A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 14, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Genesis 7:1-24
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I can’t hear the Noah story without hearing Bill Cosby.[i]

There’s fella by the name of Noah; he built an ark.  Everybody knows he built an ark.  You say, “What Noah do?”
“Well he built an ark.”
But very few people know about the conversation that went on between the Lord and Noah.
You see Noah was in his rec room, sawing away, he was making a few things for the home there.  He was a good carpenter.
Zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa
“Somebody call?”
Zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa, zwoopa
“Who is that?”
“It’s the Lord, Noah.”

If you’ve never heard the recording, track it down.  It’s good and, even though it was recorded 50 years ago, it still works.

I think it works because the story of Noah and the flood is part of our collective mythos.  It’s influenced literature (like Old Man and the Sea and Life of Pi) and movies (like Evan Almighty and Titan, A.E.).  It’s been turned into comedy sketches.  It’s one of those stories that we learn at an early age.  As Cosby says, “Everybody knows Noah built an ark.”

But I’ve got to tell you that I’ve long thought it strange that we teach this story to our children.  I mean, this story is at least PG-13.  It starts off with God having a conversation with Noah and the first thing that God says is, I’ve had it.  “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” (Genesis 6:13)  It starts off with God saying, “I’m going to commit the greatest genocide of all time and destroy not just a culture, but every culture and every air-breathing animal species, too.  Well, not every animal, but almost all of them – and that’s where you come in, Noah.”

Yes, the story has all the animals in it.  Yes, it’s like a trip to the zoo and it makes for great illustrations for the children’s book.  But we seem to gloss over the destruction.

It is interesting that many cultures tell stories about a great flood.  Some have suggested that the existence of these similarly themed stories in such diverse cultures might suggest that there really was an earth-wide catastrophic flood.  Some have posited theories of some sort of eruption on earth or the collision of some space debris causing sea levels to rise sufficiently to cause worldwide flooding.  I think it more likely that cultures around the globe have experienced catastrophic floods that seemed “worldwide,” even though on a global scale they could be considered “local.”

For instance, there is, apparently, evidence of major flooding of the Mesopotamian valley sometime near the transition between prehistory and history.  One can assume that major river system in other places around the globe experienced similar flooding, which may have been part of the basis of these similar stories.

You probably know that many scholars see the Noah story as having roots in other flood stories from Babylon.  For instance, there are three surviving Babylonian flood stories, the most famous of which is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh.  There’s another epic where the hero is Atrahasis.  They involve boats and collecting animals and floods.  There are definite parallels between the Noah story and these Babylonian stories.  Not just the ark, but the raven and the dove show up in other Near Eastern flood stories.

But there are also differences, the biggest of which may be the approach.  “In the Bible, it is human sin that causes [or moves God to cause] the Flood; in the Babylonian-Akkadian epic of ‘Atrahasis,’ human boisterousness and noise disturb the sleep of the gods and cause them to react.  In the Bible, Noah is saved so that he might begin the human voyage over again; in ‘Gilgamesh,’ the flood hero is elevated to immortal status and thereby is removed from human history.”[ii]

So our Biblical story of the flood is much more than a prehistoric memory.  It is different from a mere retelling of some ancient folk tale.  It is a story with a moral.  The themes are sin, righteousness, and a second opportunity to live in accordance with, rather than opposed to, the will of God.[iii]

Perhaps the most important difference between the flood story in the Torah and the other Near Eastern traditions is that, in the Torah, “God institutes law as the counteragent of human wickedness, while in other Near Eastern traditions such a divine response is absent.”[iv]  You see, this is the story that introduces covenant.  Up until now in Genesis, things have happened, but none of it has been based on covenant.  God has chosen to act.  Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel, have made choices – some of them pretty bad – but none of it has been based on covenant.

But in chapter 6, God makes the first covenant, and it’s with Noah.  The details of the covenant are not expressed in chapter 6.  Perhaps the implication is that God will help Noah and his family survive the great flood that’s coming, but Noah has this work he needs to do.  He needs to build a big boat and he needs to gather his family and representative animals and food.  And if Noah does all this, God will protect them.  Or, perhaps God is only saying that after the flood, God will make a covenant with Noah.  In chapter 6, maybe the only thing that’s happening is the promise of a promise.  Either way, the flood comes and everything except what’s on the ark dies.

And then the flood subsides, and God does make a covenant.  But it’s not just with Noah.  It’s with all of creation.  And the promise is that never again will all the world be destroyed with a flood.  And the sign of this promise is that God hangs up the bow (as in bow and arrow) in the sky.  The rainbow is God choosing to unilaterally disarm.

In the documentary, Bitter Seeds, which we showed here yesterday, we learned about the plight of farmers in central India.  For generations, they planted cotton, fertilized it with cow dung, waited for the rainy season, harvested the cotton, and kept seeds from the crop for the next year’s planting.  Then Monsanto moved in with genetically modified seeds, Bt seeds that are supposed to grow into plants that resist insect infestations.

The problem is – well, there are several problems:
First of all, Bt cotton doesn’t resist all insects.  While it might resist some insects and reduce the need for pesticides for those insects, there are other pests that are happy to eat the plants.  So pesticide applications are still necessary.
Second, after a few insect generations, they develop a resistance to the Bt toxicity.
Third, Bt seeds produce sterile plants, so the farmers have to purchase seeds each year.  They can’t just save seeds from this year’s harvest for next year.
Fourth, Bt cotton is much more persnickety that the traditional varieties of cotton planted in central India.  Bt requires irrigation and these small farmers don’t have irrigation; they rely on the rains.  Bt requires fertilization at specific times and cow dung is not the right fertilizer.
So, fifth, farmers borrow money to buy the seeds and fertilizers and pesticides, don’t get the promised yields, and end up in cycles of debt that they can’t get out of.  The suicide rate among farmers in central India rose to the level of one every half-hour.

As I watched the movie, I thought about the rains.  We listened to farmers praying for rain.  We listened to children singing songs about waiting for the rains.  For generations, the farmers have been dependent on the rains, and the rains, more often than not have come at the about right times in about the right quantities.  But that’s changing now.  And it’s not just changing in central India.  It’s changing globally.

One of the primary ways climate change is manifesting itself is by changes in precipitation patterns.  As the planet warms due to releases of CO2 (and other greenhouse gasses) from the burning of fossil fuels, that warmer air holds more moisture.  So dry places have become drier as that warmer air sucks away the moisture; and dry seasons have become drier.  Wet places have become wetter, because that moisture will eventually come out of the air; and wet seasons have become wetter.

The culprit really is the burning of fossil fuels.  A tree in the Amazon jungle, takes carbon out of the air, but that tree will eventually die and release that carbon back into the ecosystem.  The burning of the tree only releases that carbon quicker than if the tree were allowed to die naturally.  But the carbon that’s in fossil fuels has spent millennia safely sequestered underground.  Then we’ve come along, dug (or pumped) it up to the surface, and burned it, releasing it into the atmosphere.  That’s what’s caused the spike in the levels of atmospheric CO2 – and the spike in the levels of CO2 has caused the warming that’s causing the climate change.

Just think about what happened last year.  In Australia, summer is coming to a close, a summer that was so hot they had to come up with two new colors for the weather maps, indicating temperatures above 122oF.[v]  Last summer in the U.S., heat and drought crippled farming across the Midwest and South and closed sections of the Mississippi River to shipping.[vi]  Meanwhile in the American West, the 2012 wildfire season had already burned 30 percent more area than in an average year by September, with nearly two months still to go in the fire season.[vii]

More than a thousand people were killed in the destruction left by Typhoon Bopha in Mindanao, the southern island of the Philippines.[viii]  In June, flooding in Bangladesh left at least 70 dead and close to a quarter million people stranded or displaced.[ix]

And let’s not forget hurricane Sandy.  After pounding the Caribbean, it moved up the east coast of the U.S., only to meet up with North Atlantic weather that moved it ashore with ferocious strength.  The storm became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record (as measured by diameter, with winds spanning 1,100 miles).[x]  “Hurricane Sandy affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine and west across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin, with particularly severe damage in New Jersey and New York.  Its storm surge hit New York City … flooding streets, tunnels and subway lines and cutting power in and around the city.”[xi]  If I read the chart on the NOAA website[xii]correctly, Sandy left 131 people dead in the U.S., after killing at least 70 in the Caribbean.[xiii]

Now, each of these severe events is weather, and one year of weather does not a climate make.  But the scientists are blaming these extreme weather events on climate change.  According to Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “Human-driven climate change is in fact driving changes in severe weather, and that leads to a lot of potential impacts in both humans and wildlife that end up being costly in many different ways.”[xiv]

His findings are backed up by the insurance industry, whose job it is to make money – and they do that by reducing their losses, so they study things like weather patterns and climate chaos.  Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, sees climate change driving the increase in severe weather and predicts those influences will continue in the years ahead.[xv]

The story of Noah, our faith story about the waters of destruction, is a story about sin, righteousness, and a second opportunity to live in accordance with, rather than opposed to, the will of God.  Science tells us that our continued burning of fossil fuels is bringing back the waters of destruction – despite God’s promises.  We need to return to this story with fresh ears to hear its witness.  We are the people who are not living righteously, at least not righteously enough when it comes to climate change.  But the reality is, we – not just individually, not just as a people in one nation – but we as a people of the earth have a second chance.  If we act quickly, we have a second opportunity to live in accordance with, rather than opposed to, the will of God.

I pray to God we take it.  Amen.


[i] Bill Cosby recorded this sketch on the Album Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow … Right! in 1963.  You can hear the sketch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlmIeH7DT_w.

[ii] W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), page 56.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Brooke Jarvis, “Australia Adds New Weather Map Colors for Extreme Heat,” Rolling Stone Magazine, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/australia-adds-new-weather-map-colors-for-extreme-heat-20130108 (13 April 2013).

[vi] “Mississippi River commerce imperiled by low water,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/22/mississippi-river-commerce-imperiled-by-low-water/1721817/ (13 April 2013).

[vii] “Worst Natural Disasters Of 2012,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/28/worst-natural-disasters-of-2012_n_2349311.html#slide=1898698 (13 April 2013).

[viii] Caroline Gluck, “Typhoon Bopha: Families Struggle to Revocer,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/caroline-gluck/typhoon-bopha—families_b_2335505.html (13 April 2013).

[ix] Anis Ahmed, “Seventy dead, 200,000 stranded in Bangladesh floods,” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/27/us-bangladesh-floods-idUSBRE85Q07A20120627 (13 April 2013).

[x] “Hurricane Sandy,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Sandy (13 April 2013).

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Billion Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters,” NOAA, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events (13 April 2013).

[xiii] “Hurricane Sandy,” op. cit.

[xiv] “Relationship Explored Between Climate Change And Severe Weather,” redOrbit, http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1112785320/climate-change-cause-severe-weather-relationship-021513/ (13 April 2013).

[xv] Doyle S. Rice, “Report: Climate change behind rise in weather disasters,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2012/10/10/weather-disasters-climate-change-munich-re-report/1622845/ (13 April 2013).