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Ancient Fears: The Return of the Flood Saga
November 13, 2012 1:40 PM   Subscribe

"The word reclaim came up more than once to describe the rising tide. It is a revealing word, more narrative than simply descriptive: it hints at some larger backstory, some plot twist in a longer saga about our claims and the water’s counterclaims to the earth.… This story was already ancient when it was adapted for the biblical text—which is to say, it records a very old fear. Like all old fears, it has the uncanny feel of a vivid memory. It may be a memory of an actual flood in an actual Sumerian city, Shurrupal, ca 2800 B.C.E. In fact, it may be even older than that."
posted by the mad poster! (21 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The one complication that could result from modern day biblical literalists finally accepting global warming is that they would see floods as inevitable signs of Divine wrath and rather than contributing towards hydrocarbon reduction efforts they would instead be out to build their own arks.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:14 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Awesome article. I was really glad he pointed out that the much, much earlier Divine Flood narratives painted the gods responsible as being petulant and impulsive, whereas Genesis' narrative lays the blame squarely on human beings. I wonder what, over the course of thousands of years and retellings of this story, brought about the idea that immoral behavior brought about the Divine Flood, as opposed to psychopathic gods?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:29 PM on November 13, 2012


that's interesting. I think it's related to the general differences between capricious polytheist gods and an omniscient monotheist deity. Going by this article's ideas about the political implications, maybe they're stand-ins for types of rulers?
posted by the mad poster! at 2:38 PM on November 13, 2012


I think that has more to do with the difference between polytheistic and monotheistic religions.

In polytheistic religions where there are multiple gods, there's room for multiple points of view. Some gods can be right and others wrong about things, so over time the gods come to resemble human beings and their stories become parables about us. But in a monotheistic religion there's only one god, one point of view, and by definition he (it's almost always a he) can't be wrong about anything. (Because if the one and only god isn't perfect, perfection is impossible, and we're totally screwed.) Thus the god becomes a teacher and his stories are all about how flawed we are, and how we must become more like him.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:43 PM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


@Burhanistan - wouldn't that be breaking the Covenant that Jehovah wouldn't destroy the world by flood anymore, symbolized by the rainbow?

Not that continuity errors are a major bugaboo for the average fundamentalist.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:59 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


A civilization's geography determines the nature of its pantheon, since pantheon develop from the personification of natural forces. In the case of Sumeria, the river floods - while necessary for life - were destructive and unpredictable. The Sumerian gods were destructive and unpredictable. Move on over to Egypt, where the river floods with great predictability, and the gods are pretty chillaxed.
posted by absalom at 2:59 PM on November 13, 2012


*wouldn't destroy the world by flood, I meant to say. Yay editing capability!
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:01 PM on November 13, 2012


In polytheistic religions where there are multiple gods, there's room for multiple points of view. Some gods can be right and others wrong about things, so over time the gods come to resemble human beings and their stories become parables about us. But in a monotheistic religion there's only one god, one point of view, and by definition he (it's almost always a he) can't be wrong about anything. (Because if the one and only god isn't perfect, perfection is impossible, and we're totally screwed.)

Yeah, I've heard this explanation before and it still doesn't seem to fit. Perfection was impossible in the polytheistic world, yet people managed. I feel there's a missing step there between One God and Perfect God.

I dunno, I think a flawed One God would be a lot more interesting. A single ruler, but not without his quirks and vices. Like if Bill Clinton were a deity. Admirable, maybe even inspiring or someone to aspire to, but not perfect.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:07 PM on November 13, 2012


That would be Shurrupak, not Shurrupal.
posted by brokkr at 3:12 PM on November 13, 2012


"Like if Bill Clinton were a deity."

Sounds like Zeus. They'd have a lot in common, anyway.

I think perfection is possible in polytheistic religions, but it's a collective perfection, evolving over time. Gods screw up and learn from their mistakes, and from each other. Just like people do.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:13 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is extremely interesting because I just finished reading "The Evolution of Creationism" by David R. Montgomery (which I almost certainly found linked here, but can't readily find which post or comment) which provides a fascinating look into how geology and the legend of the flood have intertwined over the centuries.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:28 PM on November 13, 2012


Ahhh, this is fascinating. The quotation in the OP especially hit me -- I really love the idea of collective memory and archetypes in mythology. Thanks!
posted by jeudi at 4:12 PM on November 13, 2012


Because if the one and only god isn't perfect, perfection is impossible, and we're totally screwed.
someone should make a religion like this
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:42 PM on November 13, 2012


...the much, much earlier Divine Flood narratives painted the gods responsible as being petulant and impulsive, whereas Genesis' narrative lays the blame squarely on human beings.

That's the story Genesis' God would have you believe and the story as it is usually taught, but it never struck me that way, even as a child. First of all, let's skip over Genesis 6:1-4 because it's just so weird (in the biblical context--it's perfectly straightforward as a text borrowed from a polytheistic religion), being about giants and multiple deities (who?) taking human wives and stuff. Getting right to the story as told in Sunday School:
5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

6 And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

7 And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
Yep, humans are to blame. Except that makes no sense. God is both omnipotent and omniscient. How could he not see this coming? This isn't the old "why did God make Man sinful" argument. This is a "how can an omniscient being have regrets" argument. It makes absolutely zero sense to want to clean the canvas and start again, if you are God.

Not to mention the fact, that he doesn't. He didn't change the blueprint. The Rainbow Covenant was unilateral. God promises not to wipe us out again and we promise bupkus. We filled up the Earth again and can't possibly be any less sinful now than before the Flood. So what was accomplished exactly?

To me, it really still reads (and read at the time) as petulance.
posted by DU at 7:05 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I want to address the theme of the article, which I think may be trying to draw a false equivalency between the morality tale of Noah's flood and our alleged current psychological stance post-Sandy: (I posted this comment there as well.)

"But another version of the story, the one that is anxiously circulating now among many people, echoes the one from the Book of Genesis, the version that says we aren’t just victims or heroes of the storm but its perpetrators. Our basic claim to the dry earth is conditional on our behavior. We cannot simply rebuild but must change our ways. And if we don’t, the waters will reclaim the land."

Well, of course it resembles the old moralistic tale, but there's one crucial difference: in our case, there is a demonstrable causal relationship between our behaviour and the rising of the waters, one that is not primarily based in morality (CO2 increasing, and trapping heat, has nothing directly to do with morality, it's simply chemistry and physics.)

Our choice to go on doing little about global warming, given that we have more than enough evidence to invoke the cautionary principle, at the very least, is where morality enters in, after the causal fact. This "sinning" by inaction is a very different thing than what the moralists who wrote Genesis were thinking of. They had no causal mechanism to explain the flood other than "God's angry at us!" To turn Hume's famous phrase on its head: They sought to derive an "is" from an "ought". In our case, the science speaks for itself, and the morality is, while important for our response to the crisis, not involved in the cause.
posted by Philofacts at 9:03 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


WWZD?
posted by homunculus at 12:15 AM on November 14, 2012


I thought the flood myth dated back to the Black Sea being flooded by the Mediterranean around the 6th millennium BC.
posted by happyroach at 12:41 AM on November 14, 2012


God promises not to wipe us out again and we promise bupkus.
this makes God the angry father who beats his kid to within an inch of his life in a blind rage. Then he comes home the next day with a shiny new toy and promises it will never happen again. He beats him because he loves him so much.
posted by camdan at 12:58 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Because if the one and only god isn't perfect, perfection is impossible, and we're totally screwed.
someone should make a religion like this"

Are you being ironic? 'Cause isn't that totally Gnosticism?

*thinks* Or not, maybe - I think there are two gods in Gnosticism. Or a proper god and a pretender. Or something. But anyhow the 'we're screwed' part applies, in this life at least.
posted by glasseyes at 2:23 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


When the Genesis stories were created, Judaism was probably a polytheistic religion. The stories had only been slightly retconned towards monotheism by the priests of Yahweh when they were written down: God still talks about "us", and there are still references to Jews worshipping other gods.

Omnipotence is tricky to define. The Old Testament God is referred to as "shadday" or "shaddai" in Hebrew, meaning almighty. You can interpret this to mean omnipotent in the way a later philosopher or theologian might mean it. But it could also just mean "very mighty".

So, I don't think we can conclude much about what the Genesis flood story tells us about an omnipotent monotheistic God, because it wasn't told about one.

One of the interesting early Christian variants (or heresies) was Marcionism, which taught there were two gods: a violent, wrathful Old Testament god and a merciful New Testament god. It lost out to what became orthodox Christianity though.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:16 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


[Pat] Robertson tells Christians: Radiocarbon dating proves no dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, David Edwards, The Raw Story, 27 November 2012
posted by ob1quixote at 11:18 AM on November 29, 2012


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