by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
Last Tuesday we observed the eleventh anniversary of an event that so penetrated our national psyche that it is remembered merely by its date: 9/11. A lot has changed since 9/11/2001, hasn’t it? Really, what area of life hasn’t changed?
One way things are different is that we’re a lot more sensitive about the relationship between religion and violence. Violence that we used to pass off as the work of religious fanatics and fringe groups now causes us to stop and wonder if religion itself isn’t playing a role in creating or encouraging it.
The violence in our own scriptures has come under increasing scrutiny as a result. On Friday I spoke with Prof. Terence Fretheim, at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, in preparation for his appearance on Darkwood Brew this evening. Prof. Fretheim is thought by many (including myself) to be one of the greatest living scholars of the Old Testament. He has been around for decades, influencing generations of ministers and scholars. In the course of our conversation, Prof. Fretheim stated that there has been no other time in his entire career that the violence in scripture has raised more questions from his students than now. He attributed the cause of this increased questioning to 9/11.
Really, the violence of The Flood account is enough to provoke serious questions about God’s nature with or without 9/11. How could a loving God destroy nearly every living creature on earth? I mean, the level of violence represented by The Flood makes Osama Bin Laden’s act look like a feather-dusting by comparison. Is the God of the Old Testament just a vindictive tyrant with an anger management issue?
As some of you know, two years before I attended seminary, I determined to read the Old Testament from start to finish. I was so upset by the story of the Flood that I slammed the book shut and didn’t open it again until I was forced to read it my Old Testament 101 class in seminary! Yet, as a result of that class, and the extra context it gave me, I fell in love with the Old Testament. Deeply.
Part of what caused me to fall in love is that I discovered that reading scripture was a bit like overhearing one end of a telephone conversation. Sometimes you think you have the conversation figured out when really you are seriously misinterpreting it without hearing the conversation from the other end of the line. In seminary, I began to read the scriptures in their historical and cultural context, which included study of texts from throughout the ancient Near East. Through this study, I began “hearing” the other end of the conversation. And what I heard changed my view of what the Old Testament authors were trying to tell us.
The biblical story of The Flood is one of those cases where listening to more of the conversation can be enlightening–even inspiring. Let me illustrate by telling you a story:
Long, long ago there lived a man who was given instruction to build an ark and bring aboard the earth’s creatures in order to preserve them from a great flood. The man built the ark. The flood waters came. Everything that lived on dry land perished except those in the ark. After a long while, the ark came to rest on the top of a mountain. The man sent out a bird to see if it could find dry land. It could not, so it returned. The man kept doing this until the bird did not return. In this way, he knew that the floodwaters were abating. When enough land was uncovered, he and his family left the ark and offered one of the animals as a burnt offering of thanksgiving–a sacrifice which was found pleasing and provoked remorse in the heavenly realm for ever creating a flood in the first place.
“Yes, yes,” you say. “The story of Noah and the ark is already familiar.” But this is not just the story of Noah. This is the story of a man named Utnapishtim. Before that, it was the story of Atra-Hasis. Probably before that, it was the story of Ziusudra, though we don’t have enough surviving fragments of Ziusudra’s story to be sure. This basic flood story circulated in the region of ancient Babylonia for at least a thousand years–probably much longer–before the biblical account was written. In different eras, the names of the heroes changed, but the basic story remained essentially the same.
If you’re wondering if this means that the biblical story of the Flood is not original, the answer is definitely “yes.” The biblical story quite obviously borrows from this earlier tradition.
This borrowing is surprising to many people today, but it is not surprising to biblical scholars who first became aware of an earlier version of the flood in 1872, when a scholar named George Smith presented a paper called “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge” which was a portion of an old Babylonian story known as the Gilgamesh Epic.
When people first learn that the biblical flood story was borrowed from an earlier, non-Hebrew tradition, some feel threatened. To some, it suggests that the biblical account is less inspired, or even that the Bible is just a bunch of lies. But the presence of these other stories need not be a threat at all, or take away anything from their value. In fact, in my experience, their value and sacredness nearly always increases.
As we’ve observed many times, the inspiration of the Bible comes not from its scientific or historical accuracy, but from its mythological imagination. The Bible’s purpose is not to describe things as they happened “long ago in a land far away.” Rather, the Bible’s power lies in its ability to describe things that continue happening up to our day and may be experienced “up close and personal.” The way the Bible does this is by telling stories–stories that point beyond themselves to deeper truths involving our relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth.
If you want to find out what the Hebrews were distinctively trying to tell us about God, ourselves, and the earth, through their telling of the Flood story, it can be helpful to pay attention to where their story differs from the others, not simply to where they are the same.
When I told you the story of the Flood a few moments ago, what you were hearing were the parts of the story where the “conversation partners” are in agreement. Now, let me highlight some differences. I’m going to draw from the story of Atra-Hasis primarily, since the three Babylonian stories exist only in fragments and the Atra-Hasis story is the most complete version we have.
According to the Atra-Hasis story, the reason for the flood was that the highest and most powerful gods were lazy. They wanted someone else to do their work for them, especially the job of digging the canals that would become the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. First, they enslaved a lower class of deities known as the Igigi gods to do their work. But the Igigi got tired of doing all the work, burned their picks and shovels, and revolted.
In response, the ruling gods created human beings to be their slaves. This worked well for 1,200 years until the human population grew so large that they were causing too much racket for the gods to sleep! So the gods decided to thin out the population significantly by commissioning a god named Namtar to create a plague. But one god, named Enki, objected to this literally “ill” treatment of human beings, so he advised the humans to stop offering sacrifices to all the gods except Namtar. When Namtar started receiving all these extra sacrifices, he felt guilty and withdrew the plague.
Another 1,200 years passed and once again the gods have the same problem with humanity. This time, they try to wipe them out with a massive drought. Once again, Enki comes to the rescue, advising humanity to cease their sacrifices to all the gods except Adad, the storm god. Adad feels guilty and sends rain.
The whole cycle repeats itself 1,200 years later, and this time humanity survives a massive famine thanks to Enki’s advice. Finally, at wits end, the gods come up with a plan which is meant to be a “final” solution. On a specified date, they will suddenly send a massive flood to cover the earth.
Wise to Enki’s subversions, the gods require an oath of secrecy from all gods, which Enki must take along with the rest. Yet Enki figures out a way to subvert the gods’ purpose nonetheless. He may not be able to tell any human being about the gods’ plan, but he can tell an inanimate object.
Thus, he stands outside the hut of Atra-Hasis while Atra-Hasis is sitting inside his hut and loudly warns the hut of the plan! Says Enki:
Wall, listen constantly to me!
Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!
Dismantle the house, build a boat, . . .
Roof it like the Apsu [Enki’s temple, the House of the Cosmic Waters]
So the sun cannot see inside it!
Make upper decks and lower decks,
The tackle must be very strong,
The bitumen [a kind of tar] strong . . .
[Dalley, Stephanie, ed. and trans. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP, 1991, pp. 29-30]
In response, Atra-Hasis builds a massive ark, loads his family inside, along with animals and provisions, and the rest of the story takes place much like what we read about in the Bible, including the sending out of birds–only instead of sending out a dove three times as Noah is said to have done, Atra-Hasis sends out three different species–a dove, a swallow, and a raven. Another interesting difference is that the waters of the flood come down so violently that even the gods themselves are said to be terrified in the Atra-Hasis story.
Once all of humanity but Atra-Hasis and his family are dead, the gods become sorry for having caused the flood to begin with, just like Yahweh is said to have regretted the decision. But the reason for the regret is another point of difference between the stories. I’ll get to Yahweh’s reason in a moment. In the Atra-Hasis story, the gods feel bad because there’s no one to feed them with sacrifices! So when Atra-Hasis offers his sacrifice to the gods and they become aware that a human being has survived, they rush over and, according to the story, flock to the sacrifice “like flies.”
Having become aware of Enki’s subversion, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon wants to punish Enki, but the rest of the gods are so overjoyed to be eating again that they convince the chief god to get over himself. As an alternative to destroying humanity, they propose another way to limit the population: birth control! Only their form of birth control was to create barrenness in a certain percentage of women and cause a certain amount of stillbirths.
With this story as a backdrop, certain features of the Hebrew story become more pronounced. As we just heard, the reason for the flood in the Atra-Hasis story is that the human population grew too large and noisy. They were a considered a nuisance that needed to be eliminated. The only reason why humanity survives is because one god subverted the intention of all the rest.
The Genesis story is much different. According to Genesis, it is really not God who destroys humanity, but humanity itself. We are killing each other right and left. According to Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” The flood is understood to be Yahweh’s effort to save humanity, not destroy it. Yahweh is acting to save us from ourselves! Preserving Noah and his family alive is not against the intention of the divine, but very much God’s intention because Noah is seen as the only one who hadn’t corrupted himself.
At the end of the story, Yahweh is sad about creating the flood, but not because there’s no one to make sacrifices and feed him. Rather, the reason Yahweh is sad is because Yahweh clearly sees that even after preserving the most righteous human in all the earth, humanity is still going to fail and fall over and over again. In other words, the flood didn’t solve our basic issue. Rather than choosing to wipe out humanity altogether in response, or do like the Babylonian gods did by causing barrenness and still-births, Yahweh repeats the blessing from Genesis 1, telling Noah and his family to “be fruitful and multiply.” Yahweh decides that even with our sin, we are worth loving and preserving. So instead of wiping us out or limiting our population, Yahweh encourages humans to fill the earth and sets the rainbow in the sky as a sign of Yahweh’s covenant with humanity never again to bring the floodwaters upon the earth.
So now, what accounts for all these similarities and differences between the Hebrew story and the Babylonian one?
The way I read the situation is that the Hebrews accepted the Babylonian belief that there was a great flood in ancient times that covered the earth, but that they did not accept the Babylonian explanation for it. Like the Babylonians, they could find shells in places far from water, and the Babylonian account was so old, and so continually repeated, that the Hebrews likely accepted the flood as “fact.” But what they could not accept as fact was how the Divine is depicted. In their lived experience, they knew Yahweh to be a God of great love and compassion, who loves humanity dearly.
Ironically, when we read the Genesis story of the flood today, we ask, “How could a loving God decide to wipe out all of humanity except one family?” The Hebrew people asked the same question! And they decided that a loving God would never create a flood in order to destroy humanity. The only explanation for the flood that corresponded with their lived experience of God was that God must have been trying to save humanity!
We had corrupted ourselves. We were killing ourselves. God brought on the flood in order to try to start over again without all the violence, corruption and destruction. When God did that and discovered that we’ll still continue in our violence and corruption, God decided we were too precious in God’s sight to destroy. In the Hebrew conception that’s why God decided to make laws for the first time in human history. If we couldn’t get along without rules, God would give us rules to live by so that we wouldn’t destroy ourselves.
Again, there’s irony in all this. To hear some people talk about the Bible today, you’d think that the only reason there are laws in the Bible was because God wanted to show us who’s boss and make us feel guilty. But in the Hebrew conception, creating rules was never part of God’s original intent. The only reason they exist at all is to help us get along and keep us from destroying ourselves.
So now that we’ve covered the stories of Creation, of Cain and Abel, and of the Flood, are you starting to detect a pattern? Three times we find humanity failing and falling, and three times we find God acting not to punish us, but to set us flying again. Three times we find that humanity is marked by Original Blessing and Original Sin, but is defined by Original Grace.
It is as if our ancient ancestors knew of a message that would be vitally important to us in our day and knew that we would likely be so slow to understand it, or skeptical of it, that the message would need to be repeated over and over again.
That message is this: You can trust God. God is not One who uses violence to solve problems, but uses love. This means that you can trust God to love you when you succeed, and when you fail; when you do what God asks of you and when you turn your back on God. When you do turn your back, you will suffer, but your suffering will be self-inflicted. So when you find yourself in a bad place, you can know absolutely that you can place yourself entirely into God’s hands, surrender entirely to God’s will, allowing God to do whatever God wants with you and know that whatever happens as a result will be for your benefit and blessing, not for your harm.
You’d think that after all this time we’d start to heed the message.