29. Genesis 6:3 and 9:2-6

II.  B. continued

2.  The Restraints on Evil (Genesis 6:3, 9:2-6 )

As I see it, God used at least four measures to restrain evil: one He began concurrently with the Flood; two were terms of the Covenant of Preservation; and one other was added much later.  I will consider the first three of these now.

The account of the introduction of the rainbow as the sign of the Covenant of Preservation suggests that rainbows did not occur before the Flood. If so, this could mean that the Flood was another pivotal point in history at which God chose to change the laws of nature. In this light, possibly Genesis 6:3 “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years” should be taken as a decree dramatically shortening the average human lifespan. Life spans did begin to shrink at this point. Perhaps the change in physical law after the Fall was done incrementally, an initial change at the time of the Fall, a change at the time of the Flood, and perhaps other steps in between that weren’t noted. In any case I think the shortening of our life span was an important first step in limiting evil. Certainly a man who is feeling pretty slow by the time he is seventy years old is going to do less damage than one who is pretty hearty at five hundred.

The second strategy for curbing evil was more complex and subtle. At first Genesis 9:3 sounds as though God were introducing meat into the human diet at this point, and that before the Flood we were largely vegetarian. But Abel was a shepherd, and eating domestic animals seems to go naturally with keeping them. The really new element here was hunting. The hunting and eating of meat can be understood as a way to provide an outlet for our impulse to violence. Those who are out hunting game will not be out hunting people as quickly, nor will their lust for violence be as sharp. If institutional violence was the primary problem leading to the Flood, then channeling such aggression would naturally be the first priority in hindering our tendency to degeneration. Archaeological evidence shows hunting to be a very early human activity, so I am putting the Flood as earlier still.

Genesis 9:2 says, “And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky”. God made it a point to protect the animals from the slaughter that would come about if they trusted us. The passage suggests that animals were tamer before the Flood, at least in the sense of not fearing people. Perhaps there was relatively little effort involved in domesticating animals initially; perhaps the animals we currently keep as domesticated animals and livestock are just the ones we were able to keep in control when the rest went wild after the Flood. But if the human race was to become a race of hunters, some protection for the animals would be necessary to prevent their annihilation. This is a protection which we have managed to circumvent to a large extent. Consider how close we have come to destroying all wild things even when they are wild; what chance would they have had if God hadn’t shielded them from our ruthlessness?

At this point God did not restrict us to eating only the clean animals. The important point here was not dietary restrictions in general but the one critical restriction: blood. This is the very first time recorded at which something was set apart as taboo, forbidden. In Genesis 9:4, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood”, the word translated “life” could also be translated as “soul”. There are at least two points in view here.

First God meant to emphasize that He was not turning over the creation to us as if we owned it. There were limits to how far we were permitted to exploit the creation. We might use it to provide for our own needs, for food, for clothing, and even for profit to some extent, but we could not consume the soul of Creation. Its soul, its life, belongs to God alone. The Creation itself is in a Covenant relationship to God, and because of the Covenant the Creation, every part of it, has a standing before God, an integrity that we are not to violate. The Covenant restored the status of the Creation and all its parts.

Our violation of the Covenant of Preservation is a major ethical problem in our society. When we raise animals, even something as lowly as chickens, in a factory setting, a setting in which the chicken never has the chance to actually live like a chicken, aren’t we eating its soul as well as its flesh even though we are careful to drain out the blood? Modern people do not believe that animals have souls, and so we feel free to consume every vestige of their life; we may as well drink their blood. How shallow we are to have retained as a meaningless custom the draining of the blood when we have no regard whatsoever for the life the blood signifies. Indeed, it would be inconvenient to our profit margins if things in nature did have souls and had to be respected. How much of our economy would be overturned if we believed that God loved even chickens? So much of our prosperity and wealth depends on blurring the lines of biblical ethics.

It is equally a violation of the Covenant of Preservation when we hunt to extinction any species of animal or plant. Noah was afraid to open a door that God had closed, but we are not afraid to destroy, to un-create, what God has created. Thus our real god is our economy, our leisure, our recreation. But we equally drink the blood of the creatures by cruelty. The instincts of those who stand for animal rights are more biblical than the instincts of Christians who don’t even bother wiping the blood from their mouths before they mock them. What then shall become of our culture that has learned to drink the blood of all things? How will God long endure us?

The second point to the ban on consuming blood is poetry. God has written poetry with the creation, and blood was made a major theme in His great poem. To effectively convey revelation, the physical nature of blood was invested with a symbolic meaning beyond its natural meaning. It had to be made into a symbol of a spiritual reality. Blood became the symbol for the breath of life itself, the metaphor for the essence, the soul, that a creature has by virtue of its creation. The first step in establishing such a metaphor is to make a rule concerning our behavior, so that we are made to act in a certain way without knowing why. Our behavior then shapes our attitudes and feelings. God put blood outside the realm of what we could use to make us reverence it. Blood was the first holy thing; it belonged to God and to Him only; it emphatically did not belong to us. By setting it beyond our reach it became a symbol of something beyond nature. Once we began thinking of blood as connected to something more than physical, it became a vehicle God could use to reveal truths beyond the physical.

The third restraint on evil was the adoption of human government and law in 9:5,6: “…And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man”. What God had avoided with Cain He now endorsed. Why the change? In part, it came about because He had invested special meaning in blood. If the blood of animals was holy, then the blood of men in the image of God was even more emphatically a holy thing after the Flood, and the deepening of the perspective required a stricter behavioral standard. I have pictured the world before the Flood as a world in which government existed in a particularly hellish form. I believe that in the Covenant of Revelation, God took human government into His service to be used for His purpose. In other words, He decided to take up a much more active role in civic affairs, in all governments everywhere. Invisible though His involvement may be, that governments work at all to our benefit is a sign of His grace operating in them.

To understand what was really going on, however, we need to consider the nature of the covenants. The biblical view of evil is a covenantal view. Not only does everyone suffer the consequences of what you or I choose, but also everyone bears the responsibility for what you or I choose. To be sure, if you or I commit a crime, from stealing to murder to telling a little white lie, there is a private individual component to it. I myself choose to do the evil. But the Bible also recognizes that the society I live in nurtured my choice by providing opportunity or even encouragement for the choice I made. Whenever any one does evil, it is all of us who have chosen to do it in him or her as well. We all share in creating the context for the expression of that evil, we all share in creating the situations that foster rather than control our darkest impulses. We are not only all addicted to evil, we are all codependents with each other, enabling and abetting each other in the evil inclinations of our hearts. This is important to understand, particularly with regard to capital punishment.

Since we live in communities, which are really informal covenant groups, all that we do is related to our connections to that community; our choices all flow out of the relative health or pathology of our inter-relationships. A man who commits a murder obviously has the murder in his heart, but that murder got into his heart by the sins of omission or commission of his community. The murder in his heart was nurtured, even planted, by failures in his upbringing and family, by conflicts with his neighbors, by patterns of behavior he learned as he grew up. All of these influences combine with the natural inclinations of the heart and opportunities as they arise to bring forth the crime. Every man’s sin is also my sin in proportion to how well I know him and the extent to which I have either built him up or torn him down.

To understand what God intended here, since the passage is so terse, we must borrow ahead from the Law of Moses, the way God arranged public executions to work among His people and the way they were conducted in the ancient world. The capital punishment instituted after the Flood was not a casual thing; it was a careful ceremony involving the whole community. The executions in the ancient world were serious ceremonies dramatizing that the guilt of the murder was shared by the whole community. All had been accomplices in the shedding of blood, and the execution made their involvement visible. In this way a public execution was both a public confession and a renunciation of the evil.

In modern American society there is little sense of corporate guilt; the suggestion of corporate guilt is viewed with suspicion and offends our individualism. There is no sense of our need to repent when we execute our murderers; there is little reverence for the blood, the soul, of the criminals involved. The modern execution of the murderer lacks all of the biblical meaning in the ancient practice. Ironically in our individualistic society, the concept of the holiness of blood, of the life, of the individual has been replaced by a pseudo-biblical concept of justice. We carry out a “just sentence” on an individual whom we imagine bears his own guilt alone. We imagine we are innocent as we are give the guilty what he deserves. Thus we show no reverence for his blood and we perpetuate rather than expiate his crime in the act of punishing it. His blood testifies against us. In America every execution is a form of perjury against ourselves.

We cynically execute criminals in the name of God, but we are not truly destroying the guilty because we believe in God nor because we take seriously how He feels about us and our society. We execute to rid ourselves of a nuisance, or to get revenge on a person who has offended us, or to try to scare others into submission to our rules. Execution in our day has become a matter of social policy to dispose of the unruly elements of the society so that we can evade the question of why there are unruly elements of society. We execute criminals to avoid facing our own guilt. Once execution is divorced from the knowledge of corporate guilt, it becomes a kind of hypocrisy and has no real connection to the biblical practice. We dress up capital punishment as justice but for us it is an evil and unbiblical thing.

It is a modern argument for capital punishment that it will deter men from violence (this is based on misunderstanding Romans 13), that it will restrain the expression of evil through fear, but the biblical view is more complicated. Execution of murderers was not given as a deterrent to violence, except possibly to deter revenge. What deterred violence was the cultural awe of blood, the reverence for the man created in the image of God. The reverence for human life extended both to the victim of the murder and the murderer himself. God sought to imbue people with the kind of reverence for life that would make them afraid, even superstitiously afraid, of shedding blood. The ancients would execute a murderer because God, or the gods, had been offended and demanded such a public show of guilt and repentance, but they would execute him out of fear and not out of any imagined moral superiority.

The only laws mentioned immediately after the Flood were the laws against murder and against consuming blood. But the consumption of blood had no stated penalty for its violation. That there was no penalty for the eating of blood does not mean it was considered as relatively less important than murder; on the contrary it shows how deeply God was building the rule into the hearts and minds of people. There would be no penalty needed to enforce the rule because it would become simply a part of what it meant to be human. It would become unthinkable to consume the blood of an animal. The law, as a thing external to us that accuses or directs or punishes certain behavior, was never a desirable thing in God’s sight, though it was to be another tool He would adopt for His own ends. Even in the Law of Moses, some of the most serious sins had no punishment prescribed, because punishment alone could not fill us with the loathing that God wished us to have. What He really desired was internal transformation, which no law and no punishment can ever accomplish. What He really desires is that we come to know good and evil from His point of view, that we begin to think of evil as unthinkable.

Permission for society to execute murderers did not mean that there was no evil involved in the execution; the words said to Cain were unchanged as expressing God’s ultimate attitude toward capital punishment. If you will, capital punishment was a moral compromise on God’s part. It may seem strange to say that God was willing to compromise morals, but that is the way of it. By accepting what is inadequate in the short term He accomplishes His perfect will in the long term, and it will astonish our hearts when we see it happen. We will see many more examples as we keep reading in the Bible, even in the Law itself.

And so the Messiah would fulfill – establish, confirm, perfect – the Covenant of Preservation. The blood we had been forbidden to drink became His own blood given to us to drink to renew life. And as He ended death by submitting to death, so He would end all human government by submitting to human government, so He would end all capital punishment by submitting to capital punishment in the place of a murderer. The Covenant of Preservation was put in place just for Him to act out, like the scenery on the stage for the greatest actor to play His greatest role. It was all about Him.

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