Bible scholars look at story of Noah Multiple interpretations readily come from text

March 29, 1998

Part of the Bible's richness for both believers and nonbelievers is that the text lends itself to multiple interpretations. The Dallas Morning News looked to five religion scholars to give their takes on the story of Noah and the ark. Here are some of their observations:

John Holbert, associate professor of preaching at the Perkins School of Theology.

The flood doesn't change humanity at all, says Holbert, but it does change God.

Until this point God has been strictly a God of justice. In sending the flood he is acting according to his nature. "You do evil, you're going to get punished," says Holbert.

But after the flood, God makes a startlingly different statement. "He promises that he will never again destroy every living creature," says Holbert. God has decided that he will not repay humanity's evil deeds with the judgment they merit but with forgiveness.

"That's as clear a statement of grace as you can have."

Noah's behavior after the flood makes the point that man has not changed. He gets drunk and lies naked in his tent. Noah's youngest son, Ham, sees him and tells his older brothers, who cover the old man's nakedness.

"The old man wakes up and says what all alcoholics say," says Holbert. "He blames someone else. He says, 'Cursed be Ham.' Adam and Eve did the same thing. He blamed her, and she blamed the snake.

"The text repeats the Genesis story to say again that man has not changed; God has changed."

Karen Armstrong, author of "In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis."

"What are we to make of Noah?" Armstrong asks in her book. Her interpretation of Genesis stories often deals with how God seems arbitrarily to choose favorites, who were no better and perhaps worse than the unfortunates he rejected. In Noah, she sees another possible example. Noah showed no concern and compassion for his fellow human beings, writes Armstrong.

"Unlike Abraham in similar circumstances, Noah did not plead for his contemporaries when he was told God's plan to destroy the world. When God informed Abraham that he was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evil of their inhabitants, Abraham would beg God to spare them, insisting that if as few as 10 good men could be found in Sodom, it was God's duty to spare the city."

But as far as we can tell from the text, Noah "did not even consider smuggling a few of the doomed men and women in the Ark." This shows that humanity's ethical ideal was undeveloped.

To Armstrong, God's compassion after the flood seems as arbitrary as his wrath. "One of the problems of monotheism has been its reluctance to accept evil in the divine," she writes. "But if we cannot admit that there is evil in God, it is very difficult for us to accept the evil we encounter in our own hearts."

John H. Sailhamer, scholar in residence at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., and professor of the Hebrew Bible at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore.

Sailhamer likens the story of Noah and the flood to a Rembrandt painting. "There's a lot of darkness," he says, "but then you see these flashes of light." The Bible is a lot like that.

In sending the flood, God was judging the world, but in saving Noah, his family and the animals on the ark, he was bringing salvation - a flash of light.

"The whole theme of the Pentateuch and the Torah is that God is a God of salvation as well as judgment," Sailhamer says. "Noah was not a perfect person, but he walked with God. He had fellowship with God, and God saved him."

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and author of "The Genesis of Ethics."

Visotzky sees the flood story as an example of God and humans learning to live in covenant.

His sympathy is all with Noah. He doesn't blame the patriarch for getting drunk.

"I'm not about to judge him on that. I'm not sure anyone would have done better than he did." He was closed up in a box and he opens the door and sees what is left after the flood.

"You face the bloated bodies," the rabbi says. "The whole 10 generations just destroyed before his eyes, rotting. It might be a good time to take a drink."

Noah might well have been furious with God, but having seen what God was capable of, "maybe he was no fool to say, 'Yes sir,' and sacrifice the first thing he could get his hands on," says Visotzky, referring to the sacrifice Noah made as soon as he emerged from the ark.

God doesn't come off so well, the rabbi says. The flood is basically a holocaust story. "I'm hard on God for the flood because I'm a post-Holocaust Jew, and I don't think you can be a post-Holocaust Jew and not be hard on God for that," he says.

"I'd like God to measure up a little better to my notion of righteousness. Maybe if I can keep at it until my anger wears out, I can come to understand God's side of it."

The rabbi's best excuse for God's behavior is that he was still learning how to fulfill his part of the covenant, and he found it a frustrating experience.

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