(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Genesis 6:9-22
We embark today on a voyage. Not in the story that we’re studying, as that particular voyage won’t start until next week. Instead, we’re launching today into the murky waters of probably the most popular Bible story for Sunday School children, and one for whom the toy industry hasn’t yet given up on. We might find it hard to find nativity sets in the shops at Christmas (believe me, I’ve looked), but we still find plenty of ark-and-animal sets in most toy shops (when they’re open).
The story of Noah and the ark, or The Great Flood, is one that has sustained through the centuries, with catchy songs (“Mr Noah built an ark”) and corny jokes (What kind of lights were on the ark? Floodlights!) to keep it alive.
But at the start of the story is a question: is this story fact or fiction?
The ramifications of the answer to this are complicated. If the account of Noah and his family is a true record of actual events, then what does it say to us about God, his judgement, and the fate of the vast majority of the air-breathing population of the world at that time? Did God ordain and instigate genocide? Equally, if the story is fiction, then why do people spend so long looking for evidence to the contrary, even going to the time and trouble to build an exact replica of the ark to prove that it was flood-worthy? Why spend so long trying to prove a fairy story true?
The veracity of the story of the flood is one that continues to frame debates about the nature of God throughout the Old Testament. There are those who will point to other examples where God deals everso severely with people (see the fate of the Egyptian firstborn in Exodus 11, among others) and ask if he is a capricious and bloodthirsty deity who has very definite favourites. How, then, does this measure up to the nature of God we encounter in Jesus, whose ministry embraced those on the outside and aimed his anger (righteously and rightly) at those who God had previously favoured so much that he set them apart as his priests?
The answers to these questions are far deeper than I can hope to plumb in this article, but I would commend to anyone who is interested the very good book God Of Violence Yesterday, God Of Love Today by Helen Paynter (BRF, 2019 – there is a copy available if anyone would like to borrow it). It isn’t enough just to say “Trust God on this” as that denies those who have died throughout history a voice or the right to be heard. Equally, there isn’t the time to go into the complexity of the distance between our contemporary worldview as 21st Century people who have survived two world wars and are living in a time of pandemic, with those of previous generations and cultures.
I will however, have to pin my colours to the mast (another nautical metaphor) when it comes to the story of Noah and say that I view it as a metaphor (or parable), rather than a dramatic retelling of actual events. I must caveat this to say that there is good geological evidence that the area in which the story is set (between two great rivers) would have experienced regular flooding due to excess rainfall, but not on the global scale as described in the story. I have too many questions about the details to believe that it is literally true, though it may be an exaggerated account used (like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels) to make important points.
And, you may well ask, what are these important points?
Let’s focus on the first one of these this week. Others will follow as we continue the story to its conclusion, but they can be left undiscovered in the future.
Our passage today beings and ends with one man in view: Noah. He is brought into the spotlight using the same words as others in Genesis are introduced: “This is the account of Noah” (Genesis 6:9). See also Genesis 2:4 for the story of creation and Genesis 37:2 for the story of Jacob/Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat.
In one sense, that helps us resolve the genocide question; the focus of the story shouldn’t be on those who drowned, but rather on those who were saved. And, as the head of the household in those days, Noah takes the top billing.
We get a bit of a pen portrait of the man, highlighting his many virtues (we get an insight into his vices post-flood), but there is one over-riding quality that we need to focus our attention on, which is how our reading today finishes: “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22).
There is a key contrast that we are being told of here. The world has gone from being “very good” (Genesis 1:31) to a state that even your average student would think twice about before partying there. Everything that had been set in motion by God in his generous creative act had been subverted, perverted, and corrupted. Or at least that’s what the chronicler wanted their first audience to understand.
Holding Noah up as the epitome of God’s goodness just highlights the distance that the vast majority of creation had travelled from the Garden of Eden over such a short period of time. Nothing makes the darkness more intense than a single flame flickering in isolation, casting a paltry light before being absorbed into the shadows beyond its reach.
So, Noah is held up as the only good person and, even though we find out much later that he has a weakness for homebrew, sleeping in the altogether and casting familial curses (Genesis 9:20-27), our focus is on his obedience and willingness to listen to God.
We might well want to bear this in mind as we prepare to leave this scene for the week. There isn’t time (nor inclination) to go into the detail of the instructions that God gives to Noah; far more pertinent is the message that when God spoke, Noah listened, and then acted. Either those around him were too busy doing their wicked things to notice, or, like many retellings of the story have it, they scoffed and mocked him (though there’s nothing in the text to suggest this). But where they are all passive in the story, Noah is active: actively listening and following his God. In many ways, what the others thought of him as he hammered and sawed away isn’t relevant; it’s what he was doing that is.
But how much is that true of us?
How many of us are more concerned about how others think, feel or act when we make our decisions? How many of us are fearful of doing something for fear of how it might look to others? I’m not talking about destructive acts, or things that would cause deliberate and unhealthy division, but rather the sort of things that God asks of us.
You know the sort of thing: to follow him, to learn from him, to love him and to love our neighbours as well as ourselves. Things that, if they were allowed to happen, would see God’s transformation sweep the world.
Noah’s job, given to him by God, was to build an ark that would be the mode of salvation for him, his family, and an extensive, if limited, zoo.
Our job, given to us by God, is to be the carriers of the message of salvation, for ourselves, our families and those we call our neighbours. The story today begins and ends with Noah, but at its heart is God and his message of rescue. Our story is about us, but is God and his message of rescue at its heart? I think that should be enough of a challenge for this week…