“And never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Gen. 9:11, ESV.
As much as I’ve always been fascinated by the huge, mythic stories in the first 11 chapters, or Prologue, of Genesis, the flood story has never been one that grabbed me. I’ve always liked myth–stories that bind together the universal and particular and have a singular power to situate our consciousness in the world—and understand that these stories are supposed to help place us, or aspects of our world or experience, on the worldview map, and help us to orient ourselves to a civilizational compass. However, this one never meant very much to me. Since I started studying theology, philosophy, and biblical studies in my undergraduate studies, I’ve been drifting around, wondering about whether the Flood story would ever do anything for me other than fill me with mild horror.
Recently, a few things have happened to make this story suddenly and startlingly relevant.
It is uncontroversial to note that the collective cultural anxiety in the United States right now is quite high. (And I am by no means immune to this anxiety. My alarm bells—everyone’s alarm bells—are going off right now, albeit for different reasons and different perceived threats.) The 2016 presidential election has successfully upped the anxiety levels in the US to a degree that matches or surpasses 9/11. What puts salt in the wounds (for me, at least) for our current societal predicament is that it seems to be a set of mostly, if not entirely, self-inflicted cultural wounds.
In any case, I want to frame this story by saying that when anxiety levels are high enough, you begin to consider things as possible or plausible that you are usually armored against psychologically (for better or for worse). I think the average person or the bulk of society has a certain resistance to apocalyptic doom-saying under normal circumstances. Perhaps we dismiss as impossible things what is merely (and momentarily) improbable…because we haven’t the motivation to consider gloomy subjects.
To restate the obvious, I do not think that people seriously consider the demise of their civilization very much when all is going well. One might muse about it and even write a story about it. But you don’t seriously consider what might happen if democracy fails in the West until it really looks like democracy might fail in the West. Whether we like it or not, every civilization seems to have a lifespan and is doomed to die at some point or another.
Likewise, one might not think about the possibility of a civilization-destroying worldwide flood until, perhaps, you get a mobile alert on your phone one afternoon telling you about a series of articles that The New York Times is running about the impending, probably catastrophic collapse of ice sheets in Antartica. (Apparently, they have also done a series of 4 “virtual reality films” as well.) These articles detail how the greatest amount of fresh water in the world is stored in ice in Antartica, and how, worst case scenario, ocean levels may rise 160 feet, and we lose coastal cities. An NYT article, for instance, that says the following.
If that ice sheet were to disintegrate, it could raise the level of the sea by more than 160 feet — a potential apocalypse, depending on exactly how fast it happened. . . . Improbable as such a large rise might sound, something similar may have already happened, and recently enough that it is still lodged in collective memory.
In the 19th century, ethnographers realized that virtually every old civilization had some kind of flood myth in its literature.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, waters so overwhelm the mortals that the gods grow frightened, too. In India’s version, Lord Vishnu warns a man to take refuge in a boat, carrying seeds. In the Bible, God orders Noah to carry two of every living creature on his ark.
“I don’t think the biblical deluge is just a fairy tale,” said Terence J. Hughes, a retired University of Maine glaciologist living in South Dakota. “I think some kind of major flood happened all over the world, and it left an indelible imprint on the collective memory of mankind that got preserved in these stories.”
Wait a minute…what…a glaciologist is saying that the deluge isn’t a fairy tale? What century is this? What world am I living in? But this is where the flood story actually clicked for me, and it clicked for me because, for the first time, I am actually afraid.
Why does a religious culture tell a story–and keep telling a story–about a worldwide flood that destroys absolutely everything, and that ends in a promise of God saying he won’t do it again unless that is exactly what you are afraid of, it happening again? Ten years ago, or maybe even five years ago, if you had said to me or to anyone else, “God promises that he won’t destroy the world as we know it in a flood,” I might respond to you with raised eyebrows and say, “That’s nice. I don’t care. I never thought the world was going to be destroyed in a flood anyway. Nuclear conflagration, sure. But I’d sooner believe that the aliens from The War of the Worlds would do us in than a global flood.”
But now…the scientists are the ones who are afraid of a global flood. Ironically, I wonder if anyone in modern times has ever learned to be afraid of global flooding from reading this story in Genesis. No, we have so erased this from our cultural memory that what remains is a crass de-evolution of the Genesis story from apocalypse into a cute story about animals living peacefully together on a boat. We can hardly even read this story as a story about divine judgment or human evil or cultural catastrophe because we it just doesn’t scare us. Global floods don’t happen…so we don’t even need God’s promise that he will never do it again.
But global floods, if you are into geological history, really do happen. They happen after every major recession of ice in an ice age. The world freezes up, gets colder, and the sea levels drop. It gets warmer, sea levels rise. The last time this would have happened would have been around 10,000 years ago, when the glaciers started receding. If you consider the timing, as that glaciologist (and others, I am sure) in the NYT article clearly did, that is just about the same time as the earliest civilizations start gelling together, and about when agriculture develops.
So, let’s have a thought together. And our thought is simply this: maybe the Bible is right. Maybe it tells us a damningly accurate story of what really happened in pre-historic human consciousness. We’ll start with Genesis 1 in the re-telling of this tale:
In the beginning, you find people together. Nothing like people living in cities, more like hunter-gatherer societies. People live off the land and it is more or less enough. Something terrible happens, humanity collectively discovers murder and probably warfare, and life becomes hard (Gen. 3). Instead of people living in harmony with the created order, something goes wrong between human beings and creation. Instead of human beings just going along with things they start to pursue having the life of the gods for themselves. They are not content with just having access to the goodness around them, they start to desire to be in control of it, to know good and evil, to be like God. Fast forward through this new and corrosive attitude some years and things get pretty dark (Gen 4, 6:1-8). This desire to have the life of the gods for themselves or at least to “win” the favor of God no matter what the cost ends in murder, and eventually, sexual license and oppression. Then something else traumatic happens: the “world” is destroyed, the climate, lifestyle, and the land itself is changed dramatically by the retreat of the glaciers. We go from a world where people can walk from Siberia to Canada, to one where they don’t even try to get there in a boat (apparently). (Gen. 6:6-7)
But, just as much as we get a story about the world “going downhill” since God’s act of creation, you also get the story of God’s continued presence in the world. Just as much as the stories of Cain’s genealogy seem to culminate in the disaster of the flood, the story of Seth’s genealogy culminates in God’s continual presence in the world, guiding and preserving Noah and his family because Noah listens to God and obeys. Terrible things still happen and not everyone makes it—this story definitely isn’t optimistic–but it is possible to successfully navigate even disaster and catastrophe of cosmic proportions with God’s help. So, in a world where human choices seem to be leading toward disaster on a global scale, it is still possible to navigate well, with God’s help.
But let’s talk about what happens after the flood. We will continue to flesh out our reading of the Genesis prologue.
Now, post-deluge, people are anxious. Their way of life has been upended and destroyed by, of all things, water. It doesn’t seem so odd, then, that the Ancient Near Eastern civilizations think of the sea as being the ultimate expression of chaos. It isn’t just that water is formless and unpredictable… water literally just destroyed life as they knew it, and this was burned on their souls.
So what do you do about it? How do you deal with the anxiety? How do you deal with the threat of nature on every side, the unpredictability of life, the way that everything changed…over perhaps just a few generations?
Well…it seems like the bible tells two tales about how people respond to a world in catastrophe. There’s the obvious, dramatic tale of what seems to be the bulk of humanity’s response to destruction of the flood: let’s band together on the premise of conquering heaven and earth! The Tower of Babel is a story about hegemonic unity: the people get together to try to invade the heavens. Out of their fearfulness and desire to control, they desire to band together against the threat of nature to take the power of God for themselves.
Instead, though, God acts, and that unity is broken up. Or, we can read it another way: no matter how hard humanity worked to control what they saw as chaos, the changeability of nature, all that resulted was chaos, dissolution, unmaking. Babel is the first city mentioned in Scripture, and it doesn’t get good reviews. (It is certainly no accident that the city is Babel—Babylon—the great spiritual enemy of Israel.) But Babel/Babylon doesn’t hold. This civilization falls apart, because its life, its way of being, just can’t be sustained. (Gen. 11:1-9.)
However, the Prologue of Genesis doesn’t end here. Rather, it concludes with a genealogy that ties together the events of creation in the Garden of Eden (this perfect and plentiful place) to the fears and schemes of human civilizations that only seem capable of self-destruction, through to a list of Noah’s descendants. Noah, the one who learned how to listen to God. Finally, at the end of a list of Noah’s descendants we are introduced to Abram, a man likewise called to conversation with God. This genealogy is the sneaky-story, the quiet story. A list of descendants may not seem like much, but this represents the line of people who are still open to God’s help to navigate the world. These are the people who may not know a lot, and may not have it all together, but when God calls, these folks listen. They have some sort of sensitivity to life with God. And when they listen to God, they help the rest of us hear God’s voice too. These genealogies in the first few chapters of Genesis are always important. They depict for us the two ways of life struggling together.
Like Noah, I find myself in a time where it seems like lots of things are falling apart, or at least, barely holding together. Despite the rampant increases in knowledge and technology in the 20th and 21st century, despite the fact that we know more and can do more than ever we could before, we don’t seem any closer to solving the problems of the human spirit. And no matter how much we seem to grasp for power or significance or knowledge, it seems that we still moral disaster confronting us from the corners of the world, in our political backyard, or in our own homes. For as much power as we grasp, there is a potential for that power to be self-destructive and violent. Right now, however, it seems like the activity of human beings is threatening our civilization again on a cosmic level. Incredibly, we seem to be threatening ourselves once again with judgment, of all things, by water.
What then does it mean that God will never again destroy the earth with water? It seems like the Scriptures present us with two ways of dealing with catastrophe. You can attempt to manage it yourself and inevitably get mired in chaos, OR you can trust God to help you navigate the chaos. Maybe that is why in Scriptures we find repeated stories about chaos, water, and boats. In Genesis, you get Noah saved by a boat that God commands him to build. In Jonah, you get the prophet fleeing to a boat in order to escape God, but being content to be thrown into the sea rather than actually repent and do what God asks (no trust there!). In the New Testament, you get more stories about God and boats, with Jesus sleeping peacefully in the middle of a storm and waking to calm the waves, and Jesus walking on the water, (i.e., successfully navigating the chaos without get immersed in it), and inviting a disciple, Peter, to do the same. Finally, in the book of Revelation, we hear that when God recreates all things, and the heavenly city descends to earth, there is no more sea., i.e., the chaos has been defeated with finality.
As I seriously contemplate the ability of human beings to annihilate our world as we know it by merely thumbing our noses at ecology, it is tempting for me to think that God will have mercy on us because so many of us don’t know what we are doing. It is interesting to me that, in the United States, climate change denialism seems rooted oftentimes in certain kinds of religious communities…despite the fact that those communities have reason to take such things seriously from their own tradition. Of course, the religious element may be a red herring, and I suspect that suspicion of religious communities distracts us from a deeper problem, a universally human problem.
The real issue I think is this old issue of trying to grasp onto having the perfect life of the gods for yourself. You can’t accept life as a gift given to you by God (or nature or whatever) if you are always consumed by trying to be in control of it. You can’t accept the vicissitudes of life if you believe that the point of civilization, of science, of technology, of society, of everything, is to make absolutely sure you survive, and the best way of surviving is to wipe out everything that threatens you, or that you feel threatened by. If what we must do is survive, and not live, then you must eliminate all the threats, or, if you aren’t very sure of yourself, you must at least deny that the threats exist. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the threat is Islam or black people or North Korea or climate change–if you have given in (and I believe we all have, to one degree or another) to a cultural attitude that says you must survive at all costs–then what you will do is eliminate the threats or deny the ones that you cannot control or that are too frightening or in some cases, too outlandish, to contemplate. It a curious mix of pride and fear that ensnares us.
But if you let go of all that, let go of the false necessity of surviving and thriving at any cost…well, what a traitor you are! You’re useless, I tell you, useless! If you aren’t contributing to the advance of civilization by at least being concerned about “our” survival, aren’t you just part of the problem? There are different ways and different reasons that societies punish outsiders and resisters. But one reason why one society punished the outsider called Jesus of Nazareth was that he wasn’t interested in perpetuating the idea that we have to win at all costs. Instead, he suggested that losing oneself to God and refusing to compete in the world’s game was a way of regaining one’s soul and re-orienting oneself to the way and life of God. It was no promise of longevity and thus it was no practical stratagem for success in the eyes of either religious leaders of the time or the “secular” government, or even religious zealotry. But it had quite an effect…we still remember this person who did not succumb to THE WAY THINGS ARE, and somehow defeated it in his own surrender to death. A curious kind of victory indeed.
What then, does it mean to believe God’s promise that he will never again destroy the world with water? As I stated earlier, I believe that many devout persons reading those words have never had to pause and consider that they may have relevance for their own cultural moment. I think what we can say definitively from the story of Noah is that God helped Noah navigate through catastrophe. And that Noah and his family survived that catastrophe because Noah trusted God, and that the people who did not trust God did not successfully navigate catastrophe. Now, people do terrible, terrible things because they are afraid, and mass fear and mass hysteria help them do even more terrible things than a person can imagine on their own. Let us consider the possibility of what a people might do who think their way of life is ending, or who think the world is ending, because of climate change or vast coastal flooding, or whatever terrible event happened to imprint the notion of a worldwide flood on the collective ancient consciousness of humanity. Who knows, then, what people come up with in their own minds, as what seems good to them to do when all hope is lost? Perhaps the flood itself contributes to the story of the Tower of Babel. There are atheists in foxholes. But God successfully cared for Noah and brought him and his family through disaster.
As for God not destroying the world, maybe that is just a kindness meant to soothe the anxiety of that particular cultural memory. The ancient Israelities saw the world through two lenses at once: anything you saw happening was God’s fault, the will of God, and yet not in such a way that meant human beings weren’t also at work and responsible. So, there is a natural and divine explanation for things (usually) layered on top of one another or used interchangeably. (That’s why God can harden Pharoah’s heart, and Pharoah can harden his own heart at the same time. Theologians have struggled with this, noting that saying, “Well, it happened, didn’t it? Of course God willed it,” does not always answer our question, “Where is God in this?”)
I tend to think, however, that God restrains the evil of the world. Judgment in the Old and New Testament is oftentimes one of those restraining acts. Because evil and chaos are usually connected for us, evil has a way of breaking things down, breaking them apparent, limiting their potential. The current theory I am testing out is maybe the Flood story and the Babel story are linked in that order on purpose. People are up to their old tricks of trying to live like the gods, and society just crumbles, falls apart. Maybe society can’t stand the strain of trying to play God for that long. When it goes too far, it just falls apart. So perhaps, one of the limits God places on the world now is we just start to fall apart.
It is perhaps not a cheerful thought that, say, the major civilizations of the world right now might fall apart just in time to prevent an even greater ecological disaster…but I can’t say that thought makes me terribly unhappy. It is true that modern life, as least as I know it in the United States, is terribly convenient. We do seem to be excellent builders of our own Towers of Babel…expressions of power and superiority that accomplish nothing and yet so much energy of our cultures are thrust into it.
So, I can’t say for certain. But I can say for certain that God helps us navigate chaos and catastrophe in life and death. And that gift and promise is good enough.
 I did a significant amount of research on the Prologue of Genesis for my master’s thesis, and some of that is reflected, albeit at a very high level and informally, in this informal essay.
 I am borrowing from, and certainly influenced by, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. See his “cultural” explanation for the story of Cain and Abel and the struggle between two competing kinds of life-styles, one subsistence based, and the other based on “seizing the life of the gods” for oneself.
 Nathanael Vissia helped me think a lot about what it means to navigate the chaos with God’s help. For further reading, see Chaos and the Kingdom, chapter 2, “the Flood”, but also chapter 4, “Walking on Water”.