Kieran Fenn fms
With th release of what’s described as an epic film about the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, it’s timely to look at the question of biblical interpretation. Kieran Fenn fms warns against literal interpretation of such Genesis stories, advising readers to instead look at the context in which they were written and those to whom they were directed.
Noah’s Ark has been the goal of numerous searches in the past 2,000 years. From the time the first Christians in the region of the Ararat mountain range between Turkey and Armenia built a Temple of the Ark, searches to find the colossal ship that saved the ancestors of the new human race gained momentum. From the seventh century wooden relic of St Jacob to the 18th century vision of the pastor of Bayzit at the foot of the mountains, expeditions have continued, with lots of claims but no proof.
An erroneous and unchecked presupposition disqualifies all these searches. The Bible does not say that the Ark rested on ‘Mount Ararat’ at the end of the deluge as most people interpreted. Instead, Genesis says it was ‘in the mountains of Ararat’ (Gen 8:4). For the Bible, ‘Ararat’ is not the name of a mountain but of a nation. This is quite clear from the three other references (2 Kgs 19:37; Is 37:38; Jer 51:27). The country is the old Urartu, present day Armenia. That great scholar, St Jerome, in the Vulgate, gave the correct translation as ‘the mountains of Armenia.’
The details of the story suggest that rather than an actual ark, the story has been narrated to make a point. The ark’s dimensions compare with a 19th century ocean-going ship yet the only labour Noah had were his children and their wives.
The most picturesque and hardest to admit were the details concerning the animals. How would a pair of all the existing species, gathered from the five continents, save them from extinction? 1,700 species of mammals, 10,087 of birds, 987 of reptiles, and 1,200,000 species of insects? How could six persons create the different environments needed by each animal considering their food, climate, and other needs?
The inescapable conclusion confronts us with the answer that there was no universal deluge. Nearly every culture will have tales of deluges that did happen, but not a flood so universal to the point of destroying all forms of life on the planet. The people of the time were aware of the nature of the stories they told. The language and images signified an educative story rather than an historical account.
What the deluge teaches
The author took a pre-existing story, with all its interesting details, to transmit a religious teaching. The first lesson was that the flood came about because of human frailty, a lesson for our own endangered planet.
Sin accumulated to the point of corruption and perversion that provoked a catastrophe. With all this, the world came back to the chaos that existed before creation. The order that God has put into creation could be destroyed by human irresponsibility.
Among the many sinful people there was a just man, Noah, a man put to the test, told to build a great ship, in the middle of the desert, on firm ground.
No reason no complaint
No reason is given Noah; he is told to do it and wait. Ridicule from his contemporaries would follow, and Noah’s only answer could be ‘God ordered me to do so. I obey.’ No complaint comes from his lips over four chapters; no other biblical character is portrayed as being told so little and saying so little. Finally God reveals the secret of the rain.
The message is clear according to the ways of the Old Testament. If humanity obeys God’s orders, it will be saved. If it disobeys, it faces self-destruction. God specifies the measurements, materials, and form of the ark. We have to shape our lives according to God’s dimensions and then we will transcend any storm.
Those who do not listen to God’s guidance will drown. This is far more important than the historical issues mentioned earlier. Rather than scaling Mt Ararat to look for the ark, we should scale the peaks of learning and looking to the Word of God to live out its message in our lives.
Valdes, A A The Bible: Questions People Ask. Used with express permission of Claretian Press.