Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Oh dry up . . .

Genesis 8, reproduced below in the New International Version, is actually two separate accounts, woven together clumsily. That's why you will frequently see a verse contradicted by the one following. But keep in mind that this is the nature of the Torah in general. At some point a scribe, or team of scribes, pulled together material from a number of scrolls of varying provenance. It is, in other words, a compendium, but the pieces aren't labeled.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 
Oh yeah, God smacks his forehead: "I almost forgot about that Noah guy floating in the ark . .. "

 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
 So the ark came to rest on the mountains after 7 1/2 months. 2 1/2 months later, the tops of the mountains become visible. In other words, verses 4 and 5 are from separate sources.

After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. 10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12

The raven and the dove are also probably from separate sources. Obviously, if the  earth had been flooded for either nine months or a year, there wouldn't be any olive leaves for the dove to pluck.

 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.
13 By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.
15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”
18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

The animals have a small problem: there is nothing to eat. The predators have no prey, and the herbivores no vegetation. The animals also have the small problem of getting to the appropriate places such as South America, Siberia, and the Pacific Islands.

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21  

Whoops! According to Genesis 7:8-9, there were only two of each of the clean animals. Noah has exterminated them!

The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
22 “As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
So God destroyed the world because humans are wicked. They're still wicked, but he won't do it again. This story is of course, an oral tradition that was written down in two different forms which, as I say, the scribes compiled here. But the different numbers and species of bird don't really matter. The essence of the two versions is similar.

As you may know, because it is widely discussed, many cultures have flood myths that share some elements with the Genesis story.  Similar myths among Middle Eastern cultures may originate in an actual historical event which also inspired the Noah story. The city of Shuruppak on the Euphrates was destroyed by a flood around 3,000 BC, and this may be the origin of some of these myths. In general, changing hydrology and geology following the last glacial period resulted in catastrophic flooding events at various times and places around the world, which may have inspired their own myths.

Trying to determine any underlying psychological rationale or appeal for these myths is of course speculative. But the Noah myth, and others, ultimately have a reassuring quality. People who survived a catastrophe would want to be comforted by the thought that it isn't going to happen again. Sadly, while of course a world-destroying flood never did happen, and won't happen, localized disasters will continue to happen.


Irving R. Blum said...

Well, you pretty much sliced that story up! When I had to go to temple as a kid, it was never rewarding, but I didn't know why. Now I am beginning to understand, because I was a smart kid and the stuff we were doing in shul was boring and made no sense to me. No one ever explained why we were doing what we were doing.

Cervantes said...

Yeah, in Sunday school we had illustrated books of these tales. The only point, as far as I can tell, was to amuse us, there wasn't really any evident moral.