Noah’s Burden: A personal ecological reflection on Noah

Dr Richard Goode navigates the story of Noah and its clarion call today from his own canal boat in the West Midlands. Richard shows us that through biblical catastrophe, we can find more holistic ways to live in the world through Christ’s saving hope and a renewed vision of creation.

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The story of Noah and the flood is found in Genesis 6:1-8:19. It functions as a narrative pivot within, what biblical scholars term as, Israel’s ‘primaeval history’. This is a theological retelling of the nation of Israel’s history from the beginning of time leading to God’s selection of Abram as progenitor of the Israelite nation. The account, as we have it today, principally comprises two different narratives. The first is dated to around Iron Age I period (9th century BC) – although quite possibly earlier. Drawing on Mesopotamian deluge myths, the story’s acts as a bridge between the world of Adam and the world that is more recognisable to the writer. Its role is primarily aetiological, explaining why things are the way they are; why there are rain and rainbows, the origins of neighbouring states and nations, and the context of the covenants between Yahweh (their God) and his people. The later account is considered to have been composed in the 5th to 4th century BC, at the time the two stories were woven together to form a single narrative. The editorial process helps to explain the sometime uneven flow, repetitions, disjunctions and, what appear to some, as internal contradictions within the text. This latter account develops the theological ideas of righteousness and sacrifice (particularly the importance of blood). Importantly, the writer also reflects a growing urbanised attitude to the land and creation.     

Noah is an important prophetic figure in the three faiths that share the biblical tradition, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and it is tempting to present him as a proto ecowarrior, who (under God’s instruction), saves human and non-human life from extinction. However, this ignores some problematic aspects of this story. Faced today with climate breakdown, how can I, as someone committed to environmental and ecological change, make sense of that most violent and destructive of stories, the flood?

What follows is a very personal reflection on Noah. Rather than approaching it from a historical or literary perspective, I am reading it canonically. In other words, as a narrative that has been developed and is part of the wider Christian tradition.

I live on a canal boat in a world of reflected skies and reeds. Its banks lie thick with nettle, sorrel and sedge, where flames of loosestrife flare, scented by the haze of the unlucky, water-loving, meadowsweet. Summers flash electric with the blues, greens and golds of dragonfly and demoiselle and the swinging dart of kingfishers. This nomadic aspect of my life amplifies that this is not MY land. Other lives and communities live here. They too have a claim on it. It is their world and their home.

Each time we moor, the ropes are tightened, and the engine is silenced. Quietness falls, gently flowing and pooling into the void left by noise and activity. But just sit here for fifteen minutes and the world fills with life. First the waters still. It is as if you are the only living soul on the earth falling helter-skelter through time to the dawn of creation. Then through that veil of silence sounds emerge. The soft rasp and rustle of the wind among reeds that ruffles the still waters where carp and pike lie. Is this the same ruach (the wind, the breath, the spirit) that fluttered bird-like over the chaotic waters of the tehom, the abyss (Genesis 1:2)? Is there still ruach among the rushes? Then the eye catches the movements of small insects in in mists of dance and the rippled hint of minnow and stickleback and fry. Birds begin to call, and the hedges and trees soon bristle with song. Duck and moorhen appear, and, if you stay still long enough, heron and fox, rabbit and vole will come.

This is not the ordered creation of the Genesis accounts. This is the vibrant, beautifully spontaneous creation of Job (Job 38-42), bursting with singing stars and untameable wildness. This is a creation in which humans play no part. There is no room for them in this exuberant celebration of God’s relationship with the non-human world. Like the creation in Psalm 104, humans are decentred. These accounts loudly declare that creation is as much for the non-human communities as it is for humans and that God prodigiously rejoices in them all. It is this creation that is reflected in the great ecological eruption of praise of the ancient Jewish text, the Perek Shirah. All life, from ant to lion, lift their voices to join in a daily act of communal worship. If you want to know how a snail or scorpion or horse worships God, read the Perek Shirah. That symphony of worship has become depleted under our watch. 70% of the world’s avian population are now farmed fowl. What song does the broiler chicken sing to God? Only 4% of the world’s population of mammals are wild (humans and livestock comprise 96%). But that chorus is still there, diminished and thin, but it is still there.

When these times come, when we feel a part of creation anew, it is not back to Eden that we should look. It is not from Adam that we should seek guidance and wisdom. No matter how much ecologically we want to return to the past, we cannot. Eden has gone. This is not the tov meod (‘very good’) creation (Genesis 1:31) that greeted Eve, wide-eyed, as she took her first lungful of cedar-scented air. We have let too many ecological tipping-points slip through our fingers. Instead, this is the creation that greeted Noah as the doors of the ark swung open, high on a drenched Mount Ararat. This is a planet that has suffered the tumultuous catastrophes of ecocide. The world that Noah (and we) inherited is no Eden – although echoes of Eden’s music can still sometimes be heard. It is an unbalanced world, a world out of kilter. A world compromised by human action. Noah was the new Adam set loose in a new world for which he is to be, partly, responsible.

For forty days Noah, and those within the ark’s hollowed hull, braved the unmaking of creation as a confluence of the waters that had been parted at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:7) foamed and roared upon the earth (Genesis 7:11). Then for nearly a year, as the vessel creaked to the maelstroms and currents of the chaotic waters – the unleashed tehom – that washed over the eagle-haunted mountain peaks, Noah must have nurtured and watched the life aboard. “Serve (avad) and protect (shamar) my garden.” God had told Adam (Genesis 2:15). It is the vocabulary of selfless acts and love. No wonder these terms later become associated with the priesthood (for example, Numbers 18:21). And so they sailed on in their dark, gopherwood world; one small family ‘priesting’ the world of animals and birds. A little ship saved from the ship-wrecked earth. Then one day that world shook with the jolting, booming, cacophony of wooden hull scraped on stone and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat’s flanks (Genesis 8:4).      

As the ark’s great doors swung open, Noah stepped out into a new world, a new creation. It was a world ordered by a new covenant made by God to all living things (Genesis 9:9). It offered protection, but it also came with a cost. On Ararat’s rocky peak, the boundaries between divine and human and animals shifted, fracturing the old community of humans and non-humans. Humans were accorded new powers previously restricted to divinity and given the right to kill animals for food (Genesis 9:3). Although every killing would be accounted for (Genesis 9:5), the relational bond between the old communities, characterised by Genesis 2:15, was broken. It was at this point, severed from human communities, that non-human life becomes commodified in terms of utility; a resource to be exploited. The priestly language of Adam’s role, of service and care, is now replaced with the vocabulary of violence and warfare.

“The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” (Genesis 9:2 NRSV)

If you go to museums and read the ancient inscriptions of one nation going to war against another, these words will appear familiar. This is a ‘war oracle’, a pronouncement promising “fear and dread,” made by an aggressor preceding an invasion. “Into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:2,3); the martial language of warfare and conquest (see, for example, Genesis 14:20). The vocabulary of the ‘othering’ of the natural world had begun. The environment was no longer a shared space of living communities in which God delights, but a hostile landscape to be subdued and exploited. The agreement is sealed by the symbol of violence and warfare set in the clouds, God’s bow (qeshet) (Genesis 9:13). How far we have wandered from Eden’s garden. 

Standing there on Mount Ararat, under that bow, did Noah realise that the ark had been, in effect, a floating larder stocked with the resources for his (and humankind’s) survival? Here we begin to glimpse the great burden of Noah and it is one that weighs heavily on our generation. This was as much about the commodification and exploitation of species as it was their salvation.

Noah, when God shut you in on the ark (Genesis 7:16), did you realise that you were to become the architect of a new world that no longer listens for creation’s symphony of worship and values it according to its economies? Waiting in the dark, did you feel the same anger and burning sense of complicity and helplessness that I do? Did you too feel as paralysed as I do? Did your spirit rebel as mine does at the part you are forced to play in an ideology and system that creates destruction and not beauty, unable now to walk the earth without harming it?

As you waited in that wood-scented watery darkness, adrift on the sea swell above the mountains, did you understand what kind of world awaited you? For, tell me this, if you did. If you knew all of this. If you knew that you would exit the ark at war with the elements. That standing on Ararat’s sodden ground, you would no longer walk this earth as a guardian in its service but as a colonist, set apart and detached from it? If you knew all this, I would have hammered on those great doors, beating them with my fists, crying, “Don’t you dare open these doors! Bar them tight! You have no idea what destruction you are letting loose upon this planet. By domesticating and taming the wilderness, you will create a greater wilderness of untamed human greed and hubris. In forcing order upon the wild, you will create a landscape scarred by the disorder of social and environmental disharmony and disconnection. Your ark will be as Gilgamesh’s axe, felling the cedar forests of Humbaba. It cannot be undone and leads to death and the eviscerating anger of the Kibroth-hattaavah (‘Graves of Lust’) where divine account is called for the spilled blood of the quail (Numbers 11:31-32). The bearers of the imago dei will leave a trail of fear, pain, and destruction wherever the soil is touched by their shadows.”     

Or is that the great burden that you were given, Noah? Because you had found favour in the eyes of Yahweh (Genesis 6:8) because you were blameless and righteous (Genesis 6:9)? In you, in some measure, remained the imprint (tselem/imago) of the goodness, the beauty, the wholeness (tov), that creation bore (Genesis 1:31). Was that why only you could bear this burden? How could anyone bear such a weight?

Were there times when you woke up to the pre-dawn glow in the east and listen, like me, for the swell of song? And, like me, did your heart break at its thinness and mourn for the lost voices; voices that no longer sing praise to God because of human action (Genesis 6:5-7)? Did you, look back to the world before the flood, still framed with Eden’s balance, and grieve for a creation that is now lost? Tell me how you bore that weight.

Did you lie awake with images of mothers and fathers, grandmothers and children being swept away. Eyes of fear and terror. Or could you rationalise and brush aside their deaths as easily as we can do today when we too are faced with lives lost in floods, mudslides, storms, and cyclones? We say the right things and acknowledge that their death is desperately sad, but not worth sacrificing the national or global economy. Did you too learn to find ways to make their deaths an acceptable cost to your survival? Or did you feel as trapped and as complicit as I do, in that no matter how much I try to walk beautifully on the earth, I am culpable for the damage and hurt my life causes and yet I am incapable of avoiding it?

Noah, how can you bear that great burden? I – no – we need to know. We too are living through an ecocide caused by our actions. We too see (though we choose not to) the terror and struggle for life in the life we consume. We too are so aware of the fear that our presence causes in field and moor. For we are as much your children as we are the children of Eve and Adam. And the landscape in which you had to walk is so much more recognisable to me than Eden could ever be.

And yet there is one huge difference for those of us who are brave enough to accept it. After Noah our narratives fork and continue. Within Judaism the offspring of Noah receive the laws for living beautifully in their given land; bal taschit (‘do not destroy’) and tikkun olam (‘world repair’). In Islam the revelation of tawhid (‘oneness’) and khalifa (‘guardianship’) are given. And within Christianity, the story continues. Unlike Noah, we slide back the hatch to a creation resounding with new hymns, the refrains of which the communities of the soil (adamah) pick up (Romans 8:19-24); ‘Christ is arisen!’ Upon a tree, hewn down by imperial hands, the son of God dies that the cosmos would be saved (John 3:16), restored, healed.

If the Christian story has anything to say to the climate and environmental catastrophes that we are facing – and it must, or it becomes the irrelevant indulgence of a privileged few. If it has anything to speak to the enormity of the problems that we as a species and as a planet face, it is this: Christ has arisen, and the new age and kingdom awaits. It awaits as it awaited Adam. It awaits as it awaited Noah. Humankind awaits for the burden of Noah to be lifted from our shoulders and for creation to sings songs of healing. The hour is late – for some too late – and there are still too few who are reading the signs.

But the message of the risen Christ is one of hope and action and if there is ever an hour where hope and action is needed it is now.

Dr Richard Goode is a Senior Lecturer in Theology at Newman University, Birmingham; Director of the Syneidon Project which he set up in 2007 to explore and develop dialogues between faith communities and academics in relation to the Bible and its use; and lives on a canal boat in the West Midlands where he’s been creating a weekly podcast about canal life: ‘Nighttime on Still Waters’: