In our childhood most of us were told a grand tale. It was filled with excitement, adventure, a hero, a big boat, and all kinds of fluffy animals. There was once a man who was favored by God, his name was Noah. He was chosen to build a large ark to save his family and the animal kingdom from a flood. With God on his side there was never much doubt that he would succeed…and he does. At the end of the story God shows Noah and his family a rainbow as a sign that such a flood will never happen again.
As children we accept the Noah story in much the same way that we accept Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our focus lies solely on the characters and the moral lessons contained therein. Our approach changes as we move into our adult lives though. We tend to view the story either through the lens of skepticism or of literal dogmatism. Dogmatic belief structures will insist that every word of the Noah story is literally true; historically, scientifically, and spiritually. If a story is literal, than every seemingly unimportant or implied part of the story will also be entirely true and accurate; using miracles (events that fall outside the realm of natural possibility) to explain away any inconsistencies or impossibilities. It is almost impossible to debate the scientific merits of a biblical story with a dogmatic person since there’s a willingness to insert miracles into a story to back-up their preconceived beliefs.
Skeptics, on the other hand, will rebut the dogmatic telling of the Noah narrative by asserting that it cannot possibly be true based on scientific evidence. Biology, geology, physics, husbandry, zoology, and logic all seem to be at odds with the literal approach. The unfortunate side effect for many skeptics will be an all out abandonment of the narrative. While I definitely feel the same temptation, I also seek to find a compromise with my former dogmatic self. I believe there is some common ground, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
In addition to all the normal skeptical arguments against literal interpretations of Noah & the Ark, I wish to add one of my own. I would frame this as a moral argument against literalism. While science and logic can often be dismissed by inserting a miracle, moral inconsistencies cannot. As I mentioned earlier, every detail of a literal story, no matter how small or understated in the text is still true. This is particularly important in the Noah story. The text of the narrative does little to explain the perspective of the damned, those who were killed in the flood. There is no detail in the story of offenses actually committed or of individuals that were actually responsible for committing them. There is only general statements that the “people had corrupted their ways” and that “the earth was filled with violence”.
Now, the common interpretation from the literal understanding is that every person, and by “every” we mean E-V-E-R-Y person, was wholly corrupt and violent; with the obvious exception of Noah & fam. Literalists will make a claim that god is completely justified in killing every violent or corrupt person. Therefore they seek to assert that this was a moral extermination. However, unless this is a time unlike any other in all of history, there were children and babies (born and unborn) in the world. When literalists say that every person was full of corruption and violence, they are saying this about babies. Certainly this is in full conflict with many of their modern and concurrent opinions on abortion and the value of the unborn child. Either an unborn child is innocent or it is evil/corrupt, one cannot have it both ways. If we choose to believe that unborn children, babies, toddlers, and kids are innocent, then god killed innocents in the literal story of Noah. Here, we identify a major and fatal moral flaw in literalism.
In addition to the moral flaw of killing innocents, for Christians the literal telling of the story is in direct contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the story of Noah, god has neither grace nor forgiveness for the sinner. There is no warning given to the wicked people of the day, there is no call to “repent”, there is no message of love or salvation or forgiveness for them…there is only death and destruction. A G-d of love, peace, and forgiveness surely would have given them a chance. There is no opportunity for salvation for the sinner. Now, a literalist may point out that the god of the story does save Noah & his family…but remember that there were (according to population estimates of the approx time) around 8-10 million people on the earth. So god saves, what, like 8 people but kills literally a million times more. Clearly this is a god who kills, not the G-d who saves. Jesus, of course, tells a completely different story. He proclaims that G-d saves the sinner, not that he kills them. If we are literalists, we must choose between the god of Noah or the G-d of Jesus.
But does Jesus really speak of a different G-d than the author of the Noah narrative? If we abandon literalism, then I believe he does. If you have moment read the story again: Genesis 6,7,8. Note the points of emphasis and the points that the author seemingly glazes over with little care or attention. There is really very little of the actual text that deals with the wicked people; explaining exactly how violent/corrupt they were or why they had to be killed. The bulk of the text is spent discussing G-d’s interaction with Noah, the plans they formed together, the details of saving the lives of many animals and his family, and the saving grace of G-d on a simple man who was willing to put his trust in Him.
If we read the story as a piece of symbolic literature, flooding the earth and the elimination of the wicked seem to be plot devices supporting the story of salvation. It’s a powerful story, originating from an author (or more probably group of authors). When an author tells a story, he has a purpose. The best stories, those that maintain prominence throughout the ages, tell of a truth that surpasses reality (and literalism). I believe this is the case for the story of Noah.
Imagine with me the author(s) of this epic. Most historians maintain that the narrative of Noah and the Ark (put aside Utnapishtim for now) emerged during the time of Jewish captivity in Babylon (6th Century BCE). (For more about authorship check this out) Ancient Jews were seemingly always at war with the surrounding tribes and civilizations. Violence and corruption were a perpetual part of their story. Time and time again the Jews found themselves conquered and enslaved by other nations…ones who did not worship nor revere the one true G-d. It seems quite easy to empathize with the distraught author of the Noah epic. He looks around at the world and sees constant inequity. The heathens prosper while the people of G-d, the blameless and righteous ones, suffer. Surely it would be better for G-d to destroy the world; if only we could just start over with only His chosen people. One has to be in a pretty hopeless situation to desire an apocalypse; slavery and exile in an ancient foreign land seem like good reasons to wish that it would all just come to an end. It’s in this distressed state of mind that our author begins the story.
As we now move through our metaphorical tale, we see faith and hope emerge. G-d speaks to his chosen. He reminds them that he has not forgotten their faithfulness. He gives them a plan, one in which they can overcome the hopelessness of this present age; trading it for a hope in a brighter future. G-d offers to replace a fallen world full of wickedness for a chance at a fresh start, a new beginning. Imagine having the hope of a new life, the chance to be born again to the world afresh.
Now, through understanding the metaphor of apocalypse, we can see Jesus’ message in a story. We no longer need to read Noah’s story as an exclusive, violent, and frightening historical account of a wrathful god. We now see a narrative of redemption and reclamation. It encourages us that the world doesn’t need to stay the way this it is; that it isn’t hopeless. We can have faith in something better than today, we can strive to be a part of making the earth a better place. We can become positive agents of apocalypse in a world without hope. If we persist, if we do not give up, the evils of our age may one day be washed away by a powerful, cleansing flood.
How does this metaphorical interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark jive with you? If it is an appropriate interpretation what does it have to say about the John’s apocalypse in Revelation?