On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.” He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.
The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.
The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.
On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.
The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”
The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.
In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.
Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.
I will begin by saying that the story of Noah’s Ark is patently absurd by any standard. I have no trouble teaching or preaching this story as mythology. I believe that the most significant portion of this story is the rainbow covenant at the end. The rainbow covenant is a symbol of God’s grace and redemption, not just for humanity, but for all of creation.
There is no reason to disparage mythology or even a mythological interpretation of parts of scripture. Myth is often “truer than true.” The best way to explain this is to point to the American psyche and the Paul Bunyan myths. What better way to explain a country that invented heavier-than-air flight in 1903 and then went on to land a man on the moon in 1969.
There is nothing wrong with teaching or preaching scriptures from a mythical or mythological basis. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? But that is not to say that we should make up or distort facts in order to “prove” a story.
To try and defend the story as history is simply indefensible. I am reminded of a fundamentalist preacher who once declared that, “Satan planted all the dinosaur bones just to confound the faithful!”
The story of Noah’s Ark is greatly similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh and several related myths, such as the epics of Atrahasis and Ziusudra from early Mesopotamian literature. It is possible that the root event for all of these epic legends was the inundation of the Black Sea around the year 5,600 BCE. But this inundation is disputed. And, even if this inundation was the seed of these epics, this certainly does nothing to confirm the historicity of the epics themselves. What these epics do prove is that the story of Noah’s Ark was not Hebrew in origin, but was drawn from the rich soup of Mesopotamian mythology. One common recurring theme throughout these epics is that people had very long lives before the flood, and shorter, “normal” lives after the flood.
At one point it was believe that the accounts of the Trojan War were thought of as totally mythical. Later, the city of Troy was found in what is now Northwest Turkey. But the discovery of Troy does not prove the historicity of The Odyssey and the Iliad. In the same manner, the new theory of the inundation of the Black Sea does not prove the historicity of the Genesis account of Noah.
Whatever scientific accounts of floods that we might choose to present as background for a sermon, it does not change the fact that the story of Noah’s Ark is simply absurd on its surface, and I will begin with that assumption.
Traditional accounts and depictions of Noah’s Ark seem to contain perhaps a dozen species. But a literal interpretation of a global flood requiring the rescue of every terrestrial animal requires a much larger effort than that. There are over ten million species on planet earth. And beyond that there are many varieties within each species.
To fill the Ark with one (or seven? [Gen 7:2]) breeding pairs of every living creature would involve the capture and containment of as many as tens of millions of breeding pairs. And, these would need to be captured from every corner of every continent on the earth. Such an endeavor has never occurred. We could do perhaps do it today, at least for the known species and varieties. But the cost and complexity of this endeavor, even with our 21st Century technology and resources, would be roughly the equivalent to building a permanent base on the moon. I believe that we can safely conclude that Noah and his three sons did no such thing.
Preaching on the Noah’s Ark story is about presenting it as mythology. In teaching mythology, the focus is not on the “historic” details, but rather upon the message that the author, in this case the Yahwist, is trying to teach us.
The early chapters of Genesis contain a collection of “sin stories.” These sin stories begin with the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and continue with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God sees that the world is evil and considers destroying it. But then he considers Noah and considers him righteous.
Because of this God decides on a “warm boot” to restart creation. As any computer user knows, the best fix for a glitch computer is to do a warm boot. With the operating system, software and files reloaded, a myriad of computer problems will simply disappear.
The “sin stories” describe the depth of human sin, and the effect that one righteous man can have. The Yahwist is teaching us about the struggles of human life, and what it is for us to know God (Yahweh) and to understand what God desires of us.
The Story of Noah’s Ark concludes with the rainbow covenant. This is God’s first covenant with God’s creation. In it he promises to sustain the earth and all of its creatures. And God seals this covenant with the sign of the rainbow. This frequently observed phenomenon becomes the sign of God’s ultimate grace and redemption over the whole creation.