Noah’s Ark isn’t cute. I may not agree with Frederick Buechner on much about the Bible. But we agree on that.
Buechner, a liberalish Presybterian minister who is often an insightful observer of the human psyche, turns to the question of Noah in his latest collection of sermons, Secrets in the Dark. As Buechner puts it:
“It is an ironic fact that this ancient legend about Noah survives in our age mainly as a children’s story. When I was a child, I had a Noah’s ark made of wood with a roof that came off so you could take the animals out and put them in again, and my children have one too. Yet if you stop to look at it at all, this is really as dark a tale as there is in the Bible, which is full of dark tales. It is a tale of God’s terrible despair over the human race and his decision to visit them with a great flood that would destroy them all except for this one old man, Noah, and his family. Only now we give it to children to read. One wonders why.
“Not, I suspect, because children particularly want to read it, but more because their elders particularly do not want to read it, or at least do not want to read it for what it actually says and so make it instead into a fairy tale, which no one has to take seriously, just the way we make black jokes about disease and death so that we can laugh instead of weep at them; just the way we translate murder and lust into sixth-rate television melodramas, which is to reduce them to a size that anybody can cope with; just the way we take the nightmares of our age, the sinister, brutal forces that dwell in the human heart threatening always to overwhelm us and present them as the Addams family or monster dolls, which we give again, to children. Gulliver’s Travels is too bitter about humankind, so we make it into an animated cartoon; Moby Dick is too bitter about God, so we make it into an adventure story for boys; Noah’s ark is too something-or-other else, so it becomes a toy with a roof that comes off so you can take the little animals out.”
Buechner and I would probably part when it comes to exactly what happened to cause the virtually universal “legend” of a global flood, persistent in almost every ancient human culture. I think it persists because it happened, precisely as Moses records it in Genesis. But I agree with him that we Disneyize the Ark narrative because it is so frankly terrifying. Buechner doesn’t explore exactly what it is that makes this Flood so uncomfortable to us. I think it is clearly the certain fiery expectation of judgment built into the human heart. Whatever we tell ourselves about our God, we fear that what we’ve been told is true. He is a holy Judge.
I don’t think we should avoid reading the Noah narrative to our children. They need to hear of God’s global judgment, of his grace not only to Noah but to the animals and the creation itself, and of his covenant promise never to flood the earth with water again. But we should never sentimentalize this terrifying moment in our history. Instead we must point our little ones to the fulfillment of the rainbow: Jesus of Nazareth.
The apostle Peter makes much of the Flood, pointing to it as a type of the last days cosmic judgment of the universe (2 Pet 3). He also speaks of baptism as corresponding to the deliverance of Noah (1 Pet 3:18-22), representing God’s faithfulness to bring a righteous Man through the flood of his wrath and into a new creation. One cannot emphasize this without emphasizing both God’s amazing grace and his terrible justice. Maybe that’s why we trivialize baptism too.
The Noah account is more than a legend. The entire universe still testifies to that great and terrible Day of the Lord. But more terrible still was the fire of God’s wrath that fell on a righteous Man outside the gates of Jerusalem, for our sins and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
Buechner misses much, but he’s on to something here. Let’s tell our children about the Flood and the rainbow and the cross and the empty tomb. And, as we do, let’s tremble with reverence and shout for joy, at the same time. I think Noah, and the great cloud of witnesses with him, could say “Amen” to that as they look to the triumphant, resurrected Man from Nazareth, who speaks more of God’s promise-keeping than a rainbow ever could.