Why Was Noah Silent at the End of the World?
NOAH'S ARK IS a strange children’s story. We decorate nurseries and bedrooms with animals marching two-by-two. The images festoon baby items and fill the pages of countless children’s books. I’ve sat on the floors of many church nurseries playing with babies and Noah’s ark toys and questioned its appropriateness. I’ve thought about Noah and his family closing the door and being sealed inside. I’ve thought about them hearing the sound of rain and the people banging desperately on those closed doors. I’ve thought about the cries and the banging becoming quieter and quieter, about the gut-wrenching silence as the voices were swallowed by the sound of rain.
In a recent essay on her blog, Life is a Sacred Text, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes that while the Bible calls Noah a “righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9), the Zohar, a Kabbalistic text that first appeared in 13th century Spain, doesn’t see him so favorably. The author ties him not to the survival of the animals but to the deaths of everyone else. “Noah did not plea for mercy on behalf of the world, and they all perished, because the Holy One ... had told him that he and his children would be saved by the ark” (Zohar 1:67b). Noah’s complicity in the people’s deaths is so bad that, in Isaiah, the floodwaters are named after him: “For this is as the waters of Noah to me; as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth” (Isaiah 54:9, emphasis mine).
I’ve wondered if this story that celebrates obedience immunizes us to the suffering of others—if it teaches us to see suffering as proof of God’s judgment. Just following orders is no excuse. Neither is thinking you are chosen. Was Noah just following orders? Why was there no haggling to look for a few righteous inhabitants of the Earth? Why was Noah silent before God at the end of the world?
Trusting God enough to argue
WHEN FACED WITH the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God. Will you kill the righteous with the wicked? Will you really kill them even if there are only 50 righteous people? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? And God agreed: If there were 10 righteous people, God would not destroy the city (Genesis 18:22-33). Unfortunately for Sodom, there were not even 10. God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not for Abraham’s lack of trying to stop it.
When faced with the destruction of the Israelites, Moses, too, argued with God. When he lingered too long on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:4), the people got impatient. They formed for themselves a golden calf, sacrificing burnt offerings to it. God threatened to destroy them in anger, but Moses pushed back. He didn’t argue that the people were innocent—their betrayal of God was clear. Instead, Moses pointed to God’s promise to the people to be inheritors of the land. He appealed to God’s trustworthiness.
But when presented with the people’s coming destruction, Noah was silent. He built his ark and put up with the nonsense of those around him who thought he was being foolish. Then he packed up his family, inventoried the animals, and let God seal him in. Did he do all that he could?
My people, the Anishinaabe, have a similar story. The people have not been behaving well. They are greedy and selfish and hurting each other. Their lives are badly out of balance and this imbalance is getting close to causing irreparable harm to the Earth itself. So Creator, the Great Mystery, decides to start over. Eagle asks for time, time to find someone, anyone, who is living in a good way. Creator agrees to wait, and day after day Eagle flies, until finally she finds a family: One family who is praying. She carries word of this family back to Creator, her feathers falling to the earth because she has worn herself out so badly. Creator relents and the world is spared—all because Eagle risked arguing with Creator.
The Israelites were spared because Moses risked arguing with God. But most of us church people don’t argue with God. We don’t argue with our theology. We don’t argue with our teachers. Not for the sake of others, at least. We’ll argue because the pews are too hard or too soft or because we didn’t like the worship songs. We’ll argue over any number of things that inconvenience us, but we don’t argue about the things that convenience us. The Western church is too convinced of its status—of its chosenness—and so, like Noah, it preaches to the lost but does not argue about the pending judgment. In fact, I dare say that there is a certain frisson of excitement about that judgment, about being on the inside of that door when it finally slams shut, knowing that if people are outside, it’s their own fault.
Illustration by Matt Williams
Who is chosen?
IN ITS EARLIEST years, the church was formed in the context of Roman persecution—many of the letters in the New Testament reflect that. But by the 5th century CE, the church was Rome. Its center, its home, was no longer in Jerusalem but in the seat of the Roman Empire.
The church’s foundational texts spoke of persecution, but for a thousand years the church was in a position of power and the meaning of persecution necessarily began to shift. From positions of dominance, one sect of Christians “persecuted” other sects of Christians. Rather than the powerful often persecuting the powerless, they fought over doctrine. It was this zeal for what they considered “pure” theology that European Christians brought with them when they arrived in a world they called new. A world filled with people who made no sense to them, people who did not share their creation story. Willie James Jennings describes the work of the 16th century Jesuit theologian José de Acosta, who articulated a new vision of what he considered Christian persecution and suffering: living with what he saw as the moral, spiritual, and intellectual weaknesses of Indigenous peoples. Persecution came to mean what it meant to Noah: living amid the jeering of those who didn’t believe.
The Protestant churches in the English colonies and the Catholic churches in the Spanish colonies saw themselves as God’s chosen people and North America as a promised land filled with hope and opportunity (and with human beings they did not consider people). In The Baptism of Early Virginia, Rebecca Anne Goetz notes that preachers such as Rev. William Symonds, who preached in the early 17th century, compared the English colonists to Abraham and his people. God, Symonds said, “had promised to make Abraham a great nation, and he would do the same for ‘all that are of his faith and obedience.’”
But it was Noah that the colonists acted most like. Abraham, moving into a new place, understood that he was a guest and, imperfect as he was, trusted God enough to argue with God on behalf of the original inhabitants. Western Christians neither see themselves as guests in this place nor do they argue with a theological tradition that elevates them over others.
When I mentioned this to my mother—about my amazement at Noah’s silence now that I noticed it—she remarked that maybe Noah didn’t trust God. Noah certainly believed that God would do what God said. But believing and trusting are not the same thing. Noah was blameless and upright, but his relationship with God was tentative and unsure. Trusting relationships are built through what therapists call rupture and repair: People argue and make up and they learn to trust each other. Noah had not learned to trust God.
The earliest colonists also had a problem with trust. They believed themselves to be chosen by God. Coincidentally, the “chosen of God,” in their view, were mostly white Europeans, which made it easy to tell at a glance who was chosen and who was not, who had the right to own land and who did not, who could vote and who could not, who could be bought and sold or killed for their land and who could not. They believed they were chosen, but what if they had trusted?
What if they had trusted that God had a hand in the “New World” itself and not just in their voyage? What if they considered the possibility that the Indigenous people may have had good news for them? What if they had heard the similarities in some of our cosmology—the Anishinaabe creation story has some marked similarities to the one in the Bible—and saw this as evidence of relationship rather than apostasy? Trusting God can be frightening, particularly when God asks you to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and follow God to a new place. But Abram was met by Melchizedek; to these colonist Abrahams, we were only Canaanites.
In his book Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi writes about the theology that the original colonists developed because they did not think of themselves as white. They thought of themselves as Christian, which became complicated when the people they enslaved also became Christians, since early laws about slavery prevented the enslavement of Christians.
A theology of “equal souls and unequal bodies” was developed by men such as William Perkins, who preached in the late 16th century and was followed by Richard Mather and John Cotton. The enslaved could be converted, but they remain enslaved because they remained Black. Richard Mather’s grandson, Cotton Mather, built on this, writing that although their skin remained Black, their souls would turn white as snow. People could continue to be bought and sold, killed and displaced, based on skin color and race. Horrors would follow: the ethnic cleansing of the land east of the Mississippi via the various trails of tears; the ethnic cleansing of the West via the Indian Wars; reservations; boarding schools; Reconstruction and Jim Crow; race riots and massacres.
We need to admit that these things—slavery and ethnic cleansing—are a legacy of the white colonizing church.
Illustration by Matt Williams
Noah and the white church
THE WHITE COLONIZING church arrived in the Americas claiming to speak for God. Many of its current-day members, like Noah, greet the end of our world not with arguments, but by preaching their version of salvation and believing themselves to be persecuted because not everyone agrees with them.
This church builds arks on stolen land—suburban enclaves protected by neighborhood watches and prisons. Through it all, this church has not heard the banging on the door. Or if it has heard the desperate pleas of those who are racially marginalized, this church, assured of its own righteousness, comforts itself with the knowledge that these people who have been pushed to the margins deserve it—that their destruction is the result of their own poor choices. This church offers charity, but not change. It offers to make souls white as snow without acknowledging how and why marginalized people exist in the world.
The white colonizing church rarely argues with its assumptions about God or the authority it has taken upon itself. Both Protestants and Catholics developed a theology they could believe. They created a theology of hierarchy and power that justified enslavement and declared the land to be empty. We need the Abrahams and Moseses to stand in front of the powers that promise the people’s destruction and trust that God has our back when we say: What about them?
But too often the people of this white church remain silent, like Noah. Untrusting. Like Noah, they may worry that if they argue they will find themselves outside as well. So rather than wrestling with the theology that permitted horrors, they claim that specific harms such as slavery and residential schools were the result of “bad Christians” or people who “aren’t really Christians.” This is lazy and irresponsible. Even if your church didn’t actively participate in oppression, the theology it rests on didn’t put up any argument against it.
The world created by the white colonizing church is one in which most Christians are safe. We sing songs and rely on Bible commentaries from those eras. Jim Crow and Indian boarding schools aren’t that long ago. Ruby Bridges, that little girl who had to be escorted to school by U.S. Marshals, is only 67 years old today. Some of those who opposed her are elders in our churches; they preach in our pulpits.
These are our relationships and our ancestors. I am in no position to sit in judgment over whether they are real Christians, whatever that means. It feels good to distance myself from participation in dominating others, but it’s not that distant, not when we still sing songs about being slaves to fear or having our souls made white as snow.
I am Anishinaabe and Ukrainian; my ancestry is both here and elsewhere. My inheritance is both Indigenous and settler. I grew up in the church, and so that too is where my relatives are, my ancestors. I have a responsibility to all my relatives: To not remain silent. To speak, though my voice shakes. To argue with those who claim to speak for God at the end of our world.