Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Apocalypse Again?

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The reading from Genesis 8:4-21 brings to an end the narrative of the Flood and we hear God make a promise to Noah:  Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

So God is appeased by the odor of the sacrificed animals and promises never to do this global destruction again. And some people squirm when the word ‘myth’ is applied to some biblical texts! Most pagan religions demanded animal sacrifices to appease their divinities. Even the Greeks, the intellectuals of the ancient world, had whole burnt offerings (ὁλοκαυτόματα) to appease the gods and the spirits of the Underworld. They were considered apotropaic (αποτρόπαια), a form of magic.  The Greeks made offerings to the Averting Gods, (Ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί: Apotropaioi Theoi), chthonic deities who grant safety and deflect evil. The continuing belief in the ‘evil eye’ among many Orthodox Christians is a remnant of these ancient beliefs, and the trinkets and body ornaments that are used to protect against the ‘evil eye’ are forms of apotropaic magic.

So Yahweh is appeased like any good pagan deity was appeased: by the sweet smell of burnt animals! Mythical image by any other name. But at least we are glad that God changed his mind about destroying life on earth again. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.

But what’s this? Apocalypse again?

The Lord of hosts is mustering
    a host for battle.
They come from a distant land,
    from the end of the heavens,
the Lord and the weapons of his indignation,
    to destroy the whole earth….

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
    cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation
    and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising
    and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;

Did God change his mind again? He does it many times in the Bible, actually, but the above passage comes from today’s reading in Isaiah 13:2-13. Pardon me if I give up trying to make sense of these threats and changes of mind. There is beauty and great wisdom in the Bible – in both testaments and in many of the books that are considered deutero-canonical as well – but there is equal amounts of ugliness and plain inhumanity. Consider the continuation of chapter 13 of Isaiah, beyond today’s assigned reading:

And like a hunted gazelle,
    or like sheep with none to gather them,
every man will turn to his own people,
    and every man will flee to his own land.
Whoever is found will be thrust through,
    and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.
Their infants will be dashed in pieces
    before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
    and their wives ravished.

Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them,
    who have no regard for silver
    and do not delight in gold.
Their bows will slaughter the young men;
    they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb;
    their eyes will not pity children.
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
    the splendor and pride of the Chalde′ans,
will be like Sodom and Gomor′rah
    when God overthrew them.
It will never be inhabited
    or dwelt in for all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there,
    no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there.
But wild beasts will lie down there,
    and its houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will dwell,
    and there satyrs will dance.
Hyenas will cry in its towers,
    and jackals in the pleasant palaces;
its time is close at hand
    and its days will not be prolonged.

No wonder the Church Fathers turned so much of the Old Testament into allegories! Consider how St. John Chrysostom viewed the offering of animals to God in the Genesis reading. Note how easily he avoids the mythological language and even negates the plain meaning of the text:

The Scripture says, “And the Lord smelled a sweet odor,” that is, he accepted the offerings. But do not imagine that God has nostrils, since God is invisible spirit. Yet what is carried up from the altar is the odor and smoke from burning bodies, and nothing is more malodorous than such a savor. But that you may learn that God attends to the intention of the one offering the sacrifice and then accepts or rejects it, Scripture calls the odor and smoke a sweet savor. Against Judaizing Christians 1.7.3

So we’re back to an apocalypse, a threat of total destruction. This is how religions are used to control people, through fear. Violent adherents of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) can always look to such passages to manipulate people and create wars and terrorism. It’s an ongoing reality in our lives. And let’s not just look at the extremists in Islam. Apocalypse is very much in the minds of many Christians and Jews, especially in connection with that much-contested part of the world ironically called “the Holy Land.” Holy for whom? That’s the problem, isn’t it? You call something ‘holy” and it seems to become unholy for someone else, or unholy for the safety and preservation of the whole world!

It’s best to stop here today. These thoughts are not very Lenten, but then Lent could be a time for us to meditate on the destructive tendencies of human nature and the images of god and religion that we create to justify our evil. But more than meditate and reflect on these tendencies, can Lent motivate us to work against the evil thoughts and tendencies that motivate so much of human history?

3 thoughts on “Apocalypse Again?

  1. Yes, it is mythological, but what is “dark matter” but a kind of story we tell about the universe, part of a bigger story ( myth) we call science?

    But I like the blog and its concern for spiritual truth over scriptural fundamentalism.

    Did you notice that God in this story finally accepts what he has refused to accept since the beginning, that the humans he created will always be capable of evil, and that he has to have a new plan for bringing his goodness into their lives.

    Some of course think his rainbow promise was not quite what it seemed:

    God gave Noah the rainbow sign
    No mo ‘ water but the fire next time

    Blessings from Scotland

    • Did you watch the fascinating hour program on Dark Matter this week on BBC’s Horizon? I just saw it now and I remembered your comment about dark matter. Try to catch it. It’s very well done, with several touches of humor on the part of the narrator and some of the scientists featured.

  2. Great comment, thank you. The new plan was indeed the Cross, and today in my sermon I reflected a bit on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is the plan for bringing God’s “goodness” into our lives! As for “dark matter” – it is a story, isn’t it? Perhaps you saw the BBC2 documentary a week ago, “Aftershock: The Hunt for Gravitational Waves”? You can still catch it on iPlayer if you didn’t watch it. (You folks in the UK are so lucky to have BBC!) Science has its own versions of the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, etc.! But what is the source of the quote about no mo’ water but the fire next time? I like it.

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