doubt that greenhouse gases are accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere (around 60% elevation above the middle of the nineteenth century), that the earth is warming (slightly over one degree) and that the former causes, or is at least the major contributor to, the latter. As a result of this warming, the earth’s climate is departing from what has been the long term balance on which life depends, due to the humanly created increases in pollution (and, as some would add, population). The reality that human activity is largely responsible for this situation can be seen as a ground for hope, in that catastrophe is not fully inevitable if we seek to address and reduce the causes of global warming, in a sufficient time frame. 

We noted that the impact of the current corona virus health emergency was quite positive for curbing our production of carbon pollution, however temporarily. It is also providing experience in major economic activity by government to head off catastrophic threats.

In the second session, Morag focused our discussion of the flood story in Genesis by noting that we are looking for a reading of this biblical material which provides resources for engagement in preventing catastrophic climate change. We do have the means to fix climate change if we take broad scale, international collective action.

The flood story in Genesis is a ‘disaster’ story, a very common genre throughout human history, told from the viewpoint of survivors. Disaster stories commonly carry warnings about the dangers of cataclysmic destruction that still threaten and the potential lessons learned about surviving disasters. The stories typically feature actions of heroes who contributed to survival, as well as sacrifices that were made along the way. The idea of the Ark, which preserves life in the midst of death, has widespread resonance today.
Morag reminded us that we are not alone in thinking about this comparison between catastrophes, asking the question, ‘Where is God in relation to global warming?’. As an example, she referred us to discussions in Vanuatu which looked at the story of the flood in relation to global warming. There were three broad themes in the Vanuatu responses. One was that God won’t allow another catastrophe at this level, as God promised not to destroy the earth again. Another was that when catastrophe is looming, we need to prepare, either with explicit instructions from God, or with our best guess as to what will be needed. The third was to point out that the rich nations can build themselves an Ark, but the poorer nations will go the way of those left outside the Ark.

She began with some caveats. We are not seeking to know what may have happened historically, as this is shrouded in the mists of time and there is no scholarly consensus. As Robbie suggested to us, it is tempting to look for a connection with the widespread loss of inhabitable land at the end of the last Ice Age, when sea levels globally increased by a depth of around 125 meters. There is the possibility of catastrophic loss of life if local aspects of this rise were sudden, but otherwise, we do not have a basis for factchecking the story. 

What we have in the text of Genesis is clearly crafted together from earlier sources, themselves of unknown origin. The story of the flood is part of Hebrew mythic primeval history. It is best approached for what it shows about the way the world works. From this standpoint, the telling of the story has contemporary relevance both for those who carried it in oral tradition (and eventually wrote it down) and for us today. 

Morag informed us that we know of 68 other peoples with a comparable story of a world-destroying flood, across Mesopotamia, but also in what is now Europe and beyond. The evidence suggests that these various versions of the story were relatively fluid in the period from the seventh to the third centuries BCE, after which the biblical story, at least, reached a more definite form. From that time, it was carried in different communities but with only minor textual variations.  

In comparison to Mesopotamian versions, the Genesis account is marked by the ethical motivations of the divine figure. For example, the god Enlil wiped out humanity because they made too much noise and the gods could not sleep! In Genesis 1-9, the account moves from the creation of the world, which God saw was ‘very good’, to the fall from grace, the first murder (Cain and Abel), and an ongoing story with hints of violence and self-will (e.g. the boast of Lamech, Gen. 4:23), leading to God’s decision to send the flood. But not all was destroyed, because Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

It is noteworthy that there is no mention of Noah or God warning those people who perished in the flood. This is actually addressed in another version of the flood story, in the book of Enoch (which dates from the second temple period, maybe 300-100 BCE). In this version, Noah does warn the people, but is not believed. This element has entered into the way in which people today remember the story because of our natural concern for all those who died and because the act of Noah building the ark constituted a warning in itself, together with the assumption from 2 Pet. 2:5 that Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” would have given warning (although as Jesus says at Matt .24:37-9, the world ignored Noah). We could contrast the biblical picture of Noah, who does not argue with God about this destruction, with that of Abraham, who negotiates with God about the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 18:22-33).

The flood was the subject of many plays in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, where the newly established Protestant order was under threat from resurgent Catholicism in Europe. A feature of these plays was the enhanced role given to Mrs. Noah, who resisted the whole project and had to be dragged onto the ark. For ourselves, it is the impending catastrophe through climate change that is prompting our own interest in this biblical story. We are in good company as this story has been regularly reshaped in terms of contemporary concerns.

Morag suggested some questions for consideration:

  • What might a climate change ark be like?
  • Who or what would be on our ark (and who not)?
  • Who should we be warning?
  • Who gets to be ‘other’ here?

Turning to a more detailed consideration of the text of Genesis, we begin with the very puzzling text of Gen. 6:1-13, which sets the scene and speaks of the motivation of God for destroying the world, which was the wickedness of its inhabitants. It begins with the desire of the so-called ‘sons of God’ for human women. This seems to prompt God to declare that humans are mortal, with an upper life span of 120 years. Then there is the mention of the Nephilim, who were on the earth in those days. ‘Nephilim’ is simply the Hebrew word transliterated. There is no agreed English translation, with ‘giants’ being one candidate, along with ‘angels’, or perhaps some other form of spiritual being. This story comes from a polytheistic time. It is the children of the sons of God who become the heroes of later times, warriors of renown. This commendation as heroes is from human communities, but not endorsed by God, who immediately goes on to condemn all but Noah and his family.

The text of Genesis 6-9 is full of contradictions and inconsistencies, which is the primary evidence for the belief that there are multiple sources at work here. The damage to narrative integrity was thought to be less important than preserving the various voices in the sources. The text is put together from two different versions of the story. Rather than being harmonised into one conglomerate version, these two versions are set side by side with all their differences and contradictions retained. The older sections of the text in Genesis, commonly called ‘J’ (from the use of God’s name as ‘Jahweh’) can be found at Genesis 6:5-8, 7:1-5, 7-8, 10, 12, 16b-17, 22-23, 8:2b-3, 6-12, 13b, 20-22. This is thought to date from about the time of King David (1000-900 BCE). This text announces the motivation for God’s sending of the flood as a response to ‘the wickedness of humankind’. Noah takes with him into the ark seven pairs of each clean animal and one pair of each unclean animal. It rains for forty days and forty nights. When the waters subside, Noah builds an altar and makes sacrifice (presumably of clean animals!) which God finds to be pleasing, so that God makes the promise of no more wholesale destruction of life. The creation and fall story in Genesis 2-3 is also from this J source and there is a suggestion that the curse upon the ground at Genesis 3:17 is lifted when God determines never again to curse the ground (Genesis 8:21).

Our present text was most probably put together during the Babylonian exile (around 400 BCE). In addition to the J text, we find another whole version the story (the text usually referred to as ‘P’ for ‘Priestly writer’). This P text is combined with the J text to form our present text and can be found when the J material is removed. The P text probably draws upon another, older version of the story. In this second version of the story, it is the whole earth, ‘all flesh’, that is deemed corrupt in God’s sight, full of violence, which provides the motivation for the flood. Noah is instructed to build the ark, with great detail as to its construction and provisioning. There is a more cosmic perspective in evidence, as the flood does not come from mere rain, but from the opening of the great deeps and the firmament of the heavens where the water has been held back (according to the original creation narrative in Genesis 1, also a text from the P tradition). This indicates a real ‘starting over again’ with God’s project of creation. When Noah leaves the ark, God blesses him and his sons in words which echo the mandate given to the first people created at Genesis 1:28. God then declares a covenant with him and with all creatures in the ark. 

There is a new beginning for the whole earth after the flood, defined by God’s promise to Noah (Gen. 8:20-22), and also by God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1-17). This new beginning does not seem to mean that there is any fundamental change in the natural world or even in the human heart. Nevertheless, there is a blessing for Noah and his descendants, both in the promise and in the covenant, which refreshes and echoes the original blessing of humanity (Gen. 1:28-30). It is also noteworthy that the original blessing of Adam and Eve mandated a vegetarian diet, whereas the covenant with Noah makes it clear that all living things are available to humans as food. This final version of the text can be seen as providing reassurance to the exiled Jewish community in their own national disaster of exile. The renewal of the covenant (with echoes of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant) is a major theme.

In the J text, Noah builds an altar and makes a monumental sacrifice from every clean animal and bird species. This sacrifice is so pleasing to God that we read of a new resolution made by God ‘in his heart’ never again to curse the ground because of humankind, nor ever again to destroy every living creature. This is sometimes referred as a ‘promise to Noah’, though it is more properly read as a new determination by God that is not made known to anyone, other than in this textual account. There is a determination here by God to refrain from placing a curse on the ground ‘ever again’. As noted above, the curse on the ground because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17-19) can be thought to be lifted here. The text concludes with an overt statement from God that, as long as the earth endures, the basic conditions of life (seasons, day and night), will not cease. There is an explicit recognition that humans are open to wickedness ‘from their youth’. 

The P text begins with God blessing Noah and his sons (Gen. 9:1-7), telling them to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’. This makes sense in the context of the wasteland that they faced right after the flood, though whether there needs to be some restraint on human expansion in our context is an appropriate question. This blessing references and refreshes the original blessing on humanity, made in the image of God, in Genesis 1:28-30, also from the P text. The terms are remarkably similar between these two blessings, both calling on humanity to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. Nevertheless, the blessing on Noah differs from the original blessing in important respects. The original blessing tells humanity to ‘subdue’ the earth which should perhaps be given a benign reading along the lines of tilling and enhancing rather than exploiting and destroying, with only vegetarian food being allowed. The blessing on Noah explicitly allows for the killing and eating of all creatures, though with a protection on human life and a prohibition on eating the life (i.e., the blood) of animals. There is no reference to ‘subduing’ the earth. Instead, all non-human creatures live in fear and dread of us humans. There is a significant separateness here established between humans and other creatures.

This blessing, though acknowledging an ongoing brokenness between humanity and other creatures, refreshes the original blessing from creation for this new start being made by God. In addition to the blessing, God announces a covenant with Noah and his sons, as well as with all living creatures coming out of the Ark and with their descendants, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy all living creatures on the earth, and the earth itself. Confirming this covenant, God gives the rainbow as the everlasting sign of the covenant, itself referred to as ‘everlasting’. The image is of the conquering hero hanging up his bow after conquest and not expecting to need it in future. The waters of chaos, that are only held back by the firmament of God’s original creation, are now tamed ‘forever’.

This covenant is all from God. There is no stated requirement for loyalty or good behaviour on humans or on the earth. Humans and the earth, originally created good, are implicitly freed to go their own way in the secure knowledge of stable conditions for life. Nothing new is added other than the pledge of security. When we compare this covenant with other covenants in the bible, we notice that other covenants offer groups of humans a special role under God, such as the descendants of Abraham, or the Jewish nation under David, or the followers of Jesus. There are serious expectations built into this special role and status. The covenant with Noah is for all people and indeed, for the whole earth itself, with no stated expectations on humans and other creatures.

This text has interesting implications for the present reality of climate change. Unlike previous global changes that have occurred, such as the ice ages and the extinction of dinosaurs, this threatened change is a result of human activity. There was no possibility of human involvement in causing all previous catastrophic changes, as we would now understand it. They were attributed to God, or perhaps to ‘Mother Nature’, or some other quasi-divine being. 

Morag pointed us to Norman Habel’s distinction between green texts (ecologically positive) and grey texts (ecologically problematic), expressed in his 2009 book An Inconvenient Text: Is Green Reading of the Bible Possible? In this book the first creation story and the flood story are what Habel refers to as “grey” texts – not at all “green” texts. They enhance the elevation of humans above other creatures, they float the reliance on technological achievements to get out of trouble (the Ark!) and they put agency for catastrophic destruction squarely at the feet of God. The flood stories do not help us to counter the charges laid by Lynn White in his seminal article of 1967, ‘The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis’. White sees our current ecological problems (then and now!) as largely stemming from our western culture, which exploits and sacrifices all other creatures for our survival and even comfort and convenience. Other cultures share in exploitation, but the enhanced technology plus the emphasis upon human dominion in western culture have greatly accelerated the damage, in White’s view. Pagan religions honoured local nature spirits, but the Christian emphasis upon the unity of God and the dominion over nature granted by this sovereign God allowed for the destruction and/or domestication of nature. This dominance by humans has led to a view of our time as the anthropocene (the time of dominance by humans), though there is debate as to the date of our ‘arrival’ in the anthropocene. 

Habel asks the question, ‘If the wrongdoing was by humans, why is it right to destroy all living beings?’. He would raise up a voice on behalf of innocent non-human creatures. Ideologies of dominion are called into question when we note that rulers regularly use violence to maintain their dominance. Domestic violence against women and children follow this pattern. We were in agreement in rejecting this violence and therefore needing to look at ‘dominion’ and ‘dominance’ with a highly critical eye. One consequence is the need to restore a respect for the natural world and a reluctance to destroy any part of it, even while this destruction proceeds around us. We decided that the covenant with Noah gives us a place to begin the necessary rethinking, as it provides a ‘lead from God’ as to appropriate treatment of non-human nature, which is a commitment to maintaining the conditions on which all life depends. This suggests a solid theological basis for a commitment to resisting the pollution of air and water that is unbalancing very basic conditions for the maintenance of life here on earth.

In biblical perspective, there is a constant recognition of goodness in the created order, but a goodness mysteriously marred by something corrupt and evil. The final story of Noah is quite weird, for one who found favour in the sight of God (Gen.9:18-28). Noah gets drunk and his sons react in ways which are interpreted to mean that Canaan, son of Ham, is shamed and thereby enslaved to serve his uncles Shem and Japheth and their descendants. This is clearly a story told to justify the later servitude of Canaan after the Hebrew occupation of the land of Canaan, as well as slavery in the New World of the Americas.

Despite philosophical views of God as unchanging, these early chapters of Genesis do seem to envisage change in God. It reads a little like an experiment that almost failed, and one that could only be redeemed by drastic action and a change of expectations. A similar sense of changeableness in God can be seen in the dialogue between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). How seriously should we take this changeableness? If we accept the view of these texts as mythically oriented, they would tell of broad shapes to reality, not a literal rendition of divine thought processes.

When we ask about the biblical picture of God in relationship to climate change, it seems clear that what we humans do and say can affect real outcomes, on the basis of a God-given freedom. This suggests that we cannot and should not rely upon God to ensure that we do not destroy the world through continuing carbon pollution.

Robbie pointed out a difference between God’s promise to Noah,  that God would never again destroy all living beings as he had done with the flood (Gen.8:21), and the explicit terms of the covenant with Noah, where the promise is only for no more floods (Gen. 9:15). This latter formulation leaves open a destruction by fire or some other catastrophe! 

Peter voiced the suspicion held by some that the corona virus should be seen as nature rebalancing itself against humanity in response to our growing numbers and our extreme impact on the natural environment. How should we think about divine judgement in relation to events catastrophic for us humans, but which impose a limit on our unbalancing activities? Robbie reminded us of the text. Rev. 11:18, where the destruction of those who destroy the earth is announced.

Our conversation revolved around the idea of the earth as an enormous, finely balanced system capable of sustaining life as we know it. The idea was developed by James Lovelock using the name of the pre-Olympian Greek goddess Gaia (‘Earth), which he expressed in fully scientific terms involving discernible mechanisms of balancing, or homeostasis, rather than in terms of an anthropomorphic divine intentionality. Humanly induced climate change can thus be seen as producing increasingly serious imbalances, with resulting effects that can be viewed as moving towards a rebalancing of the whole earth system, possibly with severe detriment to humans, (though with no implication of overall intentionality). 

The question that this leaves us with is how our Christian understanding of God plays into this account of our present crisis in terms of ‘Gaia rebalancing’. Robbie presented the view that our planet is our ark and that we need to be defending eco-systems, as it is the health of ecosystems which guarantees the survival of species, including our own. This will probably require some geo-engineering to restore the balances upset by our activities, and not merely a reduction in the production of greenhouse gases (important as that is). Having produced so many gigatons of carbon pollution, is it not our responsibility to find ways to remove this excess carbon? Our planet can only be our ark if the web of life is properly preserved, which means preserving the insects, worms, microbes and plankton in order to preserve species such as ourselves. The critical importance of care for the ‘least’ in Matthew 25:40 offers us a moral vision that should extend beyond humanity to include all ecology. 

Ros commented on the importance of recognising the centrality of humanity to the flood story and the temptation to treat humans as separate from animals. We were in broad agreement with Habel that this assumption of dominance and priority is part of the problem, as it has legitimated the many choices in which humanity has disturbed natural balances in order to enhance human life. She suggested that we need a reading of the flood story which overcomes this assumption of human dominance. Peter responded that the J account does seem to be anthropocentric, but the P account is less so, particularly in its reference to ‘all flesh’ rather than to ‘humanity’ in the judgement of God. Robbie thought that the story of the fall of humanity through Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) did put humanity in centre stage, echoing the judgement in the J account. Morag responded that while this is true, the present composite story does involve more than humanity at various levels.

Peter commented that the idea of humans ‘saving’ nature in some way runs deep in our culture ( and how much more in indigenous Australian cultures!). We recognised our own search for ways to use the corona virus shutdown as an opportunity to pivot to more environmentally responsible arrangements as part of this. Robbie commented that, with a population approaching eight billion people and world-shaping technologies, we humans have the right and the responsibility to step up to this challenge. Ann commented that we should learn from indigenous peoples that we take only what we need and we give because of need. Ros was concerned about the temptations of ‘saviourism’, our need to think that we have the answers to these enormous issues. Sandy agreed that humility was essential for us, individually and collectively. 

There was some agreement that these texts show us that we live with God in a growing world of good things that also have a dark side. The balance of the world on which flourishing life depends is fragile and vulnerable to corruption and to imbalances of many kinds.

Ann asked who might we see as the Noah for today. It is significant that we did not seriously try to find an answer to that question. We quickly came to a recognition that we are trying to tell the story of an unfolding event whereas Noah’s story was told looking back.

Robbie put to us the question as to whether we should concentrate on strategies of adaptation or mitigation. While there will be elements of both in reality, the need for mitigation remains. If we fail to rise to that challenge, we will be left with nothing but adaptation, with the root causes of the catastrophic changes continuing unabated. This question is critical for those setting priorities for public expenditure and effort in responding to climate change and the extinction of species. 

Peter made the point that the unbalancing of our climate arises because of our relatively new and more powerful technologies, which have taken us past the provision of our survival needs, for which they were originally invented. He asked if ‘be fruitful’ and ‘multiply’ were exact synonyms. In discussion, we agreed that they were not, but that, like very many similar phrases in the bible, they were related aspects of a larger reality. We could see this at work in the idea that humanity is created in the image of God, male and female being variants of this image rather than the opposites that many cultures assume. ’Fruitfulness’ has a qualitative meaning that is additional to the largely quantitative meaning of ‘multiply’.

Robbie suggested that we can counter Lynn White’s challenge by interpreting ‘dominion’ along the lines of ‘stewardship’, along with understanding such Biblical ideas in a poetic rather than a legal context. (Habel, however, argues that the “stewardship” interpretation is not of any help, as it is still deeply rooted in the ideas of an overlord with absolute dominion, and his deputy (steward) carrying out this lordship on behalf of another.  In short “Earth remains the servant and the humans are the bosses.” Habel, An inconvenient text, p.73.  Noted as a footnote – we didn’t have time to discuss this on the evening.) Much in the bible shows us the need to reject the imperialist mind set in favour of partnerships with God, with each other and with nature. We still need to live down the effects of European imperialist expansion into the rest of the world, from which our Australian culture directly derives. We can allow a limited relevance to the hierarchical and patriarchal patterns presented in the flood story in the context of ancient Israel as a small state surrounded by hostile neighbours. Indeed, we look for deliverance by our own authorities when we get into trouble with bush fires or with criminal neighbours. So we do not need to reject the biblical preference for the image of the peaceful city (under the leadership of Messiah or coming down from heaven in John’s revelation) as the gift of God. We merely note the ambiguity of this image when we consider our actual experience of cities. Similarly, we note the ambiguity of our human progress, undeniable in terms of technology, but debatable in terms of morality.

In response, Morag noted that there are various views of human history. For some, we see long term progress. Others see long term decline. Still others see a meandering, circular path. All these views can be found in the bible! Sandy commented that this passage suggests to us that our history needs to be seen against the background of God’s commitment to a settled condition of the world which supports life. This is not a condition of unlimited life span for anyone, as our death remains our fundamental limitation. But it does suggest that the forces which have created the present conditions of our life are still at work, despite our unbalancing of some aspects of them. Desisting from our polluting ways then promises to produce a beneficial rebalancing of our climate and of what is needed for the maintenance of human and other life on earth. Peter asked the question, which we could not answer, as to whether it is now possible for us to unbalance this stability.

Peter also asked what the success of a species looks like. The quick answer is in terms of dominance and numbers, but we recognize how overpopulation leads to a crash when the food supplies run out. So species’ success needs to be judged over a longer time frame. We recognize how material success has been thought to justify judgements of superiority for our technologically advanced culture, and even moral superiority. The bible also uses material wellbeing as a marker for God’s favour at times. Morag suggested that there is no single coherent biblical ethic, which is not to deny the possibility of developing a biblically informed ethic. Prosperity is regularly seen as a sign of God’s blessing, but the book of Job shows the ambiguity of this in biblical perspective (not least in the triumphant return of prosperity to Job after his vindication by God). Robbie commented that ethics needs an eschatological orientation, which is to say that present prosperity or its lack cannot be fundamental to our ideas of salvation. There is an integration with renewed nature in the vision of the heavenly city in the book of Revelation, with the image of the tree of life mysteriously growing on both sides of the river of the water of life in the middle of the holy city, and bearing twelve different fruit for each month, with leaves for the healing of the nations. The story of the separation of humanity from the tree of life at the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise similarly supports an ecological interpretation, with life by the sweat of the brow producing a separation of culture from nature.

We agreed that the message of the covenant with Noah is of foundational importance for all creatures, and therefore for all our neighbours of whatever creed or condition. It puts us in a common context with freedom to build up co-operative community and avoid destructive conflict. There is no taking away our mortality and our exposure to trials and temptations, but neither can we evade the pressure for solidarity and ‘shalom’, the fullness of peaceful life. There is an emerging vision here of the unity of all things ‘under God’, of the possibility of universal reconciliation and redemption, visions which can also be found in Hinduism and in Platonic and Neo-platonic thinking, indeed, in many places. To embrace these possibilities is to be open to mystical encounters beyond our common sense, which should be a consequence of encountering God, however marginally and tangentially.

Final comments and questions were around the search for the blessing of God, the nature of our Christian covenant with God through the new covenant in Jesus and the role of human language in enacting aspects of the divine life shaping and reshaping our world. Climate change is resulting from human activity that is unbalancing our life-supporting planetary climate and should prompt us to recognize that we need to work towards the disciplining (‘discipling’) of the nations for the healing of the earth, through self-limiting national and societal action.

Notes by Sandy Yule