Monday, 24 December 2012

Joanna Lumley: The Search for Noah's Ark

"Joanna is exploring the origins of the ancient tale about Noah and the Ark, a story that unites people and religions all over the world. It involves an epic journey from the slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey to India and finally Oman as she unearths a significant number of scientific facts to back up what some dismiss as a fairy story. Not just a physical search for the ship, it's more about the symbolism of the story and our need to believe in it." (1)

I saw Joanna Lumley on Noah's Flood and Ark. I like her style, but this was a triumph of style over substance.

She claims she's been fascinated with Noah's Ark since she was a child and saw photographs taken by a Turkish air force pilot of what looked like a fossilised version of the ark close to Mount Ararat in Turkey, where it is said to have come to rest.

So we had the rock formation that is really the ark, although a geologist said it was a post-glacial landslide. The poor chap, when put upon that he'd written in a letter the words "fairy tale" backtracked with speed and said "I don't want to offend religious people", probably because in Turkey there are quite a few who can become rather violent when offended.

Later, she was off to see the tomb of Noah (although her critical faculties came to the fore here - "this does look all rather new"). And a plethora of Islam people who believe it the ark landed on another mountain, not Ararat at all, and Noah was just a nickname. But they respect the Bible and Noah as a prophet, it is just that in the game of Noah Trump Cards, if you talk to Arabs who live by that site, the Koran one has the most points. And then it was off to India, to see the story of Vishnu and a flood, which may or may not have been the same story.

In between was a short sequence by the seaside with Joanna Lumley and two toy unicorns, telling a story of why unicorns missed out being taken on the ark; another retelling of the tale.

"Everywhere I look,", she said, "different versions of this story seem to be springing up like flood water around my feet"

One the way, we do have a few nuggets - the Epic of Gilgamesh and the flood story there, and a boat builder who tells us how pictures depicting the ark reflect the boat building practices of the period in which they were painted. He also expresses considerable scepticism about at ark that size being feasible; he had enough trouble with chickens and goats in a primitive reed boat.

'I have an idea that when a notion persists throughout the ages and across the globe, it probably contains some fundamental truth. It's not as simple as "no smoke without fire". But on the other hand there's something about the timing of this,' she said.

'There have been horrifying floods, some extraordinary climate changes, so now seemed as good a time as any to address the notion of a cataclysmic event.'

'Everything points to the fact that there was a flood alarming enough to be recorded in Sumerian history, which predates the main world religions.; So I think that human beings - who are responsible for pretty much everything we know in the way of alteration to the earth - probably made some sense, to their own ends, of a flood that really happened.'

At the end, we have an ecological message: "The message I would take from the story of the flood as God's punishment is that we are all responsible for behaving properly on the planet. Look after it, because it could go badly wrong."

But she misses the two stories present in Genesis. All her stories of the flood from the Bible (which she repeats) are the pairs of animals. The animals went in two by two.

In fact, "The story of the flood consists of two separate traditions chopped into pieces and then spun together, with inconsistent passages intact." (2).

The two flood stories are entwined in the Genesis narrative - J (which has 7 of each kind of creature) and the later P (which has 2 of each kind). It's only the J story which has the sacrifice at the end; P doesn't know sacrifice until Aaron is High Priest. Taken as just two by two, the sacrifice would mean wiping out an entire species! The differences are actually quite easy to spot, if you are aware of them - for example:

"And to him on board the ark went one pair, a male and a female, of all animals, clean and unclean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two by two, as God had commanded....Those which came were one male and one female of all living things; they came in as God had commanded Noah...the water had increased over the earth for a hundred and fifty days." (Genesis Chapter 7 verses 15, 24 - P source)

"Take with you seven pairs, a male and a female, of all ritually clean animals, and one pair, a male and a female, of all unclean animals; also seven pairs, male and female, of every bird-to ensure that life continues on the earth. For in seven days I am going to send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights." (Genesis Chapter 7 verse 2 E source)

Richard Elliott Friedman, who has made an extensive study of sources in the Torah, notes there are consistent differences:

The P text here always calls the deity "God" (16 times). The J text always calls the deity by the proper name "YHWH" (10 times).
The P text uses the word "expired." The J text uses the word "died."
In J, it rains for 40 days and nights, and the water recedes for 40 days. In P, the whole process adds up to a calendar year.
In J, Noah releases a dove. In P, he releases a raven.

P has two of each species of animal, a male and a female. J has 14 (seven pairs) of each species of the pure animals (animals that may be sacrificed) and only two of the animals that are not pure. This is important because J ends the story with Noah making a sacrifice-so he needs more than two of each animal or he would make a species extinct!

P has details of cubits, dates, and ages. J does not.

In J, God is personal and involved: known by a personal name ("YHWH"), personally closing the ark, personally smelling Noah's sacrifice, described as "grieved to his heart." In P, God's name is not yet known ("God," in Hebrew Elohim, is not a name; it is what God is), and there are none of the anthropomorphic descriptions that are found in J.

In the P creation story, God creates a space (firmament) that separates waters that are above it from waters below. The universe in that story is thus a habitable bubble surrounded by water. That same conception is assumed here in the P flood story, in which the "apertures of the skies" and the "fountains of the great deep" are broken up so that the waters flow in. The word "rain" does not occur. The J creation account, on the other hand, has no such conception, and here in the J flood story it just rains. (3)

What are the two sources of the stories? They each reflect the different roots in which they were told. One is an old folk-tale, one reflects the later cosmology of the priesthood:

"For two centuries (from 922 to 722 B.C.) the biblical promised land was divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. A text known as J was composed during this period. It is called J because, from its very first sentence, it refers to God by the proper name YHWH (Jahwe in German, which was the language of many of the founding works in the field of biblical analysis). It includes the famous biblical stories of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, the tower of Babylon ("Babel"), plus stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as stories of Joseph and then of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and Israel's travels through the wilderness to the promised land. J was composed by an author living in the southern kingdom of Judah."

"The third main source (out of the four-J, E, P, and D) is known as P because one of its central concerns is the priesthood. In critical scholarship, there are two main views of when it was composed. One view is that P was the latest of the sources, composed in the sixth or fifth century B.C. The other view is that P was composed not long after J and E were combined-specifically, that it was produced by the Jerusalem priesthood as an alternative to the history told in JE. Linguistic evidence now supports the latter view and virtually rules out the late date for P. P, like E, involves both stories and laws. The P laws and instructions take up half of the books of Exodus and Numbers and practically all of the book of Leviticus. The P stories parallel the JE stories to a large extent in both content and order, including stories of creation, the flood, the divine covenant with Abraham, accounts of Isaac and Jacob, the enslavement, exodus, Sinai, and wilderness. Also like E, the P stories follow the idea that the divine name YHWH was not known until the time of Moses." (3)

It is also interesting to see how different the Gilgamesh account is from that rewritten in later Judaism. We can take it that Islam shows a much later rewrite, and the placement of the ark in a different setting, and virtually no trace of any historical fact at all.

But the number 40 in the flood story is a classical Biblical trope. Gilgamesh is much shorter:

'The Mistress of the Gods wailed that the old days had turned to clay because "I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods, ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people who fill the sea like fish." The other gods were weeping with her and sat sobbing with grief, their lips burning, parched with thirst. The flood and wind lasted six days and seven nights, flattening the land. On the seventh day, the storm was pounding like a woman in labor. The sea calmed and the whirlwind and flood stopped. All day long there was quiet. All humans had turned to clay.'

'The terrain was as flat as a roof top. Utnapishtim opened a window and felt fresh air on his face. He fell to his knees and sat weeping, tears streaming down his face. He looked for coastlines at the horizon and saw a region of land. The boat lodged firmly on mount Nimush which held the boat for several days, allowing no swaying. On the seventh day he released a dove which flew away, but came back to him. He released a swallow, but it also came back to him. He released a raven which was able to eat and scratch, and did not circle back to the boat. He then sent his livestock out in various directions. He sacrificed a sheep and offered incense at a mountainous ziggurat where he placed 14 sacrificial vessels and poured reeds, cedar, and myrtle into the fire.'

It's a much shorter narrative, and it is interesting that it has three birds, the swallow having been lost in the retelling. And this is the older narrative, skillfully refashioned twice into a tale suitable for a monotheistic peoples much later. But the central theme of the anger of the gods, or anger of the god causing a catastrophe is present in both, as is sacrifice to the gods or god for deliverance.

That's something that may be overlooked if we look upon it purely as a tale with a moral - in all accounts there is an element of thanksgiving, of gratitude from having been saved from this disaster. We may not make sacrifices to the gods or god, but when natural disasters strike, if we managed to come through relatively unscathed, we feel thankful, as well.

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters." (Norman Maclean)



Anonymous said...

Noah's Ark??? Unicorns do exist, prove to me they don't!!!

Ritchie said...

It did irk me slightly how Ms Lumley seemed so ready to accept the story as true. Apparently on the basis that this way a very popular, well-established story. This seems extremely flimsy evidence. The popularity of a story is no indication of how likely it is to be true - in fact it could be argued the reverse is generally the case.