You are hereNot Just A Floating Zoo
Not Just A Floating Zoo
by Jeff Carter
I don't want to steal Tim (Middleknowledge)'s thunder, but here is my minor contribution to the regional flood cause...
I don't want to steal Tim (Middleknowledge)'s thunder, but here is my minor contribution to the regional flood cause...
Genesis has always been one of my favorite books of the bible. I like the universal scope of the book. I like epic scale from the momentous beginning of everything in a tremendous flash of light and the primeval stories of the beginnings of humanity. I am delighted by gradual narrowing of focus from the creation of the universe and the fall of mankind to the final focus on one family and the creation of a chosen people, and the promise of a coming redeemer.
It is in Genesis that we find one of our favorite stories from childhood –the story of Noah and a tremendous flood that covered the whole earth, and of Noah’s floating menagerie. But our recollections of childhood favorite may cloud our understanding of what the story of Noah and the flood is really about.
I do not believe in a literal actual-factual understanding of the flood story. I do not believe that a universal cataclysmic deluge covered the entire surface of the earth even to the point of covering the highest mountains. I do, however, believe the bible, and I do believe the story of Noah and the flood.
I do not believe that the stories of Genesis 1 –11 should be treated as scientific documents. Those who attempt to interpret these stories through a scientific microscope looking for the FACTS of a world wide catastrophe may miss the TRUTH of the story if their attention is focused on proving a world wide flood rather than on the rescue and redemption provided by God.
I believe that the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are mythical. But before we begin throwing stones at the pastor and screaming heresy, let me define myth not just as a fictional story – but as an instructional tale; as a story told to explain “why?” “Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of ‘beginnings.’ - Myth is a presentation of the actual in terms of the ideal.” (Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 4) Even if you disagree with me about the mythical quality of these stories, and of Noah in particular, follow with me as we try to find the truths of the story – for I believe that we can disagree about the historicity of the tale and still agree on the truth it contains.
In my sophomore year of high school I had a social studies teacher who, while she did not believe the bible to be the word of God, challenged me to critically examine my faith in the scriptures. She introduced me to the fact that the myth of a global flood from which one righteous hero was saved is found not just in the pages of our bible- but in hundreds of other cultures as well.
From Africa to Australia, from India to Mongolia and China, nearly all culture groups around the world have some variation of this story: in which the gods decide to destroy the humans by using a cataclysmic flood. But one hero is saved along with his family and animals by building a large boat.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the clearest parallel to our story of Noah. In it, the creator and magician god, Enki, cleverly communicates to the hero Utnapishtim (also called Atrahasis) about the impending disaster and instructs him to build a 6 story cube shaped ship to save himself, his family, and animals. The flood rages for 7 days and everyone dies, except Utnapishtim and those on board his boat. The ship finally comes to rest on a mountain top and a bird is released to verify that the waters have gone down. After coming out of the boat Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods for his salvation and is granted immortality by the gods.
And what completely blew my mind when I first discovered it is that the written stories of Utnapishtim are older, much older, than the written stories of Noah recorded in our scriptures. This has caused many critics of the faith to dismiss Noah, and Genesis all together as a collection of fables, a collection of fictional stories that have no eternal truth.
Many of these skeptics point to evidence of a tremendous flood in what is now the Black Sea, saying that this flood is the historical background for the many universal flood stories including Noah and Utnapishtim. They propose that as the people who lived in the area now covered by the Black Sea fled the rising flood waters they carried with them the tale of a tremendous cataclysmic flood – that over time became a story of a global flood survived by one hero and his family.
I believe that this may be true. There is strong geological evidence for a flood in the Black Sea nearly 8,000 years ago. There is genetic evidence that the many scattered people groups have common ancestors in that area. There is linguistic evidence that the many varied languages are related to an original language spoken by people in that area. I believe it highly probable that the flooding of the Black Sea may be the historical truth that inspired these many myths. (Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History – by William Ryan & Walter Pitman, Simon and Schuster 1998)
But I also believe that there is something that sets the myth of Noah’s flood apart from all the others. I believe that the Genesis stories used this mythological fragment recounting the flood to teach us truth. Of course, that means that we will have to lay aside some of a common, assumption about how the bible was written. That assumption is built on a certain view of Scripture that says God is basically the sole author of the Bible.
This understanding of inspiration is a form of a dictation or a verbal inspiration theory of the origin of Scripture – making the people who wrote more like typewriters than creative agents.
“A better perspective with which to begin is that the biblical authors were writing what they understood about God as he enabled them to understand him through inspiration. That is why we can confess that Scripture is "God’s word" And yet at the same time they were expressing what they understood about God in terms of their own culture and their own historical context, in "human words." … They were writing for "BC" Israelites, in the language, metaphors, figures of speech, and literary style that they would understand in that culture. It is that gap between where we are culturally and historically and where they were culturally and historically that often makes it difficult for us to understand.
The story of Noah begins with a very mythical element: the marriage of divine beings (“sons of God”) called the and human daughters, and the resulting titan offspring. Some have tried to dismiss the mythic elements here by saying that the sons of God were righteous (human) men, or perhaps kings. But these normalized, natural explanations do little to explain the birth of giant offspring of heroic stature.
But this borrowed mythical element is a key, I think, to understanding the story of the flood. The story of the great flood is less about the flood than it is about the human condition and God’s response to humanity.
In the many of the other tales of global floods, the deluge is merely a natural disaster. In others, the gods cause the flood but no explanation is given as to why they wanted to destroy the humans. In other versions, the gods decide to destroy the human population because they are becoming too numerous. And in the Mesopotamian story of the flood survivor, Atrahasis, the god Enlil decides to destroy the humans because the noise they are making is disturbing his sleep.
Enlil heard their noise.
And addressed the great gods,
'The noise of mankind has become too intense for me,
With their uproar I am deprived of sleep'.
The situation described in Genesis is very different. The flood is no natural disaster, and it is not the result of a capricious God. It is the result of moral offense. Not only has the population of humans multiplied, but their wickedness and violence and lawlessness has multiplied. The other stories focus on the actions of the human hero who survives the destruction – but in the biblical account the focus is on God’s dealings with humanity.
In an earlier chapter of Genesis we read about the fall of humanity, the original sin of Adam and Eve in eating of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tempted Eve saying that, if she ate of it she could “be the same as God” (anchor bible) The sin in the garden wasn’t just disobedience, it was an attempt at self divinization. They wanted to become gods.
And here again in our story of Noah we have humanity attempting to become gods – through sexual relations with celestial beings. The author of this story borrows this mythical story and uses it to illustrate the unbounded depravity of the early humans (and all humanity ). They have broken the boundaries of what is right and natural. They have forgotten about the One God and continued their attempt to become gods themselves; and in doing so, they have filled the earth with every kind of violence and outrage imaginable.
It is evil, and not just the human population that has multiplied over the face of the earth. The wickedness of the people had infected and polluted everything. “And the earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with outage. And God saw the earth and, look, it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted its ways on the earth.” (6: 11 – 12)
And the Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great (multiplied) on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. Yet when God looked at all of this wickedness and violence and lawlessness He was not angry. He was not filled with wrath. There is no word of anger in this story. Seeing that the human creature was only and always plotting evil, the Lord regretted having made the human on the earth and was grieved to the heart. (6:5 – 6) God saw a world full of people who were inwardly corrupt, outwardly violent, and upwardly rebellious, and he repented that he had ever made such a creature. He was like a father who wished he’d remained childless.
And so in sadness (not wrath) God sent the flood to destroy the human population along with the rest of creation which the humans had corrupted with their lawless acts and with their violence. God decided to un-create all that he had created. By sending a flood to destroy the world, he returned it to its original state – a “formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water” (Gen 1: 2 anchor bible)
But the flood alone is not the point of the biblical narrative. The destruction of the world by the sudden unleashing of the floodgates of heaven and the waters of the deep is tremendous and lies behind the legends of many cultures – but the scriptures aren’t just telling us a story of a flood and a floating zoo. The scriptures are telling us a story of rescue and redemption.
From out of the wickedness and depravity of the human population, God sees Noah and treats him with favor. This isn’t because of anything Noah did. It was God looked on Noah and chose him. Gen. 6:9 does say that Noah was a righteous man and was without blame among that generation – but Noah wasn’t some esoteric saint who walked unscathed through this life. Noah’s righteousness was declared by God in spite of his failures and faults. The favor that God gave Noah was not based on Noah’s righteousness. God’s favor preceded Noah’s righteousness. (Gen. 6: 8, 9)
In the ark we have a picture of grace. The ark was an undeserved, unmerited way of salvation for Noah and his family. God gave Noah the warning of the coming flood. Noah didn’t perceive the danger on his own. God gave Noah the plans for constructing the ark. Noah didn’t design it himself. And having instructed Noah and his family to go aboard, God shut the door. Noah didn’t close the hatch to keep out the waters. The ark was God’s grace to Noah and his family to keep them and save them from the death the washed over the earth.
This is the TRUTH of the myth of Noah’s flood. That God saves by grace. And this is an eternal covenant given to us
For this is like the days of Noah for me:
When I swore that the waters of Noah should not pass over the earth again,
So I swore not to be angry at you, nor to rebuke you.
For the mountains may move, and the hills may be removed;
But my love will not move from you, and my covenant of friendship will not be removed’
Says YHWH , who has compassion on you. (Isa. 54: 9 – 10)
The waters of the flood that destroyed the earth were not just a punishment of the wicked - but also God’s cleansing agent. The deluge destroyed not just the people but also their wickedness, giving the earth a clean fresh start.
In 1st Peter 3:18 – 22, we read the following: “Christ himself died once and for all for sins, the upright for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God. In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit he went to preach to the spirits in prison. They refused to believe long ago while God patiently waited to receive them, in Noah’s time when the ark was being built. In it only a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water. It is the baptism corresponding to this water which now saves you – not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, ruling forces and powers subject to him.”
Christ is our ark. It is in him that we are saved from death. It is with that waters of the flood that our wicked lawless selves are destroyed and in Christ our ark we are saved.
The story of Noah and the flood is not about sedimentation and fossilization during the flood, or proving that Noah took dinosaurs on the ark. The flood narrative isn’t about countering Darwinian Evolution or disproving the Big Bang theory. The flood story isn’t even really about a catastrophic world wide flood.
The flood story is about human wickedness, and our continued attempts to make ourselves into gods. The flood story is about the continually evil heart of mankind. The flood story is also about grace, and rescue, and salvation. And not just the grace offered to Noah and the salvation they found in the ark – But it is a story of eternal truth about the salvation that God offers to each of us.