Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Parshas Noach: Evidence for a Global Flood?

When I was younger, much much younger, I had a plan. I and a couple of my friends where going to be missionaries. Well not just missionaries, we were going to “plant churches” all across the world, particularly in places such as along south Asia, roughly along the sailing route between California and the Middle East. And we were going to do it on a life size replica of Noah’s Ark, which would also serve as confirming evidence that a pair of each species could actually fit into the dimensions given by the Bible. And did I mention the part about underwater archeology in the Red Sea?

After being introduced to Judaism I found out that Razal had a much keener grasp of the obvious than I did at eleven (not that it doesn’t hold true now as well) noting that while the Biblical flood was an open miracle the ability for the Ark to fit all species was a more inconspicuous one.

While my dreams reflected an over active imagination and a degree of immaturity excusable for a child, the truth is that I’m not sure how rare the underlying fallacy of my reasoning is even among adults. My fundamental error was to approach a miracle as a natural phenomenon, or more specifically to try to apply naturalistic standards to a supernatural event. Without making a judgment on the possibility of miracles one can still say recognize that it is circular reasoning to falsify a miracle, or all miracles, because the do not conform to the laws of nature.

With the account of the Mabul, the flood of Noah, I see this reflected on either side of the spectrum. On the one hand in my life I have chanced upon unknown numbers media pieces on “evidence” of Noah’s flood whether it is Christian apologetic material or pop television specials which provide a fuzzy and inaccurate blend of traditional and academic. In addition to the aforementioned problem these specials seem to be significantly chronologically challenged, though their primary audience is probably not so concerned with such details.

On the other hand we have those who, in the face of a lack of evidence for such a global flood, conclude that this account [also] must be considered allegorical. While my overriding discomfort of removing a passage from its simple meaning without textual basis has already been noted and supported, R. Harry Maryles of Haemtza once noted that his mentor HaRav Aaron Soloveitchik zt’l considered the allegorization of the Mabul to be kefirah (or was it only almost kefirah?). While I can only speculate, I would speculate that it was not that the Mabul was so significant but more that to allegorize such a major Biblical account without any textual or traditional basis would undermine the entire pshat of the Chumash. Perhaps it is not so much that allegorization to the exclusion of the pshat is a slippery slope, but rather more of a sudden drop off after B’reshis -- where at least the ambiguity of the meaning of “day” prior to the creation of the sun etc. provided basis for a second look.

When I was younger, yes about the same age I was earlier in the piece, the river bed down stream was about four or five times the size of the river itself for a certain stretch. Sticking up from the gravel where a number of dead trees. Their blackened trunks lacked any real branches to speak of. Initially I had always assumed that they had burnt in the fires of 1987, just prior to my moving there. Only later did I find out that they had been killed by flood (again, had my grasp of the obvious been keener I would have realized that for trees to burn at the very bottom of the valley would require that the fire travel farther down the mountain than the remaining trees would suggest that it had).

According to chapter 8 verse 11, Noah new that the waters had receded when the dove returned with an olive leaf in its beak. This olive tree was underwater for a much longer period of time than those trees in the valley had been, and it was submerged! Yet Noah’s dove was able to bring back an olive leaf, an image which today is associated with peace. But unlike the flooding of the river back home which was a natural occurrence there is not pretence of nature with respect to the Mabul. To infer effects of the Mabul from the effects of a natural flood is fundamentally a poor analogy. While a miracle would affect the natural, since that is the stage upon which it takes place, the effect can only be recognized by observation not inference. I can assure you that people throughout the ages have seen the effects of natural floods but I doubt that any of them experienced a crisis of faith because the read that the dove found an olive branch on a tree that spent months underwater.

Very briefly, some wish to argue in favor of a limited/local flood. To support this they reference the midrash which says that Eretz Yisroel wasn’t included in the Mabul. Of course the most obvious question is since when to we treat the midrash as “historical” and uproot the Pshat? Second of all, this is basically equivocation. The midrash speaks of a “limited” Mabul insofar as it was limited to places other than Eretz Yisroel but it is still a global flood. The Midrash doesn’t negate that where it not for Noah and the Ark the flood would have left man and animal kind extinct.

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