I remember reading about the situation of a middle-aged couple who were witnessing the slow self-destruction of their grown-up daughter. It was a painful story, one that challenged me to think about the difference between what I might think is the right thing to do, and what people are capable of in real life. This couple were confronting the hard choice between wanting to protect their daughter who had for some years been into the drug scene, and whose life was a constant cycle of broken relationships, losing jobs and getting kicked out of rental accommodation, brushes with the law and desperate attempts at rehab – the hard choice between sheltering and protecting the daughter they loved, and realising the limits of what they could do, that there were limits to how much they could give of themselves before the cost became too great, that there were limits to how much of their daughter’s pain they could endure, even limits to how much they could care. Eventually they had to make the hard decision to tell their daughter she couldn’t come home again, that she couldn’t count on them to always pick up the pieces.
Somebody pointed out to me the other day the irony that the story of Noah’s ark is always such a favourite with people who write children’s Bibles, that it’s a constant theme for babies’ nurseries and even the designs on kiddies pyjamas. Of course it’s a really cute picture – the animals all go into the ark by families, two by two – a picture of domestic contentment where everybody gets along together, even the lions and the zebras. Nobody ever gets eaten. Except, of course, when you really think about it, it’s not such a fluffy and cuddly story at all, not really a story you’d want to be telling your toddlers - when you think that what it’s about is God deciding to start creation from scratch, sending a worldwide flood to wipe the slate clean, by drowning every living creature in the whole world except the happy families in the ark.
As a story it raises a few practical problems – like the old perennial about how Noah managed to get to Australia and back to collect the echidnas and platypuses in under seven days (and in the process tell the difference between the males and the females) – or how Noah managed to build this gigantic wooden barge all by himself – as long and as wide as a football field and as high as a five-storey building.
So despite the excitable claims we hear every know and then that somebody or other has found a piece of fossilised wood in Turkey that might be the remains of the ark, there are some problems in taking this one literally. Maybe it’s based on the distant memory of flooding on the Tigris-Euphrates delta – and the similarities between the story of Noah’s ark and the ancient stories of the civilisations of Sumeria and Babylon suggest they’re based on a common tradition – but basically I think we need to read it as a parable. Like the parables that Jesus told to illustrate the truth about human beings, and the truth about God. Jesus’ parables were mostly fairly realistic stories, like a man who plants a vineyard, or a woman who loses a coin. They might have actually happened, or they might be just stories. But the importance of Jesus’ parables isn’t whether or not they really happened, but what they tell us about where God is in our lives, and what it means to love other people as much as we love ourselves. So we might put aside some of the practical problems in the story of Noah’s ark and ask ourselves: what does it mean? What does this story tell us about what God is like, and how God relates to the world that God made?
Which opens up the really hard questions. Because what a lot of people have got from this story is that God is so angry that he sends a flood to wipe everybody out as a punishment for the evil they keep doing. We don’t know the details, but God complains that the earth is filled with violence. And so God decides to do away with the lot of them. It’s a problematic story. I can’t help thinking of the claim made by some Christians after the Boxing Day tsunami that God had sent this disaster as a punishment [Sharon Stone said the China earthquake was bad karma for China’s treatment of Tibet] – that the hundreds of thousands who died had somehow deserved their fate – it’s an offensive suggestion, isn’t it? And what sort of God behaves like that? Well, the story of Noah’s ark comes out of a very different worldview and a very different culture to our own, but there are a couple of things we should maybe notice. Firstly, that in the story God isn’t angry at all. In fact we get a very different picture, of a God who is in turmoil. In verse 6, which we didn’t read, the Hebrew says that God’s heart is filled with pain, that God’s heart is broken because of the deep, ingrained evil that seems to be woven into human nature and corrupts the whole world. God’s judgement, thoroughgoing and extreme as it is, is not described as a punishment but as a way of renewing creation through this one man who lives in right relationship with God. That God chooses a flood to accomplish this suggests something about cleansing or purging, but more importantly it relates to the story of creation itself – in Genesis chapter one God creates the world out of an initial watery chaos, and in the Great Flood God seems to be throwing the whole thing back into reverse, back to watery chaos and then starting again. The flood itself might be seen, not as a punishment but as the logical outcome for a humanity that couldn’t learn to live in relationship with God or in harmony with the natural order. Certainly, the story suggests something about the relationship between human responsibility and the wellbeing of the natural creation, and I don’t think it’s any accident that humanity and the non-human creation all end up – so to speak – in the same boat.
Yet by the end of the story we can see that the new creation is not a complete fresh start at all - because it is based on the remnants of the original one. Not only that, but human sinfulness has not been eradicated and at the end of the story God acknowledges that humans are what humans are. The truly startling thing about this story, is that what changes, is God. What changes, is God’s relationship to the world God has made. In fact the very reason that God gives for the flood in the first place – that human beings are irredeemably evil – is the exact same reason God gives for promising at the end of the story, never to flood the earth again, in chapter 8, verse 21: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, because the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’. That’s why the story of the Great Flood can never be used as an example of God’s judgement, precisely because it is the flood that sets the ground for God’s promise to humankind, and that sets out the terms of God’s relationship with what God has made.
You see, this parable comes out of a great insight into what it means to be human – and what it means to be God. People don’t change. The relationship between God and humanity is lopsided from the very start, but God decides to stay with creation as it is. God is committed to us, but there’s a cost. Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar, puts it this way: ‘The flood has effected an irreversible change in God. It is clear now that such a commitment to the creation on God's part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world.’
What this means is that God chooses to suffer, as the cost of being in relationship with us. God chooses to be in covenant with us, despite knowing that we live our lives in a vicious cycle of weak good intentions, selfishness and failure. God chooses to accept the cost of loving us, and we see the cost of that love, the ultimate expression of the lopsided covenant between God and human beings, on the cross. And this is what St Paul recognises; that our hope lies not in our own faith or our own rightness, but in the rightness of God which is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The vicious cycle has been replaced by a circle of wellbeing, a circle that flows from the goodness and the faithfulness of God and ends up bearing the fruit of goodness in each of us as we are restored into good relation with God.
Here’s another parable: When Noah and the whole family climbed down from the ark, and the stretch their legs a bit, God says to them: ‘I’m making a new covenant with you, and I’m giving you a sign that this world has been created in peace and for peace. But it’s a special sign, because you can only see it when you look at it through the waters of a flood or through eyes filled with tears’. And there appears in the sky the first ever rainbow, a great arc from horizon to horizon. And Noah and his family look at the rainbow in wonder, but then the youngest, Japheth, asks his dad: ‘We’ve come full circle in our journey on the ark – from dry land to water and back to dry land again. How come the rainbow is only half a circle?’
And God says: ‘I’ve made a start. Let’s see how you go finishing it.’