When I was at summer camp, we used to sing a few songs at every lunch. One of the ones that we sang most often was “Rise and Shine,’ which was about Noah’s ark and the flood story. The first verse was:
Lord said to Noah: “There’s gonna be a floody, floody” (X2) Get those children (Clap) Out of the muddy, muddy Children of the Lord
The song went on to describe how Noah built the arky, arky and put in all the animals by two-sies, two-sies, how it rained and then the sun came out, the animals exited the ark and everything was hunky dory, dory. (If I have put the melody indelibly back into your mind, I am very sorry.) This cutesy, cutesy picture of the Flood story is one which we are all familiar: we teach it to preschoolers and there are numerous children’s toys of the ark and the animals.
But the Flood Story is not a nice, adorable story if you really think about it. The most realistic depictions of the Flood I have ever seen were drawn by the French artist Gustav DorÃ© (1832-1883) for an illustrated Bible that was published in 1866. The Frontispiece to DorÃ©’s illustrated edition of the Bible, called “The Deluge,” shows humans on the top of a mountain desperately trying to save themselves and their children while the waters rage around them. On the very top of the mountain is a tiger with one of her cubs in her mouth. In the background, dimly in the darkness, the ark is visible floating away. It is a chilling image, a powerful visual midrash and it portrays the real horror of the Flood story which the biblical text only refers to in terse and economical language:
And the waters surged most mightily over the earth, and all the high mountains under the heavens were covered…And all flesh that stirs on the earth perished the fowl and the beasts and all swarming things that swarm on the earth, and all humankind. (Genesis 7:19, 21)
What is the Flood story actually about? It is a story trying to explain how humanity so perverted the very Earth itself by violence and other corrupt behavior that God found it necessary to start over Creation by wiping the slate clean. The late Bible scholar Nahum M. Sarna described the Flood as:
“…a cosmic catastrophe that is actually the undoing of creation. But God’s chastisement and grace operate simultaneously, so that out of the disaster comes renewal.” (JPS Commentary to Genesis, p. 48)
Sarna points out that the same verbs (“create” and “make”) that are used in the Creation story of Genesis 1 to describe God’s creativity are used in the Flood story to designate the reversal of the process. There are numerous other linguistic connections between the Creation and Flood stories, showing both the undoing of the world but also its renewal.
The Flood story is, in many ways, a warning about the potential arrogance of human behavior and the cost of corruption and violence. When we allow this behavior to permeate human society we are undoing Creation, turning it back into the primordial chaos from which it emerged.
We no longer consider floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other natural events to be direct punishments from God for our sins. These “natural evils” are now seen as part of the normal working of the environment which can vary from year to year and from decade to decade but have until recently been relatively stable since the end of the last Ice Age some 11,700 years ago. This geological era is called the Holocene period (from the Greek for “entirely recent”) and is the age in which human civilization has arisen.
However, many scientists are now suggesting that the Holocene has ended and we are entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene (from the Greek for “human” and “new”). This new period is one in which for the first time human activity has had a major impact on the ecosystems of planet Earth. This term was first suggested in the 1980s, and is now being officially discussed as the new name for the time period in which we live.
The Anthropocene is usually considered to have started in the late 18th Century with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Anthropocene Working Group, the scientific organization which is considering this change, met in Berlin on October 16 to develop a proposal for the designation of the term Anthropocene “as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale” by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the scientific organization that has the mandate to decide on the name change.
The Anthropocene has been characterized primarily by a massive increase in human-caused species extinction and a significant increase in carbon dioxide from human industrial and agricultural activity which is bringing about climate change. The Anthropocene will be a period of increasing climate instability which will have major impacts on human civilization such as the rise of sea levels, increased droughts and forest fires, and even greater rates of species extinction. The Pentagon has responded to these potential threats by planning for an increase in international instability. In a recent report, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” as it will likely aggravate many of the problems that the United States and other nations face.
If human civilization was created and flourished during the Holocene, then the Anthropocene maybe the actual undoing of Creation, not because of a divinely sent deluge but because of human folly and a lack of political will to change. We have been living off the fruits of the Earth but we have also been uprooting the very gifts that sustain us.
The Flood Story is not a cute tale for children; it is a very adult allegory warning us of the potential disasters of our unbridled arrogance and greed. But it also is a story about hope and the possibility of human renewal. How our story will end is now entirely up to us.