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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  • Well, you see, it is of utmost importance that human imperfection be
    specifically labeled as sin because…. well, to call it anything else
    is to downplay or excuse our fallen nature because….. well, of course
    mans inhumanity to man is matter of conscious rebellion right? It can’t
    be a matter of doing evil things in the honest belief that we’re doing
    the right thing, because I believe that I’m doing the right thing.

  • The_L1985

    Of course I have! I’ve read AiG’s books. But there are several overlapping kinds of stupid fundamentalism, and sometimes you have KJV-only creationists.

  • The_L1985

    It’s always weird to me to find people, voluntarily reading things on the Internet, who display no signs of basic elementary-level reading comprehension whatsoever.

  • I don’t know about The_L1985, but I don’t understand a thing you just said. I really don’t see where in the word “wickedness,” which is generally agreed to be a term of condemnation, you could possibly find anything downplaying or excusing it? They’re synonyms, really, and if anything I’ve always heard “wickedness” used as a stronger word than “sin.” But then, I always heard that sinning by accident was perfectly possible.

  • I believe Mr. Heartland was being sarcastic.

  • P J Evans

    They’re probably worse than the politicians. The politicians say things because they get paid for it; the people who aren’t politicians and say stuff like that don’t get paid for it, and their lives are made worse at the same time. (I have relatives like that, but not many…)

  • I’m not excusing their poisonous beliefs, only the degree of responsibility and blame owed to them. People get like that by not understanding that the world outside their bubble isn’t what they’ve been told it’s like.

  • Mary

    You forget those who actually write blogs which display no signs of basic elementary-level reading or writing skills whatsoever.

  • Mary

    I can’t say I know what this particular version considers pure, but Martin Luther hated the Jews and spread lies about them. He is supposed to be the “hero” of the protestant reformation? I don’t think so. Anyway, we leave things behind for a reason…

  • Ah, reading comprehension fail on my part then (that, and sarcasm is hard for me to detect). That makes MUCH more sense.

  • ReverendRef

    I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. — Luke 17:34 KJV

    Tell me again why the KJV literalists are anti-gay?

  • ReverendRef

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

    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!”
    — Amaranth

    I’m with you on this one, and I’m not sure I can go there either. God was certainly unhappy with humanity, but it was God’s choice to flood the world and kill all but eight people. Saying that humans were to blame for the flood is way to close to saying a wife is to blame for getting beating, a woman is to blame for being raped, or gays are to blame for hurricanes landing on cities.

  • LL

    RE “What is it with Texans and the complete inability to understand the story of Noah’s Ark?”

    They’re stupid.

  • SisterCoyote

    …well, that’s clearly the literal interpretation of eating dust.

  • Just like the literal interpretation of God creating the world in seven days is to say the Earth was created 5000 years ago.

  • “Adam” is the gender-neutral word for “mankind”.

  • misanthropy_jones

    yeah, that’s like 97% of the human race, right there…

  • P J Evans

    and enough pieces of the ‘true cross’ for a forest, IIRC.

  • Veylon

    Actually, the KJV is excessively formal by 17th century standards. The average writer wrote fragmented, misspelled prose in a hand that would make several of your teachers weep.

    Another interesting KJV bit is the foreword by the translators in which they express their hope that future generations will surpass their efforts at translation, much in contrast with their modern-day admirers who insist that such a thing would be impossible, if not blasphemous.

  • JustoneK

    there really aren’t any gender-neutral words for mankind. :P

  • I’ve been saying this almost word for word for years, Mary. I don’t see a good angle to the flood story, or really much of the book of Genesis. God, especially if you assume he’s aware of what the future holds, is constantly failing the humans he created. Adam and Eve were innocents until they ate the fruit of knowledge of good and evil: they didn’t know what good and evil were, so how were they to know there was anything wrong with disobeying God? I maintain they were innocent even as they disobeyed Him; they loved God and the serpent told them they could be like Him. What reason did they have not to trust the serpent? Similarly, every instance in which God goes scorched earth on people he’s responding after the fact to events he knew would happen before anyone involved would even be born. How hard is it for an omnipotent being to send a prophet to Sodom and Gomorrah — maybe Jesus, born millennia earlier — to keep them from becoming a city of wandering gang rapists?

    The Old Testament contains story after story of God utterly failing at raising His children, and for some reason I’m supposed to read the Bible and come away from it with the impression that He is perfectly good, but people, who the book constantly reminds us don’t know better, are evil? Utter nonsense.

  • David S.

    Gender-neutral in the same way that mankind is, probably. It should be a lot harder to take Genesis 1,2 literally, when the main character is named Mankind.

  • hf

    There are no technical details in the J Text! Even the redacted Bible we have only mentions the animals’ diets, that I can see, in the Priestly-text-derived version that comes before “the Garden of Eden”.

    And in the J text, it really seems to this late-20th early-21st century reader that God starts out as a clever little boy deity. Noah ‘has to’ preserve the animals because God changes his mind about drowning his whole experiment (after the adult deities screw it up) and wants to fix his mistake.

    This does speak to your other point, perhaps. The author(s) of the J text could well have meant people to understand that we have a responsibility to act without help from God (who does not literally exist). But this seems like at most a hidden message from some human author, not a well thought-out command from the God character.

  • Maybe if instead of The Bible, it was The Bible™, it would be easier for people to tell.

  • hf

    I’m using the online J text here.

  • That’s entirely believable; it’s easy to forget that these stories were once oral tradition and in a much greater state of flux than they have been for the last several millennia. It makes sense that the details would be added to appease people making the exact mistake Fred highlights in this post.

    You’re wrong about the animals’ diets, though; had to look this one up. I’m doing a MST3k-style riff of the Creation Adventure Team videos with a group, and we were all flummoxed when the bearded guy out of nowhere and apropos of nothing informed us that all animals were vegetarians before the Fall of Man. We found this:

    “1:30 And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give 62 every green plant for food.” It was so.”

  • J text? Assuming you mean the Torah, it appears on this version-

  • Jamoche

    Can’t find anything that says who runs it, and given that one site that mentions it points out that “history is political in Israel” I’m pretty sure no religious group is backing it or there’d be a *lot* of fuss over it. Looks like just a museum that’s got a good tourist-attracting hook.

  • Because, clearly, 50% of gay men are going to hell. That’s, like, nearly all of them.

  • Matri
  • reynard61

    So you execute mentally retarded people, but you have no problems whatsoever sending “stupid people” to Washington D.C. to represent you before the the whole United States where they can make utter fools of themselves — and *you?!* Do you Texans hate yourselves *so much* that you’re willing to put up with that kind of shitty behavior from your politicians?

  • reynard61

    And enough “Foreskin(s) of Jesus” to make another Jesus. (Ewwwwww!)

  • …I’m pretty sure that was a joke. In the “we laugh because it hurts” way.

  • *Facedesks* The stupid…it hurts…..why do people listen to that man?

  • Well, your scholarly research certainly kicked mine’s butt. I’d not even run into this concept and need to study it more. You make a very good point here, though and I may no longer be dubious to Fred’s initial post; it certainly looks that way.

  • An entirely fair assessment.

  • Guest

    That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I’ve been saying it for a long time. I get very frustrated with anyone who reads the endless series of God’s screw-ups that is the book of Genesis and comes away from it thinking God is in any way “perfect,” or that humans are at fault for everything.

  • That was my first reaction too.

    My second was the sure, the Bible agrees the flood “wasn’t because mankind overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy” but it wasn’t “natural” either – God sent a _supernatural_ flood to wipe out humanity.

    The third was that I’m unable to read the name “Joe Barton” without thinking of the famously controversial footballer “Joey Barton”…

  • Orcmother

    *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.*
    I dunno. My feeling is yeah, *some day* we’ll be able to talk about it like that. 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.
    But right now? Today? No. No, right now in 2013, for people of good will and reason, the resistance to god-talk must be total.
    It’s like a wild horse that some day we’ll be able to ride. But right now it really needs breaking. So call me Team That Guy for now.

  • hidden_urchin

    Yup, it was a joke. I thought it was better than my standard apology.

    I can carry it further by saying that it’s not that we hate ourselves, it’s that we hate everyone else. Ever since we were forced to rejoin the Union we’ve been engaged in aform of warfare previously mastered only by teen girls: passive aggression.

    Too much? :-)

  • On your account, ought we evaluate this “critical mass” globally or locally?

    For example, if I’m at a party in which I’m confident 95% of the people in the room accept that holy books are parables and not history, is it permissable for us to talk about them that way to each other?

    Or does the fact that outside of the room there exist lots of people who treat holy books as history mean our resistance to god-talk inside the room must be total?

  • It’s been my experience that the sorts of people who treat “natural” as a moral stricture and who believe that God performs supernatural acts are usually pretty willing to treat Divine supernatural acts as “natural.”

    More generally, I find I can understand what they’re trying to say better if I assume for purposes of interpretation that the word “natural” refers to the way the system ought to be, rather than the way the system is without human intervention.

  • AnonaMiss

    I said that I knew it meant humankind in the post you’re responding to.

    The point I was making is that the kind of people who insist on a “historical Adam” should have to deal with the consequences of treating “Adam” as some dude’s name.

  • No, no – that verse says that 50% of gay men are going to be Raptured

  • I find that so frustrating. I have always held that the paradigm should be that the natural state of things exists as purely amoral, and the only moral value it gets is what we attribute to it.

  • Because they are authoritarian followers, and he tells them things which reaffirm their existing beliefs. Being authoritarian followers, they require more frequent external validation for their beliefs than a less authoritarian personality would.

  • Repeat after me: the US is not the world and the bad behavior of assholes is not a good reason to engage in bad behavior of your own.

  • When I was in middle school, I was sent to a small summer camp in eastern Oregon, the same one my grandmother went to when she was a child. It was an explicitly sectarian camp, though I was never sure which sect. I know it had a priest of a sort there, I think he was some kind of Bishop though not a catholic one. It was a while ago and I was fuzzy on that detail.

    However, one of the things he said there was that, as much as he loved God and revered the Bible, he did not believe in the story of Noah. He could not look at God in that story and reconcile it with the rest of what he saw of God in the Bible. “The God of Noah is not my god,” he would say.

    Given the likelihood that the story of Noah is a Hebrew adaptation of an older Mesopotamian story (with the details changed to fit into the Hebrew cosmology from the original Sumerian cosmology) he was probably more right than not. It was a different set of gods who brought about the flood, but the story changes with the teller.

  • Yup, I share your preference.

    That said, people use language the way they use language, and if I want to communicate with them it helps to use language the way they do, rather than the way I would prefer to.

  • It is theoretically possible to make a religion dependent on a translation but you’d have to believe that the translators as well as the writers were inspired – which isn’t unfeasible I suppose. If you have a divine being who inspires writers wouldn’t they work on the translators as well …

    Ooh plot bunnies for scriptures in my fantasy novel – the main religion keeps control by claiming on ly their approved translations are inspired.