Friday, January 4
Genesis 4: Not least among the ironies of the Bible is the fact that its very first family was also its first dysfunctional family. For one thing, the boys didn’t get along. Fratricide is a useful clue.
The theological source of the problem, certainly, was the sin of the first parents in Genesis 3, though the novelist Jessamyn West did offer her own peculiar slant on the point: “Always thought Adam might’ve handled his boys better if he’d been a boy himself. . . . Worked under a handicap, as it was.”
In regard to these two brothers it is ironical, too, that the first man to die was also the first to be murdered. More ironical still, perhaps, he was murdered for his religious faith. “By faith,” Holy Scripture tells us, “Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” and “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Consumed with rage, he at last “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Hebrews 11:4; Genesis 4:5,8). The first man to die, therefore, perished in testimony to his faith, and it was an angry unbeliever who took his life.
The key to the discernment of the first murder is the prior moral fissure dividing these two men. Murder was the fruit, not the root, of Cain’s offense. St. John tells us, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Antecedent to the killing itself, then, the killer was already “of the evil one” (3:12).
While we easily perceive that Cain killed because he was a bad man, it is important to see also that Abel was slain precisely because he was a good man. His goodness was the very reason that Cain took his life. St. John affirms it: “And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). While it is said of Cain that “he perished in the fury wherewith he murdered his brother” (Wisdom 10:3), of Abel we are told that “he obtained witness that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4).
Thus commences the Bible’s reading of history as a prolonged chronicle of “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23:35). The saga of persecution begins with “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” and ends with “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:10).
Abel, then, though dead since the dawn of history, “still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). The author of this book went on to invoke this same image with respect to Jesus’ own blood. The blood of Jesus, he wrote, “speaks better things than that of Abel” (12:24). Whereas Abel’s blood cried out demanding revenge, the blood of Jesus, who is called here “the Mediator of the new covenant,” invokes the divine mercy for sinners. Such is the blood in which we have access to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:23).
Saturday, January 5
Abel, Enoch, and Noah: Prior to the calling of Abraham, God provided the human race with certain introductory instruction through the deep perceptions of three patriarchs: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. In what Holy Scripture says of these men, we discern the initial steps of human education.
First, Abel examined the structure of the world around him and reached the conclusion “that things which are seen were not made by things which do appear.” The “thing-ness” of the world, that is to say, was not self-explanatory. The world was not its own cause. On the contrary, it gave “evidence of things not seen.” Abel’s probing mind, gazing at this visible world, laid hold on certain invisible truths.
Chief among these, I suppose, were the simplest rational principles (such as causality and non-contradiction) and the basic axioms and elementary theorems of the mathematical order. These interests emerged from the intellect’s encounter with empirical data. Abel’s mind perceived in matter an explanatory reference, and this perception laid the foundation for logical discipline and, in due course, metaphysics.
It is not without interest to reflect that Abel was a shepherd; the pastoral life was eminently compatible with the leisured intellectual exertion required for mathematics and metaphysics. Standing guard over his flock, as it grazed on the grass of the fields, Abel sought deeper nourishment from a greener pasture. He sharpened the earliest human hunger for “the substance of things hoped for.”
In the first generation that followed man’s alienation from God, then, Abel took the first human step back in the direction of Eden. In the world of things seen, he perceived God’s most basic self-testimony. This spiritual perception was an act of faith, in which Abel understood that “the worlds were framed by the word of God.”
Abel’s thought was followed by that of Enoch, who discerned the moral structure of existence. It was clear to Enoch, not only that God is, but also that “he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” To the deductions of mathematics, therefore, and the insights of metaphysics, Enoch added the requirements of the moral order. He perceived that whatever separated true from false also separated good from evil.
In the transition from Abel to Enoch we trace the noetic step from the invisible things clearly seen to the law written in the heart—man’s conscience bearing witness to his responsibility. Just as Abel discerned the human mind as the locus where the universe learned the truth about itself, Enoch perceived in the human conscience the classroom where the universe was instructed about right and wrong.
The biographies of Abel and Enoch testify that neither man lived very long. The first was driven from this world by a violent human hand, and the second was summoned forth by a divine impatience, unwilling to wait longer for the delight of his company.
Since neither thinker remained long on the earth, it fell to a third patriarch to discover the moral structure of history; this discovery requires a bit more time. Living longer than Abel and Enoch, Noah carried their teachings to his consideration of culture and human affairs. If Abel was a metaphysician and Enoch a moralist, Noah was a prophet.
Tutored by the patriarchal tradition, which affirmed that God is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, the observant and logical Noah became certain that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Metaphysics and the moral order drove his mind to the necessity of the retributive eschata. Evil was unnatural; it could not go on indefinitely. Driven by the fear such a perception engendered in his soul, Noah got busy and “prepared an ark to the saving of his house.”
Thus, in the three major patriarchs who followed the Fall, the human mind was enabled to grasp the true structure and significance of the world, to lay hold on the moral foundations of reality, and to act on a correct understanding of human events.
In this progression, humanity was duly prepared for the vocation of Abraham. Even as he dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, Abraham was the heir of a thorough and intense tutelage. Though he left Ur not knowing whither he went, he was in no doubt about the universe—and university—he came from.
Sunday, January 6
Noah and Moses: In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage affirmed that “the one ark of Noah was a figure of the one Church” during the flood, and that “baptism of the world in which it was purified and redeemed” (Letters 68.2). Jerome (Letters 133) and Augustine (Against Faustus 12.17) said much the same in the early fifth century. Various combinations of this imagery are ubiquitous in patristic and liturgical texts.
The root of such symbolism is found in the Old Testament’s own portrayal of Noah’s ark. Genesis calls it a tevah, a word used in only one other place in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, in reference to the little box in which the infant Moses floated on the Nile.
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the two stories seems clearly intentional if we examine the manifest similarities between them. First, in respect to both
Noah and Moses, the tevah is a floating container that preserves life from the peril of drowning. That is to say, the threat comes from water. Second, in each case the container is daubed with pitch to keep out the threatening water (6:14; Exodus 2:3). Third, both stories contribute to the ongoing biblical theme of God’s deliverance of His servants in times of crisis.
There is an even subtler element here, however. The word tevah is not Hebrew; it is Egyptian, in which language it may designate a box, a chest, even a coffin. Its use in only these two biblical passages cries out for an explanation.
Why does the Bible borrow this strange word and then use it in only these two places? That is to say, why does the Bible not state, in plain Hebrew, that Noah built a boat (‘abarah) or a ship (’oniyyah)? And why, when Moses was put into that little container made of reeds, is the thing not simply called, in plain Hebrew, a box (’aron) or a basket (tene)? Why do these two stories in Genesis and Exodus make such a point of employing an improbable, alien word not otherwise found in the Bible?
I can think of a single reasonable answer; namely, that the biblical author had in mind to tie these two accounts together in a very explicit way, so that the correspondence between them would be unmistakable. The setting of the Moses story may have suggested the use of the Egyptian noun tevah.
There stands out, in short, a clear literary parallel between the stories of old Noah near the beginning of Genesis and young Moses near the beginning of Exodus.
This correspondence will be evident to those who regularly read the Bible in Hebrew. For example, the medieval rabbinic scholar Rashi called attention to it in his commentary on Genesis (though not, curiously, in his commentary on Exodus).
As Noah in his tevah saved the human race and the animals from utter destruction, so the baby Moses, preserved in a tiny tevah of his own, became the deliverer of the Hebrews. Indeed, Moses’ very name, which means “drawn from the water,” is a foreshadowing of Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Moses is a kind of new Noah. In his tevah at the beginning of this story, he makes his own personal exodus, as it were, a promise of the one to come.
The themes in both stories, finally, symbolize the Sacrament of Baptism, in which God’s people, even today, are “drawn from the water.”
Monday, January 7
Genesis 7: Noah’s construction of the ark represented his faith, the foundation of his righteousness. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (11:7).
But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also proclaimed righteousness. The Apostle Peter referred to him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (First Epistle 7.6).
This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions.
“Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1). Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked.
In the New Testament both the ark and the flood are understood as
having to do with the mystery of baptism.
Tuesday, January 8
Noah and Peter: St. Peter, writing of Christ’s descent into hell after His death, proceeded immediately to treat of Noah, the flood, our own baptisms, and the Lord’s Resurrection. For the early Christians, these were all components of the same mystery of regeneration: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:18–21).
If we are to understand the story of Noah as the early Christians understood it, then, we must examine its relationship to repentance and baptism.
We may start by considering the symbolism of water itself, especially water as threatening and destructive. The water in the Noah story is not the great life-sustaining fluid; it is utterly menacing, rather, and it is specifically menacing to sin. Like the flood of Noah, baptism is destructive. Baptism has been given to the world because the world is full of sin, and through this water of baptism we are delivered from the sinful world. To be baptized means that we deliberately drown our sins in repentance. Whether we speak of the baptismal type in the Deluge, therefore, or of the fulfillment of that type in baptism itself, we must start with sin.
Thus, the Bible’s flood account begins with a description of a world full of sin (Genesis 6:1–5, 11–13), ending with God’s sorrow at having made man and His resolve to destroy man from the earth (6:6–7). God does not destroy the world in wrath, but in sorrow, and only our repentance at Noah’s preaching can spare us this great sorrow of God.
We are baptized, therefore, because we are sinners, and our sins are destroyed in the mystery of baptism: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Or earlier, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus
Christ for the remission of sins” (2:38). Unlike Noah’s contemporaries, we ourselves hearken to his preaching. That is to say, we submit to this new baptismal flood because we repent at the witness of Noah. Baptism presupposes and requires this repentance of our sins, this conversion of our hearts to the apostolic word of Noah. In repentance we plunge ourselves into the deeper mystery of Noah’s flood, which is the death and Resurrection of Christ our Lord (Romans 6:3; Colossians 2:12).
Wednesday, January 9
Noah and Abraham: The word “covenant” (berith), which appeared in 6:18 for the first time in Holy Scripture, is now taken up and developed. The earliest explicit account of God’s covenant, that is to say, is the covenant with Noah. The second divine covenant, which we shall see in chapters 15 and 17, is God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis the idea of God’s covenant is found in only these two instances.
The first, the Noachic covenant here in chapter 9, is God’s covenant with the entire world and with mankind in particular. The second, the Abrahamic covenant especially as described in chapter 17, is God’s more particular covenant with the descendants of Abraham, which will be further defined as the biblical narrative continues.
There are several significant theological features shared by these two covenant narratives in Genesis, features reflected in a distinctive vocabulary that distinguishes them from the other covenants recorded in Holy Scripture.
One of the distinguishing features shared by these two covenants, in chapters 9 and 17, is the choice of verbs employed to predicate it. In most of Holy Scripture, the verb used for “making” a covenant is karat, literally “to cut.” Although the initiative in the covenant is always God’s, the verb karat does suggest something of a mutual agreement between two parties. In fact, both the verb karat and the noun berith were commonly employed in the ancient world to designate political treaties.
Examples of this usage are the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech in 21:27, and the treaty between Isaac and Abimelech in 26:28. In God’s covenant with Abraham in 15:18, moreover, karat is the verb employed for the making of the covenant, as is the case in most of the Hebrew Scriptures (for instance, Deuteronomy 5:2).
In these Genesis covenants of God with Noah and Abraham, however, two other verbs are employed: natan, “to give” (9:12; 17:2), and haqim, “to establish” (9:9, 11; 17:7). The first of these verbs emphasizes the gratuity, the generosity, of God’s act in making the covenant; it is pure, unmerited grace. This is why, in each case, God calls it “My covenant” (9:15; 17:7). The second verb places the accent on God’s resolve in the covenant; God Himself will not break the covenant. Each of these covenants is a perpetual pledge of hope for the future.
A second distinguishing feature of these two covenants in chapters
9 and 17 is the ’oth berith, “the sign of the covenant,” a distinctive symbol of each covenant. In the case of Noah, the ’oth berith is the rainbow (9:12–17), and in the case of Abraham it is circumcision
In the covenant with Noah, the function of the rainbow as a “sign” is to cause God to “remember” His covenant (9:15–16). The covenant sign serves as a reminder, as it were, a “memorial,” a zikkaron in Hebrew, an anamnesis in Greek. This theme will be taken up later on in Holy Scripture, when Jesus describes God’s definitive covenant with the Church in terms of an anamnesis, remembrance (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25). The Lord’s Supper, that is to say, is not simply an occasion for Christians to remember Jesus and his saving work on our behalf; as a “sign of the covenant,” the rite of breaking the bread and sharing the cup is even more the ineffable ’oth berith to God Himself, in which He is called upon to “remember” the redemption that He has definitively given and established with us in the Lord Jesus. This is why the Church’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the defining act of her existence.
With respect to these characteristics of the covenant with Noah, something should also be said of the Mosaic covenant as described in Exodus 31. This latter text ties the covenant on Sinai to both the Sabbath rest and the covenant with Abraham. The “sign” of the Mosaic covenant is the Sabbath, which is described in terms very reminiscent of the covenant with Noah here in chapter 9. The Sabbath is the sign (’oth) between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13, 17), much as the covenant with Noah is between God and “all flesh.” More specifically, the Sabbath is the sign of Israel’s “perpetual covenant” (berith ‘olam) with God (Exodus 31:16).
Thus, in the Exodus account we find the same vocabulary used with respect to the Sabbath that we have here in chapter 9 to describe the symbolic function of the rainbow.
It is instructive to observe three points with respect to these similarities between Genesis 9 and Exodus 31. First, they are intentional and deliberately invite a theological comparison between the two covenants as they appear in the history of salvation, the covenant with mankind at the conclusion of the Flood and the covenant with Israel at the conclusion of the Exodus.
Second, both “signs” in these covenants are built on the structure of nature itself. This is true not only of the rainbow, but also of the Sabbath. It is clearly the teaching of Genesis 2:2–3 that the Sabbath pertains to the natural structure of that creature known as “time.” Thus, each of these covenants is signified (that is to say, marked with a sign) by a component that God placed in created nature.
Third, in the case of the covenant with Noah following the Flood, God Himself preserves the sign of the covenant. He places His bow in the heavens (9:13). In the Mosaic covenant, in contrast, the maintenance of the covenant sign depends on Israel. It is Israel that is charged to preserve the Sabbath. Thus, the similarities between these two covenants introduce also a contrast.
Thursday, January 10
The Seed of Noah: Already at the end of the previous chapter of Genesis we found that all was not well among the sons of Noah, and the tensions of that chapter will be developed extensively in the rest of the biblical story. Just as Ham treated his father, Noah, with disrespect, so the sons of Ham—the Egyptians and the Canaanites—will make life unpleasant for the children of Shem, which include the Israelites. Thus, the discussion of the variety of nations here in chapter 10 prepares the way for the account of the diversity of tongues in chapter 11. We are given the ethnic aspect of the coming conflicts in the books of Exodus and Joshua.
The present list of the nations, however, seems more preoccupied with geography than ethnicity. We note that the descendants of Shem (still called Semites) mainly inhabit the Fertile Crescent, while the offspring of Ham inhabit areas to the south and southwest of the Fertile Crescent, and the children of Japheth live to the northwest, in the area of the Turkish peninsula and the Aegean Sea. That is to say, this list covers roughly the three landmasses that contain the Mediterranean Basin: southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The Holy Land touches all three of these land masses.
Josephus, describing this period, says that the descendents of Noah
first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples. Now the plain in which they first dwelt was called Shinar. God also commanded them to send colonies abroad, for the thorough peopling of the earth, that they might not raise seditions among themselves, but might cultivate a great part of the earth, and enjoy its fruits after a plentiful manner (Antiquities 1.4.1).
Holy Scripture ascribes to God the division of the earth among the tribes and clans of mankind. Indeed, this division is said to precede the rebellion of Babel and the multiplication of the tongues. That is to say, the genetic distinctions within the human race are presented in the Bible as a good aspect of human history, not as a consequence of sin.
About seventy nations are listed in this chapter. We remember, in this respect, that Jesus sent out exactly that number of apostles (Luke 10:1), a number indicating the universality of their mission to “make disciples of all nations.”
Friday, January 11
The Tower of Babel: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all mankind, up to this point, speaks with a common tongue (verse 1).
The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (verse 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God that we have seen, starting in chapter 3.
God’s response is twofold. It is both a punishment against the rebels and a preventative measure against their becoming even worse. That is to say, even God’s punishment is an act of mercy.
In the more general symbolism of Holy Scripture, Babel also represents Babylon, the city of power and godless rebellion, which is overthrown definitively in the Book of Revelation. There is a symbolic identity, therefore, uniting the present story to the destruction of Babylon described in Revelation 17 and 18. This city represents any political and economic establishment characterized by arrogance and the love of power.
Its punishment by the division of tongues was especially appropriate. Saint Augustine of Hippo comments on this chapter:
As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in it pride was punished, so that man, who refused to understand God when He gave His commands, should also be misunderstood when he gave commands. Thus was dissolved their conspiracy, because each man withdrew from those who could not understand and banded with those whose speech he found intelligible. So the nations were divided according to their languages and scattered over the face of the earth, as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in hidden ways that we cannot understand (The City of God 16.4).