A Lenten Reflection on the Flood

After illustrating the story of Noah and the Flood, I am increasingly having the sinking feeling I can’t possibly do justice to this story in a short blog post, especially as I keep reading about the story from different perspectives!  I’ve written about the story on the blog before.  I shared that it’s hard for me to read the Biblical account of this familiar story, but when I split the narrative into two similar stories, it was easier for me to follow.

My time spent in this story happened to fall in the first week of Lent.  For Christians who follow the revised common lectionary readings in church, the story of Noah and the Flood is the reading for the first week of Lent (every three years).  When I searched for “Lent” and “Noah and the Flood”, Google led me to many homilies by Catholic priests for the first week in Lent.  I read a few of these and was struck by how the Catholic priests read the story in a way that’s new to me, but common among each other.  The focus of each of their homilies was the Ark as God’s vehicle of salvation, prefiguring the [Catholic] church.  The message was:  “If you want to be saved, you have to stay in the ark.”  Through one of the homilies, I learned that the boat was an early symbol of the church and that St. Peter’s Barque is just another name for the Roman Catholic church.  The architecture of many churches is modeled after a boat; the “nave” is from the word “ship.”  It’s easy to make the connection:  The disciples fish for people, taking them through the waters of baptism to be saved and bringing them into the church.  I can appreciate this reading even if I feel a small protest:  Noah had faith in God, not the boat.

For Lent, a Bible Journaling friend suggested a Lenten Devotional called 40 Things to Give up for Lent by Phil Ressler, a Lutheran pastor.  During the first seven days of Lent, he suggests giving up fear of failure, our comfort zones, feelings of unworthiness, retirement, impatience, and people pleasing.  It’s easy to see Noah as a model of a person who had to give all these things up.  Since I happened to be reading a book by  a Lutheran, I found myself wondering if Martin Luther had a commentary on the flood narrative and how he would read the story.  As it turns out, he has a very long free commentary.  It was a surprisingly compelling read (despite Luther’s contempt for certain groups, which can be a bit troubling and distracting).  I felt the overall message of the commentary was consistent with what I little I know about Luther:

Therefore, Noah is a brilliant and admirable example of faith, who opposed the judgments of the world with an heroic steadfastness of mind in the assurance that he was righteous while the rest of the world was wicked.

Thinking back to Pastor Phil’s list:  Noah gave up fear of failure to follow God’s plan for building an ark.  After 500 years of chastity (Thank you Martin Luther for bringing this to my attention!), he married and had three boys even in the face of the wickedness around him and his knowledge of God’s plan to blot out everything living on the earth through a flood.  He was not a people-pleaser; he focused only on God’s instructions and found favor in the Lord.  He left his comfort zone and gave up impatience to board a boat with every living creature.  I can’t begin to imagine the terror during the terrible storm and patience it took to remain on a ship with so many animals for months after the storm abated.  He must have needed to let go of feelings of unworthiness for him and his family even as he saw destruction all around, as he waited for what must have seemed an eternity for God to remember him.

During a drive, where I had a few moments to ponder the story some more, I called my mother (a Presbyterian minister) to ask her to tell me the five points of Calvinism.  I could easily imagine Calvin checking these against the story of Noah and the Flood:

  • Total depravity: “Every inclination of their heart was evil.” Check
  • Unconditional election: It was God who chose Noah and his family.  Check
  • Limited atonement: Not everyone made it on the boat.  Check
  • Irresistible grace: What other choice did Noah have?  Check
  • Persistence of the Saints: Noah was above all else persistent in his faithfulness.  Check.

It’s kind of a more abstract reading of the story.  On Calvin’s last point, I could imagine an argument breaking out between Calvin and Luther and the problem of Ham’s apparent fall from grace.  I haven’t checked to see if Calvin has a commentary on the flood.

Other random thoughts:  Like Noah, Jesus was a carpenter and a builder.  They were both visited by a dove.  They both heard God’s voice proclaiming God’s favor.  They both suffered ordeals for 40 days.  In different ways, they both saved the human race through wood and water.  I’ve always thought of Noah as a fairly simple man, but reading Martin Luther’s telling of the story gave me new appreciation for the living sacrifice that Noah made.  Luther writes,

I have said that Noah was a virgin above all others; I may add he was the greatest of all martyrs.  Our so-called martyrs, compared with him, have infinite advantage in strength received from the Holy Spirit, by which death is overcome and all trials and perils are escaped.  Noah lived among the unrighteous for six hundred years, and like Lot at Sodom, not without numerous and dire perils and trials.

Both Noah and Jesus followed what Luther called “the Royal way”; they added nothing, changed nothing, and took nothing from the divine command and abided in the teachings of God.

Just an observation:  After reading the story of Cain and Abel, I wondered why God let Cain live.  All of Cain’s descendants were wiped out in the flood.  Noah was descended through Seth.  Noah carried the seed that God promised Eve would crush the serpent’s head.

And something I still wrestle with:  I think these are the hardest words in the Bible to read:  “God regretted that he made man and it grieved him to his heart.”  The words are especially heart-breaking coming so shortly after God’s creation of the universe in which he called everything good.  Martin Luther asked many of the same questions I do.  Despite nearly 500 years between us, I felt like I was listening to a contemporary speaking to me here:

If God foresees everything, why does the text say that now he first sees?  If God is wise, how can regret for having creating anything befall him?  Why did he not see this sin or depraved nature of man from the beginning of the world?  Why does the Scripture thus attribute to God such things as a temporary will, vision, and purpose?  Are not the purposes of God eternal and unalterable, incapable of being regretted?

I wasn’t completely satisfied with Luther’s resolution to some of these problems, but I wholeheartedly agree with his ultimate conclusion:

It is better and safer to stand at the manger of Christ, the man.  To lose one’s self in the labyrinths of divinity is fraught with greatest danger….For in his substance, God is unknowable, indefinable, inexpressible, though we may tear ourselves to pieces in our efforts to discern or portray him.

That’s probably enough of my wandering thoughts!!!  Here’s what found its way to my margins.  On Facebook, in the Journaling Bible Community, I saw a painting of Noah and the Ark done by Hanna Staudinger that captured me, and I asked her permission to make it a tip-in for my Bible.  Her art can be found on her Facebook page.  There are a few very simple ideas below:  Gelatos over hand cut stencils for the heart and the ark, colored pencils, stamps, stickers, borrowing art you love.  And everyone can paint a rainbow!!!

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