In the story of Noah, climate change is humans’ fault

The story of Noah in the book of Genesis does not invite a “literal” reading. It cannot even be made to tolerate such a reading.

This is not a historical story. It is not told to say, “Here is a thing that really happened and I am telling it to you, first of all, so that you will know that this was a thing that really happened.”

It is not that kind of story. The story itself tells us it is not that kind of story. And thus to read it that way is to fail to listen to what the story itself is telling us. To read the story of Noah as a historical account is to contradict the book of Genesis.

When we treat a story of one kind as if it were a story of another kind, we ruin the telling of it. We become exactly like That Guy who won’t let you finish a joke. (“Wait — you can’t bring a duck into a bar. The health code …”)

That Guy only comes in two varieties. He’s either so dim that he doesn’t understand how stories work and thus has completely failed to notice all the clear signals as to what kind of story is being told. Or else he’s just a jerk who’s trying to ruin the story on purpose so that we never get to the punchline.

“So this Southern Baptist minister, a Catholic priest, and an imam walk into a bar. Bartender looks up and says …”

“No way. A Catholic priest maybe, but a Southern Baptist minister and an imam would never go to a bar.”


“They’re teetotalers. They think drinking alcohol is a sin.”

“OK. Fine. Make it a Presbyterian minister, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi.* They walk into a bar. Bartender looks up and …”

“So which is it? A rabbi or an imam? I doubt this ever really happened at all! Just where is this bar supposed to be, anyway?”

That Guy is technically correct. But he’s also an idiot who doesn’t grasp the kind of story being told.

Entrance to the Museum of the Good Samaritan (photo by Josh Envin).

But there’s one thing more annoying than trying to tell a story over the clueless interruptions of a That Guy who misunderstands the kind of story being told — trying to hear a story told by a That Guy who misunderstands the kind of story he’s telling.

In both cases, the story will be ruined. Try to turn the one about the guy with the duck under his arm into a journalistic report and you’ll wreck the punchline. You’ll never convey the moral of the story about hard work and discipline if you wind up focusing, instead, on defending the notion that ants and grasshoppers are capable of speech.

So whether you’re reading, hearing or telling the story of Noah, you’re bound to make a mess of it if you don’t respect the story enough to treat it as the kind of story it presents itself to be. Treat it otherwise — treat it as a historical account — and you will inevitably miss what the story itself is saying.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas provided a neat illustration of this yesterday when he attempted to invoke the story of Noah as a historical account:

Republican Texas Rep. Joe Barton on Wednesday dismissed concerns that the Keystone XL pipeline could contribute to climate change, citing the biblical flood myth described in the book of Genesis as evidence that climate change was not man made.

… In contrast to Barton’s past insistence that global warming science is “pretty weak stuff,” the Texas Republican took a different tack in Wednesday’s hearing.

“I don’t deny that the climate is changing,” he said. “I think you can have an honest difference of opinion on what’s causing that change without automatically being either all-in that it’s all because of mankind or it’s all just natural. I think there’s a divergence of evidence.”

“I would point out if you’re a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change. And that certainly wasn’t because mankind overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy.”

(What is it with Texans and the complete inability to understand the story of Noah’s Ark?)

Poor Barton reminds me of the American church group I met at the “Good Samaritan’s Inn” — a museum/gift shop for tourists and pilgrims along the Wadi Qelt in the West Bank. They were very excited to be at the “actual location” where the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story took the man who had fallen among thieves. For them, it was a confirmation that the story “really happened.”

Except that the story did not “really happen.” The story never claims to have really happened. It was a parable. Parables are not fables, and we shouldn’t try to reduce them down to some “moral of the story” slogan, or to say “this and only this is the point of the story.” The story of the Good Samaritan is told to teach us several things, I think, but none of those things is that “this really happened.” It’s not that kind of story. And if the main thing you take away from the parable of the Good Samaritan is “this really happened,” then not only have you learned a false lesson, you’ve failed to learn any true ones.

You wind up, in other words, in the same illiterate, ignorant bind as Rep. Joe Barton.

Barton appeals to the story of Noah to argue that: 1) climate-change has nothing to do with human behavior; and 2) since humans are not responsible for causing climate change, we are not responsible for responding to it or mitigating its effects.

If “you’re a believer in the Bible,” or if you’ve ever read or heard the story of Noah, then you know that Barton is getting the story backwards and upside-down. The great flood in the story of Noah is a direct consequence of human behavior. Noah’s flood is, in that story, anthropogenic climate change. Genesis 6 does not say:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of ostriches was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made ostriches, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the ostriches I have created …”

Not ostriches. Humankind. (“Adam” is the actual word there.) The story is very clear that humans are to blame.

And because humans are to blame for bringing this destructive wrath down on the whole world, humans are also given the responsibility to rescue the rest of the creation.

This is not a minor point in the story. It is impossible to read this story or to hear this story or to tell this story without very clearly understanding that this story is saying that: 1) humans are uniquely capable of destroying all of creation; and 2) humans are uniquely responsible to care for all of creation.

Or, rather, it is almost impossible to read, hear or tell this story without understanding that. It’s possible to miss that point if you’re completely confused as to what kind of story you’re reading, hearing or telling. If you ignore or reject everything the story signals about what kind of story it is, then you can also ignore or reject everything the story has to say, focusing instead on what the story doesn’t say — that it is a historical account, the testimony of actual events from witnesses the story itself says cannot exist.

Focus on that and the story becomes something else — a tale of cubits, blueprints and cryptogeology. Read or told that way, the story no longer has anything to say about responsibility. That’s convenient for folks like Joe Barton, for whom avoiding responsibility is the whole point in quoting the Bible.

So which kind of That Guy is Rep. Barton? Is he the clueless idiot who doesn’t understand how stories work? Or is he the jerk who deliberately tries to ruin the punchline? I think probably it’s a little of both.

The good news for Joe Barton is that he’s from Texas. That means even after embarrassing himself with clueless statements like the one above, he still doesn’t ever have to worry about being the most embarrassing member of his congressional delegation. Heck, he doesn’t even have to worry about being the most embarrassing Barton from Texas.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The punchline is “Bacon,” so really it works either way.

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  • I’m kind of ashamed to admit it but I’ve not ever thought of the story of Noah in that way before. I can’t say that I ever thought about it much at all. I may have to give that one another read.

    Great post.

  • LoneWolf343

    What’s worse that Barton’s argument doesn’t even work even if it was true. Just because climate change happened in the past without anthropogenic pollution doesn’t mean that this current change is not due to anthropogenic pollution.

    The idiots we elect to congress…

  • AnonaMiss

    Really? The Hebrew version of Noah’s Ark blames Adam for the flood?

    Oh I know that “adam” means “humankind”, but the “literalists”?

    “Blah blah Eve blah women are evil blah blah”

    “Oh yeah? Well Adam was so bad that God flooded the world just because Adam was such a dick!

  • I admit I’m a bit dubious as to whether the stories aren’t meant to be interpreted at all literally. I honestly don’t see how the technical details of the cubits and such be long in a story that is intended to teach about human behavior. Similarly, I’m not sure the Garden of Eden wasn’t also intended somewhat literally, what with the technical details about the animals’ diets. There is evidence of a great flood occurring in that region (although the literal truth of Noah is undermined by the existence of those stories, since they indicate very clearly Noah and his family were not the only survivors), and Noah was probably the protagonist of a tall tale more than anything else, but a tall tale intended to give explanation to a historical event. I wonder if historicity, if not literal accuracy, wasn’t part of the reason the story was originally written.

  • For all the harping on about women being evil, Romans 5 makes it pretty clear who’s to blame. ~_^

  • I’d be happy if they were just idiots. I’m still making screaming noises about Hagstrom.

  • Amaranth

    I dunno.

    Because in the Noah’s Ark story, *God* destroyed the world. Maybe he did it because he was pissed off at humanity, but in the end, he’s the one who turned on the floodgates. Humans did not do that, certainly not in the same way that humans burning too much oil could superheat the planet.

    When you stick God in the story as the mover and shaker, it’s really hard for me to take away a message of “humans are responsible for what happens to the earth”. Because what I see is God doing the wrecking and then, like a toddler having a tantrum, pointing at humanity and saying, “Look what you made me do!”

  • hidden_urchin

    Yes, well, in Texas we like to elect our stupid people to public office. That way we can keep an eye on ’em.

  • P J Evans

    The only way that Barton should make a claim like that is if he thinks that pipelines are natural phenomena. In which case, he’s too stupid to be in *any* position of authority.

  • Man did cause God to send the Flood, it is called SIN. And you never mentioned it once.

  • 1) You’ve completely missed the point, which was that Genesis doesn’t substantiate an argument that mankind cannot be responsible for climate change.
    2) He quoted Genesis 6, which explicitly says that mankind’s wickedness caused it. And again, picking at “you didn’t specifically say sin caused it” completely misses the point that, in the story, mankind caused it.

  • Mary

    “I wonder if historicity, if not literal accuracy, wasn’t part of the reason the story was originally written.”

    I don’t see why it can’t be both. Many stories have a grain of truth to them, but also as time goes by they take on metaphorical truth as well.

  • Carstonio

    Amaranth is right that having the god in the story changes the nature of the parable. Or more correctly, having the cataclysm caused deliberately instead of being a simple reaction. But instead of portraying the god as wrecking the world and then saying, “Look what you made me do,” the message seems to be that humans deserve to be wiped out in a worldwide flood. Fred’s point about blame would be clearer if humans directly caused the flood through their irresponsibility or negligence.

  • Jamoche

    the “Good Samaritan’s Inn”

    I’m surprised there’s only one of them and that it’s an actual ancient site; tourist traps don’t usually work like that (pity, I was kind of hoping there were several competing ones, like you get with tourist traps here – just for the fun when the confused tourists hit their second one). It does look like an interesting place.

  • The_L1985

    You’re assuming that literalists know a damn thing about Hebrew.

  • Mary

    the “Good Samaritan’s Inn”

    “I’m surprised there’s only one of them and that it’s an actual ancient site”

    If it is run by the Cathlolics then there would be your explanation. They love to make shrines out of everything. It doesn’t matter whether anything happened there at all.

    As far as those excited tourists, I wonder how many realized what the true message of this story is. It is not just a story about doing a good deed for someone else. It is a story about racism. The Samaritans were the “wrong sort of people” and were reviled by all “good” Jews. And yet Jesus used the Samaritan as an example of how someone should behave before God and man.

  • JustoneK

    Well we did need a demonstration of Fred’s point, right?

  • Just starting to wonder how often we’re going to have these conversations with members of the LCMS.

  • SisterCoyote

    Yeah; everyone knows it’s the King James Bible that’s the consecrated Word of God – anything earlier is murky and imperfect and, since they’re not written in English, you can tell we weren’t meant to try to think too hard about them. ‘murica is the Chosen Land and we are the (other) Chosen People, duh.

  • The_L1985

    I can see technical details being something that was added over time. In fact, TO’s index of myths further backs that up–look at the Sumerian flood story, which was recorded long before the other Near Eastern flood stories. It’s almost like a rough draft of the Genesis story, as if more and more details were written in response to listeners’ questions over the intervening centuries. “Why did the gods (or YHWH) decide to destroy mankind?” “How big was the boat?” “How many animals were on it?” “You couldn’t preserve humanity by yourself–somebody would have to have the children.” The length of the flood also gets longer–from 7 days to 40.

    “what with the technical details about the animals’ diets.”

    The only detail about any animal’s diet in Gen 1-3, other than the forbidden-fruit part, is that after the Fall, the snake crawls on the ground “and dust shalt thou eat.”

  • I’d say that climate change denial is more about taking 20th century status symbols ‘literally’; (the idea of a big gas-guzzling car and big house on a big acerage as objectively true measures of virtue and virlity.) and that this particular citing of holy scriptures is a deliberate act of frothy bullshitting meant to shut up debate.

    In other words, I don’t think that Joe Barton is really the aww-shucks country simpleton he plays on TV. But he is very much a “a jerk who’s trying to ruin the story on purpose”

  • The_L1985

    Never mentioned it once?

    Please explain how:

    1. “Human wickedness” and “human sin” are different.
    2. Pointing out specifically that mankind’s wickedness caused the flood is somehow “never mentioning” that it did.

  • The_L1985

    There were probably multiple “Good Samaritan’s Inns” at one point, just as there were 5 or 6 “hands of St. Peter” being circulated around as genuine during the Middle Ages.

  • JustoneK
  • The_L1985

    “If the originals were bound together, the common man couldn’t read them because they’re written in dead languages” sounds to me like “Most people are too stupid to learn a new language if you give them a chance when they’re young enough to learn it.”

    Nice to know they think so highly of humanity. Also, everybody apparently speaks 17th-century English.

  • Citizen Alan

    Everything that Christians like Joe Barton say and do makes perfect sense once you realize that they worship Satan and actively desire the destruction of the entire human race. Crap like this is why I no longer acknowledge Republicans as being fundamentally human.

  • The best part of that is the assurance that the KJB is authentic because the Bible says it is.

    Never mind that the KJB version is missing stories considered canon by different faiths…

  • SisterCoyote

    Yep. It’s how I was raised; the first time I said something to my dad about the original meaning of the Hebrew, I got a blank look, and a lecture about how that wasn’t really the way it was. There are massive amounts of Baptist churches out there who don’t accept the reality of original documents.

  • Mary

    Yeah you really have to admire people who are proud of their own ignorance..

  • Right, that’s what I’m saying. Fred’s assertion that you’re missing the point of the story if you focus on its historicity is what I find dubious; I think it’s one of many reasons we have the story.

    Now, I agree that focusing on one aspect of the story to the detriment of noticing others is counterproductive; it’s why I feel deconstructive conversations are always productive. For example, when I tell people I hate “Bruce Almighty” because it has a toxic message, I’m often asked why I can’t just enjoy a movie, but I feel accepting the movie’s premise that Bruce was bad at being God because he was human, on which the lesson he learns is entirely contingent, misses the overwhelming evidence that he’s bad at it because he’s a selfish, short-sighted prick and allows your brain to be poisoned by a wrong, anti-human message.

  • You’ve never run into the “yom” argument for a six-day creation?

  • LCMS?

  • What did Satan ever do to you to accuse him of being a Republican?

  • Well, it is like in Left Behind. The “good guys” and the “bad guy” ultimately have the exact same goal, the only difference is in who they root for.

    Somehow, the good guys think that doing bad things is still good, but only as long as you cluck your tongue in silent disapproval at the other people doing those world-ending things for the “wrong” reasons.

  • Becca Stareyes

    Honestly, I don’t think it’s useful to say a group isn’t ‘fundamentally human’. Part of humanity is that we do some damn shitty things, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of selfishness and sometimes because we evolved as a tool-using plains ape that only had to worry about a small tribe of people, which is a lot easier to rely on direct observations and general knowledge. We also do kind and beautiful things.

    Saying that ‘those other people’ aren’t fundamentally human because they do some damn shitty things is dangerous, because all humans can be like that. ‘They’ (whoever ‘they’ are) do not have a monopoly on asshole behavior. And, while Rep. Barton may be an asshole, I’m willing to bet that at least some Republicans* are decent people, but scared and ignorant or occasionally thoughtless. They are still responsible for bad behavior, but being scared/ignorant/thoughtless but decent implies that they can change.

    * Since, hell, I know some Republicans. I’m related to Republicans.

  • Out of curiosity, there are no snakes out there that literally eat dust, right?

  • Citizen Alan

    There is “doing some damn shitty things” and then there is “pursuing policies that could lead to the decimation of the human race within our lifetimes … just because a lobbyist paid you to do it.” Your grandchildren will likely die as starving peasants because of “people” like Joe Barton.

  • JustoneK

    I have to wonder if any of them speak Saxon. HERITAGE, BUDDY! MERICAN HERITAGE!

  • JustoneK

    I fail to see how that is not damned shitty.

  • Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Mister Lintz is a member, specifically of the First Lutheran Church of Knoxville, which (like many of its kind) emphasizes “doctrinally pure” worship.

  • Mary

    Glad those speed-reading classes paid off, hombre. You totally got what Fred was saying…(shakes head).

  • Bethany

    Dunno. You can buy all sorts of things like Star Trek technical manuals which lay out in great detail the specifications for things that everyone, including the people who wrote the manuals, know are completely fictional.

  • Oh, I love that one. Especially when you ask them to quantify how much time is in a yom, because the Bible offers four explanations for that.

    Genesis 1:5 – A yom is the period of time it takes day to become night.

    Genesis1:14 – A yom is the period of time it takes day to become night and then day again.

    Genesis 2:4 – A yom is the period of time it took to create the entire world and heavens.

    Psalm 90:4 – A yom is a thousand years.

  • Becca Stareyes

    My literal grandchildren are unlikely to exist, given my feelings on bearing and raising children.

    It’s a case of ‘no True Scotsman’. No real human could do monstrous things, so all the ones that do are fake humans. And, well, a terrible person or a dangerous person is still a person, with all the rights and responsibilities that implies.

    Besides, people can face my moral judgement. I’m not going to get mad at a polar bear for being a polar bear, even if it mistakes me for a seal (and thus a perfect meal for a polar bear). I’m not going to get mad at E. coli for trying to colonize my intestine and making me sick. (The situation might anger me, but why waste anger on something that doesn’t consider ethics, or much of all.)

    But I expect more from people.

  • No, but Ken Ham explains this as “as a snake’s tongue darts out to sense its surroundings, sometimes it will lick up dust from the ground.”

  • Bear in mind that “Republicans” doesn’t just refer to politicians. When you say “Republicans,” you’re also catching the countless people in the Fox News Republican Bubble in that net.

  • Jurgan

    That’s what I was thinking. I’d like to read an environmental message into this, but
    humans are at most indirectly responsible. God is the actor who destroys the world, supposedly because humans are irredeemable. But what about the children who don’t know their right from their left, and the many animals as well? Surely the platypi and camels didn’t deserve to drown for man’s sins. Isn’t this another version of the victim-blaming, friends of Job theology?
    I can, however, see something to take away in Noah’s actions. Noah makes a great effort to preserve creation and repopulate the now-endangered species. Still, it would be easier to take if the flood was just something that happened, rather than God taking direct action to kill everything on Earth.

  • Mary

    So what I think you are saying is that the story of the Flood has a negative message, regardless of whether it is historically true? I would have to agree with that because God is really depicted as an evil monster God. However I would be interested at looking at the story from a Jungian or Josepth Cambell point of view.

  • JustoneK

    lol pure. Purity seems to be worshiped a lot by people who don’t understand what it actually is.

  • Foreigner

    Peter was an avatar of Kali, obviously.