Noah’sArk. It’s a familiar story, right? God said to Noah, There’s gonna be a floody, floody… the animals going into the ark by twosies, twosies and coming out by threesies, threesies… The rainbow in the sky. God’s promise never to destroy the earth again. It’s a familiar story, one just about everyone knows.
Do you ever wonder, though, what was going on behind the scenes, below the deck? What was it like to live on a boat in the rain with animals and in-laws and odors? What was it like to be cooped up in a big wooden box for 6 months? In short, what was it like to be Mrs. Noah? [Vickie: Mrs. Noah Speaks, by Madeleine L’Engle]
Noah’s Ark…A nice story…until you consider the details. A boat with animals on it makes for great artwork…but in reality, it makes for great work. Eight family members on a small boat with animals sounds cozy…but the reality? Probably less so.
And what about the people who didn’t make it onto the boat, the ones who died in the flood? How could a loving God destroy everyone on earth except one family? That’s where the details of this story get uncomfortable. It’s the part of the story a recent novel addresses.Narrated by Re Jana, the daughter of one of the construction workers hired to help build the ark, the novel In the Shadow of the Ark (Provoost, Anne. In the Shadow of the Ark. New York: Berkley Books, 2001 (translation, 2004) wrestles with the theological question of what kind of God would kill nearly the whole human race.
At one point, Re Jana eavesdrops on a conversation between her father and Noah, who is called The Builder. “How should I imagine this Unnameable god of yours?” Re Jana’s father says. “Like an eternally raging hurricane? But who can possibly stay angry for the length of time this plan is taking?”
“He is disappointed rather than angry,” the Builder says.
“If disappointment drives him, he must make clear what he expects. His directives should be unambiguous; there should be no doubt about what his wishes are. Only then can he justify punishment.”
“Many things are so obvious they do not need rules.”
“Those with that sort of understanding are rare. Many live in ignorance. And what is learned now will soon be forgotten again. What makes you confident your god will not do the same thing all over again in 500 years, to your children and your children’s children? That he will not destroy your cities again and will not butcher your descendants?”
The Builder says: “The Unnameable does not bear malice. He has only become tired of human kind. I have long discussions with Him, and I assure you, He does not act rashly. His spirit will not quarrel with us for eternity. Believe me, after this, there will be clear rules, commandments, and prohibitions that are so plain they will not need explanations.”
My father shook his head. “I do not ask for rules. I ask for judgment, the understanding that makes it possible to deviate from the rules if the need arises.”
“That understanding too will come. With the passing of time. And with (hu)mankind’s maturing.”
“Is this then the time of beginning, the time of mistakes and trials? To me it sounds more like the endtime. It seems to me that soon everything will be finished.”
“Let us say that a new time is coming.”
“A new time for whom? For a handful of candidates? That is reprehensible.”
“It is the crime that is reprehensible, not the punishment.”
“How can there be a question of crime for a people that does not have a system of justice?” “Give this people a system of justice…and they would not become depraved. No god would find it necessary to destroy them. Whoever does not apply justice in punishment causes blood feuds. Whoever does not permit punishment forces it underground. Talk your god around, appeal to his reason.” “Or is the Unnameable destroying us for your benefit? So that you will be able to live in a better world?” (218-19)
Hard questions…and, no doubt, questions many of us have asked of this story ourselves. What are thoughtful people of faith, those who believe in a loving God, to make of such story?
A few weeks ago, we revisited the story of Jonah and the big fish. Do you remember what I told the children that day? I said there are some things in the Bible we take literally, things like, “Love your neighbour.” There are other things in the Bible, though, that are just stories. Jonah and the big fish is a story. Noah and the ark—it’s a story.
I won’t say it’s “just a story,” because the kind of story it is is really important. The geological record shows many floods in antiquity. Every culture throughout antiquity that experienced a flood made up a story about it. Why? To have some control over it, right? If we know what caused the flood, we can prevent the next one.
Our flood myth is no different. Like other flood stories, our story helped our ancestors to explain what was happening. It gave them a feeling of control over a completely out-of-control event. Our ancestors in faith explained the flood by saying it was God’s punishment for “wickedness.” How might they avoid a future flood? By becoming more righteous.
The place where our story diverges from other flood myths is at the point of the rainbow. Let’s read again what God promised during that ancient ritual.
9“1011I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
The sign of the covenant is a “bow set in the sky.” Some scholars see the bow as just that, a bow (like from a bow and arrow). I prefer to go with the traditional rendering of a rainbow….because rainbows in the sky, we see. Have you ever seen a bow-and-arrow bow in the sky? Me neither.
Because this is a sign I want to see; I want to be reminded of this covenant. Because this covenant is one God makes with all creatures and all people. “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” That’s the thing that’s so amazing, so forward-thinking, really, about the Judeo-Christian tradition’s flood myth. In it, God doesn’t only make a promise to God’s people. In our flood myth, God makes a promise to all the earth’s people…all earth’s creatures, in fact. If you think about it, what this flood myth says about our ancestors in faith is pretty remarkable: Our ancestors in faith saw the love of God extending to all people.
So, even though this story, this myth, has a prehistoric, pre-enlightenment feel to it, the moral of the story is as contemporary as it can be: If God’s protection and love are for everyone, shouldn’t ours be also?
If such a flood threatened today, would we build an ark just for members of our own family or faith family? No. We wouldn’t think of it. We’d agree with Re Jana, who said: “To save (hu)mankind, you need a fleet, not a single vessel. What sort of god carries all his eggs in one basket?” (293)
Our ancestors in faith understood the first flood to be the judgment of an angry God. But based on how they ended the story—by expressing concern and love for all creatures and people—maybe they learned a little from the story. Maybe they learned that judgment now rests, not in God’s hands, but in ours. Will we hire people to build the boat then close the door on them when the rains begin?
Or will we build a fleet? Will we crowd all the animals and one very human family into a tiny boat? Or will we build enough boats for all the construction workers and their families? I’m pretty sure that today, we’d build a fleet…enough boats for everyone, enough vessels to save everyone.
And, because she liked it so well, we’d build one tiny boat for Mrs. Noah, her husband, her children, and the platypus. (At 8;30, David played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” At 10:00 Monty played it.)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12God 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:13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”