Thursday, October 18, 2012

What do we do about Noah?

Though no evidence exists to support the claim that a flood destroyed the entire world less than 6000 years ago, believers (like me!) still have a few maneuvers at their disposal, including:

(1) Abject denial: This approach is favored by home-schooled Christians, graduates of UOJ yeshivahs, and the semi-literate. It consists of holding your hands over your ears and shouting as loudly as possible that the BIBLE IS TRUE AND SECULARISTS JUST WANT TO RUIN EVERYTHING. More sophisticated deniers might roll their eyes or cluck their tongues, instead. This is not my solution.

(2) Ad hoc solutions: These include suggesting that the teva changed, or that the effects of the flood altered the evidence. I don't like this much either, as neither can be supported with anything observable in nature. Intellectually, its the same as claiming women are impregnated by invisible fairies.

(3) Reinterpreting the verses: The suggestion here is that the verses should not be understood to be describing a global flood. The underlying reasoning goes like this:

a - We don't/can't/won't say that anything the Torah says is false.

b - The claim that the whole world was once destroyed by a flood is false (we know this from the evidence).

c - Therefore, the Torah can't possibly be saying that the whole world was destroyed by a flood.

Many believers are threatened by this conclusion. I can't understand why.  There's no way to shoehorn a global flood into the available evidence. If you're going to insist that the Torah is true -- and if it's also true that there was no global flood --  we must go back to the verses and try again to work out what the Torah is really saying.

Reinterpreting verses to fit new facts is an old tradition, and one supported by men like Saadya Gaon. For generations, Jews pointed to the story of Joshua and used it to argue that the sun revolves around the earth. When insurmountable evidence was produced which showed that it was the other way around, the verse in Joshua was reinterpreted. According to Marc Shapiro, legions of Jews -including Tannaim and Rishonim - once thought God had corpreal qualities. Now that the Rambam's argument for an incorporeal God have won the day, all of the verses about God's arm and his hand have been reinterpreted.

The approach to Noah that I am proposing in this post is no more radical. In fact, if you honestly believe that the Torah is true, you have no other choice: The verses must fit the evidence. To allow them to do otherwise, is to concede that the Torah is false.

You can also solve the problem by conceding the genre error and allowing that the Torah isn't supposed to be understood as history. Or you can accept what the Biblical Critics say and concede that the Torah isn't divine in origin. Neither of these answers, unfortunately, are resolutions that are available to believers 

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