Every so often, an expedition sets out for the Turkish border with Armenia in order to climb the highest peak in Turkey, Mount Ararat. They want to find Noah’s Ark.
The most famous of these explorers was the 8th man to walk on the Moon. Astronaut Jim Irwin’s religious interest in the matter goes back to the days of his youth when his mother thought he was destined to become a minister.
Hoping to find Noah’s Ark, these explorers would have as much success going to the North Pole and finding a candy-striped pole sticking out of the ice.
For years now, I have disputed the factuality of the story of Noah & the Flood in sermons and lectures and blogs, relying heavily on the findings of archeologists, geologists, Bible scholars and mythologists. But I learned something today that I never thought of. I have had a sizable flaw in one of my arguments!
First of all, in order to believe the story of the Flood, a person must believe five enormous claims:
(1) After turning 500 years old, Noah fathered three sons. (This phenomenon would have occurred long before Viagra.)
(2) When Noah was 600, he built an ark. (Older than the Roman Empire, Noah still would have had the vitality to build a structure roughly the dimensions of a domed football field. He DID have help from his three sons, who by then were a youthful 100.)
(3) A pair of every animal in the world boarded the ark.
(4) A flood engulfed the entire world.
(5) The flood wiped out all of humankind except for Noah’s family. (In other words, today’s population of 6 billion is not an accumulation from our species having been already dispersed over most of the globe and continuing to procreate century by century; rather, today’s enormous, planet-wide population began only a few thousand years ago with just three couples — Noah’s three sons & their wives.)
As unbelievable as the story is, my criticism of its factuality has a sizable hole in it! What never occurred to me until today struck me while reading a book by a pioneer in the fight against fundamentalism — the famed geologist Kirtlay Mather.
Mather was one of the most impressive figures in the effort to save science from biblical literalists insisting on creationism being taught in public schools as science. Dr. Mather had such a long and amazing career, he was around to team up with the likes of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1970s — but had already been doing this kind of pro-science advocacy since testifying at the Stokes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee back in 1925! He also became the head of the geology department at Harvard. Mather lived to the age of 90. He died in 1978.
I’m reading a book of his from 1928 — Science in Search of God. Until reading his book, I had always tried poking holes in the factuality of the Flood story by wondering — when the animals were brought into the Ark two-by-two — how long it would take a couple of penguins, waddling even as fast as they could, to travel from the Arctic to Iraq (the setting of the biblical story), and how in the world penguins would survive walking through the Iraqi desert to get to the Ark in Mesopotamia.
But Dr. Mather raised a point I had never considered. In the distant day when this story was being written, and when people were hearing this story, they had no problem at all with the concept of all of the animals in the world being assembled and loaded onto a vessel! That’s because the world to these people at that time was barely any larger than what they themselves could see! In the Old Testament, the biblical world extended only from the parts of North Africa including Libya and Egypt in the west to Persia in the east. That was it! The entire number of animals that people living in the desert climate of the Middle East would have ever known about numbered barely one hundred creatures!
“There was nothing incongruous in the thought that a wooden barge could be constructed of such dimensions that it could shelter two of every sort of creature,” Dr. Mather wrote.
People of that day did not know about other continents — South and North America, Australia, the Far East, Oceania, the polar regions, northern Europe…The biblical world in the days of the Old Testament was confined to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the deserts of the Middle East extending all the way to Persia.
Land animals in the limited knowledge of the people of that day consisted primarily of farm animals with an occasional sighting of a rabbit or an antelope and rumors of a lion.
So whenever I would bring up the idea of polar bears and kangaroos and pumas and big-horned rams, those creatures never would have entered the minds of the writers and listeners of the Flood story.
In other words, I was guilty of a major mistake in reading an ancient text. I was imposing modern-day knowledge on ancient writers. I was assuming that the ancient writers knew as much about the world as a modern person did. When the animals were summoned to the Ark, I would read that with a knowledge of the world as round and populated with millions of species of land animals from all of the continents. I was assuming that the biblical writers knew as much about the world as a person of our day.
What’s interesting is that fundamentalists make the mistake of doing the opposite. They IGNORE all that we know as modern people in reading the ancient texts. They ignore any new information so as to uphold the ancient texts as inerrant! Most recently, literalists do this in today’s debate over biblical writings about same-sex relationships. Ancient rules about sexuality are upheld as being applicable today in spite of all that we have learned.
Back then, same-sex relationships were banned for two reasons:
One, as a way of setting off the Jewish people from the pagan population. It was the same reason for avoiding pork. “If they eat this, then we won’t.” It would be like a Yankee moving to the Deep South and wanting to keep one’s identity separate. You would avoid fried chicken. There would be nothing inherently bad about chicken, any more than there was anything “unclean” about pork. It’s just that, “If they eat this, then we won’t.” Same thing with same-sex relationships. What is being condemned is what the biblical writers knew of conduct among non-believers. “If they do this, we don’t.”
Secondly, the reason for condemning same-sex conduct is that it does not lead to procreation. Ever important to the Jewish people was survival of the race. Every man was expected to get married and produce children. Every woman was expected to get married and bear children. There was no such concept in that day — as there would be in Christianity — that being single, being a virgin, was a holier condition than being married.
Today, we know a lot more about sexuality than they did in the days of the Bible: natural orientation towards someone of the same sex; a gay person being as moral as a straight person; relationships of the same sex being as virtuous in mutuality, respect and love as any straight marriage…
Far from imposing this information on ancient writers, fundamentalists IGNORE all of this information. Only then can they uphold the ancient restrictions as being inerrant and divinely ordained.
It is the same situation with regard to creationism. Literalists insist that the writings of Genesis 1-2 describe the creation of the universe as accurately as a scientific finding.
They must IGNORE all that we have learned! All of the findings from geology, paleontology, cosmology, astronomy, anthropology…all must be ignored in order to uphold Genesis 1-2 as factual, inerrant and infallible.
The creationist strategy for years has been to try to debunk the findings of science — especially radiometric dating of ancient rocks. They insist that the method of dating rocks back to the billions of years is flawed. Radiometric dating, however, has been proven over & over to be one of the most well-established scientific methods. Pressing on, fundamentalists try to mock the findings of geology — which finds no evidence for a world-wide deluge. Literalists, however, insist that there was a world-wide flood that (as the story goes) covered the highest mountains on Earth by 20 feet!
Interestingly, the fundamentalists’ strategy also reverses field. There ARE some who DO believe the findings of geology and paleontology. They DO accept modern knowledge. But they try to fit these scientific findings into the primitive accounts of the ancient stories. A “day” of creation is projected to be millions of years so as to match the geological chronology.
This desperate effort fails. Trying to match the days of creation with geological ages, the effort fails. In the Bible, birds are created before land animals. (The fossil record shows the opposite.) Fruit trees appear before the arrival of fish. (This order of appearance is so OUT of order, it would be like an historian placing D-Day before the American Revolution.)
So — sometimes literalists ignore what we know today in order to uphold the inerrancy of the Bible; other times they accept what we know today but bend it all out of shape trying to fit it with such determination into the ancient, biblical writings so as to uphold them as inerrant.
You see the common goal? The fundamentalist wants (needs?) the Bible to be inerrant.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, congregations broke off from the authoritarian rule of the Pope. The Pope was THE authority. What would they put in his place? The Bible. Specifically, the word-for-word inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible became for many a “paper pope.” People wanted something that TOLD them what to do. This way, they didn’t have the complexity in life of having to think for themselves. They didn’t have to make tough decisions, working hard interpreting an ancient writing in view of all that people had learned since.
Interpreting is precisely the thing that has gone undone. The stories of Creation and the Flood are clearly myths. They are written in the stick-man imagery of myth — bold outlines but lacking factual content. They are not MEANT to be taken as factual. That is merely the mistake of fundamentalists clinging to the stories literally as a way of clinging to the Bible as their “paper pope.” The stories of creation (there ARE two of them, not one — and they contradict each other) are poetically written, and give us –if not fact — truth. The truth we are being told in the creation stories is primarily two-fold: One, there is ONE God. Peoples of ancient times believed in many gods, each god having some role in nature — a god of vegetation, a god of the Sun, a god of the ocean…By posing God as the lone creator, the stories affirm one of the main truths in our Western culture: monotheism.
Secondly, in ancient times, the idea of a human being, being a child of a god was restricted to only a few privileged individuals — kings mostly. In Genesis, however, we are given the radical idea that ALL humans are children of God: ALL are made in the image of God.
In the story of the Flood, we are told something of God’s perseverance towards us. As angry as God may get, the Lord does not give up on us. By saving Noah and his family, God was saving the Hebrew people. They did not have the sensitivity in that day wondering about individuals drowning in the flood. The major concern would have been for the survival of their race. By protecting Noah and his offspring, God was persevering with the Jewish people.
These myths give us deep and foundational truths about the way we view life. They were composed for that purpose. Their effectiveness remains — unless people ruin the effect by trying to make these stories factual.