Sunday, August 2, 2015

Noah's Ark Revisited

Edward Hicks
Wikimedia Commons
I have a toddler, which means that for the last year and a half two years (wow, this has been in my drafts for that long?) I have seen a lot of kids toys and books. One thing that has really stuck me is that Noah's ark shows up a lot. I always find this striking as, by my reading, the Noah's ark story is really horrible. God decides to murder almost every person and animal on the planet, and the person he decides to save almost instantly shows himself to not be that great of a person. It's amazing to me that anyone would want to expose their children to such a story.

But then I started asking myself what I was missing. I look at this story and see a violent, maniacal God attacking his own creation, but clearly a great number of parents see something else. They see something that they value and want to share with their children. I want to find out what they see.

This kind of thing has been scratching at the back of my brain for a while. As I have read through Genesis I see very little of value. Much of it is nonsensical, God is often very violent, and his chosen people seem to be very shady indeed. And yet, this has been people's holy book for thousands of years. What am I missing? What would it take to see this story in a positive light? In an attempt to explore this angle, I have looked around at a few sermons online to see what positive messages they get out of the story, I will start by listing a few of these from their perspective. (I will respond to each point below).

1. Cleansing Evil

As one sermon put it "Mankind had become unbelievably evil... so much so that God was grieved and filled with pain and decided to send a flood to destroy all of mankind".

I can understand this view of things, it is pretty easy to look around the world today and see many evils. There seem to be evil people everywhere and I can certainly imagine a world where things are even worse than they are today. A few references to Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer can easily get us imagining a world full of people we might want to wipe out. Plus, God is doing this to get the world to a place where good can thrive. God is pained to have to go to such extreme measures, but ultimately he is getting rid of the bad to make way for the good.

(This first point is really the big one for this story. The remaining points below are interesting and worth talking about, but honestly, #1 is it. You have to fully accept this point or the story becomes pretty awful.)

2. Noah was Saved

As this sermon puts it, Noah was saved by the grace of God.

3. Noah was Obedient

God asked Noah to build the ark and Noah obeyed. By obeying God good things happen to him. If we also obey God good things should happen to us as well

4. Noah was Faithful

Noah had faith in God, that he would follow through with his word and cleans the world of evil by drowning. He also had faith that God would spare him and his family if he followed his commands

5. Noah was Fearful

Noah obeyed God out of fear. He was afraid of what would happen to him if he did not obey.

My Responses

1. Are the people who drowned in the flood irredeemably evil? To me, this is the crux of the story. If someone is rotten to the core and there is just nothing that can be done to make them a good person, then killing them seems like a reasonable thing to do. If we know that someone has committed a serious crime (say murder), and we also know that no matter what we do they will do it again given the opportunity, then the death penalty seems like a reasonable option.

However, what if they can be redeemed and made to see that what they have been doing is wrong? What if they can be changed in some meaningful way so that they will never commit such evil acts again? In this case, the evil has been cleansed without killing that person, and from the perspective of a loving God this seems like a much better solution. For the "cleansing evil" narrative to hold water, we must believe that every evil person who is going to be drowned in the flood is irredeemably evil. Are there some people in this category? Perhaps. Is everybody on the planet (including children) in this category? That's hard to believe.

When I look out in the world today, I see that most people are good. There are also many people who do bad things, but are really just in a bad situation. I think that for most of those people, if they could get dug out of whatever hole they are in and get a decent support system they would be much less likely to continue doing those bad things (I even saw a "documentary" about this). So in theory, if we really set our minds to it we could help most "bad" people to improve. Of course, there are some people who are rotten to the core, sociopaths and such that we really don't know how to get through to. For this story to make sense, everyone in the world (except Noah and his family) must be in this category. Furthermore, it has to be beyond God's power (not just ours) to improve them.

I just find this outside the realm of possibility and this seems to be the disconnect between most atheists and Christians on this topic. If the planet is full of people who are rotten to the core, who are so far gone that even God himself can't fix them, then it makes sense for him to kill everyone to make way for good people. But if people are not quite that bad, then the flood story is a tale of mass murder on an unimaginable scale. When I was a Christian I took for granted the idea that the world was full of evil, but that was mostly because I hadn't really thought about it. When I started questioning things this was definitely something that bothered me.

2. My first thought when I hear "Noah was saved" is that God is simply saving him from a death caused by God himself. If I almost killed you then stopped at the last second, you wouldn't exactly be giving me high-fives. The fact that God saved Noah from his own wrath does not earn him any brownie points from me.

But then I thought that perhaps the point was that God was saving Noah (and his lineage) from an evil world. If this is what is meant, I suppose I can grant that point. God is making the world a better place for Noah.

3. Obedience is one of those things that comes up in the bible a lot as a virtue. There is certainly a time and a place for it, obedience is really important in some circumstances. But there are also times when it is a bad thing. If someone commands you to do something awful (like murder your children) you shouldn't do it. Although I suppose in this story obedience is fine. If someone tells me they are going to murder everyone around me and they give me a way to avoid their wrath, I would probably do it too.

4. Noah has faith that God would follow through with his plan to murder nearly everyone on the planet and that if he built the ark he would be saved. I suppose that is a demonstration of faith, if Noah hadn't believed God he just wouldn't have done anything and died along with everyone else. Faith worked out for Noah in this story, but in general is it really a virtue?

5. This is one of those things that really confuses me. The whole idea of it being a good thing to be "God fearing". I should probably devote a whole post to this later on, but the idea of being God fearing seem antithetical to a loving God. Why is it a virtue to be fearful of a loving God? It really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.


  1. I actually have started reading the Bible and Koran on my blog as well :). The God fearing thing is also something that is bizarre for me, but in terms of the OT I can understand it more than the NT which is all about love and peace. Although, I will say that if God is meant to be consistent (as is claimed) then why would Noah be god fearing is a very serious topic.

    As for the cleansing of evil, I can't even begin to explain my thoughts without diverging into a twenty volume thesis. Its probably the most disgusting story in the Bible that really has no good answer, and the apologetics are even worse.

    1. You are reading the Koran and the bible at the same time? That's pretty intense :) I would like to do the Koran at some point, but I can't imagine having time to do both simultaneously :)

      It is indeed a pretty disgusting story, but most disgusting? I don't know, there's quite a bit of crazy in there.

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