Sunday 22nd April – 9am Worship
Sermon Series: Colourful Teaching
Bible Readings: Genesis 9:8-17
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
There is a story that I need to tell because some of you might not know it.
A very long, long time ago there was a righteous man and at the same time there was an angry God. God had become angry because humankind had become wicked … so wicked that this God though that the only way forward was to wipe everybody out with a worldwide flood and start again.
But God knew about this righteous man and went to him and said that he should build an ark and fill it with animals and some family and friends and this ark would protect them from the massive flood.
God gave very specific instructions. I want you to build the ark 120 cubits long, 120 cubits wide and 120 cubits high – which means that the boat is a perfect 60m sized cube … which is an odd shape for a boat but you are not going to argue with God.
This righteous man did what God asked, he got some builders and built the boat to the exact specifications. As they were finishing, the dark clouds were forming so they loaded the ark up with every type of animal, they loaded up with gold and silver, they got a boatman, a crew and a pilot and friends and family and a few other people and they went on the ark and the rain became torrential and the water came out from the earth and this ark with its oars and rudder started to rise and begin to navigate this massive storm.
The storm lasted 7 days and 7 nights and this righteous man and the crew were unbelievable skilled and brave in the face of this massive storm and they skilled navigated this storm heroically until the storm died down. And when it did the righteous man opened a window and when he felt the cool breeze on his face he wept with joy.
Back then, boats didn’t come with GPS so what this righteous man used to find land was a bird. You let a bird go and if it came back then there was no land nearby but if it didn’t come back then it found land and you had better paid attention to which way they bird flew.
So this righteous man sends out a swallow but it returns. So he sends out a dove but that returns. So he sends out a raven and that returns but then leaves and does not return. They know that the waters are receding. They come to rest on a mountaintop and eventually embark from the ark and this righteous man makes an altar and honours God with a burnt offering.
God is pleased with the offering and promises the righteous man two things –
1) that God will never do that again and
2) that he will grant the righteous man the “breath of the Gods” which means that he will have the life of the God – or to live like a God, you will become immortals. That his man and his wife would be taken to an island beyond the horizon and live there with the other immortals. And sure enough this happened to this man … which was a wonderful blessing.
Of course you know the righteous man I am referring to in this story? His name is Utna-pishtim and the God in this story is Ea.
Ea was one of the five god’s of Babylon.
I see some confused looks on people’s faces? Let me explain.
What I just told you was not the biblical story of Noah but rather the Babylonian story of the great flood as recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh which was written around 1500 BCE.
You may have noticed some similarities between the story of Noah and the Epic of Gilgamesh? Did you notice the similarities? (Did you notice it wasn’t Noah?)
Actually there is a number of stories from different ancient people groups that are similar – about a great flood and a brave and skilful hero who navigates the flood in an animal filled ark and God blesses him with eternal life.
But it was the Babylonian story of Utna-pishtim that was the dominant story of that ancient near eastern era for thousands of years. It was the story which people told and retold because it encapsulated the understanding of life, justice, the character of God, heroism and immortality. This story was the accepted dogma for most of the known world for thousands of years.
But it is all a bit confusing.
Did the Babylonians copy the Bible story of Noah?
Did the writers of the Bible copy the Babylonian story of Utna-pishtim?
Were there two boats floating around in the flood?
Did the flood actually happen at all?
Let’s start with the last one. Historians suggest that the fact that there are multiple stories about a massive flood and someone surviving in an ark means that yes – there probably was a flood. It is too big of a co-incident. You can’t have different people making up the same stuff. So yes, we can be confident that there was a flood and an ark.
But whose story is it? The Babylonians? The Israelites? Both of them? Historian just don’t know. We would argue that the original story is Noah because it is in the bible … but from a historical point of view, there is no answer.
But I think that there is something quite profound to be discovered by holding these two stories together and look at the differences. I believe that the variations found in the Biblical text highlights how we still understand God and life.
Let’s see how this go.
Firstly … let’s look at the gods in each story.
• In the Epic of Gilgamesh there are actually five Gods who get frustrated with the “noise” coming from earth. To them, humans are just a nuisance, a distraction.
• But in Genesis 6:6 we read that when the God almighty looked on earth he was grieved and his heart ached because humans had turned away from God.
Profound difference, isn’t it? How do you understand the character of God? In your mind, does God see you as a nuisance, a frustration … or does God see you as something immensely special to him and is heartbroken if you turn from him?
Let’s focus on the main characters in both stories. In that era, names were very important. The meaning of a person’s name reflected who they were.
• Utna-pishtim means immortal, a superhero
• Noah means … well actually it has no meaning. The closest that the commentators can get is that Noah is close to the Hebrew word Noach which means peace, rest, comfort.
Contrast their actions…
• Utna-pishtim – is skilful, brave, lead his team, navigated the storm etc
• After Noah built the ark … what did Noah do? Nothing. He didn’t even close the door. Genesis 6:17 tells us that God shut to door of the ark for him.
Noah was a passive character … not a hero. The Babylonians in their version changed the main character into a brave, skilful superhero … but I think that they are missing the point. It is the nature of the Almighty God to not necessarily choose the most powerful, skilful “superhero” person to help with God’s plans but rather God chooses the one who was faithful and trusting. It is a pattern throughout the Bible … God has a bias towards the little people … to those who have no other choice but to rely on God.
And this is shown in the other major difference between the two stories – the arks themselves.
• The Epic of Gilgamesh’s ark was that weird cube with rudders and oars and a crew to control it. It was built so that the hero was in control.
• Noah’s ark was a rectangle box that had nothing. No oars, no rudder, no crew … not even a door handle on the inside of the boat. Once Noah was on the ark there was absolutely no way he could control it.
Isn’t that a perfect analogy of the difference between a secular approach to life and a spiritual approach to life.
The floodwater can represent the tough times in our lives, when things don’t go the way we think they should go. When we are feeling out of our depth how do we respond? Do we try to navigate the storm in our own strength; use our skills and try to solve the problems ourselves. Often yes.
But the story of Noah is trying to teach us that “we can’t solve the problem of a flood” … its too big, is too hard. Ask any residents who have lived a huge cyclone or bushfire. When faced with this enormous power of nature you realise that you can’t solve the problem in your own strength. Rather you just needed to find a safe place to wait it out.
Maybe, maybe the hero in our bible story for today is not Noah but the ark. Think about it. The ark is Noah’s safe place. It is the place that protects him from the wind, the waves, the storm, the flood. In the ark he can find peace, rest and comfort … just wait, isn’t that what Noah sort of means … peace, rest and comfort. Maybe “Noah’s ark” doesn’t only refer to the ark owned by Noah but could also refer to the ark of peace and rest and comfort. After all … isn’t the story of Noah’s ark ultimately a story of God’s provision, protection, saving power and care in the midst of calamity and suffering.
Are you getting what I am saying here because I think it is directly related to us. When we are facing life’s storms, when the deep waters of tough times are rising and we feel like we are totally out of our depth … don’t try to solve the problem by ourselves … look for an ark.
The best part is that we don’t have to build the ark … it is already there. Our understanding is that our ark is the love of God that we find in Jesus – in his life and death and resurrection. In our tough times, we can find of peace and rest and comfort in our faith in God. That is our ark.
And when you are in that place, that place of God’s provision, protection, saving power and care … we don’t have to do anything. We just have to stay in the boat, to rest in God.
So if storms clouds are brewing around you …
Don’t try and be the superhero.
Find your ark in God. Find your rest and peace in God.
At the end of each of the three sermons in this series we are going to ask you two questions…
1) What about the story was new for you?
2) How does this story make you want to live differently?