FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
God said to Noah and to his sons with him:
"See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
"This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,
of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature with you:
I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings."
The choice of the Noah narrative with Sunday’s Gospel, the temptation of Jesus in the desert, is intriguing. Some of the intrigue rests in the Genesis text itself. The first eleven chapters of Genesis compose a “prehistory” so to speak, a philosophical/mythical setting of a real world in which God would embrace a specific tribal entity and formulate a covenant of exclusivity. Genesis 12 marks the beginning of the “chosen people” and the designation of Abraham as the father of Israel.
But prior to Chapter 12, the inspired editors of Genesis sought not only to establish the reality of God and a world of real people, but also to address issues of the human condition that troubled later Israel and continue to haunt us in the present day. Thus the pre-Abraham texts explore the pride of humanity (the forbidden fruit of Eden and the Tower of Babel, for example), the hard lot of survival (Adam’s curse of tilling the earth in sweat), the power of human desire (Eve’s desire for her husband despite the pain and risk of child birth), the alienation of man from nature (the infamous talking serpent) and the psychology of envy and anger (Cain’s killing of his brother.)
The account of Noah and the great flood falls into this category of myth/philosophy. In this early Genesis narrative, it seems that even God is surprised at the many ways his human creations can go bad, and he is determined to scrap the project and start over with the one good man he can identify, Noah, and his (presumably) good family. Genesis borrows freely from the Gilgamesh Flood Myth in describing details. There are, incidentally, about 34 versions of flood myths around the globe, from Native American lands to the Philippines. The human form as we know it dates back as far as 200,000 years. Niagara Falls, created by the melting of the last ice age, is only 12,000 years old (and at the time of Christ was located
at the spot of the Rainbow Bridge). Massive water events—geological and meteorological--were understandably etched into human experience.
The great flood is one of the first Bible stories I learned, both from home and Catholic school, and why not? Its most basic lessons meld with a second grader’s First Penance catechetic: God is angry at sinners, God protects those who do good, and as a sidebar, God will never send another great flood. Given that we kids grew up with hydrogen bombs tested in the atmosphere as a regular occurrence, the flood promise was perhaps less impressive to us than it was to the ancients.
Here is where the trouble comes in. Adult Catholics do not generally engage in the level of catechetics comparable to what their college and graduate studies in other fields demand. I wish I had a dollar for all my adult students—highly competent professionals in the “real world” –who were shocked to hear that Adam and Eve are not specific human beings, not is their blood pulsing genetically through our veins. Bringing at best an elementary school handle on the Bible and other aspects of the Faith into adult life, I would bet that most hearers of next Sunday’s First Reading believe this text to be the conclusion of the Ark narrative, for it does cast a rosy view of the future after the long and nerve-wracking experience of the Ark and the Flood.
Unfortunately, the narrative continues (Genesis 9: 18-29) and Noah and his three sons, back on solid ground as the waters dried, set to planting a vineyard. The wine produced in the subsequent season was strong, if nothing else, and Noah becomes very intoxicated and passes out naked in his tent. His son Ham “saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside.” The USCCB commentary primly observes that there is more to Ham’s offense than just laughing at his father; “Ham’s conduct is meant to prefigure the later shameful sexual practices of the Canaanites, which are alleged in numerous biblical passages.” The two other brothers walk into the tent backward with a blanket, so as not to see their father’s nakedness. Later Noah would curse his son Ham, calling him “Canaan” while extending blessings to the pair of other sons.
Taking in the bigger picture here, God had done all he could do to eliminate evil from the earth and its peoples, and he has been unsuccessful. His last and most powerful act, the sending of the deluge, had evidently not changed the course of human nature as the post-flood conduct of Genesis 9 clearly shows. A clear message that emerges from early Genesis is the pervasiveness of evil, summarized in Genesis 3, “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” Evil in its various forms is constitutive of human history. The election of Abraham’s tribe in Genesis 12 is the first chapter of a new beginning built upon election and a new, intimate relationship aimed at creating a holy people, a holy nation.
What is noticeable in Genesis is the absence of “devils.” Ancient Israel did not know devils, which is why the problem of evil was an intense matter. Devils would have made convenient scapegoats for the evil of the world. Israelite thinkers did not look outside the human condition for causes of evil, though it would have been very tempting [no pun intended] to do so. Toward the end of the Old Testament era, in an age marked by apocalyptic and fascination with the end of time, devils come into common language, and the devil as an agent of evil appears in some New Testament books.
Although the Temptation of Jesus [this Sunday’s Gospel] is included in three Gospels, it is not attested in St. John. This Sunday’s Gospel account of the Temptation from St. Mark, the first Evangelist, is very brief: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” The choice of the desert setting is no accident: the desert was the apocalyptic site of the final showdown between good and evil, between the angels of God and the minions of the Evil One. And indeed, Mark notes the presence of angels in Jesus’ struggle with the Evil One.
Mark will go on to describe numerous conflicts between Jesus and demons; Jesus will perform exorcisms to announce to the people of his time and place that the power of evil is beginning its decline with the coming of the Kingdom of God. What we have in the pairing of Genesis and Mark this weekend is a conclusive demonstration by Jesus that the power of evil, which so perplexed the authors of the Hebrew Scripture has been broken in the desert and on through the Resurrection of Jesus, who has come to establish the victorious kingdom of God on earth.