Noah: Does the flood story have a message for adults


Genesis 6:9-11:32

Isaiah 66:1-24

The story of Noah appears among the earliest biblical plays in English. In these mystery plays, members of various guilds presented elaborations of the biblical narrative for their fellow villagers.

These plays, like stained-glass church windows, vividly conveyed the story, delivering a standard Christian interpretation to the largely illiterate audience. But before it could appear as a play, the typically spare biblical account needed fleshing out, filling in, imaginative invention. The medieval playwrights supplied that invention, personalizing the story.

In these mysteries, Noah appears as a tired old man, daunted by trying to cope with a great task. In the old York play cycle, the guilds of shipbuilders, fishers and mariners cooperated to present the play of Noah. Sounding like the craftsman who played his part, Noah talks to himself about the importance of cutting and gluing boards accurately in order to build a ship. Sounding like any cautious husband, Noah worries out loud about how he can tell his bad-tempered wife about his peculiar mission.

I imagine the medieval audience laughing at the fighting between Noah and his wife, but mostly enjoying the play for reminding them of events that they all believed happened long ago. The anonymous playwright crafted the drama so Noah addresses any residual skepticism among the audience.

By the early 20th century, audience skepticism had ruined this story for the theater; Noah and the great flood rarely served as a theme in works for adults. The educated public had encountered anthropological explanations for the flood story, as flood myths were found among many different cultures.

Nearly every civilization originated near a river, so nearly all experienced devastating floods at one time or another. Perhaps many peoples saw themselves as survivors of the universal flood.

In addition, literal readings of the Bible became more problematic among those who had witnessed awesome advances in technology.

According to Murray Roston, professor of English at Bar-Ilan University and author of the fine book "Biblical Drama in England," dramatists who worked on biblical themes came to prefer the story of David, "which contained no instances of temporary suspension of natural law." Stories like Noah, of "divine participation in human affairs," became too awkward, raising too many questions of belief.

And so on through our own time, we do not often find a serious, adult retelling of the story of Noah. We find many beautiful, sincere children's books on the story, most of which present it in a sort of "willing suspension of disbelief," without considering questions of meaning or believability.

I also recall two versions of the story for young adults: a fantasy by Madeleine L'Engle and a moving contemporary setting of the story by the late Barbara Cohen in "Unicorns and the Rain." In versions for adults, we find primarily comic presentations of the story, including the unforgettable monologue by Bill Cosby. But the story of the flood has seemed beyond serious treatment for adults.

And yet various trends in thought have come together to give the story renewed significance. Scientists have taught us of the great die-offs that periodically denude the world of most of its species. They tell us that we, along with all the animals and plants in our experience, descend from the few survivors who replenish the earth in the aftermath of each die-off. Many scientists suspect that humans caused some of the more recent die-offs. It seems certain that human impact on the environment right now causes a massive current wave of extinctions.

So, unexpectedly, we find ourselves identifying with the species that thoughtlessly endangers the animal world, and with the lonely few who must help the animals survive. When we think of Noah, we suddenly feel that we have all wound up in the same boat.