I led a discussion about Noah last night. I hadn’t planned to. My vicar was supposed to be doing it. Then he phoned an hour before people were due to arrive at my house. He wasn’t well – could we manage without him? Of course! He needed to rest. Not a problem. More than happy to lead it. And I was.
Only, when I sat down to think about it, I didn’t think I had much to say about Noah. And I wasn’t sure how to help others find something to say about it either. It’s a story everyone knows. Could there really be anything new to say about it? So I read it. And all I could come up with was –
“There’s not much of a journey in here – they just sort of float around a lot, don’t they?”
But somehow, through the conversation and the different perspectives that each person brought, by the end of the evening, I had found a new way of seeing the story.
It’s always been a tricky one, Noah. Here’s a story of God obliterating all life from the earth, apart from Noah, his family, the animals and birds on the boat, and the sea creatures. Every other living thing is destroyed. Why? Because it’s not good enough. The wickedness of creation is so extreme that God is sorry he ever made it. But a God with regrets means a God who got it wrong… And how does that work?
It’s so easy to read this story with the traditional Sunday School spin – gloss over the harshly judgemental God who destroys everything, concentrate on Noah who is saved because he is good. If only we could all be good like Noah…
We didn’t find an interpretation of the story that made us feel at peace with God’s actions. But we did find a way of understanding it as a story containing a glimmer of hope, echoes of the God and his relationship with the world that become so much clearer in Jesus.
Because even here, in the midst of such wrath and judgement, God doesn’t destroy creation entirely. He doesn’t wipe it out. He offers the chance for redemption, a fresh start.
This is a story that comes relatively soon after that of the fall, after the moment when God’s relationship with mankind is altered and broken. But not broken beyond hope. Noah isn’t ‘good’ because he piously observes laws or never gets anything wrong – he’s good because “he walked with God.” Somehow, despite the shattered relationship between God and humanity, Noah has discovered the same relationship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.
And when God chooses to save Noah and his family, maybe it isn’t as a reward for being better than everyone else. Maybe he saves Noah because he wants to work with him, he has a job for him to do. Noah must save the birds, the animals, and the crawling things from the flood, he must take food, containing seeds and fruit. Noah must take on the task that God originally gave to Adam and Eve. He must take care of creation, and its potential, during this darkest of times, so that when it is over, creation can be redeemed and start again.
There’s a moment as the flood waters are going down when Noah, having sent the dove out to find dry land, sees it return, reaches out his hand, takes the bird and brings it back safely into the boat. It is because he walks closely with God that Noah walks closely with the creation that still, in its most broken and ugly form, bears the image of the creator who made it. Noah’s relationship with God means that he can hear God’s voice, follow it, and play his part in redeeming creation, in building God’s kingdom. It’s a pattern of relationship that follows through the rest of the Bible, through Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses, and Joshua – right through to Jesus himself.
We talked too about whether the story of Noah is a factual account of events that really happened or some kind of allegory, a story to help us understand the relationship between God and the world at this time – and did it really matter which it might be?
Stories are powerful not because they are true or because they are made up. It is because they invite us somewhere outside ourselves. What we can experience is limited by time, and space, who we are, where we are and when we are. But through stories our experience is broadened beyond our own world. When we enter into a story - whether on film, in a book, in the theatre, or through the spoken word – we enter into another world and experience those events through our imaginations, almost as if we were there.
If we are made in the image of our creator, a creator unbound by time and space, then our ability to experience things through our imagination has come from Him. And if we elevate factual experience, things that have physically happened, above the experience of our imaginations, perhaps we do that because of our own limitations. Perhaps from God’s perspective, the power and experience of the imagined is as strong as that of the physically experienced?
I think we probably ended last night with more questions than answers. But a God who questions, who disturbs, who challenges me, is a God I’m happy to follow.