A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed some hot water a Christian professor has gotten into. He wrote a book about Christianity, in which one small part entertains the notion that Noah’s flood may not have been world wide. I’m not an expert in this, but I have heard before that scientists (both Christian and not, I believe) find the notion of a flood over large portions of the middle east to be possible scientifically, and likely based on the prevalence of flood myths in the region. They typically consider a true global flood to be implausible. Whether they are correct or not, and whether that matters is not really the point of this post. The point of this post is that the argument about this makes many Christians miss what may be the true point of the story.
Why is it that the writer(s) of Genesis felt led to write this down? I would assume that there is some divine point to this story, and I don’t think it is “God has a temper, so watch out or He’ll get you!” Nor is it “Rainbows are pretty, and prove God was really sorry for killing so many people.” The author of the article I’ve linked to above makes the incredibly salient point that we often just tell the “fun” part of the story. We gloss over the death of the people and animals not on the ark, and how rough six months taking care of that huge vessel must have been for eight people. But even more telling is that we rarely make note of what happens after the sacrifice and promise never to do it again, at least this way.
The next thing we read about Noah is disturbing!! After establishing the covenant as signified by the rainbow, and establishing that all the whole earth would be repopulated by the descendants of Noah’s three sons (again, I’m not defending or denying this particular claim right now), we read the following about the supposedly godly Noah.
20 Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard.
21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.
22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.
23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 9.20-23, NASB)
First, I can understand why this is not included in most child friendly versions of the story. However, I think that this does make a very worthwhile point for Christians to consider. According to Scripture, God picked Noah because he was the only one good enough to be worthy of saving. Then after the ordeal of the flood, all we are told about Noah is this little seedy incident of drunkenness, and how his sons handled themselves. Why? Again, what are we to make of the author’s decision to include this story?
I’ve read this story, complete with the afterward about Noah’s drunken behavior, many times. I also missed the point. I’ve participated in discussions about how literally to take this story several times, each defending the possibility of it being historically accurate. But until reading the article, I’m not sure the application to my faith in Christ ever really jumped out at me. If only Noah was worthy of being called out for salvation (I’m using that word VERY intentionally), he must have been pretty “good” by the way we think of a “good” person, or even a “good” Christian. Yet after the flood we are only told about his embarrassing behavior. He is no longer held up as an exemplar of righteousness.
To me, this points toward Christ. Even the best humanity had to offer could not resist the urges of the flesh toward excess and lewdness. If Noah couldn’t keep up the purity we expect given his election for salvation, how can we hope to?! We can’t!! Only Christ could do that for us, in our stead. But also, we can’t live for Christ perfectly on our own, even after accepting the gift of salvation. This is something that we can only do through surrender to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work in our lives is what empowers us to succeed where Noah apparently failed.
Whether the story of Noah is true in the sense that we typically think of for history, or simply true in the sense that it teaches us something true about how we relate to God, can be debated by those more knowledgeable in theology and science than I. For me, it is enough that I now see more clearly what I consider to be the most important theme of the old Covenant as described in the Old Testament, God shows again and again that all of the ways we think we should get right with God don’t work. We needed a new Covenant. It was only by sending the Savior, Jesus our Messiah, that we can be made right with Him. And it is only by the Spirit that we can live this out. A salvation event without the sustaining work of the Spirit will never last. We must rely on Him every breath to be able to live a life that pleases God.