Refloating Noah’s Ark


By Janet Dyson & Bill Gent

RE Today magazine, Summer 1996 edition

Reprinted with kind permission of CEM



Popular Appeal


Jeanette Winterson’s statement that ‘Flood myths are very potent things; humankind can’t resist them’ would certainly seem to be true of the story of Noah’s Ark.  Even the most cursory survey of toy shops, cards, wrapping paper, tee shirts, mugs and plates will show the extent to which features of the story have become embedded in popular culture.  Music, drama, poetry and fiction have all drawn inspiration from the story.  The tradition of drawing out humorous elements, as witnessed by medieval miracle plays, has been continued by contemporary writers such as Julian Barnes (A History of the World in 10½ Chapters) and Dick King-Smith (Noah’s Brother).


Classroom Lure


The story of Noah’s Ark has also become part of the bedrock of primary school practice particularly in work with the youngest children.  Primary teachers appear at ease with the story and, when a group was asked why the story was so popular, gave a variety of interconnected reasons, including:


·        it is simply a good story with which children seem to identify easily;

·        the story is familiar and easy to tell in children’s terms;

·        it lends itself to a whole range of imaginative treatments – art (particularly college work), music, drama, writing and so on;

·        its many aspects make it obviously cross-curricular;

·        resources – particularly songs, pictures, models and colourfully illustrated books – are plentiful;

·        it presents an ideal framework for a class assembly;

·        it appears to fit into a whole range of topics including Colours, Animals, Transport, Conservation, Light, The Environment, Water, Weather and Homes.


Prosecution and Defence


Yet there is a long tradition of ‘professionals’ in the field of RE lambasting the inclusion of Noah’s Ark in the primary school RE curriculum.  In his The Really Practical Guide to Primary RE, for example, Hubert Smith stated plainly that ‘It is not a suitable story to use in RE with young children’ (p24) and advocated the use of stories like Pinocchio instead!


‘Unsavoury’ aspects of the story have frequently been pointed out; ‘…every species wiped out in the great wash of God’s vengeance …except for a single breeding pair, and that couple consigned to the high seas under the charge of an old rogue with a drink problem who was already into the seventh century of life…’ (Julian Barnes).

But in defence of common practice, primary teachers will often reveal an awareness of the story’s many-layered texture, referring amongst others to the following features or motifs:


·         hope;

·         promises (enshrined in the rainbow);

·         animals, and humankind’s relationship to them;

·         new beginnings;

·         new relationships;

·         the nature of God;

·         consequences resulting from personal choice;

·         wrongdoing and punishment:

·         the triumph of good over evil;

·         messages;

·         trust and faith;

·         obedience;

·         discipline;

·         puzzling questions (such as ‘Why would children have been drowned in the flood?’).




It must be admitted, though, that there is indeed a ‘down side’ to Noah’s Ark.  It has become symbolic of that tendency within topic work as a whole to create a web of tenuous links: who was it who said that ‘There is a tendency to choose the story of Noah whenever the theme is something wet’?!


Within RE specifically, the story has become symbolic of a narrow, one-dimensional approach to the subject which can draw some teachers into the belief that ‘because we are doing Noah, we are doing RE.’  Such an approach, which we can only hope is now on the wane, demeans both RE and the nature of story itself and stands in stark contrast to the idea that we should be encouraging children to ‘grow into’ rather than ‘grow out of’ such stories.




So, if the story of Noah’s Ark is so deeply embedded, both within school and popular culture, what kinds of approaches will refloat and rejuvenate it?


Undoubtedly, an approach to story which seeks to draw out questions from pupils (one recent Agreed Syllabus has ‘the capacity to raise appropriate questions’ as central to development in RE) has much to commend it.  Some, of course, already use the story in this way, one primary teacher listing the following questions which the story has generated in her own experience:


·         Why were people bad?

·         How did God know?

·         Why did all the other animals die?

·         How big was the ark?

·         Why didn’t the lions eat the rabbits?

·         Why do we still have floods?

·         Are people still bad?

·         Is Noah still alive?

·         What are promises and why must we keep them?

·         Did God keep his?


Exploring Noah’s Ark as an example of a certain kind of story (that is, a myth) is an exciting route.  Why do people tell stories like this one?  What of the question posed by a character in Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and The Sea of Stories, ‘What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?  What human experiences and feelings, what beliefs and values does it express?  There is a long tradition of teachers encouraging pupils to compose their own creation stories.  Perhaps the same could be done more often with flood stories.


And what of the biblical context of the story itself?  For the younger pupil, a reference to the locus of the story – the Bible, a special book for Jews and Christians – is of great importance.  And, for the older pupil, including those of secondary age, there is a veritable archaeological investigation to be carried out.  For, the biblical text (Genesis 6-8) is a composite one consisting of a number of strands of tradition.  The received story of Noah’s Ark with which most people are familiar is a ‘harmony’ which, it could be argued, bears more resemblance to a folk tale than to the biblical text.


And On, And On …


Even so, imaginative teachers will find ever-new ways of bringing the story of Noah’s Ark to life, encouraging pupils to explore the nature and significance of the story at deeper levels as they mature.  Thus, the story will fulfil what Maurice Lynch sees as the enduring significance of all story – that it ‘grows out of life, reflects it and enters into dialogue with it.’  For ‘All life is in story so that there we find our experience confirmed, challenged, developed and broadened.’



Sources and Further Reading


Dick King-Smith, Noah’s Brother (Puffin, 1986)

Rose, Trouble in the Ark (Puffin/Kestrel, 1985)

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (Cape, 1989)

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (Penguin, 1978)

Child Education, June 1988

Everyman & Medieval Miracle Plays (Dent, 1956)

Herrmann, A History of Israel in Old Testament Times (SCM, 1975)

S H Hooke, In the Beginning (Oxford, 1947)

John M Hull, God Talk with Young Children (CEM, 1991)

Maurice Lynch, Tell Me a Story (Brunel University College)

Henrietta McCall, Mesopotamian Myths (British Museum, 1990)

Rosenberg & Bloom, The Book of J (Faber, 1990)

Hubert Smith, The Really Practical Guide to Primary RE (Stanley Thornes & Hulton, 1990)

Anne Thomas, Only Fellow-Voyagers (Quaker Home Service, 1995)

Jeanette Winterson, Boating for Beginners (Methuen, 1985)

The Qur’an

The Talmud

Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten

Captain Noah & his Amazing Floating Zoo by Flanders & Swann

Three Ha’pence a Foot by Stanley Holloway