56 After the unity of the human race was shattered by sin God at once sought to save humanity part by part. The covenant with Noah after the flood gives expression to the principle of the divine economy toward the "nations", in other words, towards men grouped "in their lands, each with [its] own language, by their families, in their nations".9
Having established the consequences of Adam’s fall and God’s earliest works of saving redemption, the Catechism progresses its exposition of God’s saving work, and here the emphasis is upon the long and multi-faceted nature of Redemption, as God works to save “part by part.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 points out an important truth about the early Genesis texts, which the Adam and Eve and the Noah narratives partly comprise. Genesis Chapters 1-11 focus upon the nations of the earth; Chapter 12 begins the story of God’s relationship with one special nation, Israel; Chapter 12 introduces Abraham and the patriarchs.
Since the advent of modern biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century, the historicity of Genesis 1-11 has been severely questioned for multiple reasons. The theory of my training emphasized the philosophical nature of these texts. The creators and authors of these popular stories were attempting to answer very basic questions about human life (as the nature of sin and suffering in the Adam and Eve account) or about the pervasiveness of sin (Noah) or the disunity of the human species (the Tower of Babel). Noah is of particular interest to us today, cited as it is in para. 56.
The Noah Story is lengthy, beginning long before the deluge and concluding long after it. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, the couple begins to populate the earth. Some of their offspring were decent enough, while many others were violent and ruthless, most famously Cain. This post-Adam period, in the Genesis narrative, lasted hundreds of years, long enough for God to regret that he had ever created the human species. (Genesis 6: 5-6) It is here that God decides to rid the world of sinful man, “all life on earth.” (6:13) Noah is cited as a “good man and blameless in that age, for he walked with God….” (6:9-10) Noah and his kin will be spared, and thus proceeds the building of the Ark.
In my lifetime a number of famous persons have sought to find the Ark, notably the Apollo astronaut and moon-explorer James Irwin. (Irwin suffered a heart attack during his moon mission in 1971.) Irwin, like many Christians, believed in a literal reading of the Bible on matters of creation. However, there are a number of similar stories to the Ark found in other surviving early religious texts. Back in the 1970’s we studied the exploits of Akk Utnapishtim, a famous parallel figure to Noah in Babylonian tales, though in looking at the material available today I see that other ancient flood stories and rescues are more numerous and available today than in the 1970’s.
This should not disturb faith in the Bible, since the intent of the editors of Genesis appears to be theological, not meteorological. The Noah narrative demonstrates the great disappointment of God with the general wickedness of the human race, moving the Lord to the drastic step of killing off the species and then rebuilding from the seed of another good man, Noah, the “second Adam” if you will. When the flood subsides, God gives him and his family a covenant or contract that is remarkably similar to the one put forward by God at the very opening of Genesis.
Many catechists end their treatments of the Noah narrative at this juncture, but in fact the story continues as Noah establishes a vineyard and proceeds to get severely drunk from the first fermentation of the grapes. He passes out naked in his tent. His son Ham, identified in the text as the future father of the Canaanites, laughs at his father’s nakedness and gathers his brothers to enjoy the spectacle. The older brothers are aghast at this sin against their father’s dignity and rush to cover him. Noah, having eventually recovered himself, curses his young son and the race he would father. What we have, then, is lasting proof that as long as there are humans there will be sin, and the revelation of salvation, renewal of the covenant, will need to occur over and over, as in fact it does throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Para. 56, by invoking the Noah narrative, illustrates that God’s will to save extends backward to the beginning of humanity, and the use of the word “humanity” in the first sentence is deliberate. So too is the intriguing phrase “part by part.” Genesis’ description of the multiplication of peoples and tongues after the flood sets the table for the beginning of true history as we know it, Genesis 12 and the designation of Israel as God’s chosen people from among all of the tribes and nations that dotted the known world. God will, of course, reveal his love and his law to Israel for two millennia.
God’s plan for salvation, known technically as the “economy of salvation,” was the development of Israel as the holy nation, the famous “city on a hill” to which all the nations of the world would stream. Para. 56 underscores the unity of God’s saving intent for all of humanity through the holiness of Israel. Next week’s entry will continue to explore the pre-Abraham state of man, notably in the episode of the Tower of Babel.