Noah Point

Modern readings of the Biblical flood story place a lot of emphasis on the covenant between God and Noah and its representation: the rainbow. Very often, the rainbow is used as a graphic shorthand for the entire story. It is often explained that folk tales like this were told in order to explain elements of the world around them. For the flood myth, many presume the question was, “Where do rainbows come from?”, even when a global flood disaster seems like an unwieldy context from which to make such an explanation. What we should have asked is, “why do we think the rainbow was the most important part of this story?”

The book of Genesis is a collection of stories about the beginnings of the peoples who lived in the southern Levant. This was not a single narrative but many voices that collectively span and overlap great periods of time. Many of the stories are much younger than the poetry of the Bible in terms of authorship, yet they tell of events from a far more distant past. The stories in Genesis are often viewed as occurring sequentially, but this is merely an illusion gained from reading the stories sequentially.

The story of Noah and the flood, for example, is often viewed as having occurred immediately before the construction of the tower of Babel, as this is the order of the stories in Genesis. Yet it is clear that both stories start at the same vague “beginning of time” when all men were corrupt, and occur roughly simultaneously along with all the stories in Genesis. Each story complex in Genesis tells something different about the peoples of the region and their origin. Over the ages, people have felt free to add their own interpretations to all of these stories, building these complexes, in order to better apply them to themselves – as all storytellers are wont to do.

The complex of stories regarding Noah is a great example of the variety and depths of accretion these ancient stories had gathered by the time they were incorporated into the book of Genesis around the third century BCE. The stories of Noah occupy the scrolls after the set of stories detailing the physical creation of the universe, and the first family – Adam & Eve. Chapter 5 consists entirely of a long list of “begats” tieing Adam to Noah, leading into a long rebuke by God starting in Chapter 6, against the sinful men of the Earth whom he would destroy. Except Noah. 

The story of Noah begins again in verse 9 with the records of the generations of Noah. Again, God sees the corruption of men and vows to destroy them, but he would look favorably upon Noah and his family. An extraordinary description of a colossal construction project follows, along with sisyphean instructions to collect breeding pairs of every living creature and somehow fit “enough” food for all of them for an indefinite, epic adventure. And Noah and his wife and sons and their wives were to all board the structure.

Set aside any memories of Noah’s ark presented as a great ship on the ocean. The description in Chapter 6 of the kind of thing God wanted Noah to build was something other than a ship. The Hebrew language had words for a variety of watercraft and the writer chose to not use any here. The Hebrew word used means nest, or chest. The Greek word agrees, contributing “small house”. It has a single window, and a single door, like a small house. The construction is further described as covered, having three stories with chambers, and an outside wall. All surfaces were entirely coated in pitch. Perhaps it was more like a giant black box, with one door and one window, than a boat. 

It’s entirely possible that this was never meant as a ship, but as a structure in which to shelter in place during periodic flood events – without realizing that they might be forcefully relocated. The only other time this word is used, like “ark”, was in reference to the chest that held the original laws of YHWH in the Temple: the ark of the covenant. Also: not a ship.

Chapter 7 begins the story anew. God is still feeling murderously moist, but he has new instructions for Noah to take seven pairs of “clean” animals and a single pair of some of the unclean ones, and seven pairs of each kind of bird. Some accommodation for domestication appears to be made here, but the suggestion that wild animals might be included is still present. Again, Noah goes into the ark with his wife and sons and their wives and all the critters. Have we started? Is it flooding yet? No.

In verse eleven it starts again: Noah was really old when he and his wife and his sons and their wives went into the ark. This time, it wasn’t given to the humans to collect the animals. Instead the spirit of God led mating pairs of every kind of wild animal to Noah and each spontaneously entered into the ark. Noah & his family entered last and God shut the door behind them just as the deluge broke. 

Water rose up from the depths and fell from the sky and squirted through holes in the walls. Countless days of rain before the skies clear and the seas calm. Then the ark settles, and Noah… plays with birds. The Earth slowly dried out while eight adults and a kajillion critters all lived in this box without hot pockets, avocado toast or takeout pizza for months. Insanity! Every living thing in that box would have been traumatized. Note that someone must have been taking care of feeding everyone (and everything) this whole time, and it wasn’t Noah. 

Modern interpretations of the Noah story assume that the ark was built to be a watercraft of some sort, perhaps a rounded boat made of reeds suitable for having a bunch of animals stand around in and not fall into the lake. Such craft are still in use today wherever herdsmen must maneuver critters around deep water. But these crafts don’t have walls or roofs, so no coverings, no doors or windows, and certainly only one level, so this is clearly not what Noah was asked to make.

The parts of the story that extend Noah’s reach globally or presume a magical ability to herd wild animals also introduce a number of logistical problems that are today frequently resolved through the use of modern technology. Thus we find representations of the ark that appear to be a sort of double-keeled, mega cargo ship, only built from wood, as seen in 19th century illustrations and the Ark Encounter park in Kentucky. It’s a lot easier to imagine every wild animal in the world being given a room on something the size of a modern cruise ship, even when questions about food storage and poop management still seem unresolvable even with robotics and computerized conveyors, especially with a crew of eight.

This narrative presents so many unlikely or completely unrealistic situations that it’s remarkable that these stories hold such a strange attraction to folks who so desperately need the Bible to be literally true. The literal search for Noah’s ark in the 18th century was a part of the drive to prove the literal truth of the Bible. Yet the elements of this particular story are so fantastic and unbelievable that it seems the writers had clearly tried to make certain the reader (and listeners) understood that the story absolutely should not be read as literal truth.

This collection of conversations and episodic situations involving Various Important People may actually be a residue from a cultural memory of a flood on what is now the Black Sea. Recent archeological works indicate flooded settlements from what had been a freshwater agricultural community now below the depths of the Black Sea may have been composed of peoples who spread and contributed Proto-Indo-European languages to the Mesopotamian valley. Thus stories of that event in from a common mother tongue may have been passed down more than one subsequent tongue, including the Accadean Epic of Gilgamesh and here in Genesis. 

Perhaps these started as stories about people who survived floods by building structures attached to rock, filled with their family and livestock. Maybe in some of the stories, the structures break free in a flood and the families survive and end up landing in a strange world. Everything else would have been narrative embellishment, but today the narrative embellishment is all that remains. The fantastic hyperbole that had made the story so memorable has become the story for modern readers. 

It makes sense there would have been an original, simpler story that had been expanded upon repeatedly over the centuries before it was set in scrolls. A smaller story, with a smaller boat and a scant handful of animals wasn’t nearly as satisfying to an imperialist or exceptionalist trying to satisfy their ego or generate propaganda for a king. A realistic Noah who was only the father to a handful of Hebrews isn’t nearly as attractive as a fantastic Noah who was the father of the whole world. And so the story expanded with each retelling before its capture in written text.

It is Noah’s casual connection with God that brings all the narcissists to the yard. It is rare for the self-important to not get hung up in the parts of the story that share what God thinks or says and miss the part of the story that applied to the people within it. 

So easily do they identify with Noah talking to God that they quickly lose sight of the fact that there were other people in the boat. They forget that these people and their goats and pigeons were the whole point of the story, or that it is a story about people and their survival. 

I am quite confident that anyone alive in the bronze age over ten years of age would know that rainbows are associated with rain, and would see that interaction frequently enough to not have to ask about it. One that might trouble a curious ten-year-old is: why do we look different from everyone around us, why do our herd animals look different and why do we pray to a different god than our neighbors? What makes us different? 

In this case, the story of Noah’s flood explains that a forefather had long ago collected his family and animals on a raft, floated away for a long time, and when they landed, they were strangers in a strange land. Explaining to the child that they are descendants of the ones who survived a great flood gives them a story that puts them somewhere in the world. The details of the story tie the memory of Noah’s struggle to that person’s identity in the community and become a cultural strand weaving them into past and future generations.

For all the praying and talking and fooling around with birds in the text of the stories, for forty days and forty nights, it would have been a handful of women that fed their families and tended goats and birds until that craft found dry land again in a safer place, keeping them alive. These people had brought their children, their food crops and animals, and their stories with them into the future to a new place. These women became the grandmothers of a new people. 

As this story was adapted into their creation mythos, the Noah tales must have been endlessly fascinating for the people who saw this as their origin story, but in order to be useful for authoritarians and tyrants, they had to focus the story on men and their relationship to the authority of God. Thus, the importance of the story that we hear about today is the rainbow, not the genius and strength of women who enable the survival and continuation of humanity.


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