The Noah’s Ark cycle, beloved of Sunday School children and Hollywood alike, faces us with some profound theological dilemmas. The story actually begins in chapter 6, where God looks at the state of the world he made, and is so deeply disturbed by what he sees that he regrets having made it in the first place. There’s your first dilemma – how can the all-knowing God regret anything? Has it all taken him by surprise? Then comes his decision to act on his dismay by destroying everything he has made. Does it mean that God has lost control of his creation, and that the only way to stop the spiralling evil is total annihilation? Clearly not: there are two things here which can help us make sense of the story. First of all is God’s deep grief. In Gen 6:6 we’re told that God is deeply troubled, not that he was livid with anger. His actions may seem those of someone who is fuming at the injustice of it all, but the text paints a different picture. This is more about salvation than judgement. You get the same thing a few verses earlier in 6:3: God’s limiting of the stretch of human life is an act of mercy, otherwise we’d all be caught in an eternity of evil and strife, which is very different from the eternity of peace and harmony which was his intention for the human race. So here, God’s destruction of evil has behind it the intention of saving the human race from sin. The only problem is that sin doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it requires sinners. You can’t stop sin without stopping people doing it.
But then there is the motif of mercy. This is not an angry act of vengeance by a peeved despot. God looks around, and he spots Noah. He is different. He really is trying to live in righteous and godly ways. There is someone undeserving of punishment, someone who can provide a new start for the human race. So Noah is called to be the captain of the boat which will sail into the new world, and through whom humans can be saved.
One of the reasons, I believe, that this story is so difficult for us once you get beyond the Sunday School models of little animals, is that in so many ways it subverts our culture’s understanding of God, life, the universe and everything. We don’t like a God who destroys stuff, even if it isn’t in anger (which frankly isn’t that convincing – it looks like anger to us!) We don’t think that Noah could really be that much better than anyone else, and we don’t hold with his family being lumped together with him: surely it’s about our individual response to God? In so many ways this story is counter cultural, but if we can get beyond our outrage it can nevertheless speak to us.
It speaks about the seriousness of sin and evil to a tolerant age. It speaks about a compassionate God in an age where we don’t like him doing anything nasty. It tells us that God thinks ‘corporate’ when we instinctively think ‘individual’. It teaches us that while God may not be big on ‘animal rights’ (I’m not convinced that animals have any rights, lacking as they do any responsibility), he still cares enough about his creation to save those which have no use as food. And it speaks of a God who desires not the death of a sinner, and will look around for those who are righteous, but will not shrink from destroying those who seem bent on destroying others and themselves. All this is deeply unpopular to our way of thinking, but I believe it is what the text says. And next week, of course, we’ll get the happy ending.