The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Noah and His Ark

Not long ago, in our parish's Wednesday Bible Study, we spent a few sessions reading and discussing the story of Noah, his family, and the flood found in Genesis 6-10. Predictably and understandably, whenever the subject of Noah comes up, someone asks, "Did the flood really happen? Was Noah a real person, or is story of the flood just a story?"

These are good questions and deserve thoughtful answers. I usually respond by referring first to what Pope Benedict XVI has said about our approach to Sacred Scripture. Benedict encourages us to read Sacred Scripture in light of the faith and the Church’s living tradition, to read the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, as a unified whole. The Bible, then, is a single book about Christ. If we read it from this perspective, it tells one unified story, a history of salvation that unfolds as a series of covenants: with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and, finally, the New Covenant proclaimed by Jesus at the last supper. This history has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, who inspired all those who wrote the books of the Bible.

With this in mind, then, I respond by saying, "Yes, Noah was a real person." God doesn't make covenants with fictional characters. Was there really a flood? Yes, I believe there was, although it might not have covered the entire earth. It would be enough if it covered the world as Noah envisioned it. 

But the important part of the story of Noah and the flood is not its simple historical fact. Indeed, as St. Augustine wrote, 
"No one ought to imagine that this account was written for no purpose, or that we are to look here solely for a reliable historical record without any allegorical meaning." 
The questions we should be asking, then, relate not to the historical facts of the story, but to God's purpose. Why did He include the story in Sacred Scripture?

From the beginning the Church has understood Noah to be a type of Jesus Christ who brings salvation to a sinful world. In the same way the ark foreshadows the Church, the vehicle of salvation. Scripture and the whole of Sacred Tradition give life to and support the mission of the Church, the ark, the refuge of salvation. These and many other spiritual interpretations of the story of Noah and the flood are far more helpful to us on our earthly pilgrimage than are the bare historical facts. But I am drifting away from my original purpose today, which is to address some recent discoveries that relate to those historical facts.
A replica of Noah's Ark, based on the Biblical description (Gn 6:14-16)

I came across a 2012 ABC News story in which Christiane Amanpour interviewed Dr. Robert Ballard, the renowned oceanographer and marine archaeologist. Ballard is perhaps most famous for his discoveries of RMS Titanic and the German Battleship Bismarck. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, years ago, when I gave a talk at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. It was one of those very brief, nice-to-meet-ya meetings.

US Government (NOAA) Depiction
Anyway, it seems Ballard has been seriously studying the idea that there may have been a major, catastrophic flood -- the "mother of all floods" he suggested -- in the area of the Black Sea about 5,000 B.C. This theory had been advanced by two scientists at Columbia University who theorized that the melting of Ice Age glaciers caused the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to rise. This in turn generated a huge wall of water, estimated at 200 times the size of  Niagara Falls, that might well have inundated everything in its path as it roared into the Black Sea. At that time the Black Sea was a large fresh water lake, cut off from the Mediterranean.

Intrigued by this theory, Ballard and his team of underwater archaeologists went to the Black Sea and under its surface -- 400 feet under its surface! -- they discovered an ancient shoreline. Carbon dating of samples led to an estimate of 5,000 B.C. According to Ballard, "At some magic moment, it broke through and flooded this place violently, and a lot of real estate, 150,000 square kilometers of land, went under." 

Interesting stuff. You can read more at the National Geographic and ABC News websites:

National Geographic: Ballard, Noah and the Black Sea

ABC News: Interview with Robert Ballard

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