Those of you who went to Sunday school or Hebrew school when you were kids may have happy images in your head of Noah and the Ark: smiling giraffes and cows and lions going two by two up the ramp into the big boat; Noah and his family waving like they’re going on a cruise; and, of course, the end of the story when the flood subsides and you have that post-rain wet sidewalk smell, and everything is all sparkly, clean and new, with a beautiful rainbow in the sky. This is how it always looks in the kids’ picture books.
But the reality of how it’s described in the text, and the reality of modern day floods, is not so happy. As we’ve recently seen in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and India and so many other places around the world, we are getting storms and floods today that are increasingly biblical in their
proportions, and nobody is smiling and waving (unless for help).
We tend to think of the sixth UU source of our living tradition, the one that refers to “Earth-based religions,” as being the spiritual source that connects our UU theology with the earth. It’s an important one, but it’s not the only one. There is, for instance, plenty of theological material about our relationship with the earth in our first source, “Jewish and Christian teachings.” Judaism and Christianity are the grandparent and parent of our faith. Our ideas about the relationship between humans and the earth were birthed in those traditions.
One idea in particular has resonated through the millennia: that at root, humans and the earth are one and the same. In the beginning of the Biblical origin myth, God takes a handful of earth (in Hebrew, adamah) and breathes life into it to create the first human (adam). Adamah, adam. The adam has no gender, no race, no language, no religion, no political affiliation. Neither a Yankees fan nor a Mets fan, it is simply an earthling—a creature made out of earth and infused with the spirit, the breath of God.
The adam later splits into two and does all kinds of things, good and bad. But it’s important to remember that the Jewish and Christian traditions envision that there was a pre-social time—a time before we created culture or were shaped by culture—when we were literally one with the earth.
Through the generations we’ve sensed that the earth is our essence. It is our home, our origin and our final resting place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When we bury a loved one’s body or sprinkle ashes in a sacred place, we feel that we are returning them to their source. And it’s true, of course. Earth becomes plants, which become our bodies either by our eating the plants directly or indirectly through our eating animals who ate the plants.
And when we die the remains of our body become the earth again. Even if it takes a thousand years (because we’ve embalmed and encased the body in caskets within caskets, trying to fend off the inevitable), eventually we return to the earth. The late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church pointed out that English has the same connection as Hebrew does between the words for “human” and “earth.” He used to say, “The most beautiful of all etymologies is human, humane, humility, humble, humus.”
So what happens to the earthling in the Genesis story? The earthling is given a garden, the text says, with every kind of tree that is beautiful and good for food. There are four rivers running through it to water the garden—a kind of natural irrigation system. It is a paradise where the earthling, like a baby, is given everything that it needs. The earthling is also given limits on the use of these natural elements. Use only part of what’s here, which will be more than enough for you, God says.
As most of us know from the story, that doesn’t go so well. The earthling becomes two earthlings and they succumb to temptation to take more than the bounty they’ve been given. They get cast out of the garden, and life for the first time becomes hard. Now they have to work the earth to grow food.
And things just get worse from there. Jealousy and greed crop up. Brothers fight. Cain murders Abel and then refuses to take responsibility for it, saying the famous dismissive line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The earth itself speaks up, as God says to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground!”
And then there’s the flood. The Genesis text introduces the flood story by saying:
And God regretted having made humankind in the earth. And God’s heart grieved. And God said, “I’ll wipe out the adam whom I’ve created from the face of the earth, from human to animal to creeping thing, and to the bird of the skies, because I regret that I made them.”
This is really an astounding thing to appear in the opening chapters of the foundational text of Jewish and Christian traditions. It’s so painful, like a parent saying, “I’m sorry I had you.” It’s the worst condemnation possible. The text says that God saw humankind’s “badness” on the earth such that “every plan devised by humanity’s mind was nothing but bad all the time.” And when God explains the flood to Noah, God says it’s because “the earth is filled with violence.”
Noah is an exception. It is said that Noah “walked with God.” He’s described as a “righteous man, blameless in his age.” Now, that’s an interesting way to put it. Blameless in his age. The “in his age” sounds like a qualifier, like when people say that so-and-so is honest—for a politician. It’s not entirely a compliment. Noah isn’t blameless in an absolute sense; he isn’t perfect. He’s just pretty good relative to his times, which apparently are pretty bad. He’s real. He’s good but he’s real. He walks with God. He’s trying. And so God chooses him and his family to survive and pass those pretty good genes on to the rest of humanity.
But God chooses him for an even more important function as well. God chooses Noah to build the ark. Now, in those children’s picture books, the ark is always a pretty wooden boat with lots of windows, but what Noah is instructed to build is really just a giant box. God gives very detailed specifications: so many cubits wide and long and tall, seal the edges with pitch, three stories, one window, and a door on the side. And bring in two of every living creature to be protected from the storm. Two elephants, two mosquitoes and two of everything in between.
Noah is also supposed to bring in every type of plant that is good for food—presumably food for humans and animals, which would pretty much include every type of plant. Every kind of seed would need to be there so that the plants could regenerate. So Noah is given the responsibility for bringing the entire living biodiversity of the earth into the safety of the ark.
You would think Noah might find this a little burdensome, even a little unfair. You would think he might complain, “Hey, I’m not the one who ate the fruit from the tree I wasn’t supposed to eat! I’m not the one who was jealous and manipulative! I haven’t been violent! I’m not the one who killed my brother and then denied it! Why should I have to clean up a mess that I did not make?” That is the $64,000 question for today’s age as well. Why should we have to clean up a mess that we did not make?
The parallels between this ancient myth and our real life story today are chilling. In each, it is human wrongdoing, misuse of natural elements and violence that brings the threat of destruction to the earth. In each, the destruction threatens not only the humans who caused it, but also all living creatures. In each, the destruction is to be carried out by means of flood—storms, a deluge of rain, and a powerful rising of waters. And in each, it is only through the actions of imperfect people willing to take responsibility for cleaning up a mess that we did not make that life can be saved.
If Noah is a hero because of anything, it’s because of this. He takes responsibility even though he isn’t guilty. He does everything he can to make things right again. We haven’t singlehandedly made the choices that caused the past year’s devastating hurricane season. But it was likely made more severe by the choices of our age, our time. We haven’t personally polluted the earth or the oceans. But the economic systems in which we participate have. None of us by ourselves caused global warming. But the people of our generation and our parents’ generation did. And it’s up to us to take responsibility for it.
There is no singularly evil person who deserves all the blame. And there is no saint, no one blameless in an absolute sense, no one perfect or singularly qualified to fix it all. There is only us—good in our age. We each walk with the God of our understanding in our own way and we try.
In the modern version of building an ark we don’t have the benefit of detailed instructions. It’s a lot more complicated these days. But we do have the wisdom of the stories of our traditions—stories that paint for us a picture of a different relationship with the earth. We have the ancient teaching that we are adam—made of earth and not separate from it. We have the vision of a beautiful garden in which we live simply and in peace, taking no more from it than we need.
And we have an inkling of what it means to care so much for every person, every species, every form of life on this earth, that we bring every single one into our circle and into our ark of compassion. May we be blessed, like Noah, with the courage to clean up messes that we did not make, and with the strength to weather whatever storms may come our way.