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.