Simon de Myle, Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat

Myth, Punishment, and the Rising Waters: Reading the Flood

Instructor: Angela Roskop Erisman
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The biblical story of the Flood permeates the popular imagination. The plot is certainly familiar— an entire world submerged in water, pairs of animals marching onto the ark, eventual redemption—but our ability to realize the power of this story is often hampered by assumptions about its history or its primitive character. Yet, far from a single localized myth, the story of the flood is central to a range of ancient cultures—from Mesopotamia to the Levant to Greece. Moreover, the problems with which the story deals are perennial to human civilization: faith, ethics, pollution, homicide, and punishment and retribution. What can a close, and intertextual, reading of the story of the flood teach us: about justice and punishment, death and redemption, humanity and nature, and the ways we use myth, even today, as a means for contemplating profound, perhaps inscrutable, questions about human society and the human condition?

In this course, we will examine how the scribes who wrote the biblical flood story transformed a well-known narrative into a meditation about ethics, punishment, and justice. As we read the flood story in Genesis in careful detail, we will come to understand story’s many links to other ancient literatures, from the Mesopotamian Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh to Plato’s Laws and Hesiod’s Works and Days; from the creation narrative in Genesis to the book of Ezekiel and the legal texts in the Hebrew Bible that deal with murder, pollution, homicide, and the principle of retribution. Aided by Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading, Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, and Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep, we’ll think about the power of narrative, and ask: Why and how do cultures create myths? Why did the story of the flood spread and persist to shape the worldview of not only its first audiences but of the many generations to follow? Finally, we will consider modern retellings of the flood story and their philosophical and cultural implications. As the climate changes and sea levels rise inexorably, in what ways does the flood story form a background for contemporary considerations and images of civilization, apocalypse, and the human future?

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 14 — July 05, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Open

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