The story of Noah and his ark is often one of the first biblical narratives children learn and one of those most widely-known by adults. With many Scripture stories being unapologetically anthropocentric, there is something endearing yet dramatic about the inclusion of every perfectly paired-up creature-couple in this perilous tale of survival. With the assurance that, thanks to Noah, every creation breathed into existence by God continues to live, we tend not to think much about the unfortunate members of each species who were left in the waters below the ark’s hull. Yet, when climatic phenomenon such as Hurricane Harvey hit, the plight of those caught in great floods surges to the forefront of our attention. Could this situation have been prevented? Who will save these worthy souls? How will life be restored to right relation after the water subsides? Can I help? The story of the Great Flood and Noah’s role throughout its unfolding suggest much for how humanity is called to act in response to today’s rapidly changing weather patterns and our own, increasingly prevalent, great floods.
The creation accounts of Genesis make known the human call to care for creation (Gen. 1:28). The story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6) clarifies exactly what that means and suggests the interconnected way in which human and non-human creation’s survival must be conceptualized. Anne M. Clifford writes:
God gives Noah a mission. He is to participate in God’s plan for the survival of living species. God instructs Noah to build a huge ark and directs, “Of all kinds of birds, of all kinds of beasts, two of each will come into the ark to stay alive” (Gen. 6:20). The species of the earth that were gathered included clean and unclean, domesticated and wild animals. Many of these animals were of no real use to the people. God’s directive makes the meaning of having dominion clear: Noah and his family are charged with seeing to the survival of the other living creatures (not only the ones of direct benefit to humans).
The survival of all creation is prioritized not because of any direct value or benefit it holds for us personally, but because each creation serves a purpose in God’s grand design and, furthermore, all creation is of God and deserves to live. God’s command to humans about their role in creation’s survival does not present a passive relationship, where we merely coexist, or even a relationship where we consciously refrain from destroying or harming non-human creation. What God’s command calls for is conscious, compassionate action on the part of humanity to see to the survival, livelihood, and flourishing of all.
It is difficult to deny that the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, sea water levels, and the earth’s temperature are rising are primarily due to the actions of humans. We know that irresponsible use and abuse of creation has ushered in much of the climate change and environmental degradation experienced today. Storms exist as part of the natural weather patterns on the planet, but warmer oceans produce stronger storms and heavier rains, which in turn increase flooding. “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted,” Pope Francis writes, by our attempt to dominate and control creation, by our insistence on consuming that which was not meant for our limitless use. He explains, “Responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature.” This requires looking beyond immediate and personal desires and considering how one’s choices affect the entirety of creation. It is good to aid those suffering in the wake of the storm, but it is better to prevent the storm in the first place by
(as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si) “respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator.” Just as on Noah’s ark, Clifford explains, “human survival and that of animals are intimately related (Gen 7:1-4).” Pope Francis is right: “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.” And neither does the world today.
In the biblical story of the Great Flood, Clifford notes, “we find God deeply grieved about the extent of the wickedness of human beings. Their sins result in an ecological disaster of worldwide proportions.” While the particular sins in question may differ, the underlying themes of the Scripture story and our current reality are the same. Act justly or bad things happen. This is not a divine threat, but the natural consequence of disregarding the rhythms and relationships designed by God. Acting in discordance with God’s will brings disaster; acting in accordance with God’s will brings abundant life.
Noah, in an example of right relationship between God, humanity, and non-human creation, is entrusted with all of creation’s care. This gives us direction and this gives us hope. Pope Francis tells us, “Although ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’ (Gen 6:5) . . . through Noah, who remained innocent and just, God decided to open a path of salvation…. All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” Imagine the significant impact that can be made by many of us collaborating together and cooperating with God.
On September 1st, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued the first ever Joint Message on the World Day of Prayer for Creation, a message that both states and reflects the necessity of working together to restore right relation among creation. Appealing to those in social, economic, cultural, and political positions of power expands their emphasis even beyond the context of theists. Creation care is an issue of universal importance from an ethical perspective. For believers, it is also an issue of salvation.
God designed creation in a way that allows it to survive, to grow, to adapt, to flourish! Human beings are a part of this sacred creation–arguably the only part that has acted in a way that disrupts the incredible design, but also, the only part that has the ability to make it right. With Noah as faithful environmentalist exemplar, we must strive to listen to God’s call in the face of rising storms today. The floods can be prevented and God calls each of us to participate in that mission.
Stephanie Clary will receive her MA in Systematic Theology from Catholic Theological Union as a Bernardin Scholar and currently serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.