This morning as I ran a deep, watery bath and watched the sky darken in preparation for the imminent arrival of yet another Atlantic storm front, the story of Noah returned once again to niggle me.
Followers of this, my bogl, will recall that, prompted by the weeks of endless rain we have experienced in northwestern Europe this winter, I Posted recently an article speculating on the possible geophysical causes of the biblical Fludde. Today, however, I return to the symbolism of the story.
At this distance in time it is of course impossible to argue for or against the existence of a real historical figure called Noah. Even the name seems allegorical, taken from the pages of ancient Sumerian scholarship. So what does Noah represent to us now?
As we know, the ‘sons’ of Noah, who are called Shem, Ham and Japhet, are described in terms of different racial characteristics. I think it’s Shem who is the white one, Ham the black and Japhet the semitic one, without looking it up I can’t really remember.
And at the end of the story God sends a rainbow to neatly tie up the plot with a promise never to try to destroy his Creation again.
Today, people have adopted the rainbow as a symbol of tolerant multiculturalism. I believe there is a direct link with prehistory.
Much of the Old Testament is the story of how Mankind gradually ceased living in a hunter-gatherer society and developed new laws and customs – a social compact – in order for the different tribes to settle in agricultural communities and growing cities, where they had to live alongside one another in mutual respect and co-operation. We haven’t quite managed it yet.
Relict societies of the rain forests until recently hunted not only monkeys and tapirs, they hunted and ate other humans. What we now brand as savagery seems for hundreds of thousands of years to have been innately human behaviour. It evolved long before we were even human, and we have carried it with us: the mark of Cain.
Many of our institutions seem to be designed with a dual purpose. On the one hand, they bring us together in a spirit of shared interest and co-operation. On the other, they define those outside the organisation as Other.
Take religions. They preach love, but tend unfortunately to create hatred. Human nature is not so easily converted to loving one’s neighbour, when you could eat him. The Devil brands the Other as diabolical, the Enemy. Not only to be feared but to actively be hunted and killed. The social compact is still at the stage where we feel the need to apply this principle to the enforcement of rules that attempt to override our basest human instincts. Often, we fail: sometimes in small ways – maybe we kill someone else. At other times in waves of horror, massacre, genocide, that survivors recall afterwards with stunned inadequacy as evil, bestial.
But we know, don’t we, that we are tempting God to wipe us all out again.
Naturally, we fear this inner nature. It is easier to brand a Charles Manson, a Myra Hindley or an Amanda Knox as Other, as the personification of the Devil, rather than to accept and work with the fact that they are only an extension of ourselves, who have chosen or been chosen to act outwith the social compact, challenging convention – perhaps in the most extreme way. They are made into symbols of what we would be, without Noah. They fit our persistent Medieval worldview of humanity as essentially sinful.
And today we have developed new, perhaps safer ways of hunting and eating one another. Sport. Business. Politics. The celebrity culture. Marriage…
At the root of the social compact is the Flood, the idea that the survival of the species is not guaranteed, and that co-operative, docile behaviour – universal Love – is the only alternative to extinction.
The Ark, therefore, is the one basket in which all of Humanity’s eggs are kept. In the chaos and threat of the Flood is the one hope of survival of everything that we know and depend on: reason, constructive co-operation, planetary stewardship, domestic economy – family.
I have wondered sometimes if the Internet – or rather, the Worldwide Web that is carried over the Internet – is not some kind of Ark?
It seems a curious historical fact that the Internet was born out of the Cold War and the need to ensure a means of communication that could survive a nuclear holocaust. It has become both the widest possible expression of the social compact – something that unites literally every corner of humanity – the ‘global village’ – and a digital basket, into which are being collected all the data we have concerning everything we know and think, everything we are and have possibly been.
The Worldwide Web is becoming a blueprint for the reconstruction of the planet. Is it accidental that it has arrived at this stage in our history, when we have the technological capacity to end it all in a few days?
Unlike you, I grew to the age you are now in the shadow of the Bomb. I spent much of my childhood billeted on my grandparents, who lived only two miles from Britain’s second most important nuclear target, RAF Bomber Command, Uxbridge. It was where my grandfather was stationed and where, many nights, I huddled under the bedclothes in terror as the planes thundered overhead, imagining the annihilation of my still small world. I recall the words of J Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the Bomb, quoting Hindu scripture: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
With the Hindus, I am sure that the past and the future come together in an endless loop. The story of Noah and the Ark is the ancient history of our future. It tells us that mutual co-operation is the only sure means of survival: failing which, buy shares in gopher wood.
A man called Noah has, I promise you, just sent me an email about a guitar I’ve been trying to sell for the past 16 months. The knottiness of stringiness, indeed.