“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.” This is how the Flood narrative begins in Genesis 6; it’s important to remember that, because God is going to do something about it, and to judge the effectiveness of his solution we need to remember what the before “picture” looks like so we can compare it with the “after” picture.
We need to remember what the problem is. The wickedness and evil that is on the hearts of the human is not some general wickedness and evil; it’s not that they are adulterous or idolatrous or covetous, though all of those things are bad. But Genesis has thus far emphasized that there is one big sin that is causing all the problems, and that is that the humans are violent. These other sins may be symptomatic of this Original sin, but this is the one that has God so upset. Just to remove any doubt the writer of Genesis makes this explicit in verse 11: “Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”
So how is God going to solve the problem of violence? With violence. That’s natural. There is a longstanding belief, almost universally accepted among humans in all cultures, lands, and all epochs that violence can solve the problem of violence. Kill the people who kill people. If we kill all the murderers, all the rapists, all the terrorists, all the Nazis, all the torturers, all the abusers, all the perpetrators of genocide, etc., then all that will be left will be the non-violent people, people who love peace. People like, well, Noah. He was righteous. He found favor with God.
So God decides that he is going to kill everyone except Noah and his family. Flood the entire earth and drown everyone and everything. Not just all the people, but all the animals as well. The fish will get along swimmingly, but all the mammals, all the reptiles, even the birds—I mean, they can’t fly around indefinitely—are going to have to die as well. God will perpetuate each species by putting one male and one female of each on the ark; and that’s nice. But if you’re not one of the two, well, sorry. (If you’re a clean animal, you get a better chance; there were seven pairs of them on the ark because, as Mom always told us, cleanliness is next to godliness.)
How bad does the violence have to be for God to resort to it himself? How widespread? How much evil can there be that God could only find one guy worth preserving? That’s pretty bad. So the issue at stake here isn’t whether or not such mass killing to an extent never before or since witnessed was justified. Apparently it was. No, the issue is, did it work? Did violence cure the problem of violence? If you have a problem calling what God did violence, then OK, call it whatever you want, but the question remains: did it work? Did God killing everything actually change anything?
The answer comes at the end of chapter 8. After Noah, his family, and all the animals disembark from the ark, Noah sacrifices to God, and God says in his heart—he says it to himself, not as a promise to anyone but as a resolution in his own mind—"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
There’s the “after” picture. After all this, and “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Now, compare it to the “before” picture: “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.” Look pretty much the same. No, exactly the same.
Nothing has changed. God wanted to solve the problem of the Original Sin, and it didn’t work. That’s pretty much what he says. “Well, I’m never doing that again! It didn’t do a thing! Look at them! Their hearts are inclined to evil just as bad as before! I’m going to have to try something else.”
So, one flood, three chapters, all that hassle, and nothing changed. Except one thing: God learned that violence isn’t a cure for violence. Something else is needed. If the concept of God learning bothers you, well, deal with it; there it is. The fact is that all our language about God is phrased in anthropomorphisms—we talk about God being human-like. He walks, he talks, he smells aromas, he feels human emotions, etc. So why can’t learning be one of the ways we talk about God? Furthermore, the idea that God is immutable or unchanging comes from Greek philosophy that is foreign to the ways of thinking of the ancient Hebrew.
The real issue isn’t whether or not God in the Flood narrative learned that violence cannot solve violence; the issue is whether we will learn it. Think about it: if all the righteous people rose up and killed all the evil people, we’d be left with a world of righteous killers. Violence would remain a vital part of the world’s structure.
We are willing to try the ways of peace, but we hold on to violence as a necessary last resort. Jesus leads us to another way—he lived the way of peace, and held on to sacrificial dying as a last resort.
What else can the way of the cross mean?