Noah, the Big Flood and Same-Sex Marriage
A quick reading of the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood might suggest that the only possible relevance of this story to the contemporary debate about same-sex marriage is that God sent this cataclysmic flood to punish the sort of corrupt and corrupting behaviour that gay unions represent. But think again. This story might take us in exactly the opposite direction.
The Noah story
The main details of the Noah story are well enough known, and need only brief rehearsal. At the beginning of Genesis 6, God decides to wipe out every living creature (6:6-8), including the entire human race. Noah and his family alone are spared. They are given instructions to build an ark into which they are to bring seven of every kind of clean animal, two of every unclean animal, and seven of every kind of bird (7:2-3). In Noah’s 600th year, the springs of the great deep burst forth, the floodgates of the heavens are opened, and a forty-day and forty-night deluge is unleashed. With no let up, the floodwaters rise and rise until ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ are covered, covering them to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). ‘Every living thing on the face of the earth’ is thereby wiped out (7:23), except for Noah and those with him on the ark.
What makes this story so interesting and important is that it is so unambiguous. As a Sunday school child, I got the point – easily, quickly and frighteningly. Moreover, whenever the story is referred to elsewhere in the Bible, it appears that the writers are taking the story as straight-forwardly factual. Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus, suggesting he believed Noah to be an actual person. The writer of Hebrews includes Noah in his list of heroes of faith, along with other characters mentioned in Genesis 1-11. Jesus himself appears to have accepted the story of Noah as factual, as indicated by these words from the Olivet Discourse:
‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.’ Matthew 24:37-38 NRSV; parallel passage Luke 17:26-27.
That Jesus accepted the Noah story as factual is good reason for his followers to take it that way as well, as is the fact that the Bible as a whole appears to take it that way. Principles of Biblical interpretation I imbibed at theological college encouraged me to accept this story as factual. Three principles in particular, forged during the Protestant Reformation, were influential. The principle of sola Scriptura encouraged me to give much greater weight to what I read in the Scriptures than to other sources of knowledge, including the natural sciences. The principle of the analogy of Scripture encouraged me to be guided by what Scripture says about Scripture, to interpret the doubtful bits by the plain bits. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture asserts that the Bible’s meaning will mostly be obvious – and in the case of the Noah story this seemed correct.
Adding support to a plain-sense reading of the story is the fact that Jewish and Christian interpreters have mostly taken the story as straightforwardly factual. Norman Cohn, in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, chronicles the history of theological reflection on the flood story from pre-Christian times to the present, and notes the near universal acceptance of the Noah story as factual, along with the chronology of Genesis implying a young earth. Many of the first geologists had a Bible in one hand and a pick or shovel in the other as they went about their geological work, convinced they would find ample evidence of a recent and cataclysmic flood.
The trouble is, they didn’t. The genealogies of Genesis 1-11, if taken literally, date Noah’s flood at around 2,300 BC, or about 1,700 years after the creation of the world. According to this dating, the flood happened a very short time ago, and therefore could be expected to have left abundant evidence of its occurrence. There is no such abundant evidence. In fact, there is none. While there is evidence of floods, even large floods, happening at around that time, and earlier, there is no evidence whatsoever of a universal or worldwide flood happening then, or at any other time in human history.
The Noah story, as it stands, faces formidable challenges to be accepted as credible today, challenges that can be expressed in the form of questions such as the following:
- Where did all the water come from? 4.4 billion cubic kilometres of water would have had to be added to the oceans forMt.Everestand other large mountain ranges to be covered.
- Where did all the water go after the flood, and in so short a time?
- How did the world’s plants survive being submerged for between five months and a year?
- How did the world’s fresh-water fish survive their marine environment being swamped by salt water – or vise versa if the water was fresh?
- How did Noah and his tiny family keep the animals alive – many with highly specialized dietary requirements? How, for example, were the carnivores fed and kept apart?
- How did Noah manage to keep so many species alive? We now know that there are between 50,000 and 75,000 species of birds and animals and about 30 million modern and extinct species of organisms, which raises the problem of how they would all fit on the ark. Even if we assume that there were only two of each animal, rather than 2 plus 7 of some, it has been estimated that each of these animals would have needed to squash into the volume of a milk carton just to fit into the ark.
- How did the animals manage to return to their specialized environments – many across un-crossable seas (e.g.Tasmania’s tiger; animals from North andSouth America). How did the sloth, who doesn’t walk on land, manage to get all the way back toSouth America?
- Where is the evidence of this massive destruction in places like Australia?
Questions such as these made it impossible, for me at least, to accept the Noah story as factual, even as largely factual. This wasn’t a disturbing realisation. By the time I had begun to ask questions about the historicity of the Noah story, I was already well aware of the widely accepted view that the early chapters of Genesis are best understood as myth, or as a mixture of myth and legend (Sage). Most scholars see the Noah story as a variation and adaptation of earlier Mesopotamian flood stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic, both dated to around the turn of the second millennium BCE.
That the Noah story might be mythical was not a big problem for me. However, I was aware that it constituted a considerable problem to those who persist with the hermeneutic I was taught and embraced at theological college. That there was a flood, and that a man named Noah and his family escaped the flood in a specially made boat, cannot reasonably be doubted by those who follow the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura, the analogy of Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture, especially when you consider that Jesus and his apostles appeared to accept these details as factual, as have most Christians (and Jews and Muslims) up until the last few hundred years. Add to this the common belief among fundamentalists and evangelicals that the Bible is inerrant, that it has no errors, even of a scientific nature, the problem becomes enormous.
There have been two major responses to the problem that I am aware of. The first is to persist in taking the story literally. This is the approach of those who describe themselves as creationists. The strength of this approach is its consistency. Creationists will often argue, with some warrant, that Christians who are not creationists are inconsistent – they take some parts of the Bible literally, for example, its condemnation of homosexual behaviour, but aren’t willing to give other bits the same respectful and believing treatment. Creationists are admirably consistent. The difficulty with their approach is that it runs in the face of mounting (in fact mounted) scientific evidence against a literalistic reading of the Biblical text.
The second response, which one is more likely to encounter among evangelicals, includingSydneyevangelical Anglicans, is to suggest that Genesis 6-9 describes a localized flood. There are two insurmountable problems with this suggestion. The first is that it completely misreads the Noah story. To suggest the flood was localized entirely misses the point of the narrative, which is that God ‘regretted having created human beings on the earth’ (6:6), and would have entirely obliterated all life had it not been for his gracious sparing of Noah (6:6-8). It also seriously underestimates the size of the flood, which is said to top the ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). That is no localized flood. Geologists have found evidence of large floods in Mesopotamia, inUr, Uruk,NinevehandKish, for example, where flood deposits have been dated back to the fourth and early third millennium BCE. However, and significantly, other cities of the region show no such evidence.
A number of things are interesting and relevant for our purposes about this second suggestion. The first is that the only or major reason it has been suggested is because of accumulating scientific evidence. Most of the early geologists were Christian, many of them clergymen. They were the ones who first realized the flood could not have been universal – hence the more modest suggestion of a localized flood. Though I don’t think the suggestion works, it is significant that scientific advances have occasioned a re-reading of the Biblical text. It was under pressure from scientific discoveries that an alternative reading of the story gained widespread credence.
What was interesting to me as I began to think through the implications of these observations was the realization that the story of Noah’s gigantic flood would have seemed entirely credible in the ancient world, and even up until the last three or four hundred years. Those who first told and then wrote down Noah’s story are likely to have believed in a flat earth, above which was a firmament, above which were store houses of water able to be released in the form of rain. They would also have believed that the earth rested on water, and was surrounded by water.
This understanding makes highly credible the possibility of a universal flood. That the waters above and below and around the earth could flood the earth to a depth greater than the earth’s highest mountains would have seemed very possible. That the earth’s entire population of humans and animals could be wiped out by such a flood, that an ark could be built to house the world’s animals, and that these animals were within walking distance of the ark would have been plausible. The story is credible given ancient assumptions. However, we no longer share those assumptions. We have had to re-think the Noah story.
We also need to re-think issues of gender and sexuality that are currently on the political and social agenda. For me, the realisation that we could, in fact must, take full account of contemporary knowledge in understanding and appropriating Biblical texts was liberating. It opened up the possibility that, as a Christian, I could take full account of scientific advances in areas other than cosmology. I could re-think what I had been taught and believed about homosexuality.
That particular re-think began to happen in the early 2000s. I was still teaching part-time at MooreTheologicalCollegein Sydney, but had also begun to work in the inner-city Anglican Parish of South Sydney. South Sydney Municipal Council houses a higher than average percentage of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GBLT) residents. I was meeting, getting to know, and becoming friends with people whose sexual orientation was different to mine. I recognized I had prejudices, many created during my earlier nurturing in North American fundamentalism and Australian evangelical Anglicanism.
I wanted to have my prejudices challenged and, if necessary, overturned. I was heartened by changes I had noted within Sydney Anglican circles. There had been, in the past, an almost universal tendency to claim that homosexuality itself was sinful, regardless of behaviour. To be homosexual was to be sinful. That stance had already begun to be challenged when I first went toMooreCollegeas an undergraduate. It has certainly been challenged since then, with many now recognising that homosexual orientation is simply that, an orientation, a possibly hard-wired tendency to be erotically aroused by people of the same gender. This understanding did not result from a careful reading or re-reading of the relevant Biblical texts. It came about under pressure from advancing scientific understanding. It also came about because of a new willingness by many to listen to homosexual people who were now bolder in telling their stories.
A year or two into my time at South Sydney Parish, I initiated, with the help of John McIntyreand good friend, Vic Branson, a pub discussion group called Quest. We ran it at the Parkview Hotel in Alexandria, a nearby suburb. One of the people we asked to speak at Quest was Rev. Dr Canon Stuart Barton Babbage. He had recently written his memoirs, Memoirs of a Loose Canon. In a long and distinguished career, Canon Barton Babbage had been Principal of Ridley College (inMelbourne), Dean of St Andrews Cathedral (Sydney), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (Melbourne) and Dean of theAustralianCollege of Theology. What stuck longest in my memory from that night was Dr Babbage sharing with us the impact on him and his thinking of discovering that his son was gay. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something along these lines: ‘This experience forced me to re-think my theology and to re-assess the adequacy of earlier understandings.’
Experiences like that, along with advancing scientific understanding, is forcing and/or encouraging many others (myself included) to re-think this issue. There is no good theological or hermeneutical reason not to, not that I am aware of. There are all sorts of good reasons to think about this, including the currently expressed desire by many homosexual people to marry their partners. We’d need to have some very good reasons, as churches, and as a society, to say no.
Rev. Dr Keith Mascord
Keith taught philosophy and pastoral theology at MooreTheologicalCollegein the 1990s, and up until 2006 part-time. He currently works as a Parole Officer. This article includes extracts from his recently published book, A Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God, 2012. See further www.arestlessfaith.com.au
If people would like to contribute to the discussion already started, they can go to: http://arestlessfaith.com.au/blog/
 Luke 3:36
 Moore Theological College, inSydney
 Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, Yale University Press, 1996. See also David A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
 Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), on the basis of the Biblical genealogies and their correlation with various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories, calculated that the earth was created on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC and that Noah’s flood happened in 2349 BC.
 There is evidence of a very large flood that occurred in 5,600 BC, when waters from the melting snow of the last ice age flooded the Black Sea. Memories of this flood may have found their way into the many flood stories of the wider region. So argue William Ryan and Walter Pitman in their fascinating book, Noah’s Flood: the New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).
 For these questions, I am indebted to the expert analysis of Ian Plimer in his tellingly critical book, Telling Lies for God, (Sydney: Random House, 1994). I was also expertly assisted by geologist DrDavid Cohen, Associate Professor and Head, School ofBiological, Earth and Environmental Sciences,University ofNew South Wales,Sydney. David is also Chair of the Academic Board of Moore Theological College, appointed in June 2011.
 Telling Lies for God, 110.
 John Van Seters defines a myth as ‘a traditional story about events in which the god or gods are the primary actors, and the action takes place outside of historical time. In addition, myth contains some structure of meaning that is concerned with the deep problems of life and offers explanations for the way things are’. He defines legends as stories about heroes and eponymic forefathers, which, because they are usually about godlike figures and set in a time that is essentially a-historical or pre-historical, are more similar to myth than history, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis, (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1992), 25.
 Jews and Muslims have also, historically, accepted the Noah story as factual, although the Qur’an’s version of the story is slightly different to that found in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
 The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, identifies as an inerrantist in his book The Revelation of God, (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002). He states his understanding of inerrancy in these terms: ‘Those wishing to assert inerrancy (as I do) use the word ‘inerrant’ to signify ‘the quality of being free from all falsehood and mistake’, and hence assert that ‘Holy Scripture is entirely free from all falsehood in all its assertions,’ 199, 200. As he understands it, this includes all matters historical and scientific in its scope.
 After 10 years teaching atMooreCollege, I left to work with (now Bishop)John McIntyre at the parish ofSouth Sydney. That was in 2002.
 Stuart Barton Babbage, Memoirs of a Loose Canon, (Brunswick East: Acorn Press, 2004).