Growing up, I remember playing with toy arks. There was a Little People one at Sunday School. Friends had a lovely wooden one and I particularly enjoyed lining the animals up as they made their way into the ark. I had a book of illustrated Old Testament stories the I received one Easter from my grandparents when I was in first grade, and Noah’s story was the least frightening (Adam and Eve freaked me out and Abraham…let’s not jump into how confusing that story was for a six year old learning to read). Time and time again, Noah’s story has been pushed on us as this sort of sugar coated tale of some guy hanging out in a floating zoo.
What a load of bull.
I realize how horribly irreverent this sounds, but as I am making my way back through Genesis (it’s been about ten years), working hard to keep my heart and mind open as I retrace stories that I have read before, but interpreted with an eye determined to find fault (and it’s not difficult to do in some places), I am consistently confronted with the thought of how horrifically dark the story of Noah is.
Of course, comparatively, he’s pretty much on par with his neighbors. Again, Adam and Eve’s story is a pretty sad one; they had everything and it was tossed away over a bite for fruit. Plus, one of their kids murders their other kid. That sucks.
Lot and Abraham also have some dark tales to tell, what with the incest and being asked to sacrifice your child. But no toy store is going to sell sets of Abraham and Isaac, complete with rope with which to tie up Isaac and the knife to slit his throat (sold separately: sacrificial ram).
Those of us who don’t have much church or Bible exposure have been lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to the story of Noah, so when it comes to reading those chapters in Genesis, I’m finding myself extremely uncomfortable.
My first thought: How incredibly depressing is all this for Noah. He’s being asked to save all these animals from drowning, and his family, because everyone else he’s ever known is going to die in a flood. Your childhood friends? Dead. The guy you bought your last sheep from. Drowned. That lady you helped haul water from the well with last week? Gone. How messed up would it have been to board the ark with the full realization that you and your family were going to be all that was left once the rain started?
My second thought: What on earth (or in heaven) is a Nephilim? A (very quick) search led me to find out that there really doesn’t seem to be a conclusive definition of this word. They’re something like angels or giants or the children of men and angels…or something (I was so confused), and they’ve appeared in pop culture and literature multiple times (Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle, anyone?). This appearance of strange, magic-like creatures in the middle of my Noah story threw me for a loop and sent my line of thoughts down a bizarre rabbit hole that I won’t get into here (mostly because it won’t make sense to anyone, including me). But yes, this is a thought I’m left with and hope to some day find at least a little bit more clarity on. What are Nephilim?
My third thought (and probably least original): Why? Why are we choosing to do this, God? Why get rid of everyone like this? Was there nothing redeemable about Noah’s childhood friends, sheep guy, or the lady he helped (all hypotheticals, of course)? Why this bout of anger then, but such extreme grace and love later, when Jesus is sent to us? Just…why?
So, I asked these questions (and some others) and sat with my Bible for a bit and considered what I had read. My first thought was: How much physical, historical truth is there to this story? My guess? Very little. Humans love stories. We’ve been telling them for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, and their primary use has always been to relay a message. Now, whatever the deeper message is behind Noah’s story, I doubt it’s as gripping as a tale of a guy who’s facing apocalypse with a crap ton of animals on a boat. How many more listeners are you going to get if you tell a compelling story over simply (and dryly) saying your point? My guess (and this is what I’ve been telling my writing students) is a lot more.
But what is the point? I’m not an expert, theologian, or someone who has much experience thinking about this stuff, but I have some thoughts, and for the sake of keeping track of what I think, I’m putting them here.
This feels like rebirth to me. Cleansing. Baptism. I know that the concept of baptism doesn’t come until later, and I’m unsure of what cleansing looked like ritually in the time when this story was first being told, but I do know, across cultures and belief systems and time, water means becoming clean.
What’s more, God says to Noah, once the earth has been cleansed, to, “Come out of the ark” (Genesis 8:16). Etymologically (according to this site, anyway), ark can mean a literal boat, a chest or box, or “a place of refuge.” In image after image after image of Noah and his family and the animals leaving the ark, you see them coming from this small, dark doorway. They are emerging from their “place of refuge”, a place that seems impossibly small for all that lived inside it. This feels so much like birth.
I feel like the story of Noah is our earliest precursor to the idea that looking to God can bring us a new life. If we trust him completely, listen to what he speaks to our hearts, and go forth, we will be reborn, cleansed, able our greatest selves.