Recently there has been a news story about a Bible theme park in Kentucky which is to have as its center a large reproduction of Noah’s Ark built to accord with the Biblical measurements. The Bible talks about God’s detailed instructions to Noah in the sixth chapter of Genesis. The measurements are given in cubits but my NIV has helpfully translated these measurements into feet and inches. The story that is breaking, as I write, is whether the Kentucky project will ever be finished. Clearly they are in need of more ‘bond holders’, people who believe in the literal truth of the story to dig deep into their pockets so that the project can continue.
The great problem about all those who want to make a case for the literal truth of this story is that they never appear to have faced up to some of the problems inherent in the Genesis text. Those who preach on the Ark story presumably have read the text and they will have noticed that the story changes direction when we go from chapter 6 into chapter 7. In chapter 6 the account declares that God tells Noah to ‘bring into the ark two of all living creatures’. The chapter rounds off with the statement that ‘Noah did everything just as God had commanded him’. The account changes direction in chapter 7. Suddenly the word for God changes to the word ‘the Lord’ and the number of each of the animals to be taken into the ark also changes. Instead of pairs of animals to be allowed access to the ark, suddenly the Lord commands Noah to take ‘seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate’. What is going on here? The student of Genesis who is not committed to the literal truth of the story will have no problem explaining this enormous discrepancy with the resources of critical scholarship. I will reveal all in a moment. But the literalist is going to have enormous problems reconciling this change of gear within the story. The shift in style is more apparent when the original Hebrew is consulted. The word Elohim translated as God is found in chapter 6 while in chapter 7 the more familiar word Yahweh (translated as the Lord) starts to be used.
I do not possess any conservative commentaries on this passage so I do not know how the discrepancies are explained for a fundamentalist audience. Perhaps there were eight pairs of certain animals in the ark but I have never heard this offered as an explanation! But I think I would be right to guess that most conservative preachers would not own up to there being any problem. It is easier simply to leave out the ‘difficult’ section in chapter 7 and carry on with the story after the offending passage.
For those unfamiliar with the critical interpretation of the book of Genesis let me explain what main-stream scholarship has had to say about the discrepancies in the Genesis story of the Ark for the past 150 years. My summary, while new to some, will be a massive over-simplification to others. The discrepancies in the story can be accounted for by recognising that there is more than one source for the story. Two different versions are given, one after the other. The first version in chapter 6 is from a early source known a E on account of the word used for God, Elohim. The second version comes from a source known as P on account of the sensitivity over the presence of unclean animals being given equal status with the clean ones in the earlier version. The account is called P because there is evidence that the interests of the writer reflect the concerns of priests and those devoted to the maintenance of purity laws. The P account was probably written many centuries after the E version. The name Yahweh for God had become normative by the 4th – 3rd century BC when the P account was written.
Liberal scholarship allows itself the privilege of reading the Old Testament as ancient literature as well as a revelation of a story of God’s self revelation to a nation. As ancient literature, contradictions in the text can be faced and to a considerable extent explained and understood. Without these scholarly insights we are often left with impossible conundrums and contradictions. The conservative preacher on the other hand may have had to deceive his people and pretend that problems are solved when in reality all that has happened is that they have been censored out of sight.
If I am right that problems inherent in this Biblical text are ignored by many fundamentalist preachers, then that implies a readiness by some Christian leaders to short-change their members. At worst it can be described as dishonesty. Either way it arises out of the fundamentalist fantasy that sees the Bible, in spite of any contradictory evidence, as infallible and able be taken as authoritative on matters of history and fact. This examination of the story of the Ark is given as an example of just one passage where people in the pew are not being given the full picture of what the Bible actually says.
The Kentucky theme park is no doubt the vision of people who believe they are taking the story of Noah literally and thus they have given energy, money and time to its completion. The question has to be asked. Did the sponsors of this massive project ever sit down and actually read the account of the story of Noah as it is set out in the Bible? Was their understanding based on that reading or had they simply picked up a tidied-up version such as that put in a children’s version of the Bible? It would be an interesting question to ask but I rather suspect that for the sponsors and their supporters the Bible has been read not in its original form but in a version pre-packaged for easy consumption. It is only in that form that a doctrine of ‘infallibility’ can be sustained and promoted with any possibility of success.