Mirror of the Water

In our generation, there is no more enduring and scarring mental monument to the utter and absolute destruction of flooding than Hurricane Katrina. Katrina made landfall somewhere east of New Orleans in August of 2005, and despite its category 3 rating, its rains overpowered the city’s levees and left New Orleans under water. Because most of New Orleans lies below the level of the surrounding waters, an intricate system of levees was constructed to keep the waters at bay. One of the most devastated area of the city was the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominately black and overwhelmingly poor neighborhood. The first levee in the Lower Ninth Ward failed at 5:00 AM followed by a second, wider breach at 7:45 AM. The floodwaters rushed so violently into the Lower Ninth Ward that some residents described the sound as a rushing train, crashing plane, or even the detonation of bombs. Even today, for reasons that are as political, social and economic as the are natural, the Lower Ninth Ward is in large part still completely devastated. Before the floodwaters subsided, more than 1800 people would die. Many of their corpses were found floating along in the floodwaters. Others were recovered from the homes from which they were never able to escape.

I visited New Orleans 16 months after Katrina. I will never forget driving around the city and surveying the destruction. Boats were still in trees and houses were completely uprooted from their foundations. On every door there was an X to mark the date a rescue team arrived, the origin of the rescue team, whether they entered the house, and how many bodies were found inside. It is a sobering reminder of the reality that so haunts us we do everything we can to ignore it—life is terrifyingly fragile. In a moment, those things we think are protecting us can prove their frailty and leave us to the destruction of death.

As awful as the scene in New Orleans was, it shockingly pales in comparison to the ghastly scene of Genesis 7. 

1 Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”5 And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature.15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the Lord shut him in.

17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. GENESIS 7:1-24

In Genesis 1, God creates the dry land by separating the waters above the expanse of the sky from the waters below. In other words, God made an inhabitable space for his creatures between the waters. We live, according to Genesis 1, on land that is separated from the waters only by God’s withholding them—something like the levees holding back the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

In response to the all-pervasive wickedness on the land, God destroys it in an act of de-creation. Where God had separated the waters to make the dry land upon which he would set his creatures, God releases the waters to destroy it. The waters of the great deep below and the rainwaters of the heavens come together in a furious collision, a violent de-creation. Such an act, Genesis makes clear, is not careless, divine retribution. It is, rather, the only appropriate response to humanity’s sin and the resulting wickedness that has filled the earth.

God is infinitely good, and his creation and his creatures are bestowed with the blessing of good by God in Genesis 1. Yet from Genesis 3 on, creation is marred by the evil of disobedience. God, being the Creator King, must uphold his edict of death—man will surely die. And, being good, God must work to uphold what is good and restrain evil. In his acting to un-create the world, God is making an emphatic declaration that what was good has been ruined—not as a result of his doing, but rather as a result of his creatures who have raised up against him. The whole world is brought down, yes in God’s judgement against sin, but it is undone first by humanity’s sin against God.

The author is bent on painting an accurate portrait of the scope of this un-creation. All of creation is subject to judgement—“all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind.” Even the highest mountains are baptized under the waters of judgement. Nothing escapes the judgement of the flood. The judgement fits the crime. Humanity’s sin has so destroyed the world that God must destroy it totally.

Yet while the earth is submerged in the waters of God’s judgement, hope remains. God’s instructions to Noah regarding the animals harken back to the creation narrative. Verses 14 -16: “[Noah and his family] and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.  And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him.” Even though the whole creation and every creature is subject to the judgement of the flood, God saves a remnant that mirrors his creational design—animals according to their kind, and humanity, male and female. God’s design for his world remains good. These whispers of Eden affirm God’s commitment to his creation and creatures, even though they lie ruined by humanity’s sin.

In our journey through Genesis, we have seen that the beginning of the story anticipates its end. Here again we get a glimpse of the salvation to come—it will, in a redeemed sense, look a lot like the beginning. The redeemed land that emerges through the waters will be physical and material, filled with beasts of the field and birds of the heavens and humanity. A new creation is coming.

The author also wants us to note something regarding Noah. Beginning with the last verse in chapter 6, the author tells us four times that Noah obeyed God and did all God commanded him. The narrative gives no indication of complaint or question. Simply that Noah obeyed all that God commanded. To obey in part would be to disobey completely. It would be to transgress the good and life-giving way of God, the benevolent Creator King.

This begins to carve out more clearly the path for salvation in a Genesis 3 world. To recover God’s design requires the judgement of sin and the obedience of a righteous one. We have already seen in the story of Noah that his faith is not the first play—it is a response to God. Yet his faith, and its resulting obedience, must be full and complete. It is not long into Noah’s story, however, until he proves inescapably like our first father, Adam—too much like you and me. There remains a palpable need for One who can absorb the penalty of sin and obey God completely. Such need is met at last in Jesus—the only One who obeyed God completely, whose obedience drove him to the cross to absolve the judgement of our sin in his body. The scene of his crucifixion is horror of horrors—the God Man naked and exposed on a tree, hung and left there to die a criminal’s death.

As we look at the horror of the cross, what should our response be? Should we pity Jesus? Should we find him pathetic? Mourn hopelessly or tearlessly hope? We often look upon the suffering of others with a removed response, terrified to associate ourselves with the plight of our fellow human beings as we try desperately to pretend their plight is not our own. Our default is often an arrogant pity—the kind that is grateful their suffering didn’t happen to us, the kind that commodifies the suffering of another for our own consumption (as in, what happened to them has really changed my perspective). 

I fear we look at the horror of the flood and the greater horror of the cross the same way—with an arrogant pity that is glad we weren’t drowned in the deluge and is grateful from a distance that Jesus hung on the cross instead of us. Such a response fails to see our own reflection in the floodwaters and our own silhouette on the cross. It is not simply the suffering of those in the days of Noah. It is not simply Jesus’ suffering. It is ours, and justly so. We deserve to be drowned in a moment, to be crucified. Just as Jesus gladly went to inexpressible lengths to express solidarity with humanity, the cross invites us to find solidarity with him in his suffering—to see it as our own, the suffering we deserve. And if we fail to see it as such, we will fail to inherit the joy of the resurrection.

I learned something of this in enduring the suffering of losing our daughter:

To say that you have gained something from my suffering, to claim some benefit has come to you at my expense—that your perspective has changed or that you have a renewed appreciation for your lot in life—is to cheapen my suffering. It is to commodify it for your consumption at my cost. To glean gain without paying the cost of entering into my suffering, of sharing it as your own, is cheap and entirely selfish. My grief is not yours and it is not for your benefit. Yet should you be willing to enter it with me, to cry and be crushed, then the sweet wine that is pressed out is for us to share together. If you should be willing to weep and wail in the fire as if this grief is your own, then what comes out of the furnace refined is a gift for us together. But do not cheapen my grief.

“Nor do I care to receive your pity as recompense. Pity is a removed response, arising from a sense of relief that my suffering did not fall upon you. Pity is payment towards your self-righteousness merit badge that sees my suffering as a scarlet letter of shame. I care nothing for your pity. But if your are willing to share my suffering as your own, to draw near to me in my despair, to sink low into sorrow, then you have offered me what I long for most. Then you have paid what cannot be repaid or redeemed simply for your good, and we will be richer together for it. But do not give me your pity.

Jesus does not want our pity. He is neither benefited nor impressed by it. He wants us to share in the death of the cross so we can share in the life of resurrection.