Sunday, August 16, 2009

Noah's Ark - Genesis 6:9-24, 7:24, 8:14-19

These are the descendents of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, I have determined to make an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits (450 feet), its width fifty cubits (75 feet), and its height 30 cubits (45 feet). Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – so that they may about on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

This morning we find ourselves in the middle of some of our favorite stories out of the Old Testament. Today, I invite you to join me in looking at Noah’s Ark. We are prone to think of Noah’s Ark as a children’s story, and I’ll admit that most of my memories of stories like Noah’s Ark are from when I was back in Vacation Bible School happily coloring rainbows and smiling animals and the nice man with the long white beard.

I’d like you imagine this story taking place today. The Lord speaks to Noah and says: "In one year, I am going to make it rain and cover the whole Earth with water until all is destroyed. But I want you to save the righteous people and two of every kind of living thing on the Earth. Therefore, I am commanding you to build an Ark."

In a flash of lightning, God delivered the specifications for an Ark, and Noah agreed to build it.
"Remember," said the Lord, "You must complete the Ark and bring everything aboard in one year."

Exactly one year later, a fierce storm cloud formed and all the seas of the earth went into a tumult. The Lord saw Noah sitting in his front yard weeping. "Noah." He shouted, "Where is the Ark?"

"Lord, please forgive me!" cried Noah. "I did my best but there were big problems. First, I had to get a permit for construction and your plans weren’t up to code. I had to hire an engineering firm and redraw the plans.

Then I got into a fight with OSHA over a fire sprinkler system and floatation devices.

Then my neighbor objected, claiming I was violating zoning ordinances by building the Ark in my front yard, so I had to get a variance from the city planning commission.

I had problems getting enough wood, because there was a ban on cutting trees to protect the Spotted Owl. I finally convinced the U.S. Forest Service that I needed the wood to save the owls.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service won't let me catch any owls. So, no owls.

The carpenters formed a union and went out on strike. I had to negotiate a settlement with the National Labor Union. Now I have 16 carpenters on the Ark, but still no owls.

When I started rounding up the other animals, I got sued by an animal rights group for confining the animals.

Just when I got the suit dismissed, the EPA notified me that I could not complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on your proposed flood. They didn't take very kindly to the idea that they had no jurisdiction over the conduct of the Creator of the universe.

Then the Army Corps of Engineer demanded a map of the proposed new flood plain. I sent them a globe.

Right now, I am trying to resolve a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that I am practicing discrimination by not taking godless, unbelieving people aboard!

The IRS has seized all my assets, claiming that I'm about to flee the country to avoid paying taxes.

I got a notice from the State that I owe some user tax and failed to register the Ark as a 'recreational water craft.'

Finally the ACLU got the courts to issue an injunction against further construction of the Ark, saying that since God is flooding the earth, it is a religious event and therefore unconstitutional.

I really don't think I can finish the Ark for another 5 or 6 years!" Noah wailed.

The sky began to clear, the sun began to shine and the seas began to calm. A rainbow arched across the sky.

Noah looked up hopefully. "You mean you are not going to destroy the Earth, Lord?"

"No," said the Lord sadly. "It looks like humanity is doing that all on its own!" May we pray.

Like the charming tales in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, the stories in Genesis 3-11 originally tried to answer age-old questions such as: “Why is childbirth painful?” or “Why do people speak different languages?” In Genesis, however, these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin.

These stories are not intended to serve as either a historical record or scientific account of the beginnings of humanity. Rather, they are intended to tell us something about God and about who we are in relation to God. Over and over again, we find the story punctuated by sin, that is, by our distance and separation from God.

Right at the middle of this section of the book of origins, the book of beginnings – Genesis – we find the story of the great flood and a man who went by the name of Noah.

Let’s look at some of the background before we proceed any further. The legend of an epic flood is common to all ancient cultures. Anthropologists have identified 25 distinct flood accounts in the traditions of various cultures, and if we allow for all the variations upon those accounts, we end up with around 2500 identifiable flood stories from ancient cultures.

Take a look at the ark itself. God gives very specific instructions for its construction, including where to put the door and window. I’ll get to this window in a minute. If we convert the measurements for the ark into modern figures, it’s about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. If you take the square footage produced by those dimensions, and place those onto three decks, you end up with a vessel with 101,250 square feet. The ark is of colossal proportions – is it any wonder that it captured our imaginations as children?

For many people of faith, we grow up hearing the Noah story in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School and we sing songs about it. “The Lord told Noah, build me an arky, arky…” We learn the story as if it is just a cute little story about a boat and animals and a rainbow in the sky. We decorate nurseries and children’s classrooms with Noah’s Ark murals and put it on the front of children’s bibles. Smiling and happy Noah, surrounded by smiling and happy animals, merrily floating along under a bright and colorful rainbow. Whenever I drew this story in Sunday School, that’s how it always looked.

Then we get older and we re-read the story of Noah, and we’ll stop and think, “Wait! We teach this to children?” We are surprised by the utter destruction depicted, by God’s anger and wrath and God’s desire to destroy all life on the earth, images that clash with our childhood memories of sheep and cows getting on a nice boat built by the nice, long-bearded man.

Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative. Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it. In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place. Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.

We are fascinated by this depiction of God’s judgment. We sometimes act as if God is peeking at us over a cloud with a sack full of lightning bolts, just waiting for us to really screw up. How many times have you heard someone say something or watched them do something that you knew was wrong, and find yourself slowly sliding away from them? You half expect them to get zapped, and give them just a little bit of room in case God’s aim is slightly off or he failed to account for the wind or has developed a slice or something.

But, this story really isn’t about God’s judgment. Some have used this text to prop up their own agendas and to dole out their own versions of justice, oppressing anyone they perceive to be inferior. Christians have used this argument to validate anti-semitism, saying the Jews somehow missed the boat. Others have used it to validate racism using some half-baked cockamamie theory about one of Noah’s sons being darker than the others and also inferior. Modern-day Israel has used this argument to oppress Palestinians. Some strains of the Christian tradition have used this argument to delight in anything they perceive as God’s judgment upon the ungodly, infidels, and persons of moral inferiority. Others have used it to justify so-called “righteous violence,” the violence of genocide, oppression, and final solutions, perceiving themselves to be the righteous one? Have you ever noticed that, no matter how narrow God’s favored people are defined, the person doing the defining is always on the list? These actions, even if this story were about God’s judgment – which it’s not – somehow forget the detail of the story that God does the dirty work, not Noah.

However, nowhere on the sacred page of Scripture are the details of the disaster described. The text is not concerned with, nor does it delight in, the plight of the victims. There are no portholes on the ark, so that righteous Noah and his righteous family can watch all humanity suffer. There is only a window in the top, an opening toward God, that will let God’s light in. God is not depicted as having a good laugh while throwing down lightning bolts to smite the random evil-doers. Genesis 6:6 says that when God saw the wickedness of the earth, “it grieved him to his heart.” The reality of evil and God dealing with it is something that breaks God’s very heart. God appears as a grieving and pained parent, not as an angry executioner, not as a sadistic torturer, not as one who delights in pain. So, this story really isn’t about God’s judgment.

This story really isn’t about Noah and his family, either. Sometimes we read this story as if Noah were the winner of some TV elimination show like Survivor or Middle Eastern Idol or Who Wants to be Righteous Man? As if Noah stood up to some long battery of tests administered by the righteousness agency or won the supernatural lottery.

It’s hard to say why God chose Noah. We know he was a righteous man, a man of integrity in his generation; and we know he walked with God. But the text doesn’t claim that he was the only one who did. It never says that Noah was the last righteous man on earth, or that good behavior is the reason God chose him in the first place. It’s not because Noah was perfect. Only a few verses after Noah’s family comes out of the ark, that much is already clear – take a look at Genesis chapter 9 for this part of the story. After being cooped up on the ark for over a year and probably coming very close to losing his sanity – not to mention his breakfast – Noah, a man of the soil, planted a vineyard. Of course he drank some of the wine from that vineyard. Of course he drank a little too much – there was much to celebrate. And we find Noah, the character most likely to be featured on nursery wallpaper, passed out naked in the living room. No, he certainly wasn’t perfect.

What the text does tell us is that Noah walked with God. Let’s dwell there for a minute.

It may not surprise you to learn that this phrase, “walked with God,” means something much deeper and richer in the original language than our translations can capture. Walking with God suggests an intimacy, an interdependence, even. Early Christian theologians used similar terms when they tried to articulate the bond among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The terms they used suggested a dance.

Our translations might serve us better if they said, “Noah danced with God,” which is undeniable and empirical evidence that Noah was, at least statistically, more likely to be a Methodist than a Baptist.

In a dance, there is movement. There is give and take between partners. There is flow. There is intertwining to the point that it sometimes becomes difficult to view one partner apart from the other. Have you ever watched the beauty of two people dancing together who really know what they’re doing? Have you noticed how painfully awkward it is to watch two people dance of whom neither one has a clue what they’re doing?

But far more interesting, have you ever watched two people dance, one with great skill, and the other with great none whatsoever? When the weaker partner leads, it’s clumsy and awkward. But when the stronger partner leads, they can do so in such a way that the movement is beautiful and seamless, and you would never notice the shortcomings of the weaker dancer?

In our dance with God, God is clearly the strong partner and we are clearly the weak partner. We can try to lead God – dictating the sorts of things God should be up to and the sorts of things God ought to prioritize, whom to smite and whom to save – but I think our dance would look awkward at best and disastrous at worst. God is the leading partner. We need to surrender our own wills, stop trying to force God into our own little box, and be conformed to God’s will. We need to stop asking God to move with us, and be open to moving with God.

Noah moved with God. Life flowed between them. Noah dwelt in the full radiance of God’s presence.

It’s sort of like asking an unborn child if it has a relationship with its mother. Assuming the child is available for interview, understands English, and can respond back, the child might say, “Well, I guess you could say that I have a relationship with my mother. But, well, it’s so much deeper than that. I am dependent on her. I go everywhere with her. Whenever she moves, I move. My heartbeat happens because of her. Yes, we have a relationship, but I live inside of her. Do you get that?”

That’s what Noah had with God. It went beyond a relationship. It went beyond walking together. It was a situation in which Noah relied upon God for his very life. In turn, God chose to use Noah, knowing full well that Noah was not perfect, knowing that Noah was fragile, knowing that Noah was just as likely to fail as succeed.

And by that, we have stumbled onto the meaning of this story. The story isn’t about God’s wrath and judgment. It’s not about the animals. It’s not about Noah and his family. The story of Noah’s ark is about God and God’s commitment to the world. It’s a story about God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world.

God realizes that we humans are resistant to God’s will for creation, yet God continues to live with and work through such resistant creatures. God continues to work through a father who has too much to drink and passes out naked in the living room. God continues to work through a son who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and sees something he shouldn’t. God continues to work through two other sons who cover up the elephant in the room and never want to address it again.

God will continue to grieve the wrongdoing of his children, but through grace, will open up new avenues of interaction between the human and the divine. God proves trustworthy in this dance with humanity, and though we often forget the steps, or miss the rhythm, or fall on our faces, or leave the dance floor, God continues to invite us back. God remains committed to us, despite our sometimes glaring lack of commitment to God.

And so, despite all the things we’d like to make this story of Noah and the ark about, it’s about God – God’s commitment and God’s promises. It’s about God who provides salvation in the midst of chaos and who willingly enters into the uncertainty of a less-than-perfect world. It’s about God who does not abandon what God created and blessed and called “good” in the first place.

God is committed to the future of a less-than-perfect world with less-than-perfect people, in less-than-perfect circumstances, and leaves a sign to remind us of his covenant. God hangs the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises, even when we fail to keep ours, a reminder that God is committed to us even when we are not committed to God, a reminder that God continues to invite us to dance, a reminder that all people everywhere – people of every color, line, and hue – are created in the image of God and therefore valued, and we’re all invited to the dance.


  1. somehow forget the detail of the story that God does the dirty work, not Noah.
    Oh so important, and oh so easy to forget.

    There are no portholes on the ark, so that righteous Noah and his righteous family can watch all humanity suffer. There is only a window in the top, an opening toward God, that will let God’s light in.
    That is a brilliant insight. And, of course, convicting. :-P

    it’s about God – God’s commitment and God’s promises.
    What?! A story in the Bible about God? Amazing. ;-) But, yeah, why do we tend to miss that? Why do I focus on the strangeness of this story and miss the amazingness of it? And why can I so easily understand how other flood stories are about salvation and protection by their gods, and yet miss that in the Bible? (Seriously, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this... am I just Sunday-Schooled out?)

    Another insightful, funny, convicting, God-centered, excellent message. You're so creative and interesting in the way you write. Just as soon as I perfect my teleporter, I'm joining your congregation!

  2. Why do we miss things? I think a lot of it has to do with our inability to read Scripture allegorically. We can read other literature and mine it for its symbolism, depth, and meaning, but when it comes to the Bible, we think we have to read it woodenly, as some sort of sterile history or science text. It's literature much like any other, and we can read it with the multi-layered meaning we read other literature with.

    One of the greatest disservices we do to the Bible is to read it against standards it was never intended to stand up to. When "truth" lies only in the realm of provable factuality, we are abusing the Bible. The Bible is true not because of its historical accuracy; it is true because of what it tells us about God, and what it tells us about our interaction with God.

  3. Astute observation. I was definitely raised in a Ken Ham home, and it definitely has taken away a lot of the beauty and wonder of the Old Testament.

    Maybe that's why I like reading versions such as The Word on the Street - because it gives me a chance to think freshly about these stories I've glanced over since they were cute coloring pages in Sunday school.

    Maybe it would help for me to spend some time reading the god-stories of other religions and countries. Then when I come back to the Bible (particularly the Old Testament), maybe I'll be able to read it more realistically.

    Any other suggestions?