Two by Two: A UU’s Perspective on Noah’s Ark
This sermon, “Two by Two: A UU’s Perspective on Noah’s Ark” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on June 18, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Kif Corcoran
“And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two by two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.” — Genesis 7:15
About four years ago, when Maddie was about 6 years old, I began to panic when she asked me what the “T” was at the top of churches. I realized she knew nothing about the Christmas story, the Easter story, Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale,…the list goes on and on. It’s not that I thought she would be an immoral person without knowing these stories, but I was worried she would feel excluded or clueless about the Christian religion.
I decided to buy her a Children’s Bible Story book, so that at the very least, she would have an inkling what people are talking about if it ever comes up in conversation. I worried, what if she’s reading a book and can’t catch on to the biblical allusion of Eve offering Adam the fruit from the tree of knowledge? Ahhhh! Once the Children’s Bible arrived from the land of Amazon, we sat on the carpet together and began from the beginning and read all through Genesis including the story of Noah’s Ark.
Anybody who is familiar my dear Maddie, knows she questions everything. She discovered Santa wasn’t real by the ripe old age of 3, the tooth fairy didn’t make sense to her by age 5, and so naturally she was skeptical of each of the biblical stories we read together. This was Maddie’s facial expression when I finished the story of Noah and the Ark:
She had so many questions: How could two of every single type of animal fit on the boat? How could you survive with that much animal poop on the boat? What if the animals fought or ate each other? How did they have enough food and water for the humans and the animals for all of those days? How did Noah keep the birds on the ship when they’re used to flying freely? Why did God harm all those humans and animals who hadn’t done anything wrong? What did the dogs of the world do to deserve being murdered? Maddie struggled greatly with the story of Noah’s Ark because she was trying to find the good in it.
God creates something, and then sets it up to fail.
In a fit of hatred at himself for having made something so wretched, he screams at it and destroys most of it.
Here’s another way of looking at it: A father, angry at his children for playing with a dangerous weapon which he left laying out in their playroom, waits for years and years before he decides to kill all his children for being so naughty. Except for his favorite son, whom he spares. Yikes. That sounds so harsh. I’ll try it another way.
God is an all powerful, all knowing, and all good spirit who created the world and the people in it. But, once people started thinking for themselves with their own knowledge, God didn’t like them much any more. See, people were doing evil things, like murder. So, God decided to kill them all, except for one that he liked, and a few related tag-alongs. God killed pretty much all the animals in the world too, even though they hadn’t done anything wrong, but he spared a few, by putting them on a big old boat with the lucky elite human survivors. Then, when God was done killing, the people and the animals got off the boat, and proceeded to breed. Then God promised not to kill everybody any more, except for exterminating a few cities and a few civilizations.
I can’t imagine why Maddie couldn’t find the good in this story. Why couldn’t she grasp the value in killing almost all the people and animals on the Earth? Why can’t Maddie understand the importance of God getting rid of evil by mass murder? Oh wait, now I remember why this wouldn’t work in Maddie’s little 6-year-old mind: She was kind and logical.
Quick refresher on Genesis
For those who haven’t read the excerpt in awhile from the Book of Genesis about Noah and the flood, I will read a few passages directly from the King James Version of the Bible:
The Great Flood
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation. For after seven more days I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I will destroy from the face of the earth all living things that I have made.”
And Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him.
Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters were on the earth.
So Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, of animals that are unclean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the earth, 9 two by two they went into the ark to Noah, male and female, as God had commanded Noah.
And it came to pass after seven days that the waters of the flood were on the earth. 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights.
On the very same day Noah and Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them, entered the ark—they and every beast after its kind, all cattle after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort.
And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life. 16 So those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.
The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit[a] of life, all that was on the dry land, died.
So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive. And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days.
Intersection of Noah’s ark and UUs
Some of you may be saying to yourself, “Kif, this is precisely why we’re UUs. We became Unitarian Universalists partly because we don’t buy into these biblical stories when they don’t jive with science.” You may be surprised to learn that not all UUs feel the same way.
The Arky Arky song (more formally known as “Rise and Shine”) is in a UU songbook for children. UU children across the country are singing this song at different UU congregations and youth camps. Let’s listen to it together (1 minute):
The whole point of the Noah’s ark story is that God wanted all children to be left in the muddy, muddy waters, to attempt to run from the waters and eventually drown! If this isn’t a scenario of getting folks to praise God through threats and intimidation, I don’t know what is! Shape up or drown! Do you want him to send another flood? Huh? Do you? Start praising!
Noah and the Ark isn’t just mind-boggling to children; it’s puzzling to adults, too! When I suggested two songs from a UU songbook to our friend Dale over here, here was part of his email response:
“Here’s some things I’ve always wondered about with Noah and his ark:
- Did the fish even notice anything was going on? Why weren’t they punished too?
- Waterfowl may have just bugged the hell out of Noah. (14 ducks flying around, indiscriminately landing on the superstructure of the ark, with Noah running around with a stick…”Get off there; we already have two of your kind!”)
- What’s up with the marsupials? Noah might say, “Ok, we’re on Mt. Ararat, everybody out!” He then adds, “Oh, you marsupials, you can’t die, or mate, we don’t want no fossil record around here, but you guys have to walk all the way to Australia!”
You made some good points there, Dale. Thanks for the comedic insight. 🙂
A different take on Noah’s ark
Like any good researcher, I tried to find a redeeming quality in the Noah’s ark story.
I tried to focus on the idea of God’s promise at the end, and what that might symbolize, as some kind of promise of nurturing nonviolence and stewardship of the natural world.
After much research, I found a UU minister who sees value in the Noah’s Ark story. Reverend Darcey Laine from Palo Alto, Calif., wrote a UU sermon back in 2004 about the story of Noah, the ark, and the eventual rainbow. She said:
“When I read the story of Noah as a child, I rejected it because I did not believe that people were capable of profound evil. Now, as I watch the news, or read the testimony from our human rights watch groups, I know that great violence, which might be called evil, is a part of this world I inhabit. But I reject the response by the God of Noah to this evil. I believe with the Universalists, that humankind is not born into evil, not born in original sin.
I believe that humans are much more complex than that. I believe that even the most violent warlord has some fragments that are redeemable, some part that may be capable of justice and compassion.”
She doesn’t believe people should read this story literally. Since the story of Noah is so rich with symbolism, she theorizes it should be approached like that of a dream, rather than a document of science or history. This allows us to enter the world of the story as a mirror for ourselves.
Reverend Laine suggests because humans have a tendency to place themselves in someone else’s shoes (or in this case God’s gilded sandals), the story helps us to contemplate our own disappointments, unfair judgments, and propensity towards violence.
Reflections on a vengeful God
Although this is an interesting idea, the truth is that I cannot accept the validity of this shaky interpretation of the Noah’s ark story because it completely ignores the core takeaway of the myth: That killing people is just fine when you judge them to be wicked, and you can exterminate children and animals and wreck homes too. Some may say that ethics of righteous killing doesn’t really apply to the story, because God did it, and God is above the morality of humankind. To me, that concept makes the story even worse because it teaches that those in positions of high power are subject to different moral standards than those who are subject to their power. God can have a temper tantrum and destroy everything because he’s God.
In the Noah’s ark story, the promise by God after the flood not to kill nearly the entire human race again seems arbitrary. There’s no genuine self-judgment in God’s decision to be more merciful in the future. The God character just decides to be that way, while retaining the power to change his mind, which he does in some rather non-merciful Old Testament events as well as the New Testament’s End Times prophecies of the righteous destruction of the entire world.
The Noah’s ark story represents an uncompassionate and unjust religious attitude. It is a religious story, but I don’t think it’s wise to give it a special exemption from criticism just because it’s a part of some people’s religious traditions.
UU principles vs. the messages of Noah’s ark
I will examine how the story of Noah’s Ark directly contradicts all of our 7 UU principles.
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person – All human beings, except for one and his close relatives, were judged as unworthy of being spared a terrifying and painful murder.
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations – Humans were killed without compassion and without the chance to justify themselves in equal power to their accuser.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations – Humanity was rejected and given no further chance to better itself.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning – Humanity was not given the freedom to discover truth and meaning separate from the truth and meaning determined by God.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large – God allowed no democracy in the decision to begin the slaughter.
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – Peace, liberty and justice for all doesn’t include almost everyone on Earth getting killed because they’re judged by one being to be unworthy.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part – God didn’t have respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part. Instead, he took his divine broom and smashed the web.
Are we expected to say that it all turned out alright because there was a dove and a rainbow at the end? UUs often teach the concept that we need to accept others people’s beliefs without judgment, citing the core principles listed above, saying that we need to show acceptance of one another and value the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Does accepting another person require me to avoid judging their ideas? Can I not acknowledge some inherent worth and dignity of a person and still believe that the ideas that they promote are harmful? What constitutes a responsible search for meaning?
Should we focus on what’s good in other people’s religions, and not emphasize the negative aspects when we evaluate their worth? Should we not get wrapped up in finding faults in other people’s beliefs?
The truth is that the violent, unjust attitude taught in the story of Noah’s Ark isn’t just a historical footnote from ancient Israel. It’s a strong influence in our present day culture. Politicians and religious leaders continue to use the story of Noah’s ark as a justification for extremely ugly statements—like some preachers’ declarations that God sent Hurricane Katrina to kill gay people in New Orleans. The righteous violence in the Noah’s ark story is also used to justify capital punishment and war.
I’m sure all of us remember last July when Ark Encounter opened in Williamsburg, Ky. This picture was taken from a drone in May 2016 of the progress on the building of Noah’s Ark. Notice the sophisticated machinery that was used to craft the ark. Interestingly, the local economy in Williamsburg, Ky., is hurting because of the Ark—in fact the county is facing bankruptcy.
One of the biggest reasons the Ark Encounters opening made national news was because scientist Bill Nye visited the ark to check the accuracy of the exhibits. Nye claims the entire third deck of the ark has inaccurate science exhibits. Nye questioned the science behind the plausibility of the story when he debated Creationist Ken Ham last July. I will end my service with his short presentation.
Kif Corcoran is a Harmony UU member.