Part 2 of the series “Bible Stories for Grown-Ups” and a sermon in the Other Six Days series
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 4, 2009
Genesis 7:1-24; Matthew 24:36-39
Genesis 7:1-24 · Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind–every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.
The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
Matthew 24:36-39 · “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
So, we all know this story, right? An insult is uttered in the council of the gods. Enlil decides to destroy the people of Ishtar out of spite, sending a great flood upon the world. The god Ea, learning of this plan and seeking to foil Enlil, speaks to Utnapishtim in a dream and tells him to build an ark. Utnapishtim builds an ark and puts his family and all the provisions they’d need on it. They load the beasts and birds upon it and set sail as the flood waters rise. Eventually, Utnapishtim sends out some birds to see if the waters have receded.
Wait a minute. That’s the wrong story. That’s the Babylonian flood myth. Sorry.
The story we know begins with God telling Noah that the world is about to be destroyed by flood. Noah builds an ark and puts his family aboard. They load all the animals two-by-two onto the ark and ride out the flood which lasts forty days and forty nights. In the end, Noah sends out a raven and a dove, the dove eventually returning with a freshly plucked olive leaf.
That’s the story we remember from Sunday School. That’s the familiar version. We’ll stick with that flood story for the rest of the sermon.
II. WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
Now, of course, we all know what this story is about. The animals. It has to be, doesn’t it? All the songs are about the animals:
The Lord said to Noah, there’s going to be a floodie, floodie
The Lord said to Noah, there’s going to be a floodie, floodie,
Get those animals out of the muddie, muddie
Children of the Lord.
The Lord said to Noah to build him an arky, arky
The Lord said to Noah to build him an arky, arky
Build it out of gopher barky, barky
Children of the Lord.
The animals, they came in, they came in by twosies, twosies,
The animals, they came in, they came in by twosies, twosies,
Elephants and kangaroosies, roosies,
Children of the Lord.
And of course there’s the Unicorn Song –the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar with Miss Stuhmiller in the third grade–which explains the disappearance of the unicorn as the result of the fact that the unicorns were too busy frolicking to get on the ark.
And a search of children’s Christian toys will reveal a lot of Noah’s ark based toys. We have one such toy on the altar tonight. If you don’t believe me, you can go online to 2by2toys.com and see for yourself.
It’s a sweet little tale that is very popular among children. But as this sermon series is about looking at these stories with adult eyes and mining their great theological depth, it will not do to leave these stories in the Sunday school class.
Because when we look more closely at the story, we notice a few things we hadn’t noticed before. For example, a number of things that we thought we knew, but don’t turn out to be so.
A. The Numbers
1. The animals
For example, the number of animals loaded onto the ark. How many of each animal were loaded onto the ark?
Two of each, right? Two by two they go on. Wrong.
At the beginning of the chapter, Noah is told to load seven pairs of clean (i.e., Kosher) animals, and one pair of everything else. Andseven pairs of birds.
Yet, a few verses later, we are told that “Of clean animals and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps upon the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah.”
Later on the list is repeated, again pointing out that two and two of “all flesh” went into the ark.
So, which is it? Seven pairs? Or one pair?
2. The length of the Flood
We all know how long the flood lasts, right? Forty days and forty nights. Verse 17: “The flood continued for forty days on the earth.” And yet not a few verses later, we read that “the waters swelled upon the earth for one hundred and fifty days.” In chapter 8 we are told that the flood lasted a year and ten days (a lunar year–so that number actually may work out to one solar year).
These discrepancies in number of animals and time of the flood cause some confusion, until we look closely and realize that what we are reading is not one flood story, but two , woven intricately together. The Bible is full of this kind of thing and here we have two traditions about the flood: one from a folkloric source, and one from a priestly source. One that imagines Noah needed enough animals to sacrifice after the flood, the other that believes that before the giving of the Torah, there was no need for sacrifice. Thus: different numbers of animals to be taken on board. One source that saw the flood as forty days of rain. Forty is a number you encounter a lot in the Bible—forty days and forty nights, forty years in the wilderness, a forty year long reign for King David—forty is just Biblical shorthand for “enough already”. The other tradition saw it as a year long cataclysm.
B. The Rains
We know, or think we know, how the flood happens: it rained for forty days and forty nights. Just like this past May and June. In the text we read that “the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” See, the ancients believed that the world was flat. Covering it was a dome of sky and underneath were the great pillars of the earth. And surrounding it on all sides was water. One former student described it as the “snow globe” world. Exactly right. Now picture that snow globe in a tank of water. The flood is described not simply as rain, but as water welling up from underneath the earth as well. Water coming in from all sides.
C. The Ark
We all know, or think we know, what the ark was like. It was a boat. A big boat. Except when else have you heard the word “ark”? There’s an ark right behind me in the cabinets off the chancel. It’s where the Torah is kept. Now, in Hebrew, that’s a different word. But the word that is translated as “ark” in Genesis also means “a box shaped thing, a chest, a basket.” In fact, it’s the same word used to describe the basket that Moses is placed in in the reeds by the river. Noah does not build a boat. He builds a big old box.
D. The Mountains
We know, or we think we know, where the ark comes to rest. Mt. Ararat. Except there was no Mt. Ararat and what the bible actually says is that the ark came to rest “on the mountains of Ararat.” That is, in a mountain range in Urartu. The association with a particular mountain in Armenia, came much later.
III. THE CRITICS
Like the Garden of Eden story, the story of Noah’s ark is one that is often colored by sentimentality and childhood memories of children’s songs.
Perhaps because of that, it is perceived by many, believer and non-believer a like, as a simple tale. Perhaps, as a laughable tale. Critics of Christian faith like to seize on to this story to mock Christian belief. They point out that the story was probably borrowed from the Babylonians. They point out the lack of any geological evidence for a global flood catastrophe. They point out the impossibility of storing on an ark the size of the one described in the Bible two pairs (or seven pairs) of every animal in the world, including the insects and (one assumes either the saltwater or freshwater fish).
One satirist wrote a story about Noah’s ark in which he portrays Noah going below decks to check on the animals, complaining about all the food needed to feed these animals, and checking on the tiny little drawers where the viruses are kept as well.
The critics point out that every culture developed a flood myth when they encountered fossils or seashells on hillsides that they couldn’t explain because they didn’t understand plate tectonics.
And yet, both those who view this as a story about bad people and an angry God who saves a handful and all the animals, and those who view this story as a nonsensical myth believed by gullible Christians are missing the point of the true power of this story.
IV. BACK TO BABYLON
To truly understand we’ll need to go back to that Babylonian myth after all.
It is possible that in ancient Babylon, near the Persian Gulf, some kind of cataclysm took place. Geological upheaval could have created a tsunami type flood that would have destroyed that region. The same upheaval could also have accounted for rains. To the ancient Babylonians, who viewed water as synonymous with the forces of chaos, it would have been a traumatic event that lived on in the national memory.
But the Babylonians did not trust their gods. They viewed them as capricious and fickle. As likely to have caused untold human suffering through a flood because of a perceived insult in the council of gods. Indeed, the Gilgamesh epic speaks of Enlil as seeking to destroy the “children of Ishtar” (that’s us) for motivations that have nothing to do with sinfulness but have everything to do with pettiness. Ea warns Utnapishtim of the impending cataclysm and he builds a big old box to put himself, his workers, his family, and a bunch of animals into.
Now, in the Sixth Century BC, the Jews spent two generations in Exile in Babylon. And it was in this Babylonian Exile that the final form of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) came into shape. They would have known the Babylonian flood myth from that encounter, if they hadn’t known it before. They might have had their own flood traditions already.
But the Jewish scribes who put together the Hebrew scriptures did some very interesting things with this story.
The hero of the Babylonian myth is named Utnapishtim, a name that means “He Who Saw Life”, that is, who achieved immortality (his reward for surviving the flood). The hero of the Hebrew narrative is named Noah, a word meaning “rest” or “comfort”.
In the Babylonian myth, the cataclysm has no moral dimension, while in the Hebrew version, morality infuses the tale.
Whereas the Babylonian myth describes the destruction of the world as the result of the capriciousness of the gods, in the Hebrew version, the destruction of the world is the result of our own sinfulness. Indeed, chapter 6 of Genesis states:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thought of their hearts was only evil continually.”
A state of universal lawlessness and sinfulness upon the earth. So great that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth…”
So bad is the situation that “all flesh” is deemed to be corrupt–that’s not just us, that’s the animals too. Corrupted by our sinfulness and evil inclinations. Because of our sinfulness, the entirely of the world is threatened.
V. THE CREATION UNDONE
For, there is one more important thing to understand about this narrative. The priestly author who fashioned this story also fashioned the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. In that story we read of God creating the universe out of a watery chaos. A wind from God hovered over the face of the deep. God hammers out a dome–the firmament–the sky. God separates the waters from the waters–the waters over the earth from the waters under the earth. That vision of the snow globe I told you about before, is created in chapter 1 of Genesis, by a God who subdues the waters of chaos and creates the world in our midst.
And so we understand that the flood is not a meteorological event. It is not a geological event. It is a theological event. When the “great fountains of the deep” burst forth and the “windows” in the dome of sky open up, it is not talking about rain and spring water. It is talking about an undoing of the creation. As a result of injustice, violence, and lawlessness the Creation itself is undone.
Isn’t this story profoundly true ?
The brokenness we bring to the world affects the world. Do we not see evidence of this every day? Do we not see human suffering created by economic injustice, an injustice that often has environmental consequences to it? Does not climate change increase the temperature of the oceans, creating more violent hurricanes that afflict our coastal cities? How many species of medicine- and cure-giving plants are we destroying by clear-cutting the rainforests? Do we not put species into danger as the result of our greed, species upon which other species are dependent for survival? And we are dependent on those other species? Do not these things come back to haunt us?
Our brokenness can impact the Creation itself.
If you doubt whether our sin and our brokenness can really affect the Creation, consider this:
When the scientists were developing the atomic bomb, there was a debate as to whether the chain reaction that would be initiated would stop with the plutonium core or whether it would continue with every atom in the universe. That is, would the atomic bomb just blow itself up, or would it take the entire universe with it? They weren’t sure. And they blew it up anyway.
And over the ensuing decades, we built so many of those weapons that we could very well have destroyed all life on earth.
Our sin does not affect us alone. Our brokenness is not just a human problem. So much of our brokenness affects the entire Creation. Our greed. Our violence. Our hatred. Our injustice. Our disregard of our relationships with God and one another.
This is what the Noah story is about. This story is not a children’s story about bad people and a bunch of animals in a boat. This story is about the consequences of escalating sin in the world: in the garden we fail to trust God and we break relationship with God, one another, with ourselves and the creation. Cain and Abel represents an escalation in that brokenness: violence and murder. And in the Flood narrative, that brokenness and violence has reached a global scale, affecting everything. Indeed, the real moral of this story is this: when it comes to the consequences of human sin, we’re all in the same boat.
Today is World Communion Sunday, a Sunday when we Christians all around the world celebrate communion, and we remember our common bond with all Christians through our baptism. But what if we were to add a second dimension to this Sunday and celebrate our common communion with the creation, with all living things with which we have a common bond by virture of us all having the breath of life within us.
As I mentioned before, the story of the Flood has its origins in a number of prior existing sources. The books of the Old Testament themselves are often the results of multiple narratives sources being woven together. Biblical scholars refer to one of those sources as the Yahwist , because the author uses Yahweh as the name of God. In our English Bibles, wherever you see LORD written in all caps or small caps, that’s where the name Yahweh is in the text. In these stories when you see God referred to simply as “God” (Heb. Elohim) that’s another source: the Elohist.
And throughout Genesis, we have a number of stories from the Yahwist author. The story of the Garden of Eden which we talked about last week is one such story. Cain and Abel. The tower of Babel. Many of the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The Yahwist author is known for a folkloric touch in the narratives we find. But the Yahwist is also known for something else.
That author presents a series of stories that follow a common rhythm, a cycle: sin, consequences of that sin, and grace. We saw that with the Garden of Eden story last week: Adam and Eve sin, Adam must till the soil, Eve must suffer pangs in childbirth and be dominated by her husband, the snake must crawl on its belly. But in the end, God fashions clothing for the two of them, to soften the blow of the hard world they are about to enter.
In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain murders Abel and as a consequence, must wander the earth forever. But, God places a mark upon Cain so that he will be under divine protection, and no one will take vengeance upon him.
And here, in our narrative, we see the signs of this cycle repeated again: the world sins, the flood comes, but God preserves a remnant and makes covenant with the earth, by hanging his bow in the clouds, vowing never to destroy the world by flood again.
It is a reminder that we–even in the midst of the consequences of our own sinfulness, even in the midst of a world of our own undoing, we can find grace and hope.
After the flood waters rise for 150 days, we are told, “God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” That same wind that was at Creation. That same wind that formed the world and subdued the waters of chaos, blows again and forms a New Creation.
We have lived lives of brokenness, as individuals and as a people. We have not respected our relationships with God, with one another, with our fellow creatures, or with the Creation itself.
And yet, God can cause that wind to blow again. It is not too late for us. We can renew our relationships with God and one another, with our fellow creatures and with the world itself. We can be healed of all the brokenness that afflicts us. We can behold the rainbows in the sky and see them not merely as beautiful effects of the light, but as a sign of a covenant with God, a sign that in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of the suffering we cause and suffer ourselves, a New Creation breaks forth.
NIB, vol. I, p. 392.