And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the sweet savour; and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’
As presented in the varying traditions of Genesis, God is at times apparently quite self-contradictory. In Genesis 6:5, God saw that “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and so God “repents” of having created humankind and wreaks catastrophic destruction on the earth. In the passage from Genesis 8 that we read today, God vows never again to curse and destroy the earth (“while the earth remains” because “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”). On the one hand, it is the wickedness and sinfulness of humanity that moves God to destroy life and on the other it is our same inherent sinfulness that moves God to mercy.
The God of Genesis is, in fact, quite anthropomorphic. There is present in the Torah a God whose heart resembles the human heart. As Noah makes his sweet smelling sacrifice to God, the Lord smells the sweetness and is moved in his heart to have mercy on the world despite, or because of, humanity’s innate sinfulness. God is moved and affected first in anger by the pervasive wickedness and corruption of human beings, but then also in compassion and mercy by the sacrifice of Noah, sinful though he remains.
In the traditions by which most of us were formed in the faith, mercy and truth and righteousness and peace are contraries. Yet, Psalm 85 tells us that in God these opposites not only co-exist buy complement each other:
For He will speak peace unto His people, and to His saints;
But let them not turn back to folly.
Surely His salvation is nigh them that fear Him;
That glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
It is not our sinfulness but our “folly” that separates us from the mercy of God. The destruction that God brings upon the earth is due to a wickedness of that which had come to pervade “every imagination of the thoughts” of the human heart. Adrian van Kaam says that the primordial disposition of the human heart is awe. It is our capacity as we look at our world and at ourselves to experience awe of the One who has created all. Yet, van Kaam says, we often pervert that most human of dispositions through what he calls “inverted awe.” Here, we fail to see creation in the light of the Creator, but rather become awestruck with ourselves. Chapter 6 of Genesis begins: “When men had begun to be plentiful on earth, and daughters had been born to them, the sons of God, looking at the daughters of men, saw they were pleasing, so they married as many as they chose.” (Genesis 6;1) The objectifying of women, or of any human person for that matter, is not a new phenomenon. Be it the material and physical world, or the human world, the sinfulness of humanity is manifest when our “imaginations” cut off creation from its Source. The biblical account of Noah and the flood suggests that when we have destroyed our capacity for awe, destruction ensues.
So the reversal occurs when Noah begins the new creation with his sweet sacrifice to God. The sacrifice is an acknowledgment of awe, which is inseparable from gratitude. It is the deepest human acknowledgement and recognition of proper relationship. God does not demand that we become sinless; that is impossible. Rather, in the truth of our sinfulness, yet our awesome appreciation of God we know mercy. We know peace in God, not by perfecting ourselves and becoming superhuman, but rather by the righteousness of knowing that the world and all that is in it is God’s, and thus realizing our true place in that world. This righteousness that comes from knowing our place is precisely the opposite of self-righteousness.
When our greatest human capacity which is for awe becomes distorted in inverted awe, we can only inflict violence on the earth. The assertion of the lie that we are not sinful, that we are right and possess the truth is an inevitable source of violence toward others — toward other persons and a world that will always give the lie to our own self-righteousness. What it truly means to bring faith into public discourse is not to inflict our own particular version of self-righteousness on the world, but rather to be living reminders of the One who is always Mystery to us and who is the source and creator of all. To bring God into the public square is not to tell others what they must do out of our own limited imagination and consciousness; it is rather to summon us all to the humility that calls us to be put in our place, a place that is an acknowledgement of our own sinfulness and limit and to call us all to offer in awe a sweet sacrifice to the Mystery in which all of us “live and move and have our being.” It is to be a witness to the fact that there is always more than we are capable of seeing and knowing.
In American culture we seem to take for granted the mistaken notion that the “truth” will arise out of the contention of opposing certainties. Yet, all our certainties are distorted and mistaken. The stance to which we are called and of which Genesis reminds us is that of offering humble sacrifice to the Divine Mystery. That sacrifice perhaps must first be the sacrifice of the false and illusory lives we have built to replace the life that God has given us. The common ground on which we meet is the ground of our sinfulness, but a sinfulness that is not rejected but rather mercifully loved. The condition of receiving that love, however, is the truth that comes from being put in our place, as a limited and sinful creature, but one capable of the most distinctively human act of awe. It is in sacrifice and worship that we know the truth of who we are; that we experience the splendor of creation as a radiance of the splendor of the Creator.
There is a plane of living where no one can remain both callous and calm, unstained and unabashed; where God’s presence may be defied but not denied, and where, at the end, faith in God is the only way.
The following parable was told by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav:
There was a prince who lived far away from his father, the king, and he was very, very homesick for his father. Once he received a letter from his father, and he was overjoyed and treasured it. Yet, the joy and the delight that the letter gave him increased his longing even more. He would sit and complain: “Oh, oh, if I could only touch his hand! If he would extend his hand to me, how I would embrace it. I would kiss every finger in my great longing for my father, my teacher, my light. Merciful father, how I would love to touch at least your little finger!” And while he was complaining, feeling and longing for a touch of his father, a thought flashed in his mind: Don’t I have my father’s letter, written in his own hand! Is not the handwriting of the king comparable to his hand? And a great joy burst forth in him. “When I look at the heavens, the work of thy fingers” (Psalms 8:4).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 365