by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April.
The story of Noah and the ark makes for great sermons, movies, even stand-up comedy performances. Everyone loves a good story. From Bill Cosby, when he was actually funny, Noah asks God, “What are we going to do with all these rabbits,” to the most recent peer-reviewed scientific article in geology, interest in the flood remains of lasting interest.
Noah’s story is a rhetorical construction of an inspired, imaginative Hebrew storyteller recounting the saga, legend, myth, and tales of a time before history known as primeval time. The creator of Noah’s story is separated by centuries from the events the raconteur recounts.
Progressive Christians tend to talk about the flood in scholarly and scientific language that fails to achieve the primary objective: Persuasion. I also read several creationist defenses of the flood in the last month. These papers were filled with what was alleged to be scientific information.
Both sides seem intent on filling the great void with science of one kind or another. Write an article on creation and the flood and the ensuing flood of words will overwhelm even the most diligent researcher. Everyone has opinions about the flood. Why is it such a powerful magnet for such fierce debate? What makes one story more attractive than other stories?
External debates about history, science, biblical interpretation, and literalism cloud the meaning of the flood story. No one gets around to reading the story as biblical material intended to inspire faithful living.
A “Stand Up for Science” mug appeared on Facebook. The following claims appear on the side of the mug:
- Earth is not flat.
- Vaccines work.
- We’ve been to the moon.
- Chemtrails aren’t a thing.
- Climate change is real.
- STAND UP FOR SCIENCE.
Using that same approach, I will approach the story of Noah and the flood as a rhetorical act of persuasion designed to extol the mercy of God and the precarity of human existence
As biblical scholar Robert R. Cargill has observed,
It is time for Christians to admit that some of the stories in Israel’s primordial history are not historical. Christians and Jews must concede that the Bible can still be “inspired” without being historically or scientifically “inerrant.” Simply because a factual error exists in the text of the Bible does not mean that an ethical truth or principal cannot still be conveyed. It is time for Christians to concede that “inspiration” does not equal “inerrancy,” and that “biblical” does not equal “historical” or even “factual.” Some claims like the flood and the six-day creation are neither historical nor factual; they were written to communicate in a pre-scientific literary form that God is responsible for the earth.
Here’s a good rhetorical move to make: Do not accept the framework or language or definitions of fundamentalist/evangelical Christians. There is nothing in faith that requires your signature on a list of doctrines rooted in the human notion of inerrancy or literalism.
Preachers who preach the flood literally and preachers who preach that the flood was not literal are wasting pulpit time by not taking seriously the biblical text. I am acutely aware of the difficulties in my claims. I will not be scientific enough for my liberal allies; I will not seem biblical enough for my evangelical enemies.
Noah’s flood, as the real estate agents say, comes down to three things: Local, local, local. It was a local flood that seemed like a universal experience. Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann says, “The flood narrative is widespread throughout the world. The flood narrative like the creation narrative is part of the common property of humanity. It is humankind’s basic expression of its being-in-the-world, of the threat to human existence and at the same time of its permanence.”
All flood stories are stories of primeval time. The definition of primeval: the earliest ages. The person writing about primeval time is a historical person millions of years removed from the ongoing origins of creation, but writing about stories that are a mixture of symbols, metaphors, analogies, myths, fables, and archetypal narratives.
The motifs in primeval stories are few, but the little that is narrated about the primeval event is the same the world over. As Westermann notes,
The experience common to all humankind is more impressive than the experience of isolated groups. This is the explanation of the astounding similarity of the individual motifs of the flood stories throughout the world. We are dealing here with a particular sort of tradition. It is not the result of an individual event, but of a series of identical or similar events which have been fashioned into a type. The flood is the archetype of human catastrophe, and as such has been formed into narrative. What the flood narrative aims at expressing is derivation as a result of the preservation of the one amidst the demise of all others. It is precisely this that is the goal of the flood narrative.
In summary, all cultures have flood stories. They have been shared across centuries of development and have become a single archetypal metaphor depicting universal human experiences.
Everybody’s got a flood story. If there were an international gathering of representatives from all peoples, cultures, and nations, conversations around the bars and coffee shops would include, “You think you have a flood story; I have the flood story of the ages.”
Westermann helpfully summarizes:
We are dealing with a narrative of primeval time that is in the context of the story of the creation of humans. Side-by-side with the creation of humanity there is now the possibility of its destruction; this leads to the preservation of humankind by saving the one. The creation of humans and their preservation involve a catastrophe; but the saving action does not take place in the realm of the history of humanity. It is an event that precedes history.
As Wilhelm Wundt has put it, “Flood narrative and creation narrative . . . complement each other.” Creation and flood exist outside of time as a single event. The literalist obsession with the destruction of humanity suggests a blood-thirsty desire for punishment. But the text refuses to submit to this horror motif because, to quote Westermann, “the extinction of humanity cannot really be the subject of narrative because with it all tradition would be at an end.”
Abraham and Moses Argue with God against Destruction
As Rowan Williams reminds us in Tokens of Trust,
Genesis may not tell us how the world began in the way a modern cosmologist would; but it tells us what God wants us to know, that we are made by his love and freedom alone. What the Bible puts before us is not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way, but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human beings, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know, or to want to avoid him and retreat into their own fantasies about him.
After the flood, God will again be tempted to destroy humankind. Abraham and Moses intervene in these two instances. Why doesn’t Noah plead with God not to destroy the earth? Even in God’s anger the story still presents a way of salvation. God is merciful. But Noah says nothing. He leaves the people to their destruction. Not once does Noah ask God if the sentence would be commuted if 50 righteous people were found. An accurate movie about Noah would have to be a silent movie.
Why is he the passive builder of an ark designed to save only him and his family? Perhaps in the primeval history, man has not yet developed theologically enough to express the arguments against destruction. In any event, the rhetorical acts of Abraham and Moses are helpful in showing us what the biblical writers are doing – the drama they are constructing.
There is another awful silence in the story. The coming of the flood is told with no comment or dialogue. There are no humans in sight to be destroyed. There is no reaction from those who threatened with extinction. There’s no lament, cry, death agony. There’s no questioning of God. There’s only absolute silence. Only an extreme Calvinist could be pleased with this announcement:
And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. (Genesis 7:21-23)
As Westermann points out, “Humankind as God’s creation cannot take for granted its own existence in the world; its existence is problematic and remains such in the presence of its creator.” More stridently, he says, “The creation decision can be revoked.”
The Bible sometimes does this by a very bold method – by telling a certain kind of story from the human point of view, as if God has human characteristics rooted in revenge, anger, and destruction. Since Noah remains silent, we turn to Abraham and Moses – two persons of faith who had good reason to know something about what God is really like. When they are faced with a crisis and things are going badly, and when it looks like the end of the line for humanity, Abraham and Moses argue with God until they persuade God to be merciful.
The mistake that a religious populist like Ken Ham makes is depicting God as if God acts as we act, as if God is the genocidal killer of the human race. Ham is more nonchalant in his belief that God destroyed up to 20 billion human beings in the flood than a neo-Nazi is of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust or an American patriot of the almost 200,000 Japanese killed in the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hitler saw the Jews as the “devil” – the universal enemy. President Truman and the American government saw the nuclear bomb as saving American lives.
What rationale or excuse does God have for the flood? Fortunately, only people like Ham have to worry over that question.
The writers of these biblical stories knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t believe in a bad-tempered, capricious, destructive God who needed to be calmed down by sensible human beings. They knew that the most vivid way of expressing what they understood about God was to show Abraham and Moses appealing to the deepest and most true thing about God as they pray to him. The message: Even if there were a universal disaster, God can be trusted to find a way to provide salvation for creation.
At this point, an opening appears for the homiletical imagination – a possible application of the flood story to a current crisis. In our time, when humanity faces even more precarity than ever, there are millions of Christians who are not only not saying anything, but who are also (like Ken Ham) pretending that global warming is false. They are actively opposing the measures that would save the planet. They are opposed to life. This makes Noah’s silence seem almost righteous, the evangelical preachers negligent.
Westermann has previously pointed out that one of the primary motifs of the flood story is the threat to human existence that it imposes. Decades of climate and geological research have coalesced in consensus that global warming signifies precarity at the biological or species scale. It indexes the fact that we (and our various publics) “have now ourselves become a geological agent disturbing [the] parametric conditions needed for our own existence.” In other words, all humanity is rendered precarious. Humans are now on the endangered species list even though we continue to build and expand as did the ancient humans at the Tower of Babel.
It’s absurd that so many evangelical preachers are climate-deniers and literal flood believers. But what if we are also implicated in that we claim to accept the reality of global warming but live in “soft denial.” We refuse to face reality, not changing our lives as global warming reality demands. As usual, nothing is harder for even Christians to practice than repentance – the changing of our minds and practices.
The hobbyists at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky are pulling a religious P. T. Barnum on the evangelical culture.
Barnum drew huge crowds to see his alleged 161-year-old former slave of George Washington named Joice Heth. When a local journalist attacked the credibility of Barnum’s claim, his business didn’t suffer. The crowds became larger. Barnum claimed that the controversy led to even greater ticket sales. When Joice Heth died in 1836, Barnum arranged another show where Dr. David L. Rogers conducted an autopsy on her body. He concluded that Heth’s “wonderful old age was a wonderful humbug.” She was approximately 80 and not 160.
Rhetorical scholar Jennifer Mercieca writes, “But Barnum had the last word. He planted a story with The Sun’s competitor, The New York Herald on February 27, 1836, which claimed that the Heth humbug story was itself humbug. In fact, reported The Herald on “good authority,” Heth was “not dead” at all, but alive and well in Connecticut.
Mercieca wonders why Americans are so attracted to hyperbole and humbug. She concludes: “We love to be amused and we love excess, and so we reward showmen with our attention. Some have said that we’re “amusing ourselves to death” and that we live in the “society of the spectacle.” A people who enjoy being “humbugged” are easy victims for certain kinds of religious and political demagogues.
The story about the flood is not historically true. Literal interpretations of the flood story have always been religious humbug in spite of their obvious sincerity. The attempts to prove that the flood actually happened are humbug as well. For example, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris provide the most lasting piece of humbuggery with The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter – supposedly a replica of Noah’s Ark – adds the final layer of humbuggery. It is as much like Barnum’s Joice Heth as any known humbuggery in history.
This entire episode is at least three layers of humbug deep.
Progressive Christians are too generous in allowing Ken Ham’s fantasies of the flood to parade through our culture as if they are legitimate parts of Christian history and faith. It’s all humbug.
The biblical account of the flood was written to praise God for being the “almighty” God of creation and the final arbiter of human existence. That is not humbug; that is eternal truth.
For evangelicals to persist in the fake war against science – from opposition to evolution to refusals to have vaccinations – adds additional layers of humbug to the ongoing saga.
We are much better served in helping humanity respond with courage and effort to the precarity of our existence and to demonstrate this in our lives together.