Content warning: this piece discusses drowning as well as child sexual abuse.
No matter how you tell it, the story of Noah’s Flood is ultimately a story of mass genocide. Some Christians argue the genocide was justified; others are more nuanced in their analysis. But no one disagrees that the story is a story of mass genocide. There might be a cute moral attached to the story, or it might end on a hopeful note about God promising to never again commit genocide with water (fire is still okay). But you cannot avoid the bodies left floating in the water—bodies which necessarily included children.
The Story of Noah’s Flood
We encounter the story of Noah’s Flood in the Book of Genesis. In Genesis 6-9, we read that God has become disillusioned with his creation of humanity because humans are acting violently. In Genesis 6:11-12, the narrative says, “When God looked at the earth, he saw that people had ruined it. Violence was everywhere, and it had ruined their life on earth.”
Because of humanity’s violence, God decides an act of divine violence would be helpful. Like a dysregulated parent, God decides to wipe all of humanity off the face of the earth—except for one man and his family. That would be Noah, of course. Noah and his family get special treatment because, according to the text, Noah “was a good man all his life, and he always followed God” (6:9).
God visits Noah and tells him about the apocalyptic plans. And God does not mince words, either: “Understand what I am telling you. I will bring a great flood of water on the earth. I will destroy all living things that live under heaven. Everything on the earth will die” (6:17). But Noah’s goodness will save him. God instructs Noah to build a large boat and fill it with animals: “I will make a special agreement with you. You, your wife, your sons, and their wives will all go into the boat. Also, you will take two of every living thing on the earth with you into the boat.” When the Flood comes, God promises that Noah—and everyone and everything on his boat—will be safe.
The Flood indeed arrives. In Chapter 7, we read that, “On the 17th day of the second month, when Noah was 600 years old, the springs under the earth broke through the ground, and water flowed out everywhere. The sky also opened like windows and rain poured down. The rain fell on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights” (7:11-13). This immense amount of water, we are told, “rose so much that even the highest mountains were covered by the water” (7:19).
Just like God promised, Noah and his boat’s inhabitants survive: “The boat floated on the water high above the earth” (7:18). And just like God threatened, everyone and everything else dies: “God wiped the earth clean—he destroyed every living thing on the earth—every human, every animal, everything that crawls, and every bird. All that was left was Noah and his family and the animals that were with him in the boat” (7:23).
And that is the story of Noah’s Flood. The story concludes with God promising to never again commit mass genocide with water. In the ending, God tells Noah and his children, “This is my promise to you: All life on the earth was destroyed by the flood. But that will never happen again” (9:11). To really seal the deal, God throws in a rainbow as well: “I will give you something to prove that I made this promise to you,” God tells them breathlessly. “It will continue forever to show that I have made an agreement with you and every living thing on earth.” What is it? “I am putting a rainbow in the clouds as proof of the agreement between me and the earth” (9:12-13).
The Dark Side of the Story
It is so interesting to me that this story—a story of mass genocide—has become the quintessential children’s story. God’s punishment of the allegedly evil people on earth—literally everyone but Noah and his family—adorns so many children’s rooms and church nurseries. Popular toy companies like Playmobil and Fisher-Price even make toy versions of the story. Because the story features animals, and children love animals, we just assume it’s an appropriate tale to tell children.
But there’s a dark side to the story, obviously. Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal live. That is good news. But even children understand the implications of that good news: everyone else, and everything else, dies a gruesome death. They drown. Drowning is a painful process. According to people who almost died by drowning, their experiences involved “unbearable pain, with a feeling that their head is about to explode.”
The biblical narrative does not tell us children died in the Flood. But it is obvious the victims would have included human children. Wherever there are human adults, there are also children. Noah’s family is a prime example of this fact. So while the narrative tries to explain away all the deaths due to the evil of human violence, we are left unsettled. If there were children, how could God justify killing them? As Danna Nolan Fewell points out in The Children of Israel, “God and the narrator may assert all-encompassing generalities regarding the evil and violence of humanity, but we need only peer beneath the surface of the water to find the children, the fauna, the flora, to discover the innocent victims that are erased by the text’s own rhetoric” (p. 29).
The story of Noah’s Flood is a good exercise in discerning the presence of the Bible’s unseen children. By “unseen children,” I mean the children who clearly were present in biblical narratives but whose presence is never acknowledged. How we read and interpret biblical narratives must include the reality of such children and their experiences of those narratives, even if the experiences are never described.
Unseen Children Elsewhere
This principle applies throughout the Bible, not just to the story of Noah’s Flood. Another biblical narrative where this principle is especially important is the story of God destroying the city of Sodom. In Genesis 19, two angels visit Lot, Abraham’s nephew, in Sodom. At night, the text tells us, “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old” surround Lot’s house, demanding, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them” (19:4-5). Lot refuses and offers them his young daughters instead (19:6-8), the same children Lot himself later rapes and impregnates in a cave.
Because the men of Sodom treat the angelic visitors so poorly, God decides to once again commit mass genocide and destroy the entire city of Sodom. But this time God makes burning sulfur rain from the skies (19:24), which is not water and thus does not violate God’s rainbow promise. Everyone and everything in Sodom—except for Lot and his children, who flee the city—perishes. Like the story of Noah’s Flood, there must have been children among the victims, even though the text is silent on the matter.
Danna Nolan Fewell wrote a powerful poem entitled “Of No Account” about the unseen children of Sodom. Shared in The Children of Israel, Fewell’s poem asks us, “Where were the children of Sodom / when the mighty destruction came? / How many cried, / how many died / midst the brimstone and the flame?” In a later stanza, Fewell observes that, “Such wicked children in Sodom / there surely must have been / for a whole town / to be burned to the ground / and everyone within” (p. 27).
Fewell expands on her poem’s theme of noticing the unseen children in Sodom in The Children of Israel. She writes that, “The question of children forces us into the city square, where neither children nor strangers are safe at night, where violence threatens from both inside and outside, and bears faces both human and divine. Once in the city square, we might begin to see all those faces the text leaves invisible. For the city of Sodom is not simply a city of violent, xenophobic, and sadistic men. There are women and children there as well, as Lot’s family clearly attests” (p. 28).
I agree with Fewell that it is vital to “see all those faces the text leaves invisible”—and I also agree that those faces are often the faces of children. This is why it is so important that we center children when we read the Bible, that we make children both a lens for how we interpret the Bible as well as a theological concern.
Talking Back to the Bible
Sometimes centering children while reading the Bible will require expanding or even challenging the biblical narratives. It is not always easy or comfortable to notice the Bible’s unseen children. Once you see them, you cannot unsee them. And once you see them, you realize: they are everywhere in the Bible. And oftentimes they are the victims of abuse and neglect perpetrated by figures considered holy by many—both biblical heroes as well as God Almighty.
That means we must complicate the narratives. Like Jacob wrestling with God and God blessing him for it (Genesis 32:22-31), we must wrestle with the biblical texts, questioning and challenging them when they ignore the children they contain or justify violence against the children barely visible at their margins. This is one of the fundamental tasks of child liberation theology.
In liberation theology, reading against the grain of the biblical narratives is referred to as a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Hermeneutics is the study of different ways we can read and interpret the Bible. A hermeneutics of suspicion is when you study the Bible and not just blithely accept what you read as true or right. In her book In Justice, Ann-Cathrin Jarl describes the hermeneutics of suspicion used by feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: “Fiorenza is not satisfied with new ways of looking at the text. She wants to analyze not only the text itself but also the social conditions at the time” (p. 60). In this way, liberation theology challenges us to read between the lines and connect the dots—to take time to stop and think about who is being left out of biblical stories and our interpretations of those stories.
Stories about mass genocide are generally not appropriate stories to share casually with children to entertain or scare them. This is why the Bible is not a children’s book. If a child must learn about genocide, it should be in an age-appropriate and protective manner. While children are capable of understanding big, scary ideas like death and violence, that does not mean exposing them to stories about death and violence without context is appropriate.
As we have seen throughout this piece, the story of Noah’s Flood is the perfect example of why children—especially unseen children—absolutely must be centered in how we approach and think about God and the Bible. Without such centering, and without questioning and challenging biblical narratives to make visible the children in their midst, we end up with an ocean of dead children whose blood is on God’s hands.
No good news of Jesus can erase that horror.