I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

There’s nothing cute about Noah’s Ark.

It baffles me that this story is presented as if it’s meant to be fun, endearing children to church with pictures of floating zoos filled with exotic animals and songs about “elephants and kangaroosies…” It’s more than puzzling; it’s sickening, making children’s entertainment out of God’s most sadistic action: the drowning of the whole world.

As a child, I wasn’t amused. I was terrified.

What good can possibly come from this traumatizing story of God’s geocidal wrath?

It helps, first, to know that this is not history, but human interpretation. Then, it helps to ask, “What was happening to make people believe in such a destructive God,” and “What wisdom can be gleaned from this story even if it’s not historically accurate?”

… the failure to know how to stop violence except by violence, is truly our failure of imagination

Ancient cultures throughout the world had their flood stories. One of the most famous is the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the gods flood the world just to get some peace and quiet. Humans were too loud!

The story of Noah’s ark is already different in that it directly names rather than obscures the true problem: violence. Before Noah is even born, scripture shows how violence is multiplying across the world, like drops of rain accumulating into a raging thunderstorm. Cain murders Abel, then fears for his life, but God promises sevenfold vengeance if anyone should kill him. Later, Cain’s descendant La’mech boasts of killing a boy for striking him, saying, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly La’mech seventy-sevenfold.” Violence is escalating out of control, and even God doesn’t seem to know how to stop it except through more violence. By the time of the flood, the earth is already drowned in violence.

Ancient civilizations suffered world-upending violence, the kind that leveled one sense of order so another could begin. Ancient myths are not made-up tales but interpretations of reality, though they often obscure important truths. Whereas others may not have admitted their own culpability in the violent destruction, Noah’s story is clear. Human violence is an all-consuming flood.

God’s rain is almost beside the point, but it’s there. Maybe it’s because we assume that a God who witnesses our foolishness must necessarily be furious, rather than heartbroken or pitying. And when we make a mess, the most efficient thing to do sometimes is tear everything up and start over. But we can’t do that when we still love what we have broken. And God loves us even when we hurt each other. The story of Noah’s Ark underestimates God’s love.

But it also shows signs of a growing recognition of a loving God. Beyond taking steps to preserve the world through saving each kind of animal (at least those that didn’t already breathe underwater), God, in the end, repents of violence.

The Olive

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“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind,” God says, “for the human heart is evil from youth…” This can be read as a criticism, but also as a confession. What if God is acknowledging that part of the anger that leads to violence comes from the “curse” on the ground and the difficulty with which people struggle for sustenance and survival? Cain perceived that God approved of Abel’s gift but not his; maybe that’s because Cain was a tiller of the hard, unyielding ground and suspected that God had punished him (as, indeed, the hard, unyielding ground was interpreted as a punishment that passed through generations). Is God turning from past mistakes? Or, even if we believe God never made those mistakes, might we see a model of humility and confession making things better, bringing a fresh start after anger abates and the air clears once violence has wrought its destruction?

A few more takeaways:

  1. French philosopher René Girard posits that many proto-civilizations were lost to all-consuming violence as rivalries escalated out of control, but that ancient peoples stumbled across a solution to violence by converging on a scapegoat – a single person against whom they could converge and project their murderous rage – a human sacrifice. With the violence escalating out of control, Noah would have been the perfect scapegoat – running around warning of rain in the desert like a lunatic, with no one to believe him. Yet in this story, it’s the likely victim of sacrifice who instead is saved out of sacrifice. Furthermore, human sacrificial rituals were eventually displaced onto animals. It is telling that after the flood, humans are allowed to eat meat, whereas in Eden they were made to be vegetarians.

  1. God promises never again to unleash all-consuming destruction. Thus, all-consuming natural disasters should not be interpreted as God’s will. We should consider the role of human-made global warming in the destructive forces of nature and take seriously our call to be stewards of the earth.

  1. Perhaps most importantly, the failure of God’s imagination in this story, the failure to know how to stop violence except by violence, is truly our failure of imagination. We still fight fire with fire – guns, bombs, and now the threat of nuclear annihilation. Unlike God, we have not taken world annihilation off the table… but we must.

As scripture continues, we will see that God does reveal a way to bring peace out of violence without violence. It’s the way of forgiveness, which stops violence in its tracks and brings good even out of evil. And we’ll start to see it even in Genesis long before it’s perfectly revealed in Jesus, as we will soon see.

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