How are we to interpret the biblical story of Noah and the flood?
In this well-known tale God causes a devastating flood but saves Noah, his family, and the animals that Noah has taken into the ark. The story explains that God is “sorry that he had made humankind on earth” and is “grieved” by human wickedness. [Gen. 6:6] Noah is spared, we are told, because he is righteous. Why are Noah’s family and the animals saved? It seems that God hopes to renew creation with an “Adam” who is righteous, so the people descended from him will be righteous.
If we interpret this story literally, it is a “wet holocaust.” The word “holocaust” comes from a Greek word referring to a burnt offering to God, but has been used since the eighteenth century for mass killings. The Nazi attempt during World War II to exterminate the Jews is generally known as “the Holocaust.” In the story of the flood, God drowns every person and creature on earth except those on the ark with Noah and his family. If read as history, this is an appalling story.
We should, therefore, look for clues to see if the story was intended to be understood literally. Is there any evidence that the authors of Genesis are reporting a factual event? Or is this fiction, which should be read figuratively?
If fiction, we should find in the story figures of speech, such as irony and metaphor. Irony conveys a meaning that is the opposite of what is actually expressed. For instance, the story of Noah tells of an almighty God who tries, but fails, to recreate a righteous world. Apparently, almighty God is not so mighty after all. This is irony. Metaphor, as a figure of speech, expresses one meaning in terms of another. A metaphorical reading of the story would interpret the flood as meaning something other than a natural event, and would see Noah as representing someone else (such as the reader).
An allegory is an extended metaphor — a story using fictional characters and actions to explore the meanings of human experience. For centuries Christians read scripture as allegory, but Protestants argue that the Bible is mostly history. So, how should we read the story of Noah and the flood?
There are no historical facts verifying this biblical account, and our scientific understanding of the earth’s history does not give us any reason to believe that a flood ever covered the entire landmass of the planet. Also, the book of Genesis in the Bible is filled with metaphor and other figures of speech. So, it seems reasonable to read the story of Noah and the flood as an allegory — as an extended metaphor expressing one meaning in terms of another.
Perhaps the flood is a metaphor for whatever we fear. We fear natural disasters that may leave us homeless and hungry. We also fear wars that may kill our children and grandchildren. And we fear economic crises that may leave us destitute and depressed.
To alleviate our fears, the Bible promises that God will keep us safe. In the story of the flood God saves Noah and his family, and places a rainbow in the sky to remind Noah’s descendants that they need not fear another such flood. If the story ended with everyone living happily ever after, we might after reading it feel reassured. The story, however, does not end like a fairy tale.
Once off the ark, Noah builds an altar and sacrifices an animal from each species of “clean” animals. “And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” [Gen. 8:21]
This language should not be understood literally. God does not have a nose with which to “smell” the burnt offering, nor does God have a body with a heart. Moreover, a literal reading would mean believing that God promised not to harm humankind in the future because he was pleased by the smell of roasting meat from an altar. For more than half a millennium this text was read literally to justify animal sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. But the language of the text certainly supports a figurative interpretation. I suggest that this passage is best understood as irony, because it contains statements about God that cannot be true. The God it describes is not God.
Then the God of the story blesses Noah and his sons as he did Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” [Gen. 9:1, 1:28] God gives “clean” animals to Noah and his family for food. This permission to eat meat is only surprising to readers, who did not notice earlier in the Genesis account that God gave only plants to Adam and Eve for food.
Eventually, after harvesting the grapes from his vineyard, Noah makes wine and becomes drunk. While he is lying naked in a stupor, his son, Ham, sees him and then tells his older brothers, who walk backwards toward their father with a garment held between them so they can drop it over him without seeing his genitals. After Noah awakens and learns that Ham saw him naked, he curses Canaan, Ham’s son. The story does not say that Ham, or Canaan, intentionally did anything wrong. This curse, however, will have a dreadful history, because a Christian Europe will identify Africans as the descendants of Ham. For centuries Christians profiting from the slave trade in captured Africans will claim that Noah’s curse justifies the brutal exploitation of black slaves.
So, what does the end of the allegory reveal about its meaning? First, the concluding actions of God and Noah undermine any reading of the story as a parable about justice. God sends a flood to punish people for behaving badly, and saves Noah from the flood because he is righteous. At the end of the tale, however, Noah unjustly curses Ham’s descendants but God does not punish him. God’s justice proves to be inconsistent and thus unjust.
Second, the story suggests that we are not to understand natural disasters as “acts of God.” For it ends with God promising that he will never again cause such a flood and presumably that goes for other natural disasters, such as cyclones, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, forest fires, etc. The allegorical meaning is that natural disasters are not God’s punishment, but simply natural events.
Third, this ironic allegory undermines belief in the almighty God of scripture. In the story God tries but fails to purge the earth of evil. After the flood God admits that humans will continue to act badly, and Noah’s curse of Ham’s descendants is proof that God’s wet holocaust did not succeed. In this story God acts unjustly, demands and enjoys animal sacrifice, and commits a crime against humanity. If Noah is a metaphor for us, the story is telling us that such a God is not God.
The end of the story brings us back to earth, to human life as we know it, marked by fears of natural disasters and by the wonder of rainbows, by the work of producing food and by the pleasure of drinking wine, by promises of a better future and by curses that are unjust.
If we read the story of Noah and the flood literally, we miss its irony. For as allegory, this Bible story reveals that the God of the Bible is not always God.