This post continues my short series on Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6-9).
It seems safe to say that God experiences great joy in creation (and in creating). The repeated refrain in Genesis 1 that God “saw that it was good/very good”, and the numerous scriptural references to divine attention given to the creatures of this world, suggest a pleasure in and concern for all that God has made. How then, do we get to Genesis 6.5-8 where the LORD is sorry to have created anything (6.7)?
‘The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favour in the sight of the LORD.”’
Such a grieved response does not seem to make much sense if we are imagining a creator who controls every aspect of what has been created. This creator surely cannot be grieved by what is seen, because it has been controlled and expected. However, the pain felt in the LORD’s heart begins to make sense when we think of the creator who risks creating.
The idea of creation as a risk might be understood in terms of what is commonly called “free will”; or perhaps the divine establishing of evolutionary processes in the world. But however we might understand it, the ways in which God created the earth and everything in it mean that life will proceed as it will, existing in relation, but not necessarily in submission, to the creator. In Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation Genesis commentary, he uses the following phrase when discussing 6.5-8: “creation has refused to be God’s creation” (pp.74; 76). This refusal may be a tragedy, but surely, given the risky nature of creating life, was always a possibility.
Again, thinking about the pain experienced by the LORD in 6.6, it is important to check which God is being imagined when the Flood story is read. It must be acknowledged that there are a great number of different presentations of God in the pages of the Bible – Warrior, Shepherd, King, Potter, Rock, Fortress, Shield, etc. And it must also be admitted that certain types of risk-taking creator might not actually care too much whether what has been made goes badly wrong or not.
So, who is grieved to their heart by the state of creation in Genesis 6.5-8? I think it is a parent; particularly a mother. The mother of all things.
Of course, maternal imagery for God is not unknown in the Bible. For instance, it can be found in Hosea 11 where God speaks of tenderly caring for Israel through their rejection of their divine parent: “the more I called them, the more they went from me…
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them ” (Hosea 11.2-4).
The LORD’s pain is intensifies as “my people are bent on turning away from me” (11.7). Here though, post-Genesis flood, God stops short of destruction saying, “How can I give you up… how can I hand you over?… my compassion grows warm and tender” (11.8). It is clear from this passage, as from Genesis 6.5-8, that the maternal nature of God is one that gives and suffers.
There is perhaps a connection with a pregnant woman carrying her child. Her self-giving does not diminish her own self to the extent that she remains able to supply her growing child with nutrition and a safe home for nine months whilst also working, driving, or whatever else she wishes to do. Once the baby is born, it is completely its own person, seeking autonomy as soon as possible, however, the child remains intrinsically connected to the mother. What the child does impact the mother and somehow the child’s actions may also reflect back upon the parent. Clearly, over time as the child grows, learns, and makes their own decisions, it is hoped that they will “turn out alright”, but the opportunities for hurt increase.
In Genesis itself, linguistically the LORD’s pain in 6.6 is the same as that the woman is said to experience in childbearing (3.16). I wonder if this idea of “childbearing” is not simply about the act of giving birth, but a comment upon the self-giving nature of motherhood in general. Just as Eve had birthed and raised Cain and Abel, only to experience their death and downfall; God the mother of all also shared in, and provided for, each generation of those created in the divine image going further and further their own way until “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”.
Here, somehow I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.3-4).
I think the element of possibility is the key here: Nothing in a child has been set-in-stone. Everything is there to be learned and experienced as the child grows. But what if, as a mother, you experience that possibility of the person you once grew and nurtured within your own body, going increasingly in all the wrong directions. In some tragic cases, despite their best efforts, parents have to cut ties with their child due to the choices made. Sometimes it is a case of releasing them to go and do their thing. It may be an issue of the family’s safety because of dangerous behaviour. I imagine that such parents – but mothers in particular – hope for their child’s return every day, even if they know the drastic separation is the way it must be.
This is the picture I get when I read Genesis 6.5-7.
The immense gift of freedom given to creation comes with the possibility of good and evil. As such, the giving of the gift cost the LORD greatly and this moment in the narrative is the crisis point. The child has used its possibility in all the wrong directions, and the pain of the LORD in 6.6 is that childbearing/child-raising pain of 3.16. It is too much to bear for the creator of all who suffers like a mother at the hands of Israel elsewhere such as Hosea 11. And the LORD has to act decisively.
There is hope however, for Noah finds favour in the sight of the LORD (6.8). This is the one about whom it has been said: “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” (5.29). Perhaps, in this work of restoration; in this finding “favour”; it is hoped that Noah might heal the LORD’s pain as well as that of creation itself.