WTF Bible Moments: Noah and the Flood

Saturday, April 11, 2015

We all know the biblical story of the flood from Sunday school class:

The Lord told Noah' there's gonna be a floody, floody.
Get those animals out of the muddy, muddy,
Children of the Lord
The animals they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies.
Elephants and kangaroosies, roosies. 

Children of the Lord
It's told as a story of how God protects his people and all the fuzzy animals from disaster that ends with a pretty rainbow. But what we miss as kids is that in the biblical account, God sent the flood as a punishment to kill everyone else in the world.

As we grow in awareness and compassion as adults, as we learn from Jesus to care for the outsider, indeed to love sinners, we find ourselves asking,

What about everyone outside of the ark?

How are we to understand the biblical account of the flood as adults? Did God really kill every man, woman, and child in the world outside of Noah's family? Put yourself in their place: Imagine yourself as a mother, as your child is torn from your arms and swept into the torrent of water. Imagine yourself as that child as you gasp your last breath of air.

Now ask yourself: Does God care for that mother and child less than you? Did God really kill them as the Old Testament says? Does this also mean that when there is a flood or tsunami or hurricane today that God has killed them? How can we call a God who would do that "good" or "loving"? That's the struggle we face as we read this story today.

Let's take a look at the story, and how we can approach it as part of our Bibles. My aim will not be to do apologetics, which seeks to remove difficulty by either justifying or minimizing a problem. That's why apologetics -- as prevalent as it is among biblical commentary -- is ultimately a morally bankrupt approach to biblical interpretation.  Instead my aim will be to approach the text morally and ethically, facing problems head-on, and working towards a way of reading that leads us towards love. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, this is the way Jesus read his Bible, and as Christians how we need to read the Bible as well.

With that in mind, let's (ahem) jump into the deep water...

The literary genre of the flood story is that of myth. That does not necessarily mean it did not happen, but what it does mean is that the primary purpose of the story is not to report on history, but to make a moral point--the purpose of the story is to tell us who we are, who God is, and help us understand suffering in the world.

Did the flood really happen? There is good reason to think so. Not on a literal global scale, but in the sense that there was a huge flood that killed so many people that, from their perspective, it felt like "everyone in the world." As Peter Enns writes, 
"Many biblical scholars relying on geological findings believe that a great deluge in Mesopotamia around 2900 BCE was the trigger for the many flood stories that circulated in the ancient world, some already two thousand years old by the time King David came on the scene."
The point of the biblical flood story--like the many other flood stories of other cultures at the time--was not to do a news report, but to make sense of the suffering people had experienced. It's a form of theodicy. In other words, natural disasters like floods did happen, and so people looked for ways to make sense of their suffering. The flood stories of all these cultures is their way of doing that.

The biblical flood story is not the only version. Lots of other cultures tell similar stories. In all of them the gods are punishing humanity. In the flood stories of other cultures (for example in the Mesopotamian version known as the Atrahasis epic), the explanation given is that the gods were mad because people were too loud and the gods wanted to sleep.

The biblical flood story is a response to the flood stories of these surrounding cultures. In those stories the gods are amoral and heartless--destroying the world because they find people annoying. Why is there suffering? Because the gods are mean. That's the moral vision of the surrounding cultures.

In the biblical version it is instead an act of punishment for human sin. Specifically, the sin mentioned is the sin of violence,
God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them" (Genesis 6:13)
Why did the natural disaster come? Because of all the oppression and violence in the world. This is the biblical version's moral vision. What it shows is their developing away from their pagan roots to a focus on God as being moral and good and righteous, rather than the amoral gods of the surrounding cultures. We can also see their perspective as one of an oppressed people, familiar with suffering violence, slavery, and injustice. That is why the focus is on the sin of human violence. It expresses the belief that kings and pharaohs cannot forever carry out their violence without consequence. The very earth--the waters of the sky and sea--will rise up against them.

We can thus positively see here how the Israelites are, with their version of the flood story, moving away from the vision of the gods as raw amoral power, and towards an understanding of God as good and righteous, a God who cares for the oppressed, for victims of power and violence.

Can we critique their view? Sure, and in fact the Old Testament does critique it. In the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes we find a critique of the idea that suffering is a punishment for sin. Here the scapegoat, the victim, speaks out, calling into question this narrative found in Genesis, the law, and the prophets.

That's the multivocal nature of the Old Testament. We do not find a single view, but multiple conflicting views. It is through the process of argument and dispute that we see their understanding of God grow and develop.

Compared with the surrounding cultures, we can see how the biblical account of the flood is a step forward in terms of how it views God as moral. It is a step forward away from their very primitive view. Our difficulty is that we are viewing it from the later perspective of today -- which is both post the voices of protest found in the Old Testament (in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, etc.), and for us as Christians also post-Jesus who likewise pushes back against the view of a destroying and punishing God towards an understanding of God who demonstrates love of enemies.

Looking from the perspective of the New Testament we can say that what God did in Jesus is a much better and fuller reflection of how God deals with evil (by healing humanity and bringing life, not by destroying it). So we rightfully stumble over the story of the flood which presents an understanding of God that is less than this, an understanding that seems immoral to us in the light of God revealed in Christ. That's why we struggle with it, and well we should. We struggle as an expression of faithfulness, not of doubt. We struggle in Jesus name.

In its time, the biblical flood story represents a move towards an understanding of God as good, not just as amoral power. It is not the last step, but an important first step. We however have a fuller revelation of who God is in Jesus. Paul speaks of the veil that Moses placed over his face so the people would not see the glory fading away, and tells us that, "to this day that same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away" (2 Corinthians 3:13).

What that means is, Christ takes away the veil, and we see that the glory of the Old Covenant has faded. It is not an eternal law, but a temporary one. We have in Jesus a better covenant, a better and more glorious revelation of who God is and how God responds to our human evil. That's why Paul writes,
"Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!" (Corinthians 3:7-9)
Notice the imagery here: The "ministry of death" that "brings condemnation." That's the message of the flood. Paul describes this as "transitory," fading away, a lesser revelation. In contrast the new covenant is one that "brings righteousness." That's restorative justice, the idea of God acting to make things right, and God does that by love working to make us sinners good. That's the gospel. The story of the flood is, in contrast to this, a story of death and condemnation.

That means when we read a story like the flood in the Old Testament we are getting--to borrow a phrase from E. Stanley Jones--a "dim Christ" at best. There is a dark veil over the Old Testament's understanding of God. Only in Christ is that veil taken away so we can see that the glory of the old  B.C. view of God has faded, so we can see that this was not the full understanding of who God is. It was a step in the right direction on the way to Jesus, but it's not the end. Jesus is.

The flood does not show us a full and true picture of who God is. For that we need to look to Jesus. In Jesus we instead see that God does not come to destroy, but to bring life. We see that God does not hate humanity, but instead, through the incarnation, enters into humanity in all of our brokenness. We see that God is not on the side of one man's family, or one nation, but cares for all of humanity -- expressing this in special concern for the poor and the least. In Jesus we see that God cares for everyone outside the ark.

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13 Comments:

At 1:07 PM, Blogger gingoro said...

Derek
The traditional none Liberal view of origins is a literalistic interpretation of the early chapters of Genus. This involves a literal A&E who by sinning results in a degradation of what is conceived to be perfect into human beings as we see them today, evil, debased...
If one, on the other hand, accepts an evolutionary origin of mankind then the picture is quite different and starts out with ape like creatures evolving into today's humanity. As we know apes naturally show some goodness but also lots of behaviors that we would consider evil if humans did the same, which we often do.

To my way of thinking an evolutionary origin of mankind, starting as it does not from perfection but by gradual change from apes leaves a great deal more room for God's needing to teach proto humans such that the OT makes more sense. It seems to me that such a base assumption needs a lot more development and understanding of what it would entail than I am able to give it, especially in my current state of deep fatigue from chemo. DaveW

 
At 6:19 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Very nice Derek, but, God saves mankind by killing all mankind except one family of eight? Regional flood or not, that's what's depicted. And weren't many of the destroyed innocent victims of violence? Children? Oh yeah, they were mere collateral damage. One way to "make things right" is for God to ultimately save and restore all humans.

What's your take on 1 Peter 3:19-20?
After being made alive, he [Jesus] went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water...

?

 
At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Steve,

I'm a little confused by your first paragraph since I think I addressed all of these difficulties in my above post.

My take on Jesus' jailbreak of hell is that it is an undoing of judgement. What in the OT is attributed to God (sickness, disaster, death, condemnation) is in the NT attributed to the work of the devil and thus opposed and reversed by Jesus. That's a really big switch in perspective.

 
At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Gingoro,

Looking at the behavior of primates today would not work since humans did not evolve from them, but rather primates and humans both evolved from a common extinct branch.

However, that technicality aside, I do think the perspective of evolutionary biology can be very helpful here. So you're definitely on to something important here. What evolutionary biology teaches us is that there are certain behaviors that we needed for survival that have become hard coded into our brains, that in a more social environment are now dysfunctional. The idea of "dysfunction" is a really helpful one. It means that the drives we have are not because we are evil or wicked, but have a legitimate and good biological function. When we begin to understand that -- for example by understanding how the amygdala works -- that can really help with our moral development of moving away from hostile emotional reactivity, and towards becoming more thoughtful and compassionate people because it removes the whole shame and self-loathing aspect that we get from the "people are wicked to the core" original sin perspective.

If you're interested, I discuss this more in chapter 8 of Disarming Scripture, getting into a lot more detail with how this applies to neoroscience.

 
At 7:17 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Sorry for the confusion in the first paragraph Derek. I was reaffirming your post then adding the thought that all things can be made right with Universal Restoration and I pointed to the passages in 1 Peter as an example of post mortem dialog where the "lost" are saved.

The concept of universal salvation (AKA "Universal Reconciliation," "Christian Universalism," (CU) or "Biblical Universalism") for all mankind is pronounced as heresy by many, even though it was the majority view in the early church. Some have provided strong Scriptural support for CU which is summarily dismissed out of hand without response by the doctrine cop gatekeepers of current orthodoxy. But for me the idea of Universal Restoration helps to provide moral resolution for the troubling passages.

I see that you provide a link to the Evangelical Universalist forum... So what's your take on Evangelical Universalism in general? And more specifically as relates to this venue, what's your perspective on how Evangelical Universalism could help to "Disarm Scripture," "Heal the Gospel" and bring moral resolution to the troubling passages?

AtDhVaAnNkCsE <-- TIA

 
At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Ahh, okay, thanks Steve, that makes sense.

My take on Evangelical Universalism is that I am sympathetic to it, but would want to clarify what that means exactly.

For one thing, as I'm sure you know it is not the kind of universalism that says "everything is fine and so no worries, all paths lead to God." Instead the belief is that God/Jesus will act to make things right for everyone.

Second though is that I've found lots of folks on the Evangelical Universalism who think that the way that this "making things right" will happen is through God's retributive violence towards people in the afterlife. I think that's a really awful view that I certainly don't hold.

What I did like a lot is the way it was presented in the movie Hellbound. In fact I'm buddies with a lot of the folks in that movie.

 
At 5:40 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Yes, yes. I could understand where there would be some temporary mental anguish in the afterlife as people come to grips. But violent punishment? No, I think not. I certainly identify with a need for justice, but merely pointing to the cross leads to penal substitution.

When confronted with the problem of retributive violence people say, "God's way are higher than our ways" as an explanation of why we don't understand. I try to turn that upside down, we don't understand the all encompassing love and goodness of God because His ways are higher than our ways.

My 20 year old son was spellbound by Hellbound. Loved that.

Brother Derek, thanks so much for the dialog. I love that you put in words what most normal people feel, while most church teachers shy away from the topic altogether.

 
At 5:13 PM, Blogger Brad said...

NT calls Noah a preacher of righteousness. And the extra biblical book of Jasher makes it sound like Noah warned and pleaded with people for hundreds of years to be saved from the flood that was coming. Nevermind the part where the rains descend and the people descend on the ark and the animals fight the people to protect the ark. Any way my first point is that it is more likely to believe in a Noah that pleaded with people for years than a one day God said build a boat, screw this world, I'm making a new one.

That is simply to add to the discussion not fix the problem. Second there is a New Testament point about mockers saying "where is this whatever you believe will happen, god hasn't acted in history and they forget the flood.". Like my paraphrase? Any way so Paul makes some point to mockers that a righteous God will not let things go on forever. Some conservatives says it is morality. Some progressives say it is materialism. And others say that God's concern is with injustice, people being hurt with no one to help them.

So two points. How does the narrative change if Noah is over many years decades pleading with people to turn and escape? Second, how does knowing God will right the wrongs in the end influence how we might look at the Flood story? Bonus: How does seeing a long suffering God reluctant to destroy humanity change the way we read the text? What extent to we grasp God grieving that He made man?

Great discussion!

 
At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Brad,

Yes, the idea of Noah's struggle does add depth to the story. Another thing I find fascinating is how in the biblical version, God basically apologizes and swears "I'll never do it again." The idea that God would actually repent (as in "I'm so sorry, that was wrong. I should not have done that. I will change my ways) is really not on our theological realm of possibilities today. But I think it reflects something really fascinating about how they saw God back then.

If nothing else it shows that even they questioned whether this was right, and have God even say at the end that is was not.

 
At 5:13 PM, Blogger Kenneth Nichols said...

Derek,

Question: Do you think Jesus possessed natural biblical knowledge commensurate with His current culture, or did He possess all extra-biblical knowledge?

In other words, did Jesus believe the flood story was true AS WRITTEN because ALL Jews then did? Or do you think He KNEW the factual truth of the story (extra-biblical), but simply talked about it in a way that would avoid confusion for His audience? The same with Jonah?

I'm still working through this, but I'm leaning towards the idea that He knew what ALL Jews of His day would have known UNLESS the Spirit specifically informed Him of a more "perfect" narrative if it was necessary. So, Jesus wasn't "lying" (as many claim He would have to be) if the flood did not go down as specifically written, though He referenced it as if it did. It wasn't NECESSARY For Him to know or correct the historical facts concerning the flood. The "truth" (lessons) taught by the flood story still ring true regardless of its factual content. The same for the story of Job or Jonah. I think this view gets Jesus "off the hook" for this particular argument. He was (put Himself at) the "mercy" of the Spirit in regards to extra-biblical knowledge, just as we are.

Curious for your thoughts.

 
At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Kenneth,

What I do notice about Jesus as presented in the Gospels is that his understanding of illness reflects the pre-scientific view of his time. He, for example, describes a fever as being caused by demons, rather than caused by a virus or some other medical explanation. The same is true for other medical conditions he describes.

That observation would fit with your idea that he knows what every other human knew, unless something was revealed to him by the Spirit beyond that. So from what I can observe, I'm inclined to agree with you.

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger Gary said...

Dear Christian,

I challenge you to watch this short, but very provocative video clip regarding the morality of your God's act of killing so many little children in Noah's Flood. If after watching this video clip you can still assert that your God and your belief system is good and moral, I will strongly and sincerely recommend that you see a mental health professional.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=2&v=3lmi4YJo1tU

 
At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Gary,

I assume that with the address "dear Christian" you mean "dear Christians." Actually on this blog we are Christians who are questioning these things. So it is not the case that non-Christians question for moral reasons, and Christians don't. On the contrary I would contend that the way Jesus read Scripture was characterized by questioning in the name of morality. So you're in good company here.

 

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