Noah’s Lesson for Today: Saving Ourselves from the Flood

Posted on October 1, 2019

The story of Noah and the Ark is a Biblical classic. One man tasked with the job of building an ark to save all of the animals of this planet, as God brings down a mighty flood to destroy the earth.

I recently found a retelling of the story moving it to our present day:

God spoke to Noah and said to him: “In one year I am going to make it rain and cover the whole earth with water until everything is destroyed. But I want to save you and your family, along with two of every animal upon the earth. I therefore command you to build an Ark.”

And with a flash of lightning, God delivered the blueprint and schematics for Noah to follow, reminding Noah he had one year to complete the project and have the animals on board.

Exactly one year later, a fierce storm cloud formed and all the seas of the earth went into chaos. God looked for the Ark and found Noah sitting in his front yard weeping.
“Noah.” God shouted, “Where is the Ark?”

“God, please forgive me!” cried Noah. “I did my best but there were big problems. First, I had to get a permit for construction and your plans did not comply with the codes. I had to hire an engineering firm and redraw the plans.

Then I got into a fight with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over whether an ark required a fire sprinkler system and flotation devices. My neighbor objected to me building an ark in my front yard, so I had to apply for a rezoning permit.

When I started rounding up the animals, I got sued by an animal rights group. They objected to me only taking two of each kind aboard. And when that suit was dismissed the Environmental Protection Agency notified me that I could not complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on your proposed flood. They didn’t take very kindly to the idea that they had no jurisdiction over the conduct of the Creator of the universe.

The IRS has seized all my assets, claiming that I’m building the Ark in preparation to flee the country to avoid paying taxes. And now I just got a notice from the State that I owe some kind of user tax and failed to register the Ark as a ‘recreational water craft.’

I don’t think I’m going to be able to finish this ark for another 5 or 6 years.” Cried Noah

Suddenly, the sky began to clear, the sun began to shine and the seas began to calm. A rainbow arched across the sky.

Noah looked up hopefully. “God, is this a sign that you are not going to destroy the Earth?”

“No,” said God sadly. “The government already has!”[1]

I’m not about to make any statements about the government, bureaucracy, or anything else having already destroyed the Earth today. But it is clear that we are at a precarious moment in human history for all sorts of reasons. And maybe it’s worth returning to the very beginning and the story of Noah to think about what we should be doing today.

Ten generations. That is the time it took from the creation of the world, with Adam and Eve as the only humans here, to get to the generation of Noah which God gives up on as utterly corrupt and lawless. The Torah does not go into explicit detail about what had actually gone wrong with humanity, but things are bad enough that God wants to start all over again. The story begins as a lesson about how quickly everything can turn and get completely out of hand. An important cautionary tale if ever there was one.

And then it is also a lesson about our obligations to the environment and the world around us. Noah is not told to go out and tell the people to repent, he is not tasked with saving all of humanity, instead his responsibility is to the animals and his immediate family. The task is to build an ark and to save two of every species of animal or seven pairs of the clean/kosher animals if you read the second chapter of the story. Going back to the very beginning we can see in these instructions the fulfillment of the idea that we are to have dominion over the world and its inhabitants. We people have always borne responsibility for creation; from Adam and Eve being told to till and tend to the land, through until Noah being instructed to save the animals – we are the responsible party here. And it is worth noting that when Noah emerges from the ark he immediately returns to the soil, planting a vineyard and reestablishing what had previously been lost.

As we read the story of the flood today, we might wonder if the flood itself was a punishment for the corruption or actually a consequence? Did the way that the people were behaving in that generation make it inevitable that the world would be destroyed, or did it come about as some divine intervention?

Just this week there was a new report published by Climate Central that shows how significantly more land than previously thought would be underwater by 2050.[2] Using a more accurate way of calculating land elevation based on satellite readings, these scientists have discovered that previous estimates on the effect of the sea level rising were too optimistic. They suggest that currently 150 million people are living on land that will be below the high-tide line by the middle of the century. And this is based on their optimistic prediction that the temperature rises by only 2 degrees Celsius and the polar ice sheets don’t collapse. In their more pessimistic analysis, the number rises to 300 million displaced people.[3]

If sea levels rise and people are displaced, we could see it as a consequence of human behavior, or we could attribute it to divine punishment. The perceived cause may be different, but the end result will be the same. And the question that should be asked is what will we do about it?

And this is where there is room for optimism, the story of Noah does not end with the destruction of the world. Instead the story ends with the salvation of Noah and his family, it ends with a rainbow stretching across the sky, it ends with God’s commitment never to destroy the world by flood again.

We can despair at the situation today and begin drawing up plans for our modern-day arks, something else I will need to ask for help building. As an aside thank you to the O’Donnells for fixing my basketball hoop. Or we can look for some lessons in the story of Noah to inspire us today.

Noah reminds us that salvation is possible. What must he and his family have imagined as they saw the rain begin to fall. There must have been points along the way when they believed that they would not survive. But they persevered and they were able to emerge on the other side. With hard work and dedication they were able to save all the animals of the earth, ensuring that no species would become extinct as a result of the flood and that the human race would continue through their line. We need that hard work and dedication today to protect the planet, our people, and our wildlife.

But Noah also reminds us that sometimes the most important thing we can do is object. There is a rabbinic debate comparing Noah and Abraham, both of them were singled out in their generation, but Abraham is the one who is chosen by God to be the blessing, the covenanted one. The rabbis suggest it is because when Noah is told to build an ark because the world will be destroyed, he immediately starts building. In contrast when Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed, he objects and challenges the decree, arguing with God on behalf of the people. We have an obligation to channel our inner Abraham and to speak out against the destruction of our world, we have to object to the powers that be when we see that survival is on the line.

With this in mind I am so proud of the work of our Temple Shir Tikva environmental task force, who have followed in the line of Abraham, and have established a mission statement for us to object to the destruction of our planet: It begins: “In order to fully enact Temple Shir Tikva’s mission “to do God’s work in the world,” our congregation must act with urgency in responding to climate change. We are Shomrei Adamah (stewards of our Earth) who have the holy task of working towards the Jewish ideals of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Tzedek (justice), and Ba’al Tashchit (prohibition against wanton destruction).”[4]

And then finally we have the rainbow. At the end of this story the symbol that God gives us as a sign that the world will never again be destroyed is a rainbow stretching across the sky. The amazing thing about the rainbow is the way that it brings seven distinct colors together into a single whole, that is more beautiful than any of the colors could be alone. For me the rainbow represents the diversity of God’s creation. It is not that the rainbow symbolizes that God will never again destroy our world, it is instead the message that when all of humanity is able to come together in understanding, partnership, and support our world cannot be destroyed. Together we have the power to save ourselves.

Rather than starting work on building an ark, I would prefer that together we find a way to prevent the flood. I hope that we will try, I believe that we can do it, and I have faith that we will succeed.

TST Environmental Mission Statement

In order to fully enact Temple Shir Tikva’s mission “to do God’s work in the world,” our congregation must act with urgency in responding to climate change. We are Shomrei Adamah (stewards of our Earth) who have the holy task of working towards the Jewish ideals of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Tzedek (justice), and Ba’al Tashchit (prohibition against wanton destruction). We shall educate our community and integrate these values into Temple operations and our daily lives. As we make decisions at Temple Shir Tikva, we will work to identify, carefully consider, and implement options to reduce climate impact. Relying on science-based evidence, we will reduce our congregation’s environmental impact, be visible leaders within our communities, and partner with local, national, and global organizations to advocate for a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient future.


[1] I am not sure what the original source of this joke is.

[4] The full mission statement is included at the end of this sermon.