Thinking of Noah


Ark Encounter is a fundamentalist Christian theme park that opened in Grant County, Kentucky on July 7, 2016. The date (7/7) was chosen to correspond with Genesis 7:7: “And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”

When a friend sent me some information about Ark Encounter, last week, I remembered a quote from the Irish-American New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan:  “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Ark Encounter is operated by Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth Creationism group. The park’s centerpiece is a full-scale model of Noah’s Ark from the Genesis flood narratives. Yes. Just as there are two creation stories in Genesis, there are also two flood stories in Genesis.

Ark Encounter has attracted a lot of visitors. In its first six days of operation, the park drew about 30,000 visitors; and planners project about 1.6 million visitors in its first year of operation.

Thinking about the new school year, Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, said he would encourage public school groups to visit the ark by offering a low admission fee of $1 per child, and no charge for accompanying teachers, for the remainder of 2016.

Ark Encounter doesn’t dwell on it, but biblical scholars tell us that the flood narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17 is a composite of two, once separate, flood stories. A later biblical redactor wove together two independent and different traditions of the Noah flood narrative, in an attempt to preserve both of them.

Unlike the two creation accounts, however, where both traditions are preserved in Genesis one after the other, the two flood stories have been stitched together to produce a single narrative, which therefore contains a number of inconsistencies and contradictions. Some examples:

Was Noah commanded to gather 7 pairs of clean animals OR only 2 of each animal? (Genesis 7:2 vs Genesis 6:19-20, 7:8, 7:16) 

Did the flood last for 40 days and 40 nights OR 150 days? (Genesis 7:4, 7:12, 8:6 vs Genesis 7:24, 8:3) 

Did the flood start 7 days after Noah entered the ark OR on the day Noah entered the ark? (Genesis 7:7, 10 vs Genesis 7:11-13) 

Was the flood caused by rain OR by releasing the waters above and below the earth, as imagined in the old Hebrew cosmology? (Genesis 7:4, 7:12 vs Genesis 7:11, 8:2) 

And did Noah release from the ark a series of doves (three) OR only a raven once? (Genesis 8:8-12 vs Genesis 8:7) 

And why the flood? It appears that an overly stern God was so angry at sinful humanity that he decided he had to destroy most of humankind, and most of the animal world, and start all over again.

Noah was quite the man. According to Genesis 5:32, when he was five hundred years old, he begot his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Post-flood-Noah became in effect a new-Adam. In Genesis 9: 28-29, we read as well that Noah died 350 years after the flood, when he was 950 years old.

Biblical and historical scholars tell us that the myth of a global flood, that destroyed all life on earth, began to appear in the Old Babylonian period (2000 to 1600 BCE). The flood story closest to the Genesis stories of Noah is the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Hebrew narrative, the flood comes from God’s judgment on a wicked humanity. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood appears to have come from the impulsive and unpredictable behavior of the gods, looking for a way of reducing human over-population. (In the twentieth century, impulsive and unpredictable humans did that with two world wars.)

These days I am not sure how many Americans really believe that the account of Noah and the Ark is literally true. In 2014 it was about 60% and, that same year, 12% believed that “Joan of Arc” was Noah’s wife. [For the uncertain, Joan (1412 – 1431 CE) nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” has been considered a French heroine for her role during the Hundred Years’ War; and she has been canonized as a Roman Catholic saint.]

Back to Noah….History or mythology? Most contemporary Jewish and Christian biblical scholars would agree that the accounts of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and the Tower of Babel are religious mythology. They would remind us that not every text in our scriptures – or anyone’s sacred books for that matter – should be taken literally. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and in the Quran, we find a combination of various kinds of literature: some history, some pious legends, symbolic and poetic language; and yes we find mythology.

I must quickly add, however, that one should not equate mythology with falsehood. In some respects, many people today have become so terribly empirical that their openness to deeper human experiences, and how one expresses those experiences, has become narrow and impoverished.

In Genesis 9, we read that Noah hugs his family and the animals are once again put back on dry land. The most important passage in that chapter, however, is this: God says “From each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind.”  

Let people visit and enjoy Ark Encounter, if that is their thing. Personally I have problems with the amount of money being poured into the project, at least some $172 million to date. And the project’s expensive next phase, with a Tower of Babel, is yet to come…. Biblical Disneyland.

Well I guess Ark Encounter might, all in all, be good for Kentucky tourism. Nevertheless, I would ask the Ark Encounter people to attend to the deeper truth conveyed in the Noah story: We human brings can truly mess things up. Nevertheless, God says human life is our responsibility and God asks from each and every human being an accounting for the life of another human being.  



No. The Bible is not a collection of fairy tales, as one of my friends said rather cynically not so long ago. Nor is the Bible, strictly speaking, a history book. It is a book about people’s faith experiences across many centuries; and a lasting testament to God’s presence in human life. No small thing.

When one knows the languages and literary forms of Sacred Scripture, ancient texts come alive, as statements of profound belief and theological truth: God is with us in every dimension of our existence. Alleluia.

We need to have eyes that really see and ears that really listen.

[We also need to think realistically about what contemporary science tells us about our earth. The earth is a little over 4.5 billion years old; and the history of life on earth began about 3.8 billion years ago. Our ancestors, those Homo Sapiens people, appeared only 200,000 years ago.] 

 

7 thoughts on “Thinking of Noah

  1. Ah, the lesson. Why do so many believe that having faith means one doesn’t think or reason. Didn’t Jesus, the “Teacher”, teach us to think and reason, and do good? Thank you Jack, as always.

  2. Excellent and to the point, Jack. The Crossan quote is perfect. How is it possible we still have to explain the metaphorical nature of scriptural language???

    • It really is matter of good education. I wonder how many people teaching “religious education” in schools and parishes today really have a good theological foundation/education for what they do. In the 1970s there were a lot of “ex” nuns and seminarians ( like Jack) in religious education. Those days are over.

  3. Thanks so very much, Jack. I appreciate your tireless efforts to apply your expertise to the broader issues that still plague us.

    • Thanks Joyce. Yes we need a broad-based scriptural program. I would call it the languages of Sacred Scripture and it should be offered to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Many kind regards. – Jack

  4. You said that “when one knows the languages and literary forms of Sacred Scripture, ancient texts come alive as statements of profound belief and theological truth…” That is very true. In the 1970s, in the post Vatican II era, Fr. Don Sharpe the Hebrew scholar from Gonzaga University in Spokane came to our parish and gave an 8 week course that he called “An introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” For many of us that was our first experience of seeing the ancient Hebrews as real people learning who and what their God was. For me, it changed my faith from dumb obedience to studied acceptance. Gene

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