Can Noah’s Ark Be Salvaged?

This post is not about whether a ‘real ark’ can be found on a mountain somewhere. The question is whether the story of Noah’s Ark can be told today in a way that continues to serve any healthy, positive, meaningful purpose. The story is so familiar from childhood that we can forget that it is about God obliterating not merely the whole human race except for Noah and his family, but also every other living thing. The fact that this is clearly not a story about something that actually happened can alleviate some of the difficulty, although not all. The same applies to other morally difficult stories in the Bible, such as the accounts of genocide in Joshua – that these are not factual historical accounts helps, but does not resolve the issue entirely. Like these, the story of Noah’s ark remains a story that depicts God as though God would do this sort of thing, and it is imperative to ask why, and whether we can make sense of it.

We can certainly use the story to ask difficult questions about how we personify and anthropomorphize God, but in doing so we will have to read against the grain of the story. We will need to ask whether God is to be thought of as a celestial Andrea Yates, who even though she knows every hair on each of her children’s heads, nonetheless submerges each one in the water until they are drowned, because she knows she cannot protect them from turning away from her and living evil lives in the future. But in so doing, most would say that she herself has crossed the border into evil and/or insanity. The flood story can make us ask: do we depict God as evil or insane? But the story still sits uncomfortably in our tradition even if we try to answer “no”, and all the pairs of cute furry animals in the world will not make the story one that is appropriate for children.

The best way to make sense of the story is to show how it, like all the Biblical literature, reflects the development of human thinking about God that has led us to where we are today, rather than as static proclamations of things one ought to believe about God. The story of Noah and the flood makes the most sense (even if it remains problematic) when contextualized in this way. The author of the story in the Bible (who seems to have drawn on two earlier Israelite accounts) ultimately derives the story from his broad Mesopotamian heritage. The Israelite authors were trying to make sense of a story they could not simply discard, in the context of their monotheistic worldview. In the earlier story found in the Gilgamesh epic, the polytheistic context allows one to make sense of the story – some gods want to wipe out the noisy humans, but one that does not saves Utnapishtim. There is no need, in that context, to have a deity who at once is interested in saving human life and destroying it. In the context of ancient Israel’s ethical monotheism, the author of the Noah story does the best he can with what he had inherited, and attributes the flood to the one God (what else could he do?) and explains the action as judgment on human sinfulness (how else could he make sense of it?).

In our various canons of Scripture, we have not only the story of Noah, but that of Job, which shows (as do other stories) that one cannot simply do what the author of Genesis did, and Job’s friends did: i.e. blame disasters on humans having done things wrong and thus having deserved to have bad things happen to them. In light of what we know from geology, which the author of Genesis did not, namely that such a worldwide flood never happened, we have other options available. In light of the book of Job, and our scientific understanding of floods and tsunamis, we not only have the option of exploring other approaches, it is absolutely imperative that we do so.

In the end, the story of Noah reminds us that we think about theology in historical contexts, with limited human reason, in partial and piecemeal ways. Its challenge to us is that any language that we today use about God will look as inadequate and perhaps even as horrific to future generations of humans, as that in the Noah story does to us.

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  • elbogz

    That’s a very interesting perspective you have. It’s probably even closer to the truth of Noah than the version that has a giraffe sticking its head though the top of the ark. But I dare say, it’s not the version that is being taught in any of our churches. The version taught in the churches is “The story of Noah is true” and if you are a *** fingers making quote marks*** good Christian, *** end quote*** then you believe it to be true.But then a young boy (or girl) comes along and begins to do the same sort calculations they did when they tried to determine is Santa was true. Ok so Santa has to stop at every house and if he goes against the spin of the earth, that would give him two days, and ….***calculating*** hmm, an impossible task. Then he is forced to ask… “I wonder why mom and dad told me that lie about Santa?”Then one day, they sit down and read the apologists’ notes about Noah, how there were 15,500 animals on the ark and they would all fit. But then when calculating how to feed each animal and how much poop would be on the ark and hits the equal sign on the calculator. Noah + story = impossible to believe. Then he is forced to ask, I wonder why the church told me that lie about Noah?So then he asks, well, why would God tell a fable about Noah? The God that spoke the heavens and the earth into existence could have certainly flooded the earth. Why would he tell a story that says he destroyed the earth, when in fact, He didn’t?So when you start down the slippery slope of saying anything in the bible isn’t true, but only a fable, where do you stop? Was Jesus only a fable? The archeologists make a very strong case that he may not have existed.The interesting point about Noah, is that God did it because of the wickeness of man. From Genisis 6:5The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.”So, the most righteous man in the world, gets off the Ark, gets drunk, falls down naked, and causes his son to sin in such an egregious manner he’s banished by God. Umm, pretty bad plan to rid the world of wickedness, if you ask me. It doesn’t even work past the first harvest of grapes.

  • paulf

    Good post, James, and good comment elbogz.I was in a Bible study recently going over the book of Judges, and the stories were discomforting, especially Jephthah. The argument went that the sacrifice of his daughter was not seen by the book as a good thing. My wife being absent, I noted that yes, indeed, any honest look at the book would have to conclude that his acts were viewed as heroic to the author, and in fact he is listed as a hero of the faith in NT Hebrews. So then it was said that he did something else to be listed as a hero in Jesus’ day, but really, nothing else is known about him. You just have to live with the fact that the writers of the Bible didn’t see child sacrifice as such an awful thing — provided it was done in the service of YHWH.It is just impossible for a rational person to understand these things other than that the books are written by people to reflect their understanding of God at that moment. And that makes it crazy to seek to govern behavior in the 21st century based on the prejudice of a pre-scientific person. For example, Christians say we need to legislate against gay sex or implement traditional marriage like it is in the Bible. But they don’t really mean or (or more acurately), can’t get away with it, because in the Bible, women were property.

  • Three Ninjas

    This is a great post! This is exactly what I have thought, though not so eloquently, since I left fundamentalism. As far as I am concerned, it’s only this, intellectual dishonesty, or no Christianity at all. I will stick with your approach.

  • Mystical Seeker

    Excellent post. Theology is and always has been an evolving process. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, drop out of the sky into a fixed dogma. Great use of the Noah example to illustrate this point.

  • Anonymous

    So what Jason is saying is that he prefers the intellectual dishonesty of James McGrath instead of no Christianity?Figures

  • James F. McGrath

    Anonymous, you may not be honest about your identity, but could you at least have the courtesy to explain clearly where you see me being intellectually dishonest? If I have been, I am eager to know about it, but we all have blind spots. Please actually add some content to your criticism!

  • Three Ninjas

    Geez, anonymous. That stings.Fundamentalism is intellectual dishonesty. If I am honest with myself, I cannot be a literalist. I have to take many (most?) of the stories in the Bible as figurative. My only other option is to reject Christianity altogether, which I am not willing to do.It’s not as if I can just will myself into believing that 4,000 years ago a worldwide flood laid down the fossil record in a way that is perfectly explainable by the Theory of evolution and not at all explainable by the behavior of floods. That would be intellectual dishonesty.

  • Three Ninjas

    Incidentally, James, have you seen what I’ve written about Noah’s ark?

  • James F. McGrath

    I thought I even included a link to what you wrote in the post, Jason – if not, I’ll have to rectify that.There is also more on relevant considerations about math and logic in relation to the story here.

  • Three Ninjas

    Oh geez, you probably did! I’m so dense.

  • Anonymous
  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi James,The Heavenly Muse is coming on strong, and I feel the need to justify the ways of God to men. I really think you have gone too far here in making excuses for the scriptural text. And, lest you take me for a fundamentalist, you can see here that I share your horror at many passages we find in the scriptures. Now, there is a lot that I’ll grant – that Genesis is written from an ancient worldview, that the origins of many of the stories are no doubt mythical and pagan, etc. But I think you are making a very common modern error here in seeing only horror at the brutality of the ancient mind, rather than hearing what God would say to both them and us through the story.I’ve written on my blog that Noah’s Ark is one of the darkest stories in all of scripture. I stand by that. But I will defend the core message of the story as sublime; indeed, as an indispensable parallel to the creation story and a bridge to the rest of scripture. For the story of the flood, in the language of antiquity, is not merely the story of a mass killing. The language of the land being swallowed up again by the chaos of the sea, while the heavens pour down again closing the expanse given, is nothing less than the language of cosmic collapse. It is the undoing of what was done in Genesis one. God has looked on what was meant to be good, and sees only evil continually. It is the destruction of creation; the end of the world. Noah being righteous in his generation saves the world – it shows the Lord that the creation itself is worth saving. For the waters that were meant to destroy all end up receding, and we get a new beginning. The promise of the rainbow is a sign to God himself to commit himself to his creative project, to redeem it despite its evil, to roll up his sleeves and do what it takes to restore and renew all things – including chief of all the heart of man.This isn’t just a case of those crude bone-headed ancients blundering their way into something slightly better than they had – it’s deeply true about the relationship between man, the world, and God. You mock the notion that disasters could be the result of human sin – but in these of all times we know that man’s carelessness and power can and is used to create colossal horrors in our world. You shudder in horror and disgust at the idea that God would destroy us – but now more than ever, in the wake of hiroshima, Auschwitz, Rwanda, and Darfur, the question of whether we as a race should survive is far from trivial. And now, of all times, when we have the power to genetically alter our own humanity, and visit plagues and terrors upon ourselves that the world has never seen, we can cling to the hope of a God who sees the worst of who we are, and is committed to our salvation no matter the cost. It seems to me you are doing what many fundamentalists are doing when they watch a movie – count the swear words and nude scenes and judge it as bad – rather than seeing the message of the movie and the heart of the story. I implore you to take a lesson from Job: Don’t stop arguing with the Bible, but for God’s sake, grasp hold of it until it blesses you.

  • Like a Child

    Most Christians think I overanalyze things when I feel worried if the stories in the Old Testament are too strong for children, but I'm glad to see I'm not the only one. I have been very careful to protect my children from exposure to violence (particularly on TV, which is easy since we don't have cable), but I've often lamented how all my attempts at teaching them violence is wrong is counteracted by what they are learning in Sunday school. We don't teach preschoolers about the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor…it is a gradual process…so why focus so much on the stories of the Old Testament, and instead focus on the New Testament?