Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Story of Noah as Polemic

I'm speaking at our church, Village Baptist, this weekend.  They always roll out the red carpet as you can see on the left when they call me a "special guest speaker" instead of "some guy who goes to our church."

I love the story of Noah, it's a really weird and disturbing story that has been turned into a children's story, so I'm looking forward to speaking about it this weekend, although I've been wrestling with it a bit as I try to find the right things to focus on for the sermon.

One of the more fascinating things about the story of the flood is comparing it to the myths and legends about the universal flood in other cultures and traditions.  My pastor, John Johnson, has been talking about how Genesis, or at least parts of it, was written as a polemic against these other stories... a sort of way of saying, "You think this is how the world began, or this is who God is, but here's the REAL story."  Which is particularly interesting as you look at the story of Noah.  Now, this is not at all the point of what I'm sharing this weekend, so all of this is really just interesting window dressing I've been mulling over the last couple of weeks, but I thought some of you BHR minions might find it interesting.

Longtime readers of the blog will already know how much I enjoy the story of Gilgamesh, which has a full telling of a flood story in tablet XI. There are lots of fascinating parallels (like the use of birds to investigate the flood levels afterwards, the multiple levels in the vessels they use... although Utnapishtim's is actually his own house, not a boat).

If you're looking at the story of the ark as a polemic against a story that the Hebrews no doubt knew from their time in Egypt, here are a couple of the points that I think are interesting (of course these go directly to the difference between the understanding of God/the gods between Gilgamesh and Genesis):

1) The reason for the flood being sent to destroy all mankind.  In Genesis, God destroys humanity because they are continually wicked in their actions and thoughts.  They are filling the world with violence.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods are concerned about human population, and specifically are annoyed by all the annoying sound that human beings make all the time. 

2)  The response of God/the gods to the flood. The Mesopotamian gods experience terror, fleeing to the highest heavens to get away from the flood.  There is a weeping speech about the evil that has been done in destroying all mankind.   God in Genesis is not afraid of the flood; he does promise never to destroy humanity on this scale again, so that could be used as an argument that he regrets the flood in some way (though that's never stated, while his regret at creating mankind is expressed using very strong language earlier in the story).

3) Response of God/the gods to the sacrifices after the flood. Utnapishtim makes a sacrifice to the gods after the flood and they come flocking around it "like flies". There is an inference that there is a sort of sustenance the gods get from the sacrifices of humanity.  In contrast, Noah's God is pleased by the "aroma" of Noah's sacrifice, and, well, that's pretty much it.

4) The rainbow.  Ishtar throws her necklace into the sky as a reminder of what happened (but no promise it won't happen again).  Noah's God puts his "bow" (the word in Hebrew is actually for a bow like a bow and arrow) into the sky as a reminder to himself that he has made a promise not to destroy humanity in this way again.

5) What happens next to Noah/Utnapishtim. I find this one really fascinating, although it's more about humanity than deity... Utnapishtim and his wife are given immortality and sent to live far away and to guard human wisdom. Noah gets drunk, takes off all his clothes and gets made fun of by one of his sons.

These are just a few contrasting things, of course, that best show this polemical theme in the story of Noah... I'm sure you could write your doctoral thesis on comparing these two stories (if it hasn't already been done many, many times).  But it's interesting to me, anyway.  The Hebrew story says that God doesn't destroy on a whim, but in reaction to evil and violence on the earth. He is not afraid of the flood, or of anything, really (he is, in this respect and others, less "human" than the Mesopotamian gods).  The Hebrew God desires human worship but is not dependent on it.  The Hebrew God makes a promise that this will never happen again and lays aside his weapon.

Regarding our heroes, Utnapishtim is welcomed into the family of the gods, essentially, while the Biblical story goes out of its way to show us that Noah was, in fact, merely a man and that far from achieving deity, he hasn't even reached the heights of humanity lost in the Garden of Eden... he still has to work the land, there is still shame about nakedness, there is family discord. 

So, there you have it.  A bunch of stuff I won't talk about this weekend at Village.  Come hang out with us this weekend if you're in Portland.


  1. When he was three, our eldest son drew a picture of Noah after disembARKing from the boat. Noah was frowning. We asked why. Wasn't he happy to get off the Ark? Three-year-old Sylvan said, "He's sad because of all the rotting stinks."

  2. Do you think Sylvan would mind if I shared that story in my sermon?