In the movie Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney tries to convince P L Travers to let him make Mary Poppins into a movie. She is reluctant to hand over a story that has welled up from her own childhood for fear that Disney will trivialise it . She needs it to be told right because it is the story she is telling about her own father. If it is ruined, she will not have peace.
While she fears disorder, Disney asks her to trust him as a storyteller because
that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.
Noah’s story wasn’t written to be a “factual” account. The Jews are a reflective people who tended to take the stories they encountered and reshaped them in an attempt to make sense of their place in the cosmos and their relationship with Yahweh. The flood is a pretty common near east story which makes it a useful context from which to tell a bigger story.
Is it simply the story of God being angry, of nearly destroying his creation and then placing all his bets on one righteous man while promising not to do it again (even though said righteous man blows it soon after hitting dry land)? Or is there something deeper here?
What if you were a people who saw their fair share of chaos and violence and brutality. What if you were reflecting on the terrible empires you had been exposed to and the evil that people could conjure up, including your own. What if you listened to stories from your region about a great flood that threatened to wipe everyone out.
What if God had ever thought about using a flood to get rid of a humanity who would not buckle down and accept his sovereignty over creation and his plan to order it?
The storyteller imagines a crisis for God. Humanity, which he lovingly and intimately made, chooses to rebel against him and ignore his will, thus spoiling the creation they are an integral part of. The storyteller imagines the internal dialogue of God. “Should I let these people keep on doing this evil or should I just cut my losses and get rid of them? Maybe not all of them. Maybe I’ll start over again with one family and see if it works out differently.”
This is the drama. We do our evil. We confound God’s sovereignty and make our own way and our own mess. What would the story be like if God decided he could do without us? Those are fearsome questions for a storyteller to ponder.
So, the storyteller does what Disney describes: creating order where there is much chaos. The storyteller tells the story of what might be the outcome if God sent a flood which wipes out all the humans except for one supposedly righteous family. The writer comes to two conclusions:
God decides that he wouldn’t do this again.
Where there is a person, there is the opportunity for chaos again and again. Noah and his family turn out to be as prone to blowing it as Adam and Eve.
Taking this story and reading it through the lens of Jesus, the one righteous man who is capable of restoring a damaged and drifting creation, the flood is a way of seeing what God’s options are when dealing with a creation in rebellion. It invites us to reflect on the possible outcome: destroying it has no good ending but neither does letting it run wild. It invites us to look, with God, for a better way.
It’s not so much an history as a reflection on how God is not detached from from us and how we are not detached from Him.
Christians can look back at the story and see that Jesus is like a fulfilment of the rainbow promise; a promise that God loves the world so much that he doesn’t enter it to condemn it but rather to save it.