Noah’s First—Or: The Salvation of River Otters

Noah’s First—Or: The Salvation of River Otters

August 20, 2013

An audio story on narrative and faith (or the lack thereof)
It’s getting stranger and stranger to think that I’ve had theology professors, that I can say that in everyday conversation: “According to my theology professor. . .” but it’s true, I’ve had them, and the most inspiring and eloquent used to talk about Scripture as living narrative.

You have to step inside those stories, he used to say. It is a sensory experience. Inhale the smoke from burning sacrifices. It catches in your throat, all that animal flesh on fire. Hear the profound sizzle. Run your fingers over the olivewood cherubim carved into the doors of the Holy of Holies, he used to say. The wood is smooth and warm and wonderfully grooved. The doors hum with God’s name because he is crouching just on the other side, waiting.

I realize now that my professor was encouraging us to exercise our empathy muscles, as we all do when we step into a magnetic story and discover ourselves in a protagonist (or antagonist), which strikes me as a profoundly healthy approach to theology—to launch oneself into those numbered verses as if they were portals, to try and feel what it was like to live and breathe during a time when God was cruising around the cosmos, peeking his mighty head through Earth’s clouds, igniting bushes, and speaking through donkeys, and pow-wowing on mountaintops to carve out a little law.

As an undergrad practicing a kind of lectio divina in stadium seating, the attempt felt downright archeological, but the kind of archeology that infiltrates the here and now. Indiana Jones archeology. I first tried to meditate myself into the leather sandals of a soldier on the walls of Jericho, one of the “bad guys,” one of those unfortunate brutes watching Joshua and his rag-tag army orbiting with their ram horns clanking at their sides, five days, six days, right before the tremendous clamor on the seventh day, the seventh circling, the walls crumbling along their seams and then the God-blessed carnage that followed.

I felt, if only for a brief second, the absolute awe that must have overcome that soldier as his hubris suddenly unraveled in real time. The security of castle walls and immense weaponry crumbling, all quite literally, beneath his feet.

And then I imagined Noah’s first testing of his divine mandate, what it must have felt like to approach the first mammal, and what it must have felt like to that animal to be gathered.

Because I’m not sure if you knew this, but it was a river otter, and the breeze brought Noah’s scent to the animal long before the man physically arrived. He reeked of gopher wood and pungent fear. He smelled old and salty and by the time the otter saw him, shuffling up the river with his spindly legs pumping, the animal sensed beyond all doubt that he was terrified. Noah’s eyes were as wide as goose eggs.

It’s a tenuous enterprise, after all, to try one’s hand at intense animal husbandry based on the promises of an invisible God.

But the otter’s instincts betrayed him. To run from Man was the impulse that unified his species, kept them all alive. It was the first lesson any of them learned, the mantra whispered by mothers while their furry eyes were still sealed shut.

But he didn’t run. And in fact the animal had the strange sensation of having waited for the man, as if he had known him already. Noah stood in front of the otter, his long, thick beard bristling and his eyes full of strange human light. He slumped into a pile at the river’s edge with his breath heaving from inside. He had come a long way, looking. His mantle was heavy. His burden almost unbearable.

But then this magic. The otter tried to resist even as he drifted directly to Noah’s wrinkled hand, drawn to the skin by something like hunger. Noah recoiled at first, looked like he might run away, but then he slowly curled his fingers into the damp fur and brought the animal to his face.

The otter had never been touched by a man before. Noah was strong despite his age and his fingers were as rough as tree bark. Yet the otter felt as safe in his grip as if he were nestled in his den.

Noah stared at his catch, his eyes searching the otter’s eyes, and then suddenly the smell of fear disappeared from them both. The man looked at the sky, made a sound like a thunderclap and slapped his free hand against his skinny thigh. Suddenly his eyes were on fire. His joy surged like a wave.

Noah set the otter gently down and shuffled further up the river’s edge, his two legs pumping like a stork’s, his thin, olive tree arms waving in the air.

And the animal followed. Drawn by something like thirst, drawn to Noah’s scent, salty and old and mixed with the musty promise of rain.

There were times I wanted to stay in those stories forever, if for nothing else than to feel the proximity to so much divine action. Everyone had a role in the unfolding drama. Everyone was a character in God’s forever-arcing narrative. But then math class, western civ, college comp. The spell would break and I would pack my bags and quickly move on.

And then year after year of complicated life and calcifying doubt and my theology class is now ten years distant. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to catapult myself back into those Bible stories. A long time since I’ve thought much about the heroes and villains of Scripture, or what they mean to me today.

But sometimes I miss them. The further I drift away from those classes, and from the simple faith I had as I sat through them, the more I miss the strange sensation that, just maybe, God’s story is actually my story, and that it is alive and still unfolding and I am in the middle of it. Both the ancient parts and the contemporary.

To feel alongside the old man of faith a sudden draining of fear, and the absolute certainty that not only is God alive and at work, but that I am exactly where he wants me to be.

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