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

In the story of Noah, climate change is humans’ fault April 11, 2013

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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  • LoneWolf343

    I think of that “historian,” myself.

  • Man originally meant person wifman meant female human and wapman meant male human. Seriously in old english man is gender neutral. When English stripped most of its genders we somehow ended up with man = male person. I sometimes wonder what English would have looked like in 500 years time sans Sapir-Worf – I suspect (but can’t prove) that it would have lost “she” and “it” (and probably her and him) since it was nearly done becoming isolating.

    (source – among others – )

  • EllieMurasaki

    I know ‘man’ used to be gender-neutral. The problem is that the word no longer IS gender-neutral. It’s the ‘men are people, women are women’ problem.

  • I was just musing more than anything because it’s almost the exact opposite of what happened in the rest of the language where the female was lost (or at least made obsolete) and male became neutral. (When was the last time you went to visit a Doctrix after all?)

  • Anton_Mates

    Keep in mind, though, that our Sumerian story is extremely fragmentary. We don’t know the entire written version (that some guy, whoever he was, marked down on a clay cylinder), let alone how it stacked up against the contemporary oral versions. I’d be very leery of judging it to be simple or streamlined or otherwise rough-drafty. It’s not that much earlier than the Old Babylonian version, too.

  • Anton_Mates

    I don’t think that would be a problem for them. As I understand it, Adam is some dude’s name; it also means “mankind” because mankind was considered to descend from that particular dude. To put it another way, Genesis 1 identifies mankind as “Adamskind” or “the house of Adam.”

    “Adam” is not the standard Semitic root for “man,” apparently. (Or so saith Wikipedia, peace be upon it.)

  • He means this It’s one of those hypothetical precusor texts (a bit like Q for the synoptic gospels). Probably real but we haven’t got a copy,

  • Writing off a good chunk of your country’s population as not human is shitty. Saying they are consciously out to destroy the world and worship Satan… What? You’re as paranoid as they are…

    It’s not like there aren’t republican’s who get Climate Change and just over half of all Republicans now believe in Climate Change (And I wonder if you think these democrats aren’t human? )

    But seriously you don’t get to decide who is and isn’t human. One you dehumanise a person in your head you can justify doing anything to them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Well, yeah. ‘Adamah’ is ‘dirt’, isn’t it?

  • mroge

    That is what they have already done when it comes to the theology of hell. It literally does not exist in the original writings.

  • It’s a 19th century Turkish caravanserai so I doubt it’s an ancient pilgrimage site. It’s also a mosaic museum so is probably run by the government.

    The idea that the Good Samaritan and other parables are true is rather new and seems to stem from the idea that anything that isn’t factually true is a lie so of course Jesus would never have used fiction as a teaching tool because fiction is evil. *facepalm*

  • mroge

    Wow, you really need to take a chill-pill. How could you not know that was a joke? And a very good one I might add.

  • mroge

    Nope. Just right!

  • mroge

    Re: Animal diets

    I see this as adding problems to the creationist arguments. God would have had to redesign the digestive systems of all carnivores to make this work, plus their teeth and claws. In fact we ourselves have canine teeth.

    Of course creationists don’t feel obligated to actually think these things through logically, so for them it is a non-issue.

  • mroge

    Yes I do agree with you, if you take these stories literally then it leads straight to problems regarding the character of God. However if you take them symbolically then for instance you could simply see these stories as a psychological depiction of the evolution of consciousness. At some point in mankind’s distant past we were amoral creatures, just like other animals. We were one with nature-The Garden of Eden. When we at some point we developed a sense of right and wrong, then we noticed that we were naked-which is a common symbol of shame. The Tree itself is called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not the Tree of Evil. Having the knowledge of knowing when our actions hurt others sets us apart from the rest of the natural world and so it feels like we have been “evicted from Paradise.”

    You could also take this as a description of what happens in the individual consciousness, not just the evolution of mankind. A baby is born an innocent, but basically amoral nature. Not because he is “evil”, but just because his brain hasn’t finished growing. So as children we have to learn that everything is not about us,and that we need to think of others. As we learn to do that, then we lose our privileged existance, and again we feel like we have lost “Paradise”

    Of course I am sure to be labeled a “heretic” for having such thoughts, but frankly this makes a whole lot more sense to me than the idea of a trickster God who deliberately sets up his creation to fail. That would make him to be an evil God, not a morally superior God. He is reduced to the level of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass just to see them suffer. I personally think that view would be an insult to God. Why would God expect us to behave better than he does?

    In the end a lot of our concepts of God say more about us, than about him. We as a race are small and petty in our behavior, so we have created God in our own image to justify ourselves. It is as simple and as sad as that.

  • mroge


  • mroge

    “When a certain critical mass of human people accept that holy books are parables and not history, then yes, we’ll all be able to talk about them that way to each other–like jokes, like what they were intended to be.”

    First of all, I can’t figure out how you got that out of what Fred wrote. He did not say to treat these parables as jokes. In fact the whole point of a parable would be missed if you did that!

    Second of all. congrats on confirming every paranoid fear of the religious right. While reasonable people allow others to have their beliefs, there is a subset of atheism that wants to completely destroy religion, which by the way, IS JUST AS WRONG AS FORCING RELIGION ON OTHERS.

    When atheists do this then they are perpetuating the same evil that they claim to be against.

    It is possible for people of faith and people of no-faith to get along just fine, but people like you don’t want that. You have your own “Holy War” going on and cling to it just as tightly as the fundamentalist Christians do to theirs.

    Maybe it will be like matter coming into contact with anti-matter, the resultant explosion will destroy you both.

  • Anton_Mates

    Yep, but it’s not clear that “Adam” actually comes from “adamah.” There’s a family of Hebrew and other Semitic words (“adom,” “edom,” “‘dam”, “adamu”, etc.) that variously mean “red/ruddy”, “blood,” “red garment,” “nobleman,” and a few other things, all descended from the proto-Semitic root “‘dm” or “red.” “Adam” may well be part of this family. “Adamah” itself might be derived from “‘dm” through a meaning of “red earth,” but it might also have a totally independent origin; both words or word-families are too ancient for us to be sure.

    The connection of “Adam” with “adamah” in Genesis is probably a false etymology based on a pun. The Old Testament’s loaded with folk etymologies; e.g., it claims that the name “Moses” (which is probably Egyptian) comes from the Hebrew for “drawn out”.

    Whatever its true etymology, “Adam” was a personal name in
    Mesopotamia long before Genesis was written. Related names that appear earlier include “Adamu,” the second recorded Assyrian king; “Alulim,” the first recorded Sumerian king; and “Adapa”, another culture-hero with strong parallels to Adam.

  • reynard61

    The problem is that this particular “joke” tends to have consequences far out of proportion to the district that he represents. Ghomert and his ilk (Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, etc.) wouldn’t be so bad if their influence were confined strictly to local affairs (i.e. a group of county officials railing against, say, bicycle paths in South Carolina because they think that they’re part of a U.N. plot won’t prevent bicycle paths from being designated and built in Indianapolis, Indiana); but when they bring their stupidity and paranoia into the National realm and *start actively interfering with the business of running the country*, then the “joke” starts getting pretty stale. So, no; I will not “take a chill pill” because the “joke” just *isn’t funny* anymore.

  • Turcano

    By the way, that last bit is a thing.

  • mroge

    Well it does not make sense to attack someone who agrees with you and who obviously is not responsible for this. There are idiot politcians everywhere and just because someone lives in Texas doesn’t mean that he agrees with what is going on. Rant at the people who are responsible, not innocent by-standers! Plus a little comic relief is a very healthy thing, otherwise you can drive youreslf crazy.

  • Anton_Mates

    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!”

    Well, the story does end with God promising never to do it again, even if humans keep pissing him off with their sinful ways. Humans don’t learn to treat the Earth with more respect; God learns to treat humans with more respect. There’s a similar theme of divine fallibility and ambivalence toward humans in the other Near Eastern flood myths. Some gods (e.g., Zeus and Enlil) get really pissed at humanity and send the flood; other gods (e.g., Prometheus and Ea/Enki) scheme to save humanity. Still other gods (e.g. Ishtar) are initially accusatory of humanity, but once they see the flood punishment in action, they’re like “holy crap, this is way too extreme!” Ultimately the pro-humanity side is both morally justified and triumphant. The Biblical version is monotheistic, of course, so Yahweh has to play all these roles at once, which makes him seem a little unstable. But he definitely comes down on the less-genocidal side in the end.

    If anything, the message I’d take away from the Noah story is that we can’t wreck the planet–only God can do that, and from now on he’s never going to. (Fundamentalist Christians like to claim that he only promised not to flood the Earth again, but he goes on to pretty clearly rule out global catastrophes of any sort; “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”) That leaves us free to exploit nature as much as we want. The P component of the story makes this very explicit. As part of the post-Flood covenant, God renews the command for humans to be fruitful and multiply, delivers all animals into our control and declares that they will look upon us with “fear and dread,” and authorizes us to eat animals, whereas before the flood humans were vegetarian.

    So, yeah…I’m not buying Fred’s argument that there’s a clear and undeniable message of environmental responsibility here.

  • mroge

    I am not sure where my post went so I will try this again. You can be as pissed off as you want but make sure you direct it towards the right people! Picking a random Texan who actually agrees with you and making it sound like he is personally responsible for this mess is ridiculous! I am sure you can find forums where you can rant at the douchbag Texans who voted for him. They shouldn’t be hard to find. Frankly your behavior is completely inappropriate and uncivil. And yes a good chuckle helps a lot to keep a person sane. I get pissed off at the whole “Obama is the Antichrist” thing, but you know it also helps to laugh at the absurdity off it all.

  • reynard61

    Well, you do have a bit of a point. But my point is that when Gohmert starts spouting off about “terror babies” and other such paranoid nonsense on the House floor or during nationally televised news stories, I’m not necessarily thinking “Wow! The people in this guy’s district sure are stupid for electing him!”; I’m usually thinking “Wow! The people of *Texas* sure are stupid for electing him!” True, it’s not really fair to paint a whole State with a brush dipped in only one district; but it happens. (I’ve had someone from Ohio take me to task for Richard Mourdock’s [a defeated Tea Party candidate] “Children of rape are a Gift from God” statement even though I voted for his Democratic opponent. I reminded him that the current obstructionist Speaker of the House is from that State and asked who *they* voted for last election.)

    Rightly or wrongly, innocent bystanders can sometimes get tarred with the same brush as the politicians who say and/or do stupid shit. So it’s up to those politician’s constituents to make sure that they elect people who *won’t embarrass them by saying and/or doing stupid shit(!)*

  • Anton_Mates

    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.

    I agree. Fred compares the story to the parable of the Good Samaritan, but this isn’t a parable or a fable; it’s an etiological myth. It explains various facts about the world-as-it-is–the ancestry of various Near Eastern peoples, the transition between life in the mythical and historical eras, the Noahide laws–precisely because it is supposed to be a thing that actually happened. The Mishnah and the earliest Talmudic commentators treat the Noah story as factual. The Greeks treated the Deucalion story as factual, and the Sumerians and Babylonians certainly connected Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh, an actual historical figure.

    Of course it’s possible that someone involved in the construction of the story intended it as metaphor, and everyone later just got it wrong. There’s no way to disprove that hypothesis. But I don’t see much positive evidence supporting it either, and I wouldn’t say that being skeptical of it makes you a “clueless idiot.” (Though Barton may be an idiot or a jerk for plenty of other reasons.)

  • Anton_Mates

    The Old Testament contains story after story of God utterly failing at raising His children

    Yeah, in the J text of Genesis Yahweh isn’t exactly a confident or loving parent; it’s more like he created humanity and doesn’t know what to do with them. He’s constantly competing with humans, from Eden to the Nephilim episode to the Tower of Babel, trying to make sure they can’t match him in power or wisdom or lifespan. The flood story’s one of the few cases where he actually ends up conceding something to mankind, acknowledging our right to occupy the Earth even if we keep offending him with our behavior. (Of course, it kind of reads like he’s mostly okay with that because our sacrifices are so yummy.)

  • I think that in characterizing the story of the flood as being akin to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the thing Fred is talking about is that although the people who recorded these stories thought of them as “factual”, that still isn’t the same as them thinking of it the same way that we think of history: we have a sense of “these things are history and actually happened, while those other things are myth and did not actually happen.” That’s actually a tremendously modern way of thinking. They didn’t have thought-buckets of “history” and “myth” that things got sorted into, and all of what was for them comparable to history was wrapped up inextricably with the understanding that there might be several mutually exclusive stories, each of which was equally “true”. These stories were “factual” in every sense that they would have understood. But they were also “myth” equally in every sense that they would have understood

  • Anton_Mates

    we have a sense of “these things are history and actually happened, while those other things are myth and did not actually happen.” That’s actually a tremendously modern way of thinking.

    That’s true, but the particularly modern aspect of it is the second half. Traditionally, myth was on the “actually happened” side. Hebrew authors and audiences were perfectly familiar with the idea of stories that were valuable and instructive but didn’t actually happen; the Old Testament contains fables and parables, as well as wisdom literature like Job where the rabbinic commentators were split on whether he was based on a real person. But myth and history had factual truth value. Insofar as there’s a distinction between mythical and historical texts from that period, it lies in the precision with which these events were localized in the past, and in the completeness of the causal chain leading from them to the present. (And in that sense, the Biblical story of Noah is actually highly historicized, being situated in time through the same genealogical lists that were used to situate the post-Flood patriarchs, judges and kings.)

    So while it’s true that these stories frequently don’t fall neatly into modern literary categories, I still don’t think it’s justified for Fred to say that they were obviously not intended to be read as having “actually happened.” They’re not exactly histories in the modern sense, but they’re more like histories than they are like jokes or parables.

    all of what was for them comparable to history was wrapped up inextricably with the understanding that there might be several mutually exclusive stories, each of which was equally “true”.

    I’d like to see the evidence that such an understanding was common. We know that this was not the case by Talmudic times; rabbis were extremely concerned with demonstrating that the Torah represented a single, logically consistent history, and that any apparent contradictions were a matter of misinterpretation or allegory. And it’s unlikely to have been the case for the Torah’s redactors, given the effort they put into harmonizing the different accounts they were combining (and this is particularly true with the Noah account).

    Of course we can’t ask the pre-redaction authors and audiences how they viewed the matter, but it certainly isn’t necessary to hypothesize that they believed in several factual-yet-mutually-exclusive accounts of the same myth or history. A culture may preserve multiple accounts because there’s internal disagreement about which account is the “true” one, or because all the accounts are understood as partially true and therefore valuable and instructive, even if none is perfectly accurate. Both forms of reasoning can be found among the classical-era Greek writers, for instance. Even Hesiod, before recounting his Theogony, states that the Muses can tell both truth and “lies resembling/equivalent to truth.”