The Big Boat

I remember it was hot the day it came to me that I had to save my family by building a ferry boat. We had our kefirs wrapped around our faces to filter the hot air from the stinging red sand and dust. The last thing on our mind was water. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe our parched throats and heat-weary legs were dreaming just below the surface of endless supplies of water, oceans of fresh cool water.

I can’t honestly say that I thought God was speaking to me. That realisation came later. No, the idea to build a boat was just that – an obsessive thought, one I couldn’t get rid of. It stayed there in my mind on that hot day and throughout the long hot week. To start building a boat there in the desert with the south wind whipping up from Arabia was about the most irrational project I could imagine.

But it was there in my mind. And that it came from God grew from an idea to a conviction as I prayed about it, argued about it, tried to push it out of my mind. What became important was not building a boat in the hot desert. What became important was doing God’s will.

It was funny how my idea of doing God’s will changed over those weeks. I’d always tried to be decent, you know, never hurt anyone, never do anyone down in business if I could help it, honest in what I said and did. I don’t think I was anyone marvellous. It’s just that there was a shortage of people with integrity that made the writers say I was righteous. I was just someone who tried to do the right thing,, and I thought that was all God wanted from me. That was my understanding of doing God’s will … until that hot day.

I guess I felt that this building a boat was a kind of test: as if God was saying that this is the time when I had to put my money where my mouth was, where I had to give an indication in real life that I believed what I said I believed: that God was righteous and therefore had the authority to tell me what to do, how to run my life. Even if that meant building a boat several miles from the dry billabongs of the Euphrates.

That’s probably what I argued about most – not the boat, but God’s right to run my life. Back and forth in my mind and prayers. I did a lot of restless walking in those few weeks before I committed myself to building God’s boat. What do I obey: my reason, or this obsessive nagging that might come from God? What do I risk: my pride – what a fool I would seem building boats then, and there, or do I risk my family that God had entrusted me with? In the end, do I decide how to run my life, or does God?

To tell you the truth, I never came up with what you would call final answers to those questions, because my arguing led me somewhere else. It came to me that I wasn’t arguing simply within myself. It wasn’t just a rational discussion going on inside my mind. I eventually realised that I was arguing with a someone, a someone who took my arguing seriously, a someone who obviously thought it mattered that I be convinced about the boat; yes, but also about the fact that this someone wanted his rightful authority over my decisions and actions.

This someone was insistent that I obeyed, but he cared. This someone was the God I had talked about, but never experienced – never really imagined that he was there in any real sense, and I found him in that struggle over the boat.

They’ve told me since that my great-great-great-grandson Jacob experienced something similar at the Brook Jabbok, east of here. A struggle, that became a struggle with a someone, and the someone became more real and more important than the struggle. It’s what happens when you read the Bible. It kind of talks back sometimes. A someone is there as you struggle with its words.

Well, that was the first part of what happened to me. A struggle that turned out to be my first ever honest prayer; an argument with a real God who cared enough to argue back – and win!

I was in a position to be eccentric. I had the means to obtain the wood and the tar, and the tools, but it took some trouble. This insistent God was beginning to take up quite a bit of time. A big boat like that, you know, takes community co-operation. I had to tell people what I was building. I had to pay people to work on it. Some laughed at me. You can understand that. All they could see was the desert. They didn’t hear the distant echo of an insistent call to obedience that came from beyond what you can see.

But it was hardest with my family. With my wife and boys. In a sense I was doing it for them. Their survival was at stake, I knew, but how could I begin to tell them? They thought for a while that I had really become unstuck. And all I could do was trust: trust what I’d heard, trust that interchange of prayer and arguing; trust that if God intended to bring them through the impending flood, then they would listen too. To God, if not to me.

I think that was my hardest lesson. Having to hand my family over to God. To be confident that God had every intention of looking after them. I was a patriarch after all, the head of a family, and everyone expected me to take my family responsibilities with life and death seriousness. Including me. I gradually had to learn to do that a new way.

As I talk to the thousands of souls that have come to this place since those exciting times, I have come to realise I am not alone in finding it hard to let go, and let God take the ultimate responsibility for my family.

But it was necessary for me. It would have been pointless for just me to have been the only passenger on that boat. They needed to come too, and I had to trust that God would deal with them in time, in God’s time.

When I first told them my plans of building a boat, there was a lot of tension in the big tent. They say they don’t remember that now. What they remember is the next stage, when they bit by bit gave time to helping construct the boat.

The first time Japheth came over, I remember well. He walked around the laid out timbers. I could see his mind ticking over, taking in the design, working out the order of jobs we would need to do. He didn’t say anything for quite a few minutes then picked up the next timber I needed – the keel piece as it happened. “This one, Dad?” he asked. What encouragement I took from that simple question. Next day, Shem and Ham came too, and our working together became a harmonious game.

We had this sense together, we didn’t talk about it much, of being called together to the task. We’d always been pretty close (at least, Shem and Japheth and I were: I never really felt I got close to Ham, not even after the Flood), always pretty close, but the trust and understanding that grew between us as worked together on God’s task was quite extraordinary.

It was then we realised how much trust God was placing in us in asking us to build this boat. We came to the conviction that there was more to what we were being asked than our own survival, somehow God was depending on us to preserve the whole creation. Our salvation was tied up with each other, but also with the whole universe.

We were talking about the local desert animals, lizards and birds, mainly, and how they would get on in the flood, and wondered whether it would be feasible to bring them on to the boat. But God had much more in mind than that, and we didn’t get much warning either.

We’d seen the clouds far to the north, and a caravan came by heading south with the news that the Euphrates was rising, more than had ever been seen in a lifetime. And the animals for miles around were driven in front of the flooding river, hundreds of them. By the time the swollen river came to our tent, the river was right up to the tent-poles, and the frightened animals simply ran straight into the bottom deck of the boat. Amazing how many different species there were.

That night, the river simply ripped through the sandhills round our tent, and like it or not we were afloat. As I look back on those forty days and forty nights – we counted every single one of them – I realise the mixture of emotions that we all had. There was grief: grief for our friends, grief for the big tent and the life-style we had to leave behind, grief from moving so suddenly from the known to the wet darkness of the unknown.

And there was excitement too. Excitement in being caught up in something so much bigger than ourselves, in being part of an extraordinary and unheard of rescue, excitement in realising that the beyond had broken into the danger and dreariness of material life.

And we had an honest experience of confidence in God’s provision. I say honest, because we didn’t always feel confident. We gradually learned that confidence in God is much deeper than our day to day feelings. Every one of those forty mornings on that boat, we woke up, we were alive, and we thanked God. But we looked out and could only see the devastation of swelling muddy waters, from horizon to horizon. We were lost, and scared – desperate sometimes, but the point was, we were dependent on God, and that’s what we could trust.

It’s not surprising that St Peter and the early Church said that the Flood was a picture of the waters of baptism, a picture of the Christian life. Because every Christian comes to learn what I, Noah experienced – the struggle through to the reality of God’s presence, the ongoing dilemma of who is in charge of my life, knowing of course that it should be God, the King of the Universe, the grief of always moving from the comfortable and the conforming to the new and risky, the excitement of being caught up in God’s amazing rescue plan for the whole of his universe, the grace of being invited to co-operate with God, and learning, learning slowly and surely, that we can trust this strange God with our lives and the lives of our loved ones, because in the end, God is our only hope.

****

You can read the New Revised Standard Version of Genesis 7-9 here.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

Where in your story has God persuaded you to make life changes?

Have you ever experienced your current life being swept away? How has God kept you afloat?

What would you ask Noah if you could meet him?

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