Part 2 of the Noah cycle sees the ark and its cargo coming in safely to land as the water recedes and dry land is once more revealed. This part of the tale again contains some important theological themes, a historical question, and even a bit of irony.
The word ‘remembered’ in 8:1 translates an important Hebrew word zacar. It is used several times in the OT, most notably in Ex 2:24 where God sees the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and ‘remembers’ his covenant with Abraham. On a first reading it looks there, as here, that God ‘remembers’ because he has ‘forgotten’ – ‘Oh my goodness – those poor Israelites! I was meant to do something about them but I’ve just been so busy lately …’ In fact the word has a different meaning: it means something like to recall to the front of one’s mind because action is required now. This is very different from having passed out of God’s sphere of consciousness: it means that their concerns are next on his agenda. It’s easy to feel when we’re already feeling down and abandoned that even God has given up on us. This story reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that he doesn’t always work to our timetables or schedules. But then we already knew that, didn’t we? And salvation, when it does come, often comes gradually. It was one thing to have landed safely, but to stay locked in the ark until the waters have receded enough for them to return to normality must have been an agonisingly slow and frustrating process. God has ‘remembered’ our need of salvation; Jesus died on the cross to win it, but we are still locked into a life where we’re not yet truly free. Sometimes that feels incredibly frustrating.
Talking of timing, I note with interest the sheer number of time references in this passage, which raise the question of its historicity or otherwise. Liberal theology would write this story off as a primaeval myth, and people might well point to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells a similar story from the background of a different religion and culture, and with its hero much less pronouncably called ‘Utnapishtim’. Others would suggest that there was indeed a significant flood in the Middle East at that period of history, as archaeological evidence confirms, but that different cultures told its story in different ways. And all would agree that the real point of this story is to highlight human depravity and God’s righteousness and saving mercy. So why are there so many chronological references? Most fairy stories are set simply ‘Once upon a time …’ with a notably vague setting in history. But here we have a series of timescales between the events of the story which make it feel almost historical. I’ll leave you to decide that one.
Finally, as one who is not known for being an animal-lover, I like the irony in v20 (strictly speaking in next week’s instalment) of the poor creatures who, just as they were breathing a huge sigh of relief at having survived a watery death, find themselves burning to death on an altar. Sometimes life just sucks.