True Myth Part 3: Noah’s Ark, Utnapishtim’s Ark

Eamonn Clark

So here’s a shocking fact for your Monday afternoon… The story of Noah and the Flood is reiterated in ancient cultures across the entire planet. China, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, North and South America, Oceania… In all these places we find a story about a pre-historical global flood, typically brought on by divine power in response to some problem or frustration, a hero who wins survival (almost always with a boat in which he protects some other living creatures), and ensuing re-population, usually after a prayer of thanksgiving. Some even have their own version of the mysterious “Nephilim” and the “sons of God” who fathered them, mentioned immediately before the story of Noah – and not just in the Ancient Near East. What does that tell us?

Possibly a lot, especially given a defining characteristic of the Jewish version… Unlike the other heroes, who are saved because of their strength or cleverness, Noah is saved because of his righteousness.

Beyond this, the order of the world after the Jewish Flood is quite different, including a clear provision for violence in both sustenance and punishment; there is a covenant; and in the end of the story we find the very roots of the rivalry between the Jews (the descendants of Shem… “semites”) and the Canaanites (the descendants of Ham). Quite significant.

The words “Noah’s Ark” often brings one of two visceral reactions: open mockery or full-blown fundamentalist zeal. I suggest that neither are warranted. Without an attempt to unpack every intimation of salvation history and every echo of other Flood narratives, here are some quick thoughts for consideration.

The story of Noah is much subtler than people usually give it credit for. Like many Biblical texts, it has a chiastic structure (ex. A, B, C, B’, A’), where each part of the story is “undone” or “reflected” in reverse order later on, with the apex being the moment that God “remembers” Noah. Also, the Ark is not an “equal opportunity” vessel: one pair of each of the unclean animals, seven pairs of the clean animals. Of course, all life is contained in the Ark – nothing outside survives the Flood. The point is to purify the Earth… although some “impure” things are kept alive intentionally, thus pointing towards some later, more complete purification.

Perhaps this helps explain why violence is explicitly sanctioned by God after the Flood – both to kill animals for food, and to kill men as punishment (“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…” – Gen. 9:6). The antedeluvian order is not simply reiterated, lest it go awry once more. Since God commits Himself to refraining from destroying the whole Earth again as in the Flood, the race of men evidently need the right to govern themselves more severely, and to “cleanse” their concupiscence by eating flesh. (It is not entirely clear that eating meat was forbidden before the Flood, but it is at least explicitly allowed after.)

Unlike Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah does not win immortality; in fact, he dies shortly afterward. And lifespans get shorter in general. (Bossuet notes this in his wonderful book The Continuity of Religion – a wetter, cooler climate would lead to shorter lives, goes his explanation.) So what was the Flood for? It leads to an arguably more violent world order with shorter lifespans, and the ritual impurity aboard the ark was outmatched by the spiritual impurity of Ham, who shames his father Noah and becomes the patriarch of the wicked race of Canaanites whom will be purged by the descendants of Shem. Could it be pointing at a spiritual order yet to come, where lives are yet longer, and there is no bloodshed, in crime or punishment, and no need to purge anyone from the Earth? It seems that the story expresses this longing, which cuts through all cultures… The Flood doesn’t present itself as a permanent solution.

While we should expect similar stories across cultures about eternal things, the similarities between Flood myths are striking. Could there have really been some prehistoric event, perhaps in North East Africa or the Fertile Crescent which was carried by early human migration across the planet? It’s certainly possible.

Supposing this, what would that mean for the Jewish account of the story? Are the Jews simply “sprinkling some God on it” for the sake of some theological agenda? Whether that is true or not, it remains that the text itself is inspired – apparently, this is the version of the story which God prefers, and its lessons are the ones to be learned. This would be true regardless of its literal historical status. The text is revelatory and so can tell us His own private thoughts and actions – such as a covenant or moral prescriptions. Whether the historical figures of an ancient flood did precisely what Noah did is not exactly the point either way. Reducing Scripture to mere “brute fact” history cheapens it in a way. God’s inspiration of “epic history” – however “literally” historical – makes him like a supernatural version of Herodotus. He gives us the interpretation of important historical events which is most conducive to salvation.

And that perspective is what has to inform any Christian study of comparative religion… God knows well the context in which He has taught and appeared and uses it to His advantage. A universal Flood myth, healed and spiritualized by the Jewish account, is a great example.

True Myth, Part 2: A Hidden Lesson in Eden

Eamonn Clark

Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.

We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.

We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.

The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.

The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…

In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.

Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.

It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.

No more magic.

True Myth, Part 1: The Fundamental Thesis

Eamonn Clark

While interest in religion and in myth are perennial, at this moment it is particularly appropriate to dive into a study of the relationship here between true religion and true myth. This is not only because of my own personal acute interest presently, but the broader culture at large seems abnormally interested as well. This is due in no small part, perhaps almost exclusively, to the success of Intellectual Dark Web numero uno, Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise into international superstardom has exposed many people for the first time to a serious way of thinking about religion, especially Christianity, in a way similar to the exploration which will be undertaken here. For all his ideological red-pilling, which has made him most well-known (and which I typically find incredibly satisfying  to watch), his most popular video to date is the first in his series on the Bible. With Jung for a guide, Peterson explores the Scriptures from a psychological and pragmatic point of view. (Maybe a few parts of this series will pick apart one of his lectures.) While this kind of work is useful to an extent, my own sojourn into this region of thought will emphasize not only the usefulness of religion and myth, but their usefulness specifically insofar as they are true in a realist sense. William James’s self-defeating paradigm has little to do with my project. Religions might be useful in a number of temporal ways, but clearly we want to find a “non-temporal usefulness” which is powerful in its own right, such that its object can save us from that state in which we are no longer able to act on our own. When we are dead, we are no longer pragmatists… we are helpless. So we are here investigating not merely the truly useful; we are concerned with the usefully true. We want a saving truth, as it were, which can operate on its own.

With that introduction, here is the fundamental thesis. God gave mankind in general many common desires and ideas about the universe. The myths of various profane civilizations reveal these desires and ideas in fragmented ways, and the stories of the sacred civilization of Israel reveal them more plainly. Through the Biblical narrative of salvation, God corrected, spiritualized, and completed the profane myths. This threefold action corresponds to the triple purpose of grace – to heal, to elevate, and to perfect – and also corresponds to the triple munera of Christ, the prophet, the priest, and the king. As prophet, God corrects, as priest, He spiritualizes, and as king he completes. The Biblical story is mankind’s true myth, the perfect expression of what God wants us  to believe about and to desire from ourselves, the rest of creation, and God Himself. There is no archetype left untouched, no emotion left unexplored, no space of the human mind left unsatisfied. In the Judeo-Christian narrative we will consistently find God’s threefold action on profane myth, and this action is exhaustive.

The first topic we dive into will be a little slice of the opening pages of Genesis – and the Ancient Near East mythical context which helps us make sense of some of the puzzling imagery. What is this “fruit” all about?