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Questions people ask: How are we to understand Noah’s Ark?


Genesis 6:9-22; 8:13 & 20; 9:8-17                   Hebrews 11:1-7           Matthew 24:36-44


It’s the child’s all-time favourite bible story.     And why not? The story has the adventure of an ocean voyage plus the warmth of a zoo.

All children assume that the animals enter the ark two-by-two.   Few people, whether children or adults, read far enough to know that only the animals notused for sacrifice in Israel ‘s worship enter two-by-two. Animals offered up in worship enter seven-by-seven.   (Had they entered only two-by-two and been offered up in worship the species would plainly have become extinct.)

How are we to understand this ancient story?   We have to understand that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood not as history but as parable.   To say that the story of Noah’s Ark is a parable doesn’t mean that it’s “untrue” any more than the parables of Jesus (fiction) are untrue. Since our Lord’s parables are his parables, they are true; that is, they tell the truth about men and women under God at all times and in all places. C.S. Lewis has said that since the Jews are God’s chosen people, their parables are God’s chosen parables — and therefore stories such as Noah’s Ark are profoundly true, everywhere and always humanly true.

I(i): — The story begins starkly:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the

earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their

hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry

                        that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to

                        his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)


God is heartbroken that the only creatures whom he has crowned with his own image and likeness persist in rendering themselves wicked.   He is sorry that he has created humankind at all.   Plainly, according to our simple, primitive story, God is distressed that those whom he fashioned the apple of his eye should turn out so badly.

The narrator of our story amplifies the matter of humankind’s wickedness: “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Everyone knows what is meant by “violence.” But “corrupt”? The Hebrew word translated “corrupt” literally means “destroyed.”   In other words, what God decided to destroy was already so very corrupt as to be self-destroyed.   What rendered the earth self-destroyed?   Wickedness, one of whose principal manifestations is violence.   The story-teller tells us that the earth was filled with violence. There is violence everywhere.


A few years ago a man in Scotland entered an elementary school, shot sixteen children, shot the teacher, and then shot himself. A parishioner wrote me a letter describing the gunman, Thomas Hamilton, as singularly wicked.

I don’t wish to make light of the schoolhouse tragedy in any way. At the same time, I don’t think that Thomas Hamilton and his trigger-finger are what the story of Noah’s Ark is about. I am not a psychiatrist, but I strongly suspect that Hamilton was deranged. Violent, yes, but a violence born of derangement.

What Noah’s story is about isn’t derangement; it’s about the violence born of sanity; the violence born of people who are perfectly sane, the violence of sober citizens and pillars of whatever community. It’s about the violence that is premeditated, calculated, implemented, boasted about. The story-teller tells us that such violence comes forth from every person’s heart, not merely occasionally from the small percentage of people who are deranged.

I’m not making light of the sixteen children in Scotland . At the same time, I don’t wish to become sentimental. Every day in Argentina the police pick up homeless children who are living on downtown streets, take them away who knows where, and execute them. Every year Thailand sacrifices thousands of twelve-year old children to the sex trade, a tourist industry that the government of Thailand encourages. Seven thousand people are murdered in the United States every year.

Let’s not forget that during the worst days of the American Civil War, 25,000 men were succumbing every day. Let’s not forget that when the city of Dresden was bombed at the end of World War II ( Dresden was a city peopled with young children and seniors, a city of no military significance whatever), 100,000 civilians died in one night. How did they die? Instantly on account of blast? No. The air-raid started a firestorm, and the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the air, with the result that children and old folks died wretchedly through asphyxiation.

Think of the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia . The full story there has yet to be told. Serbs, of course, are worried about reprisals. They should be worried, because the people they victimized are waiting to retaliate. All of which means that our story-writer is correct: the earth is “filled with violence.” Think of the thousands slain in Rwanda ; and then the same thing in Burundi . Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian who witnessed it, says he’ll never get over it. As horrible as the holocaust was in Europe, it happened again in Cambodia through Pot Pol and the Khmer Rouge. What about Saddam Hussein and the Kurds he gassed?

But we shouldn’t point the finger at anyone. When I was a member of the ministerial association of the City of Miramichi , New Brunswick , a fellow-clergyman proposed that we have a multi-denominational service on Dominion Day, July 1st. The theme of the service was to be “Gratitude for the gift of the land.” I looked at him as though he were from Mars. “The gift of the land?” I asked. “The gift? Our foreparents took it at the point of a gun and blew away anyone who disagreed with them.”

Then there’s the violence that is no less violent for having nothing to do with nations and armies. Think of the violence pertaining to the world of labour. At one time Henry Ford employed a strong-armed thug named Harry Bennett. Bennett had many jobs. One was acting as contact-person between the Ford Motor Company and the mafia. Another job was beating up, with the help of the Ford Company’s goon-squad, anyone whom Henry Ford and family wanted beaten up. Ford was especially eager to have beaten up anyone attempting to organize auto workers. Ford had Bennett and his men beat up Walter Reuther and his brother so badly (the Reuthers were the auto workers’ first leaders) that both brothers were hospitalized for six months. Is it any wonder that unions respond with their own kind of violence? Of course it’s no wonder — even as the proliferation of violence confirms the story-teller’s line, “…and the earth was filled with violence.”

In all of this we must not overlook domestic violence. Domestic violence is a huge problem everywhere. It is no less violent for being domestic. Our society must never wink at the man who told me that he slugged his wife several times “because it’s the only language she understands.” Do you know that the call to a home where domestic violence is occurring is the most dangerous call a police officer answers? That’s why older police officers wait twenty minutes before they show up at such a home.

We shouldn’t assume that violence has to be physical in order to be violence. Violence is committed when people are violated in any way. When I was in grade nine science the day came, in our introductory study of electricity, when the teacher taught us about hydro metres. We were taught what watts were, what kilowatt-hours were, how electricity-consumption was measured in terms of kilowatt-hours, and how metres were read. Then the teacher said, “Now you youngsters in this shabby part of the city (yes, my family was poor); none of your parents has a university-degree; your parents don’t know very much; your parents wouldn’t even know how to read a hydro metre.” I thought of my poor dad, poor to be sure, yet self-taught and giving me gems every day from the book-review section of the Sunday New York Times; I thought of his fertile mind, his ceaseless quest for knowledge; I thought of how much better educated he was than was this teacher, a vulgar ignoramus who insisted on slandering my family in absentia. I knew that day that I had been violated, and the entire class with me.

The story-teller is right: the human heart foams with violence.

(ii) How does our ceaseless violence affect God? What does it do to him? “It grieves him to his heart.” God’s first reaction isn’t rage or contempt; it’s grief, sadness too deep for words. God is heartbroken. He weeps over us whom he has made in his image, over us who have rendered ourselves monstrous.

(iii) At the same time, while God is grief-stricken he isn’t immobilized. While he is saddened, to be sure, he doesn’t wallow helplessly in the swamp of sentimentality. His grief issues in judgement. His grief has to issue in judgement. Did it not issue in judgement God would be devoid of integrity. He isn’t devoid of integrity; which is to say, judgement becomes operative.


II: — All of which brings us to the flood. It’s right here, frankly, that the child’s delight in the parable surprises me. After all, the story of Noah’s Ark resembles a horror movie. None of us would ever want our child to witness a drowning. And the spectacle of countless bloated corpses, animal and human, might give an adult nightmares. (To be sure, the story of Noah’s Ark is no more violent than many fairy tales. Children love fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and himself a death camp survivor, has written profoundly as to how it is that violent fairy tales help children past their childhood fears. We haven’t time to probe Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic profferomgs and must leave them for another day.)

We must take time, however, to note that the story of Noah’s Ark is not telling us that God is vindictive; it does not say that God is a cruel ogre who delights in mass drownings. It tells us instead that God’s judgement becomes operative as God gives us precisely what we want. At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned that the Hebrew word translated “corrupt” in our English bible literally means “destroyed.” I mentioned too that what God’s judgement consigns to destruction is already self-destroyed. People bent on violence plainly want destruction. With our lips we all say we don’t want destruction, if only because no one in his right mind wants destruction. But that’s just the point — we who are made in the image of God, are now bent on violence, and have saddened God to the point that he can’t grieve more — we aren’t in our right mind. And therefore regardless of what we say with our lips, as violent people we want destruction, since violence always ends in destruction. God’s judgement is simply God consigning to destruction what is already self-destroyed in any case.


III: — Yet there is Noah. Three things are said about Noah: he was righteous, he was blameless, and he walked with God. “Blameless” means “single-minded,” what Jesus will later call “pure in heart.” “Blameless” describes Noah’s relation to God; “righteous” describes Noah’s relation to his neighbours; “walked with God” means Noah knew God intimately and endeavoured to obey him consistently. Noah and his family, together with the animals, are brought through the flood. The waters recede; total destruction is averted. The rainbow is painted into the sky. And God himself speaks: “Never again shall there be a flood over all the earth; never again shall violence go all the way down to utter destruction; never again shall the human heart, foaming with violence, precipitate total destruction.” This is God’s promise. In the bible it is called a covenant. God makes this promise to Noah, yet makes it for the sake of the entire creation everywhere. The covenant is made with Noah alone, yet the whole creation is blessed on account of it. Which is to say, the covenant is made with Noah alone, and the whole creation is blessed on account of him.

Plainly Noah is one person who represents many. The principle of one representing the many is common throughout scripture. God makes a covenant with Abraham, and through this one man all the nations of the earth are to be blessed. God makes a covenant with David, and through David all Israel is to be blessed. God makes a covenant with Noah, and the covenant is this: God has promised never to allow his creation to collapse all the way down to that self-destruction it is bent on and deserves. To be sure, when our story speaks of the flood, it speaks of God’s consigning the creation to destruction, albeit the destruction it perversely wills for itself. Yet the story concludes with God’s promise that in fact he will preserve his perverse creation however violent it might be. This promise is the gospel of Noah’s Ark.

Because God keeps the promises he makes he tells Noah to raise up children. Does it make sense to bring children into a world whose violence devours them? William Sloane Coffin jr., 17 years the chaplain at Yale University and more recently the senior minister at Riverside Church, New York City; Coffin was a liaison officer between the United States Armed Forces and Russian forces during World War II. Assigned to the Russian front, he saw scenes there that I shall not attempt to describe. After the war he received several European pastors who had pastored-on throughout the worst years of the war. One pastor said quietly, slowly, movingly, “During the worst of the fighting the front moved back and forth through my town eight times. And after the front had passed through my town, each time I spent days doing little more than bury children.”

Is it reasonable to ask Noah to raise up children in a world where children are rendered helpless victims? The fact that God will not allow his creation to sink all the way down to irretrievable self-destruction doesn’t mean that the human heart is any less lethal. After the last war the Jewish people asked themselves a terrible question: “In view of the holocaust-horror (one and a half million children burnt alive), are the Jewish people morally obliged not to have children?” Nevertheless, world-wide Jewry decided it would continue to beget and bear children, and decided this for many reasons, not the least of which was that it trusted the promise. God will never consign his creation to the fullest, uttermost destructive consequences of its self-willed violence. For the Jewish people, God’s promise, and their faith in the promise, meant more than any calculation.

Have you ever asked yourself why the world doesn’t become utterly uninhabitable as each generation adds its evil to that of the preceding generation? Why doesn’t evil accumulate, like a snowball rolling downhill, until the accumulated evil is so vast that human existence becomes impossible? Our story tells us why. God has made a covenant: he has promised that he will never abandon his creation to that total self-destruction which violent-hearted people always tend to produce.

The implications for us are obvious. If God isn’t going to abandon the world, then neither should we. If no frustration can deflect God’s commitment to the world, then no frustration should deflect ours. If God can endure seemingly-endless setbacks, so must we. The bottom line is this: we shall never be in the situation where we are seeking an end to violence and God is not. We shall never find ourselves spending ourselves on behalf of a world that God gave up on a long time ago. Our struggle can never be hopeless. God has made a promise; he will ever keep his promise. This is good news, gospel, the gospel of Noah’s Ark.


IV: — There is one more point for us to consider. When Noah emerges from the ark he offers up an animal in sacrifice to God. Part of the sacrifice is eaten. Up to this point in the unfolding biblical story men and women have been vegetarians. Now they are permitted to become meat-eaters. Their eating meat at meals is God’s concession to their violence: human beings kill and eat their first cousins, the animals.

But their eating meat is more than this. In Israel of old every occasion of eating meat was more than a means of satisfying hunger; it was also an act of worship. Meat — a dead animal eaten at the dinner table — was as much an act of worship as was the animal sacrificed in the temple on the Sabbath. In fact, said our Israelite foreparents, every time a family ate meat at home it was pointing to the lamb slain in the temple.


You and I eat meat. According to our foreparents in faith whenever we eat meat we are pointing to a lamb slain. We are not pointing to any lamb, but to the lamb, the Lamb of God; we are pointing to him who bears in himself the sin and suffering and sorrow of our violent world. In a few minutes you and I are going to go home to our Sunday dinner and eat meat of some sort. When we do this we shall be pointing to our Lord Jesus Christ, the lamb of God slain, who has been offered up on our behalf and who ever invites us to feed on him.

As we feed on him a new heart and a new spirit will become ours. A new heart and a new spirit means that we have pleaded with God to do in us whatever it takes to remove from us humankind’s characteristic violence.


Noah’s Ark isn’t just a story for children. It is very much a story for adults. It’s a story, a parable like the parables of Jesus. It’s about our deep-seated violence, about God’s grief, about God’s judgement. It’s also about God’s promise — he will never abandon his world, and therefore neither must we. Finally, it’s about God’s provision — he has offered up his Son as surely as Noah offered up a sacrifice — wherein you and I may find ourselves with a new heart and a new spirit. For then, like Noah, we too shall be “blameless and righteous”, those who live to bear witness to the “shalom” of God, the peace of God, that kingdom which can never be shaken and whose fullest manifestation we pray for every day.

Victor Shepherd                    


January 2005