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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Noah Matters

On March 28th, movie (and I suppose Bible) fans across the world will get their first glimpse at Darren Aronofsky's Noah, starring Russel Crow, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson.  According to the film's website, Noah is the "epic story of courage, sacrifice and hope" and this film "brings to light an untold story" (I'm assuming the cast has uncovered new ancient documents about the Noah flood because I was under the impression that this story was quite familiar to almost everyone) of the Noah that nobody has seen before (you gotta love that Russell Crowe guy. Noah was in desperate need of a makeover!).

To be honest, I am actually pretty excited to see this movie, even if it ends up being historically and/or theologically bogus.  The story of Noah has always been one of my favorites of the Old Testament.  Besides, the preview looks pretty good.  See for yourself:

 

The story of Noah, as found in the Book of Genesis, is arguably the most controversial tale of the entire Bible. The notion that a global flood, just a few thousand years ago, killed every living thing with the exception of the animals and people Noah brought with him on his magical Ark, has spawned debate for centuries. Scientists, historians, geologists, physicists, etc. have (at least in my book) closed the case when it comes to Noah being a literal and absolutely factual history.  It is not.

Despite this fact (and yes, it is a FACT), the story of Noah is not without merit, and that merit goes far beyond a simple bedtime tale or a cool Hollywood movie. The Noah story matters. It has deep theological and moral value that should be recognized, regardless of whether you esteem it as infallible history or a cool ancient myth.

To understand why the Noah story matters, we must first take a brief look (and I do emphasize brief) at how this story came to be.  Most people with even a relatively limited understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) recognize that the Noah story has its origins in even older tales outside of the Hebrew tradition. Whether it be the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim or the Hindu tale of Manu and Matsya, deluge myths are common motifs of the ancient world.  The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but as Yale University Professor of Religion Christine Hayes points out:
The ancients placed creation within the primordial soup of water. In the Babylonian creation myth, it is the blood of the slain Tiamat that sprays forth from the firmament as rain and from the earth as lakes and oceans. Water is the breeding ground for the gods who use this soup to give life to the earth, the plants, the animals and finally to mankind himself. But water is also what takes life away, allowing the gods to start anew their creative process. 
Keeping this idea of water as the primordial soup of creation and destruction, we can better understand the significance of certain verses of scripture found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:
2.) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit (translated as "wind") of God moved upon the face of the waters.
6.) And God said, Let the there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let ut divide the waters from the waters (a verse obviously influenced from the Babylonian epic of Marduk and Tiamat).
7.) And God made the firmament, and divided the waters (much as Marduk spliced open Tiamat) which were under the firmament from the waters which wee above the firmament: and it was so.
8.) And God called the firmament Heaven.
9.) And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10.) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good (just as Marduk called one half of Tiamat the heavens and the other half the earth).
It is through the vehicle of water that the Hebrew God (not to mention the Babylonian and even earlier Sumerian God) is able to bring about creation.  Ironically enough, evolutionists would agree (in a roundabout way) with this claim, since they too maintain that much of life came from the primordial soup that is earth's oceans.

As for the Noah story, the flood becomes more than just a destructive force.  It is the life-giving "soup" that brings about a new beginning.  As a result, the Noah flood saga is less about a vindictive god bent on destroying man and more about a loving creator trying to breathe new life into a corrupt and dying world. The Noah story is a shared motif that early Hebrews borrowed from their neighbors and not a unique creation they came up with on their own. As historians Victor Matthews and James Moyer point out in their book, The Old Testament: Text and Context:
The Israelites shared much of the worldview of ancient Mesopitamia. As a result, a great deal of the material contained in the primeval epics in Genesis is borrowed and adapted from the ancient cultures of that region. This is what makes the study of nonbiblical epics so valuable. By making comparisons and by seeing the general religious and literary environment of the ancient Near East, it is possible to understand more fully how the Israelites perceived their world and their place in it.
Regardless of its origins, Noah presents to both the ancient and modern reader a lesson on how important and precious life really is. The primordial waters that give life can also take it away, but from terrible destruction and devastation comes new life. As Utnapishtim (Noah) teaches the great hero Gilgamesh (ancient Sumeria's version of George Washington):
"Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
From Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh learns the important lesson that life should be cherished because it is not going to last forever.  For the Biblical Noah, mankind's ultimate zoologist, sailor and colonizer, the importance of cherishing life...all forms of life...is a lesson he knew all too well.  Caring for plants, animals and humans became the central purpose of Noah's existence, and is the principal lesson he teaches us today. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, responsible for how we treat not only our fellow humans, but how we treat the earth and its abundant plant and animal life. Yes, we need to devour plant and animal life in order to sustain our own, but this is an intimate relationship that binds all life as opposed to dividing it.  Noah honors his sacrifice of a "clean beast" and a "clean fowl" upon his altar, and God accepts it with a "sweet savor" (Gen. 8:20-21). God honors the sacrifice of all His creations. After all, His covenant isn't just made with man.  As we learn from Genesis chapter 9, verses 5, 12 and 13:
5.) And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of EVERY BEAST WILL I REQUIRE IT, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
12.) And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you AND EVERY LIVING CREATURE that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13.) I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me AND THE EARTH. 
In short, God's love for His creations includes far more than just us. It is human arrogance that we think God cares only for the Homo Sapiens.  Just as God saved the male and female Adam and Eve from the mistakes made in the Garden of Eden, so did God save the male and female versions of all animal life from the corruption of a degraded world.  The ark was meant for the lion, tiger, bear and rabbit every bit as much as it was meant for man.  

Noah's legacy is far more than just a tale of a great shipbuilder or divinely inspired zookeeper. It is a lesson on how to appreciate life on all levels. Tragedies of all kinds (floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, etc.) will always abound.  Such is the state of our existence in mortality. Whether you believe that God caused/causes these tragedies is irrelevant. Death and destruction is here to stay. Our job is simply to enjoy the ride on our own arks of life, regardless of whether the waves take us out or not. We, like the animals or Noah himself, enter our arks, side-by-side with those who are embarking with us on the journey of life.  As Morgan Freeman put it in the film Evan Almighty:


For me, the story of Noah is not one in which death and destruction come from an evil and sadistic god who could care less about giving humanity a second chance.  Instead, it is the story of how God helps man deal with the inevitable tragedies of mortality. From death and destruction comes new life and happiness. Our job is to recognize the rainbow in the tempest by changing our attitude. In so doing, perhaps we too will be able to sing with Gilgamesh the song of joy in the face of tragedy:
"The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow. But from death comes new life, but its days are numbered, whatever he might do, it is but a wind."

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