Often when truths, even great truths, biblical truths, are formulated into doctrine they lose their connection to life. They become mere beliefs—statements to which believers profess adherence but which no longer motivate their daily life and decision making. These doctrinal beliefs may come to parody the truth they were meant to embody. Total depravity is a case in point.
Almost everyone agrees that the doctrine is poorly named (on this see, for example, Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 246-8 or R.C. Sproul at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/tulip-and-reformed-theology-total-depravity ). Total depravity does not mean that everyone is as bad as they can get or that there is no goodness in the world. The title, “total depravity,” seems to have been formulated to fit the T of the acronym TULIP, but the acronym itself is of recent—20th century—origin, so take the name, total depravity, with a grain of salt, but even if the title distorts the doctrine, how a doctrine is named matters.
Total depravity has come to be a throw-away phrase, an excuse, really. After committing a faux pas of some minor sort, people of the TULIP persuasion will say, “Well, we are totally depraved,” and laugh. We are all guilty, we readily acknowledge, but then we go on to make distinctions between good people and bad people, those who are really guilty in our opinion and those who, like ourselves, are only technically guilty, in Adam, but in fact fine upstanding citizens. The doctrine has ceased to function as a living truth. Most important of all, it tells us nothing about the nature of human evil.
The truth that total depravity should communicate is that we, the human race, are in this—I’ll get to the “this” momentarily—together and that because we are in this together we must all participate in the redemption of the earth. We push back on this truth. We want to blame them—whoever they are at the moment. We want to excuse ourselves. But we are, all of us, in this together. And not only are we in this together, but the earth is in this with us. And, frankly, it’s not going well.
It’s this truth that is subtly and carefully articulated in a part of Genesis too often neglected, the story of the Rainbow Covenant in Genesis 9. In the story, the horrors of the great flood, and horrors they are, are at last ended. The ark has found its resting place on Mt. Ararat (Genesis 8:4). Noah has released the birds and at last the dove has not returned (8:12). The earth is dry. He opens the hatch, and they emerge (8:13-19). He immediately offers a sacrifice (8:20). Yeah, a sacrifice of animals who made it through the flood in the ark.
But the biblical writers were working with traditional materials here. The sacrifice and the story of the releasing of the birds to see if the ground is dry or not are literary details that come directly from an older flood tradition represented in Gilgamesh and other Mesopotamian documents—a tradition that can be traced back to Old Babylonian times. It appears that the biblical writers borrowed the story from Mesopotamian culture, probably in the time of the Babylonian exile. But they make their own use of it.
Flood stories wherever they are told are boundary-markers. They mark the boundary between between the world beyond memory (prehistoric times) and the world we know today. Part of the interest of these stories is in how they portray the changes between prediluvian time and the present time after the flood.
What in the Genesis accounts has changed from pre- to post-flood? The short answer is God. The Bible has two accounts about what changed. The first, 8:21-22, is brief and in the voice of the J tradition. It reports the inner thoughts of Yhwh, “I will not again curse the ground [the ‘adāmâ from which the ‘ādām was taken, Genesis 2:7) on account of the human race though the impulse of the human mind is evil from youth, and I will not again destroy all the life that I have made” (8:21). There follows a short poem:
For all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and hot, summer and winter, day and night will not cease. (8:22)
What’s notable in this account is that God—Yhwh—has changed; human beings have not. In the runup to the flood, Yhwh “sees that human evil is rampant on the earth and that every impulse of the thoughts of the human mind is only for evil all day long,” and seeing that human impulse to evil Yhwh “repents that he had made the human race on earth.” He determines to send the flood and to thereby destroy all life. But now, post-flood, the impulses of the human mind remain just as evil, same humans, same impulse towards evil, but Yhwh has changed his mind. He has determined that he will not again destroy all life, including human life.
Chapter 9 approaches the transition between the ages differently. In chapter 9, a passage written in the voice of the P tradition, what has changed are relationships. There are three to account for: God (note that P prefers ‘ĕlōhîm, “God,” while J prefers Yhwh), humans, and the rest of the natural world. The passage begins with a reiteration of the blessing that appears for the first time in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” but then introduces for the first time the element of fear between humans and the world of nature: “The fear of you and the terror of you will be upon all the wild animals of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky along with everything that moves up on the ground and all of the fish of the sea. Into your power they have been given. Everything alive that moves will be food for you, just as I gave you green vegetation [to eat]; now I give you everything” (9:3).
The relationship between humans and nature has become fraught with peril—for nature. This is material also worked over in Mesopotamian literature. The Gilgamesh Epic tells the story of Enkidu. Created by the gods to be the equal of the tyrannical and oppressive Gilgamesh, Enkidu is initially innocent of human culture, one with the wild animals. They look to him as companion and protector. But when his eyes are opened by the woman Shamhat to human knowledge and capacity, the animals no longer know him. They run in fear. Dismayed, Enkidu, returns to Shamhat, and she tells him that he has become “like a god.” Shades of Genesis 3.
Later in the epic, after Gilgamesh and Enkidu have become friends, they go to the cedar forest to slay Humbaba, the protector of the trees. Once they have defeated Humbaba, they begin cutting down the forest, felling an enormous tree to make a door—yes, a door for the temple of the god Enlil in the city of Nippur. Enlil, it turns out, is not amused. Religion doesn’t save the forest.
The story in Genesis 9 introduces not only the element of alienation between humans and nature but, along with it, violence, violence visited by animals on humans, by humans on animals, and by humans on fellow humans (9:5-6). Post-flood, violence has become endemic to creation.
Over against this violence, God hangs up his bow. The bow—“rainbow” is our word; the Hebrew has only “bow,” like a warrior’s bow—hangs in the clouds not just to remind us that God has hung up his bow but to remind God of what he promised: “When I bring a cloud over the earth, the bow will become visible in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant . . . (9:14-15).
The covenant is not only with humans but with all living things. The language is solemn, declarative: “I, yes now I myself, establish my covenant with you [Noah] and your descendants after you and with every living being with you—birdlife and barnyard animals, the wildlife of the earth—with you and all who emerged from the ark to the whole extent of life on earth” (9:9-10). In a summary sentence at the end of this section of Genesis 9, God reiterates the extent of the covenant. It is “between me [God] and all flesh upon the earth” (9:17).
The covenant that God makes binds only God. God will not again bring a flood to destroy the earth: “I make my covenant with you. Not again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of the Deluge and not again will the Deluge destroy the earth” (9:11). In the translation of this verse, I capitalize “Deluge” (Hebrew mabbûl) because this is more than a flood. These are the waters of uncreation, the forces of chaos, the closing down the physical order. It’s these forces that God promises in his covenant to hold back, hanging his bow in the sky as symbol of his new determination to maintain the physical order even in the face of human evil.
In modern terms we can take this declaration on the part of God as a statement of the constancy of the creation. As the hymn has it, “Summer and winter, springtime and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” But who can sing this verse of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” anymore without thinking that summer and winter, springtime and harvest seem less constant than they once did.
What has changed? Not God. Not the constancy of the physical laws of nature. What has changed is what we have brought to the earth. When God says that he will not again bring Deluge upon the earth, the question shifts to us, to the human race: what have we brought? Have we brought the Deluge? The answer appears to be that we have, that in our time we are living the Deluge.
Let me go back to total depravity. The problem with total depravity, I said above, is that it has been abstracted from life. It has become a formulaic admission that we are all sinners, a part of a theological schema that quickly adds that we are nevertheless just fine. But when we look at this story from Genesis, we see two truths that are at the heart of the doctrinal truth behind total depravity.
The first I have already said: we are in this together. Not just we human beings but all life on earth. The passage uses a peculiar phrase to speak of life on earth. It calls it nepeš hāḥayyâ (9:10, 16), a phrase also used in the Genesis creation stories (1:20, 24; 2:7, 19). It means literally, “breath of life,” where “breath” shades over into something like “soul,” or as close to “soul” as Biblical Hebrew gets. It’s the life we share with the animals. It’s this breath God gives us. It’s animate life, life that is filled with joy and beauty and wonder. We living things are in this together. We breathe the same air. We occupy the same earth. We belong to the same dust.
This ancient biblical perspective anticipates modern understandings of the ecology of the earth. Change one thing, and everything else changes. And we have changed not just one thing but many things, and changed them in directions that threaten the earth itself. Species after species has ceased to exist. “Extinct” is the word we use, a word related to “extinguish.” Look again at the symbolism of the story: all the species of the earth in a single ark, released at last to a newly fertile earth, and now gone. Perhaps that is the subtle meaning of Noah’s sacrifice. Instead of caring for the animals he has helped preserve, he barbecues them.
This points to the second conclusion we can draw from the story. Although we are in this together, all humans, all life, we—not the rest of creation—are the problem. How are we the problem? In the J telling of the story it’s how we are wired, our impulses (Hebrew yeṣer) that bedevil us. Yhwh says, “I will not again curse the ground because of the human race although the impulses of the human mind are evil from youth” (8:21). We know this to be true. We are wired up for violence, for selfishness, for short term gain and long-term disaster. The “selfish gene” and all that. On this the Bible and evolutionary theory agree.
The Genesis 9 P tradition writers drop a hint in a different direction: not what’s wrong with us, our “impulses,” but our failure to take our responsibility for the earth seriously. There’s a little poem in 9:6 establishing the principle of lex talionis, “an eye for an eye,” a way of limiting violence:
The one who sheds the blood a human by a human will have his blood shed; for in the image of God, God made human beings.
This draws on Genesis 1:27-28. The image of God as explained there includes the responsibility to rule—to manage—creation. It is our failure to take this responsibility seriously that is the source of much suffering on earth, not just for humans but for all creatures.
One does not have to spend much time contemplating this passage and what it says about who we are to despair of the human race. As the Apostle has it in Romans 7: “Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who will rescue us?
The biblical answer to the question has two parts. One is the call, the call heard first by Abraham in Ur, one of the old cities of Mesopotamia. The call is the voice of God saying there is more, a promise that human life can be greater than this. The call can still be heard if we are willing to listen. I will have more to say on this in future posts.
The second is transformation. It’s to this answer that Paul turns in Romans 8. We know this transformation as resurrection. It’s God breathing into us the Spirit of life. Permit me a paraphrase of the Apostle’s words in answer to his own question: “You are not [living] by the flesh but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God has made a home within you. . . . And if [the Spirit of] Christ is in you, then the body—who you are and what you do in everyday life— is dead because you can’t get it right, but the spirit—who you are in Christ—is alive because of the righteousness of Christ in which you participate. And if the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead lives in you, the same Spirit will also bring life to your dead bodies—to what you do and who you are—through the Spirit who indwells you” (Romans 8:9-11).
Paul doesn’t leave it here. It’s not just we who look to experience transformation but the creation itself: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. . . in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).
It’s in this hope that we live.