It’s a story you can find in almost every children’s bible, the story of the Noah and the Ark and the animals going in two by two, and ends happily with a rainbow and a restored relationship with God. But before you get there, God is intentionally wiping out most of the human population by drowning. Is this what God is like?
It is an old, old story, going back at least a thousand years or two before the story we know in the Book of Genesis, and there are fragments of several different versions of the story, written on clay tablets before ever paper was invented.
But the story that comes down to us in Genesis is different from those ancient accounts. And the most important difference is about who God is. In the older versions of the story, there are several gods, and they are not good gods, not moral gods, not gods who care one little bit, but gods who are full of human flaws. They are annoyed with human beings because they are noisy and that’s why they decide to wipe them out. In the story we have in Genesis, God is different. There is only one God, in charge of everything, and God is angry because humanity has become depraved.
So it looks as if the writer of Genesis is taking an old pagan story and telling it in a different way to show the world what the true god is like. In the story we know, God cares that human beings have become wicked, indulging only in pleasure, not following the rules that help us live in a fair and just society.
It must be difficult to be God, who made the world and loves it, and longs for the people to look to him and love him and live in love and harmony with each other. Instead, he sees human beings destroying themselves and treating each other so badly. It is a theme we see all through the Bible. God wants a relationship with his people, but they keep turning away and rejecting him, and look to idols and false gods to save them. Instead of trusting god, they trust in human power, and in the end, that can never save them. How is God to deal with that?
In this story, he gets so fed up, that he decides to wipe out everything he has made and start again. Later on in the Bible, he sends his prophets to call the people back to him and he sends other nations to destroy them to punish them for their faithlessness. And then in the New Testament, God tries another tack entirely, by sending his own son to die upon the cross for them, for us. And then He rises from the dead. Death is not the end of the story. Sin never has the final word.
So the story of Noah’s flood is part of a bigger story about God’s relationship with humankind, and how God tries so many different ways to maintain the relationship with his wayward people. It is like a parent who goes on loving the child who goes off the rails, even when their behaviour becomes utterly outrageous, always trying to keep the doors open, always trying to guide and help them without colluding with their wickedness.
What do you do when someone you know and love treats you so badly that you simply cannot cope with them any more? That is the position that God finds himself in in this story. And so he designs a scheme in which 40 days of heavy rain is going to raise the water levels so far that everyone is drowned.
Over the last few years we have had so much rain it has caused floods: Two years ago, the floods here in Gateshead made many households homeless. And that was nothing like the flooding experienced over the last winter in the Somerset levels. It will be a long time before people get back to their homes and farms and businesses. There was always the joke when the rain came that we should start building the ark.
But even God couldn’t wipe everything out totally. In the end, he chose Noah and his family and instructed him to build the ark, a sort of closed in ship, half the length of the QE2 ocean liner. Noah is saved because he obeys God. And his first response when they get back on to dry land is give thanks to God by making a sacrifice.
In the end, the story of Noah’s flood is a story to tell us something about God, not history. There is no sound scientific evidence for a global flood. The ancient stories may reflect a memory of a great flood in the middle east, we don’t really know. It is a story that has fascinated people over the millennia. There are people even now who are searching for evidence of the ark or the flood, people who want the story to be true. It is true, but it is true as part of a story about God’s relationship with humanity.
It is a story that matters to us because it shows us something about God, a God who can’t quite let us go, who wants to bring us through the dangerous flood waters, who wants us always to start again. It is part of the bigger picture of God, who in the end, becomes human to get alongside us because he loves us and cannot let us go. It’s a story also that gives us one of the powerful images of baptism, of being saved through water.
God promises that never again, never again, will he try and wipe out his creation, and gives the rainbow as a sign of that promise. That doesn’t mean that we can behave as we like, not at all. God cares about how we live and how we treat each other. It really matters.
The rainbow happens when the sun shines through rain. The rainbow is also a symbol of the joyful life in Christ. It is a reminder to turn back to God when our lives seem full of rain, to God who loves us and sent his Son to die for us and rise again.