What do the stories of Creation and Noah’s Ark have in common?
Umm . . . atheists and fundamentalists spend a lot of time arguing about them?
Haha! Yes they do. But besides that?
They’re both really old?
Yes, they go back thousands of years. Besides that?
They’re both in the Bible?
Well, yes, of course . . . but there are lots of other versions of these stories, too.
Okay, I give up. What do the stories of Creation and Noah’s Ark have in common?
They’re both from an ancient, mythical part of the Bible that was never meant to be taken literally. These are symbolic stories about the human condition, and about our relationship with God.
Oh really? Says who?
Just go with me on this one, okay? You’ll see. If we think of these as symbolic rather than literal stories:
- We don’t have to waste our time arguing about science vs. the Bible.
- We don’t have to think of these as just some old, outdated stories.
- We don’t have to worry about which culture’s version of them is “right.”
- We can find a deeper meaning in them that is just as true today as it ever was.
Does God really care what we believe about science and history? If the Bible is the Word of God as Christians believe it is, then isn’t it about the things God truly cares about? Spiritual things?
Let’s take a deeper look at the story of the Great Flood, and see what meaning it holds for us. Though the literal story is about a great, world-destroying flood, at a deeper level it tells the story of a great sea change in the human mind.
This change is something that the human race went through thousands of years ago as we made the transition from being pre-literate, nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more settled agrarian culture with spoken language and written literature.
It is also a change that each one of us goes through individually, from our own mythic times of infancy through the awakening of our thinking mind in early childhood.
Yes, all of this—and much more—is in the story of Noah and the Ark.
We are speaking of divine literature, not a human textbook of science and history. The depths of meaning contained within it put all the materialistic, quasi-scientific arguments of the fundamentalists into the shade.
Where does the story of the Great Flood come from?
First, a quick detour into the source of the Noah’s Ark story, and of the many similar stories handed down from various ancient cultures.
These days, the scholarly speculation about the origin of the various flood myths is that they are based on real experiences of major floods in the ancient Middle East and elsewhere in the world. These experiences, passed down through oral tradition, were turned into poetic accounts of great, world-cleansing floods by the ancient poets and sages.
Did the original authors of these stories think that floods big enough to swamp the entire world had actually happened? Probably not. But for a culture that had had its towns and cities swept away by a massive flood, it would feel as if their whole world had been carried off. So the feeling of these stories was true to the experience of whole regions being swept away by floodwaters.
What are these early Bible stories about?
And yet, there was more to it than that. These stories were composed in a pre-scientific age. Their authors were not concerned with science and history as we think of them today. They were concerned with the human condition, and with their culture’s relationship with God. In other words, they were writing about spiritual issues. They cloaked these spiritual issues in symbolic language drawn from powerful events and experiences through which their people and their cultures had passed.
The first eleven chapters of the Bible, up to the stories of Abraham, were written in this mythic, symbolic language. Far from being “untrue,” these chapters contain far deeper truth than any literal, scientific creation story would. They tell us in symbolic language how we humans were created by God spiritually. They then go on to tell us about the spiritual and psychological stages that we passed through both as a human community in prehistoric times, and in our own individual prehistoric times of infancy and early childhood.
Once we realize that the truth of the Bible is not about science and history, but about the human mind and heart, and about our relationship with God, we can set aside simplistic notions about the world being literally created in six days, and literally flooded over the tops of the mountains. We know from science that these things simply couldn’t have happened.
Instead we can open these stories up and see the deeper, spiritual and divine truths hidden within them. What we find when we do this is far more enlightening and far more precious that what appears on the surface. It is a message from God about who we are and why we are here.
(For more on this way of understanding the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”)
From Creation to destruction
The story of Noah and the Great Flood covers four chapters in the Bible: Genesis 6–9. These four chapters are packed with poetic detail about the events they cover. In fact, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) spends over 300 pages explaining the spiritual meaning of these four chapters in Secrets of Heaven, his massive commentary on the books of Genesis and Exodus. The best we can do here is follow a few of the major themes.
By the time Genesis 6 rolls around, humanity and the earth have gone through a full cycle from being “very good” as originally created by God (see Genesis 1:31) to being utterly corrupt in God’s sight (see Genesis 6:11–12).
How did this happen?
- Adam and Eve disobeyed God, resulting in their expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3).
- Cain murdered his brother Abel, bringing a curse upon himself (Genesis 4:1–16).
- Cain’s lineage continued on a downward course, engaging in further murders (Genesis 4:17–24).
- The “sons of God” mated with the daughters of ordinary mortals, creating a race of evil giants (Genesis 6:1–5).
- This was the last straw, resulting in God’s decision to wipe out the wickedness from earth (Genesis 6:5–7).
Now remember, these are mythic stories, not literal ones. Each of the individuals mentioned here represents whole races and cultures of people. It’s similar to the common personification of the United States of America as the individual figure of “Uncle Sam.”
Pictured in these early chapters is the decline of humankind from an original state of spiritual awareness and closeness with God to a corrupt state of evil, pride, wickedness, and violence.
Giants of pride and arrogance
For example, the giants described early in the Bible are symbols of egotistical pride: the self-delusional idea that we are big and important—much more important than the “little people” all around us. Compare this contemporary translation of a passage later in the Bible, in which ten of the twelve spies sent into the Holy Land by Moses bring back a scary report about what they found there:
“Everybody we saw was huge. Why, we even saw the Nephilim giants (the Anak giants come from the Nephilim). Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.” (Numbers 13:32–33 – The Message)
Goliath of Gath, famous from the David and Goliath story, was another one of these giants who saw themselves as great and invincible:
Goliath walked out toward David with his shield-bearer ahead of him, sneering in contempt at this nice little red-cheeked boy. “Am I a dog,” he roared at David, “that you come at me with a stick?” And he cursed David by the names of his gods. “Come over here and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and wild animals,” Goliath yelled. (1 Samuel 17:41-44 – Living Bible)
Well . . . we know how that turned out!
To use a modern idiom, these ancient, mythical giants represent people who are so full of themselves that they think they’re better, stronger, bigger, smarter, and more important than everyone else. As far as they’re concerned, other people exist only to serve them and grovel at their feet. Anyone who doesn’t serve them deserves to die. In fact, they take great pleasure in torturing and killing their enemies—men, women, and children alike—in the most excruciating and shameful ways possible.
This overbearing arrogance and desire to rule over everyone else was the source of all the corruption and violence that existed on the earth just before the Great Flood.
When an undivided mind goes bad
How did things get so bad so fast?
It might help our understanding of what’s going on here if we bring this story a little closer to home.
Though there are certainly exceptions, for most of us when we were first born our parents thought of us as “very good,” just as God pronounced us “very good” when we were first created. The arrival of a baby is usually a happy event. Babies are cute, innocent, and all those other nice things.
However, within a year or two there is often quite a different picture. We go into what’s popularly known as the “terrible twos”—a period of testing limits, defiance, and tantrums that can actually stretch from age one through age four.
At this early time in our life, our parents can’t reason with us and explain to us why we can’t have what we want, or why we must do something we don’t want to do. As the saying goes, we want what we want when we want it. And whatever we want, that’s also what we think, and that’s what we do if we are able. Everything flows seamlessly from our desires through our minds into our actions.
That’s because at this point, our mind is undivided. We haven’t yet developed the ability to think separately from what we want. We aren’t yet capable of thinking, “I know I want to eat right now, but supper isn’t ready yet, so I’ll just keep playing with my toys until it is ready.” If we’re hungry, we want food NOW, not at some future time that we can’t even imagine precisely because it isn’t now.
This can be exasperating for a toddler’s parents. But good parents know that this is just a stage children go through. They know that their child doesn’t mean any harm by it. Parents just have to be patient with their toddlers until they move on to the next stage.
When adults are like toddlers
But consider what it would be like if the whole world were filled with adults who had the spontaneous, undivided, and rather self-centered minds of a toddler. Consider a culture in which in which, like toddlers, everyone wants what they want when they want it, but they have adult bodies and capabilities.
A toddler who’s mad at a parent, sibling, or playmate will often go in with fists flying—but without the strength or coordination to do much damage. However, an adult who is in a blind rage at a fellow human being can and will maim and kill the person who is the target of that anger if not restrained by others.
Consider a world in which the vast bulk of people want their own way at all times—which involves having everyone else cater to their every whim—and they have no mental ability to restrain their angry and murderous rage at anyone who does not serve them like slaves.
This was the mayhem that existed just before the Flood, when “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), and “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:12).
This was the situation on earth before the figurative Great Flood in the Bible brought about a sea change in the human mind. It was the unrestrained violence and destruction of people who have become arrogant and selfish, and have undivided minds so that they immediately express in their actions everything that they desire.
At this point, God saw that a fundamental change was necessary in the way people’s minds work.
Rooms in the ark
The change required is symbolized by the ark itself—but also by a small detail in the plan of the ark that we could easily pass by as inconsequential. Here is the beginning of God’s instructions to Noah about how to build the ark:
Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:14, emphasis added)
Well, of course it would have rooms. Boats, houses, everything we build for human habitation has rooms, right?
But consider the pre-literate, prehistoric people pictured by Noah. They were still in the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity. They lived spontaneous lives close to nature. When they were hungry they went foraging for food. When they felt the desire, they mated. When they were tired, they went to sleep. Their life was flow-of-consciousness, and seamless with the world of nature around them. They didn’t have houses or boats with rooms. Most likely they all lived communally in one big cave—men and women, old and young, all in a continuum with one another and with nature.
For people like these, the idea of rooms separating people from people and animals from animals would have seemed strange and revolutionary. Rooms? Who ever heard of such a thing?
Yet God instructed Noah to make the ark with rooms.
Think of the ark itself as a symbolic portrayal of the mind of the people represented by Noah and his sons and their wives—a picture of the conscious awareness that they inhabited as they interacted with the world around them. Being inside a vessel such as this, cut off from the rest of nature around them, would have been a strange and new experience for them. And having their mind compartmentalized, to use a modern term, would be a strange new sensation. They were used to everything flowing seamlessly into everything else.
In short, the ark itself, and the rooms that divided it, symbolize a massive shift in the very nature of human consciousness.
- Before that time, we had the seamless, undivided minds of an infant or toddler.
- Starting at that time, the human mind became divided and compartmentalized.
Though there were many rooms, meaning many separate “boxes,” formed in the human mind at that time, we’ll focus on the most fundamental division:
At the time represented by the Great Flood, God brought about a division between the human heart and mind: between our loves and desires on the one side, and our thoughts and ideas on the other.
From toddler to schoolchild
Once again, we can understand this better if we consider the fundamental change that takes place around the age of five in our childhood development. It’s no accident that children traditionally start their schooling around the age of five or six. This is when a new phase begins: a phase of learning and of developing our thinking mind.
What happens to our mind, or consciousness, at that time is a great division between our thoughts and our desires.
For the first time, we can think and understand things that do not go along with what we love and desire. To use our earlier example, if we’re hungry, our parents can explain to us that supper will be in half an hour. Starting at this stage in our life we can actually understand that, and put our hunger on hold while we wait out that half hour. We can understand that even if our desire for food isn’t going to be satisfied right now, it will be very soon—and we’re okay with that.
This is a huge change in the way our mind operates. And it is a change that lasts for the rest of our lives. From that time onward, we have the ability to use our thinking mind to restrain and direct our loves and desires.
- If we want to do something destructive, such as killing someone we are angry with, we can tell ourselves that this is not a good idea—that we should take a chill pill until our anger wears off.
- If something we want is a good idea, but we can’t have it immediately, we can make plans and follow them in order to bring about in the future what we want in the present.
The change in post-Flood people
This fundamental change in the human mind in ancient times is what allowed certain groups of humans to move forward and thrive while other groups died out.
In the mythic world described by the Flood, those humans who still had undivided minds, but who had been corrupted by arrogance and a desire for power, snuffed themselves and each other out in a Great Flood of irrationality, anger, and violence from which they could not restrain themselves because they did not have the ability to think and do anything other than what they desired in the moment.
However, those humans who developed a divided mind were able to rise above other humans who were still stuck in the earlier phase. They were able to think and reason separately from their desires, and make conscious decisions about the best course of action to take for their tribe and their culture. They were able to set aside present wants in favor of future goals.
The most likely tie-in to present-day scholarship on human development is with the time humans moved from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to the time we developed agriculture and a settlement-based lifestyle.
- Hunter-gatherers move with the ebb and flow of the wild fruits, vegetables, and game on which they subsist. They are seamlessly integrated into the ecosystem around them.
- Farmers stay in one place, learning how best to work the land, and planning ahead as they till, plant, harvest, and store food and supplies for the dry or wintry seasons after the harvest.
This change in the human mind made possible civilization as we know it today, complete with cities and towns supported by agriculture and industry of various kinds. And of course, it made possible our many institutions of learning, our various public service organizations, and all of the other practical, literary, and artistic elements of advanced civilizations.
What does this mean for our daily spiritual life?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our lives flowed seamlessly from pure hearts through enlightened minds to useful and compassionate action?
- Many of our desires are selfish and greedy.
- Many of our thoughts are false and foolish.
- Many of our actions are hurtful and destructive.
We can wring our hands and wish it weren’t so. But the fact of the matter is that it is so. We can see it every day in the vast wars and petty crimes, in multimillion dollar white collar crime and hundred dollar convenience store robberies. We can see it in the many ways we treat each other badly and give each other pain instead of joy.
And yet, because we do have a divided mind, there is a way out of this mess.
We don’t have to blindly carry out all the foolish, arrogant, greedy, and selfish desires that arise in our hearts. We have thinking minds, and a developing conscience, that we can exercise in order to choose which loves and desires we will and will not act upon.
A divided mind makes spiritual growth possible
That is the key to our ability to be spiritually reborn as new and better individuals. It is the key to our ability to make our world a better place, and to right the wrongs that plague our communities.
Yes, everything hinges on the divided mind that God gave us as we moved from being toddlers to being young children.
Do you dislike who you are right now, and what your life is like? Are there parts of yourself and your daily routines that you are not satisfied with? Do you aspire to better things?
The good news is that we humans now have the ability to direct our own lives using our thinking minds and the principles and beliefs that we have learned. We have the ability to correct our heart when what it wants is selfish and greedy, or when its feelings are self-destructive and self-limiting. We have the ability to picture something better than our current life, and direct our head, heart, and hands toward achieving it.
This is the unique ability that makes us human, and able to become greater than what we now are.
And it was brought about by the sea change in the human psyche represented by the story of Noah, the Ark, and the Great Flood.
Noah’s Ark is not just a children’s story (though it does offer great insights into our early childhood development).
This ancient myth tells a powerful, adult tale of how we humans came to be the civilized, thinking beings that we are today, capable of rising above our lower desires and reaching upward toward a better, more just, more loving, more spiritual, more Godly world.
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
For a review of the 2014 film, see A Christian Movie Review of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.”
For further reading: