The story of Noah is one of the first stories that we teach our children. And there are some good reasons why this story resonates with children. Noah, directed by God, builds an ark. In the ark he gathers two of every animal...some of them natural enemies...and gets them all to cooperate together on the ark...the lion does lie down with the lamb. With the chaos of forty days and nights of the flood all around, Noah, his family, and all of the animals are safe and sound on the ark.
Children identify with Noah: he is protected by God...the loving parent who cares not only for Noah but protects every animal equally...all species, even the creepy ones, and the ones that seem to have no purpose...have space on the ark.
There is the releasing of the dove by Noah, who brings back a spring of olive branch to let Noah know it’s safe to come out...a great sign of peace and new life.
And finally...there’s the rainbow...the sign of God’s promise to Noah...the promise to forever care for him and his descendants.
There is, however, a problem. A problem that I used to ignore in the excerpts of the story that we usually read in church, but a problem I will never ignore again.
How can we forget that it was God who chose to flood the earth and destroy all life???
Well...I can’t. Perhaps I could before we as a nation experienced the devastation that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans and the Gulf region...wounds that have still not healed. But I now know that I’ll never hear the story of Noah and the flood again without a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I’m not saying that there is any part of me for a moment that believes this story is literally true. I don’t believe for a second that God caused a flood in Noah’s time intending to destroy the earth...just like I have never thought for a second that God caused any of our modern day disasters.
But I am in search of the truth in the story. I am concerned with what the tellers were trying to say about their understanding of God and humanity. What was the point of their story? What is the ancient truth that they were struggling with: what is the truth that we must not forget?
When I was a teenager, I came to the conclusion that the story of God, Noah and the Flood was story about human sin. Humanity had become wicked, and God decided that it was necessary to act. God found one man who was righteous...Noah...and decided to start over with him and his family.
Noah does what he’s told, and all other life is destroyed.
God then sees the results, and for some reason decides that he won’t do this again. So he actually makes that very promise to Noah...and to all creation.
I accepted this understanding of the story, probably not as fact, but as an attempt to explain why God doesn’t come into the world and blast us for our collective wickedness. I think I would have explained it as “even though we sin, God has promised to love us.”
There were times that I figured God regretted this decision...
It was only later that I considered that the idea of God regretting was an essential part of the story. I was opened to the idea that the Flood story was a story whose primary focus was on this passionate and very active God of the Hebrews...a God with an intimate relationship with human beings.
A God, ironically, who had a lot to learn about being God.
A close reading of the whole Flood narrative reveals a God who reaches the point of regretting that he ever made humankind. These humans were so unlike what God intended...it was time to start over...hit the reset button.
So God finds one righteous man, and attempts to start over and eradicate evil. Everyone and everything that is not in the ark dies...
And God looks out over what he’s done...and it is only moments later that he promises never to do it again.
Some thoughts on the God of this story: It seems to me that God is acting more like a disillusioned marriage partner than as a parent. Genesis 6:6 says “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This is a God who is hurting because this promising creation was not meeting his expectations. Perhaps too much time had passed without any ground rules, or voiced expectations. So the God of our ancestors declares a severance...with devastating ramifications. Instead of attempting to work through the problems, to nurture healing and growth, God bails on humanity. It is the classic overreaction to trouble.
The covenant with Noah and the rainbow are the signs that God has changed...has grown. God’s covenant with Noah indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with humanity: the promise to stick it out...the promise to not allow God’s hopes and desires for humanity to get in the way of the relationship. It is not only an acceptance of the potential evil that dwells in people...but the realization that humanity is truly made in God’s image...capable of spectacular successes and horrible blunders. On God’s end, the story concludes with this God of the Hebrews fully invested in humanity...come what may.
It’s a good thing that God ends up in this place, for the attempt to start over with Noah does not go so well.
I haven’t spent much thought on Noah in the past. “Obedient child” has always been my understanding of Noah. Granted, at 500 years old, he might not have looked like a child. But like an obedient child, Noah does everything that God tells him to do, without question.
Truth be told, I found little likable in him.
Throughout the story we see no protesting or pleading from Noah, and that bothers me. I would like to think that I had been in Noah’s shoes, I might have suggested to God that all that death and destruction was a bad idea...and made some attempt to save other people, perhaps hidden between the elephants and the hippos. I think of the many stories I have learned of people who have risked a great deal to save the lives of other. Oskar Schindler comes to mind as one who seemed to find himself in a position similar to Noah...and rose to the occasion. I wish Noah could have done this.
But, to be fair, remember that Noah comes before the example of Abraham...one who found voice to persuade God into rethinking his choice to destroy.
Noah had no prior example. The rules were simple: what God tells you to do...you do.
I wonder how Noah really felt about the experience? Did he hear the voices of those who died? Did the images of destruction haunt him in the night? Did he really feel safe and secure aboard the ark? Did he not smell the stench left by the Flood?
The text does not say anything about Noah’s personal thoughts.
But I am here to tell you today, that Noah was profoundly changed by the experience. Consider Noah’s actions post-flood. He comes off the ark, immediately makes an altar and offers a burnt sacrifice...a little more obedience and a little more death, this time by Noah’s own hand. Then he plants the first vineyard, drinks himself into oblivion, falls down naked in his tent, wakes up embarrassed, finds someone to blame: his son Ham, for not covering him...and curses Ham’s son, Canaan and his descendants to eternal slavery. It’s all part of the story in Genesis.
My brothers and sisters: the cost of Noah’s experience was the very righteousness that caused God to choose him in the first place. He is haunted by his own silence to the calamity of the flood. And in his pain and anguish, he lashes out in the same over reactive way that God did, condemning his grandson and those who follow.
That’s how the story of Noah and the flood really ends...not with the rainbow, but with brokenness.
The ray of sunshine...the olive branch for us, today, is that death, destruction, and horrible choices do not have to be the final word. We are called...as the God of this story was...to new life and new relationship. The evil of our past: done by us, done to us, and allowed by our silence...is not what our future has to be. The transformation begins with acknowledging the past, and pledging to be true to a new relationship: a covenant that boldly declares our intentions to be invested in the well being of each others lives, and committed to the care of our earth and beyond.