Updated: Apr 30, 2022
In Hindu teachings, a fish-God ordered up a boat. The hero delivered, the flood came, humanity was saved and the boat came to rest on a mountaintop. Good story.
In Greek mythology, Zeus ordered up a boat. The hero delivered, the flood came, humanity was saved and the boat came to rest on a mountaintop. Still a good story.
In the Quran, Allah ordered up a boat. The hero (the same Noah of Hebrew scriptures fame, by the way) the hero delivered, the flood came, humanity was saved and the boat came to rest on a mountaintop.
And of course, in Hebrew scriptures, God ordered up a boat. Noah delivered, the flood came, humanity was saved and the boat came to rest on a mountaintop.
And variations on this epic myth can be found across cultures, generations and traditions of planet earth, including versions told by the indigenous peoples of both North and South Americas.
In a sense the flood mythology joins ranks with the likes of the Golden Rule in terms of its easy sweep into the consciousness of humanity.
And let me pause to say that I use the word "mythology," not to take this story away, but to give this story back. I use the word mythology not to challenge this tale for what it’s not but to respect it for what it is, for how it was meant to be heard and for what it was meant to do. It is when we literalize such tales that we disrespect them, you see. We were no more intended to search for an outer ark than we were meant to search for an outer beanstalk.
One of the most dangerous tendencies among post-enlightenment folk (and that’s you, by the way) is to impose our post-enlightenment mindsets onto pre-enlightenment narratives.
And I say it’s one of the most dangerous tendencies because to do so places us in tension with common sense. To do so places us in tension with modern science. To do so places us in tension with other people.
And this is why I’ve continued to say that if you haven’t read the Bible, start by reading at least a couple of really good, scholarly books about the Bible. Again and again and again, to read the Bible without some grasp of context – without some grasp of the circumstances from which its books arose, the culture from which its books arose, the languages in which its books arose, the translations through which its books arose, even the technologies by which its books arose – to read the Bible without some grasp of context is to compromise it at best and to weaponize it at worst. There is no authentic seeking of biblical wisdom without an authentic seeking of biblical context.
And I tell you this to shake loose any lingering remnant of the belief that a myth’s truths are dependent upon its facts. Sometimes, I like to say it this way: the planet’s epic teaching myths are narratives which never were, but always are.
Now, many of the narratives include an angry god. Many of the narratives include a deficient humanity. Many of the narratives include a sweeping purge. And so forth. But most seem to depart at the rather delicate matter of the repopulation. After all, the survivors were usually family members.
In one version, the repopulation is handled this way: the surviving brother and sister throw stones over their shoulders. When the brother throws a stone over his shoulder, it becomes a man. When the sister throws a stone over her shoulder, it becomes a woman.
What a tidy way to circumvent that awkward moment in our narrative, don’t you think?
“No incest going on here! Just a couple siblings throwing stones.” From an R rating to a G rating – just like that. Easy.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh (recorded on stone tablets, by the way), our hero receives proportions for the construction of the boat itself. He takes pairs of animals aboard the boat, the flood comes, the boat lands on a mountaintop and our hero releases birds to search for dry land.
Sound familiar? Well, it should. And yet this Epic of Gilgamesh predates our Genesis narrative by some thousands of years.
And, I tell you this to shake loose any lingering remnant of belief that truth can belong to people of any single tradition, geography or era.
And it’s in such a spirit that I invite you to revisit this epic myth – a myth offering something so compelling, something so universal, something so alive that it continues to travel across the entirety of human consciousness with ease.
Now, I have a favorite moment in the epic myth as detailed in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s a version that seems to combine materials from at least a couple sources. So yes, there are conflicts. And no, they don’t matter.
I have a favorite moment, and it’s not when God got mad.
We tend to encourage people beyond an anthropomorphized God – usually a male complete with arms and legs, bearing an uncanny resemblance to humanity’s prevailing moods, prejudices, limitations, and tendencies. We tend to encourage people into an awareness of God as something beyond human projection. As we’ve been saying every Sunday, “There is a singular and eternal ground of being from which all life emanates and into which all life retreats. We choose to call this ground of being God.”
So, even though it’s a common enough practice, we don’t really teach a humanized God who gets angry and mean like we do. So that’s not my favorite moment.
And it’s not when God ordered up a boat, even though this might be my second favorite.
After all, how many of us can relate to what we might call a divine knowing? How many of us can relate to getting a gut feeling, a bodily sensation, a cautionary shock, a psychic forewarning that would seem to redirect us from the paths we’ve been traveling?
And how many of us have pretty rich stories about paying attention to that divine knowing? And how many of us have even richer stories about turning away from that divine knowing? It was the great Religious Science theologian Kennedy Schultz who said it something like this, “Our problems don’t arise because we don’t know what to do. Our problems arise because we know exactly what to do and we don’t do it.”
So that might be my second favorite. But it’s still not my favorite.
And it’s certainly not when the flood came. And it’s not even when humanity was saved. God as an interventionist is a wildly problematic conversation. I mean, there’s so much depth to this story (excuse the pun) that any of its points could be an entire lesson.
But in the end, my favorite moment is recorded in the following: after forty days Noah opened a window he had made and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth. Then he sent out a dove. But the dove could find nowhere to perch; so it, too, returned.
Ah! Now that’s my favorite moment.
That’s my favorite moment because I think it speaks to those of us involved in any program of meaningful change – whether spiritual or secular.
It speaks to so many New Year’s dieters, it speaks to so many new to recovery, it speaks to so many poets, seers, artists, inventors, composers, visionaries, revolutionaries, social change agents.
It speaks to those of us involved in any program of meaningful change because in any program of meaning change, there comes a point at which we’ve done everything we were inspired to do – we were obedient and faithful, bold and daring – and so we send forth the first bird (I like to imagine his name was Curiosity) we send forth the bird of Curiosity as if to ask, “Is my good ready yet, God?”
“Is my love ready? I’ve been doing affirmations all week!”
“Is my joy ready? I’ve been forgiving people all month.”
“What about my prosperity? Is my prosperity ready? I’ve been donating money all year.”
We send forth the bird of Curiosity as if to ask, “Is my good ready yet, God?” only to have the bird return without so much as a shred of evidence of new life.
And so, we send forth the second bird (I like to imagine his name was Impatience) we send forth the bird of Impatience as if to ask, “What about now, God?”
“Is my love ready now? I’ve been meditating for weeks!”
“Is my joy ready now? I’ve been visualizing for months!”
“Is my prosperity ready now? I’ve been hanging out at the local Mercedes-Benz dealership all year and I’m no longer allowed on the property.”
We send forth the bird of Impatience as if to ask, “What about now, God?” only to have the bird return without so much as a shred of evidence of new life.
Here’s how it shows up for me. I’m about contributing to an awakening world by supporting an awakening people. I admit it. I want life on the planet to somehow be bettered for the work we do together.
I mean, in a most general way, I think we can do better. Much like the state of the world in our myth, I think we can do better.
I consider the erosion of truth-telling as a value among modern people and I think, we can do better.
I consider the cruelty afforded by systems that would keep modern people blissfully blind to the effects of the simplest of daily choices and I think, we can do better.
I consider the selfishness of individuals for whom integrity of character would seem to be for sale to the highest bidder and I think, we can do better.
I consider the injustice of mechanisms which would subtly give favor, sew division, instill mistrust, perpetuate limitation and I think, we can do better.
I consider the weaponization of words as an easy practice among modern people and I think, we can do better.
And yes, I’m suggesting that our definitions of violence be expanded to include the words we use, even on social media. This past month alone, I have been assaulted as being dishonest, judgmental and racist by people who have never met me.
So yes, I can relate to our Noah. For in my human moments, I find myself running to the window with my bird of Curiosity as if to say, “Is my good ready yet, God?” “How’s our honesty coming along today, God?” “How’s our kindness coming along today, God?”
I find myself running to the window with my bird of Impatience as if to say, “What about now, God?” “How’s our integrity coming along today, God?” “How’s our justice coming along today, God?”
And so, in our seeking for something of a wisdom, let’s look to what our hero did next. Did he complain? It would seem not. Did he doubt? We don’t see that. Did he have a tantrum? That’s not in the record. Did he give up? Well, obviously not. If he had given up, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“Noah, I want you to build a boat.”
No longer a good story.
In our seeking for something of a wisdom, let’s look to what our hero did next. He waited. He waited seven days, sent out the dove and finally, the dove returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf!
It seems to me that one possible assurance offered by our epic teaching myth is that just because we don’t see the dry land, we mustn’t assume it isn’t emerging beyond our sight. Or just because we don’t see results from our spiritual work, we mustn’t assume they aren’t emerging beyond our sight.
So maybe we, like our Noah, are encouraged to take heart, to trust the process. Maybe we are encouraged to allow that seven days (that time associated with completion in Jewish symbolism, by the way – how rich is that?) maybe we are encouraged to allow that seven days for the results of our spiritual work to press themselves through the thickness that is this level of reality.
Maybe that’s why most metaphysical prayer processes end with some form of release. Maybe there comes a point at which we practitioners have done everything we were inspired to do – we were obedient and faithful, bold and daring. Maybe, there comes a point at which for all of our human curiosity and impatience, we must give rise to a trust in the mechanics of the spiritual world.
In fact, if the first bird were named Curiosity and the second bird were named Impatience, I like to imagine that the third bird was named Trust. It was trust that revealed the first shred of evidence of new life.
“How’s our honesty coming along today, God?”
“How’s our kindness coming along today, God?”
Well, I trust they are coming along just fine.
“How’s our integrity coming along today, God?”
“How’s our justice coming along today, God?”
Well, I trust they are coming along just fine.