Myth and Its Meanings

Noah-ark-at-sea

My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

Biblical creationists get a bad rap. People think they’re completely wrong. But they’re not.

Oh, sure, they’re wrong about the science. The world wasn’t created in 4,004 BCE on October 23, as calculated by the Christian Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656). Nor was it created at precisely nine in the morning on that date, as calculated by Dr. Charles Lightfoot of Cambridge University. Humans did not live with dinosaurs and there was never a worldwide flood.

In truth, I don’t think that creationists themselves have a clear idea of what they’re about. Their rejection of science is not mere ignorance, though there’s some of that. Nor is it fear of modernity, though there’s some of that. I’m not too wild about modernity, myself.

Creationists are uneasy about something, but they can’t quite articulate what it is. Instead, they offer specious arguments against evolution or for a young earth.

On their behalf, I will state what I think is their real objection: Science doesn’t have all the answers.

Science can tell us what happened, but it can’t tell us the meaning of what happened. It can’t tell us if what happened was important, or more crucially, if we are important. It’s a big universe out there. Are we really just animated specks of dust in a barren cosmos — talking monkeys with delusions of grandeur? Our hearts rebel at such a suggestion.

And on that point, creationists are right. Science has nothing to say about that kind of meaning. We have to discover it for ourselves. If we can’t discover it, then we have to invent it: that is, we have to create myths.

Myths usually have not one, but three levels of meaning: literal, metaphysical, and practical. The levels correspond to the questions: “What happened?”, “Why?”, and “How should you live?” Let’s look at an example.

The Biblical Flood Story

Consider the flood story in Genesis 6-8. The Ancient Near East had numerous catastrophic floods that might have given rise to the story. To the people of that place and time, such floods affected all or most of the land they knew about. It seemed like the whole world was flooded, so that’s how they told the story.

Scientific evidence from archaeology, geology, and history suggests various explanations of flood legends, including the Genesis story. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna argues that the story originated in Mesopotamia rather than in Canaan, since Mesopotamia was subject to frequent flooding and Canaan was not:

“A flood of such cataclysmic dimensions could have taken place, or have been imagined, only in a land subject to inundations … If Canaan were the origin of the story of Noah, the ark coming to rest on Mt. Ararat in southeastern Turkey would be strange and inexplicable.”1

Another possibility is that flood legends stem from a “Black Sea flood.” Prior to 5500 BCE, what is now the Black Sea was a large lake. Glacial melting caused sea levels to rise. As a result, the Mediterranean Sea broke through the Bosphorus Strait and flowed into the lake. That flooded 40,000 square miles around the coast of the lake, wiping out all human settlements in the area. It could be the earliest source of the flood story in Genesis.2

A third hypothesis was offered by the 20th-century polymath Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). He speculated that a large meteorite might have struck in the Red Sea, causing a massive tidal wave that surged inland and wiped out local populations.3

Myth Meaning 1: Literal Meaning

Whatever floods gave rise to the legends, their literal meaning was clear. In the Biblical story, God flooded the earth, saving Noah’s family and pairs of various animal species to repopulate the world. In other flood legends, anthropomorphic gods flooded the earth and usually saved one family.

Depending on how we interpret its supernatural elements, myth on this level is either:

  • Literally meaningless if it refers to beings that transcend our world, or
  • Literally false if it refers to non-transcendent beings that do not exist.

Myth Meaning 2: Metaphysical Meaning

But apart from who made the flood happen, why did they do it? What did it show about the world? The human mind abhors a vacuum. There had to be some explanation. That kind of explanation is metaphysical, and refers to what the universe is like in general.4

If we think that the world is random and amoral, we will look for a random and amoral explanation. If we think that the world is rational and moral, we’ll look for a rational and moral explanation. This is called abductive reasoning, “constructing general principles as explanations for particular events, such that if the principles are true, then the events are explained.”5

The best known Mesopotamian flood story is at the end of the Gilgamesh epic. A copy of the epic from 1400 BCE was found in excavations at Megiddo, so the story was known in Canaan and by the Biblical writers. In the “facts” they describe, the Biblical and Gilgamesh flood stories correspond point by point:6

  • The materials used to construct the ark, as well as its design, are the same in both stories and are listed in the same order.7
  • The order of events is the same in both stories. The ark lands on a mountaintop, after which Noah / Utnapishtim releases birds. After the ark is emptied, Noah / Utnapishtim offers sacrifices.
  • The mountain where the ark lands is in Northern Mesopotamia, not in Canaan.
  • “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor” of Noah’s sacrifices, which does not occur elsewhere in the Bible but does occur in the Gilgamesh epic, in which “the gods smelled the sweet savor” of Utnapishtim’s sacrifices (Tablet XI, line 161).

But it’s the differences between the two stories that show their metaphysical meaning. In the Genesis story, God floods the world because of human immorality and saves Noah because he is “a righteous man in his generation.”8 In the Gilgamesh epic, the reasons for the flood and for the gods saving Utnapishtim are not specified.

Thus, the Biblical story means that the world is governed by God and moral law. The Gilgamesh story means that the world is random and amoral.9

Myth Meaning 3: Practical Meaning

How we live depends partly on what we think the world is like. In the Biblical story, we learn (level 2) that the world is rational and moral. Wickedness is punished and virtue is rewarded. Even if nobody over eight years old thinks it’s always true, the practical meaning helps us make decisions about how to act. We should act morally and revere God.

The pagan stories, on the other hand, are mostly amoral. In Gilgamesh, the gods decide to drown humankind for no particular reason. In Atrahasis, another flood legend, they decide to drown humankind because people make too much noise. In those kinds of stories, the world is random, unpredictable, and frightening: You might die for no reason or for some trivial reason. How you live doesn’t make much difference.

What It All Means

Myths are often literally false, but it’s a mistake to assume they have nothing to offer us. Myth is fiction that tells a larger truth about us, about our societies, and about our world. Whether myths are Biblical, moral, or historical, they help us discover who we are and how we should live.

Works Cited

Asimov, I. (1971), Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament. Avon Books, New York.

Azize, J. and Weeks, N., editors (2007), Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria. Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium.

Gardner, J., translator (1985), Gilgamesh. Vintage Books, New York. Kindle edition.

Sarna, N. (1966), Understanding Genesis. Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Kindle edition.

Slone, D.J. (2004), Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle edition.

Footnotes


  1. Sarna, N. (1966), p. 39. 
  2. Van Loon, A.J., “The Black Sea Flood Question.” Biblical Archaeology Society, December 11, 2011. 
  3. Asimov, I. (1971), Vol. 1. 
  4. The word “metaphysics” means “after the physics.” An early editor of Aristotle’s writings gave that name to sections that came after Aristotle’s work on physics
  5. Slone, D.J. (2004), loc. 138. 
  6. Azize, J. and Weeks, N. (2007), article by Rendsburg, G., “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgamesh Flood Account.” 
  7. Sarna, N. (1966), p. 39: “The Hebrews were very little engaged in maritime enterprise and were not well practised in the arts of seafaring. The detailed and elaborate description of the ark building would be unlikely in a [story originated by the ancient Israelites].” 
  8. Biblical scholars still aren’t sure if Genesis 6:9 means that Noah was just plain righteous, or if he was only righteous compared to the wicked generation in which he lived. 
  9. Gardner, J. (1985), loc. 4364: “The second half of the column brings the tablet to an end in a most decisive way with a terrible truth: there is no permanence. The questions Utnapishtim raises … indicate a kind of negative wisdom. Whatever humans may do to ensure a lasting condition (building houses, cutting contracts, dividing shares, even fighting), nothing lasts.” 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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One Response to Myth and Its Meanings

  1. Pingback: Organizing the Bible and the Talmud | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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