Noah and the Ark

entering_the_ark

The movie ’Noah’, starring Russel Crowe depicts on the one side how far we have drifted from mythology, and on the other how great our yearning for the myth is. It is a yearning for the incredible, the stupendous, the miraculous. The debates over whether or not the story of Noah is true arise again, ever fiercer. For many a secular mind the whole thing seems absurd. ”Why even argue over a fairy tale?” Both sides of the altercation however have one belief in common – the Old Testament text claims to be true literally and historically.

Here is how I see it: The story is not a fairy tale – it is a myth and as such it is true. I would dare say more true than any history book I have ever read. And it does seem a little strange that a century of academic study in the fields of mythology, psychology and comparative religion has passed so many unnoticed, Hollywood included.

The Flood myth is universal. In fact, there are well over 200 flood myths across the world that we know of today. These myths tell the same story with some variations, they do arise from cultures where people have observed their land being flooded, but also from desert areas, such as Arizona and Nevada. The symbolical value of water as a bringer of both destruction and growth can not be overlooked here, for mythology is symbolism and allegory, and not historic text.

Just as there are many flood myths there have been many a Noah and many an ark built throughout history. The building of the ark and the gathering of animals tell us the tale of how the great world religions emerged. As civilisations have been torn apart by animosity and hatred there have been the counter-reaction known as the Revitalization Movement. Anthropologist Anthony Wallace coined the term as he studied the phenomena in North America, but the characteristics of the Revitalization Movement can be seen in the early history of every world religion and of countless others. In the Bible we read that the water rose above the highest peaks, symbolically saying that the greatest kings and rulers of the time were all engulfed in war. Many references to the same symbolism can be drawn even within the Bible, perhaps most notably from the book of Isaiah.

For the mountains may depart
    and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
    and my covenant of peace shall not be removed…

If we imagine that animals represent different tribes, ethnic and religious groups so Noah’s gathering of animals makes perfect sense, for when we study the history of every world religion we find that diverse peoples have gathered and united in one common faith and prevailed against discord and hatred.

Noah dies at a very high age. We may recall the mythological figure known as the Phoenix, the bird with golden feathers that sets itself aflame only to arise from its own ashes. The Phoenix was in different cultures believed to have a life span ranging from five hundred to a thousand years. That is roughly the time a religious dispensation – an established faith – lasts before a new religion is born. Christ died at an early age, but his teachings and community survived, and after three centuries Christianity was established on the highest peaks of what were the remains of the Roman Empire. Noah need not have lived any longer than Jesus, but if he (Noah) was a revered prophet, his religion surely would have borne his name and thus his name would have been revered for as long as his teachings were remembered. It is also quite possible then that his dispensation reached its apex after six hundred years, as his teachings were infused into all parts of society.

The one part of the Story of Noah that touches me the most is the dove with the olive branch. First a raven is released from the ark and as it flies to and fro the earth dries up. But the dove, being released after the raven finds the earth still flooded. Why is the earth dry in the eyes of the raven but flooded for the dove? The raven represents ignorance and so it falsely believes the world to be dry and safe and settles on it. It harbors that kind of restlessness that we see in populists and revolutionaries. It believes that flapping its own wings and loud croaking is sufficient to rid the world of injustice. The dove represents purity and discernment – the virtues necessary to see in what state the world is really in. Only after a second flight does the dove return with the olive branch, imparting to those lacking the power of flight that the earth is yet again producing verdure – that the seeds of virtue have rooted and sprung forth. Society is now being revitalized. At the third flight the dove does not return at all – peace is firmly established. Just as these two birds – these spiritual stations – must have been present in Noah’s community, so we may also find them within ourselves. If we seek to view the world with eyes undimmed we must cast out the raven and be like the dove – pure in heart and mind.

The religious myth is a metaphor designed to help us reach a deeper understanding of our human nature and of our place in history. In the world of myths many a windswept Noah can be seen pointing toward something greater – perhaps a brighter future for humanity – but we in the twenty first century are staring blindly at the finger.

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Day Three – The Rise of Virtue

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

This water can be seen as a the embryonic state of a civilization, a community or an individual. The myth conveys archetypes that are manifested repeatedly and in many aspects of creation. The land that rises from the water can be recognized every time a new religion emerges, when a society is entering a time of renewal, or when an individual is lifted from the depths of ignorance. It may also be worth noting that man’s element as a species is earth, not water. In the Flood Myth of Noah the imagery is more elaborate, but the symbols tell us the same story. When the water is gone, peace is established, as expressed in the symbol of the dove with the olive branch. It is in this, the third day of Creation that the community becomes visible, when repression turns into acceptance and the spiritually inspired society is, even in a worldly sense, distinguished from and raised above the materialistic.

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

The divine spring time. In Jewish tradition the earth is being seen as the heart of man. So when the earth sprouts vegetation this tells us something about the nature of our inner life – the organic process of building character, of cultivating virtue. Kind words, compassion, truthfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, generosity and helpfulness grow like plants that spread their seeds in the wind – seeds that may fall into the earth of the hearts of others. Note that neither the plants (or herbs), nor the trees here are mentioned without them being seed-bearing. As described in the Sixth Day, only man is given the seed-bearing herbs and fruits, and man stands for perfection (the image of God). This verse can then, in a sense, be seen as referring to the perfecting of man’s character. In the Parable of the Sower we may also gather that the earth is indeed the symbol of the heart, as it is there that the divine teachings, the heavenly virtues can root.

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root,they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”[1]

The tree is a symbol of perfection or greatness. With its roots deep into the ground and branches stretching out towards the sky, we see the qualities of people who stand firm, who are offering a shelter and a refuge; individuals who are strong and upright, seeking sustenance from the Sun of Truth. “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring…”[2] describes these qualities of the Jewish prophet. The greenery that comes out of the earth can be interpreted both as individuals and as society. The earth may be a symbol of the heart as well as the world of humanity.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.[3]

In the myth, these events are renewals, thus each kind of plant, herb and tree have grown in past societies and will appear in future ones. This can be understood to be the meaning of “each according to its kind”; spiritual qualities, embodied in people (or personality types), are recreated in each spiritual cycle, in each society. “Let the earth sprout…” may also be taken as an exhortation to spread love; to teach one’s fellow men about virtue, to spread the message of peace and unity far and wide.

For glorious is the fruit of good labours: and the root of wisdom shall never fall away.[4]

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Notes and references:

1 Matthew 13
2 Genesis 49:22
3 Psalms 1:3 also Jeremiah 17:8
4 Wisdom of Solomon 3:15

Day Two – The Two Waters

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

In the world of humanity there may be seen two kinds of water – one which is spiritually reviving and one that quenches, or drowns the spirit. Then, in each dispensation man learns how to differentiate between these two waters through the revealed law of the divine messenger. The law emerges from between the two waters – the life-giving heavenly water and the bitter earthly water. Every divine messenger must subdue to this position: the message needs to be suited to its times, to the receptiveness of the earth, i.e. the people, but it must also allow for the seeker of truth to reach a higher degree of learning than the previous revelation made possible, and indeed for society to progress.

The word expanse may also be translated into firmament, barrier or canopy.

“…Thou hast like a skin stretched out the firmament of Thy book, that is, Thy harmonizing words, which by the ministry of mortal men Thou spreadest over us.”[1]

Augustine clearly sees the expanse as the Bible. In the Gospel of John it becomes clear that the separation of the waters, and the access to the heavenly water is indeed associated with the divine messenger, the revealer of the “harmonizing words”.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” [2]

With these words, Christ bridges the water symbolism of The Six days of Creation with that of other accounts in Genesis and Exodus. He speaks of the two waters, but also mentions the heavenly water as a source within man. When the water comes from within, it is the water of the heart – the deeper knowledge that is alluded. The water that seeps up from a mysterious source in the parched earth, or the hard rock, is perhaps the most eloquent description of what happens in a person who finds faith.

In every day of Creation we find the words (and God saw that it was good…) except in this day. Why? What may this day hold in store when it has not earned to be seen as good? Reading the history of the Israelites may cast some light upon this matter, as will surely, the study of the Enhuma Elish. For this is a day marked by war, suffering and oppression. In the Babylonian myth Marduk fights the Chaos dragon, and in Exodus we can see the parallel – the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh. When the prophet comes to raise the vault (or firmament) the people holding on to tradition arise in violent opposition against him and do their utmost to quench his light, for the firmament entails the annulment of old customs and laws and the disapproval of idolatry. The water that is split in two may also be a direct reference to the exodus from Egypt, where the Israelites pass dry-shod through the Red Sea and their adversaries drown in the waters. In the Rig Veda there is a verse with striking similarities to the aforementioned story. Here there is a river that withdraws on divine command for a fleeing people to cross, and when they are safe on the other shore, the water returns and their persecutors are drowned.

Soon as the Bharatas have fared across thee, the warrior band, urged on and sped by Indra,
Then let your streams flow on in rapid motion.[3]

However mind-boggling it may be to pinpoint stories such as these to specific times and places, as have been customary for centuries, this shallow reading will bar us from the knowledge conveyed through metaphor. The parting of the water is to illustrate the true miracle that the divine messenger performs, namely that of establishing virtue where chaos ruled. As the word yisra’el is the designation of someone who “struggles with God”, the Egyptians and Pharao stand for those people, or internal forces that reject the principles of faith – that oppress the soul’s longing for union with God. The miracle performed by Moses, as expressed in the myth, is the liberation from the slavery of materialism. Those who rejected his words and persecuted him were drowned in their egotism and animosity, and as the Kingdom of the Jews did arise, so did the ancient culture and empire that was theirs fall.

–› Day Three

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Notes and references:

1 Confessions XII:16
2 John 12:46
3 Rigveda 3:33

The Six Days of Creation

Day One

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

These are the opening words of the Bible. In his farewell address Christ proclaimed to his disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”.[1] As these heavens (or rooms) are unknown to us, it seems as though we have but two worlds to relate to – the physical and the spiritual; the earthly and the heavenly (from this point of view it is justified to change the plural ‘heavens’, into the singular ‘heaven’, as has been the case in some editions).

Another interpretation, which may be associated with mystical traditions poses that the heavens represent various levels of human consciousness – planes that may be reached even within this earthly existence. The seven heavens that the Prophet Muhammad traversed are then essentially spiritual states, as we also find in the Sufi tradition where seven valleys or cities mark the stages of the path of the seeker. In this interpretation, the heavens are essentially within the soul of man.

But there is yet another way to understand these introductory words. The Earth, according to this view is a symbol for humankind, while the heavens represent the many religious dispensations that have been present throughout human history. The word ‘beginning’ has in this context no particular historical meaning but speaks of an archetypal beginning that is ever recurring. In the Book of Revelation we read: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”[2] The sky is also referred to as Jerusalem – the holy city – which renews itself every time a new book of laws is revealed. When a prophet appears to repeal old laws and enact new ones, this can be likened to the renewal of the sky, whereas the earth (civilization) renews itself when it is put under the influence of a new religious order – an order that can be identified as a spiritually revitalizing movement. Again, when Isaiah says “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth”[3], it may be understood that he appeals to the clergy and the masses. According to this interpretation, the opening words of the Bible are not to be understood as the beginning of a chain of events, but rather as a title. As some Jewish interpreters have come to understand the Hebrew text, the word bereshit (in the beginning) can be read as a temporal statement and any of the following lines, as the main clause.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.

This is the primordial state. The Earth is spiritually desolate – the people are living in the darkness of ignorance and delusion. The water covering the earth is the symbol of the state of chaos where civilization is dissolved, and indeed, is waiting to be born anew. The word deep – in Hebrew tehom – can be traced to the Sumerian word tiamat, which is also the name of the primordial beast that appears in the Babylonian creation story and which is known by the name Leviathan in the Bible. All in all, what is described here may be termed “a state where spiritual values have been dissolved”.

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The Hebrew word for spirit (ruwach) also means wind. “…he makes His messengers winds…”[4] we read in Psalms. This may be the foreboding spirit, manifested in the heralds that appear just before a divine messenger steps out of obscurity and becomes manifest to the world. Before the appearance of Christ, John the Baptist and the Essenes embody this wind, but it is a wind that stirs in many a tree and recurs throughout history in the darkest of times. Note that the Spirit of God is never part of the dark water (the forces of chaos) – it is separated from it, it moves over it. The Jews have interpreted this spirit, this wind of God, as an everlasting covenant – an assurance that God’s grace never leaves the people.

And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In the first day the word light occurs five times (in row 3,4 & 5), and this, according to Jewish tradition[5] symbolizes the five books of Moses. As the light is separated from darkness, so is the Torah distinguishing right from wrong, and it leads the Israelites out of the oppression of night – into a new day. As Moses was the one prophet given the mission to reveal the law of the Torah, this light is also referring to him as the divine messenger – the source of enlightenment.

If we consider the properties of light, we find a symbolism that suggest a revitalizing, life-giving force. This divine light, this principle is also to be found with the Greek Stoics, expressed in the concept of logos (word). In the first verse of The Gospel of John the two terms light and word are tied together; “…the Word was God… In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” and Christ declares; “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”[6]. The term logos was incorporated into Jewish philosophy only during the lifetime of Christ, but the earlier concept of ‘light’ filled the same function. We can thus see how The New Testament beautifully unites Jewish and Greek philosophy.

When the word light occurs in holy scriptures, it is very rarely profane light that it refers to, but to concepts such as knowledge, life, justice, grace and salvation. Without light there is darkness, destruction and chaos, for light is the premise of spiritual life. At the darkest of times – that is when the light returns. As it dawns, we at first do not see the sun at all, even though the sky is brightening. Once the sun appears above the horizon it climbs slowly, gently allowing the earth to adapt to the light of the new day, and as it rises above the tree tops, the land is bathing in its light and heat. As the flower lovingly turns towards the sun, so does the believer love that inner light, when its gentle rays thaws the frozen earth of the heart. It is this light that manifests itself in every good action, in service to humanity, in truthfulness, compassion, justice, and in the arts and sciences that are begotten of man’s love for truth. Such is the light of religion.

–› Day Two

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Notes and references:

1 John 14:2

2 Revelation 21 also see The Qu’ran 14:48

3 Isaiah 1:2

4 Psalms 104:4

5 Rapaport, Tales and Maxims from The Midrash, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co 1907, page 59 ; sacred-texts.com. There is consensus among scholars that the Torah was not divided into books and chapters before 300 bc when it was translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint). The Six Days of Creation was written some 200 years earlier. This however does not rule out the possibility that The Five Books of Moses was already grounded in the oral tradition.

6 John 12:46

ESV Bible used, if not otherwise stated

The Creation Myth – Preface

A popular view of our times is that the creation myth has emerged from man’s will to understand the origins and phenomenas of nature. This is a view that reflects how we, in Western society are relating to the world. We are feverishly searching for ‘origin’, but restrict our search to the profane, while the deeper understanding of origin is more distant than ever. Our unconditional worship of natural science and our lack of interest in the humanities have made us blind to the creative process that remolds society after the appearance of a divinely inspired teacher. What this blog will attempt to clarify is, that for the authors of the creation myths, ‘creation’ is that process of spiritual renewal initiated by divine teachers, whereas nature contributes the symbols that help people remember and revere their spiritual ancestors.

The Creation myth deals with ‘origin’ and by its help man was, through participating in rites or recital, able to move from the plane of the profane to the realm of the sacred — that is to say, withdrawing from the familiarity of time and space and moving towards the experience of the eternal. It must then be understood, that for the myth to have any religious value, the origin of the world must take place beyond time and space. Therefore the events of the creation myths cannot be seen as mere historical events, they are archetypes that manifest themselves throughout history repeatedly. The very name Creation Myth may even be regarded as grossly misleading, as the myth does not account for a creation where there is a definitive beginning and an end. Indeed, in neither of the creation stories found in the Bible does the world appear out of nothingness. To gain a fresh understanding of these stories the word ‘creation’ could be replaced with ‘fashioning’ and ‘beginning and end’ with ‘dawn and dusk’.

At the end of every cycle all things return into the realm of nature, and at the beginning of the next cycle they are recreated.[1] –Krishna

The theme of ‘beginning and end’ (night and day) – the eternal recurrence of creation, can clearly be seen in the Hindu scriptures, as in the Bible and the Qur’an. As we have come to interpret these concepts and themes by the standards of a materialistic paradigm, we have been deprived of that message which is truly relevant to us – the message that helps man to, under all circumstances, endure the horrors of history through reconnecting with his inner nature.

The imagery of the Creation Myth recurs in various works and traditions around the world and clear similarities can be seen between Rig Veda[2], Genesis and the Poetic Edda[3], to name a few. Had these been written down to convey something about physical nature we might have expected some degree of causality, but we oftentimes find the opposite – the stories are leaping hither and thither between events and characters, in a way that appears highly contrary to science and reason. In The Bible this is clear, firstly in that there are two accounts of creation, where the order of some events are reversed. In the first story man is created last and in the second he is created first. The fact that the first story is written in the form of six days, despite the sun and the moon appearing only on the forth day, may also strike the reader as a little peculiar. What may seemingly be anomalies will however become fully acceptable to reason as we learn to see the symbolical value of what is being told.

Over the last century much of the origin of the Biblical myths have been mapped out and it has been discovered that the story of the Garden of Eden and the Six Days of Creation are both borrowing symbols from neighboring cultures. The spring (or fountain) that waters the earth of the Garden of Eden, as well as the rib of Adam, are details that can be found in the Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninhursag, whereas the Story of the Six days of creation is written with elements deriving from the Babylonian Enuma Elish.[4] We may keep in mind that the value of symbols cannot be restricted to a particular culture, and rather than blaming the Jews for plagiarism, we can note with what ingenuity they incorporated foreign imagery into their own mythology. In Genesis we see how water symbolism is used in virtually its entire spectrum, despite the fact that flood myths usually originate in areas where rivers overflow every year, as was the case in both Egypt and Babylon, but not in Canaan. The Jews, who at various times, were in contact with both of these cultures, were able to discern many of the mystical meanings of the symbols, meanings that had likely fallen into oblivion in both Egypt and Babylon – just as they have in the materialistic society that is ours.

The Garden of Eden is the oldest of the creation stories of the Bible and was preserved in both oral and written tradition for several centuries before the Torah was compiled, whereas The Six Days of Creation was authored during the Babylonian Captivity or shortly thereafter. The Garden of Eden is largely attributed to the group of scribes known as the Yahwist while the Six Days of Creation is attributed to the Priestly Source (P). In P’s story creation is divided into six days and according to Jewish tradition this number symbolizes the four cardinal points and heaven and earth. In this we are told that the text conveys truths involving all humanity, not just a particular ethnic group. Church Father Saint Augustine, who interpreted The Six Days of Creation in three books[5], stated that the meaning of the six days is not that God would be restricted to a number of days to create, but rather that the number six stands for perfection.[6] The Qur’an also confirms that the number of days is six. In Native American mythology we likewise find that the world is created in six days and the cardinal points together with heaven and earth occur in traditional songs, stories and prayers. After the six days we find the Sabbath – the holy day of rest enacted to commemorate the covenant Moses made with the Israelites. Rest also stands for peace, and in contrast to the Babylonian Enuma Elish, wherein the god Marduk through acts of violence has to recreate the world every year, we may note that this narrative does not include violence at all, on the contrary, it is distinguished by its pacifism.

In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.[7]Augustine

With these words in mind, we will step straightway into the first chapter of the Bible.

–› The Six Days of Creation – Day One

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Notes and references:

1 Bhagavad-Gita 9.7 (Author’s translation)
2 Rig Veda Book 10 verse 129 www.sacred-texts.com
3 Völuspa Wikipedia.org
4 Hooke S.H, Middle Eastern Mythology, Dover Publications 2004 Google Books
5 Confessions, The Literal Meaning of Genesis & The City of God
6 Augustine City of God 11.30
7 The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 2:9