When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.



(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.

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