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Verse 5, Noah and the Flood

God told Noah, “Build an ark,” Alleluia.

“Before this world is a water park.” Alleluia.

So Noah built a great big boat, Alleluia.

Crammed so full it could hardly float. Alleluia.


How many of each kind of animal did Noah take on the ark?


If you answered two of each kind, you’re partly right. In Genesis God does tell Noah to bring with him onto the ark a pair of each animal species. But then God turns around and says to bring seven pairs of each clean animal and one pair of each unclean animal. Finally the story turns again as it shows Noah taking only one pair of each animal onto the ark. Reading the Bible can be confusing!


Actually there are two flood stories spliced together here. In one of them the storyteller wanted to have Noah offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to God and didn’t want him to cause the extinction of a species he had just saved. So he had his hero take some extras of the “clean” animals. 


There’s a story a lot like the Bible’s Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest pieces of literature. If you lived back then, you would have heard the story told in the land around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, straight east of Palestine. I’m sure the Bible writers heard this story, too. In it one god for no stated reason decides to destroy life on earth with a flood. Another god informs Gilgamesh about the plan and has him build a boat. This god instructs Gilgamesh to tell his neighbors that he’s been cursed and needs to get away so the curse doesn’t fall on them, too. Of course, the neighbors willingly help him build the boat, and they finish it in a couple weeks. The first god is quite upset with the second god.


Neither the Epic of Gilgamesh nor the Bible’s flood story are actual history, though there are people who imagine, or want others to believe, that they’ve found the remains of Noah’s ark or other evidence for a worldwide flood. I’ve often wondered, though, about the ancient Israelites’ take on their story. I think there must have been intellectuals among them who did not think the story was literally true, although the majority may well have.


The person or persons who heard or read the Gilgamesh story and were dissatisfied with its concept of divinity and the divine-human relationship were surely intellectuals. They believed in a God who doesn’t act arbitrarily, who abhores and punishes sin, who doesn’t lie and doesn’t have to worry about competition from any other gods. They felt no compunction about changing the “drift” of somebody else’s story. I don’t see how they could have believed literally either the original Epic of Gilgamesh or their own remake. 


Still the picture they drew of a god who would destroy a whole world, including children and animals, even for a good reason seems a bit too vindictive. For a couple reasons I think the real Israelite faith may not be what the story seems to portray. First, that vindictive part of the story was around before the Israelites got to it. I think the important thing–the divine message, or the revelation, to use the theological term–in the Bible’s version is how God’s people changed the story. Second, the destruction of innocent animals along with wicked people may reflect some positive aspects of Israelite belief, a more ecological worldview than you might think.


Ecologists like to talk about interconnectness of the whole world of nature, including humans. That theme is present here, and humans are not thought of as outside of this web. The world (not just the man and woman) was created good. When sin appears, it’s our sin, but we’re not separate from nature, so it’s the world’s sin as well. The result is that the peaceful garden becomes a struggle for survival throughout the animal world. In the Bible’s story we’re all in this together.


There’s a special feeling that arises from stories, like the Flood, about near total destruction. We see it also in survival stories like Robinson Crusoe and the now-popular stories of near-Armageddon. It’s a feeling of the precariousness of all existence. The first thing Crusoe does after his shipwreck is make a list of everything that’s left. Because it’s so little, it’s all precious. The same feeling of precariousness and the preciousness of all that’s left is part of the message of the story of Noah’s ark. 


The Israelites had a scientific reason for this feeling. Here’s a bit of early Israelite science:


  • God created the world in the middle of raging waters above, below, and on all sides. The world looks like a bubble with a flat bottom. After first making day and separating it from night, he made the sky (the top of the bubble) that separated the waters above from the waters below. Then he gathered the waters below into certain places so dry land appeared.
  • There are gates in the sky above that open downward. Usually God keeps them closed. It rains when God lets them drop open a tiny bit.
  • I don’t know if all Israelites actually believed the story of the flood, but they did believe there was enough water around to make it happen. And it would happen, too, if God wasn’t on the ball with those gates. God was saving them from the flood all the time.


Being saved from a flood or shipwreck has a way of enhancing the value of each little or big thing saved along with you. I imagine Noah getting off the boat and looking around. Everything he sees has been saved from a tremendous wreck. Any single item, or for that matter the whole works, might have simply disappeared. He would make up his mind to do everything he could not to lose a single item on his “list” because each one has been saved for a reason. Each one is irreplaceable. (Too bad he went and, in a thoughtless moment, ate one of the unicorns!) 


We have no scientific evidence that there ever was a universal flood, but we do have scientific evidence that the existence of life in this universe is as precarious as that bubble of a world in the Bible. We would do well to adopt the Israelite’s attitude that everything around us is as precious as if it had been saved from a flood.


Clean and unclean. Why would God designate some animals clean and others unclean? In the beginning, as the story goes, there was no meat eating at all. God gave Adam and Eve and all the animals “all the green plants for food.” This is not meant to be either scientific or historical but to say in symbol how peaceful God’s creation was meant to be. After the Flood it’s as if God decides to be more realistic. He approves using animals for food, but still not all of them. Humans are only allowed to eat meat from “clean” animals.


I don’t think there was ever a time when some spokesperson for God said, “Alright, folks, God says we have to quit eating pork chops.” It was a dietary custom that was later put into a story. Other societies had food laws, too, some of them much stricter than the Israelites’. Some people say these customs developed for reasons of health, but I doubt it. God never said (in the Bible stories) that there was anything wrong with “unclean” flesh or the Forbidden Fruit, either. “Just don’t eat it!”


Dietary taboos often show respect. Hindus and other vegetarian societies showed respect for the souls of ancestors, who were believed to inhabit various animals. (Pythagoras told his followers, “Beans, beans! Keep your hands from beans!” But in the close-knit community of Pythagoreans there might have been another reason than respect for the beans.)


The Israelite custom shows respect, too—not respect for a human soul living in an animal but for the animal itself and the whole created world. The Israelites didn’t despise the animals that they wouldn’t eat. After all, God created them too, and their storied ancestor Noah saved them. They used the goods that nature afforded them, but they limited this use. They could not believe that the whole universe was there just for them. They believed nature had a more exalted reason for being—to worship God. Their own worship, which often consisted of animal sacrifice, was just a part of this cosmic service. As God’s appointed “rulers” of creation, they added another dimension to this worship, making it conscious and free. But the worship was there before and outside them; they didn’t own it any more than they owned nature.


We no longer see ourselves as part of a cosmic service in praise of the creator. Nature is no longer the powerful context of our lives as it was for ancient societies. Commerce takes nature’s place. We allow ourselves to be identified as consumers and producers. The other day a radio commentator was talking about poetry and “consumers” of poetry. It sounded like blasphemy, but it’s the story we tell about ourselves. It’s our myth.  


Nature itself is a product that we consume, partly by visiting managed “natural” places and appreciating their beauty, but mostly by destroying things, using nature up. The environmental crisis, including climate change and rising oceans, is the consequence of our overuse and misuse of nature. And that takes us back to the story of the Flood and the rainbow promise:


God said the seas won’t rise again. Alleluia.

Unless it’s the work of women and men. Alleluia.