Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Meaning of the Story of Noah

The occasion for this post is my having just watched Aronofsky's Noah.  To be charitable, it's an entertaining CGI spectacle, looking more like The Two Towers than anything out of Genesis.  The desolate scenes at the beginning remind one of another popular Hollywood genre, the "post-apocalyptic"--which is in fact kind of funny, when you think about it.

But that's the occasion, not the aim, of this post.

I was baptized and raised Presbyterian.  Therefore I went to Sunday School practically every single week for most of my childhood and received a fairly thorough grounding in the stories of the Bible.  Now, "Sunday School" is not, generally, a positive adjective.  A "Sunday School" conception of something ordinarily means something sentimental, simplistic, pious, saccharine.  But let's consider Noah.

Even in a time of diminishing biblical knowledge, the story of Noah is still known fairly widely.  Almost everyone knows about the Ark, the "floating zoo," the sign of the rainbow.  Almost everyone gets the joke about thinking Joan of Arc Noah's wife. 

The story in Genesis is very straightforward.  There is great wickedness in the earth, wickedness such that God regrets having ever created man, wickedness such that God decides to destroy the human race.  But Noah found favor.  So we get the building of the great chest, the entry of the animals, the opening of the floodgates of heaven and the bursting of the fountains of the earth.  The remnant survives, and God gives Noah a special sign, placing his bow in the heavens,a sign that he will never again destroy the human race.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales or fables knows that it's that last section that lays out the meaning of the story--the lesson or the moral.  It's not subtle or hidden.  The Sunday School take is that God will not destroy us, for all our faults.  It's a message of comfort.

Now that's a reading I don't typically come across when the story  of Noah comes up.  At best there is the picturesque saving-the-animals angle, or the related picturing of Noah as conservationist or environmentalist.  

And then there is the more contemptuous, contemporary "new atheist" take:  There are no waters above the heavens!  God is a genocidal  monster!  This polemical, more literal reading has the rhetorical advantage of making the story look like an assault both on science and humanity.  What fools believe in a God, in a world, like this?

It's the literalism that leads them astray, I think.  Keeping in mind the limits on what we can say with complete certainty about the past (as I tried to say some few posts back), there's no indication, in human or natural history, that a flood ever actually covered the surface of the earth or destroyed all terrestrial life apart from the pairs marched into an ark.  So if it's not history, what is it?

Over the years you pick things up.  So I've come across Utnapishtum's flood in the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Greek flood.  It's a common ancient story motif, and that shouldn't surprise us, given our ancestors' absolute dependence on the harvest, and the deadly destructive power of even small floods.  So the story was out there, to be put to use.

And I've picked up enough Hebrew to make a nine-year journey through the Tanakh.  And there I noticed, as is often the case, that the Hebrew name has a meaning.  Noah. נֹחַ "Comfort."  The form appears again at the beginning of the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, where a shift in tone is so marked that many scholars consider it a new work:

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי

"Comfort, comfort, my people."

Which of course brings me back to my old Sunday School take on the thing.

 וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אֲשֶׁר בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, בְּכָל-בָּשָׂר; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה עוֹד הַמַּיִם לְמַבּוּל, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר.   וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת, בֶּעָנָן

"And I will remember the covenant between myself and you, the covenant with all living souls, with all flesh, and I will never yet again bring death with a flood, to destroy all flesh.  And I set my bow in the clouds...." 

It is a comfort, undoubtedly, a promise to never yet again punish the wicked by death with a flood.  And if we moderns can't help but think that there never was a flood at all, the message, the moral, becomes even more comfortable:  I haven't, I won't.

Because it is an important point, and properly belongs here at the beginning of the great story of humanity.  What to do about human evil?  Our first impulse is always to kill it.  Just kill the bad people, the troublesome people.  How many revolutions and movements, even in the last century, rested on just such a terrible cutting of the Gordian knot?  Kill the bad, leave the good, and the earth will be paradise again.

So that's what God, in the story, does.  But that's what God, by the end of the story, promises never to do again.  Or, for us sceptical moderns, what he never did, and never will do.  Because, in a real sense, that's the whole point of the biblical project.  For Jews, the story of Noah, in rejecting any wholesale killing of the wicked, sets the stage for the Abrahamic covenant, for the Mosaic law, for the ethical demands of the prophets.  For Christians, the story of Noah similarly rejects the darkest solution, and, incorporating the law and the prophets, sets out an alternative scheme, not to kill, but to redeem the wicked.  In both cases the point is not to purify the earth by the death of the wicked, but to redeem the wicked themselves, to save both the world and human beings from human evil.

So that's why I say the Sunday School version turned out to be essentially correct.  The story of Noah is one of comfort, a preliminary rejection of an easy, a tempting approach to human evil, to which God said "never again"--or even, "not then, not now, not ever."  The bow is not in our hands, nor even in God's; it is set in the clouds.  

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