Pastor Dale E. Austin Genesis 9:8-17
If we take the time, it can be fascinating to compare the ways in which Christians and Jews understand many of the stories in the Jewish Scriptures, what we refer to as our “Old Testament.” We find that our understandings of the nature of God can vary considerably. For Christians, steeped in a long tradition of “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” we tend to favor a God who never changes, and who remains constant throughout all of history and, therefore, throughout the Scriptures. In contrast, Jews have no problem with a God who learns from experience, who may even make mistakes, but only once. Theirs is a God who is not afraid to experiment, to dabble in trial-and-error, and to learn and grow.
Consequently, the Jewish understanding of God’s covenant with Noah offers a more complete picture of what God is saying. In this particular covenant, God assures Noah that such a catastrophe as the recently passed flood will never again happen. God had seen people turning from his ways, and the flood was his method of setting things straight and starting over again. But then there is that note of regret as he assures Noah that this was a one-time deal. He tells Noah, “I will never do this, again.”
From the Jewish perspective, God has acted, and God has realized that, perhaps, this was not the best way to deal with the situation. There may have been a better way of getting everyone’s attention and helping them to find their way back onto the right course. Yes, it was a noble experiment, but given time to reflect, God isn’t so sure that it was the best course, so he promises that it will never happen again. God has learned from this experience. Confronted with a similar situation, in the future, he will choose a different path.
From our Christian perspective, we are likely to cry, “Foul!” God does not make mistakes; therefore there is no need to learn from them. But why should such concepts bother us so much? After all, we know from the Exodus story that God often determined to pursue a course of events which would result in the destruction of his people, only be dissuaded from that course by Moses. And we are told that “God repented of the evil that he had intended to do.” That doesn’t bother us. But it is anathema for us to imagine God, in the wake of this horrific deluge, sitting back and pondering, “Well, that was interesting; but I don’t think I want to do that again. It was probably a mistake.” That’s a problem for us.
Because it’s a problem, we also generally ignore the fact that God’s covenant with Noah is double-edged. We focus almost exclusively on God’s promise to Noah that this will never again happen, and the rainbow is God’s sign of this promise. But when we listen carefully to what God says, we realize that we have ignored the other side of this same covenant. The rainbow also serves as a reminder to God, himself. “When I see my bow in the clouds, I will remember, and will not do this again.” The rainbow is a reminder to God, as much as a sign to us. But we’re uncomfortable with a God who needs such a reminder, so we choose to ignore that aspect.
As uncomfortable as it might make us, the Bible – at least in the early books – shows images of a God who is able to learn and to grow. This God is not afraid to try new things, and to move forward when something doesn’t work as well as hoped. We’re not always as adventurous as God. We aren’t always so eager to try something new and see what happens. We’re more comfortable sticking with the tried-and-true, what’s worked in the past. The problem, of course, is that we don’t live in the past. As times change, people’s tastes change, whether in terms of music, literature, or even language.
The same can be said of our preferred version of the Bible, worship patterns, dress standards, and so on. But we’re not always ready to accept those changes. I recently came across an article entitled, “Why I Preach in Bluejeans,” and subtitled, “And Why You Should, Too.” Don’t worry, I doubt that you’ll ever see me preaching in bluejeans, unless we’re having some kind of a service in the park, to be followed by a picnic and games. It might happen then. But the point is that all of us, myself included, are creatures of habit.
We don’t like to experiment with the unfamiliar or unknown. We’re comfortable with what we know.
But. . . if we can break free of our deep-rooted understandings of God, we might begin to discover a God who revels in experimentation and who loves to try new things. And if God can learn, grow, and change, why can’t we?