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Hung Up on Creation

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, member of United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     Based on the stories the ancient keepers of the flame cherished and carried forward, God was “hung up” on creation, on the formation, destruction and reformation of life, in the drive to “get it right this time.”  Only chapters after the two Genesis stories of Eden, for example, are those of the great flood and the Tower of Babel.  The theme continues into the New Testament – from sight restored, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” and “Go and sin no more” to the new life Christ’s crucifixion offers humanity and the New Jerusalem, Revelation’s depiction of God’s new kingdom on earth.

     The folklore of some 300 cultures tells of a massive flood sent by God to destroy “all life under the heavens,” other than a few righteous individuals – and those creatures God instructed them to save, all of whom, human and animal,  were to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” after the deluge.

     About those creatures – although popular wisdom and Sunday School lessons hold that only one pair of each was saved, coming aboard the ark two by two – as in the song, “the hip-hippopotamus and the kick-kangaroo,” the Genesis account suggests otherwise, stating that seven of each kind of clean (presumably those now considered “kosher”) animal and bird, male and female, and two of the unclean be transported.  Though the wording is less than clear, it would appear that 14 (7 pairs) of each clean animal and a minimum of two each of the unclean came aboard in pairs – and it is possible to read the latter as suggesting only that the unclean beasts entered in pairs, not that they were limited to two.

     In Genesis God sent the flood because humankind had become hopelessly sinful and wicked.   The waters would eliminate humanity and all land animals and birds.   Fish appear to have been exempt from God’s wrath though it seems unlikely that the flood’s mixture of sea, underground spring and rain water would have been suitable for most fresh- or saltwater fish.  Thus, “duh, they’re fish” probably isn’t to the point.  The rains lasted 40 days, in the Hebrew Scriptures a symbolic period of judgment, and 10+ months passed before Noah and his ark found themselves perched atop Mt. Ararat. 

     One of Noah’s first acts upon reaching dry land was to plant a vineyard.  The story continues that he became drunk on the wine produced and lay naked in his tent where he was seen by his son Ham.  Discovering what had happened, he placed a curse upon Ham’s son Canaan.  Explanations for this seemingly intemperate response range from “seen by” being a euphemism for sodomy or castration to being a rationalization of Israel’s conquest and enslavement of the Canaanites.  Ham, some accounts hold, was “blackened” by his sin – some even saying he emerged black-skinned from the Ark.  This version of events carried over into justifications for both slavery and the long-time denial of Mormon priesthood to Blacks.

     In the Babylonians’ Epic of Gilgamesh, the people were both too numerous and too noisy, which disturbed the God Ea.   (The Babylonians, by the way, had 3 deluge stories).  Only rain was involved – and it lasted only 6 days.  Ut-Napishtim, Noah’s equivalent, landed atop Mt. Nisir, only a few hundred miles from Ararat.

     The two stories have 20 major points in common – details of the God’s purpose, the directions to those to be saved, the details of the flood and what happened once the ark (interestingly a “chest or box” in the original Hebrew) came to land – including the sending out of birds to scout out the situation (one of which, in the Genesis account returned with a freshly plucked olive branch – sturdy tree, that!), burnt offerings and the regret the god or gods felt over the destruction.  Two especially interesting differences – Noah got his marching orders directly from Jehovah, Ut-Napishtim in a dream – and Ut had the good sense to invite others along – a pilot and several skilled workmen.   Also, the arks were differently sized and shaped and neither description appears to have addressed the concern San Diego Zoo workers expressed in Walking the Bible – whether the bottom deck was reserved for the estimated 300,000 pounds or so of fertilizer produced by the travelers!

     The Greeks told of Deucalion, one of only two survivors when Zeus flooded out humanity (in 9 days) – his boat came to rest on the top of Mt. Parnassus.  Other stories have been found in Hindu texts and in Sumerian, “a language with no known roots and no known descendants” and Akkadia, “one of the ancient tongues of the Semitic language group to which the Arabic dialects and Hebrew belong.” etc.  The stories are many and fascinating.  As is the factual story from which they may have sprung.  Scientific evidence exists that around 5600 BCE 60,000 square miles of land were inundated, expanding the Black Sea shoreline to the north and east, raising its level many hundreds of feet and changing it from a landlocked fresh-water lake to a salt water, ocean connected lake.  Scientists postulate that this “triggered mass migrations across Europe and into the Near East, Middle East and Egypt” – and that it “may have been the source of many flood stories in the area.”

     Moving along in Genesis…

     According to Genesis 10, the descendants of Noah “spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.”   At the start of Chapter 11, however, “the whole world had one language and a common speech.”   This is seen variously as yet another contradiction in the Bible or as the final words of 10 being merely a preview of 11.  Also debated is whether the “division” of the earth (Genesis 10:25) refers to language or separation into continents.

     And, lesson unlearned, the people of earth were at it again.  Settling on a plain in Shinar and hoping to be nomads no longer, one group decided to build a city complete with a tower that reached Heaven.  Their goal?  To make a name for themselves.  This didn’t sit well with God as “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (an instant replay of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?)  Crediting this possibility to cooperation resulting from speaking a single language God (actually gods as in “Come let us go down…”) decided to confuse their language so they couldn’t understand one another” and to once again scatter them over the face of the earth.  Tradition decrees that the confusion of languages – which some see as punishment from God, others as a new beginning – led to either 70 or 72 dialects and in some cases, it is possible to speculate, to being, as often said of the Brits and the Yanks, people separated by the same language.

     One new start after another…a God “hung up on creation”…a voice of hope that God’s people can move forward together?  Will we listen?  Will we walk with God as God walks with us?
Note:  Babel or Babylon (from the Hebrew word bavel and, probably originally from the Akkadian babilu) means “gate of God.”   The tower of the story, a ziggurat was a “terraced pyramid that stood in the temple area.”  Stories from various cultures, particularly that of Etemenanki, “the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth,” told during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews, are considered likely sources of the story.

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