This past week I came across the story of a minister who was giving a children’s sermon about this flood story. After telling the story, she asked the kids to close their eyes and use their imaginations: “What do you see, what do you smell, what do you hear?,” she asked. Without skipping a beat, one little girl said, “I hear people screaming and calling for help because they are drowning!” In our nursery upstairs there are stickers on the wall of Noah’s ark and lots of animals, and rainbows. They are colorful and cheerful.
There are of course no stickers of people or animals drowning. And the way the story is told in Genesis, there is no apparent concern about the lives lost in the flood. This is not mentioned. The story wants to focus our attention elsewhere—on the character of God, the character of human beings, and the relationships between God, and people, and other creatures, and the earth. But if there is any compassion in us, we can’t ignore the devastation and its causes. We need to talk about it, and we will.
Lots of people are still searching for the remains of Noah’s ark to prove that the flood really happened somewhere back in time. But the truths that are given us in this story are not dependent on proving its historicity. Our ancestors told this story, sitting under the stars around fires burning low, with sleepy children on their laps. They told it not as history, but as theology, as a way of speaking about God, this personal deity who had met them in time and space, and journeyed with them, for better and for worse, over generations. The story of the flood, the ark, and the rainbow delivers in a nutshell what they have learned about the heart and character of God, and about themselves as human beings.
God is in genuine relationship with the world. God is concerned about, engaged with, connected, committed, and responsive to God’s creation. God is not distant, not remote, not apathetic about what goes on in the world. God is not blind, or deaf, or dumb. God sees and hears, speaks and acts. And God has a heart. God is affected by creatures both human and nonhuman. God feels things. And what God feels is grief, sadness, disappointment, and regret at seeing all the evil, all the hurt, all the violence, and all the injury with which human beings have flooded the earth.
Created by God in the image of God, living from the Spirit breath of God, blessed by God, provided for by God, human beings have created devastation and destroyed life. God comes to us in this story as a grieving, distressed parent whose beloved son or daughter is making choices that are destructive to self or to others. It isn’t first of all a story about God’s anger, but about God’s ache. The internal, subjective picture of God shows us divine sorrow, while the external, more objective picture in this story is one of disastrous judgment. In an effort to put things right again, God adds to the devastation that human beings have already unleashed. And it is troubling. Even the little girl at that children’s sermon could name the violence in God’s decision to flood the earth. God’s decision to save one human family and all those paired creatures—a gracious decision—doesn’t take away the devastation.
Maybe our Israelite ancestors were right about God’s grief and pain, but maybe they were mistaken in making God responsible for the devastation. Maybe their pre-scientific worldview prevented them from understanding the nature of nature, and the causes of floods and earthquakes and other natural disasters. Maybe. Maybe not. But, as it is, in the end this story resolves a fundamental tension within God, emphasizing finally, not a God who will destroy in righteous judgment, but a God who wills to save, a God who will change based on experience with the world, a God who promises to stand with and be for the whole creation, no matter what. The flood has affected an irreversible, permanent change in God. In the end, God places God’s bow in the sky. God lays God’s weapon down and says, “Never again will I extinguish the life of my creation.”
Human beings may use their freedom to take life, to injure and harm themselves and others and the earth (and we do), but God permanently commits to save and preserve the life of the whole creation. God sets limits on God’s freedom and power. This story signals the end of any simple correlation between human sin and divine punishment. Old Testament theologian Terrence Fretheim writes: “Humans may, by virtue of their own behaviors, put themselves out of business, but not because God has so determined it, or caused it, or because the created order has failed.”
When our ancestors in the faith finally put all of their stories about God together in writing, in a single book that we call the Old Testament, they put this one at the very beginning, as promise and proclamation: God is the one who commits to save creation and commits to partner with human beings, placing confidence in their ability to care for the world with God, beginning with Noah and throughout all the generations to come.
And these commitments on God’s part are costly. God’s decision to bind God’s self to a world in which sin and evil persist, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means for God a continual grieving of the heart. God’s faithfulness to God’s everlasting promises means that a pain-free future is not possible for God. God chooses a new way of dealing with the reality of sin and evil, and that way is the way of suffering. God determines to take suffering into God’s own self and to bear it there, not matter what the cost, no matter how long it takes, for the sake of the life of the world. That is the story the rainbow writes in the sky. With long-suffering, saving love, God is keeping God’s promises to you, and to me, and to God’s whole colorful creation. God is giving what God promises and inviting us to live with God as rainbow people, who share in the joy and the ache of unconditional love that pours into us from the heart of God.