Many of us probably haven’t read the story of Noah’s ark since we were kids. If you read it again, you might find some surprises. I always had this idea that Noah was exhorting the people around him to get on the boat, but they just mocked him as a fool building a boat in the desert. That’s not what the Bible says. Rather, God tells him to make a boat and then provides the very limited guest list, like a gruesome Julie McCoy. All in all, the moral outlook of this story is a bit murky. Ironically, that should give us some clue as to what it’s about.
Like many stories in the Bible, this is one that gets put in a debate about whether it is true or false. Was there really a worldwide flood or not? Many cultures have such stories. Some see this as proof of a common experience of a flood, but what if, instead, it represents a common experience of humanity?
We all, from time to time, have a notion that the world is not as it should be. Some of us have that more lately. The temptation is to think we can simply expel the bad stuff and keep the good stuff, get rid of the bad people so that the good people can be in charge. These are the stark terms in which myths are drawn: there is a clear good and a clear evil and never the twain shall meet. We can’t simply dismiss the divine genocide in the story, but it makes more sense as a myth than a statement of fact.
Even if we take the story metaphorically and say that this is an image of the internal journey, we know that it is not so clear a path. In the world, certainly, few are pure and righteous and few are wholly corrupt and evil. But in our own psyches, it is also not a stark contrast. We want to believe that there are terrible things about us that we just need to get rid of so that the good things can flourish. Unfortunately, it is not that simple and may even be unhealthy, or at least counter-productive.
It’s not a coincidence that the story – the real story; not the one we were told as children – ends with Noah drunk and naked. After all that effort, all that destructive energy expended, all that certainty of putting the world in good hands, it turned out that Noah had his own issues. The story winks at the stark myth it sets up.
Rather than destroying, shunning, or ignoring the things wrong in the world or in ourselves, our call is to discern the good from the bad. We can only do that if we acknowledge the bad, remember it, ruminate on it, process it. And celebrate the good; nurture it. Relying on a gruesome miracle to solve our problems will probably leave most of us drunk and naked, wondering if anything has really changed at all. But, with time and attention, analysis and compassion, flexibility and courage, we have a chance at new life.