A listener named Deanna emails the show and asks if the story of Noah and the flood in the Bible is literal or allegory? She writes: “During last night’s show, a kid called in and asked how Noah fit all of the animals on the ark. You answered that Noah didn’t fit all of the animals on the ark, but God did. However, that was not the answer I heard in RCIA class. We were told the story is an allegory to pass on in story form God’s promise to us … was I taught incorrectly?”
Father Dave responds, “You were not taught incorrectly. I would not use the term allegory … There are a lot of different literary forms. Yes, it is true to say that the biblical writers, particularly the writers of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, were using more poetic and hyperbolic forms than we would use today if we were stating something that happened … We believe that the Bible is the Word of God and does not contain errors, meaning it does not lead us away from the truth. But we do not believe that it is all factual, nor is it all consistent with the world of physics that we understand today. What we believe is that God was able to use six, seven thousand years ago, people of much more limited understanding and appreciation of the world and even language or math, or anything else that we would take for granted today … God was able to use people like that to pass on the important truths of salvation history, but he had to do it with their limited means, in the same way that God uses us today.”
Father Dave points out that if we look at some of the things that are very specific to Noah’s story and the creation story — the words and what they’re describing — we might think they are using terms we don’t understand. But if we study ancient history and texts, we realize that people at that time believed that the world was not as big as we know it today and thought that the world was flat.
“They pretty much assumed that the entirety of the world was about roughly what we would call the Middle East,” Father Dave says. “We now know that is not scientifically factual. So, not only were they using their limited knowledge, they used hyperbole. Hyperbole, as we know from poetry, is an important poetic device. Where you go over and above … one of the examples we see is in the movie “Elf” where he walks into the store and sees “world’s best coffee.” We know that it’s not true, but we take these things for granted because we see them all the time, like in advertising. Our brain kicks in and we recognize it as advertising and hyperbole. Because we don’t experience these other ancient forms of literature today, our brain doesn’t kick in the same way, and we go, ‘Well, how did he get all of those animals on that boat?’ When the people back then would have been like, ‘No, we didn’t mean it was an actual boat.’”
Father Dave points out that this doesn’t mean that the ark story didn’t happen the way it was written: “Deanna is right, the Church would certainly welcome if we found evidence of a boat. The evidences of hyperbole in the story itself, for instance, gives us little clues. The clues they have in this text are the fact that they talk about every living creature on the earth and flood that flows over the highest mountains of the world. What is it saying? It’s playing on exactly the same waters and image of what they believed to be the physical world in the creation story. … Modern people would use the term that the flood covered the entire globe. That’s an example of an anachronism because they didn’t know about the globe. They thought it was just Jordan, Israel, Palestine, just that. It’s hard to steer away from using the word literal because unfortunately, it’s too easy for us to dismiss it and say, ‘Oh this story isn’t literal, so all of the Bible is figurative, and we can use it however we want.’ No, like any good piece of poetry or art or literature, there are profound truths that you could not, not just easily, but couldn’t relay them all by any other standard form of communication.”
Father Dave points out that the story of Noah and the ark is about sin and forgiveness. “The fact that there is sin corrupting the world and what God needs to do is completely wash away all of that sin and start anew. We as Catholics see that as Baptism … So, it is talking about fundamental things like creation, our relationship with God, sin, and forgiveness, and how God’s mercy overwhelms every little thing. But also that God cares, not just about humans, but about every living thing he created. So, the Noah story is a true story, but it is using hyperbole or parables to convey that. … You don’t forget a story like Noah and the flood. That was the idea because they didn’t have the cloud or composition notebooks. They only had their memory. These fanciful, powerful, visual stories would allow them to pass it on by mouth from one generation to another, and we are still telling it thousands of years later, not because it may have happened scientifically, but because it relays a truth that can be remembered.” (Original Air 4-18-18)