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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Stray Thoughts from Genesis 7

It’s not a myth. The Genesis flood, I mean.

Yeah, yeah, I know they say it is. Wikipedia does, at least:

“A flood myth or deluge myth is a narrative in which a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization, often in an act of divine retribution. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primeval waters found in certain creation myths, as the flood waters are described as a measure for the cleansing of humanity, in preparation for rebirth. Most flood myths also contain a culture hero, who ‘represents the human craving for life’.”

Man, is that lame.

The Universal Myth

But it’s a terribly common take. And many Christians are happier conceding parts of the Old Testament as fictional than defending an account they have been assured is unscientific.

But one is entitled to ask why there are flood myths in so many different cultures and on most of the continents of the world: the Mesopotamians, the Hindus, the Puranas of India, the Greeks, the Mayans and the Ojibwa in North America, just for starters. Everybody’s got a story about a flood.

Well, it could have been a bunch of different, smaller floods. That’s certainly the conventional wisdom. Maybe the Sumerians write about a deluge because the Black Sea flooded and the Greeks write about it because of an Aegean disaster. Maybe a meteor crashed into the Indian Ocean giving rise to the independent Indian flood myth. Maybe Lake Agassiz in North America flooded too, explaining the Ojibwa stories halfway across the world. A bunch of smaller, local floods at different points in history could explain it, no?

Local Floods or Travelling Mythology

Another possibility is that survivors from one area carried stories to another area — except that hypothesis comes up a bit weak when you consider that it requires Andean survivors to make it to North America to contaminate the Native American narratives (or vice versa), or for Sumerians to wander all the way down to India. It might explain some of the myths. Still, no matter how you stretch it, there are areas of the planet in which that logic does not track easily.

But the Genesis flood is not a myth. It isn’t written like a myth and it doesn’t read like a myth. The only people who think it does are people who have not actually read any myths and are so anesthetized by the pronouncements of perceived authority figures that they just regurgitate the grade six version of what they have been told without ever looking for themselves.

What Does a Myth Read Like?

Go read a myth or two. Here’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for starters: you get Narcissus, Bacchus, Jupiter, Cadmus and the Dragon. You get the daughters of King Minyas who were transformed into bats. You get Pyramus, Mars and Venus and even Hermaphroditus, all straight to English direct from Ovid. The stories get goofier and goofier and less and less plausible with every paragraph. The case has been made that even their original audience didn’t believe them literally.

Or read the Ballad of Skirnir from the Edda. In no place does any of this stuff described by the poets of antiquity connect plausibly to our real world. Sure, the emotions and human interactions of the characters are often relatable. But there are none of the specifics that news reports or genuine histories inevitably contain.

Especially, there are no hard numbers and dates.

The Genesis Flood by the Numbers

The Genesis account of Noah, on the other hand, is full of numbers. Numbers don’t add anything to fairy tales, which is why you don’t find them in mythology. But numbers are a perfectly sensible thing to encounter in any genuine history. There are recreations of Noah’s ark all over the internet because you can come up with a pretty decent set of schematics from the brief but specific instructions God gave Noah in Genesis 6.

Here’s a list of further specifics from Genesis 7 alone:
This pattern of detail continues through the entire four-chapter flood narrative. All in all, by my count there are two recordings of age, five dates, five measurements, twelve various other enumerations and thirteen records of the passage of definite periods of time. In terms of specificity, if there is anything to compare to this in any mythological record of any culture, I’d be interested to see it. It is certainly highly atypical of the genre.

History, Not Myth

Let’s leave aside the Lord’s, the writer to the Hebrews’ and Peter’s treatment of the flood as historical. Why bother with this level of detail if the account is merely intended to be mythical, as even some Christians today allege? In a myth, the finer points of fact do not matter much. The heroes and heroines are loud and proud, like comic book characters or fairy tales. But in a history, specifics exist because the things described actually happened. The ark was a measurable length. The water rose to a certain height. The rain fell for an actual number of days. A defined number of people went into a specified space with an actual, described quantity of animals for a particular period of time and came out afterward.

Genesis 7 reads like history, not myth. It was either written that way to deceive us, or because it is a faithful account of what actually transpired. Such distinctions likely do not matter to those who are prepared to dismiss the Genesis flood narrative without serious consideration.

But they matter to me. They ought to matter to any serious Christian.

19 comments :

  1. Tom, if you are suggesting that a global flood occurred (where Mt. Everest was covered by 15 cubits of water) then I think you will indeed find yourself in a very isolated spot, and justifiably so. If you have a different perspective, then maybe you could elaborate? It seems clear that local, serious flooding has occurred throughout human history and that the biblical account could therefore conceivably refer to something like that. But if someone seriously suggests that EVERY species of animal and creature from the entire globe could be collected in a fairly short time span (think kangaroo in Australia) AND would fit on a vessel like the ark, with food supply, and without devouring each other, without sickness leading to death, and that such an event is outside the scope of modern methods of verification, etc., then that someone's judgement and capacity for clear thinking can be legitimately questioned. I hope you are not in that category where intellect is compartmentalized in such an unrealistic manner. In my opinion, that would make one into a less serious Christian because it will unnecessarily detract from the timeless Christian essentials.

    Here is a link concerning this topic in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is realistic.

    http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=8506

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  2. Qman, you may want to check out some of the logical and well thought out answers to your questions at the following websites before dismissing the facts as unintelligent. https://answersingenesis.org/noahs-ark/ and http://creation.com/how-did-all-the-animals-fit-on-noahs-ark

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  3. David has beaten me to the punch, Q, but if you do a bit of Googling on the subject or check out his links, you’ll find that I’m far from isolated in my convictions. There have been some pretty intelligent people who believed and continue to believe in a worldwide flood.

    As for fitting the animals in the ark, this excerpt is interesting:

    “Doctors Morris and Whitcomb in their classic book, The Genesis Flood state that no more than 35,000 individual animals needed to go on the ark. In his well documented book, Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study, John Woodmorappe suggests that far fewer animals would have been transported upon the ark. By pointing out that the word ‘specie’ is not equivalent to the ‘created kinds’ of the Genesis account, Woodmorappe credibly demonstrates that as few as 2,000 animals may have been required on the ark. To pad this number for error, he continues his study by showing that the ark could easily accommodate 16,000 animals.”

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  4. Thanks for the various references. Frankly, to me the flooding scenario is more an item piquing my curiosity and not something I loose any sleep over. So I might eventually look at the material given some time. I also put it in the strange 10 to 20% category in that, in my opinion, human beings have a less rational corner tucked away in the 10 to 20% range and there is nothing that one can do about that. It's not an issue unless it's a problematic corner impacting others (like with ISIS and cohorts) and can otherwise be ignored if it has zero impact on your life.

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  5. A strange comment, Q. How do you "put it in the strange 10 to 20% category" that "has no impact" if you don't know what any of that material actually says?

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  6. As I said, it has curiosity value to me but it will never be anything that I would take literally. There are all kinds of ideas out there that are often vigorously advocated and defended but that obviously don't make sense. I certainly don't spend my time looking at them and will instead accept existing sound conclusions arrived at by qualified sources. Did you review the link I provided? So we are really doing the same thing. You trust your sources, I trust mine which have a much greater probability of being correct in my estimation. Your estimates may differ.

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    1. Now I'm curious: How do you decide which parts of the Bible are literal and which are not?

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  7. No, actually, Q, we are not doing the same thing. For I made no comment on the historicity of Noah. That's a different issue. I made a comment about your methodology of classifying things you (admittedly) had not read, which you spelled out in your own response. Since I actually read the material on which I was commenting -- i.e. your own confession of methodology, it appears I'm one ahead on that.

    My source was you. And I was not merely trusting; I was questioning that source. So do you actually have an answer?

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  8. IC, I disagree since I was not referring to historicity either. Instead, when I read my append it strikes me that one, in combination with my append prior to that, should be able to infer that I consider the presented flooding scenario basically contradictory to established knowledge and even to common sense, which then indeed answers your inquiry. To repeat more overtly, I do not have to read everything under the sun but can rely on a synopsis and existing expert opinion to decide on something. Also, see my reply to Tom below.

    Tom,
    let's stay with this topic since for the whole Bible it would take too long on a case by case basis.

    But I gave you some clues, didn't I? For one thing I use common sense - I still have heard no justification why there should have been 15 cubits of water above Mt. Everest, and no one has explained to me how a kangaroo made it into the ark, especially since Australia had not been discovered yet! Second, I rely on my own inmate abilities and training which are adequate so that I can discern motives, am not easily misdirected and unreasonably influenced. In other words, I can make my own educated decisions and guesses and assign a sense of correctness to information. Also, I definitely use shortcuts and rely on what I consider to be reliable information put forth by experts. All these inform me of an estimate which, granted, may sometimes be more intuitive and gut feel but might often provide me with what I consider to be a reasonable certitude (probability of correctness). So, for the entire Bible I would rely more on Catholic expert opinions and references than Protestant Evangelical ones (not a surprise to you, I think, given my background). Hence, my previously appended link to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which I think offers a realistic perspective of the ark story. And then there are the many (religious, agnostic, atheistic) natural scientists who would totally disagree with you and your religious fundamentalist experts not because they want to put down religion but because they have better facts and well reasoned arguments. So, that puts you, in my mind, in a really isolated spot. And I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings since I think you are basically doing a great job here. Just that, as with many people (from my experience) there can be that tendency to ignore common sense in spite of abilities (I assigned an arbitrary 10% to 20% guesstimate to the prevalence of that tendency).

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    1. A bit dismissive, Q.

      If you'll pardon me noting it, for a guy who claims to have no interest in historicity, you certainly have a fixed view of the historicity of the Flood. And having admittedly read none of the sources, you claim to know they're "fundamentalist" and contain no "well reasoned arguments." I remain uncertain how you can judge them without the expedient of reading them.

      We are, of course, all free to choose what we will believe. But that doesn't make all beliefs equal, as you yourself imply above -- nor does it make all historiographical methods equal. Were I in your position, I think perhaps I'd be more inclined to suspend judgment pending further evidence than to foreclose the question by dismissing all contrary evidence offhandedly.

      After all, nothing makes a Catholic source necessarily a good one, nor a Protestant source necessarily a bad one, if such they are: their goodness or badness -- in both cases -- stands or falls entirely on their relationship to the truth, it seems to me.

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  9. No worries, Q. I'm not offended in the slightest.

    I'm guessing here, because you mention Australia not being discovered, but do you also take the creation account in Genesis to be mythical or allegorical? The kangaroo difficulty is not a difficulty unless you do. That's why I didn't respond to it initially. But if you're coming from a uniformitarian position in which God "created" mankind over billions of years via the mechanism of Darwinian evolution or some variant thereof, there's little point in niggling about kangaroos. The real issues are much larger.

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  10. IC,
    maybe I should have pointed this out earlier but I of course did some research into the flood story prior to my blogging here. That was on the level of Wiki and some current Protestant and Catholic sources. (Of course I was already familiar with it from a standard Catholic curriculum.) In addition, for quite a while I have followed Cornell University blogs created by faculty evolutionary biologists and geneticists in defense of their theorems with often heated arguments between evolutionist and creationist faculty members (also from many other higher institutions of learning). It was fascinating to observe how, with the latest genetic research coming in, the Darwinian's turf is getting smaller and smaller, annoying the evolutionists. The scientific creationist view is, however, not the biblical one but one that simply suggests that creation by an intelligence is feasible. Here is a link to that blog.

    http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/2007/10/rm-ns-creationist-and-id-strawman.html

    I am not familiar with your references, but, as I said, may look them up even just out of curiosity. Also, with regard to being closer to the truth, that, as always, is just the problem here since all sides always think they are closer to the truth. Personally, I pick the side that assumes the existence of a God who is an interested and supportive participant in his creatures process of discovery and exploration of his wonderful, natural and materialistic creation. In my opinion, he is also supportive by sometimes making an allegorical point (which can be stern) but not by actually wiping out his own handiwork.

    Tom,
    as I mentioned, I read about the geological and archeological finding that wide region flooding indeed did occur in that part of the world. That did not include the view though that all the mountains on earth were covered with water (in that time period) and that all global species of animal could have been collected and kept on an ark. So that means there is some allegory there. Also, I always held the viewpoint that it makes little difference to me how God created the world. I later on discovered that the Catholic Church also has no problem with evolution or any realistic process since God then simply created by that process.

    Sorry, but I disagree on the Kangaroo since an answer to that question, as with water over Mt. Everest, is actually critical if the literal side wants to support their point of view.

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    1. Yes, the creation issue is an ongoing one, to be sure. It's a little different from the Flood issue, of course. Still, you're right that to read the material and judge it personally -- if the issue is one we care about at all -- is the right way to go, I think.

      But your closing sentence is the one that makes me curious now. Are we back to the idea of Purgatory there? And when you say "wiping out," are you speaking of Annihilationism or of the Final Judgment? For if you mean the first, I agree that it has no basis; but if the second, then you would have quite a serious disagreement with the Word of God...and indeed (as you will know) even with traditional Catholic theology on that point, for Catholicism affirms the existence of Hell.

      P.S. -- More on the question of how natural human reasoning may radically differ from Divine wisdom under the post "Total Disappearing Act."

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    2. Okay, the kangaroos. Using the Genesis timeline, the flood took place approximately 1,650 years after creation. There is no guarantee that at that early date kangaroos were native to Australia, that many animals were distributed over the entire globe, that the continents were exactly in their present position or even that Mount Everest was the highest point on earth. If the "great deep" opened as described in Genesis, all manner of major geographic changes may have occurred during the flood.

      In any case, if there were a pair of kangaroos on the ark, they did not have to be gathered from Australia, but rather they populated Australia after the flood.

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  11. The challenge for me with the Flood account is mapping the biodiversity we see today across the continents all being sourced back to the Ark. Any advice or guidance for that?

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    1. This post is not overly technical but addresses the subject usefully, I think.

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  12. IC,
    I did not refer to final Judgment but find it interesting that you bring Hell into the discussion. It occurs to me that God probably would not have considered wiping out most of humanity if he did not think that they deserved hell right then and there. Since he relented afterwards, is that why we are now stuck with the fascist murderer types especially during the last and this century? Perhaps he relented because of Christ where we see that even those types can be forgiven (like Paul) if they turn to Christ. One can also point out, as an atheist might, that, since God knows the future, then why engage in these types of exercises in the first place. Can our free will even surprise God?

    Tom,
    The Kangaroo is still hopping around but not away yet. Based on your timeline you seem to place Earth's creation at about 5000 years ago which implies that you think the entire Himalayan and other mountain ranges, and land mass formations happened after the flood about 3400 years ago. This means you are a traditional and literal creationist. I for one cannot ignore modern methods of radiology and carbon dating, and other methods, giving us the approximate age of Earth at 4.5 billion years and the continents as ancient. From what I know, if my assumption is correct, we will therefore be forever talking past each other on that point. Wait, I should not say forever because the average life span is only about 80 years :). As I I had said before, these are non-issues to me (since I am not a curator of a museum :-o) but what counts is our learning to live as God's adopted children.

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    1. I actually agree with you on that last point, Q. My concern is not so much debating the science, which seems to change every few years, but maintaining the integrity of the Genesis accounts. Not only did the Lord and the apostles reference them, but as mentioned at length in the post, they do not read like mythology.

      That creates a conundrum for the reader. If these accounts are only allegorical or partly allegorical, what are all the dates, times and places for?

      We're both exercising faith with respect to the flood. I'm just placing mine in the integrity of Author of Genesis.

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    2. No, I wouldn't say that Q. I think that's the wrong way to go. We are not "stuck with" anything because God "relented." Not at all.

      I would also say the idea that our free will "surprises" God is wrong. I don't think it does, and see no reason Scripturally to imagine it does. Indeed, Scripture says that not only the Father but Christ also was always perfectly aware of exactly what was in man, so there is and can be no "surprise."

      I do think there's an important question there: but so far as I can see, you're not asking it yet. Your suppositions are off, and that's keeping your from asking why a Sovereign, foreknowing God would allow evil to persist in the world.

      The answer, may I suggest, is not some surprising action on the part of human beings, nor even some surprising new circumstance involving His Son, but is rather analytic in the concept of free will itself.

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