Myth, History, Genesis, and Noah’s Ark

Myth, History, Genesis, and Noah’s Ark April 2, 2019

As I wrote yesterday’s post on young earth creationists’ discussion of whether Noah’s Ark would have been seaworthy, I found myself wondering why it matters whether the exact dimensions of the ark stated in Genesis would have been seaworthy. Who cares if the dimensions are actually workable dimensions? It’s not like the dimensions are the point! The point is the story, and the meaning and explanatory power it offers. It’s myth. Whether or not the story describes something that actually happened—and, if it does, whether it gets the details right—is not the point.

I remember when I first learned, in college, that there was no one authoritative version of the stories in Greek mythology. I was gobsmacked. It turns out there are many different tellings of the same myths—and they don’t all go the same way! This felt very messy to me. Looking back, I think I was unsettled because my template for viewing old texts and stories was the Bible, where there was one way stories happened, and one way they were written down.

Or rather, my template for viewing old texts and stories was the evangelical way of approaching the Bible.

After all, there are whole portions of the Bible where the same stories are repeated and told in different (and not always compatible) ways. Compare Samuel and Kings with I and II Chronicles, or consider Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, the first two chapters of Genesis are two completely different creation stories told back to back. And then there’s the whole documentary hypothesis. The Bible is far more messy than I’d been taught to see it.

But young earth creationists don’t see it like this. Conservative evangelicals view the Bible as infallible and inerrant. They don’t view these stories as myth. They view them as history—and not just as history, but as perfectly accurate history. (Historians do not approach historical texts the way conservative evangelicals do the Bible.)

Perhaps a dual distinction is worth making. There is myth and there is history, though the line between the two can and does blur. Conservative evangelicals view the Bible as history, and not at all myth. But also, there is viewing history (or myth) the way scholars do, and there is viewing it the way conservative evangelicals view the Bible. It’s not just that young earth creationists see the flood story as history rather than myth. It’s also that they view Bible passages like these as 100% accurate and without error, a standard historians never apply to historical texts.

This is how we end up with seemingly never-ending attempts to prove that a wooden boat that is 515 long, 86 feet wide, and 51 feet high would in fact have been seaworthy, even though the longest wooden ship ever built—the Wyoming, at 450 feet long—had to rely on pumps to pump out the water that entered as the wood flexed.

The image above is created by Answers in Genesis. The grey shading of the “wood ships” section only extends beyond 500 feet because those who created the image were including Noah’s Ark. Wood ships have never been built this long. There’s a reason we didn’t see ships the size of the Titanic until after the advent of steel.

If conservative evangelicals approached these passages as myth (as a story that may or may not have happened, but which created meaning for those who told and heard it it), or as historians usually approach ancient texts (with an understanding that exact dimensions or details may be unreliable), they would not be stuck having this argument.

And yet, here they are.

For organizations like Answers in Genesis, the idea that the story is one people’s way of making sense of a massive regional flood—or the possibility that the dimensions for the ark were inventive, or became more grand over time as the story was told and retold—is not worth considering. For the Bible to work the way conservative evangelicals want it to, it has to be all fact, down to the smallest detail. There can be no acknowledgement that stories change over time, or that stories can provide meaning without having actually happened, or that narrators can be unreliable.

Given how conservative evangelicals approach the Bible, organizations like Answers in Genesis can’t suggest that the dimensions of the ark may have been changed by storytellers and scribes over time. To do so would be to sacrifice their foundational understanding of the Bible. What’s bizarre is that young earth creationists can approach these texts this way—and have these conversations—and yet still demand that their claims be taken seriously by the scientific community.

This isn’t how science works. It’s not how history works, or how literature, classics, or archaeology works. It’s not how any of this works. But it is how conservative evangelicalism works, and it’s how young earth creationism works.

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