Noah in Context: Meaning and Purpose

mardukWhat if the ruler(s) of the heavens were capricious, vindictive, and immature? At times, life is harsh and it’s not hard to think the whole thing is run on the whims of an angry god.

What if the benefits and victories of life, too few and far between, are random acts of benevolence by limited deities with no universal scope or consistent justice? The race is not to the swift, after all, and good things happen often to those who do not deserve them.

What if the deities are as scared as we are, overpowered by forces beyond even divine control?

What if God were to enact genocidal destruction at every great failure of society?

These issues, and more, form the difference between the Mesoptamian flood myths and the Noah story. Though the stories are similar in many details (a vessel which saves one man and his relations, animals brought on board, the vessel resting on a mountain as the flood recedes, sending out birds to check for land, a sacrifice following the flood), the world of meaning could not be more different.

Mesopotamian religion, like many others, is based on the experiential difficulties of life. The goal is to prevent tragedy and maximize blessing through worship, appeasement, and he occasional use of professionals whose incantations can be a last-resort measure of life-manipulation.

In Mesopotamia and other ancient cultures, the deities were not the highest power. Above deity was a sort of realm of magic which gods and goddesses could use imperfectly to carry out their acts of power in the world. People were caught below the realm of deity and also below the realm of nature. The power of the gods was over the natural forces. The hierarchy looked something like this:

Magic

The Gods

Nature

Humanity

Through incantations, working with little power and almost blindly, people could sometimes successfully put pressure even on the gods. But for the most part, the gods could use their magic (things like tablets of destiny and so on) to control wind and fertility and life and death. People were at the mercy of natural forces and divine forces.

And the gods? They are immature, capricious wreakers of havoc. In the Sumerian flood myth and in the Atrahasis Epic, Enlil’s reason for destroying all life with the flood was noise. People were too noisy. He was having trouble sleeping.

If you’d like to understand the way ancient peoples viewed the gods, just read Homer’s Iliad. Greek religion is very related to Mesopotamian religion. And the Iliad is written about the time of Isaiah the prophet.

So, recognizing the way of the world at the time the Noah story was written. consider what a revolutionary and paradigm-changing piece of literature we have in the Bible.

The Message of Noah
You are living in the Ancient Near East. All the deities you have ever known were fearsome and immature. Your life depends on the whim of dozens of immortal beings. You know of a history of flood and destruction. You fear not only the death of your children to disease and starvation, but also that in your lifetime another deluge may come.

Then you hear the Noah story.

God’s reason for destroying life in the distant past was not something trivial. It was to control the spread of violence (hamas in Hebrew–yes, note the connection of the word to a certain Palestinian terror group). God cares about violence and evil and is doing something about it.

There is a purpose and a guiding hand in history. You find yourself in a new paradigm for understanding life. There is hope if a divine power, claimed by these storytellers to be the ultimate divine power, is at least doing something about the problem. You may never understand the cruelties of life completely, but there is comfort in knowing a divine being has a plan.

And Noah and his family were saved. They were not saved because they happened to be the favorites of some deity. Their salvation was not random. They were saved because Noah was a good man, a man whose life was characterized by faith in the One God, by deeds of righteousness.

God cares about how we live, whether we join the violence and corruption or participate in acts that heal the world.

And you find that in spite of all the pain and suffering, there is a blessing on the life of humankind. God gave it to the first man, Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Did God rescind that blessing in the flood? In the Noah story, you find that God is still blessing humankind with fertility and spreading and growth.

People are not noisy pests disturbing the divine powers, we are the image of divinity blessed to fill and rule the earth. We ourselves are what would be called gods and goddesses. And what is above us is not some impersonal realm of magic and fear, but the ultimate benevolent deity.

All of the questions are not answered. We still wonder why some years there is too little rain or locusts destroy the crop. We still wonder why children die and why famine takes our old people all too early. Violence is not out of the world. God is not immediately solving all our problems.

But hope has arrived. The ancient stories have been misunderstood. God is in his heaven and smiles down on us, and he also weeps when we weep. This violence is not what he desires.

There may not be answers. But there is hope.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Noah in Context: Meaning and Purpose

  1. judahgabriel says:

    Wonderful set of posts on Noah and the flood, Derek. I will be keeping these in my archives for future reference. Great work.

    >> People are not noisy pests disturbing the divine powers

    Sometimes I wonder! ;-)

  2. dansangelflew says:

    This was educational and encouraging. Thank you so much. It was a blessing to read this after having finishing the parasha Noach earlier on today. Take Care brother. May you and your continue to be blessed and kept, b’shem Yeshua. Amein.

  3. tnnonline says:

    What makes this discussion very important, is that from time to time you will encounter Jewish anti-missionaries who will claim that the accounts of Yeshua’s life in the Gospels are derived from paganism. Of course, if this is really the case, then one could similarly argue that many more stories seen in the Tanach come from paganism.

  4. Great point, J.K. (tnnonline). Derek, great series overall!

    The section in chapter 9 where God establishes a covenant with “all flesh on the earth”–does that idea reflect a particularly Biblical angle on the story? I’m especially curious about the rainbow–it seems like such a perfect touch!

  5. Looking at J.K.(tnnonline)’s point from a slightly different angle:

    In my experience, many Christians (including Messianics) believe that the Bible is untainted by anything pagan. Consequently, there’s a common reaction against traditions introduced throughout church history which aren’t clearly mandated in the Bible as being pagan and therefore bad. However: if the ancient Israelites were able to understand the workings of the God of Israel through common (pagan) stories of antiquity, might this suggest a beautiful precedent–that all nations should “reread” their own histories and cultural traditions–and redeem them!–in light of the truth about the God of Israel?

  6. tnnonline says:

    I have found that those who have commented on this Noah/Epic of Gilgamesh topic to be very mature in handing this issue. I commend you all! I think we all have a feeling that there are a number of issues where today’s broad Messianic community is significantly behind the curve, either in terms of the Penatateuch’s composition, the early Genesis accounts, and soon enough various scientific issues. The pendulum is going to steadily shift more toward the position that many conservative evangelicals currently espouse, as opposed to those in the more fundamentalist branches of the faith. It has to.

    If we can maintain the constructive tone I have seen, we will maintain both the authority of the Scriptures, and not fall into any liberal traps that really do want to make the Bible all fairy tales.

  7. amiel4messiah says:

    Shalom Derek. I have been following this thread with great interest. A few years ago, my faith was almost destroyed by reading various books from the ‘Critical/Historical’ school of thought. Most of them were by Jewish authors (e.g. Richard Friedman “who wrote the Bible”) and when my (Reform) Rabbi began to endorse them, it nearly pushed me over the edge.

    Thank G-d for His grace. I may no longer believe that the scriptures were dictated ‘word for word’ but I DO passionately believe that the Bible ‘contains’ the word of G-d and that the scriptures in their ‘original’ form were the real thing.

    I wonder if any of you have read Natan Slifkin’s book “The Challenge of Creation”? I have just started reading it. Any other book recommendations on the subject would be very welcome.

    Shabbat Shalom to you all!

  8. amiel4messiah says:

    Many thanks :-) I will look it up.

  9. Pingback: The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth « Biblical Paths

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  13. tonnic420 says:

    I followed this post to the end and came to one conclusion, religious people make up what they to to convince themselves God is real.
    You start off on the right track, showing how the story of Noah was not an original story, and you finish with trying to convince yourself that God had somehow told Mosses the story through telepathy.
    God took care of the heathens, even if it’s genocide at least he’s doing something…are you serious with this?
    They would’ve been Mosses family since we all came from Adam and Eve, but somehow were heathens. Yahweh also apparently forgot to tell the Sumerians who he was, and the Babylonians, the Assyrians, Greeks, Guals, Egyptians, Chinese, do I need to go on? I’d hope not.
    At many stages through the posts I just felt like screaming at the screen, “you’re just making stuff up now”.
    It was a sad walk in the mind of the religious for me to see logic be trampled by faith.

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