My daughter is not even two, but she already has several books and toys bearing the Noah's Ark motif. The books and toys are produced by "all American" brands such as Fisher Price, and they include everything from plastic animal pairs to a book about the acceptance of difference—that explains that there is even room for cockroaches on the ark.
Noah's Ark toys have a long history. They were already in circulation in the 1600s and reached the height of popularity during the Victorian era. At first, Noah's Ark toys were particularly popular because Puritan children were prohibited from playing with toys, which were seen as wasteful and sinful—except for Sunday toys, which had to have a religious theme. Noah's Ark fit the bill. Later, in the Victorian era, when toys were common, particularly in the homes of upper class children, Sunday play continued to be restricted to religious toys. From the perspective of the child, Noah's Ark on its face was a biblical toy, yet it allowed room for creative play, as explained by Eleanor Achland, who came of age in Victorian England:
We began our play with the traditional "animals went in two by two," and then branched off into variations of Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson, or stories made up by ourselves, any of these being tolerably sabbatical so long as we remembered to call the leading characters Mr. And Mrs. Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
Today, when such restrictions on children's play are largely irrelevant, Noah's Ark toys and books continue to thrive. Some Noah's Ark books are even used to teach contemporary values, such as a Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's Noah's Wife, which has a feminist and environmentalist spin. Amazon.com sells over 1000 Noah's Ark children's books and nearly 750 toys.
The presence of these books and toys in my young daughter's world is disturbing when considering the story of Noah's Ark. It is not a story that resonates with contemporary values. The flood is a chilling narrative of Divine retribution for human imperfection. Except for nine people, and two of each land animal, the entire inhabitance of our earth perished in a hopeless flood. Reinventing this particular narrative feels wrong, like we're condoning God's actions. In particular, the contemporary value of inclusion is utterly at odds with this story of utter exclusion. There was no room for us on the ark. The image of a child playing with Noah's Ark ought to be a jarring one. Why isn't it?
Why are we so complacent with this story that we decorate our children's nursery with images that recall the eradication of almost all life? Perhaps it simply the hundreds of years this toy has been with us? I don't know, but when I see Noah's Ark toys, I remember the original story:
All flesh that moves upon the earth expired...all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, of everything that was on dry land, died. And God blotted out all existence that was on the face of the ground—from man to animals to creaking things and to birds of the heaven's. ... Only Noah survived, and those with him in the ark. (Genesis 7:21-23).
I mourn for the drowned earth.