Sunday, 20 October 2013

The oldest story

The Girl and I have been going over the Decalogue, so as background I talked about the Noahide Laws, supposedly given to Noah after the Flood.

She’s familiar with the Noah story -- she knows it appeared in Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest story we have, only there he was called Utnapishtim. She knows that the basic story is the same – a flood covered the world, and the gods warned one man, he built a giant wooden boat, and he saved as many people and animals as he could. The raven, the dove, the ship settling atop a mountain … you know it. 

Could a flood have covered the whole world? I asked.

“There’s not enough water on the planet,” she said. “But it might have covered their world.”

Excellent, I said – do you know why people there might have been seeing floods?

She wasn’t sure, and I told her no one else was – but it might have happened after they cut down the forests. Gilgamesh takes place in the area where the first humans sowed seed and built cities, and to do that they destroyed the forests that used to be there – Gilgamesh begins with the felling of the great trees of the World Gone By. Much of the land washed away – just like when they felled the forests of Ireland – and the land gradually became the desert it is now.

“Would destroying the forests make it flood more?” she asked. It wouldn’t make it rain more, I said, but there would be nothing to hold the soil, and the weight of the soil washing away would dislodge more soil, which could dislodge even more soil

“Is that a positive feedback loop?” she asked. Yes, that’s exactly right, I said – and floods like that could wash away whole towns. I was a reporter in Missouri during the flood of ’93, and whole towns had to be rebuilt somewhere else. If you were a farmer who had never travelled more than a few kilometres, it would have certainly been the end of the world.

After the flood, though, the story goes that God gave Noah seven laws to follow -- five of them were later five of the commandments.

“What are the other two?” she said.   

Well, I said, one was that if you had a conflict with someone, you had to take them to court rather than hitting them over the head…

The Girl laughed. It sounds funny, I said, but that was a big step forward – saying everyone has to follow the rules and settle arguments peacefully. Not everyone does that even now.

“And the last one?” she asked.

Hesitating a moment, I said: You weren’t allowed to eat an animal while it’s still alive.

She politely tried to hold back a giggle, and failed. “They needed a rule for that?”

It was a big deal, I said. If you don’t cook meat, disease can transfer from their bodies to ours. At one point, humans ate meat raw, as chimpanzees do now. Being able to make fire and cook food was a big leap for all of us.

“It was better for the animals too, I imagine,” she said more seriously. Right, I said – we’re judged by how well we treat the least among us. People who can be cruel to animals aren’t very good people.

“What about just being good to other people?” She said. Yes, these laws aren’t comprehensive, I said – they don’t tell you everything you need to do. They were a place to start. And the most basic rule should be the Golden Rule --- but that had to wait for someone else down the road.

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