wordsout by godfrey rust
The sailing of the ark     about   commentary


Sailing out of history

A commentary on the bible story of the ark

The story of Noah’s Ark is one of the best known in the Bible, and has somewhat perversely been a favourite for young children despite being among the most violent and problematic in the whole canon. It takes up three early chapters of Genesis and is a useful test case for what kind of library the Bible is. Here is part of it:

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them" (Genesis 6, vv 5-7, New International Version). 

In synopsis: a well-intentioned but exasperated creator god loses patience with his rebellious creatures and decides to clear the decks and start again with the best of a bad lot. As we learn later on, the god is seemingly unaware that the survivors will fare little or no better in future than they have to date, under the new unilateral contract (or "covenant") laid down by the god later to Abraham, who would become father of the nation of Israel.

So the story of the Ark and its unlikely menagerie begs the big question of theodicy—how and why does a perfect and all-powerful god allow evil to exist?—but goes much further, showing the god being willing to carry out an almost total annihiliation of terrestrial life and blame the creatures for failings that would, in a human context, be seen as primarily the god's responsibility as the executive or parent in charge.

The problem is made more puzzling by the fact that the god is repeatedly described elsewhere in the Old Testament as unflichingly benevolent, knowledgeable and infallible, as well as solely accountable for the creation and direction of everything from before the beginning of time (for example, "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" - Psalm 139 v16). So how did it all get into such a mess? The all-powerful, all-knowing god appears to be saving Noah and his family, but hardly anyone else, from the consequences of the god's own incompetent planning and short-sightedness.

The story exemplifies many of the problems of biblical accuracy, both internally to the text and in relation to knowledge since discovered: 

- There are two narratives from different sources edited together and containing conflicting information (were there two or fourteen of each clean animal?). 

- An important element of the story is anachronistic: how could Noah know which animals were clean or unclean when the Mosaic laws hadn't yet been given? 

- There are obvious anomalies: why didn't the people who already had boats avoid drowning? What happened to fish? 

- Finally, it is impossible in the light of scientific research—for example, fossil records of cataclysmic floods are only local, not global, and there is no evidence of a point in history in which all human and animal life was concentrated to a single point, as suggested by the conclusion at Ararat.

There is a close parallel with the subsequent Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, which assumes that there was once a universal human language, transformed through a single dramatic event into multilingual anarchy. Research in linguistics, I am informed by one whose career has been devoted to such things, shows that the first assumption is not entirely impossible (though vanishingly unlikely) but the second is. The evidence against the Ark and Babel stories outside the biblical text is incontrovertible unless, like some, we think that the god has deliberately falsified the evidence to fool us or test our "faith" in the biblical text: things simply didn't happen like this.

For most people these are not problems, because the Flood is understood as a legend grown from the history of actual, more limited inundations, a good story coming out of a scientifically primitive but morally sophisticated culture, in which the emphasis (as in today's disaster movies) is on good news for the survivors and come-uppance for the bad guys (which, by implication, is unlikely to be us, its readers or hearers), and which is to be treated metaphorically.

But for evangelical Christians it highlights a particular and central issue. If the bible is the god's comprehensive account of the truth required by humanity, and not merely a limited and flawed human attempt at it, then when a major biblical story like this is historically and scientifically inaccurate as well as theologically and morally compromised, the entire scriptural enterprise becomes highly questionable. The god, it would seem, not only made the Flood happen, but if the Bible is his inspired and authorized word, he must have intended and inspired the story to be reported in this unsatisfactory, confusing and anomalous way. 

I have some respect for the most extreme, literal fundamentalists who go to great lengths to argue that (for example) the world is less than 10,000 years old, that man lived alongside dinosaurs and that the god really did change the natural physical laws of the entire universe to "stop the sun" and give Joshua an hour more daylight to defeat the Amorites in battle. They recognise what is at stake: once you concede a single detail of the bible as being incorrect, the defences are breached and the credibility of absolute scriptural authority is fatally undermined. If you can't trust one biblical statement, why trust any other? 

Most evangelicals who accept the primary authority of the Bible shy away from such an extreme view, claiming to be more reasonable about these things and approaching different passages contextuallybut this is only moving the problem elsewhere. Where such a less deeply conservative evangelical describes the bible as "reliable", "authoritative" or "logical" they are using the methodology of Humpty Dumpty, changing the meaning of such words when necessary to suit the subject matter to which the words refer. The bible, all agree, is an aggregation of diverse literary genres created by many authors and editors, many of them unknown, at different times and for different reasons, but whether any particular passage is to be regarded as true in an historic, allegorical, prophetic, scientific, metaphorical or ironic sense is a matter of interpretation: the bible itself gives little explicit direction. 

For example, the six-day Genesis creation story is usually accepted even in fairly conservative circles as allegory, myth or metaphor rather than historical testimony; but a thousand years ago it was not generally so, and the change has come about because we have better science and we know that you can't grow vegetables before you create the sun. Something similar has happened to the theology of the Fall, and the once-popular theological notion that disease and death are the result of a corruption of the natural order brought about somehow by humanity's sin. Today it is taught otherwise, even in our church schools: life has existed for earth for several billion years, and not only have disease and death been an inherent part of life from its beginning, but much "disease" is caused by the natural predation of one (god-created) life form on another. These are accepted, except by those with the blindest of blind faith, as facts of life, and our biblical interpretation must be revised accordingly.  

There is no such thing as uninterpreted scripture, and no such thing as truly objective interpretation, and in our generation there is not even a general consensus among those who have considered carefully the most important details. The bedrock Christian doctrines of Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, the final Judgment and of the nature of Heaven and Hell are reviewed, disputed and reconfigured as never before from all points within, as well as outside of, the evangelical movement. It is notable, for example, that N T ("Tom") Wright, the mainstream evangelical successor in the UK to John Stott as both popular and serious theologian, can formulate only a tentative general idea of the possible nature of Hell from within the three irresolvably conflicting alternatives normally on offer; and that in recent serious theological study of the Fall the view gaining adherence is the biblically obscure and philosophically bizarre notion that inherited human sinfulness and the corruption of the created order is the consequence of a pre-human angelic rebellion—the "Fall of the Angels"—because the traditional Augustinian view has been found to be not only scientifically but also biblically unsupportable: if creation was perfect before the fall of Adam, why was the serpent corrupt?

These are not matters merely of academic interest. It is difficult for the church to fulfil the command to preach the gospel when it is not at all clear what that gospel is, except that it is good news and that it is about Jesus. Maintaining the illusion of consensus can be a painful and exhausting balancing act, and many eventually fall off the wall and break; some are never put back together again. The sailing of the ark was written, in part, for broken Humpties.

Where does this leave us? My own view at present, mythologized in Sonnet 22, is that the bible reveals a great deal of truth about the god and humanity, but that the whole text itself is not under the god's editorial management. Many of its writers are inspired, some knowingly, and some words may come "directly" from the god and are recorded as such, but it is in sum a compilation of human attempts to make sense of the god and their interaction with humanity, written from the limited perspectives of various ancient Middle Eastern communities over a period of a thousand years or so. There is no question that many of its words have great spiritual authority and power, but scientific or historical accuracy was clearly not on the god's agenda.

The Word was made flesh, and has been further revealed through written words, but the two are not to be confused. The first may be flawless (in a moral sense), but the second is not and cannot be, where the medium for their conception and delivery is flawed humanity. The god seems to be content that this should be the case, or else we may assume he would have organized things otherwise. Why they did not choose to make things clearer is itself puzzling, and says some profound things about their intentions, if we could only decipher what they are. In part I think it is to do with not making scripture into an idol (see Sonnet 20), although that is exactly what many have done anyway.

Insistence on an untenable literal interpretation of the bible also prevents us from engaging with its more profound mysteries: we hide truth instead of revealing it. For example, if we insist on the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation, in conflict with the generally accepted scientific modles of the Big Bang and later of DNA and evolution by natural selection, and devote our mental energy to the suppression and denial of this painstakingly acquired knowledge, then we will not learn anything of what the scientific account might tell us about the god's methods, or begin to grasp the power, intelligence and sheer strangeness of a creator god through study of his original creative act and the extraordinary physical laws the god conceived and brought into being. We will remain, in the words of Paul, playing with, and arguing about, "childish things".

This realisation helps us when faced with the more obvious and personally troubling questions of pain, suffering and alienation. The gospel really is absurd, in the technical philosophical meaning of the word: faith transcends the rational and exists in the domain of paradox. It is not that the truth is difficult to understand—it is impossible to understand in terms of a systematic set of propositions (as summarised in a lighthearted way in Sonnet 14). When the god says in Isaiah "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" they are not describing a more taxing logic but a quite different way of thinking which transcends the limitations of logic and to which the bible only gives us clues. All the evidence is that the god specializes in the avoidance of obvious behaviour, and it makes sense to embrace this. Such an approach does not take us away from belief in the incarnate, suffering and risen Christ: on the contrary, it makes such a chain of events more reasonable.


Images of the ark

The Ark legend, as told in the sequence of images accompanying the sonnets, has another function here. The progress of the story—the impending storm, the building, the gathering of the animals, the sailing, the search for dry land and finally the disembarking at Ararat—mirrors the psychological and spiritual journey of the poems, from unease, through crisis, pilgrimage and to a new beginning. In this role, the story told by the images is not an allegory but a parallel. There is no complete one-to-one correspondence of picture and poem, although on occasion (for example, in sonnets 12, 1314, 15, 20, 27, 30, 33 and 36) there is a pleasing aptness, sometimes accidental, in the particular pairing of words and image.  

As with many other images on this site, I have credited but do not have explicit permission to use these images gathered from unprotected sites on the internet, and will of course remove and replace any immediately on request.