Noah as Metaphor

by Q. Gerald Roseberry

When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, in a small village outside Atlanta, my parents were leaders in a small fundamentalist congregation. All six of us kids attended the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. One of the things I enjoyed most about those early educational experiences was the teachers’ use of “flannel graph” art as a teaching aid in illuminating the Bible stories. Pictures of people and significant objects in the story backed with flannel adhered to a lightweight board covered with flannel which helped make the story come to life.

One of the stories I loved was “Noah and the Flood.” So I was fascinated to hear that Hollywood was producing a movie on the subject, and I intended to see it. Unfortunately I was unable to see the movie. Many years ago I stopped believing that the stories were literally true. In my imagination, however, I would like to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Noah. The really big question I would ask Noah is, why did God send such a terrible flood to destroy the people and animals and everything else in the land where you lived? But, of course, my interview with Noah doesn’t go well because we live in such different worlds. Everything is different. They are said to have lived unbelievably long lives, such as Noah’s 950 years. Different times, cultures, languages. Even to talk of faith and beliefs would be a difficult at best.

Setting aside a preoccupation with all the species of animals, birds, and insects being rounded up and adequately housed as totally impossible, I am left with the most important question of all: Why did God send such a terrible flood to totally destroy people, animals, and everything in the land were Noah lived? The ancient text gives the explanation:

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race. . .it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes, bugs and birds—the works.” – Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, chapters 6-7.

So what can we learn from Noah’s story? One possible lesson is that when human beings forget their origin in God’s creation, neglect their responsible stewardship of the earth, God’s gift, and forsake their due care for one another, then bad consequences follow. Pope Francis, a scientist himself, has caught the attention of the world, and one thing he said reverberates in our thoughts: “Destroy the earth, and the earth will destroy us.” In his encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Si, he referred to “integral ecology” which means that everything on earth is connected, and implies that our actions can and do upset the delicate balance of our environment, disrupting the intricate web of life supporting everything existing on earth.

 The Psalmist says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein. For it was He who founded it upon the seas and planted it firm upon the waters beneath.” Poetic to be sure, but it points to our problem: we have forgotten that earth is not ours to do with as we please. We mortals hold the earth in trust for future generations. In one way or another, we have participated in bringing the earth to the point of rebelling and crying out against the harmful effects of hubris and technology which destroy human community, and disrupt, poison, and pollute the oceans, our atmosphere, water, and soil. This, I venture to say, is the world-destroying “evil” which has brought us to this critical point in human history.
The nations of the world, their leaders and representatives, will meet in early December in Paris to make commitments to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gases from their combustible energy systems. Solutions are at hand. We need to find the political will and the moral courage to apply them. Obviously, the change cannot be overnight, but we must act now with all deliberate speed in ways that enable the essential transitional changes to begin and continue without undue obstruction. That meeting of the nations should be in the prayers of every community of faith and in the hearts of all believers, beginning now and continuing until a just and healing solution is reached.