As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.—Genesis 8:22
So which story is the most well-known and beloved in the entire Bible? It has to be the Christmas Story, right? Cute little baby Jesus. But I’m going to suggest that Noah’s Ark is second. Every Sunday School curriculum teaches Noah’s Ark. Every toddler room at every Church has a Noah’s Ark; there will often be a second in the sanctuary’s stained glass. Every toy-chest in a Jewish or Christian home has a Noah’s Ark. Every Jewish and Christian child has a picture book about Noah’s Ark. Noah’s Ark is ubiquitous.
But you have to wonder why. It’s one of the cruelest stories in the Bible. Genesis tells us that very early in its history the world went so awry God couldn’t remember why on earth God had bothered creating a world in the first place. “I am sorry that I made them,” God grumbles, “so I will blot them all off the face of the earth, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds too. I changed my mind. I’m going to start over.” How did this become a children’s story? We turn it into a fairy tale. Who’s seen Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom? On my Top 20 list. Wes Anderson: a national treasure.
The tsunami in South Asia on Boxing Day, 2004, killed 200,000. Less than a year later, Hurricane Katrina left 1,400 dead and almost destroyed an entire American city—$108 billion in damage. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed 138,000 in Myanmar. In 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan produced a wall of water 130 feet high that traveled six miles inland, shifted the main island of Japan eight feet east, tilted the earth six inches off its axis, turned a nuclear power plant into a lethal weapon, and killed 16,000 people.
I lived through a flood once—a small one, but still…. I was living in Connecticut in 2012 and saw Hurricane Sandy up close and personal. My house was about 300 yards from Long Island Sound, which, if you’ve seen it, you know is a fairly quiescent, harmless body of water. It’s only five miles across where my house is situated and has an average depth of only 63 feet, but a year after Hurricane Sandy, the homes two blocks east of mine were still waterlogged and deserted.
A couple of hours before the storm made landfall in my neighborhood, a Greenwich police cruiser drove down the middle of my street with a loudspeaker telling people to evacuate to the local elementary school. We said, “Can Dudley come?’ They said, “No Dogs.” We said, “No, thanks.” They said, “If you get in trouble out here, we’re not going to risk first-responder lives to rescue you.” We said, “We’ll take our chances.”
We had a huge, ancient white pine in the backyard. We calculated the height of the tree and the direction of the wind and slept in the basement in case the tree came down and crushed a bedroom. Two blocks south of our house, a falling tree took out a power-line, which exploded into sparks and started a fire which burned three brand new, expensive, waterfront homes to the ground; the wind was so violent the Fire Department gave up trying to extinguish the fire and stood by with their hoses ready to protect nearby homes. At my house two blocks away, we looked out the windows and saw flashes of light floating past the windows, like giant fireflies. When I went outside to investigate, it turned out that the giant fireflies were glowing, wind-borne embers from the fire, about six inches across. The power was out; it was pitch black; the trees were leaning over about 45 degrees in the wind; thousands of glowing firebrands were aiming for my roof; it was apocalyptic.
So why preach a sermon about God’s implacable wrath after all the floods we’ve witnessed in this young, 17-year-old century? Wikipedia says that in 3000 BC, world population was 25 million, which means that the casualty count of Noah’s Flood was 24,999,992; eight were saved.
There’s no geological or archaeological evidence for a global deluge near the end of the prehistoric era, at the dawn of literate humanity, but the mythologies of many cultures feature a flood story, 175 different stories by one count, so some see this unified chorus of voices as evidence for the historicity of a universal flood. If so many far-flung cultures sharing no communication, no common language, and no commerce tell the same story, perhaps there really was a global flood. The Flood Story from Genesis is more memory than myth.
In one recent theory, two respected geologists speculate that melting polar icecaps around 5500 BC raised the waters of the Mediterranean Sea so high that it breached its land bridge along the Bosporus Straits and inundated the Black Sea, which had until then been a freshwater lake.
It might be simpler to remember that early civilizations flourished along rivers in fertile flood plains along the Nile, in the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Winter melt-off floods would have been frequent, even annual experiences, every springtime. In the dim memory of every culture in every land, there must be a real, core, historical experience of a man who saved himself, his family, his golden retriever, and his livestock by piling them into a boat.
Perhaps there was once even an eccentric but shrewd farmer who presciently anticipated the spring rains and began knocking together a seaworthy craft before there was even a cloud in the sky. They made fun of him, but he lived. So maybe Noah is Everyman and the flood story is “the archetype of human catastrophe,” as one scholar put it.
It’s not so much the mythology of Genesis I have trouble with; it’s the theology. I hate to say it, but I’m afraid we’ll have to jettison (pun intended), we’ll have to jettison one of the central theological presuppositions of the Genesis Flood Story. Can I throw an awkward sesquipedalian phrase at you? The Genesis Flood Story is an example of Retributive Theodicy. I will explain.
Theodicy, of course, is the attempt to explain why bad things happen in God’s good and presumably perfect world. Theodicy is the attempt to justify the ways of God to humanity, as Milton put it in Paradise Lost. Harold Kushner’s book is a theodicy: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Theodicy is the attempt to answer the blunt question “Why does God try to kill us every springtime?” A Retributive Theodicy answers the blunt question “Why does God try to kill us every springtime?” by theorizing, “Well, we must deserve it.” A natural calamity is God’s just retribution upon sinful humanity.
It doesn’t take a Karl Barth or a Paul Tillich to figure out what’s wrong with this theology. Comprehensive, indiscriminate holocausts never balance the scales of justice. We should never let God get away with what we’d hold Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin responsible for.
Did you see Emily Barnash in Candide at the Cahn Auditorium a couple of weeks ago? She was spectacular! Every review singled her out for distinction. Maestro Bernstein based his opera Candide on Voltaire’s classic story after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and with his scathing indictment of sloppy theological thinking in the 18th century, Voltaire killed Retributive Theodicy for good. Voltaire was horrified that any self-respecting Christian would believe that God would destroy pious Lisbon while watching profane Paris party away.
Well, so much for what’s wrong with this text and what’s NOT the point. What’s right with this text and what IS the point? Well, as you probably guessed, I do have a couple. I do think this is God’s word for us this morning, or I wouldn’t be wasting your time.
One truth the Flood Story gets right is that the fate of creation hinges on human behavior. Genesis tells us that flood waters inundated the earth and almost destroyed all terrestrial life because men and women were not behaving like creation’s kings and queens. Three thousand years later, polar bears drown because their ice floes recede further and further apart, and the ice floes recede further and further apart because human activity is warming the global atmosphere at an unsustainable rate. Human beings will grow up and become better stewards of our world, or there will be a flood; Genesis got that right. First it will be the polar bears, then Santa Barbara, Miami, and Charleston.
Here’s a fun little fact and a revealing little irony. Ironically, there have not been any wolverines anywhere near Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 200 years, at least not the four-footed kind, and there may not be any wolverines anywhere in the state of Michigan, even the Upper Peninsula. But what’s more is that because of global warming, ironically, Ann Arbor, Michigan, will one day be is a better place to grow Ohio Buckeye trees than Columbus, Ohio. We are going to have rename these football teams.
The second thing Genesis gets right is that we are indeed all together in an ark, the human family and its animal friends, and together we’re all adrift on a shoreless sea. The ark is a blue sphere, and the shoreless sea is a black immensity 92 billion light years across. There is nowhere to land and nowhere else to live so we’re all in this together until the lurching craft comes to rest one day on God’s front porch.
Two of every kind on Noah’s Ark. This ancient, implausible fable from Genesis is as true as the zoology textbook your veterinarian studied to earn her DVM degree: God has placed the vast biodiversity of God’s sprawling, leaping, flying, diving, crawling, squirming zoo in our boat. We’re in charge. It’s up to us to keep it all alive. How are we doing?
I wonder if Noah lost any critters during his harrowing, year-long excursion. Legend has it, of course, that the unicorns were so busy cavorting around that they missed the ark’s departure, but I wonder if Noah lost any enroute. What would we have thought of Noah if he left his animals to wander free on the deck and lost a few? Hippopotamus overboard! I wonder how many we will lose before our spherical ark comes to rest on God’s front porch.
Sylvia Earle is oceanographer who studies horseshoe crabs for a living. Commenting on the diminishing shoreline habitat that is making life difficult for them, she says, “Species come and species go, but never since a mighty asteroid struck the earth has the magnitude of loss come close to what is now occurring to the only place in the universe that is just right for horseshoe crabs — and humankind.
The rainbow, of course, is a string around God’s little finger. It’s God’s reminder, when God gets mad as hell, not to destroy the world. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “It’s a perfect curve of color, stretching clear across the sky: God’s everlasting Yes to all who live in its embrace.”
But it’s a reminder to us as well. It’s us and the animals. We all get there together, or we don’t get there at all. Will you remember that the next time you see that perfect curve of color stretching clear across the sky?
You know, maybe it is a children’s story after all. One pastor tells the story of a little girl who likes to play with Noah’s ark. She lives with her mother in a shelter where they’ve fled an abusive father. Every day when the bus drops her off at the shelter after school, she grabs a cup of juice and the two allotted cookies and settles on the floor to line up the plastic animals two by two to enter the wooden ark. With grave politeness, the preacher asks, “Where are the animals going?” She gives the preacher a strange look, as if no question could be more absurd. She says, “They’re going home!” But where is home? What does this child know of home? She’s never really been home. The preacher asks, “You say the animals are going home. But where is home?” He’s caught her in mid-procession. The camels have just gone up the ramp into the shell of the ark, and now the pair of rhinoceroses behind them must be carefully helped into their berth. Without lifting her eyes from her flock she answers, “God.” The preacher says, “Oh, you mean God will give them a home?” “No,” she says, “God will be their home.” The rhinos teeter for an instant at the top of the ramp, and clatter into the hold. The ship is setting sail. It pulls away from the dock. The destination is God. They are going home.
Have you ever seen a rainbow? What is it for? What does it mean? Doesn’t it mean home? For all of us?
Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), pp. 398-399.
Pointed out by J. David Pleins in the article “Flood” from The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, gen. ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), vol. 2, p. 468.
Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt, 2010), 34.
Syliva Earle, “Horseshoe Crabs,” in “The World We Could Lose,” The New York Times, April 23, 2017.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Refreshing God’s Memory,” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, MA: Cowley,1995), p. 34.
Adapted and abbreviated from Patrick Willson, “Sailing Home,” The Christian Century, February 2-9, 1994, p. 99.