Noah. He’s on a Boat.

December 20, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve done any reading in the Bible, but I thought with the holidays approaching what better time to discuss religion than now.

If the story of Adam and Eve is the most familiar story from the Bible, then the story of Noah and the great flood is a close second. Most everyone religious and non-religious knows some part of Noah’s tale. After God tells Noah of the coming flood, He has him build a Halo to ensure humankind’s continuance on Earth…or something like that.

A couple chapters before Noah’s story we learn of the family that Noah comes from: a long line of people hundreds of years after Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. Now that Earth is populated with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people, God realizes the majority of them are taking His landscape for granted. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the aforementioned people don’t give thanks and praise to the guy who created it in the first place.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6)

And when God is as bummed as He is here, there is only one thing He can do.

“’I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” (Gen 6:7)

I am continually impressed at how alike God is to man. Growing up, God was always portrayed to me as this big, potentially scary dude who always has the right answer. Not only does the above passage insinuate that God has made a mistake, but He also feels “sorry”. The regret of creation that seeps into God’s “heart” is an extremely humanistic trait. God made mankind in His image, but I feel people forget to see the other side of that statement; in creating man in His image, man is a reflection of God.  It seems very egotistical but in this sense it is easier to see how God would feel sadness, regret, and make mistakes like humans do. However, the tender image of an almost betrayed God does not persist throughout the chapter. Soon after God voices His initial disappointment with the world, he rephrases his plans a little more harshly:

“’I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’” (Gen 6:13)

Another irony point to goes to God here. I’m sure He could drum up a dozen ways to “blot out/destroy” the creatures of Earth, but He chooses to do it with the Earth itself. Classy. Alas, there is one man on the planet that God likes enough to keep around. Noah.

Noah is from a small branch off the family tree that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. It turns out Noah is actually an alright guy, a “righteous” guy. God lets Noah in on His plans and guides him towards a means to survive the coming judgment.

“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.’” (Gen 6:14-15)

God almost sounds like he knows what He’s talking about. I guess carpentry just comes naturally. Oxford informs me that the dimensions of said ark in modern measurements would be about 450 x 75 x 45 feet, in case any of you are looking into making one… In great anticipation God finally reveals his plans:

“For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven…” (Gen 6:17)

or

“For behold! I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven…”

What a difference a little punctuation makes; one exclamation point and the vengeful God turns into a villain and/or magician. In all honesty, God is abusing His “behold” privileges. In less than a page He’s used it twice, leading me to believe He is a little too proud of Himself.

After giving Noah some more pointers on the ark, God tells Noah that his family will escape the destructive flood by living aboard the boat. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives along with at least two of every animal on Earth (male and female) will pack into the ark when the time comes. I say “at least” two of every animal because God requests Noah pack in seven pairs of what He calls the “clean” animals and only one pair of the “not clean” animals (Gen 7:2). If God doesn’t like some of the animals then why bother bringing them along in the first place? That’s like keeping an ugly friend around just so you look better. Along with the animals and Noah’s family, God request that “every sort of food that is eaten” (Gen 6:21) also be brought along. Oh yeah, and He wants it done in seven days.

What I don’t understand is if God wants to “destroy all flesh” on Earth, why is He having Noah go through all this trouble to gather up, and effectively save, all the creatures of Earth including humans? If anything, it should just be the creatures on the boat because humans are the ones that disappointed God to the extent that He planned this whole thing up in the first place. On top of all that, what about all the sea creatures? A giant flood is just like a giant party for everyone in the ocean. Something tells me God didn’t think this plan through all the way…

At the end of the week God promises Noah that He will make it rain for the fabled “forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4). Sure enough, after seven days it starts to rain and Noah and all the animals climb aboard the ark. And while that’s happening I am berated with repeated descriptions of what exactly is in the ark:

“And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you;” (Gen 6:19)

“Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean…to keep their kind alive upon the face of the earth. “(Gen7:2-4)

“Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean…two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah…” (Gen 7:8-9)

“They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.” (Gen 7:15)

This is uncalled for. I’ve mentioned my displeasure at the repetitions at the beginning of chapters, but I cut the text some slack. The information that is presented here, across a page in the Bible, could easily be condensed into a single, solid paragraph. Yes, gathering up at least two of every animal in the known world is impressive and could even warrant a rewording of God’s request as clarification of the vast task before Noah. But to continually repeat the word of God over and over throughout the story is absurdly distracting, frustrating, and kind of insulting. I hope I’m not crazy for thinking this.

Pardon me for simply summarizing the remainder of this story, but if the recent revelation is any indication, there is little information currently presented in the text that is worth quoting. The rains fall for forty days and forty nights as God foretold. People back in the day believed, so says Oxford, that the Earth was covered with a “firmament”, or dome, which kept waters above the Earth at bay. When God sends the rains upon the Earth in Noah’s time, the “windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen7:11) causing the massive flood and inspiring the first incarnation of Chicken Little.  I’d also like to point out that the great flood happened over forty days and forty nights, but Noah and the ark remained afloat for at least 150 days. When I heard this story as a kid I just thought the whole ordeal took place over 40 days. In all honesty that’s probably just because that’s as far into the future I could fathom at the time. How long everyone was on the boat I can’t exactly determine (the Bible is clever in its vagueness). Regardless, the waters begin to recede after about 150 days.

While we wait for the water to subside, I’ve been thinking about how the Earth is formed. In the geological knowledge I’ve obtained from the Discovery Channel I know that it is a well accepted idea that canyons, valleys, lakes etc. were formed from giant, prehistoric bodies of water in the form of glaciers, rivers and even floods. Perhaps the current landscape and its features can be explained by a Noah-esque flood. Modern science has always seemed like it is at odds with religion so I want to take any opportunity to find some common ground between them, even if it is in as sorry an example as this.

So God destroys all life on Earth with a giant flood. How then did people and animals come to live on what is now North America and South America? If there was an epic flood then there would be no life anywhere in the Americas when visitors first came over from Asia, Europe and Africa. Life could have made its way across the ocean if all the modern continents were in some sort of Pangea shape, but that would require the Earth to be significantly older than some exceptionally religious people are willing to believe. On the other hand, plate tectonics may have been faster than currently measured.

Finally the ark comes to rest on the mountains of “Ar’arat” and everyone and everything is offloaded. A quick Google maps search reveals that Ararat is in southern Virginia about an hour away from Sparta, and here I am thinking this was taking place in the Middle East. There is an Ar’arat in Israel that shows up as well and I’ve also heard the biblical mountains being somewhere in Turkey. I anticipate a post (or series of posts) about biblical locales in the distant future…

Wherever Noah actually landed he exits the ark and promptly builds an altar to God.

“The Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor…” (Gen 8:20-21)

Whoa. Are we talking sacrifices? It can’t just be burnt hair because that smells horrible. I guess there are plenty of pairs of clean animals to use for the “offerings” but it seems out of place in the Bible of a faith that I always thought would condemn sacrifices to God(s). It makes me wonder what place this story and others like it have in the book as a whole and how things that have since been labeled as savage have persisted in the text. In a response to a comment on a previous post I talked briefly about how some people view these stories as a sort of fable or “lessons learned” moment in the Bible. If this is the case then distinguishing between what is fairy tale and what is actual seems like it will be a continual challenge as I progress.

After the long ordeal, God leaves Noah with a parting reminder:

“I will never again curse the ground because of man…neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains…” (Gen 8:21-22)

“While the earth remains”? Why would God say that? He created the Earth so is it wrong to assume that He alone could destroy it? And seeing as how he just agreed to not be so destructive again in the future we can rest easy knowing Earth will be around forever.

Oh wait. He won’t destroy every living creature as He has done. So He’ll just find some other way to do it…

Classy.

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6 Responses to “Noah. He’s on a Boat.”

  1. Captain Sappy Says:

    Behold! A reply:

    No, I am not using two ‘Behold’s because obviously I am not as awesome as He-Who-Gets-All-Capital-Letters…I never get ‘h’ capitalized when people refer to me like ‘oh, Him’? Anyway, I have a few brief points to add to yours.
    First off, naturally God would be a good carpenter. We all know that Jesus was a carpenter (good or bad, we don’t know), and he seemed pretty good at following in Daddy’s footsteps. Not many people, or beings, know the exact measurements and required materials for a boat that can fit at least a pair of every animal you’ve ever seen plus some that are extinct except for dinosaurs. God must have really hated dinosaurs… ‘Oh, and Noah, dinosaurs are REALLY unclean, so just go ahead and leave them off the ark…they were a mistake. I seem to be messing up a lot lately.’ The ‘unclean’ animals on board are exactly like the ugly friends you keep around. How else would we know that God could actually make beautiful animals if all we saw were beautiful animals?!

    Lastly, how did Noah’s family repopulate the world?? I guess if Adam and Eve did it before, having a whole family to start with is better, but then I always thought that incest was bad juju (am I mixing up religions here?) If this is the case, then how did we end up with all the different races we have today? Maybe one of Noah’s sons was black….but that would mean that Mrs. Noah wasn’t such a ‘righteous’ woman.

    • sacrilible Says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      I appreciate that you got the carpenter reference. I try not to add too much of what little I know of later chapters, but I thought that was slightly clever.

      I’m guessing the measurements offered in the footnotes are taken from archaeological evidence from when the text was written. I wouldn’t be surprised if, back in the day, a cubit was an actual unit of measurement and the dimensions of the ark were translated into a measurement familiar to the audience of the day.

      As for the unclean/ugly animals I was mostly concerned with God’s decision to keep them around. He clearly wants to make the best Earth He can, so it makes sense to me that He would get rid of everything He doesn’t like (ex. dinosaurs and unclean creatures).

      When it comes to repopulating the world you bring up a good point that I have thought of and was hoping to get to in a future post, but this can be a good starter. How did we get such a racially diverse group of people if everyone is a descendent of Noah and his family? I’m no geneticist, but I think it’s impossible. I am beginning to spot a flaw in the book’s logic. This idea will come up again I am sure and I will hopefully have more to say on it then. In the mean time, thanks for reading!

  2. Emily Says:

    So does that mean when people fast it should be for 150 days and nights instead of 40?

    I don’t know if you have heard of it or come across it, but you should check out the Epic of Gilgamesh. Strikingly similar to that of Noah’s story, but was supposedly recorded much earlier in ancient Mesopotamia… interesting.

    As far as the “lessons learned” topic goes here, I honestly don’t get one. Is the lesson “don’t anger God, or he’ll wipe out the world”? That seems a bit vague if you’re attempting to be educational.

    I think the people who wrote the Bible just ran out of ideas and decided to just keep repeating things, even things they ripped off from ancient Mesopotamia.

    • sacrilible Says:

      I didn’t know that the ritual of 40 days of fasting came from this story. It makes sense though that if people are trying to honor Noah’s trial then they would fast for the entire time that he and his boatmates suffered on the boat.

      The footnotes of the Oxford edition of the Bible actually does mention/reference the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as a tale from the Babylonians (I don’t know if they are one in the same). I haven’t read the Epic, but seeing as how they are apparently similar I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories share the same origin and the details just got changed as it got passed down orally. Like the game of telephone or perhaps more deliberately to attempt to have the text be more familiar to diverse readers.

      If the authors were trying to appeal to a diverse population then I wish the writers of the Bible would recognize the need for their book to be more accessible and stop repeating things. But then again, it could just be my modern-day brain can’t focus on one thing long enough without becoming bored.

      I agree that there is little to be learned from this story, but, like most kids stories/fables, the messages are very simple (ex. sharing, be kind, brush your teeth). The simple message I get out of Noah’s story is “be good and God won’t drown you”.

      Thanks for the input!

      • Captain Sappy Says:

        I can easily see how fasting for 40 days can be drawn from this story. It’s also easy to see how many people today leave it just at 40 days. I’ve heard this story many many times and never think that it actually stretched out for months longer. How many people actually would? It would definitely be significantly more difficult to try and fast for 5 months…some people could use it…

        The actual reason for fasting for 40 days comes from later in the bible, however, when J-bro is out in the desert by himself being tempted by the devil. I can’t really remember why he’s out there, but you should find out soon enough.

        Aside, this post just made me realize that both events lasted for 40 days….never noticed that before.

  3. Alisha Says:

    Well done. Really well done. I laughed out loud at several of your comments.

    I think this is a shining example of the differences present between Old Testament God and New Testament God. This God seems to be much more fire and brimstone. This story makes him out to be like a toddler who messed up his sandcastle and wants to start over.

    Maybe the lesson readers are supposed to take away from this is just a simple: “appreciate the stuff around you” (or else God will drown you, as you so eloquently put it above).

    Interesting, I enjoyed speculating along with you. Looking forward to the next post!

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