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 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 odors and in-laws? 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?
Mrs. Noah Speaking: I suppose under the circumstances there’s really no point in complaining but really! Noah and I had just got accustomed to living alone and having some peace and quiet and fixing up the house the way we wanted it at last.
I brought up three boys, wiped their runny noses, changed their messy diapers, washed, sewed, cooked, saw to it that they had the proper advantages. We got them safely married (though if I didn’t know it before I know it now; their wives leave a great deal to be desired). We liked having them come to visit us on the proper holidays, bringing the babies, taking enough food home to feed them for a week, and Noah and I could go to bed in peace.
And now look what has happened! Sometimes I think it would have been simpler to have drowned with everybody else- at least their troubles are over. And here we are jammed in this Ark – why didn’t the Lord give Noah enough time to build a big enough ark if He wanted him to build one at all? The animals take up almost all the room and Noah and I are crowded together with Shem, Ham and Japheth, their slovenly wives and noisy children, and nowhere to go for a moment’s peace.
Noah, of course, has hidden several elephant’s skins of wine somewhere, and when the rain and noise and confusion get too bad he goes down to the dirty hold with the beasts and gets drunk, sleeps it off on the dirty straw, and then comes up to bed smelling of armadillo dung and platypus pee.
Not that I blame him . . . It’s my daughters-in-law who get me. They insist on changing the beds every time I turn around. They won’t use a towel more than once, and they’re always getting dressed up and throwing their dirty linen at me to wash, the washing is easy enough – we’ve plenty of water – But how do they expect me to get anything dry in all this rain? I don’t mind doing the cooking, but they’re always coming out to the kitchen to fix little snacks with the excuse that it will help me: “You’re so good to us, Mother Noah, we’ll just do this for you,” and they never put anything away where it belongs.
They’ve lost one of my measuring cups and they never clean the stove and they’ve broken half of the best china that came down to us from Grandfather Seth. When the babies squall in the night, who gets up with them? Not my daughters-in-law. “Oh, Mother Noah’ll do it. She loves the babies so.” Ham’s wife is always stirring up quarrels, playing people off against each other. Shem’s wife who never does anything for anybody, manages to make me feel lazy and mean if I ask her to dry one dish. Japheth’s wife is eyeing Shem and Ham; she’ll cause trouble; mark my words.
Today that silly dove Noah is so fond of came back with an olive twig on his beak. Maybe there’s hope that we’ll get out of this Ark after all.
We’ve landed! At last! Now we can get back to normal and have some peace and quiet and if I put something where it belongs it will stay there and I can clean up this mess and get some sleep at night and – Noah! Noah! I miss the children! (by Madeleine L’Engle)
Noah’s Ark. A nice story…until you consider the details. A boat packed with animals of every ilk 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? Not so much.
And what about the people who didn’t make it onto the boat, the ones who died in the flood? Despite what the song said, everything did not turn out hunky dory for everyone in the story. 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.
Re Jana, the daughter of the construction foreman hired to oversee the building of the ark, narrates In the Shadow of the Ark. At several points, her father quarrels with Noah about the goodness of a God who would kill nearly the whole human race. “How should I imagine this Unnameable god of yours?” he says at one point. “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,” [Noah] says.
“If disappointment drives him, he must make clear what he expects…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?”
[Noah] 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.”
The foreman shakes 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 end time. 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…. 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?” (Provoost, Anne. In the Shadow of the Ark. New York: Berkley Books, 2001 [translation, 2004], 218-19)
Hard questions…and, no doubt, questions many of us have asked of this story. What are thoughtful people of faith, those who believe in a loving God, to make of such a story?
The first thing we do is read the story of Noah’s Ark as just that—a story. Throughout history, people have used stories to help make sense of things that happen to them…things like massive floods. The geologic record reveals many floods in antiquity. Every culture 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 Judeo-Christian flood myth is no different. Like other flood stories, the story of Noah’s Ark helped our ancestors to explain what was happening. It gave them a feeling of control over a completely out-of-control event. By calling the flood God’s punishment for their “wickedness,” they could avoid another flood by becoming more righteous.
The place where our story diverges from other flood myths is at the point of the rainbow. Listen: 9“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.”
The sign of the covenant is a “bow set in the sky,” which could be something like a constellation, but I like the traditional interpretation of a rainbow…because rainbows contain every color that exists. Anything we see, the hue of any flower, the pigment of any person’s skin, the shade of any creature on earth—any color that exists is in the rainbow… which makes it the perfect symbol of the covenant God makes with Noah after the flood. With the rainbow, God is saying, “My love and care extend to every living thing.”
…which begs the question: If God’s protection and love are for everyone, shouldn’t ours be also? I’m sure we all would answer yes to that question. 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 retelling the story over the centuries. 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.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
8Then 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.”