Today I was channel-surfing in order to find something suitable for Henry to watch, and I saw something on the “American Life Network” called Ancient Secrets of the Bible: Noah’s Ark — Fact or Fable?. It was being billed as a documentary, so I sort of assumed it would come down on the side of “fable,” but that’s because I still tend to think of documentaries as stodgy, fact-laden things. Whereas even full-fledged evangelicals reviewing Ancient Secrets of the Bible on Amazon warn that
[I]f one is looking for unbiased viewpoints and for an actual academic bible study, the series title is very misleading…. Even my friends who are ministers saw the series more as entertaining propaganda than revealing any actual historical or scientific secrets….
Anyway, this one was about the story of the Great Flood, and it had a number of, erm, scientists talking at length about how the Ark would have been super seaworthy, and how you wouldn’t really have needed every animal on earth to fit in the Ark — whales, for example, could just have kept swimming!
I find stuff like this irritating, because it seems to me that people spend HUGE amounts of time trying to prove that a book like Genesis is some sort of true and factual history of the Earth — which efforts are, of course, really aimed at proving that Genesis is the literal word of God, even though the Bible itself makes no such claim.
And so, in a quest to prove that the Bible is exactly the sort of document that it isn’t, the video parades by a series of people in coats, some of them claiming to be scientists, to testify to the seaworthiness of the Ark, or to explain that “two of every living thing” doesn’t mean as many as it sounds like, because, for example, all breeds of dog have a common ancestor.
These arguments always tend to be specious or irrelevant, though this guy, for example, goes to pretty extraordinary lengths to ignore the text in order to make the text sensible. Claiming that by “clean animals” God only means the ten kosher mammals mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:4-5 is reasonable, but to then claim that by “every unclean animal” God is referring specifically and only to the unclean animals mentioned here and here — to include rabbits, rock hydraxes, and pigs, but not hippos or kangaroos — takes a certain amount of narrow legalism, and it certainly flies in the face of the obvious meaning of Genesis 7:17-21:
I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it…. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.
I have highlighted the Lord’s multiple uses of “every” and “all” because I’m an asshole and I’m making a point in a snarky way. But, seriously, here is that guy’s argument:
The broad words of Genesis 6:19: “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark” and a similar phrase in Genesis 7:15 are clearly inconsistent with the sacrifices of Genesis 8:20 and the seven pairs mentioned in Genesis 7:2-3. Since the phrase “two of every kind” is an overgeneralization, the preceding phrase “every living thing” can also be treated as an overgeneralization and be interpreted narrowly to mean every living thing of importance that Noah owned or had custody of. If Noah was asked years later how many animals he took on the barge, Noah may have replied, “Every one; I took them all.” In such a remark, the words “every” and “all” would mean only that he did not leave any of his animals behind, not that he took every species on the planet….
Noah’s clean animals included cattle, sheep and goats. His unclean animals included raven, swine and eagles. They were his inventory, his stock in trade. But most of the world’s animals were not included. Exotic zoo animals such as elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, apes and kangaroos are not mentioned in Genesis or Deuteronomy and were not included in Noah’s inventory. Since it would be impossible for Noah to attract millions of animals from all over the planet, he did not do so. The animals came to the ark because local herdsmen brought them to the ark.
This argument is nonsense from the get-go. Noah kept eagles as part of his stock-in-trade? Well, that explains why he needed the rock hydraxes, I guess: eagle food. And the last line flatly contradicts the Lord’s assertion that every kind of animal “will come to you to be kept alive,” as well as providing some tragicomic scenes just before the flood:
HERDSMAN: Hey Noah, that’s one big boat.
NOAH: Yup. The Lord God’s gonna destroy the world by unleashing the floodwaters.
HERDSMAN: You don’t say. And you’re gonna float it out in that thing?
NOAH: Yes, that’s right.
HERDSMAN: Oh. Can I come?
NOAH: ‘Fraid not. You’re sinful and God is grieved that he made you.
HERDSMAN: Oh. Well, would you take my camels with you? They’re good animals, and I’d hate to see anything happen to them.
NOAH: No — I’ve already got two camels. Do you have any hoopoes? God seems to think they’ll come in handy.
These people seem, at first glance, to have a more scientific approach — at any rate, they have a lot more numbers on their website. Also, they take the novel, if completely unwarranted, approach of claiming that “kind” doesn’t mean species — it means genus or even family:
The word species and the biblical word “kind” are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect since they are not synonymous. The biblical word “kind” denotes an organism that reproduces others like itself…. The word kind is probably closer to the modern taxonomic unit of genus, and in some cases the larger taxonomic unit, family.
The Canidae (canine) family includes about 14 genera of dog like animals. These include the coyote, dog, wolf, jackal, etc. The ark did not have to contain the hundreds of species of canines that make up this group. In reality, these were all represented by a few “kind.” These “kind” would then produce all the animals that make up the Canidae family.
Gosh. I thought evolution took too long as it was. Who knew it was actually so speedy?
Anyway, after excluding fish — because, you know, fish live in water, don’t they? — these folks also decide to leave plenty of other animals off the Ark, too:
Noah would not have to be concerned with the aquatic mammals such as the dolphins, whales, porpoises, sea lions, and walrus. There are also many aquatic reptiles that could survive outside of the ark. These would include many types of snakes, alligators, crocodiles, and sea turtles. There are almost a million species of arthropods that would survive the flood. Animals such as the following: shrimps, crabs, lobsters, and many other crustaceans. All of the insects could survive outside the ark. Mote than 35,000 species of worms and nematodes would also survive the flood.
All right, first of all — insects drown. There’s actually a mosquito trap that depends on it.
Second of all, these guys are still failing to account for the Lord’s emphatic instruction to take two of “every kind of creature that moves along the ground.” (Emphasis mine, not the Lord’s.) That means, I’m sorry, every snake, lizard, beetle, ant, scorpion, hedgehog, and so on.
But let’s assume for a second that they find a way to wriggle out of those problems. There’s still the basic fact that their idea of how things “survive” is that of A CHILD. Noah stays on the Ark for a year, and the waters cover the Earth completely for at least 150 days. No land creature on earth can hold its breath for that long, but even if it could, let’s say, float, how could it live for five months to a year when its entire ecosystem has been destroyed? What would it have eaten? How would it have plausibly reproduced? The life cycle of the painted lady butterfly is 21 days, and during that time it relies intensively on specific types of plants as part of the process.
Oh, dear — plants. Why did God forget about the plants? 150 days of complete immersion in water would be enough to turn the earth’s surface into a complete desert. And although I’m sure someone will argue that Noah could have brought enough seeds to repopulate the earth with plants (even though, you know, he had no access to several of the continents, and even though this is supposed to have have happened just a few thousand years ago), this again shows an extremely childish understanding of how individual organisms relate to their ecosystem. A plant does not exist in isolation, nor can you just stick it in some dirt and hope for the best. Destroy the environment completely, and you destroy the ability of each individual creature to feed itself, reproduce, and go through its life cycle.
Then there are the fishes, whales, and other waterbound creatures that the authors of Genesis, and our ersatz scholars, don’t even bother with. Genesis tells us that the mountaintops were covered (7:20) to a depth of 20 feet, which means that the waters must have covered Everest. Assuming that the seas prior to the flood were at about the same height they are today, this means that there must have been enough water to cover the surface of the earth (510.07200 million km2) to roughly the height of Everest (over 8km), or about 4,513,117,056 km3. That’s about 3 times the volume of the earth’s oceans now. So suddenly all the earth’s water creatures are living in a space 4 times the size of the space they were living in previously — meaning predators and prey, herbivores and their food, are now much farther apart. The ocean, formerly teeming with life, is now fairly empty, and many if not most creatures would starve.
Coastal water ecosystems, meanwhile, which rely extensively on photosynthesizing and photosensitive organisms, would of course be obliterated. And while we’re pondering this — does it rain salt water or fresh? If it rains fresh water, most of the sea creatures would die, but if it rains salt water, most of the freshwater fish are goners.
In the end, I prefer the first guy’s theory, in which God is more interested in saving Noah’s property than in preserving genetic diversity. It contradicts the text, but it doesn’t contradict basic biology. Of course, there’s a simple solution to all of these logistical issues with the flood story — God just uses magic to recreate life anew at the other end. That almost has to be the solution, because there’s an olive tree growing somewhere even before Noah gets out of the Ark.
But as soon as God starts using magic powers, we’re immediately struck by the ridiculousness of the whole story. If God regretted how men turned out (somewhat undermining any claims to omniscience or wisdom), why didn’t He just wink all the evil men out of existence? Why does He go out of His way to “destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it”? On the other hand, if the entire creation is unsatisfactory, why bother repopulating it with “two of every creature”?
And finally, and most damningly, why is God unaware that His plan isn’t going to work?? God makes a covenant with Noah, supposedly the most righteous of men — and then not four verses later sin returns to the world in a particularly embarrassing and squalid fashion: Noah gets passing-out drunk, Ham checks out his father’s “nakedness,” and when Noah wakes up he petulantly curses Ham’s lineage. These are the people You chose to save? Why not just start over entirely?
None of it makes sense if the God of Genesis is the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise, and yet completely benevolent God we like to think of today. On the other hand, the story of the flood makes some sense if the God of at least that particular story is an older, more mythological god, a god who makes mistakes, who can’t see or even imagine the future, who is carried away by human passions like grief, regret, and anger. And the aftermath makes sense, too, as a crude and obvious Just-So Story cooked up to make it okay to enslave Canaanites. In other words, this story makes perfect sense as an ancient myth welded with some clumsy tribal propaganda. It makes not a lick of sense as a story about any sort of loving, or even moderately humane, uber-Deity.
All of which is only by way of saying that I hope my son doesn’t waste his life trying to defend a collection of obviously man-made myths as the literal transcription of the words of an anthropomorphic (and apparently very confused) God. So we’re not going to watch Ancient Secrets of the Bible in our house. I know how impressionable young people can be — I was terrorized out of my gourd by Orson Welles in The Man Who Saw Tomorow when I was about ten. Welles, hosting a supposedly nonfiction investigation into the predictions of Nostradamus, made what sounded to me like very convincing arguments that the French astrologer had predicted just about everything in history, and that his latter predictions strongly suggested a coming apocalypse precipitated by a Middle Eastern madman. My mom and my sister laughed it off when I came upstairs, white as a sheet, convinced we were all going to die in the very near future. But I kept it in the back of my mind for years, waiting for the inevitable, and even today it’s hard for me to be sure that this guy isn’t going to destroy us all:
(That is Ahmedinejad, isn’t it?)
Anyway, I’ve been trying to figure out what I might tell my son about God, or, in keeping with the context of this post, what I might let him watch on TV to form an accurate opinion of how the world works and what kind of being or force might be running it. My own agnosticism and inability to stay firmly within the religion in which I was brought up stems at least in part from the horrific displays of cruelty and suffering you can see in, oh, Disney and the BBC’s earth. Or, as my wife memorably put it, “All this natural magnificence makes me want to die.”
I can accept human suffering within a religious framework. I can accept that as generally moral creatures we’re here to be a balm and a comfort to one another, and without suffering there wouldn’t be much basis for morality or balming or comforting. I get that. But that doesn’t really explain the overwhelming viciousness and selfishness that the entire world both exhibits and suffers from. Most sentient creatures are born to eat or be eaten by other creatures, and not in a nice way, and there’s no getting around that. Everything gets sick, everything suffers, everything dies (and rarely in bed).
Fervent literal-Genesis Christians will tell you it’s because of the Fall without stopping to work out the implications of what they’re saying. God made tiny baby birds to be eaten by snakes and cows to become hosts for insect larvae and great noble-browed bears to lie down and die of starvation and exhaustion in the Arctic circle because some human woman ate some fruit she wasn’t supposed to before she even had the knowledge of the difference between good and evil. I’d rather have an indifferent God than a God who behaves like that.
And I’m not alone. Jesus says, in Luke 11,
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
In other words, we can’t hold God to a lower standard than we hold ourselves. If we, who are evil, wouldn’t think of condemning thousands or millions of men and other creatures to die for the act of a single person, how can we believe in a God who would do the same? Or, to approach another theological briar patch the same way, if we sinners, who are low, angry, and vengeful, wouldn’t punish someone infinitely for a finite lifetime of transgression, how can we believe that the loving and just Creator would do the same?
My wife is not bothered by many of the traditional theological bugaboos. Recognizing the fragmentary, mosaic nature of the Bible, she believes in the good words of Jesus and ignores most of the rest and is a contented Christian. I’m in a somewhat different boat. The Baha’i Writings are harder to take piecemeal (at least, according to Baha’is), and anyway, as I said above, the natural world inclines me to disbelieve in a personal God who manipulates things on a day-to-day basis for anyone’s benefit.
But at the same time, I miss the sense of having a personal, conversational relationship with the universe. And I would feel dreadful and ashamed if I inhibited any budding sense of the divine or the ideal within my children. (Or anybody else, really.)
So. You see. I start out this post smug and playful and end up humbled and serious.
Here is what I say, then, to my son: do the best you can. Put your faith in reason and science and our shared experience and do not seclude yourself in burrows of illogic and bigotry masquerading as faith in something higher, and do the best you can. If there is a God worth meeting, He won’t fault you for it.