Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Noah Group

Christians give off the impression of being embarrassed about Genesis, especially the first 11 chapters (Abraham shows up in Chapter 12). It is certainly the section of the Bible which draws the most fire from nonbelievers; more, even than the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Fundamentalists get positively defensive, insisting on an all-or-nothing view of the Scriptures; their opposite number are those who would toss anything offensive in order to get folks to consider Jesus’ Incarnation & Resurrection. (Those whose goal is to get nonbelievers to consider only the moral teachings of Jesus I am eliminating from the discussion of Christianity altogether. They may be nice people who act more like Christ than I do, but their religion is not Christianity. Jesusism would be a better term for what they believe.)

I would place myself at both extremes, insisting that a) everything in Scripture must ultimately be accounted for in our teaching, but also b) willing to grant enormous tracts of territory to skeptics, ridiculous and inconsistent concessions, in order to get the core teachings of the faith onto the table. But between those two extremes of scripture insistence is where most Christians would place themselves, instead of at the extremes, which is where truth more often resides. Christian truth contains more paradox than milk-and-water compromise. At its best, the compromise approach is a cautionary statement about complexity, of refusing to apply third-grade Sunday School answers to adult questions. Well and good as far as it goes. At its worst, it is a dishonest evasion, a “Heh heh heh, we don’t really think those things happened in ah, er, a literal sense, but are meant for our edification and as examples blahdee blah blah…” This latter comes from lack of courage in our thought – which is ultimately a lack of faith.

The mental image of a God always hurriedly patching up mistakes, barely rescuing the scripture narrative from the degradation of passing through human minds, is a little revolting. Who would worship such a god? A cobbled-together scripture, which a helpless god hopes will do if folks don’t look too closely, is not very inspiring now, is it? The idea of a series of vague folk tales strung together, approximating some idea of a monotheistic deity gradually coming into focus is a look through the wrong end of a telescope: accurate but completely misguided.

God did not scramble to find something useful that might apply to our modern situation in the oral narratives of the Israelites, preserving the few threads of gold amidst the dross of a primitive tradition. The folk tale style, similar in so many ways to the parables He told when He came in the flesh, was intended since before the beginning. God’s work was not to preserve the occasional tidbit, to hide a few threads of gold in the straw, but to condense the many tidbits into a pure picture of Himself, to spin straw into gold.

There were many Noahs, not one, and few if any named Noah. They preserved the belief in the One God, they preserved many good things out of the destroyed land into the rescued land. Very likely, they knew how to build boats and had already divided the animals into the clean and the unclean and labored to preserve them. They lived in lands of wickedness but were saved from a Flood with varying degrees of miraculousness, from providential to impossible, because of their faith. God compressed their various stories like a diamond into the story of Noah, so that future generations would remember.

The condensing, the synthesis, was not a grudging allowance by a YHWH who could do no better, but His original plan, so that His story would endure in the minds of men when all others from that time had passed away.

More to follow: More Adams, more Abrahams, more Josephs. Bring your objections and your arguments, but I think I can show that this approach illuminates parts of scripture that fundamentalism has to gloss over.


Anonymous said...

I think Jesus Christ said something along the lines of, 'the Bible contains history, but it is not a history book.' Makes sense to me. You can listen to him on KFI AM 640 every Sunday morning from 6-9 AM (I believe) in Los Angeles by the way. He also streams his show over the internet at KFI's website or you can download it on itunes.

Anonymous said...

I can listen to Jesus Christ on KFI AM 640? Wow.

Anonymous said...

The Epic of Gilgamesh has a similar world-flood story as the Great Flood account ... and such other recurring devastations and God-fearing (in the sense of His causing them to happen) eruptions have always crossed over from one culture to another, as they each blend them into their lessons. I read recently of the suspicion now that Moses was an amalgam to merely explain the concerted mass migration of several tribes out of Egypt toward the relatively uninhabited regions of the fertile crescent.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading a book by Leon Kass "The Beginning of Wisdom", recommended by Bagdad Bob at One Cosmos. This is a rather exhaustive analysis of Genesis, that an intellectually minded Fundamentalist would appreciate. The point he makes is - Genesis is a highly intellegible document - and resists efforts by deconstructionists and literalists.

It's a long, hard read - I haven't yet got to his analysis of Noah. But I would highly recommend the book to anyone looking for a honest, respectfull treatment of Genesis. (I bet AVI read the book!)


cold pizza said...

I'm a firm believer that information passed down via oral tradition was eventually transcribed by the Deuteronomists.

Something profound happened in human history around 6000-10000 BCE. HomoSap, the species, has been around for 100K+ years yet why is it only in the last 10K that we've got agriculture, language and writing?

What some would call the "fall of man," I think of as the awakening. IF Adam and Eve, for example, were based on real humans, the fruit of the tree of knowledge would have been the opening of their eyes, that humanity made the transition from created to creator.

Maybe a DNA mutation occured--the so-called "God gene."

The offspring of Adam and Eve (after Abel's death and Cain's banishment) would have bred with the normal humans, passing the mutation along until it spread through out the species.

Intelligence (or curiosity, or innovation) as a type of VD or virus.

Thoughts to nibble on. -cp

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, lelia, I had the same thought. I hope that's nash thinking two thoughts at once and mixing them together.

But it does seem that you can get everything on itunes these days, so...

Anonymous. I have not read Kass's book, but I have liked some essays of his, and I have very much liked Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos. I assume you didn't mean Baghdad Bob...

My traditionally brilliant guests are showing some slippage this week. Lay off the brown acid, campers.

Jerub-Baal said...

First thing, anyone who writes a book, writes it for a specific purpose. The author of a Chilton’s Manual for repairing a 1997 Hyundai Elantra wants to help you fix your ’97 Elantra. The author of a book on GAAP standards wants to help you follow national accounting standards (and not get in trouble with the Fed or SEC). The author of a fiction story wants entertain people so as to end up at the top of the NYT bestseller list, and thus to personally make gobs of money.

Anytime you read a book, you have to first understand what the author’s intent in writing it was, if you want to understand it. (For instance, if you buy the aforementioned Chilton’s book with the intent on understanding Generally Accepted Accounting Practices, you’re going to end up very confused, and end up with a lot of useless ideas about accounting.)

The overarching theme of the Bible, beginning in Genesis, is to teach the fallen nature of man and his need for Divine intervention for salvation. That theme is picked up at the very beginning, from the first words attributed to Adam and Eve. If you look at things from that perspective, the narrative makes sense starting from Chapter 2. As for the creation story before Adam and Eve, that becomes easier to fathom as well. One, it is now just a quick background to the main event. Two, it shows one primary part of the narrative, which is that God made everything, and that how he did it is pretty amazing (which would hold true for God making everything by whatever method you want to suggest). (As an aside, the creation narrative talks about the earth being made in six days, with God resting on the seventh. Yet the Sun, the cosmic timepiece by which we measure days, is not made until the fourth “day”; “And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years” [vs 14], so against what clock were the previous three days counted?)

So now we are back to the whole idea of why the book was written. Well, if you wanted to lay the foundation for the future salvation of all of man, without force-feeding mankind or otherwise grossly manipulating us or enslaving us to yourself (i.e. God allowing us free will), then you need to build a history through which later generations can learn what is right and moral and spiritual.

Think of it this way. How many of you would read to your five year old “The Joy of Sex” in order to answer their question, “Where do I come from?”

To illustrate this, think of the story of the Exodus. Moses shows up after being on “Egypt’s Most Wanted” for 40 years or so, and declares that the descendents of Joseph must be set free. Pharaoh says, “No way!” Moses proceeds to declare that Egypt will suffer, which it does directly. Pharaoh tells the Israelites to leave, then chases them. Moses leads the Israelites through a major oceanic gulf on dry ground, and when they reach the other side, the waters rush back in and drown the pursuing Egyptian army (and possibly Pharaoh himself). All the while Moses and the Israelites have been lead around by a gargantuan pillar of smoke by day, which for purposes of general illumination has acted as a gargantuan pillar of fire by night. To top of all of this, when everyone complains of hunger, Moses asks God for help and he provides manna and quail every day, for everyone.

Next, they get to a big mountain. Moses tells everyone to stay away, and climbs up the mountain, disappearing for some time (and if you go back and read Genesis 19, you will realize that this is after a whole bunch of stuff where God makes smoke and fire and all sorts of things in front of Moses, Aaron his brother, and all the people, telling them how to make themselves ready for God’s revelation). After all of these things, inexplicable outside of the hand of the God that Moses has been explaining too them, the people get impatient, and give all their gold jewelry to Aaron and have him make a gold cow in order to have a god to worship!


And of course, at this point any rational deity is going to start telling them about the Triassic Period and allosauruses, which could eat any of them in a single bite. Gee, I wonder what the idol of gold would have looked like in that scenario?

It comes down to this, if you think you are smart enough to decide how creation should have been done, don’t read the Bible. If you realize that you aren’t, then don’t try to tell the narrative how it should have been done, long before you were born. Just try to read it and get some understanding that can maybe help you live your life now, and ensure a more moral and just future in how you deal with other. If you could save yourself, you would have done it already. If you believe that you can, then you haven’t read this far.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Jesus Christ has his own talk show on Sunday mornings on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles. It's called "The Jesus Christ Show."

Okay, it's really "interactive radio theater," but I highly recommend it, if only to mess with the minds of your friends and family. :)

Anonymous said...

Jerub-Baal, that was a most thought-provoking analysis - and so on the mark (I for one thank you for making my weekend an enjoyable one with good ideas to ponder!)

Chris said...

I guess I qualify as a literalist, but the problem has always been what to interpret literally, hasn't it?

Some parts are allegory, some are historical, but all are, as Jerub-baal pointed out, part of the overarching theme of fall and redemption. If we were smart enough to know for certain which parts were literal, then we'd have no need of God. Our hubris was the original sin, the conceit that we could do without Him.

Some things never change.