Lesson Two: From Sabbath to Flood

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Lesson Outline:

  1. Review and Overview
  2. How to Read Genesis
  3. Creating a Covenant of Love
    1. The Love Story of God and Humanity
    2. The Wedding in the Garden
    3. The Child-Like Image of Man
  4. A New Creation, A New Covenant
    1. Falling Towards a Flood
    2. Beginning With the Rain
    3. The Story of Two Names
  5. Study Questions

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I. Review and Overview

In our last lesson, we introduced the core biblical concept of "the covenant." In this lesson - we look at the theory in action, reading the first 11 chapters of "the Book of the Covenant," the Bible.

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II. How to Read Genesis

How are we supposed to read Genesis as modern Catholics?

We have to read Genesis on its own terms - which are religious, not scientific or historical in the modern, secular, rationalistic sense of the terms. Genesis wasn't written to be God's assigned textbook for science class or anthropology. We can learn a lot from the Bible about physics, evolution, geology, cosmology and the rest - but that's not what Genesis was written for.

Around the time of the Galileo controversy, an Italian historian, Cardinal Caesare Baronious, gave us a great sound-bite to sum up what we're saying: "The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven - not how the heavens go."

Everything the Bible has to tell us - about everything from morals to history - is true. But it's true in the Bible's way of telling the truth, which is God's truth, religious truth. That's not a cop-out answer. You don't read a math book looking for religious truths. We can't assume to read this religious text in order to find mathematical and scientific proofs.

Scripture gives us religious history, religious truth, and it conveys that truth and history to us through symbols and figures and different literary styles.

Get used to this. This is how the Old Testament, especially, is written.

Read the seventh chapter of the Book Daniel: He describes 400 years of Israel's history in terms of four beasts, four ugly animals that oppress God's people, one after the other. Now, through research, we can see that these "beasts" each represent nations - Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome - that oppressed Israel. Daniel is giving us solid history, but he's giving it to us through symbolic means.

So, we're not going to get too hung up in this class on whether God created the world in six 24-hour days, or whether the biblical account supports one of the theories of evolution. (Those interested in pursuing these subjects should check out Dr. Scott Hahn's One Holy Tribe, which has a more in-depth treatment of the creation story.)

Here we're going to approach Genesis as it was written - as an ancient Hebrew narrative that's telling history in a religious, not modern-secular, way. This is family history. It's not the history of nations and armies and economies that we're used to. It's history from God's perspective.

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III. Creating a Covenant of Love

A. The Love Story of God and Humanity The point of the first three chapters of Genesis is to show us that creation was a deliberate, purposeful act of love by God. The world didn't just happen. God wanted the world - not because He was lonely, not because there was anything He lacked or needed.

God created the world because God is love (see 1 John 4:16). And love is creative, self-giving and life-giving.

God made the world as a pure gift of His love. He created the world as His home, a sort of cosmic temple in which the heavens are the ceiling and the earth - with all its vast continents, rivers, oceans, mountain ranges and the like - is the floor. The world is made to be a temple where He will dwell with the descendants of the man and woman, the crown jewel, of His creation.

The world is made to be the site where God will live in communion with the people He created. That's what the seventh day, the Sabbath, means (Genesis 2:1-3).

The seventh day marks the completion of God's work on His dwelling, and this is the day He makes a covenant with the people He created. As we said in our last lesson, "covenant" is the way that God makes His people into a family. On the seventh day, God made Adam and Eve part of His family.

The covenant of creation, then, is the first sign of God's intentions for the world and for the human race. It's true that the word "covenant" isn't mentioned in the Genesis account. But it's everywhere between the lines.

Some scholars believe Genesis records a seven-day creation because the root of the Hebrew word for "covenant oath-swearing" - sheba - stems from the word "seven." To swear an oath means, literally, "to seven oneself" (see Genesis 21:27-32). We can say that God made the world in seven days as an act of cosmic oath-swearing, a "sevening of Himself" to His creation - He created in order to covenant.

Later, God reveals to Moses that the Sabbath is to be observed as "a perpetual covenant" (see Exodus 31:16-17). The Sabbath becomes the day of worship, when God and the people He created in His image rest together in love. (see Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:15; 12:9; Ezekiel 20:12).

The Catechism calls the creation story the "first step" in "the forging of the covenant of the one God with His people...the first and universal witness to God's all-powerful love" (no. 288). That's why Jesus says: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (see Mark 2:27-28).

It's very important that we understand this covenant of creation.

Because it is the archetype - the source and model - for all the covenants that we will be studying in this course. Every one of the future covenants - with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and the New Covenant of Jesus - is a remembrance and a renewal of this first covenant with creation.

In other words, in those future covenants, we will find that God is remembering, rededicating and recommiting Himself, so to speak, to this original covenant. This is how the ancient Jews looked at the covenants. We can see that in some of the so-called "intertestamental literature" - Jewish religious books and commentaries written between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New (see Jubilees 36:7; 1 Enoch 69:15-27).

As the covenants of old are described as renewing the covenant of creation, the New Covenant - the final and everlasting covenant - is described as bringing about a new creation.

Jesus, "the firstborn of all creation" becomes the "firstborn from the dead" and the "firstfruits" of a reborn humanity (see Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Corinthians 15:20). Those who enter into that New Covenant through Baptism become "new creations" (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). Finally, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: "A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God" (see Hebrews 4:9).

What we're saying here has been beautifully summed up by Pope Benedict XVI:

" Creation moves toward the Sabbath...The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant between God and man; it sums up the inward essence of the covenant....Creation exists to be a place for the covenant that God wants to make with man. The goal of creation is the covenant, the love story of God and man" (see The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 25-27)

Remember that line: The goal, the purpose - the reason that God made the world "in the beginning" - is the covenant, the communion of love that He desires with the human race.

B. The Wedding in the Garden

The "sign" of God's creation covenant of love is marriage.

So we have the chapter that begins with God instituting the Sabbath, blessing it and making it holy (Genesis 2:1-3) ending with God instituting marriage - in which man and woman become one flesh (Genesis 2:23-24).

Again, in order to understand what we're reading here, we need to read the Bible as a single book, with a unity of content. We also need to read this Old Testament passage in light of how it is read in the New Testament.

We don't find the literal text telling us here that God is "instituting marriage" and that He is making it a permanent, irrevocable covenant between husband and wife. And we don't find the literal text here telling us that this marriage covenant between Adam and Eve symbolizes God's permanent, irrevocable covenant with the human race and all creation.

But, when we read this passage in light of the New Testament and in light of the prophets, we understand that this is precisely what's happening here.

This is the way God works in the Bible. It's His "pedagogy" - His divine teaching style. He unfolds things slowly. Often He gives us the "sign" itself first and then reveals to us the full significance of the sign later (see Catechism, nos. 53; 122; 1145).

That's what He's doing here in Genesis. He's giving us the "sign" of marriage. Later in Scripture it will be revealed that marriage is about not only the relationship between husband and wife. It's intended by God also to be a sign of the relationship He desires with all humanity.

The word "marriage" isn't used here in Genesis. We know it's about marriage because Jesus said it was (see Mark 10:2-16). Jesus says this text reflects God's will "from the beginning of creation" and that "what God has joined together, no human being must separate."

Now, further along in the New Testament, God shows us more fully what this text means. In Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, he quotes this text and explains that this marriage covenant in the garden is a reference to the covenant between "Christ and the Church" (see Ephesians 5:21-33).

Paul doesn't say that our Genesis text isn't about husbands and wives. In fact, he gives a beautiful teaching on the love that husbands and wives share. But he is telling us that marriage is also a symbol of a far greater love - the love that Christ has for His bride, the Church, the love that God has for His people.

Finally, we turn to the Bible's last book, the Book of Revelation. What do we find on the very last pages of the Bible? A wedding. Just as we find a wedding here in the first pages of the Bible. Coincidence? Hardly.

What Revelation "reveals" is the final consummation, the marriage of Christ to His bride (see Revelation 19:9; 21:9; 22:17). And what else? A new creation - a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).

The prophets always taught Israel to hope for the renewal of the covenant, to reform their lives to live according to the covenant. And one their favorite descriptions is that of God or the Messiah coming as a bridegroom to take His people as his spouse or bride (see Hosea 2:16-24; Jeremiah 2:2; Isaiah 54:4-8). That why when Jesus comes, He calls Himself the "bridegroom" and those who are united to Him in Baptism are called "espoused" (see John 3:29; Mark 2:19; Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13; 1 Corinthians 6:15-17; 2 Corinthians 11:2; see also Catechism, no. 796).

We'll talk about this more in our last lesson in this course. But we need to see here - right at the beginning - that this marriage in the Garden of Eden, along w ith the Sabbath that God institutes, are signs that point us to things far greater.

Pope John Paul II says that the Sabbath story "discloses something of the nuptial shape of the relationship that God want to establish with the creature made in His own image, by calling that creature to enter into a pact of love" (see the Pope's apostolic letter "On Keeping the Lord's Day," nos. 11-12).

C. The Child-Like Image of Man

The "nuptial" image of the groom and spouse is only one of the images the Bible uses to describe the relationship of God to His people. The other image is that of Father to His children. We find this image, too, in the Genesis account.

It's often said that the Bible contradicts itself by having two seemingly different accounts of creation within the first two chapters of Genesis.

But they're not contradictions. There is a complete "complementarity" between the accounts.

In Genesis 1, we have God the Creator bringing the cosmos into existence - making a cosmic "home" for himself. At the end of this creation, we see Him creating the human person "in his image...in the divine image...male and female."

In Genesis 2, we see God working personally, as a Father, lovingly fashioning the man from the dirt of the earth, creating a garden paradise for him, and finally creating a spouse for him from his very side.

There are not two "gods" at work here or two conflicting stories. Not only is God the Creator of all that is seen and unseen. He is also a Father, who loves His people tenderly, as a divine parent.

In the language of the Bible, to be born in someone's "image and likeness," means to be that person's child. The expression "image and likeness" expresses the Father-son relationship of God and His people (see Genesis 5:1-3; Luke 3:38). From the very beginning, then, we see that God intended people to be His children, His divine offspring.

But as we saw above, there is also what the Pope describes as a "nuptial" dimension to the relationship that God wants with His people.

We're learning, in the very first pages of the Bible, a very important lesson - the limits of our human language in describing God's love for us. Words can't possibly begin to describe the love that God has for us. So here, in the first pages of the Bible, we're given the two most powerful images of human love imaginable - that of parent and child and that of husband and wife (see Catechism, no. 219).

In a sense, we can say that the Bible we're about to read cover-to-cover, tells the story of God raising His family from infancy to adulthood. He prepares them little by little to be fit for the wedding supper of the Lamb in heaven, for a divine union with Him that can only be symbolized by marriage - the most ecstatic and intimate of human relationships.

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IV. A New Creation, A New Covenant

A. Falling Towards a Flood

The chapters that follow in Genesis (see Genesis 3-5) show us "the fall" of our first human ancestors - from divinely made son and daughter living in paradise, to wayward children who reject their Father's wisdom and squander their birthright, losing their home.

The Devil, in the form of the serpent, tempts them and leads them astray (see Catechism, nos. 391-395). And sin - the rejection of God's Fatherhood - enters the generations of humankind.

But even as His children have exiled themselves from paradise through sin, God promises them redemption, a homecoming.

He promises that throughout human history there will be an "enmity" between the serpent, Satan, and the woman, "the mother of all the living," and between their offspring (see Genesis 3:15, 20).

There begins the tension that will shape the rest of Genesis and the rest of the Bible - between the bad seed of sin and the seed of righteousness.

The first child born of original sin, Cain, becomes the world's first murder. As Adam and Eve, the first children of God, rejected the Fatherhood of God, their children reject the brotherhood of man, symbolized in Cain's spiteful words to God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (see Genesis 4:9).

But there is also a good seed born of Adam and Eve - Seth. It's the children of Seth, born of Seth's son, Enosh, who first begin to worship God, to "invoke the Lord by name" (see Genesis 4:26). The word name in Hebrew is shem. Just remember that for now, it will become important later.

Violence and lawlessness and immorality began to fan out on the face of the earth until finally it infects the "sons of heaven," that is the children of Seth (see Genesis 6:1-4). What happens in Genesis 6 is that Seth's descendants, seduced by the beauty of the daughters of Cain, take them as wives. Worse yet, they took more than one wife - "as many of them as they chose." The sons of Seth violate the sanctity of the marriage covenant instituted by God in the garden.

The fruits of the "intercourse" of the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain were men of even more violence and wickedness - "men of renown," which Scripture elsewhere calls "proud giants...skilled in war" (see Wisdom 14:6; Baruch 3:26-27).

Finally, God is overcome with "sorrow" and "regret" at "how corrupt the earth had become, since all mortals led depraved lives" (see Genesis 6:5,7,12).

B. Beginning With the Rain

The stage has been set for God's second covenant with His creation - the covenant made with Noah.

In bringing the flood, God is depicted as wanting to restart the whole world. The account is filled with echoes of the Genesis creation story:

The new world wells up from the chaotic waters of "the abyss" (compare Genesis 1:2 and 7:11).

You'll also notice a lot of "sevens" in the story of Noah: pairs of clean animals (see Genesis 7:2); seven days before the flood was brought on (7:10); on the seventh month the ark came to "rest" on Mount Ararat (8:4). Noah sends out a dove every seven days until one brings back the olive tree branch (8:10-12)

Noah is described as a new "first man." Like Adam, Noah is given authority over the animals (9:2). He is also given the same command as God gave to Adam: "be fertile and multiply and fill the earth." (9:1). Finally, as He did with Adam, God makes a covenant with Noah and through him with all living beings (9:13).

With this covenant, God renews His covenant with creation. By this covenant, God also expands the "family structure" of His covenant people - from a husband and a wife to a family unit. Noah's family - his wife and three sons and their wives - is included in the blessings of this covenant.

C. The Story of Two Names

The Scripture also depicts Noah, like Adam, falling from grace.

Here, too, we hear echoes of the story of Adam in the story of Noah.

As Adam (whose name in Hebrew is almost identical to the word for "ground," adama , allowing for a wordplay between the two) was given a garden to till, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes "a man of the soil" (see Genesis 2:15; 9:20). And as the forbidden fruit of the garden proves to be Adam's downfall, so the fruit of Noah's vine, wine, becomes his. And like Adam's fall, Noah's exposes his sin and nakedness (see Genesis 3:6-7; 9:21) and results in a curse (see Genesis 3:14-19; 9:25).

What does it mean that Ham, one of Noah's three sons, "saw his father's nakedness"?

In Hebrew, this phrase is actually an idiom, a figure of speech, that describes incest. (Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18. Note: The New American Bible translates the phrase "to have intercourse with" while the Revised Standard Version keeps the more literal translation "uncover the nakedness of" RSV-Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18).

To uncover the nakedness of your father is to commit incest with your mother.

To put it bluntly - while Noah was drunk, Ham slept with his mother. We can only speculate as to Ham's motives. It's reasonable, based on other evidence in the Scripture, to presume that Ham wanted to seize his father's authority. Sleeping with his mother was the ultimate insult and sign of disrespect (see similar episodes in Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4; 2 Samuel 16:21-22).

The son born of this incestuous encounter is Canaan. He will grow up to be the father of a nation known and reviled for its abominable practices (see Leviticus 18:6-18; Exodus 23:23-24).

But as Adam bore both Cain, the slayer of his brother, and Seth the righteous one, Noah too has a good seed: his firstborn son Shem, who had tried to "cover" his father's nakedness (see Genesis 9:23).

Genesis 10 gives us the origins of nations and the genealogy of conflict between the two seeds of Noah. The descendants of Ham become the great national enemies of the people of God - Egypt, Canaan, Philistia, Assyria and Babylon. The great patriarch Abraham, who we'll read about in the next lesson, is descended from the line of Shem.

From this line, came the nations who tried to build the Tower of Babel in order "to make a name [Hebrew = shem] for themselves" (Genesis 11:1-9). In other words, they were trying to build a kind of "counter-kingdom" to stand against the name of God.

God defeats them - scatters them in a confusion of languages.

Remember what we said above: Shem is the Hebrew word for "name." And from the line of Shem, God raises up His chosen people.

The Jews are "Shemites" which is where we get our modern expression "anti-Semitic" or "anti-Semite." The Jews descend from Shem's great grandson Abram (see Genesis 11:10-26), to whom God promises: "I will bless you. I will make your name [Hebrew = shem] great."

We'll pick up with Father Abraham in our next class.

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V. Study Questions

  1. What does it mean to say that the Bible teaches us "religious" truth?
  2. What is the goal and purpose of creation, according to Pope Benedict?
  3. What is God's "divine teaching style"?
  4. What are the two images that the Scripture uses to describe God's love and the relationship He desires with the human race?
  5. For prayer and reflection: The Mass readings for the First Sunday of Lent (Cycle B) are Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15. Read the texts in order and pray for the Lord's help in hearing the connections that the Church wants us to hear. Ask especially for help in understanding the connections that the Church makes between the Flood and Baptism.

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