Hollywood returns to the flood myth…

You may have heard about this film that is about to hit our screens;

It is a great story of course; an ancient almost-apocalypse in which an Angry God wipes out most of the planet in some kind of Creation-reboot.

When films like this make it onto the mass market however, it is often a good time to take stock and ask what this rehash of Genesis is speaking in to our culture.

One thing that seems to be central to a lot of mass media output post 911 is FEAR. Fear of the outsider, fear of the enemy within, fear of a great cataclysm that scatters body parts in all directions. Fear like this, at a time of greater (Western) peace and security than at almost any other time of our history, seems totally absurd at first glance. But this kind of fear is contagious. It might also be deliberately induced (take a look at Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine if you want to dig into this a little more.)

Movies have to make money. They have certainly parachuted some impressive acting talent into this one, be it a dog or be it screen nirvana. Movies have to plug in to a market demographic, and it seems likely that this epic will sell well in Conservative Christian middle America. The sort of places where many people regard Darwinism as the work of Satan, that the Great Flood explains away the fossil record and the words of the Bible are all we need to understand Science.

Remember the Creation Museum?

There is another way to approach the story of the Great Flood however. Some of you will be well aware that there are many other ancient cultures who have a flood myth as part of their received history.

There is the Gligamesh one– from at least 1200 BCE, probably a lot earlier.

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh -Nineveh 7th Century BC

Utanapishtim replied: “I will tell you a secret of the gods, Gilgamesh, I will reveal to you a mystery. Shortly after the Flood had been decreed for mankind by the great gods, Enki — without breaking oath — advised me to tear down my house and build a boat, to abandon possessions and save life. Into the vessel was to go the seed of all living creatures.”*

(*A similar story is found in ancient India, where Vishnu tells Vaivasvata Manu: “Seven rain clouds will bring destruction. The turbulent oceans will merge together into a single sea. They will turn the entire triple world into one vast sheet of water. Then you must take the seeds of life from everywhere and load them into the boat of the Vedas.” (Matsya Purana 2.8-10).)

Enki gave Utanapishtim instruction on the boat’s dimensions and construction. It was to measure 10 rods (120 cubits) on a side, six decks dividing it into seven levels, all measured to a height of 10 rods, with nine compartments inside. On the sixth(?) day it was completed. The boat was launched with difficulty, until two-thirds was submerged. Then after everything had been loaded in, including all the craftsmen, the deluge came. Raging storms reached to the heavens, turning all that was light into darkness. As in a battle no man could see his fellow. Even the gods, terror-stricken by the tempest, fled to the heaven of Anu, cowering like dogs. Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail; Belet-ili (Aruru) lamented that the olden time had turned to clay, because she had spoken evil in the assembly of the gods.

Six days and seven nights the winds blew. At sunrise on the seventh day they subsided and the storm ceased. Utanapishtim opened a vent and light fell on his face. Water was everywhere. All was silence. All mankind had turned to clay. On the submerged peak of Mt. Nimush the ship ran aground. After another seven days, he sent a dove forth, but it found no perch. He sent out a swallow; it returned too. Then a raven, and this one saw the waters receding. Utanapishtim went forth from the boat; he offered a sacrifice to the four directions; he strewed incense on the peak (ziggurat) and poured a libation — seven goblets and seven — to attract the gods. But Enlil was furious: all mankind was to have been destroyed. Who had revealed the secret? Enki reproved Enlil for causing the Flood, then explained how in a vision given to Utanapishtim the secret had been discovered. His fate must be decided by Enlil, who then declared that Utanapishtim and his wife shall become like gods. The gods took them to the faraway land, to dwell at the Mouth of Rivers — sacred rivers symbolic of the continuous stream of divine wisdom flowing into human life.

A while ago I read a review of The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel. It tells something of how the ancient Hebrews might have encountered these stories and adopted (and adapted) them as their own during their time in Babylonian captivity;

Over the years, cuneiform flood tablets have continued to turn up. Three distinct Mesopotamian incarnations of the myth have now been identified, one recorded in Sumerian and two in Akkadian. It has become clear that the tale of a universal flood was widespread in Mesopotamia for an entire millennium and a half before the hapless Judaeans, defeated in the early 6th century BC by Nebuchadnezzar, were dragged away from their smoking cities into exile, there to weep beside the rivers of Babylon. Now, courtesy of Irving Finkel, the British Museum’s eminence grise of cuneiform studies, there comes a further clinching piece of evidence: a tablet that actually describes animals entering an ark “two by two”. Not only that, but it offers startlingly precise specifications on how best to construct one. An ark, so the tablet instructs us, should properly be circular in shape, have an area of 3,600 metres, and be fashioned out of plant fibre. All those living in the Somerset Levels may wish to take note.

There is also this fascinating passage;

By plundering the heritage of Babylon, they were at once paying homage to its cultural prestige, and annexing it to their own ends. Just as Christians and Muslims would subsequently transform the biblical figure of Noah into a prefiguring of their own respective theodicies, so the Judaeans transformed the myths of their Babylonian overlords into something that would end up as Jewish. In Mesopotamia, where it was the custom to erect buildings over the remains of levelled ruins, the ancient past literally provided the foundations of new temples. In a similar manner, its legends were made to serve the self-mythologisation of the Jews. Some details of the flood tablet discovered by Finkel – the animals going in two by two, for instance – were cannibalised; others – the specifications of the ark’s measurements, and the detail that the great ship had been round – were not. This, for me, is the real fascination of his find: the light it sheds on how a despised and defeated people won a victory over their conquerors so remarkable that it now gets to be commemorated by Russell Crowe.

We make of these stories what we need them to make. The ‘truth’ of them requires us to look a little deeper, a little further into ourselves.

Perhaps as far back as the melting of the last ice age, and the rising sea levels that swallowed whole villages, whole hunting grounds in a relatively short time scale- certainly within the span of people’s lifetimes, and within generational historical memory.

Or perhaps even further into ourselves- into our darkest fears…

The Epic of Gilgamesh and ancient scripture…

gilgamesh_louvre

I have been thinking a little about ancient times recently- so humour me while I scratch a familiar itch- that of the relationships between culture, history and the formation of faith through the interpretation of Scripture.

I heard some of the ancient poetry from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out on a TV programme recently. It was beautiful…

‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find the life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man
they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh,
fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry,
feast and rejoice.
Let your clothes be fresh,
bathe yourself in water,
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
for this too is the lot of man.’

But Gilgamesh said to Siduri, the young woman,
‘How can I be silent,
how can I rest,
when Enkidu whom I love is dust,
and I too shall die
and be laid in the earth for ever.’

One translation of the full text available here.

A summary of the text, and discussion about some of the themes is available here.

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh -Nineveh 7th Century BC

I had heard of this ancient writing before, but knew little of it, so set off to find out more. It interested me for several reasons-

  1. As far as I can understand, this poetry is amongst the earliest literature known to have been written down, emerging from a little known civilisation that pre-existed the Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires- back to the earlier Sumerian peoples.  The poetry was held as significant to cultures for the next 3000 years, before being lost into history until tablets telling the story began to be unearthed in the 19th Century AD. The amazing endurance of the story, and it’s survival on tablets of stone is fascinating and intriguing.
  2. These civilisations occurred in the middle east, in the areas now known as Iraq and Iran, and the more understanding we have of middle eastern culture in this time of war and the ‘demonisation of the other’ the better.
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poetic recording that pre-exists the recording of the oral tradition that became the Hebrew Bible. There are many parallels between the creation stories in Genesis and those described in the Epic, as well as an account of a great flood. Clearly there are many differences too, but I find myself once again interested in the origins of Scripture- and its relationship with the culture and context that it was inspired within.
  4. There are also echoes of what appear to be perennial human pre-occupations- the origin and meaning of life, friendship, courage, and the approach of death. Consider again the poetry of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes- and compare this with the words from the Epic above…

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [c] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

11 I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so men are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

(Ecclesiastes 9, NIV)

King-Solomon-Russian-icon

So the question on my mind, is whether this has any significance for how we Christians might engage with ancient Scripture, and in turn, encounter the Living God?

I have written some things before about my own struggles with these issues-  I asked a series of questions, which I tried to give my own incomplete answers to here.

But I find myself increasingly divorced from the way of understanding scripture that I grew up with in the left-of-centre-charismatic-evangelical-fundamentalist churches that gifted me with faith.

This is because the assumptions through which they appeared to approach scripture no longer make sense to me. They seem to include these-

  • The Bible is complete, sufficient, without error or contradiction, and was given to the Church complete as a gift from God.
  • Any challenge to the absolute authority of the Bible has to be resisted at all costs.
  • Any sources outside the Bible- be they writings of other early Christians, or the spirituality of other cultures- all these things are at best dangerous, or at worst, deceptions of the devil.
  • Appreciation and interest of history is highly selective, and should be focussed on the agenda and issues emerging in the 200 years following the Reformation.

I now find myself drawn into new areas of adventure- based on a new set of questions and assumptions. These are not my own, but rather ones that have ‘emerged’ into my experience of faith through a process of re-engagement. They include some of these things-

  • We stand on the shoulders of many other people of faith, who have been drawn by God into incomplete but inspired understandings.
  • Some of this was written down, and some of this writing survived and endured.
  • Over the period of one and a half thousand years, and after much deliberation, some this has been gathered together to form what we know as the Bible.
  • The original meaning of some of these words is lost to us.
  • But the words are still an amazing gift to us, as the Holy Spirit makes them sing again in our context.
  • Let us never pretend to understand fully or finally, or to restrict God to our narrow context or viewpoint.
  • Our ultimate engagement with the God is through the person of Jesus, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • But we too will fall short.
  • And others  that follow us will need to find their own adventure.

God bless them as they write their own Epics.