Noah’s Flood

One of the things I enjoy about the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) is that it reminds us that if people think they’ve got God taped, they haven’t. Academic systematic theology (try saying that after a few glasses of wine) tells us that God can do anything, knows everything, and is absolutely good. But hold on a moment – what about Noah’s Flood?

What we have in the Old Testament is a myth. How do we know that? Because it’s a revised version of similar myths which preceded the Bible by hundreds of years. In one of them, humans have become a noisy, raucous, ill-behaved bunch (so what’s new?) The gods decide to get rid of them. One of the gods, however, decides to save a man called Utnapishtim. He tells him how to build a boat big enough to carry representatives of all living creatures, and how to make it watertight with pitch. After the flood has abated, Utnapishtim is told to send out a series of birds to check that the waters really have gone. Then he organises a thanksgiving sacrifice, the rising smell of which gives pleasure to the gods – does that sound familiar?

The Bible story is a cobbling together of two originally separate accounts. In one of them, two of each kind of animal was taken aboard, while it was seven in the other. In one account the flood lasted for 40 days, and in the other for more than 150 days. Because we’re dealing with myth, we’re free to see the story as being dramatic and colourful, entertaining and fun. If it were actually historical, it would be quite appalling – a crime against humanity! 

Just think of all the living creatures, including men, women and children, who would have been drowned in the father and mother of all tsunamis. A God who knew everything, could do anything, and was absolutely good, should have anticipated and avoided this. It looks like a monumental botch-up on his part, and we’re told he was “filled with regret”, and forced to go back and start all over again.

It’s a bit like God’s apparent failure to realise in advance that Adam would need a female counterpart in order to “multiply”. So he created all the various birds and animals, none of whom, surprise-surprise, were at all suitable. Finally, a bit of cobbled-together anaesthesia, rib cage surgery and bone sculpture, at last managed to come up with an acceptable solution.

So, to me, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is a must-read. It regularly and unexpectedly combines the sublime with the ridiculous, genocide with preservation, lies and deceit with fair and honest dealing etc. etc. Its inconsistencies, repetitions and contradictions suggest that there’s nothing ‘systematic’ about its God. If we think the Old Testament says one thing about him, somewhere else it’ll say the very opposite. Instead of theorising and dogmatising about the indescribable and unknowable, it seems best, I think, just to read and enjoy, and think and imagine. Perhaps this kaleidoscope, in the end, can put God into some kind of shape for us, but even if not, it will have been fun to watch the whole varying panoply of colourful and dramatic combinations and outcomes.

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