April 5th, 2014
08:56 AM ET
Opinion by Joel S. Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) - Most modern people tend to distinguish between the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the New Testament.
In our age, the merciful God reigns - or so we like to think.
But every so often, stories or books or natural disasters summon visions of a wrathful God, and nowhere is that more in evidence than in the biblical story of the Flood, now brutally depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s new film “Noah.”
With our notion of a God who loves us all individually, especially the little children, we struggle with a deity who would wipe out all of humanity. Surely there were many innocent people, children, who died in the Flood?
But let’s be clear: This is our problem, not the Bible’s.
According to the biblical story of the Flood, it was not individuals who were wicked; it was humanity as a whole, a wickedness encoded in humanity’s very nature. Young, old, male, female, “every plan devised by humanity’s mind was nothing but evil all the time,” says the Book of Genesis.
Nor is the Flood intended to eradicate humanity’s wickedness so that we might begin anew as a peaceful species, as the film “Noah” seems to suggest.
In the Bible, Noah and his descendants don’t promise to behave differently after the flood. Rather, God learns to accept their inherently evil nature: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity, since the devisings of humanity’s mind are evil from their youth.”
We are who we are.
In fact, according to the Bible, the reason that God accepts human nature is because we are the only species that can give him what he wants — which, in the view of Genesis, is bloody, burned animal sacrifices. (So much for the pro-vegetarian angle of Aronofsky’s film.)
The God of the Old Testament is not uniquely protective of children. After all, this is the same deity who commands the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, “man and woman, young and old.”
The same God who accepts without comment Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter, who allows children to be mauled by a bear for taunting one of his prophets, who threatens Israel with such devastating famine that they will be forced to eat their own infants.
Innocent lives are rarely a moral problem for Israel’s God.
Consider the debate between Abraham and God over the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asks his maker, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”
Abraham succeeds in talking God down to sparing the city for the sake of 10 innocent lives. When the city is then destroyed anyway, we are left to surmise that there must have been fewer than 10 good people there. But there might have been nine — and they burned with the rest.
Aronofsky must have recognized our modern moral conundrum: His depiction of humanity outside the family of Noah is almost entirely negative, so that we feel very little compassion for them. Even as they clamber for space on mountaintops as the waters rise.
The one exception to humanity’s general wickedness, a young woman who does not make it onto the ark, stands in for all the innocents swept away in the Flood.
But how innocent is she, really?
The film hews close to the Christian notion of original sin: Noah states quite forcefully that humans have all been corrupted since the expulsion from the Garden.
From that perspective, there are no truly innocent humans, regardless of how innocently they may behave.
In the film, the only real innocents are the animals. They remain so, one character says, because they behave as they did in Eden. Which, of course, is more than anyone can say for Adam and Eve. Notably, Aronofsky does not show any animals drowning or struggling for life, though they also must have.
Again, this is not a problem for the Old Testament: The animals are as inherently guilty as the humans. “All flesh” — animals included — “had corrupted its way on the earth,” we are told in Genesis.
So, we have to separate our notion of innocence — and of God’s nature — from that of the Old Testament authors.
The God of the Old Testament does not love humans; he barely tolerates them. The relationship is not one of affection but one of necessity and of obedience.
We are promised that there will never be another Flood because God wants and needs our sacrifices.
The family of the patriarchs is chosen out of all humanity not because they are somehow more righteous but so that they can exemplify correct obedience for the other nations of the world.
Israel is saved from Egypt not out of love but in order that they will be uniquely beholden to God and will serve him — again, with sacrifices — in the way that God most desires.
Israel’s God is not a beneficent one. He is, in the words of his prophet Nahum, “a passionate, avenging God; vengeful, and fierce in wrath.”
It is not his job to keep us happy and comfortable; it is, rather, our job to make ourselves uncomfortable that he might be appeased.
And yet there is no question that the Old Testament God is not the same God we know and worship today, in modern America.
How, then, do we, who still hold the Bible dear, reconcile our idea of God with God’s actions, in the Flood story and elsewhere?
One possibility is simply to take the Bible at its word: All of humanity, and indeed all of the animals too, was wicked, and even Noah was not entirely righteous but only the most righteous of his wicked generation, as an ancient Jewish tradition stated.
The moral problem is then not why everyone perished, but why — as the movie version asks — anyone was saved at all.
Another possibility is to attribute a shift in personality to the deity: from wrathful to merciful, in line with the division between the Old and New Testaments.
For those who believe in a new dispensation with the arrival of Jesus, this option seems relatively easy. For those who don’t, not so much.
A third choice is to fall back — quite easily — on the essential unknowability of God.
We are not granted the same understanding or perception as is the deity. Which is to say: We have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Whichever of these paths one takes — and there are surely others — we are struggling with the same basic problem, trying to find some solution that will bring the God of the Old Testament into line with our modern God.
In other words, it is our changing concept of God, over two millennia, that is responsible for the moral dilemma. It’s our problem, not the Bible’s.
Joel S. Baden is the author of “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero,” and an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. The opinions in this column belong to Baden.
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