In the Time of Noah

In the Time of NoahIn the Time of Noah
N.D. Wilson & Peter Bentley
Canon Press, 2007

The series title in which In The Time of Noah appears is The Old Stories. And that’s important to keep in mind when opening N.D. Wilson’s retelling of the Flood story. It is an old, old story. Old, and strange.

A short mention in the flyleaf notes that:

In the Time of Noah uses the version of the Deluge story told by many church fathers from the first several centuries after Christ. Nemesius of Emesa, Ambrose, and Clement of Alexandria are just a few. Augustine believed the giants were true giants, but were not the descendants of angelic beings. Others deny both elements of the story and, of course, today it’s not difficult to find theologians who deny the story in its entirety.”

Yep: giants. That’s your first clue that this is not a version of the Noah story that you’ll want to reproduce on nursery hangings. Rather, Wilson is telling the story the way it would have been known in parts of the early church. This telling was deeply influenced by The Book of Enoch, a text that got attention from the church fathers because it appears to be quoted in the book of Jude. (See? You should go read Jude. It’s more exciting than you thought, tucked back in there between 3 John and Revelation.) The first part of Enoch is called the Book of the Watchers, and it’s about those mysterious nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. Enoch takes them to be, literally, the offspring of the fallen angels and human women. Wilson picks up on this reading – influential as it was in the early church – as the touchpoint for his own version. So if you’re looking for a book that refrains from elaborating on the biblical account (six-fingered giant kings, anyone?) then The Time of Noah is plainly not for you.

Or maybe it is. Honestly, I was put off at first by what felt like too much imaginative liberty with the Genesis story. Then I went back and re-read the Genesis story. People: it’s weird, and old, and full of all kinds of interpretive possibility. Without launching into a history of hermeneutics, let me say that I tend to read much of Genesis not as historical writing as we understand it in the 21st century, but as an account of the origins of our rebellion against God and his mysterious, merciful beginnings of rescue. A history, yes: but one that borrows and transforms the poetics of its age, not the forensic fact-checking journalism we expect today.

So: if my goal is to saturate my children’s imaginations biblically, I want to do it on the Bible’s own terms. And In The Time of Noah does great service to the flood story here. It takes a story we’ve become over-familiar with — to the point that we think we know it without reading it — and makes it strange and compelling once again. The evil that God determines to destroy is menacing and cruel, posing a direct challenge to his authority.  The waters that wash it away are at once judgment and mercy, a terrible liberation, and the earth rises again cleansed of a particularly ruinous rebellion. This is the logic of the biblical flood account, a logic that echoes through the arklike rooms where the Hebrews wait on Passover, and hangs over us as we stand in the waters of baptism, which Paul insists is a kind of death (Rom 6:4).

It’s true, N.D. Wilson does engage imaginatively with the biblical text – but only in ways Christians have been doing for centuries, opening up the Bible in all its deep explanatory power. The Time of Noah renders Noah’s story an old – venerable, rich, wise – story once again. Wilson ushers us back into the strange world of Genesis 6 and helps us to see more clearly the magnitude, and the mercy, of the flood.

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