|Illustration from The Ark, Arthur Geisert, 1988|
In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about my struggle - and ultimate failure - to accept a literal, historical interpretation of parts of the Bible and the story of Noah in particular. For many years, the story of the flood was a painful blow to my faith. Slowly I learned that I could read that story (and others) as something else -- a parable perhaps, an allegory, or even an incomplete historical account -- while remaining a faithful Mormon. Feeling I had permission to abandon my attempt at Biblical fundamentalism was, not surprisingly, a relief.
But what did surprise me was how rich and meaningful those first stories of the Bible became after I stopped worrying about reconciling them with science and let go of the false dichotomy between literalism and apostasy. In Genesis, God has something to say, and listening with my science-vs.-religion ears, I couldn't hear it. I don't understand everything that God is trying to tell us, but I have come to understand that His message in Genesis is not nearly so much about ancient history as it is about our relationship with Him.
So back to Noah.
When Noah steps off the ark, God tells him to bring the animals out of the ark so that they may, "be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth" (Genesis 8:17). This is rather an odd command, if you think about it. After spending over a hundred years building this enormous ark, and then gathering the animals, and living with them in a boat for more than a year, was Noah considering . . . just leaving the animals in there? I mean, of course he was going to take them out of the ark with him. Why would he need that particular instruction from God? Why would the Bible need to spell out for us that every beast, after their kinds, went forth from the ark? From a literary standpoint, it seems to be an intentional echo of the creation story in Genesis 1, when both the animals and the new humans are given the godly edict to be fruitful and multiply.
I always thought I got what the Bible was saying here: Noah and his wife were the new Adam and Eve. Every human on the earth today is a descendant of not just Adam, but Noah as well. (Old Me: But . . . science! Gaaaahhhh.) But when I read the story again, this time without the old fear of science/religion incompatibility, I got something more. This wasn't a genealogy or a history lesson; this was a lesson about something truer, something better. This was a story about our covenant relationship with God.
"But with thee will I establish my covenant, and thou shalt come into the ark," said God to Noah. So Noah took refuge in this ark that he built but that God shut, took refuge in this covenant that he made with God. And he was not destroyed, and the earth, that fallen, cursed earth was covered with water, and then the waters receded.
And Noah stepped off the ark as the new Adam. He brought forth the animals from the ark so that they could be fruitful and multiply, an echo of the commandment given to Adam and Eve before the fall. As if creation were new again. Not that the fall hadn't happened, but that Noah was protected from the fall, that this covenant that God wrought with him overcame it.
Early Mormon leaders taught that the flood was a kind of baptism of the earth. In the past, whenever I came across that idea, my inner monologue went something like this: Oh, here we go again. How could water really cover the entire earth?And does the earth really have to get baptized like it's a person?And why do Mormons have to be so doctrinally innovative anyway? No wonder people think we're weird.
But now, with non-literal meanings open to me, I love the way the baptismal ordinance ties in with the flood story. I see the story of Noah as a beckoning to the people of the earth, to become the people of God. To take refuge in His covenant, to be baptized and renewed and reborn, as fresh and new as Adam and Eve on the morning of creation. For me, that is as meaningful as just about anything that I read in the scriptures.
And today, after a pretty spectacular parenting failure, which came after a succession of moral and mental failures that goes back as far as I can remember and goes on as far into the future as I can see, that image of Noah stepping off the ark under a rainbow sky onto an earth that had been washed clean was in my mind. And, finally, finally, I was ready to shout, "Hallelujah!" at the thought of it.