Friday, September 23, 2011

Abraham, Noah, Pain and Suffering

Some people listen to music while at work. I've never been very musically inclined, but I like to listen to Radiolab while doing something that doesn't require my full attention. I was listening to Robert Krulwich's sermon on Abraham, Isaac and Mount Moriah this afternoon while putting together an FE model, and something struck me: well, lots of things actually. His telling of the story is probably the most thoughtful and impassioned I have ever heard in my life. While a Christian could not but say that Mr. Krulwich misses something by not being able to shed the light of Hebrews on the telling of the tale, still, it is moving, thoughtful and the best I've ever heard. Along the way, when telling the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, he mentions a bit of the story of Noah that really caught my attention.

He tells of how Noah was the holiest man on the earth, how God spoke to him and told him to build an ark, and how Noah obeyed. Noah obeyed God in a way that I doubt I would ever have the faith to do. He obeyed in the midst of mocking from his peers while doing something that appeared to all rational creatures as a totally ludicrous and even stupid act. And he kept it up for a hundred years or so (I forget the exact amount of time). Anyway, then, with Noah and 2 or 7 of every animal in the ark, God kills everything else on the earth. If we think of the pleading that Abraham did for Sodom and Gomorah, and if we think of the pleading that we would do for our relatives and loved ones who have turned their backs on God, that had to have hurt. Noah had to have hurt. Robert Krulwich posits that you can't be a good man and not question "Why?!?!" at a time like that. No matter how much we trust in the omnipotence of God, he has made us to seek understanding, and a mark of the goodness of our humanity is to hurt and question why in times like that.

And so, it is that light which helps bring understanding to another of the most puzzling passages of Scripture I've run across in all my life. What did Noah do after he got out of the ark? Well, the first thing he did after sacrificing to God in thanksgiving for saving him and his family was to plant a vineyard. And with the grapes from that vineyard he made wine. And with the wine he went and got wasted. Not just drunk, but sloppy drunk. Not just sloppy drunk, but hammered, wasted, blasted, bombed and tanked: he passes out half naked in his tent. The holiest man on the earth. A man far holier and better than I will ever be. A man willing to obey God to a degree I doubt I ever will got hammered and passed out half naked on the ground: committing a sin that I swore to myself long, long ago I would never commit. How could he fall like that?

And then one of Noah's sons comes along, sees Noah passed out in his indecency and makes fun of him to his brothers. Noah, upon finding out about it, curses him. And apparently, God agrees. This was another part of the story that I've never understood. I mean, the man was hammered. I don't know how many readers out there have ever seen their own father drunk, but speaking for myself, I have never hated my father more, nor respected him less, than when he was drunk. Now, I know being disrespectful to one's parents is bad, but was it really that bad? Did it really deserve a curse not just for himself but for his descendants. I mean, look at what Noah did. The guy got drunk and made a darn fool of himself. He sinned, for crying out loud. Doesn't Scripture say that drunkards won't go to heaven? Doesn't it say that we are not to get drunk but to be filled with the Spirit? Doesn't it say, "Do not drink wine to excess or let drunkenness go with you on your way." Yes, it does. So, from my perspective, in my experience, the punishment does not fit the crime. At all. If God is a just God, if Noah was a just man, how could his son and all his son's descendants get cursed for one lousy slip, when his dad had so grievously sinned himself? The double standard invokes a palpable sense of outrage in so many people, especially those whose parents have struggled with drink.

So, for me, this is where Krulwich's sermon helps make sense of the story in a way that I had never seen before. Noah didn't just go out and get hammered one day. He saw and experienced the death and destruction of the entire world. He watched as his neighbors and relatives made fun of him for decade upon decade upon decade as he built the ark. Then he watched as they were all put to death by God via drowning or starvation: them, and their teenagers, and their toddlers, and their babies and their children in the womb, and their pets and every friggin' animal on earth that wasn't in the ark. He sat there in his safe little boat while they all suffered and died: every blasted one of them. Innocent or guilty. Past the age of reason, below the age of reason and incapable at any age of reason. He watched as God killed them all, and almost the first thing he did after he got out of that ark was to plant a vineyard. And the first thing he did after harvesting those grapes was to make wine and get wasted.

And that brought to mind another passage of Scripture that has always bothered me.

[4] It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
[5] lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
[6] Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
[7] let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Proverbs 31: 4-7

Is there anyone with more misery to forget than Noah?

Yesterday, I thought Noah acted like a stupid fool and sinned against God when he went and got wasted. I thought his son got a pretty raw deal when he and all his descendants got cursed for mocking the old man. Today, I'm not so sure. Today, I'm wondering if whether the reason Noah went and got wasted was precisely because he was a good and holy man who suffered unimaginable anguish when God killed all his neighbors and relatives, guilty or innocent. Today, I'm wondering of the reason his son was cursed was because he wasn't a good and holy man and his own anguish at the suffering of others was shallow or nonexistent. Perhaps, he was bitter and angry for all the times he had been mocked for obeying his father and helping him out in the crazy task God had given to Noah. Whatever the case, it is certainly true that he didn't understand the depths of his own father's misery and pain.

And so I thank Robert Krulwich for helping to shed light on a series of stories which had always puzzled me. It is hard to make sense of the pain and suffering in our lives. Even in the light of the suffering of God's own Son, it is hard. And it is helpful for me to realize that even the Giants of the faith, whom I could never measure up to, struggled with the same things.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Religion and Epidemics

I found this article on epidemics and religion fascinating in light of Rodney Stark's theories in The Rise of Christianity.