(04) Retribution and Mercy—Genesis 6–9; 18–19

Ted Grimsrud

The biblical story begins with the account of a loving, creative God forming the earth and bringing life into being.  It ends in Revelation with this same God culminating the processes of human life on earth with a healing community that becomes the home of the glory of the nations.  However, in between, as we have already seen, the story recounts many twists and turns.

One way to read this story is as a process of understanding God and life consistently with seeing creative love as the core reality in the universe.  A competitor to the God-as-love view is the God-whose-holiness-brooks-no-violation view.  This latter view requires a strong streak of retribution in God and finds support in some key biblical stories – including these two accounts, the story of Noah and the Flood and the story of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

When we read these two stories as part of the bigger story culminating in the healing promised in Revelation, however, we will be notice the elements within each story that point toward healing.  When read in isolation (and as literal history), these stories certainly provide support for the retributive view of God.  However, as people committed to the Bible as a whole, and as people who read the Bible as a whole pointing toward God-as-Healer not God-as-Punisher, we are advised to pursue a different reading of these two stories.

The story of Noah and the Flood may be read as supporting peacemakers.  More than being a story about Noah or about sinful humanity, this story focuses on God. The place where the real action takes place, is with the heart of God.  The events themselves are more or less a backdrop, meant to get at the real issue—what happens inside of God?  We learn God feels grief and God is concerned with how violence, sin and evil mess up God’s beloved creation.  This story also tells us God isn’t bound by attributes and principles that always require predetermined actions.  God is free to respond, perhaps we could even say, in this story, God is free to learn.

This story about the Flood starts out as a story of judgment, but actually ends up being a story of mercy.  The point of the story is not the judgment with which it begins (“I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created,” 6:7), but the promise with which it ends (“The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh,” 9:15). 

We must notice that the change from judgment to promise is not based on a change in human beings.  At the beginning, we are told that every inclination of the thoughts of people’s hearts was only evil continually (6:5).  Then, after the flood subsides, after human beings are restored to the earth, God repeats, “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21). 

However, instead of being a call to judgment, this description of human beings as being inclined toward evil has now become a reason for God promising not to judge and destroy “every living creature.”  God has decided to persevere, to stay with creation as it is, to seek to heal the human heart.  Because humans are inclined toward evil, God must sustain creation and slowly do the healing work; it will take God time to bring us salvation.

God has decided that the way to deal with human sin is not through brute force and destructive judgment but through long-suffering love.  The Old Testament – which, remember, was Jesus’ Bible – tells us of God’s long-suffering love, containing that undergird Jesus’ way.

In Genesis six, we read that something is wrong; evil and brokenness abound.  God’s loving intentions for creation are not being fulfilled.  God responds not so much by being offended and disgusted as, most of all, with deep grief (6:6).  God’s grief stems from a sense of loss; something of God is broken when creation is broken.  God isn’t an impersonal judge here, whose righteous honor is offended, but much more, is an abandoned lover or a friend betrayed.

Out of this deep, deep grief comes the flood.  Creation is broken; creation is a source of inconsolable pain; so creation is uncreated.  The destroying waters rise and rise and the flood goes on and on.  Only this tiny remnant of Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark remain. Out of God’s overwhelming grief, chaos almost rules fully supreme again.  God blots out “every living thing that was on the face of the earth” (7:23).

However, in chapter eight, verse one comes the turning point.  “But God remembered Noah, and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.  And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.”  The tone for the rest of the story reflects a major difference.

The waters subside.  Chaos recedes.  God re-creates.  God blesses Noah and affirms that humankind is still in God’s image.  God restores humankind’s dominion over the rest of creation.  God gives back the responsibility of stewardship, the responsibility to care for the wide world.  Then, the story ends with God’s amazing and profound promise:  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).

God’s movement from vengeance to mercy happens because, and only because, of a choice God makes.  God’s choice essentially comes down to deciding between two different ways of dealing with this overwhelming grief.  God will either indulge in anger and retribution, or God will resolve to fashion a newness. 

It is as if God sees chaos, the flood, threatening totally to take over.  This is where retribution leads.  So retribution is not a solution to the problem of human beings messing up creation with their evil and violence.  The attempted cure is worse than the disease.  Chaos is not overcome with greater chaos.  To turn back the chaos, God must find another way to deal with grief.  So, God “remembers” Noah and the story changes direction altogether.  God chooses for newness.  God chooses to be with humankind, to suffer with, to extend mercy that never ends.

We do not have to do here with some new ability humans might have to do good and temper God’s anger.  The hope for the future does not rest on human achievement but only on God’s never-ending patience with the evil imaginations of human hearts.  The grief of God that results in compassion and sympathy for human beings is the deepest expression of God’s justice and righteousness.

The key image in the Flood story is the image of the rainbow:  “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth….And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen. 9:12-13, 15b).  The “bow” is a weapon of war.  However, here it is a weapon of war unstrung, a weapon of war that will not be used for war anymore.  God is no longer in pursuit of an enemy.  God will never again be provoked to use this weapon of war to destroy the world.

Much later in the Old Testament, the people of Israel experience another Flood-like experience.  Their nation-states are attacked and ultimately conquered.  Their fall was seen by the prophets as the inevitable result of God’s people living too much like the other nations.  Living by the sword, you die by the sword.

However, God met even the unjust Hebrews in their suffering and brokenness with healing love.  In exile, prophets saw the story of the ancient Flood that pictures God’s change of heart from retribution to mercy as a promise that God’s mercy would meet them, too, in their time of flood, in their experience of the almost overwhelming power of chaos. 

We see this in Isaiah 54:  “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you.  For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (vv. 9-10).

Concerning our second “judgment story,” we might think that the account of Sodom and Gomorrah is not the place to look for alternatives to fire and brimstone and an eye-for-an-eye justice.  However, when read carefully, we see here some bases for a different response to wrongness in the world.  Here in Abraham challenging God’s threatened judgment we find a model for breaking free from the spiral of violence. 

Abraham models someone who takes seriously his calling to be a blessing for all the families of the earth.  He models a response to the world’s wrongness that promises newness.  Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of unjust Sodom and Gomorrah, challenging God to offer the people in Sodom and Gomorrah the same opportunity to know God’s healing mercy that God has offered Abraham.

Abraham takes his vocation of making peace with utmost seriousness.  He feels empowered by God’s mercy to him, by God’s promise.  In fact, Abraham feels empowered enough actually to question the seemingly closed system where God has no choice but to respond to injustice with punitive judgment.  Abraham in effect says to God, “Hey, God, I know you are free to be merciful, because you have been merciful to me.”

In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”  Abraham asks God to spare the wicked because of the presence of the righteous. In effect, he is saying, if God is truly God (the God who called Abraham for the sake of blessing the entire world), can this God be content with following an automatic eye-for-an-eye retribution.  Simply to punish would counter the character of God as Abraham has come to know it.  The God of Abraham is a God of mercy who justifies the ungodly, and heals in the face of brokenness. 

God listens to Abraham.  In fact, it appears that God’s mind is changed by Abraham’s pleas. God indeed is not bound by knee-jerk retribution.  The bargaining stops at ten righteous people, not because that is God’s limit and only nine wouldn’t fill the bill.  Rather, it is simply that the point has been made.  God responds to Abraham’s challenge, and agrees that the power of righteousness overrides the power of evil.

Yet, as we see in the next chapter, Genesis nineteen, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah still occurs.  The rule of retribution still carries some weight, it would appear.  Abraham pleads; God listens and responds.  But the brimstone still falls. 

God does intervene, though, to save Abraham’s cousin Lot and his daughters.  God did this because “God remembered Abraham” (19:29).  Abraham’s pleas for mercy had an effect.  From Lot and his daughters, the nation of Moab came (19:37).  The book of Ruth tells us that Ruth, a Moabite, was the great grandmother of King David (Ruth 4), who in turn was an ancestor of Jesus (Mt 1:5).…So, from this intercession of Abraham, the waves of mercy rippled through the generations, through Lot to Ruth to David, down to the coming of the savior of the world.  This is one key way that Abraham blessed all the families of the earth.

By the time of the prophet Hosea, hundreds of years later, God’s people themselves had turned to the ways of injustice.  Threats of brimstone were aimed at them.  But Abraham’s pleas for God to remember God very character as merciful are recalled.  “How can I give you up, O Israel?” God says.  “How can I treat you like Sodom?  How can I treat you like Gomorrah?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Israel; for I am God and no human being, the holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos 11:8-9).

God here resolves not to act like human beings, who simply punish the guilty; but to act like God, finding compassion and mercy even for the unrighteous.  That is what Abraham asked God to do, act like God and not like those who are bound by an eye-for-an-eye.

God, in Hosea, takes the violence of the fire and brimstone into his own person rather than unleashing it on the city.  This God will not be defined by human conventions.  This does not mean that God no longer cares about evil and wrongness and wickedness.  What it means is that God responds to brokenness by seeking healing, not by seeking punishment.  God’s desire is that what is broken be remade back to wholeness. 

God’s response, ultimately is to take on the suffering rather than to inflict further suffering on human beings.  What Hosea points toward is spelled out in Isaiah 53:  “He was wounded for our transgressions, [he was] crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”  Here we are at the heart of the Bible’s most profound picture of God.  This is where Abraham is pointing with his questions.  He points to a God who must, due to God’s fundamental character as merciful, find a way to deal with evil and brokenness without causing more evil and brokenness.

Abraham knew that he was called to be a blessing for the all the families of the earth, that God’s healing strategy has to do with patient, long-suffering love. God’s healing strategy is for healing the nations.  So Abraham intercedes on their behalf.  He asks mercy of God – and thereby serves as our model.


2 thoughts on “(04) Retribution and Mercy—Genesis 6–9; 18–19

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White

    Do we have in these stories a true picture of a limited God who must learn, even from creatures, love and compassion and mercy? Or do we have a struggle between rival pictures of God–in which the truer picture only gradually wins out?

  2. Ted Grimsrud

    I think both of the above! Or, also, a narrative that focuses on getting us to the point (Genesis 12) where God’s approach to the brokenness of creation will no longer be massive punishment but patient, persevering love. This then becomes the great theme of the rest of the Bible.

    Of course, no story about God (even in the Bible) can be more than a human attempt to understand and describe what is beyond understanding and description.

    I don’t really believe the true God brought this terrible flood on creation. But the story of a God with such profound vulnerability, grief, and anger who learns that following the path of the anger does not resolve the problems rings true to me on a metaphorical level.


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