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THE MEANING OF THE DELUGE

Myths are often difficult to decipher for, created in the context of a given culture they tend to lose, when transferred to other contexts or other cultures, their power to communicate abstract ideas. Furthermore, even in their original context myths are often obscure to those who are not participants in the cultures that created them.

The myth of the Deluge, however, carries a basic scientific message that remains transparent. In the biblical formulation the concern with the numerical aspects of the subject is so dominant that one could question whether it is proper to speak of myth. To speak of a myth may be taken as begging the question, since today the term myth is used so widely that it has lost any clear definition. Therefore the matter may be clarified by referring to the medieval concept of allegory: an allegory aims at depicting concretely that which is abstract or for some reason unrepresentable; it gives an aesthetic dimension to some subject matter that is to be grasped intellectually, so that its representation is not only true but also enjoyable. An essential element of myth and allegory is thur visual aspect, so that myth and allegory belong both to literature and to painting and sculpture; they can be expressed also through ritual and pageantry. Both myth and allegory make use of symbols. The interpreter has to understand these symbols in terms of the conventions of each particular culture and often cannot explain them except in terms of the history of the specific myth or allegory.

Since the major characteristic of the style of expression of the Old Testament is the use of metaphors and metophorical expressions, it might be more correct to understand the biblical account of the Deluge as a series of metaphors. We are so used to the language of the Old Testament that we tend not to realize how it strings one metaphor after another; we may repeat "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord" (Prov. 20:27) without being aware of the fact that it is a metaphor. Conversely, we have been so exposed to being told the story of the Deluge as a colorful tale, ignoring all the quantitative statements of the biblical text, that a drastic mental adjustment is needed to grasp just how exact and technical it is.

The story of the Deluge in the Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Greek formulations was the mythical portrayal of a dry and abstract set of mathematical concepts -- a way of presenting in tangible terms the adoptim at a new system geographical coordinates.That replaced the more ancient system formulated in Egypt.

That the story of the Deluge is an account of the establishment of a new geodetic system is proved

  • By the dimensions and geodetic meaning of the Ark, which I shall examine in detail.
  • By the data about the duration of the Deluge in the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts, data which were intended to convey information about the radius of the Earth and about the level of the water of the flood; this level was equal to the difference between the radius of the Earth according to the Egyptian system and according to the new system. The Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts provide different figures according to the difference between the lineal standards employed in Mesopotamia and Israel. The book of Genesis juxtaposes five different versions of the duration of the Deluge, and each version constitutes a different method of expressing arithmetically the radius of the earth and the level of the water.
  • By the landing place of the Ark, according to the Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Greek versions; this landing place is at the latitude of the standard degree according to the new system. The Greek accounts locate the landing place of the Ark in different areas of the Greek world, from Asia Minor to Magna Graecia, but always at the same latitude. This is the latitude of the single place mentioned in the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.

Because we no longer think in terms of a geocentric limited universe, but visualize the Earth as a planet lost in the infinity of space, it is hard for us to grasp how for the ancients the introduction of a new system of geodetic measurements was equal to a destruction of the cosmos and the creation of a new one. It must not be forgotten that according to the two-spheres vision of the universe, which was followed up to the Copernican revolution, the system of geodetic units measured not only the Earth but also the heavens, which were understood as a sphere concentric to that of the surface of the Earth. The story of the waters rising in the Deluge expressed the fact that, according to the system of geodetic measures that replaced the Egyptian one, the Earth was understood to have a greater radius, which meant that the assumed distance of sea level from the center of the Earth was greater. Hence, it was realistic to say that the level of the seas, or all the water of the Earth, rose.

The essential datum of the biblical narrative is the number of the days during which the water rose, and this indicates the height reached by the water, which is equal to the difference between the radius of the Earth according to the Egyptian system and the radius according to the new system. The same information is provided by the Mesopotamian formulation, but less poignantly.


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