One of the most famous stories in the Bible occurs in Genesis, in a passage commonly known as “Noah’s Ark.” In it, God, enraged over human behavior, decides to wipe out everything, in an extinction-by-flood event. Somehow, in the midst of the deity’s hairy-eyed examination of all things wicked, Noah gets the Lord’s attention, and is requisitioned to build a vessel capable of safeguarding his family and propagating samples of each species. And, so on and so forth, until a rainbow appears to signal that this is one-time cleansing.
The story has deep layers, profoundly embedded in the psyches of most of the world’s population, if not as conveyed by Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, by other spiritual traditions that tell a similar tale. The account’s hold on the collective consciousness is no less powerful whether it’s factually true or an ancient version of fake news. The essential elements are what’s important: humans willfully engage in destructive behavior, are thus destroyed, except a handful of righteous and morally untethered creatures, who plant the seeds for a new day. The rainbow is a kind of cherry on top, a sentimental teardrop from a God who isn’t that bad after all.
Noah’s Ark, the story and/or historical incident, is in the air these days. We’ve created the conditions for catastrophic floods and mass species die-offs. Parts of the earth – Niger; Sudan – are becoming uninhabitable as a result of increasingly severe climate conditions, triggering mass migrates searching for a safe harbor. Meanwhile, Elon – a name referring to oak trees in Hebrew; the Ark was made of wood! – and other “meritorious” individuals are building space vessels to evacuate the planet when the time comes.
A thought stroll through the story further illuminates our current condition. While there’s no indication that God issued a broad warning about the impending disaster, or that Noah conveyed the message to his neighbors, the Lord’s actions suggest that people were generally aware that their “wicked” ways could trigger harsh consequences, or at least a substantial time out. That is, the Deity was angry that creation was willfully doing things they knew to be wrong. These weren’t just folks ignorantly playing the fool, which might merit a sharp warning, like a localized flash flood, not the total destruction of the world. Past chronicles – Adam and Eve and the like – forewarned of paradise lost when God gets irritated.
What, exactly, constituted bad behavior was probably fiercely contested. One faction no doubt voraciously argued that it was the fault of the Gays, the abortionists, those creeping across boundaries without permission. Another group pointed to enslaving people, imposition of the death penalty, and bearing false witness. A third denounced those who worshiped the wrong, or too many, gods. And so on and so forth, until everyone stuck their fingers in their ears to block out the noise of those with whom they disagreed, and got back to whatever they were doing, evil or good.
Let’s say an authority figure beyond reproach – the council of elders; the chief water engineer – intervened and stated, unequivocally, that the evil over which God was angry was something pretty much everybody did, like cooking food on open-flamed wood-fueled pits, and unless everyone stopped doing that it was curtains for sure. The announcement would unleash a flurry of fire-putting-out, a scramble for substitutes, and angry muttering that, first they take away our pointy sticks, now this? When the smoke settled, wealthy people would be sitting pretty with their souped-up, new, cookers, fueled by renewable whale blubber; the working class would be forced by decree to construct enclosed fireplaces with specialized exhaust screens, forgoing school fees to pay for the expense; and the poor would be left to eat raw millet, clandestinely cooking the same way they ever did, having no alternative, and, when caught, being ruinously fined for their troubles.
Under pressure, there’d be a political backlash. The council of elders would be replaced, with younger people who have fuller lips; the chief engineer dismissed. While many would avoid returning to their wicked ways, fearing the consequences, others would dive back in, glancing at their neighbors to make sure they were doing the same. Some would even embrace the evil, yearning for God’s touch, however violent it might be.
And then, ba-bam, everyone is drowned.
The rainbow is akin to an abuser handing out a lollypop, his extended hand soaked in the blood of all those just slaughtered, the survivors just happy to be alive, so sweat-stained with relief that they’re ready to forgive and forget whatever nastiness may have occurred. While God announces that they’ll be no future holocausts, there actually are many, with more to come. Perhaps the Lord found a loophole in the purported statement that never again will “all” creatures be eliminated. Hey, upwards of eight million Jews isn’t all, nor is a few hundred thousand Syrians, and, anyways those are not my doing. Nothing to see, move along.
It’s hard not to think that we humans have pushed the repeat button on this story. The details are different, sure, but the theme seems eerily familiar, even comforting. In Noah’s Ark, the original, few of us identify with the wicked; we’re Noah, or his family, or perhaps one of the innocent creatures taken on board the vessel to the future. We, as defined by me, are not the drowned. We are the saved. Looking forward to our colorful sucker.