As reported in The New York Times, plans are underway in Kentucky to build an amusement park based on the story of Noah’s Ark to supplement the state’s already-existing “Creation Museum.” I will leave it to others to focus on the obvious first amendment violation of using state money to fund a tourist attraction with the sole agenda of promoting fundamentalist Christianity: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Instead, I would like to say out loud and in public that Genesis 1-11 is clearly mythological. These stories never happened historically. To pretend otherwise is to engage in unhelpful magical thinking.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner has written so eloquently in his book How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, “I don’t take the story of the Garden of Eden as a newspaper report … describing the human race as beginning with two full-grown, Hebrew-speaking adults and a talking snake” (1996: 15). Beginning with Genesis chapter 12, a tenable argument can be made for the existence of a historical Abraham, but the first few chapters of Genesis are of a different genre.
I love the opening chapters of Genesis, but we should not pretend that these stories are more than what they are: stories, myths, metaphors. The opening chapters of Genesis — including Noah’s Ark — are beautiful narratives, life-giving myths, and wonderful metaphors that continue to yield new insights into the human condition, even millennia after they were first told; but we live in the 21st-century. We are not doing ourselves or God any favors when we refuse to grow up religiously, just as we must grow up (dare I say, “evolve”) in each area of our life. To quote the Apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
In general, I find focusing on “how it actually happened” to be less important than the question of “what meaning does this story have for our life and world today”; however, when state governors in the 21st century propose using tax-payer dollars to support building a tourist attraction to promote fundamentalist Christianity, I feel led to state baldly for the record that “There Was Neither a Noah, Nor an Ark” — although I will continue to find meaning in the timeless myth for myself and for my congregation.