The Noah's Ark story is quite a significant story in my personal journey of faith. You know how in movies or books you have the real character and then you have the evil doppelganger and the characters in the story are left to figure out who is who? Usually the cunning look-a-like will eventually do or say something so out of character, it will become clear who is real and who is fake. I don't know exactly when it dawned on me, but at some point I read this flood story and realized I wasn't seeing God in this narrative, but rather God's evil doppelganger. I don't have many bedrock, unshakeable truths left at this point, but one that has survived is the belief that God is the ultimate force of love. You hold that definition of God up to this flood story and it becomes clear this deity isn't God, but rather some poorly conjured human replica. I am astounded the most popular nursery decor seems to be Noah's Ark themed, based on the one story in the Bible where "God" murders all the babies and children in the world.
So I put this Bible story down in the myth category. Actually, there is a whole genre of legend simply called, "flood myths." In all these stories, a great flood is sent by some sort of god to destroy humanity as an act of retribution.
For example, included in the ancient Hindu opus, the "Epic of Gilgamesh," we find this flood myth. Quoting now from wikipedia, "[The character], Utnapishtim, explains that the gods decided to send a great flood. To save Utnapishtim, the god Ea told him to build a boat. He gave him precise dimensions and it was sealed with pitch and bitumen. His entire family went aboard, together with his craftsmen and 'all the animals of the field'. A violent storm then arose which caused the terrified gods to retreat to the heavens. Ishtar lamented the wholesale destruction of humanity and the other gods wept beside her. The storm lasted six days and nights, after which 'all the human beings turned to clay'. Utnapishtim wept when he saw the destruction. His boat lodged on a mountain and he released a dove, a swallow and a raven. When the raven failed to return, he opened the ark and freed its inhabitants. Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice to the gods who smelled the sweet savor and gathered around. Ishtar vowed that just as she would never forget the brilliant necklace that hung around her neck, she would remember this time."
There are different theories as to why so many of the ancient cultures had flood myths. Some speculate these stories were attempts made to explain the presence of sea shells and fish fossils on local mountains. Others believe there must have been some sort of catastrophic flood event that gave birth to such a universal myth. I have my own theory which I'll come back to.
Here's the scary thing though, once you decide one story in the Bible is a myth, it opens a door and you begin to get a little more suspicious about literal Biblical interpretation in general. When I entered seminary, I believed the creation stories in Genesis to be literally true and I accepted creation science without question. By the time I left seminary, I viewed the creation stories as myth, albeit myth steeped in rich truth.
For awhile I worked to try and reconcile the striking differences between the Hebrew God of the Old Testament and God as made manifest in the person of Jesus. I even toyed with the idea that maybe the Old Testament version of God was an adolescent form who finally came of age in the New Testament. But in the end, the idea of a changing God just didn't ring true. Because I believe God is love, then the God that is revealed in Jesus, a person who said to love your enemies and do no harm to those who would hurt you, seems to be a more accurate portrayal of God than the capricious and vengeful deity so often portrayed in the pages of the Old Testament. Today I believe the Old Testament to be a vast array of different cultures' attempts to try and pin down God, though inevitably God seems to come off more as an inflated projection of each Hebrew culture in time - a divine Super Hebrew Man, if you will. With that said, I still revere the Old Testament because it's stories are marbled with truth.
Last week I wrote about using fantasy as a gateway to better understand God (see Worshipping a God who lives larger than our imaginations). The Elisha/Elijah story and the Transfiguration were my jumping off points. So do I believe these stories to be literally true? Probably not. The Bible is full of supernatural stories. I believe story...fiction, can capture mystery better than fact. In story, you aren't trying quite so hard to pin truth down, rather you're playing with it and teasing it out. Biblical literalism is a fairly new development in human history. Certainly the Biblical characters we hold so dear recognized all the stories and myths in the Bible as such and valued them for their unique and rich contributions.
Let me be clear. I love the Bible. I treasure it. It is an anchor and guide for my life. But more and more as I approach Biblical interpretation, I try and use the written words to help guide me down to the more elusive truth that resides in the place beyond words.
So back to the Noah's Ark story. Honestly, this story doesn't really teach us much about God, but it does have a lot to say about people. I think it reveals that in many ways, we haven't changed a whole lot. The movie, "2012", from a few years ago is based in part on the Noah's Ark story and is the most recent flood myth put out there for us to engage with. I think people have always been preoccupied with their own destruction. A commonly held ancient worldview believed that before creation, primeval waters covered the world representing chaos and darkness. So just as presently we often use the scepter of nuclear holocaust to portray humanity's end, it's not surprising that in an earlier time a worldwide flood was the image most terrifying as people contemplated the possibility of their destruction. And just as in our most cataclysmic movies, the hero always survives against all odds, so too do Noah and his family survive.
Life is full of moments, both large and small, beyond our ability to control. Insects or drought destroy crops. A person texting on their cell phone runs a red light and crashes into our vehicle. People die prematurely of cancer. Over the course of human history we have wrestled with the apparent randomness of catastrophe and with the meaningless suffering it produces. In an attempt to wring some sort of purpose from these events, we try in all manner of ways to tug God into the middle of it all so that we might, through God, begin to wrest at least the illusion of control from the stuff of life.
So, an apocalyptic flood either threatens to or actually does wreak havoc in our corner of the world. If we belong to an ancient culture with an equally ancient worldview, how do we make sense of this? How do we regain a sense of meaning and thus, control? Well, when we compose our narrative, we say the survivors were the good guys. We say God was in charge all along. We say God is also sorry for God's actions and promises never to do it again. Then we walk away from the nightmare, with our false security won, hopeful we have bound God's hands....with catastrophic flooding anyway!
This Noah's Ark story is most often lifted out as a still relevant example because of this covenant God makes with humanity. This is problematic as well. Many people are uncomfortable with inclusive language, though if you press them, they will usually acknowledge they don't actually think God has a gender. I take things further. I no longer image God as a personal being. And this can be tough because it's easier to relate to God if we assign God human attributes. We feel closer to someone when we have more in common. But for some time I have felt God to be more of a force or an essence, something that goes way beyond words' ability to reach. Jesus, then, is the human form in which God's essence was most fully revealed. Jesus is the personal part of the equation for me.
Of course, this is just me. Everyone experiences God differently and I think that's beautiful. I mentioned one of my core beliefs earlier, that God is a pure force of love in our universe. Another of my core beliefs is that God and who God is, always has been and always will be. This belief brings me into conflict with the idea of covenant. Covenant implies a fresh start for the parties making the agreement. Because I believe God's nature to be unchanging, I can't conceive of God ever needing a fresh start. The idea of covenant is also a very human concept, another handle we use to get a grasp on God. But I'm not sure how you make a covenant with essence. And forgive me, essence is a totally inadequate word, but I can't find an adequate one!
Humans are a different story. We require fresh starts. We got the kids a little hand-held game for our trips last month. It's called, Bop-It. Basically, this little machine instructs you to pull, twist, speak or bop in a random sequence. If you hesitate just a bit, you lose. In order to beat the machine, you must enter into a period of intense concentration, blocking out all distractions to focus exclusively on this little machine's commands. We've all figured out how to do this, but after you've won, it is exceptionally difficult to turn around and win again, right after. In fact, usually the more you play, the worse you do. You need a break to regroup and gather up your powers of concentration again. You need a fresh start.
We humans are a highly distractible species. We can't hold our focus for too long before we're off chasing down tangent tracks. Even our conversations meander in interesting ways. At a family supper last week, we all shook our heads a little when we realized in the course of minutes our meal time conversation had taken us from New Orleans to 3rd graders picking their noses. In the course of conversation, the rabbit trails are kind of fun. But in life, all too often we get sidetracked by the trivial. We expend enourmous energy on the mundane. We take our eyes off the ball and forget our real life priorities. As I continue to talk with people about what they need from church, this seems to be a quiet but consistent refrain. We need church to ground us on a weekly basis in what is truly important.
We have just entered the season of Lent. Lent is our annual invitation to take things a step further. This is a season all about intentionally setting time aside to reorient, refocus, re-evaluate. It's a fresh start. It's kind of a one-sided covenant we make with God to reprioritize our life around God's love and purpose - with faith that this divine love and purpose dwells within us always.
One of the Ash Wednesday texts is Psalm 51 and embedded in this deeply moving psalm are a few verses which seem to encapsulate the spirit of Lent. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit."
This is a season of refection. As I approach Lent this year, I frame it as a time to refocus my energies, a time to covenant with myself to make good on this fresh start and engage with our unchanging and ever present God of love and life. What does Lent mean to you?