Why has the story of a cataclysmic flood and its righteous survivors appeared in the mythology of myriad cultures over thousands of years? What is the story of Noah’s Ark – as it is known to most Western readers – trying to tell us about keeping our faith when the floodwaters seem overwhelming?
This is an excerpt of a sermon given by Sinai and Synapses Fellow Rev. Zack Jackson on February 18th at Community United Church of Christ in Reading, PA.Read Transcript
Our second reading today comes from the beginning of Genesis 9, verses 8 through 17, all the way back on page seven, the Old Testament portion of your pew Bibles.
This reading today picks us up at the end of a very familiar story. So you’re going to get the resolution without the conflict. Which is really what everyone wants, right. But we all know this story, even if you’ve never been in church before, chances are you know the story of Noah – Noah and the Ark. Because most of us have had kids, and you have seen every children’s Bible starts with Adam and Eve, you know, the two happy naked people, and then Noah and all of the animals, despite the fact that it’s not a PG story, but it’s a familiar one. And this is the resolution and – well, we’ll get into a bit more as to why that’s important later.
“Then God said to Noah, and to his sons who were with him: ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you, and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you – the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the Ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the Earth,’ God said. ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me, and you, and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations. I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. When I bring clouds over the Earth, and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me, and you, and every living creature of all flesh. And the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
‘When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘this is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on Earth.'”
Here ends our reading. May God add His blessing to be hearing of it.
How many folks out here have read the Epic of Gilgamesh? No, no one, in your – way back in your High School literature days? Well, Dave, you’re a history teacher, of course you’ve read it. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest piece of literature that we have in existence – that we – well, we have fragments of older literature, but this is the oldest one that we have the entire story of. It’s an epic poem written about 4,000 years ago in a place called Ur, which, if you know your Genesis, you might know that’s where Abraham was from, before God called him out. Now, Abraham wasn’t born yet when this story was written – that’s how old it is. Now in this epic poem, there’s a story about a man named Utnapishtim. Right, now Utnapishtim is an amazing name, and one of the many names that Nicole vetoed for our children (laughter). My argument was that by the time the kid has learned to spell their name, they’ve already learned their ABC’s. So, it would have been great. Alas.
So in this story, Utnapishtim is visited by the god Ea, who warned him that the other gods are planning to destroy the Earth with a great flood because of the evil that had become pervasive among the people. But Ea liked Utnapishtim, and he was a good upstanding man, and so he warned him ahead of time, and told him to tear down his house and use the timbers to build a boat large enough for himself, his wife, his kids, and his animals, that he might survive the flood and repopulate the earth with a more righteous seed.
Now, does that story sound a little familiar to you? I don’t know where I heard that before, but… how about this one, a thousand years before Gilgamesh? There is a fragment of a Samarian tablet that tells the story of Good King Ziusudra. Dave, I bet you haven’t read that one – yesss. I haven’t either. But – here’s the gist of it, because my Acadian is not very good. But the translation tells the story of this king Ziusudra was warned by the god Enki that the other gods were about to send a flood to punish the people for their sins. But Enki had pity on this one man, who he thought was a righteous man, and wanted him and his wife and his children and their animals to be the ones to repopulate the earth.
Or here’s one – you all know the story of Pandora in Greek mythology. A couple more nods – OK, Great. This is more in my wheelhouse. There’s a box, Pandora’s Box, as it were, and within that box is contained all of the evils that would now infect humanity, all of the violence and the greed and the pride and all of that, but it was held in a box, it was kept safe by a Titan. But his wife Pandora opened the box, and all everything went throughout and infected all of humanity, until humans became warlike and violent and just terrible, terrible people, and Zeus was so horrified by what had happened to these people that he decided to send a great flood that would wipe them all out, so that they could start over again with a new, better human.
But Prometheus – Prometheus loved humans, and especially he loved his son, King Deucalion. So he told his son to build a large ship, for him, his wife, and his sons, and their animals, that they might survive the deluge and repopulate the earth with a more righteous seed.
Or how about Yu the Great of China, or Manu of India, or Igorot of the Philippines, or the Irish, Welsh, Swedish, Hawaiian, Hopi, Eskimo or Korean flood stories? There are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of flood stories in the ancient world that almost follow this recipe to a T.
How does that make you feel, knowing that the story of Noah fits so comfortably within an ancient template? There’s a reason why this story has become a bit of a flash point between the religious fundamentalists and the atheist fundamentalists in the world, and why there is an enormous life-sized Ark museum that is built. Because this is a lot to to hold together.
Now, some people will say that, well, “this is just evidence of a global flood,” right, that “of course every society has a flood story because there was a global flood, and God saved a handful of people around the world, and that’s what these stories are from.”
But if that were the case, we would have found evidence of a global flood. And we’ve dug down pretty deep, and there is no evidence of a global flood. Well, OK. Well, what if, then, it was an early human civilization, back when humans were just kind of in Africa and in the Middle East and everything, and there was a great flood that wiped almost everyone out, and that story got passed down and got translated into all these other cultures? But even that – because humans were already in East Asia 150,000 years ago, and so that’s kind of a long time for a story to maintain all of those little details.
Or what about, you know – and I could spend this whole day standing up here and giving you all of the theories from people trying to harmonize this story of Noah with science, with history, with other stories, with other religions, with other this and that. And I could just stand up here until my face turns blue and go on and on and on with you, but I’m not going to. Because that is not what this story is about.
I’m not going to try to explain to you how all 8.5 million species of animals could fit on an ancient boat. No. I will not try to shoehorn an ancient text into our modern understanding of a history text or a science text. That’s not how this was written.
The ancient writers, friends, were less concerned with fact and more concerned with truth. It’s less about what happened and more about what happens. The flood story is one that is so compelling, and that stretches throughout so many civilizations, because it’s a story we understand, a cataclysm that makes sense to us – a persistent reminder of how dangerous it is to be alive on this beautiful blue marble.
All ancient cities and modern cities, with the exception of maybe Las Vegas, sprout up around large bodies of water, right? You have to. And so we know that the tides and the floods can be fickle, and just like that, you could see half of New Orleans gone, or Houston.
And these are modern cities with modern amenities. Imagine ancient cities. A tsunami could come, and everything is gone.
So yeah, we get floods. What a better image to describe that feeling of utter helplessness, of loss? And you know how a flood feels, right, even if you haven’t been in one. You know how it feels to have the wind and the rain threaten your very life. You know how it feels to barely keep your head above water. When you realize one morning that Columbine is now only the 12th worst mass shooting in recent history, and quickly falling down that list, as news of mass killings are becoming the new normal that barely get media coverage anymore – that’s what the flood feels like.
When you can’t keep your head above water, and every single time you think you’re finally about to get ahead, life comes along and smacks you down again – just when you finally finished that long period of painful rehab, you slip on some ice. That’s what the flood feels like.
You understand the flood, because you’ve been alive on this planet for a number of years. And the longer you’ve been alive on this planet, the more you understand the flood. You know what it feels like to ask yourself if God is punishing you for something that you did, or if God is testing your faith, or you’ve shaken your fist at the heavens and wondered whether or not God could even exist in a world like this. That is the flood, or at least Part 1 of the flood.
That’s Part 1 of every flood story. The waters come, as they always do, and they devastate us. Death, poverty, addiction, fire, illness, injury, abuse, divorce, injustice, the rains will always come, the floodwaters will always rise, and we are always left to weather the storm, holding our loved ones a little bit closer. That’s Part 1 of the flood.
But our story, our story in Genesis 9, does not end with Part 1. Our story has a Part 2. Because Noah isn’t consumed by the flood. The flood doesn’t destroy him. He and his family weather that storm for 40 uncertain white-knuckle days, until one morning, the sun comes out. And that’s the end of the story, right? Everything is good once the storm is over. No.
No, if you’ve read Chapter 7, you know that’s not how the story ends, because they kept floating and floating and floating – floating for almost a year, as the waters slowly receded, as normal slowly came back. They floated just helplessly on an endless, bleak sea as their rudderless boat just was at the mercy of whatever wind may or may not come.
How many times during those long months did Noah look up at the sky, and shake his blistered and sunburned fists, and ask God “why, why me? Why couldn’t you have just let me die with the people in my village, my extended family, my neighbors and friends and coworkers?” How many times do you think he felt that survivor’s guilt that many of us have felt? Or wondered if this is even better than what it would have been like to have wiped the whole everyone out? How many times did he ask – did he question God’s goodness?
And after a year of this, he sent out a raven to look for land, and the raven came back disappointed. Then he sent out a dove, and the dove came back disappointed. And this cycle happened a few times, and 378 days after the first raindrop fell, he finally landed on dry ground, and walked out onto what remained of the Earth.
Someone told me the other day that the loss of their father recently has both strengthened and weakened their faith. And at first, hearing that, it seems impossible, that on one hand your faith can be made stronger, but also rattled and made weaker. But thinking more about it, I get it. Holding that push and pull together is exactly what happens when the floods come.
And I was reminded of the horrible summer of 2012, when my favorite, most beloved, closest, dearest uncle succumbed to his hidden and secret battle with bipolar disease, and drank himself to death. Alone, depressed, miserable, when he was one of the most beloved people that I have ever known. Thousands and thousands of friends, people across the world, loved this man, but he felt alone, and he died alone.
And then three months later, my aunt that I was very close with, 47 years old, in the prime of her health, ran 10 miles one morning when on vacation with her family and had a massive heart attack one morning and just fell to the ground and never got up.
And I was in seminary at the time, and I was working on a particularly long and detailed project about, you know, the big things, heaven, hell, salvation, the eternal soul, and all of these it, grand philosophical and theological ideas, when all that just got shot to hell when the floods came.
The floods rocked my faith. They made me rethink everything. All of those carefully constructed beautiful edifices I found were just that. They were just window dressing, they didn’t mean anything to me. And in that process, I had to rediscover what it was that actually grounded me, what it was that actually was important, was actually true, and was actually good. And I discovered through that that God was actually bigger than I had given God credit for. God was always more merciful, always more beautiful, always more forgiving, than I could have imagined or described in whatever fancy words that they had taught me in seminary.
And at the end of Noah’s 40-day storm and his 378-day journey, God made a promise to him – a promise to the animals, and to every generation of people and animals, that should ever live on the earth. When I was reading this text – did you notice how many times they said the the phrase “all flesh that is on Earth”? Reread this passage. It’s several times in every passage, as if to drive home the fact that this promise, this covenant, is made not just for people in the story but for you reading this story, you hearing the story, for your children, and their children, and their yet unborn children. This promise is for everything that has ever drawn breath on this planet.
And that promise that God made to every living thing on this planet is that God will never again be the cause of the flood. God will never again flood the earth and destroy all things in order to punish your sins. Never again. And as a sign of that, God hung his bow in the clouds.
Now, did it seem odd to you in the reading that it didn’t say “rainbow in the clouds”? It just kept saying “bow,” because there is no Hebrew word for rainbow. It’s just “bow.” It’s the same word as a weapon of war. This isn’t God putting pretty colors in the sky. This is God taking his weapon, removing it from his arsenal, and putting it on display, unstrung and pointed away from Earth, a useless relic of a bygone era, a reminder that God is no longer in the disaster business.
Sure, disasters will still come. The floods will still rise. Fires will burn. People you love will die. That’s a part of being alive here. But God is not punishing you. And when these things do happen to you, and you feel that temptation to shake your fist at the clouds and say “Why are you doing this to me?” you will see that rainbow and get the answer. With God saying “I’m not. But I am still here.”
He has made an everlasting covenant to redeem and remake you, to take your broken pieces and to create a beautiful mosaic out of them, and unlike every other covenant in the Bible – and there’s quite a few – this is the only one that is a one-way covenant. This is not contingent on how well you keep up your end of the bargain. This is not God saying “I will not punish the whole world and destroy everything for your sins, as long as you don’t get out of hand.” This is entirely contingent upon God, because we cannot hold up our end of that bargain. This is God saying, “I will never give up on you.” This is God saying “I will not destroy you for your sins, but I will save you from their consequences.”
And the rest of Scripture is God working this out. And my favorite part of this promise, and this is something that I’m sure that the writer of Genesis had no idea [about], but maybe God did, and threw in this little nugget for people like me. The rainbow doesn’t really exist in any real sense of the word. Rainbows aren’t – it’s not a thing. It doesn’t have mass. It doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. Despite popular belief, there are no Lucky Charms at the end of a rainbow, because there is no end to a rainbow. It has no borders, it takes up no space. A rainbow exists entirely in your mind, and it is completely unique to every observer.
See, when the light from the sun hits water droplets in the air, it goes into the droplet and it bounces around a whole lot of times before coming out and spreading out the spectrum of light. Now, that happens every time there’s water droplets in the air, and we don’t think anything of it. But if you are so lucky to be standing with the sun at your back, and the water droplets ahead of you, and the angle between the three of you is between 40 and 42 degrees, you will see all of the colors of the visible spectrum spread out in the sky in front of you.
That means that if you’re on the ground and you see a magnificent rainbow, and there’s someone in an airplane directly above you, they will not see that same rainbow. It means that you can stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and see a rainbow that stretches from horizon to horizon, the most glorious image you have ever seen in your entire life, and someone can be standing on the other side of the Canyon looking at the same place and they won’t see it – because it only exists for you.
God’s promises are just like that, too. That rainbow promise, that promise to never give up on you, that promise that God is not punishing you for your sins, that God is not tempting you, testing you, that promise is for you specifically. It’s also for everyone. Because someone else might see a rainbow as well. It’s a different rainbow. It’s not your rainbow. Every rainbow is your rainbow. Every promise is your promise. God’s promise was for all living creatures, but it is just as much for you. And that promise, that rainbow up in the sky, that is your personal reminder – every time you see it this spring, this summer, this fall, any time you see a rainbow, I want you to remember God’s promise – remember that God is not punishing you. God is not testing you. God is not causing the flood in your life, but God will carry you through it. God will be the Ark that holds you above the waves, that keeps you steady for those 378 days upon them, will keep you afloat, and will help you to make sense of it all.
So this Lent, friends, as we look deeply within ourselves, oftentimes we look inside and we don’t see a whole lot of pretty stuff. There’s a reason why we don’t typically look too much inward. And the more we see our own brokenness, the more we might be tempted to look at the difficult things in our lives and blame ourselves for that, to say that God is punishing us for our sins, or testing our faith, or something like that. But friends, I want you to take this rainbow with you, take this promise with you, that God is not the cause of the flood anymore. God is the Ark that will carry you through it. So let us pray.