Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Arkeology

With the movie Noah set to open this week, Dennis Prager is writing about the Biblical version.  You can decide if you agree with his take that this is one of the most moral stories ever told.

But what caught my eye was this:

Q: Isn’t the biblical flood story just a fairy tale?

A: Two responses:

First, this is so only if you believe that the biblical flood story states that the entire earth from the North Pole to the South Pole was flooded and that every living creature from penguins to polar bears, except for the animals and the people on Noah’s ark, was killed. But that is not what the story says. The narrative speaks of the world where Noah lived: It is expressly stated in Genesis 9:10 that there were other animals in the world that were not killed by the flood.

Wow!  That's a blockbuster.  So what millions or more likely billions of people believe and have believed for centuries is not true.

If you're wondering, this is Genesis 9:10...

And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.

Now Dennis may believe he's got the proper understanding and, for that matter, translation of the Bible on his side, but I wonder how many scholars agree.  I mean, I thought Genesis was pretty clear on the issue.  For instance, from Chapter 7:

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

It's not much of a story if everything doesn't die.  Why bother to invite all those dirty animals onto his ark if they as a species were going to survive anyway?  Why go to all the trouble of making Noah build an ark when you can just tell him to take a hike until he's outside the flood zone? And how wide is the flood, anyway?  Just a local thing that bothered the evil people in Noah's village?  Enough to kill all the humans on Earth?  Is it a bunch of separate floods that cover just where humans live, or one big flood that happens to fit around every place where people are?  And don't forget, Noah was on that boat a long time--couldn't he have found dry ground faster if the flood were local?

I don't know--seems to me unless it's about the entire planet, it seriously takes away from the majesty of the narrative.

Also note Prager seems to claim you can take the story literally if you believe it's not a worldwide flood.  So we can believe that several thousand years ago a 600-year-old man, on direct orders from above, builds a huge ship, gets a gigantic menagerie aboard, it rains so much for a long time that a large area is flooded and every other human dies (I get the impression Prager believes all other humans died in the flood, though I'm not 100% sure), and then some time later he gets to dry ground and every person alive today is descended from the people on that ship.

Okay.  As long as we're clear.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is making me doubt the existence of Yggdrasil now

3:55 AM, March 26, 2014  
Anonymous Bruce said...

I agree with Prager that this is a moral story. It is about someone in power being disappointed and overreacting. God promised never to do it again. For those of us with kids, that is an important lesson. : )

At a broader level, this is one in a series of stories that reflect God's attempts to establish some sort of relationship with people, and people disappointing him. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and his family and the Children of Israel. Eventually, God becomes less immanent, more of a guide and a voice or source of goodness and holiness, and allows people in many ways to shape their own lives. Again, for those of us with children, this is an important theme.

I don't get Prager's translation point. Even at a simple level, I don't see what in Gen 9:10 suggests that there were other animals in the world not killed. One needs to read it with Gen 9:9 (the beginning of the sentence).

"9 And I, behold I am setting up My covenant with you and with your seed after you.
ט. וַאֲנִי הִנְנִי מֵקִים אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם וְאֶת זַרְעֲכֶם אַחֲרֵיכֶם:

10. And with every living creature that is with you, among the fowl, among the cattle, and among all the beasts of the earth with you, of all those who came out of the ark, of all the living creatures of the earth.

. וְאֵת כָּל נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר אִתְּכֶם בָּעוֹף בַּבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ אִתְּכֶם מִכֹּל יֹצְאֵי הַתֵּבָה לְכֹל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ:

The "pshat" (or simple translation) seems to be that God is making his covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all living creatures. No problem.

It does NOT say "of all those who came out of the ark AND all the living creatures of the earth." which might suggest these are two cagetories. Instead it say "of all the living creatures of the earth." or "to all the living creatures of the earth." The Hebrew is "לְכֹל" and the first letter lamed is a prefix meaning "to" or "of." "To all" or "of all"

Rashi's commentary on this (here: http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8173#showrashi=true) is

the living creatures of the earth: to include the demons, which are not included in“every living creature that is with you,” for they do not walk with human beings.

Rashi does not suggest that this means that there were other regular creatures on the earth, but only that demons were not on the ark.

* * *

On a more general level, Dennis Prager is an interesting guy. He is at his best when he is interviewing someone how is involved in something that Prager knows nothing about. He asks good questions and listens well and does not use it as a vehicle to explain his own views.

When he is sharing his own views, he always (almost always?) raises great questions. His conclusions are sometimes really clever and insightful, and sometimes really absurd.

But fisking the absurdities in Prager's writings is both a full time job and a fools errand.



10:19 AM, March 26, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Dennis Prager sees the Flood as an overreaction. Prager seems to say good, those unnamed masses deserved it. If that's his attitude, that I have to go with Bill Maher, who says drowning a lot of babies is not a moral act.

If we assume this story was created by humans--and we know there are many flood stories int he ancient world, though the Hebrews seemed to have put a distinctive moral gloss on their version--the story is meant as both a warning and a promise. Still, I'm glad we've progressed from the days mentioned in the Bible when widespread massacre was considered a good thing.

11:01 AM, March 26, 2014  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Bruce's analysis of Dennis Prager is spot-on.

Prager has certain memes that he revisits all the time. One of them is "morality requires God", which he sometimes expands to "morality requires a system of rewards and punishment, and only a belief in God can provide unfailing rewards and punishments for the good and the evil."

His Noah column is an excellent example, as is this one which praises Pope Francis for telling mafia members that their path leads to hell.

But, besides disagreeing with him that morality must be rooted in a belief in God, I sometimes wonder if he is basically using a Kantian argument of "God must exist, lest morality have no basis."

3:09 PM, March 26, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have two arguments here. One is the desperate attempt to make the Bible literally true by grasping at straws. We know there can't be a worldwide flood 5000 years ago from our understanding of history, so some have developed an interpretation of a line in Genesis that grasps at straws.

At the other end, we have Prager's bootstrap argument that comes out whenever he discusses the roots of morality. It pains him to think that anything goes, and he can't imagine morality without an ultimate, divine arbiter. So that and everything that follows--and that's a lot--must be true to make Prager's conscience feel better.

4:11 PM, March 26, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Is it just history that rules out the flood? I wonder if conservation of matter might be more apt?

Unless it was a discrete, mobile flood, or there was a great big balloon pushing all the water out of its briny blue deep . . . maybe THAT's the risk of global climate change. All that fracking and liquefied carbon dioxide pumped into deep wells belches into the Marinas Trench, but due to all the accumulated plastic debris, it can't escape, pushing all the water into the only population centers that count: DC, LA and Seattle. Oh, and parts of Manhattan.

Hmm. Get me the script department stat! And whatever you do, don't tell Al Gore, the EPA or Quentin Tarantino.

1:58 PM, March 27, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read anything scholarly about this Noah story, but here's one question I've always wondered about. Did all the fish die? What about sea mammals? What about the simpler aquatic life forms like sea cucumbers? Did Noah make aquariums onboard to keep all the sea life? Or did sea life thrive in the flooded world? Guess I'll have to see the movie to find out. Some of the details were left out of my bible. Or maybe, just maybe, the stories in the bible weren't meant to be taken literally.

7:11 AM, March 28, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or maybe the stories in the Bible were meant to be taken literally until we learned a lot more and realized they couldn't be true.

9:51 AM, March 28, 2014  

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