Water, water everywhere…

We are having an interesting exploration into the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. So we might take this a stage further by looking at the Flood. This story is clearly one of great import, and has certainly captured imaginations throughout the ages. Indeed its narrative features were common in the Babylonian world, where at least ten different versions existed. And it appears in other cultures too. Of course there were local floods – which hardly match up, but perhaps the writer or writers used a folk memory of a particularly extensive catastrophe like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. But there is no sign as yet in the archaeological record of a flood equating to the biblical description. 

The story, as it stands in Genesis, has some interesting features. We are told of an anthropomorphic God who appears to have changed his mind through his experience of sin in the world. God repents. Not, we would think, characteristic of the omniscient nature of God. Then, by our unenlightened standards, he simply proclaims genocide. Wicked though the world might have been, it must have contained at least innocent children, even if every one of the adults (except Noah) deserved a death sentence.

The physical features also raise questions. John Paulos, the distinguished American mathematician, taking account of the time period (40 days and nights) and the height of the mountains, calculates that the rain must have fallen at the rate of at least 15 feet an hour – enough to sink an aircraft carrier, let alone the ark. 

There is also the question of space. Noah was commanded to embark all the animals, the birds and crawling things. The fish seem to have got off lightly. We don’t know how many species existed at the time, and whether they were more and fewer than today. 15,000 new species were first discovered in 2008. So I think we can assume a large number, perhaps  running into the millions. And of course, double that number to provide male and female. Provisions for feeding them had to be carried too. Is this implausible?

I wonder, too, about the special sign of the rainbow. Since this is a spectrum of light caused by the interaction of the sun with moist atmosphere it presumably occurred as a phenomenon long before the Flood.

 Alternatively, we might suppose that, under the inspiration of the Spirit, the writers took a common folk account, whose literal truth or otherwise is not of consequence, and wove it into the history of salvation. Sin does bring death into the world, but God has promised that he will save the world. He will indeed provide an ark of salvation through his death (a taking-on of sin) – and we would see that ark as the Church. The animals are properly there because it is the whole of creation, not just man, which is transformed at the last day. In Romans 8, Paul speaks of all creation “groaning” for salvation. It is a marvellous passage to revisit. We do not know how this will be, but we do know that somehow the whole of nature is involved in redemption, and that, in our care for nature – akin to Noah’s care – we are contributing to this.

Advertisements

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Water, water everywhere…

  1. tim says:

    Modern creationist theory suggests that not only did it rain, but that waters were displaced from the sea basins by drastic seismic activity – raising of the sea floor. At the end of the flood the sea floor subsided again. Personally I think your alternative proposal makes more sense all round.

  2. claret says:

    If the literal explanation of the flood is so implausable why is it so detailed? It brings us straight back to the debate on creation in Genesis. The same arguements apply.
    What we are faced with , if one accepts that the flood account is so ridiculous as to be patenly untrue , is that everything else falls into the same bracket. The plagues of Egypt. the parting of the Red Sea ( plenty of innocent ‘first borns’ killed and soldiers drowned by God here too!)
    Where do we stop in explanatory myths and begin reality?
    Is it so difficult to believe that there was a great flood? That the measurements of it and its duration were measured in ways relevant to that time in history. That all the animals carried were the ones known at that time that were regarded as essential for human survival.
    God killing the innocent along with the guilty? Happens all the time.

  3. RMBlaber says:

    The Flood story (I will not use the term ‘myth’, because, although valid, it is misunderstood) is absolutely fascinating, and conatins very many important elements.
    We have the Biblical account; we have the Babylonian account, in the Epic of Gilgamesh; and then there is the Greek account, with the story of the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to his creation, the man Deucalion.
    We also have that intriguing connected story in Genesis 6:2-4 about the ‘bene elohim’, the sons of the gods, or God, having intercourse with the daughters of men, and giving birth to hybrid children. This passage also speaks about the mysterious ‘Nephilim’ who were ‘on the Earth’ at that time ‘and even afterwards’. The followers of Erich von Daniken think the bene elohim and the Nephilim were extra-terrestrials, visiting Earth from some alien planet or planets!
    As Quentin rightly says, there are many Flood stories from around the world, but only evidence of local past inundations. The greatest inundation of the lot, as far as recent geological time is concerned, would have been circa 8000 BC, with the Great Melt, the ending of the last Ice Age. (The previous geological time period, the Pleistocene, ends at this point, and the present one, the Holocene, starts at it.)
    It is possible that stories of the flooding and the deaths and damage caused by it were passed down orally for generations until writing was invented in Mesopotamia circa 3500 BC.
    All along people will have asked themselves why the flooding occurred, and the answers would have come back, ‘because the ancestors/the spirits/the gods were angry’.
    The unified Jewish nation alone came up with the monotheistic answer, ‘because _God_ was angry, and He was angry because of our morally wrong behaviour’. In other words, ethical monotheism came from the Jews, if I may paraphrase St Paul. (Of course, there is more to salvation than that!)

  4. Frank says:

    I agree with Blaber. i.e. the Biblical account of the Flood was probably the writing down of an ancient oral tradition of a great, prehistorical Flood and the Jews gave it an ethical interpretation because of their unique relationship with the one God.

    This does not contradict Claret; the Flood is not brushed aside as a ‘myth’; it happened – but the chronology and the sequence of events does not need to be as narrowly literal as some would have it.

    Is there not always a ‘middle way’ in stories such as this, one that steers between the most literal interpretation that insists everything happened just as written, and the modern scientific outlook, that insists the Bible is ‘unscientific’ and therefore simply wrong?

  5. Vincent says:

    There seems to be a confusion about biblical inerrancy. Judged by today’s standards of literary forms, historic and scientific methods the Bible brims with errors. But the writers of the Bible – and there were many of them – wrote in the forms of their own time and their direct knowledge. Of course they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But this is quite different from the Muslim belief about the Koran, which holds that it was dictated by Allah (which is the Arabic for “the God”).
    Does it actually matter a hoot whether Noah’s ark is based on an original truth? Surely what matters is discerning the spiritual truths which lie within the inspired story.
    Of course we have the experts who have well developed methodologies to help us. and behind the experts we have the teaching Church to act as long stop. This is, for instance, where Claret must look for dividing lines between myth and history. But both experts (who frequently disagree) and the Church (which has, to put it tactfully, “developed” its understanding) inevitably leave a number of questions open.
    To take a secular example – when Hamlet told Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery”, he was not inviting her to become a nun but to work in a brothel. In that context the word “nunnery” carried that meaning to a contemporary audience. Nor when he spoke of “country matters” was he referring agricultural living.
    I suspect that Quentin is playing with us a little here. By getting us to see the unimportance of literal issues, he is obliging us to look at the far more important spiritual lessons.

  6. jimc says:

    The global flood whilst its acceptance presents no problem to creationists seems to do so to many others for all sorts of reasons but the main reason seems to be an unwillingness to accept the word of God.If it rained,non stop presumabilly,for forty days and nights and as in the creation days those days were thousands of years according to some christians and millions of years of years according to evolutionists,some flood no and certainly not loocal for water finds its own level and because of this weight of water mountains rose and deep holes appeared which filled with water – the earth tilted and the water sploshed over and covered the whole earth and hence “millionos of dead things buried in sedimentary rock layers covered by water all over the earth[repeat all over the earth]. Noah did not walk round all the earth rounding up suitable animals for God sent them to him as He sends them to migrate.The Ark was specially constructed by a master designer and ship builder considering the dimensions etc clearly given in the Bible to be unsinkable etc-the animals did not require much feeding or slopping up after as they would have hibernated in the cold,damp and dark for there was no flood lights or arc lamps on the Ark.There were only a few kinds of animals on the ark and probably young ones who are small for it is only the big old ones that are big like the dinosaurs.Jesus and our first Pope absolutely accepted the truth and not myth of a global flood and so should we for how could it be otherwise.As regards God and genocide does it not rain on the just and unjust alike and was not Hiroshima and Naga only acceptable because of…?…btw sea shells and other marine fossils have been found far inland in deserts and high mountains – jimc

  7. jimc says:

    For the second time Quentin draws our attention to the rainbow and makes some scientific comments re spectrum and how water reflects light etc. Of course the scientific eye misses the fact that not only is Christ[God] the light of the world but also the colour of our world for as our scientific spectrum and our rainbow try to tell colour is a property of light and a colourless something is a nothing “for in Him we move and live and have our being” for how could it be otherwise – jimc

  8. claret says:

    Might not a global flood have created the environmental scientific conditions from which rainbows are an inevitable consequence that were not present prior to such a flood?
    Again, why would the writers have wanted to invent something so detailed as the desripion of a rainbow as a convenant with God if such was so obviously not the case?
    The alternatives for views that dismisses the written word as some kind of mystic explanation are just as implausible as the very idea of Biblical creation is to some.
    I think I must be in the ‘mere children’ category that Christ spoke of but if such be the case then I am Blessed for being so!

  9. The various explanations to support the claim that the early chapters of Genesis are in every respect literal history are interesting to read. Just a couple of points in passing.
    Marine fossils on mountains are not evidence of the flood, but evidence of the movements of tectonic plates which raised the mountain from below sea level at various geological stages between 45 million and a billion years ago. Somewhat before Noah’s time.
    There is no warrant in Hebrew for treating the the word “day” (yôm) in any other sense than day, as we know it. To claim that the writer really meant a symbolic day is not only gratuitous but drives a coach and horses through the very concept of literalism. As does of course the view that all the animals did not mean all the animals, but only those known to Noah.
    The speculation that somehow the normal properties of water and light fundamentally altered at the time of the Flood lacks any evidence in support, and any scientific likelihood. But feel free.
    Meanwhile, a quote from the “New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture” (a 1500 page, densely packed scholarly tome) may be of interest:
    “The basic error that lies behind these sallies into bad science and bad exegesis is a confusion as to the nature and purpose of inspiration. The words of Gn1 are all divinely inspired, but they are the inspired words of an ancient Israelite author speaking to the men of his age, as one of them and in their language. For him to have anticipated the discoveries of modern science, divine revelation would have been necessary, and there is not the slightest indication that any such revelation was given, just as there is no reason that there should have been…The Fathers generally understood these principles very well.”
    Anyone is quite free to comment on my reflections on the deeper, inspired, meanings of these text. RBlaber has already usefully done so, in his comment of 22 May, by pointing out, in his final paragraph, the monotheistic element.

  10. claret says:

    So there was no flood. No ark , no animals. Rainbows were an everyday occurrence.
    So why write about something that never existed or happened. Could not have existed.
    Why describe a boat that was never built. Never even required to be built.
    Why talk about divinely inspired when there is no such thing either.
    It’s a strange divine inspiration that inspires fairy tales. Perhaps Richard Dawkins is right after all. If he wants any proof for his assertions then they are all in the Bible waiting to be de-bunked.

  11. tim says:

    Our Lord, as reported in the Gospels, tells us that a sower went forth to sow; or, on another occasion, of a man who was waylaid by robbers. In these, and several other instances, he does not say: this is an imaginative story to teach a point. His hearers (we suppose) never imagined for a moment it was anything else. They understood the context. Is it so hard to imagine that God does something similar in Genesis? In the case of the parables it is obvious that the spiritual truth of the story is what matters: in the case of Noah, less so. We may assume that there is some historical basis for the story of Noah, if only a local flood. But this is really not what is important about it. Can we agree to disagree about the extent to which it’s history?

  12. claret says:

    Jesus said he was talking in parables. He explained why he was doing so.
    With the Ark etc. we are defining the mind of God by us telling him what he means by it !
    Is it really beyond the realm of possibility that it is God telling us what the consequences of sin were for Noah’s generation and not some mystical understanding that we are supposed to put our minds to in order to understand it, and then tell God what he really meant by it as we are far superior in our understanding of his mind than he is.

  13. tim says:

    Claret, I disagree (belatedly). I think you are a little unfair. It is not a question of telling God what He means – which is clearly unnecessary, not to say impertinent. It is more a question of trying to interpret what He has said. As to what He meant, you are entitled to your view, and I to mine – on matters on which the Church has not definitively pronounced.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s