Mystery, Metaphor, and the Story of the Flood

Rain falling on water like the flood Noah lived through

When Good Turns Evil

There is, within the Hebrew Bible, a tendency for that which starts out as good to become bad. God creates the world and sees it is good, but it doesn’t stay that way. He creates humans in His likeness, so can how can we be other than good, if God is good? Yet, somehow we learn to sin.

There was the trickery of a serpent, the jealousy of a brother. Over and over, we humans made mistakes. As time passed and generations were born, things just got worse. The wickedness and violence of humans increased until “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5 NRSV).

Rain falling on water like the flood Noah lived through

How intense is that.

Such a set up is a common literary convention. In myth and fairy tale, films and science fiction novels, we being with an evil race or individual. We humans love an enemy to fight against.

We also need a hero to cheer for, and that’s Noah. Among all the cities of the Earth, Noah was the only person who “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8). “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Gen 6:9).

God Destroys

In other parts of the Bible, we see a good man arguing or fighting against evil. The prophets rail against wicked cities. The Israelites conquer their neighbors. Things aren’t as simple as they were in Noah’s day, though. As the Bible develops, we start to see the complexity of human nature. For instance, the Hebrew people are prone to sin. Over and over, they ask God for forgiveness, and God forgives them. After all, they are His special, chosen people. They have entered into a covenantal relationship with their God.

This covenant is one in which God promises care and protection and the people promise faithfulness. As is often true in life, this relationship is rocky. The people are childlike and undependable. Pushed to the limit, God can be unpredictable and impulsive. But He always repents. Like after the flood. God saw it wasn’t such a good idea, to destroy everything with water, so He promised never to do it again. That was the first covenant.

But before we get to repentance, we have the story. And the flood story is a good, rousing tale full of villains, a hero, a mistake, and a lesson learned.

The Story of the Flood

Everyone except Noah, and perhaps his family, is evil. God wants to destroy them all and start over again, but since Noah is so good, he agrees to let him and his family survive. Then, by listening to God and obeying His orders, by building the ark and taking care of all those animals that crowd into it with him, Noah saves the day.

So they all get onto the ark, and the rains fall. The face of the Earth is covered with water. Everyone and everything that needs air to breathe and is not on the ark, drowns. Before the story ends, however, we have a moment of anxiety. The rain fall for so long. Then, once they stop, the waters still  don’t recede. The raven goes out, the dove goes out, and neither find any trace of dry land. Will the food on the ark last long enough? Will God let Noah and his family perish? What is God thinking?

But finally, as the dove flies is sent off yet again, she brings back an olive branch. We have hope. Everything will be all right.

Except, everything is not all right. Noah and his seed don’t seem to create better people than we had before. Later in the Bible, we see prophets rail against the injustice and the evil of the masses. God smites us here and there, yet somehow we never stop misbehaving. Over and over, God despairs, wishing He could just wipe out everything He made. He won’t do it, though, for after the flood, he made a covenant, a promise. He would never destroy people that way again.

Taking the Bible Literally

We can read this as we read any story, or we can read it as a literal description of some past event. While preparing to write this column, I discovered websites and books offering scientific data to prove that an overwhelming deluge swept across the land 7,500 or 10,000 years ago. I read mathematical explanations for how a multitude of animals could fit onto the ark God had Noah build. On the other hand, I saw how other people go to great lengths to prove the absurdity of the biblical flood story, as if this would somehow disprove the idea of a god.

Whether trying to justify the biblical text or refute it, to argue about such details is to take the Bible with a literalness never intended by its authors.

This literal lens distresses David J. Pleins who wrote in his book, When the Great Abyss Opened, “If the parting of the Red Sea is the result of a timely tidal wave, the majesty of the moment is reduced to fodder for the Weather Channel.” [1] When we take scripture literally, we lose the magic, the power, the awe, the mystery. Even more, however, we lose the meaning.

Myth As Metaphor

Myths are not meant to be taken literally, whether they’re in the Hebrew bible, or the Baghavad Gita, or the oral traditions of the Maori, Yoruba, or Cherokee. The people who told the stories were crafting tales resonant with wisdom. They meant to teach, to soothe, to challenge, and to raise questions of value and purpose and possibility.

Many cultures tell flood stories, but they all have a slightly different spin and are told for a different purpose.

For instance, in the Maori flood story, a righteous man builds a raft, allows a few decent people to join him, then prays to Tane, the creator, to cause a rain that will destroy all the other, evil folk. Though similar to Noah’s story in some ways, it is also different. In the Maori story, the righteous man drives the plot. In the biblical tale, God does.

Gilgamesh and the Flood

The flood story in the myth of Gilgamesh is even more like the one from the bible. Like Yahweh, the Mesopotamian gods plan to destroy all humans. However, there is one good man, Utnapishtim, whom they agree to save. They warn him that he must build a boat. On the boat, he must take all species of animal. We have a flood, a hero, and we even have birds sent out to find evidence of dry land. Then Utnapishtim’s boat beaches on a mountaintop just as Noah’s does. Like Noah, Utnapishtim builds an altar on which to make a sacrifice of gratitude to the gods. As Yahweh did, the god Enlil repents of his rash act of violence and agrees not to do it again. He blesses Utnapishtim and his wife just as Yahweh blesses Noah and his family.

There is an important difference, however. The Mesopotamian flood story is part told to show Gilgamesh that he, a human being, cannot have eternal life. Because of the disaster, Gilgamesh goes home wiser, but also sadder. Unlike in the Hebrew Bible, the Gilgamesh story is not about a relationship between a man and the gods, but the story of Noah is. [2]

In Relationship

We see that in some of the story’s details. For instance, God walks with Noah and talks to him. When everyone is finally on the ark, God “shuts” them in. With his own hands, he closes the door and sets them on their way.

What does this tell us about who God is and about how we relate to Him? What does it tell us about ourselves, about being in covenant? Can we fulfill our side of the covenant? Can we live in covenant with one another? What does God really require of us? What do we owe one another?

What about human nature? Are we really so evil that the evil can be total? And can anyone be totally good? After all, once the waters are gone, and Noah has made his sacrifice, and he and his children have found homes again, Noah gets drunk. Is this the action of a righteous man? Could it be that God expect us not so much to be good as to care about Him the same way He cares about us? Did God save Noah because he has no faults, or because Noah listened to Him? Perhaps Noah was the only one who said, “Sure, God, I’ll build this crazy ark of yours.”

Myths teach us not because they are literally true, but because they aren’t. If Noah’s story were simply a factual description of an historical event, we’d have no reason to probe or wonder or consider what we might learn from it. Instead, when we think of it as a story told for its message, we start to ask questions.

Faith, Obedience, and Trust

Noah’s flood story is about faith, obedience, and trust. Whom do we trust? Whom do we follow? How do we know what is from God and what is from the deranged voices in our own head? If God made a bad choice that He eventually repented, is even God perfect, and if not, what does that mean about how we can be in relationship with Him?

Of course, we don’t have to believe in this kind of relational God to ask these same kinds of questions. We enter into relationship with one another all the time. Marriages, religious communities, support groups all start with covenants, agreements, promises of how we will behave with one another. How do we keep those promises? What does it mean to be in right relationship? How do we make amends when we have failed? And when do we defy our leaders, tell them they are wrong, hold them to high standards?

The Maori story, the Gilgamesh myth, the tale of Noah and the flood are not factual. In their metaphor and dialogue, however, they are honest and true. They tell us something about who we are and how to live together in some semblance of harmony.

Resilience After Disaster

They also show us how to move forward after disaster. In the myths we heard, the people pray and make sacrifices. Survivors gather together and rebuild lives. They acknowledge that they are not always perfect, that they will make mistakes and even hurt one another. Even the gods repent of their actions and apologize, teaching us humans how to do the same. Then, once we have made amends, we pick ourselves up and carry on.

This is the story of human lives and human relationships. We make mistakes, we survive, we pray, we mourn, we express gratitude, and we covenant to do better. If possible, we renew our relationships. One way or another, we carry on.

That is the value of myth. It teaches us how to be human, and how to be better than we were before.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

  1. Pleins, J. David, When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood, Oxford University, 2014, ProQuest Ebook, 166.
  2. See, for example, Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament, NY: Paulist Press, 1984, 126: “Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood and how the gods had specially blessed him for his role in saving humanity. He does this in order to point out to Gilgamesh that he cannot hope for personal immortality.” [italics in original] Also Ryan, William and Walter Pitmn, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, 244: Gilgamesh’s ultimate goal had been to meet Utnapishtim and learn about eternal life. He does manage to get across the strait. But what he learns from Utnaphistim is that ‘there is no word of advice.’ With compassion Utnapishtim explains the unbearable truth – there is no eternity.”

Photo by Inge Maria on Unsplash

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