Sunday, February 26, 2012

12-02-26: First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-15 / Psalm 25 / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:12-15

The account of Noah’s Ark is one of those universal stories that even the unchurched and irreligious have heard of. Catholics too, notorious for being proudly unaware of the Bible, feel on safe ground when it comes to Noah and his floating zoo. You can’t say that for much else in the Bible or in the collective religious consciousness today. Stephen Prothero, in Religious Literacy, writes that on the first day of class each semester, in his Boston University Religious Studies seminar, he gives a quiz to find out how much his students know about what were once bits of common religious knowledge. One question, Who was Joan of Arc?, elicited this answer: Noah’s wife.

Biblical fundamentalists, like the Intelligent Design gang, like to make the point that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible, i.e. the six-day creation story, the young age of the earth (about 10,000 years), and the biblical account of the flood that gave rise to the story of Noah. On the other side of the debate are both modern biblical scholars and evolutionists who see in the account of Noah and his Ark the makings of a great religious myth (the former group reading “myth” as a poetic truth, the latter as fable). Some time ago archeologists discovered not one, but several, ancient extra-biblical accounts of a flood and a hero who builds a boat to escape. The hero goes by different names depending on the culture. In the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, he is named Ut-napishtim. You would think that the fact that different cultures possess similar accounts of an ancient flood would reassure the fundamentalists that perhaps this was a proof that the biblical account of a flood might be historically true. But no, they can’t bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that God spoke to someone else in a book not called the Bible. Of course, Jungians might suggest that it’s all a wash and but a proof that there is such a thing as the collective unconscious. But it is intriguing, isn’t it, that virtually the same story is told by several different cultures indicating, perhaps, that there might well have been a huge flood or, even more intriguing, that the Bible borrowed stories and made them its own – perhaps making the God of the Bible not a primary source.

In the Gilgamesh Epic Ut-napishtim becomes divine through his ordeal. Noah never gets that far. Noah’s story continues after he lands on dry ground and he is subjected to some further ordeals, one of them involving a very kinky and unexplained sexual experience that’s not fit to be repeated in this above-board column. Though, to his everlasting credit, Noah is attributed with introducing wine into our shared history as well as being permitted by God to eat meat (up till then everyone was supposedly a vegetarian).

All this doesn’t jive too well with the beginning of Lent when we’re supposed to be more circumspect about certain sensual pleasures (forego the filet mignon and aged Cabernet and choose the salmon and iced tea). But maybe there’s some hidden wisdom here. After all, Noah had to endure the flood in that Ark of his, not only with his immediate family, but a menagerie of all living creatures (hope they had cross ventilation). When the Ark finally hit dry ground, atop Mount Ararat, Noah had to start all over again. Not easy for a more than middle-aged man; but he did so with a spirit of thanksgiving (the wine and roasted lamb might’ve helped). Maybe that’s a good lesson for us as we begin this Lent. Starting over is never easy, but when you begin again with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity - all things are possible. Come to think of it, those undergrads from BU should be grateful that the Bible beat out the Gilgamesh Epic: Noah is a lot easier to remember than Ut-napishtim.

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