Noah, Gender Roles and Same-Sex Marriage
A quick reading of the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood might suggest that the only possible relevance of this story to the contemporary debate about same-sex marriage is that God sent this cataclysmic flood to punish the sort of corrupt and corrupting behaviour that gay and lesbian unions represent. One might also argue that efforts to dislodge Bible-long and most-of-church-history-long gender differentiations would and should invite the same angry response that God had to similar boundary breaking by angels and humans in Genesis 6:1-4.
The point is that we mustn’t tamper with what God has created for our good. We mustn’t violate what has been so clearly commanded in God’s Word, the Bible. There is certainly some historic and present strength in arguing along these lines, so much so that most conservative Christians will feel they simply have no room to move on gender roles and same-sex relationships.
I once thought that way – until some surprising implications of the story of Noah’s Flood began to dawn on me. I discovered that the same principles of interpretation that prevent some Christians from budging on homosexuality and gender roles also lock them into unsustainable views on other Biblical matters, including the historicity of Noah’s world-wide flood. Let me explain.
The Noah story
The main details of the Noah story are well enough known, and need only brief rehearsal. At the beginning of Genesis 6, God decides to wipe out every living creature (6:6-8), including the entire human race. Noah and his family alone are spared. They are given instructions to build an ark into which they are to bring seven of every kind of clean animal, two of every unclean animal, and seven of every kind of bird (7:2-3). In Noah’s 600th year, the springs of the great deep burst forth, the floodgates of the heavens are opened, and a forty-day and forty-night deluge is unleashed. With no let up, the floodwaters rise and rise until ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ are covered, covering them to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). ‘Every living thing on the face of the earth’ is thereby wiped out (7:23), except for Noah and those with him on the ark.
What makes this story so interesting and important is that it is so unambiguous. As a Sunday school child, I got the point – easily, quickly and frighteningly. Moreover, whenever the story is referred to elsewhere in the Bible, it appears that the writers are taking the story as straight-forwardly factual. Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus, suggesting he believed Noah to be an actual person. The writer of Hebrews includes Noah in his list of heroes of faith, along with other characters mentioned in Genesis 1-11. Jesus himself appears to have accepted the story of Noah as factual, as indicated by these words from the Olivet Discourse:
‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.’ Matthew 24:37-38 NRSV; parallel passage Luke 17:26-27.
That Jesus accepted the Noah story as factual is good reason for his followers to take it that way as well, as is the fact that the Bible as a whole appears to take it that way. Principles of Biblical interpretation I imbibed at theological college (Moore Theological College in Sydney) encouraged me to accept this story as factual. Three principles in particular, forged during the Protestant Reformation, were influential. The principle of sola Scriptura encouraged me to give much greater weight to what I read in the Scriptures than to other sources of knowledge, including the natural sciences. The principle of the analogy of Scripture encouraged me to be guided by what Scripture says about Scripture, to interpret the doubtful bits by the plain bits. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture asserts that the Bible’s meaning will mostly be obvious – and in the case of the Noah story this seemed correct.
Adding support to a plain-sense reading of the story is the fact that Jewish and Christian interpreters have mostly taken the story as straightforwardly factual. Norman Cohn, in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, chronicles the history of theological reflection on the flood story from pre-Christian times to the present, and notes the near universal acceptance of the Noah story as factual, along with the chronology of Genesis implying a young earth. Many of the first geologists had a Bible in one hand and a pick or shovel in the other as they went about their geological work, convinced they would find ample evidence of a recent and cataclysmic flood.
The trouble is, they didn’t. The genealogies of Genesis 1-11, if taken literally, date Noah’s flood at around 2,300 BC, or about 1,700 years after the creation of the world. According to this dating, the flood happened a very short time ago, and therefore could be expected to have left abundant evidence of its occurrence. There is no such abundant evidence. In fact, there is none. While there is evidence of floods, even large floods, happening at around that time, and earlier, there is no evidence whatsoever of a universal or worldwide flood happening then, or at any other time in human history.
The Noah story, as it stands, faces formidable challenges to be accepted as credible today, challenges that can be expressed in the form of questions such as the following:
Where did all the water come from? 4.4 billion cubic kilometres of water would have had to be added to the oceans for Mt. Everest and other large mountain ranges to be covered.
Where did all the water go after the flood, and in so short a time?
How did the world’s plants survive being submerged for between five months and a year?
How did the world’s fresh-water fish survive their marine environment being swamped by salt water – or vice versa if the water was fresh?
How did Noah and his tiny family keep the animals alive – many with highly specialized dietary requirements? How, for example, were the carnivores fed and kept apart?
How did Noah manage to keep so many species alive? We now know that there are between 50,000 and 75,000 species of birds and animals and about 30 million modern and extinct species of organisms, which raises the problem of how they would all fit on the ark. Even if we assume that there were only two of each animal, rather than 2 plus 7 of some, it has been estimated that each of these animals would have needed to squash into the volume of a milk carton just to fit into the ark.
How did the animals manage to return to their specialized environments – many across un-crossable seas (e.g. Tasmania’s tiger; animals from North and South America).
How did the sloth, who doesn’t walk on land, manage to get all the way back to South America?
Where is the evidence of this massive destruction in places like Australia?
Questions such as these made it impossible, for me at least, to accept the Noah story as factual, even as largely factual. This wasn’t a disturbing realisation. By the time I had begun to ask questions about the historicity of the Noah story, I was already well aware of the widely accepted view that the early chapters of Genesis are best understood as myth, or as a mixture of myth and legend (Sage). Most scholars see the Noah story as a variation and adaptation of earlier Mesopotamian flood stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic, both dated to around the turn of the second millennium BCE.
That the Noah story might be mythical was not a big problem for me. However, I was aware that it constituted a considerable problem to those who persist with the hermeneutic I was taught and embraced at theological college. That there was a flood, and that a man named Noah and his family escaped the flood in a specially made boat, cannot reasonably be doubted by those who follow the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura, the analogy of Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture, especially when you consider that Jesus and his apostles appeared to accept these details as factual, as have most Christians (and Jews and Muslims) up until the last few hundred years. Add to this the common belief among fundamentalists and evangelicals that the Bible is inerrant, that it has no errors, even of a scientific nature, the problem becomes enormous.
There have been two major responses to the problem among conservative Christians. The first is to persist in taking the story literally. This is the approach of those who describe themselves as creationists. The strength of this approach is its consistency. Creationists will often argue, with some warrant, that Christians who are not creationists are inconsistent – they take some parts of the Bible literally, for example, its condemnation of homosexual behaviour, but aren’t willing to give other bits the same respectful and believing treatment. Creationists are admirably consistent. The difficulty with their approach is that it runs in the face of mounting (in fact mounted) scientific evidence against a literalistic reading of the Biblical text.
The second response, which one is more likely to encounter among evangelicals, including Sydney evangelical Anglicans, is to suggest that Genesis 6-9 describes a localized flood. There are two insurmountable problems with this suggestion. The first is that it completely misreads the Noah story. To suggest the flood was localized entirely misses the point of the narrative, which is that God ‘regretted having created human beings on the earth’ (6:6), and would have entirely obliterated all life had it not been for his gracious sparing of Noah (6:6-8). It also seriously underestimates the size of the flood, which is said to top the ‘all the high mountains under the entire heavens’ to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). That is no localized flood. Geologists have found evidence of large floods in Mesopotamia, in Ur, Uruk, Nineveh and Kish, for example, where flood deposits have been dated back to the fourth and early third millennium BCE. However, and significantly, other cities of the region show no such evidence.
A number of things are interesting and relevant for our purposes about this second suggestion. The first is that the only or major reason it has been suggested is because of accumulating scientific evidence. Most of the early geologists were Christian, many of them clergymen. They were the ones who first realized the flood could not have been universal – hence the more modest suggestion of a localized flood. Though I don’t think the suggestion works, it is significant that scientific advances have occasioned a re-reading of the Biblical text. It was under pressure from scientific discoveries that an alternative reading of the story gained widespread credence.
What was interesting to me as I began to think through the implications of these observations was the realization that the story of Noah’s gigantic flood would have seemed entirely credible in the ancient world, and even up until the last three or four hundred years. Those who first told and then wrote down Noah’s story are likely to have believed in a flat earth, above which was a firmament, above which were store houses of water able to be released in the form of rain. They would also have believed that the earth rested on water, and was surrounded by water.
This understanding makes highly credible the possibility of a universal flood. That the waters above and below and around the earth could flood the earth to a depth greater than the earth’s highest mountains would have seemed very possible. That the earth’s entire population of humans and animals could be wiped out by such a flood, that an ark could be built to house the world’s animals, and that these animals were within walking distance of the ark would have been plausible. The story is credible given ancient assumptions. However, we no longer share those assumptions. We have had to re-think the Noah story.
We also, I believe, need to re-think issues of gender and sexuality that are currently on the political and social agenda. For me, the realisation that we could, in fact must, take full account of contemporary knowledge in understanding and appropriating Biblical texts was liberating.
With respect to the issue of gender roles, I began (some years ago now) to wonder whether just as the Biblical writers had cosmological assumptions we no longer accept as true, they were also assuming a patriarchal understanding of male/female relationships no longer appropriate to 21st century life. Supporting this was the observation that within the Bible itself there is significant development. Starting at the beginning of the Bible, it is possible to plot a gradual, but real and sometimes radical dismantling of patriarchal assumptions as the Biblical story unfolds. It is likely that patriarchal assumptionsdo underlie the account of the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall.Those assumptions were ubiquitous within the Jewish culture that spawned that account. They are evident, and in some cases disturbingly evident, in the law codes of the Old Testament. Jewish law gave to men exclusive right to divorce their wives (Deuteronomy 24:1-4); a wife was considered the property of her husband, with few or no property rights herself (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 21:16-17, Numbers 27:5-8); virginity and fidelity requirements were more deliberately and ruthlessly applied to women than to men (Numbers 5:11-31).
Patriarchy comes under significant attack in the ministry of Jesus, or at least earlier expressions of it do. Women are given the right to divorce their husbands (Mark 10:12). Jesus treats women with great respect, and readily accepts them as his disciples. He significantly elevates their status and role. Jesus’ example is followed by his apostles, including Paul. Paul may not have gone all the way towards dismantling patriarchy. However, one could argue that the trajectory established by Jesus and honoured by Paul was of such a nature that patriarchy, like slavery, can reasonably be set aside, especially in a world where women have come to show themselves capable of holding their own at all levels of human endeavour.
Another subject I have had to re-think of late is homosexuality. This was an issue I began to confront in personal and pastoral contexts from the early 2000s when I worked as an Anglican priest in Sydney’s inner suburbs of Redfern, Alexandria, Beaconsfield and Zetland. South Sydney Municipal Council houses a higher than average percentage of gay and lesbian residents. I was aware, in meeting and getting to know people of alternative sexual orientations to my own, that I had many prejudices, some of them created during my earlier nurturing in North American fundamentalism and Australian evangelical Anglicanism.
I wanted to have my prejudices challenged and, if necessary, overturned. I was heartened by changes I had noted within Sydney Anglican circles. There had been, in the past, an almost universal tendency to claim that homosexuality itself was sinful, regardless of behaviour. To be homosexual was to be sinful. That stance had already begun to be challenged when I first went to Moore College as an undergraduate. It has certainly been challenged since then, with many now recognising that homosexual orientation is simply that, an orientation, a possibly hard-wired tendency to be erotically aroused by people of the same gender. This understanding did not result from a careful reading or re-reading of the relevant Biblical texts. It came about under pressure from advancing scientific understanding. It also came about because of a new willingness by many to listen to homosexual people who were now bolder in telling their stories.
A year or two into my time at South Sydney Parish, I initiated, with the help of John McIntyre and good friend, Vic Branson, a pub discussion group called Quest. We ran it at the Parkview Hotel in Alexandria, a nearby suburb. One of the people we asked to speak at Quest was Rev. Dr Canon Stuart Barton Babbage. He had recently written his memoirs, Memoirs of a Loose Canon. In a long and distinguished career, Canon Barton Babbage had been Principal of Ridley College (in Melbourne), Dean of St Andrews Cathedral (Sydney), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (Melbourne) and Dean of the Australian College of Theology. What stuck longest in my memory from that night was Dr Babbage sharing with us the impact on him and his thinking of discovering that his son was gay. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something along these lines: ‘This experience forced me to re-think my theology and to re-assess the adequacy of earlier understandings.’
Experiences like that, along with advancing scientific understanding, are forcing and/or encouraging many others (myself included) to re-think this issue. Those of us who identify as Christian must involve ourselves in what needs to be an on-going dialogue, a dialogue between us and the text of Scripture – to understand more fully what that text might mean (when it was written and for now), a dialogue with contemporary and evolving scientific research – to gain better understandings about what it means to be homosexual; a dialogue between those who are gay and lesbian and those who are straight – so we really do listen to each other; a dialogue among theologians and ethicists – as the implications of our thinking and acting are worked through.
This we must do as speedily as we can – for all sorts of good reasons, including the now urgent need to take seriously the heart-felt desire of our gay and lesbian friends to share in the benefits and responsibilities of marriage.
A related and less urgent challenge, one I haven’t yet fully put my mind to, is how to read and appropriate the Noah story for contemporary benefit and understanding.
Rev. Dr Keith Mascord
Note: this article picks up themes and some of the content of chapter 6 of A Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God (2012).It would be good to have the full text of that chapter (and, ideally, of the whole book) to inform discussion about this Blogg piece. To order your own paper or e-version, go to: www.arestlessfaith.com.au