“Origin Stories: Flood”
February 13, 2022
When I was young, like most kids who grew up attending Sunday school every week, the story of Noah’s ark was one of my favorite stories. I mean the way this story was taught to us as kids, what wasn’t there to like about it? There’s a huge flood that needs to be escaped, Noah and his family build a big boat and then they fill it with all the cutest animals on the planet to go for a little float, before eventually the waters recede and God gives us a rainbow to remind us that we never have to worry about another flood like that again. At least, that’s the G-rated, Sunday school-approved version of the story we got.
If you go into just about any Sunday school or children’s ministry classroom in America, I can almost guarantee you will find some sort of Noah’s ark-related paraphernalia. You might notice that our suggestion box in the fireside room is a wooden ark with cute wooden animals sticking their heads up. Part of why we love telling this story to kids is because of all the cute animals!
It’s funny, because if you only ever learned this story in Sunday school as a 2nd grader and didn’t hear this story again until you read it as an adult in your 30s, it might feel a bit like someone who thinks they’re walking into a movie of Winnie the Pooh only to find out they’ve walked into the wrong theater and are stuck watching Scream or some other horror movie.
Because the story of Noah’s ark, when read in its full context and without the cute animals to distract you, is kind of an uncomfortable and appalling story to read. It’s not like I remember it as a kid.
It reads something like this in its full context: God regrets creating humans, because they’re so violent and horrible, and so God decides to genocide the whole planet, victims and oppressors altogether, except for Noah and his family and all the notable animals. But don’t worry, because by the end of the story, as the flood waters recede and the millions of dead bodies stop floating past the ark, God promises that he will never destroy us via flood again—that sure makes you feel better, huh? Did you notice that God makes no promises about not destroying us via other means?
I don’t know about you, but this story makes me deeply uncomfortable. Much like last week’s story about Abraham and Isaac, at first glance this story doesn’t seem to reflect the God I’ve come to know, nor the God who is revealed in Jesus. I mean, last I checked, Jesus says “love your enemies”, not “destroy your enemies with a giant flood”—I don’t know, maybe I’m just reading the wrong translation. So what in the world is going on here? How do we make sense of this story and fit it into the rest of the biblical narrative?
And there’s more at stake in making sense of this story than we may first realize. Because this story is unfortunately still used by many well-meaning Christians to explain away natural disasters and suffering, because “obviously it’s God’s means of punishing humanity for our disobedience”. God destroyed humans via natural disaster once, so it stands to reason God could do it again.
Also at stake is our own view and relationship with God. Because with this traditional reading of the story, God comes off seeming like an abusive partner who we need to live in constant fear of, lest he retaliate against us if we step out of line or screw up. This view of God can’t be helpful for our relationship with God, or own psyche and emotional health. Living with that kind of fear and anxiety only leads to shame and hurt.
So what is going on in this story, then? Is it really as horrible as it first seems?
Well, as should be our knee-jerk reaction for all biblical stories that seem a little off or weird, we need to look at their original context. While this story probably wasn’t written down until around the 6th century BCE or so, it is certainly a story that was passed down orally for centuries before that and maybe even millennia. In other words, it is a very very old story.
And what we know now from ancient manuscripts and hieroglyphs and other records, is that people in the ancient world told stories about floods. The Sumerians told flood stories, the Africans told flood stories, the Babylonians told flood stories. Stories about the incredibly destructive power of water to destroy cities, villages and civilizations lived in the imaginations and oral traditions of people all across the ancient world. And there were even stories about people building boats to survive these floods.
Archaeologists and geologists now believe there is good evidence that there was a massive and catastrophic flood around 2900 BCE in the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia, where it is believed that humanity originated from. And given the abundant amount of flood stories told among ancient cultures, it stands to reason that there was some sort of catastrophic flood event that left a collective and traumatic mark on the human psyche.
Imagine with me that you’re living thousands of years ago, with no pictures of earth from outer space, no Google maps, no weather reports, and imagine you’ve never been more than a few miles from home, and all of the sudden there’s a flash flood – a sudden, massive, undulating, swirling, terrifying flood that wipes out your home, your crops, your village, your family members. Imagine what that would do to your psyche.
“You would do what we do whenever we suffer—you’d look for causes” (Rob Bell). And in the ancient world, remember we talked about this last week, it was generally agreed upon that these unseen and uncontrollable forces of nature and weather were caused by the gods who were unhappy with humans. And so if a huge flood comes through, wiping out most of your life, you would assume that the gods were angry.
In one particular Babylonian flood story that circulated at the time, it was a gang of gods who unleashed a catastrophic flood as a personal vendetta against humanity because humans were too noisy and kept the gods up at night…so this story goes.
And it’s important to know, that for ancient people in oral cultures, “a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation. Less helpful stories would be forgotten like a failed theory, or adjusted and revised until they became helpful…
For ancient people, storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking the truth, a way of grappling with profound questions [like why do natural disasters happen, or why do our crops grow well some years, but not others]. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed—just as our [scientific] theories change [over time and with more knowledge]” (Brian McLaren).
And this version of a flood story we find in our Bibles is an intentional adaptation on the other flood stories at the time…it’s a new hypothesis, if you will. Because ancient Jewish storytellers found the predominant flood stories of their time to be repulsive…so they adapted them and told their own version that reflected their understanding of God and the world. And they made some notable changes. In their telling of the story, that we find in our Bibles, the flood narrative is used “to reveal more of God’s true character, replacing many vindictive gods who were irritable from lack of sleep with one Creator who unleashes a flood to flush out human violence” (McLaren). Notice that in this version, God isn’t capricious, but loathes the injustice and violence God sees.
The end of this story also diverts sharply from the typical flood stories of the time. It ends with God insisting that this is never going to happen again. God brings a rainbow and makes a covenant promise with Noah. This was not how the other flood stories ended. In the other stories, the gods are angry, everybody dies and the gods are satisfied. End of story.
But this God, the God of the Jewish people, is shown to be different. This God seems to regret the destructive nature of the flood, and this God commits to living with people in a new way, a way in which life is preserved and respected. Just like we saw in last week’s story dealing with issues of child sacrifice, this particular telling of the flood story is written in such a way to move its readers along a trajectory, away from an old view of the irritable and angry and violent gods to a new and more beautiful view of God.
Now, it’s certainly not a perfect view of God. After all, we still have the issue of God being portrayed as violent and his violence doesn’t seem to solve anything, because the same things start happening again the very next chapter; but God is shown in the story to realize this as well. “So yes, it’s a primitive story. Of course, it is. It’s a really, really old story. It reflects how people saw the world and explained what was happening around them.” (Rob Bell). But this story was also a “mind-blowing new conception for its time of a better, kinder, more peaceful God whose greatest intention for humanity is not violence but peace and love and relationship” (Rob Bell).
This version of the flood story that we find in our Bibles is a step in the right direction…it’s progress. And it’s still only the beginning of the story…this is still only chapter 6 of the Bible, and we need to remember that this whole biblical story has a trajectory that is taking us somewhere. And the trajectory seems to be heading away from violence towards love for our enemies, it seems to be heading away from a God who is characterized best by his anger to a God who is described as love, it seems to be a story that is drawing us to over and over again, reconsider our conceptions of God and each other, to see if our views lead to death, exclusion and violence, or to life, healing and wholeness.
Overall, we might characterize the whole story of the Bible as one long story about a God who isn’t satisfied with the status quo, but who is bent on moving us towards something new, something better, something more beautiful. It’s a story about a God who is at work in human history to heal what is broken.
And that’s what this story of Noah is an attempt to do….to take an old story, an old view of God, something that was broken, and to make it more beautiful. The Jewish storytellers who told this version of an ancient flood were courageous in their insistence that God is different than we thought, that violence isn’t God’s M.O., and God wants to be relational with us. This God isn’t like the gods of the other stories.
This was an incredibly courageous and revolutionary claim at a time when most people knew the gods didn’t care for humanity, let alone want to be in relationship with them. The early Jewish storytellers took an old story that was broken and wasn’t working for them anymore and that didn’t seem to match up with the God they knew, and they put the pieces back together to tell a more beautiful, and more compelling, a more true story.
And that’s really what life is about, right? It’s a process of things breaking, of things not working, and trying to figure out what to do with the pieces.
Things break. We break. Our relationships break. Our hopes and dreams break. Political structures and economic policies break. Our ideas about God break. And the question that is woven into the fabric of the human spirit is, “What do we do when things break?”
Do we shove the broken pieces under the rug and pretend they never happened? Do we just carry on with the status quo and keep telling the same stories and believing the same things, even though we know it is only doing harm? Do we try to fit the pieces back together into the same picture, just trying to force it, to make it work, like shoving a square peg through a round hole?
Things break…and we need to decide, is this old way of doing things really working…is this old way of viewing my enemies working? Is this old way of handling my money really working? Is this old way of talking about politics, this old way of viewing my self-worth, this old way of interacting with my family, this old way of thinking about my body really working out well for me; is this really working out well for our society? Is it leading to life, to healing, to wholeness? Do we just try to float along with the status quo and ignore the brokenness we all feel and see but would rather not deal with?
Or, like the ancient Jewish storytellers, are we courageous enough to begin to pick up the broken shards and inspect them, piecing together something new, something more beautiful? The whole Christian faith rests on the belief that it is only through the process of dying, of breaking, of falling, that we can experience new life…it is only from the ashes that something more beautiful can be born.
Life, as we experience on a daily basis, is a process of things breaking and figuring out what to do with the shattered fragments. The Bible tells a story about a God who is at work in history and in our lives to heal what is broken.
Stories like Noah’s ark take us on a trajectory towards the incredible and revolutionary claim that the God of the universe is in love with you.
And this God who loves you is reaching into the broken shards of your world, your life, and your old stories about God and each other, and this God is hard at work allowing Her hands to be cut on the broken shards with us, in order to piece together a beautiful mosaic that reflects the life, the love and the healing that God intends for our world. Are we courageous enough to join God in picking up the pieces? Amen.