“So what about the Noah story? Do you really believe that there was flood that covered the earth and that God crammed two of every species into a big boat?”*
That’s the sort of question I get when I talk to some of my friends about the authority of the Bible. They assume that the Bible is true only if the Bible accurately reports facts about the world.
For instance, I would have to accept that the world was created in six day (with an extra day of divine rest thrown in). The entire human race issued from two people. Every existing species on earth can be traced back to a pair of passengers on Noah’s ark.
Some people spend so much time trying to prove that the Bible isn’t fake news that they utterly ignore the meaning of the stories contained among scripture’s many texts.
Scripture’s authority derives from the meaning of the stories it contains. If you spend all your time trying to prove that there really was an ark or that there really was an Adam and Eve, you might fail to consider what those stories are telling you about God and about human existence.
Since I started with a question about Noah and the flood narrative, let’s take that story as an example of what I mean.
A story’s ending infuses all of its various scenes and plot twists with meaning. While we’re reading a novel or watching a movie, we’re kept awake at night or on the edge of our seats anticipating how all of this tension will be resolved. How will this turn out? The ending is more than the last scene in a sequence of events. It makes sense of all that has come before.
The compilers of Genesis included the flood story for some reason. After all, they didn’t have to include it. Think about all the stories they must have decided not to record. These stories existed for years in oral form before being placed into the written record. Why record this one and include it in a narrative meant to be definitive for a people?
There were a number of ancient flood stories. They all had basically the same structure. People acted like violent, selfish jerks. The gods got fed up with humanity. Divine anger reached its limit, so the gods wiped out most of the earth’s population with a flood. Deities, after all, are like that. You have to keep them appeased or else.
Only, that’s not how the Bible’s flood story goes. Sure, people act in vile ways and God floods the earth. The Noah story starts out just like all the other flood narratives. And yes there’s an ark and the two-by-two animal thing. But that’s not the key.
Once the floodwaters recede and Noah’s family stumbles out of the ark onto the soggy ground, God has an epiphany. God sees that not one thing about the human heart has changed. Nothing. The divine temper tantrum has accomplished absolutely nothing beyond mass destruction.
So God changes. God forsakes wrath. The story tells us that the rainbow is the sign of God’s promise never again to flood the earth.
The point here is actually not that God has changed or that there really was a flood or that we have to figure out how Noah’s family repopulated the world without committing incest. The compilers of Genesis included the flood story to change our minds about God.
Contrary to the view common in that day, the Bible teaches us that God is not a distant, wrathful deity who seeks to keep people in line with violence. Instead, God seeks to transform human hearts from self-absorption and violence to compassion and peace. God seeks to accomplish this transformation through faithful relationship, not by fear-mongering coercion.
Whether or not the flood occurred, the meaning of the story is Good News.
*This post owes much to Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?