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Noah and the Flood

The movie Noah is making money. The film critic Diana Saenger quoted the film makers saying, "If you liked Titanic or Gladiator you'll like Noah," to which Saenger responded: "I knew we were in for a mystifying rendition of the Biblical Noah as found in the Bible."

Glenn Beck, the media personality, complains that "none of the characters had an authentic, loving relationship with God. He says Noah never prays, unless he is thinking of killing his family," and Beck complains that there are strange storylines that don't fit the Bible. "If you are looking for a biblical movie," he says "this is definitely not it."

Meanwhile, fundamentalists and other Christians are still split on how to interpret the Holy Scripture from which the story of Noah is believed to have arisen. It's a split in Biblical interpretation that goes back to the Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria, who lived roughly between the years 150 and 215. He championed allegorical interpretations of scripture, making the stories from centuries before his time more palatable. He also interpreted the passage in the New Testament that it's "easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God." He decided that this meant we shouldn't be overly concerned with wealth. He was himself a rich man who wanted acceptance by his fellow Christians, and he argued that donations to the Church from wealthy individuals was important.

After Clement, some Christians thought that fossil sea shells found in the higher elevations were evidence of Noah's Flood. Saint Augustine (354 – 430) also thought so. And a contemporary, Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, saw the jagged breaks in earth and twisted crust of earth as evidence of the flood and God's wrath. Martin Luther accepted the story as the literal truth.

Where did the water come from that made all the rain that was supposed to cover the entire earth? Most people ages ago not only didn't understand the earth as a sphere, they didn't understand rain as a cycle of moisture rising and falling within the earth's atmosphere. They believed the Biblical story that waters that were to cover the whole earth had been held back by magic, defying gravity, and then released as The Flood. And where did all that water go that covered the earth to the highest of mountains? A mystery.

There had to be a smart ass who didn't accept the conventional wisdom of others. He was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The geologist David R. Montgomery writes in his book The Rocks Don't Lie that Leonardo concluded that "no flood could have carried ancient seashells into the mountains for the simple reason that fossils and other objects heavier than water sank to the bottom of a current." Leonardo left his opinion in a notebook that wasn't published.

After Leonardo and into the 1800s, naturalists were working on their understanding of the world. Men of science doing their field work and study came up with the picture of a world much older than 10,000 years. They saw evidence of a formation of layers of different rock types and they saw clashing tectonic plates in a time frame of millions of years. Modern analysis could not accept the story of the earth shaped by water rising over the entire earth. To shape earth, water needs a slope to bring its weight to bear on all before it – something rising water doesn't provide.

And modern analysis doesn't buy the story of Noah saving the earth's creatures by inviting them onto his ark. Montgomery writes that "Today geologists know that more than 99 percent of all animal species that have ever lived are extinct. You don't have to know any geology to know that trilobites, dinosaurs, and saber-tooth tigers no long live among us."

Montgomery writes of George Smith, a scholar in England in the mid-1800s, studying baked clay fragments excavated from a Sumerian library. The fragments tell the story of a righteous man building a great boat and riding out days and nights of rain that eventually left him stranded on a mountain when the floodwaters receded. This was the story of Gilgamesh. Sumerian stories were adopted by tribes that had migrated into Mesopotamia, at Babylon, preserving them long after the Sumerians disappeared as a people around 2500 BCE. The story of Noah and the flood, writes Montgomery, appears to have been "a recycled Babylonian story".

Montgomery's book The Rocks Don't Lie is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. His book as of today has 81 customer reviews at Amazon.com. Writes one:

I am a geologist, so I was already aware of a lot of this material – but by no means all of it. The science is presented in very clear language and is accurate. The history is also presented clearly. Not being an historian, I really appreciate the extensive bibliography!

Three of the 81 give Montgomery's work only one star. One of the three complains:

The author starts out by refusing to accept the possibility that the Bible could be a genuine record of history. He refuses to put the Bible on the same level as other written sources from the ancient world. Therefore the author is not willing to approach his topic in an unbiased manner... The author was not looking for Noah's Flood. He titled his book under false pretenses, and so his book is useless.

This is what some people call a "cop out." It's the foremost fault in discourse. It's common to address none of the specifics presented by the other side in the discussion. The complainer fails to refute any of Montgomery's points. Instead, he complains that Montgomery is biased, which is an absurd complaint: Of course, Montgomery is biased! Does the complainer want Montgomery to embrace the bane of conservative believers, relativism?

As for the message in the movie Noah, it was described by the conservative columnist Michael Gerson as non-existent, adding: "The movie's guiding philosophy — civilization bad, nature good." In other words, Noah as Gerson sees it is just fantasy entertainment. That's what storytellers were doing from as far back as the hunter-gatherers. They told stories that entertained, stories passed from generation to generation, each storyteller allowing himself some creative or artistic license. And stories that included a threat or challenge of some sort produced more excitement than one without danger.

Someone responded to Gerson's article on Noah with other than an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament story. It's repeated here as a reminder that a tradition many generations old is still with us. He or she complains about God described as misanthropic and writes: "As mankind's creator, he [Jehovah] can judge us, and even drown us, but those would be acts of justice."

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Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.