Noah’s story and its surprising relevance to the marriage equality debateMonday, June 18th 2012 @ 8:33 PM
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 marriage equality is that God sent this cataclysmic flood to punish the sort of corrupt and corrupting behaviour that sex between people of the same gender represents. But think again. This story might take us in exactly the opposite direction.
To rehearse the details, Genesis 6 describes God’s intention to wipe out every living creature (6:6-8), including the entire human race. God enacts this intention by unleashing a gigantic flood, with only Noah and his family spared destruction.
What makes this story unexpectedly relevant to the current push for marriage equality is that those who say we must take the Bible at face value in what it says about same-sex sex, and, by implication, same-sex marriage, mostly don’t take the Bible at face value when they address the issue of Noah and his big flood, and this in spite of the fact that the Noah story is so unambiguous.
As a Sunday school child, I got the point – quickly and frighteningly. Moreover, whenever the story is referred to elsewhere in the Bible, the writers appear to take the story as straight-forwardly factual. Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:36). The writer of Hebrews includes Noah in his list of heroes of faith. Jesus himself appears to have accepted the story of Noah as factual (Lk 17:26-27). That, in itself, is good reason for his followers to take it that way. Adding support to a plain-sense reading of the story is that Jewish and Christian interpreters have mostly taken it that way as well, right up until the last few hundred years.
The very big problem with this is that the Noah Flood story is, almost certainly, not factual. A world-wide flood of the magnitude described in Genesis 6-9 could be expected to have left abundant evidence of its occurrence. There is no such abundant evidence.
This creates something of a problem for Christians who, rightly, want to take the Bible seriously in what it says.
There have been two major responses to the problem that I have been aware of, at least amongst 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, 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 this Biblical text.
The second response, which is most likely to be encountered among evangelicals, is to suggest that Genesis 6-9 describes a localized flood. There are two problems with this suggestion. The first is that it 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). This is a no localized flood. Geologists have found evidence of large floods in Mesopotamia, inUr, Uruk,NinevehandKish, for example, where flood deposits have been dated back to the fourth and early third millennium BC. However, and significantly, other cities of the region show no such evidence.
What makes this second response so relevant to the current discussion about gay marriage is that the only reason a plain (and church-history-long) reading of the Noah story has been overturned in favour of seeing it as a localized flood (even if unconvincingly) is that scientific discoveries have made that necessary. Many of the first geologists were Christian clergymen. It was under pressure from their discoveries that the Biblical text came to be re-read and re-appropriated.
There is every good reason to think we will need to do the same with same-sex marriage. Throughout history and across cultures, and within the Bible itself, homosexual practice, and even orientation, has been almost universally condemned. But we now know, or have increasingly strong reasons to believe, that people are born gay or lesbian. Far from this being unnatural for them, or a case of fist-waving defiance towards God, it can now better be seen as an example of God’s creative handiwork, something we have taken far too long to recognize. For Christians like me, this means I must go back to the relevant Biblical texts, to understand again what they were saying in context, and to re-think them in the light of contemporary knowledge and experience. It means taking seriously the heart-felt desire of gay and lesbian friends of mine (and yours) to share in the benefits and responsibilities of marriage.
Rev. Dr Keith Mascord
Keith is an Anglican priest currently working as a parole officer. Themes in this article are explored in A Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God (2012). See further www.arestlessfaith.com.au
If people would like to contribute to the discussion already started, they can go to: http://arestlessfaith.com.au/blog/