Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Noach as Non-Metaphor

In contrast to the Tree of Knowledge story which I discussed last week, the Flood story does not seem to be intended as metaphor purely from evidence internal to the text. Certainly there are moral lessons to be learned from the Flood story, but the same is true in general for all of the Biblical narrative. While the Tree of Knowledge story involved people named for types (the Man and the Woman), a reality plainly divorced from that one encounters in daily life (talking snakes, magical trees), and the "punishments" reflected aspects of and changes to the very nature of Man and Reality, I do not see how the same can be said for anything in the Noach story. If one wishes to deny the truth of the story, that is one thing, but pat dismissal of the accuracy of the story by labelling it allegory, without text-internal evidence that this is what is intended, seems unfair to the text, regardless of how one assesses its truth content.

There in response to Krum as a Bagel's comment about the allegorizing of the Flood Narrative in an article in Tradition by Rabbi Shubert Spero {Update, thanks to Krum: the article and responses}, and a debate that raged on the Avodah mailing list in response to it. I confess I have not read the article, so cannot really comment on its merits. Perhaps someone could post a summary in a blogpost or a comment here? {Update: Now I have the article, so perhaps I'll post on it in the future.} The thing is, one can allegorize anything, including, say, a truthful account of the events leading up to the war in Iraq. I would like evidence that it was intended as metaphor or allegory, and the evidence would preferably be something text internal rather than conflict with contemporary science.

And where the conflict? Let us turn to this. Is there a conflict?

One advocating for the mythological status of the Noach Flood narrative will no doubt point to flood narratives from other cultures, particularly in surrounding cultures. For example, the Gilgamesh epic. They will point to flood myths among the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Egyptians, Sumerians, etc., as well as throughout the world (See here). The implication is that either there is cultural borrowing of elements of a myth, or what seems more likely, this is a common element of folklore. Ever heard of Stith Thompson numbers? These are numbers assigned to various common elements of folklore. For example, "boy slays giant" gets a number. Child takes leave of mother to go on adventure.

However, Stith Thompson numbers can be misleading. While an undergraduate at YU, I took a course in Arthurian legends, and I found many parallels between Arthurian legends and specific midrashim. At first, these were dismissed as being based on common themes that are cross-cultural, i.e. Stith Thompson numbers. But I was able to show much closer relationship, by demonstrating that there were multiple very specific parallels between the legend and midrash. (See here for the paper.) For example, Merlin when compared with the demon Ashmodai. I write:
The parallels become clear when one strips away the specific details and examines the large subset these two stories share. Both kings need help in constructing a building, consult their wise men, and are told to seek the help of demons or the son of a demon. Both kings send out people to capture this being. While they are en route to the king, both Ashmedai and Merlin demonstrate their supernatural powers by exhibiting knowledge that no human could possess. Even that which they reveal is similar. Both Ashmedai and Merlin laugh at a man buying shoes, knowing that the man will soon die and have no need for any. Ashmedai laughs at a sorcerer speaking of treasures, who does not know what lies beneath his feet, and Merlin claims that the king's astrologers do not know what is under their feet. Both claims are substantiated when the king's men dig up the ground.
So something can be dismissed as being a common folkloric theme when in fact there is something much deeper.

In this instance, that a Flood story appears all over the world is taken as evidence that it did not happen and that the story is folklore. Is it not possible that the reason every culture seems to have a story about a flood was that the story is true, and that there was indeed a global flood, or at least a massive flood that would have had lasting impact, enough to be recorded in some form? The global nature of the story argues at least as much for its truth as for its folklorish nature.

Now, science tells us there was no flood. Perhaps. They find no evidence of such a flood. They did not send probes to the past, but look at available evidence. But absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, as I have argued elsewhere.

Further, who says there is no evidence? There is in fact evidence of a massive regional flood from around the appropriate time, that would have had an impact on the formation of such stories. To cite a Wikipedia article on megatsunamis:
The geological record suggests that megatsunamis are rare, but due to their size and power, can produce immensely devastating effects. However as with Lituya bay, this is often localized; the most recent megatsunami known to have a widespread impact, reshaping an entire coastline, occurred approximately 4,000 years ago on Réunion island, to the east of Madagascar.
Now, the current Jewish year is 5766, which means that, if the account is accurate, (which means we truly understand the meaning of the various psukim throughout, itself not clear), then Adam would be born 5766 years ago. The following chart, based on the genealogical lists in Bereishit, gives each person and the number of years they lived before fathering their first child:
Adam 130
Shet 105
Enosh 90
Kenan 70
Mehalalel 65
Yered 162
Enoch 65
Metushelach 187
Lemech 182
Noach 600

For Noach, the year 600 is the year of his life the Flood purportedly began. Tallying the total, the flood began in 1656 from the Genesis. 5766 - 1656 = 4110. Madagascar, and Reunion Island, off the eastern coast of Africa, in the Indian ocean, was affected by a megatsunami approximately 4000 years ago. And that is the most recent recorded one. Afterwards, we have the sign of the rainbow (an archer's bow facing away from earth) with its assigned meaning of a promise not to bring such a megatsunami to the world.

There are also other recordings of ancient megatsunamis. From the same article:
In the Norwegian Sea, the Storegga Slide caused a megatsunami 7,000 years ago. Extensive geological investigations indicate that the risk of a re-occurrence is minimal.
This is the wrong area, and a bit too early - before Adam, but who knows if we have the dating correct of these early events?

Update: Note that there is a distinction between regular tsunamis and megatsunamis. See Wikipedia article for more details.


respondingtojblogs said...

Why didn't you mention the megatsunamis of the 20th century or this one:
There are indications that a giant tsunami was generated by the bolide impact that created the Chesapeake Bay impact crater, a shallow-water near-shore impact off the eastern North American coastline about 35.5 million years ago, in the late Eocene Epoch.

joshwaxman said...

1) Um... what *mega*-tsunamis of the 20th century? The Wikipedia article mentions one man-made one, but otherwise, they seem to be only hypothesized by geologists. There is a different between the regular tsunamis (which, as we have recently seen, can have devastating impact) and the much more extreme megatsunamis.

2) The Wikipedia article suggests that megatsunamis are rare. I would thus doubt that there were several 20th century *mega*-tsunamis. The article mentions one, and it was man-made.

3) A megatsunami happening 35.5 million years ago is quite simply irrelevant. What was under discussion was whether the Noach narrative can reflect an underlying reality, and in fact, the most recent natural *megatsunami* which was known to have had widespread impact was this one about 4000 years ago, and that dates almost exactly to the one in Noach's time.

4) Of course, I am not a geologist or meteorologist, so I am not privy to all of the facts. I am basing myself on this Wikipedia article and others I have seen on the web. If I missed something, please give me a reference.

Anonymous said...

I think there is sufficient evidence for that his name is chen backwards, the role he plays in "fixing" the problems of the previous generations...and more.

Anyway, there's a google ad next to this post for Flood Insurance!


joshwaxman said...

Cute. And I'm getting ads for Hurricane Katrina, and for helping pets hurt by Wilma (poor Dino). :)

The difficulty with reading any allegorical reading into a text is that it is very subjective. X's allegorical reading of a Biblical story is more likely to tell you more about X than about the Biblical story in question. For example, the Rambam's reading of the Etz HaDaat, as compared with the Rav's contrast of Adam 1 and Adam 2.

Additionally, there are always possible readings of names as bearing various significance. Here, the pasuk in Bereishit 5:29 explicitly gives a different reason for his name. Random examples that come to mind - Shlomo is an anagram for HaMoshel (almost reading it backwards), and he ruled over the entire world. His brother and David's son, the remarkably handsome Adoniyahu, could be said to parallel the Greek paragon of handsomeness, Adonis. To my mind, that does not mean that narratives involving them are intended as allegory. Rather, it tells me how good humans are at creating connections and rationalizations.

In other words, I'd need more to see this as text-internal evidence rather than an exernally imposed allegory upon the text.


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