There are two pieces to today’s sermon: we are going to slow down and get into this story of Noah’s Ark, and then we are going to pull this thread of slowness and understanding through to imagination, taking a look at this ancient practice of Midrash – the making of stories about Biblical stories.
Let’s dive in – pun intended!
To be honest, I do not love this story, for a few reasons. One – there is a huge gap between the happy two-by-two rendition we tell children and the reality of God being so fed up with human corruption and violence that They decide to drown everyone and start again. Don’t get me wrong – I love playing with kids and boats and animals, and teaching the basics of it to children is important. But we skim past the predicament that got humanity to the point of God throwing in the towel in the first place, and we rarely keep reading to learn about the traumatized Noah after the flood who deals with his post-ark PTSD with generously flowing wine and questionable sexual choices.
Now, many of us never got Noah’s full story after Sunday School, so if your understanding of Noah begins and ends with the colourful animals boarding the ark, we are about to go a little dark here, so brace yourself.
In the Scripture leading up to our story today, in Genesis 6, we read, “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.” (6:5). Yikes – though I’ll admit, that is an easy perspective to relate to these days if you are following the news at all.
The Scripture continues: “it grieved him [God] to his heart.” Ouch. Dang, that’s some guilt y’all. Also, it is a stark reminder – you mean my bad choices don’t just affect me?
“So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” What?! What about the God who knew me before I was born? The one who knit me together inside my mother’s womb? The one who calls me precious, beloved child? This is another reason this story chafes against me – this is not my experience of God. But someone wise once told me don’t stop at the bits you don’t like or don’t understand – keep reading until you get to love.
Ok, lets keep going.
Wait a minute, says God, wait – there is one, that Noah fellow – I could use him and his family. Go build a big boat Noah – and he does, with some very specific instructions. And then the ones on the guest list get in and the Scripture reads that the Lord – Yahweh, God – “shut them in” (7:16). I actually love that phrase – what a vivid image: God closing up the ark, like Morgan Freeman dressed in white casually lifting up the gangway. But we will get to the imagination piece in a few minutes – back to the Noah story.
The door is closed, the flood waters flow, and the seemingly ceaseless rains begin. The waters swell and ark carried on its way floating about.
And here, here it gets interesting: as this story continues, it so remarkably parallels the first Creation story in Genesis. This is something that we might miss but would be very provocative for the Hebrew people. Let me explain:
In Creation, God said, “let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear,”(1:9) and in the Noah story, ‘the fountains of the great Deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened; (7:11) – the image reminds me of God releasing the original dam – so to speak – he put into place to keep things in order, returning a sense of that primal chaos.
Another parallel comes once the onslaught of water has ceased. The Creation story reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” (1:2) and the Noah story reads, “God made a wind blow over the earth and the waters subsided.” (8:1).
Once they’ve hit land, we have another of these parallels. God blessed Noah and his sons, the new ancestors of humankind, “and said to them, ‘Be Fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’” (9:1) – the same words that God said to Adam and Eve” ‘Be Fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’ (1:28).
So here is where this story turns a bit for me - these parallels point out for us that the Flood story is not primarily one of God’s destruction, but rather of God’s RE-CREATION. When we read the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures as a long story about the relationship between God and God’s people we see patterns – not of angry wrath and destruction, but of broken people and second chances. When we stay a little while and take the time to notice these details, we can learn a lot about who God is. Almost nothing in the Old Testament – or the New really – is simple. Almost nothing can be understood by just skimming the top or letting our knowledge remain in Sunday School territory. The wisdom of these words demand us to sink deeper and deeper into the waters.
Which is not really how we do things today. The culture of these ancient words does not fit well with our modern culture. These stories require a long chew and a slow process of digestion – rather than a protein shake in a blender that you slam back on your way out the door. Think of the way a cow eats verses a hungry puppy.
And this is where Midrash comes in. Ancient Midrash is basically a collection of thoughts from Rabbis in history doing a slow cud chew on Scripture.
And through time, this practice became ingrained in Jewish culture – I studied with a Rabbi who taught us that every reading has 70 faces, and you encounter a new face each time you greet it. And this is something that Christians – adopted into the people of God – also began to practice. It is why we refer to Scripture as the living Word, because we understand that God is still speaking to us through these texts by revealing more and new things to us with each generation.
What Midrash does is respond to contemporary problems and craft new stories, making connections between new realities and the unchanging Biblical text.
So – what does that actually look like and why is it important or helpful?
The story I read to the children today is an example of Midrash. It is a story about a story – one that we know well – in the Bible that gives us a perspective we might not have otherwise thought of. Had you considered the Flood from the point of view of the fish? Had the Noah story ever led you to the conclusion that God must be everywhere, as the Midrash story did?
I have another example – have you seen the movie “Evan Almighty”? God – Morgan Freeman, dressed in white – gets in touch with Evan – an American Congressman – to build an ark in preparation for an upcoming flood. Much resistance and hilarity ensues as Evan finally capitulates and builds an ark, to the humiliation of his teenagers and at the great scrutiny of his neighbours…let’s take a look at what happens:
This is a modern form of Midrash – these images and sounds help us unlock our imaginations to the fullness of this story – the water! The creaking boat! The violence of the water’s movement! The speed of the ark moving through that water! The animal sounds! The terror of those onboard!
The Flood story is not a la-la-la (sing) “Noah and the animals” bedtime story only for children – none of our Bible stories are – they are vivid, shocking, and filled with sensory stimulation if we dare to notice. And if we let our understanding stay in the simplistic, surface level meanings, Scripture doesn’t change our lives. It doesn’t push into new depths of love and understanding.
This practice of making something new from our Scriptural tradition – of holding the old and the new gives us the chance to step into and soak in the story and stay long enough for our fingers to get wrinkly. For our hearts to be changed.
We have all been gifted with imaginations. I know this because I see it demonstrated in a thousand different ways: through art, play, music; through knitted patterns and quilted masterpieces. In carefully planned gardens, measured and organized toolsheds, tenderly crafted meals. In every novel we read or tv show we watch we are igniting our imaginations; of course we should use that gift in our faith as well!
So I would invite you, this week, to pull out your Bibles and turn to a story you think you know very well – one you could likely tell to a child without the text. Jesus feeding the 5,000 with two loaves and five fish. The fishermen catching nothing after being out all night and Jesus tells them to drop their nets on the other side from which they haul in their biggest catch. The Crucifixion. Even if you are new to this church thing, or returning after a while away, you likely know the story of The Good Samaritan. So pull it out and read it. Then read it again. Then read it again, but this time be on the hunt for sound. Then read it again thinking of the smells all around. Then read it again – is there food? What would that have tasted like? Did the characters touch – what would those cloths have felt like? You don’t need to know the answers to imagine or wonder what those would be like. And I will guarantee that if you sit and bathe in the story just a little while, giving yourself time to get wrinkly fingers, something profound and holy will happen. You will notice details that you could’ve sworn were never there before. You see, when we enter into that creative place we are entering into a space with the One who created and is still creating. The one who yearns to share more with us, to draw us in, and who planted in us this terrific capacity to broaden and broaden and broaden. To learn and grow and be changed. The one who floods our hearts with love and second chances, who desires our re-creation, and gives us every new – sometimes painful – opportunity to begin again. And who promises – marked by that glorious colourful bow in the sky, never, never to leave us.
Can I get an Amen?
 Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 65.
 Marc Gellman and Oscar de Mejo, “Water All Around,” Does God Have a Big Toe? (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), 27-29.