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A Dialogue on the Absurdity of Genesis 8:20 (Addendum to “Bible Absurdities”)


Is Genesis 8:20 Absurd?

On June 24, 1999, a patron of the Secular Web challenged one of Donald Morgan’s “Bible Absurdities” with this simple paragraph: “Remove genesis 8:20 from the absurdities list. They sacrificed one of each clean animal–they brought 7 pairs [GE 7:2] of each clean animal onto the arc.”

The [then] feedback editor, Richard C. Carrier, responded as follows:

The text of Morgan’s paper [which has since been updated] stated simply that “Noah’s first recorded action following the flood is to sacrifice one of every clean animal and bird. (Considering that only a pair of each may have been aboard the Ark, this is rather wasteful and defeating.)” The key word is ‘may’ and Morgan is assuming that the present Genesis story is a construct of two separate traditions, and that 7:2 belongs to a different tradition than 8:20. In other words, there “may” be a contradiction within one of the two original flood stories, and so there “may” have been only one pair of each of the animals Noah sacrificed, which would be, according to Morgan, absurd.

Morgan and I debated this at length and I am not convinced that this is a worthy argument. If our question is what absurdities exist in the bible as we have it then there were seven pairs of the animals Noah sacrificed, since 7:2 specifically says there were seven pairs of the ‘clean’ animals, and 8:20 specifically states that Noah sacrificed ‘some’ of these ‘clean’ animals, and this would not be as absurd as if there were only two of each of these animals. At the very least, as a scholar, I believe Morgan should mention 7:2 and why he thinks it should be dismissed in the case of 8:20 (such as in light of 7:9). But whether there was ever a story in which there was only a pair of each of the animals that Noah sacrificed is an unanswerable question–for even if the flood story as we have it is a conflation of two others (which I agree is likely), we do not know what those two other stories said in their entirety. All we have are the excerpts that the conflator chose to stitch together into the extant text.

Morgan refers to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (as well as other commentators) which states that the priestly tradition of the Flood story mentions two animals of every sort whereas the early tradition differentiates between clean (7 pairs) and unclean animals (2 pairs), as well as birds (7 pairs). The priestly tradition is allegedly reflected in GE 7:9 (where two by two is mentioned), whereas the verses from GE 8 are otherwise a continuation of the early tradition. “Thus there is,” Morgan argues, “a discrepancy here.”

This is my profession. As an ancient historian, I study ancient texts and their transmission and I know there is simply no way for anyone to know that the “priestly tradition” did not mention the seven pairs, since we do not have the full priestly story, only the excerpts that were included in the transmitted text. It does not seem appropriate to claim that an absurdity that “may” be in a lost “priestly story” is the same thing as an actual absurdity in the Bible. This is all the more so when we consider the ambiguity of the language. 7:9 says simply that all the animals “were brought two and two” into the arc–which grammatically (in the Greek and Hebrew) can mean two each or two at a time. To assume that “two each” is meant requires making assumptions about the context of the priestly story that no longer exists, and that is never an accepted practice in my profession unless there are genuinely good reasons for it.

In my opinion Morgan needs to make a case for his statement, rather than assuming that using the word “may” will get him off the hook. Unfortunately, he is overseas at present. I have offered to give him space to argue his position in a future feedback month.

Morgan and Carrier had a conversation online about this matter, which is given below in dialogue form. It shows in good measure the merits in both the positions of Morgan and Carrier. You will note that this is all moot–the claim made in the Absurdities list has been simplified to eliminate any dogmatic declaration on the number of animals reportedly present. But the debate brings out several relevant issues, such as the possibility of an earlier story that was even more absurd, and the distinction between treating the Bible as history vs. treating it as a literary fiction.

MORGAN: I believe that it is much more than an assumption that the present Genesis story is a construct of two separate traditions, and that 7:2 belongs to a different tradition than 8:20. I believe that it is a well-established fact. That we do not have the stories in their entirety is, perhaps, a correct assumption–but it is an assumption nevertheless. We need to keep in mind that one cannot know with certainty what we do not have. It is one of the most basic of logical fallacies to attempt to base an argument on what might not exist.

CARRIER: You are refuting yourself here as well, for your argument is based on the assumed nonexistence of two fuller original stories.

MORGAN: So far as I know, my argument is based on no such assumption. I do not assume either that such fuller originals did, or did not, exist.

CARRIER: Yes, by saying “may” you do allow for either possibility, but you say this without mentioning the fact that this “may” only applies to the priestly story, not the actual Bible story. I, on the other hand, don’t rest on assuming that we do not have the rest of these stories, but rather on the fact that we only have the one that we have–a complete story that qualifies itself by mentioning seven pairs of clean animals (7:2).

MORGAN: We have what may appear to be one story. In reality, we have at least two somewhat inconsistent stories which have been clumsily conflated. Of course, the entire story is absurd. The fact that the story involves transporting animals for the sake of their preservation (GE 6:20) makes the sacrifice of any of those animals absurd–and the story itself even more absurd than it otherwise already is.

CARRIER: I agree the story is absurd. Some readers, however, will be quick to point out that the clean animals had to be kept alive in the first place because of the requirements of the Hebrew religious service.

MORGAN: In terms of Biblical chronology, so far as we know, the requirements of a Hebrew religious service had not yet been specified at the time of the alleged Flood. According to the Oxford Annotated Bible commentary, “the priestly version mentions two animals of every sort, presuming that the clean-unclean distinction was introduced at Sinai.”

CARRIER: Whatever the order of events, the author of the Bible story as we have it may have made sure to add extra animals for this reason. Indeed, the only point in preserving animals at all was so they could serve man and God. That is absurd, too, but also a different topic.

MORGAN: Perhaps. But this would represent, then, an anachronism.


MORGAN: Back to the issue of absurdity. One cannot prove either that something is unequivocally absurd or unequivocally not absurd. What is and isn’t absurd, and to what degree something may be absurd, is a matter of opinion. Your original response seems to treat the matter of what is and isn’t absurd as if it could be determined scientifically with regard to a fictional story which is absurd to begin with.

CARRIER: This is a straw man. I never mentioned scientifically determining absurdity.

MORGAN: No, you didn’t mention this. That is the reason that I used the word “seems” to qualify my statement.

CARRIER: What I had in mind was that the term is a common one in literary criticism, and literary critics make these distinctions all the time. I see this task as literary criticism, in the Humean tradition. It is quite unmistakable that killing one of the only two remaining doves is more absurd than killing one of fourteen (or seven) that remain, and this is no less true in a fictional story as in a real one. It is hard to decide whether killing one of seven or fourteen is absurd at all. Is it “laughably foolish” or “contrary to all reason and common sense”? I can’t say for sure that it is.

MORGAN: My main point has more to do with what is and is not absurd and how it is determined rather than with the degree of absurdity involved. But contrary to the ‘seven pairs of clean animals’ (7:2 and 8:20), the instructions given Noah in Genesis 6:19-20 clearly instruct Noah to bring two of every kind into the Ark.

CARRIER: But then God gives more specific instructions about clean animals just before Noah’s work is finished.

MORGAN: Yes, specific instructions from a different tradition.

CARRIER: Perhaps, but there is no clear contradiction here in the given (final) story, even if there may have been in some other story that no longer survives. That is my point. And we don’t know if there ever was a contradiction, which you only acknowledge with the equivocal “may.”

MORGAN: While it is not necessary that there be a contradiction in order for there to be an absurdity, it is my opinion that there is, in fact, an inconsistency in the instructions that were allegedly issued to Noah with regard to how many animals were to be taken aboard the Ark. The two traditions are inconsistent in this regard.

CARRIER: That may be. But the author (of the present story, not the original two) still establishes that there are seven, not two, pairs of clean animals.

MORGAN: Note, some commentators say that it was seven animals, not seven pairs.

CARRIER: Well, I can vouch for what the Bible actually says, having recently acquired Greek and Hebrew versions and the appropriate lexical aids. The wording of the verse, literally translated, is “take seven, seven, male, female” (it is literally that terse). There is no sound reason to suppose that the repetition of “seven” followed by a reference to a natural pairing means anything other than seven pairs (seven males, seven females), unless the seventh animal was a slug or something.

MORGAN: Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies says that “seven” represents “either a definite number, or sometimes indefinite, to denote abundance or sufficiency” so that “‘By sevens’ stands in the original ‘seven seven.'” Thus, “seven seven” can or does mean “by sevens.” Therefore, even here there is (or may be some) ambiguity, ambiguity that would explain why it is that some commentators say that it was seven animals, not seven pairs, that was meant by “seven seven.”

CARRIER: I can understand that reasoning. On the other hand, verse 7:9 states “they went two, two, male, female” and that is ambiguous enough to allow three interpretations: the “two, two” may simply describe how they were loaded (two at a time), or that they went in male-female pairs (the second” two” merely being emphatic), or that there were four each, two males and two females. Verses 6:19-20 both repeat “bring pairs, male, female,” which can just as easily be a description of procedure (“two at a time”) as of number (“two and no more”). The Hebrew is as ambiguous as the English word “fly” (which can be a verb or a noun, and sometimes with no way to tell except through interpretive guessing, e.g. “fruit flies like a banana”). The point is that we are obligated to grant the author that he tried to establish extra clean animals when these same animals turn up again in the story, and we are left to wonder why these animals were loaded in excess, if not for the fact that they were for ritual use.

MORGAN: I am not sure that I agree that we are required to grant this. We are dealing with a book which is allegedly inspired by a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent God.

CARRIER: My point is that when I read a novel and find a similar confusion, I automatically look for what makes the most sense of what is written, not what creates the clearest contradiction. Why should we be less charitable with the Bible?

MORGAN: I’m glad that you asked. Here’s the answer. We should be less charitable with the Bible for the reason that the Bible is alleged to be the inspired Word of a perfect, omniscient, omnipotent God. Such a God could have, should have, and would have done a better job of it than to inspire the authors and editors of a Holy Bible to clumsily conflate two (or more) stories which differ in significant detail.

CARRIER: I agree that the Bible is a botch job. The Tao Te Ching is far more magnificent in its literary perfection and genius, and never claims divine inspiration. But that does not change the fact that even a perfect being cannot overcome the ambiguity of language.

MORGAN: A perfect, omnipotent being who could not overcome the ambiguity of language would be an oxymoron if ever there was one. The way that I see it, there could not possibly be any ambiguity of language if a perfect, omnipotent being were responsible for the Bible; were such a being responsible for the Bible, everyone would necessarily interpret it exactly the same way.

CARRIER: I will agree that a perfect God could create a universe where all would come to a uniform interpretation of a selected text. Indeed, all he has to do is talk to those who have it wrong and correct them. Of course, that is a totally different issue. I still say that a basic rule of comprehension is to credit any author as meaning something, before assuming that he is contradicting himself. I call this the rule of intellectual charity: if there is any way something makes sense, the odds are that that’s what the author meant–whether the author is perfect or not. But if you want to argue that the absurdity of the story is its confusion, that would be fine–it just isn’t what you have done in the present case (although you may have elsewhere).

MORGAN: The way that I see it, it is not an assumption but a fact that the Bible contradicts itself in terms of the number of animals that Noah was allegedly instructed to take aboard, and did take aboard, the Ark. Also, were a perfect author involved, intellectual charity would not be required.

CARRIER: I disagree on the first point. The language in our present case can, but does not have to be, interpreted that way. But we can let our readers decide that for themselves. On the second point, you may be right, I can’t say. I don’t know what a perfect being would or would not be capable of. There may be limits even a perfect being cannot exceed. But I see this whole thing not as an issue of a perfect author’s muck up, but of a human author’s literary creation. The Bible is mere literature to me, and the question of absurdity is unrelated to whether the Bible is God’s word. It could be acknowledged even by Christians as an entirely human creation and there could still be absurdities in it, as I’m sure you agree. So let’s get back to the issue of absurdity.

MORGAN: Here’s my position. Even if there were seven pairs of every clean animal, in my opinion, it is nevertheless absurd. I have not attempted to quantify the degree of absurdity. Thus it is not germane that the alleged absurdity may be less absurd in degree than what you think I think it to be. You believe I should mention 7:2 and why I think it should be dismissed in the case of 8:20 (such as in light of 7:9). This is a straw man argument inasmuch as I have not stated that I think 7:2 should be dismissed. In fact, I acknowledge 7:2 with the use of the qualifying word ‘may’.

CARRIER: It is not a straw man to ask your opponent to argue his case.

MORGAN: It is not a straw man argument to ask an opponent to argue his case but it is a straw man to ask me to argue a case which I do not make, a case based on your assumption about what I allegedly believe when that is not what I believe.

CARRIER: It is not what I think you believe, but what will appear to be the case to any studious reader. To me, and our patron, it “appears” that you are concealing information. When someone checks the story and reads 7:2, they wonder (as I did) why you omitted that detail. You turn out to have good reasons for your position, but then why were these not included in the list to begin with?

MORGAN: If I were to include my best reasons for every single absurdity, inconsistency, and fault that I find with the Bible, it would require a treatise so lengthy that I would still be at work putting it together. But I do agree that there is a problem here in that the simple statement, “Considering that only a pair of each animal may have been aboard the Ark, this is rather wasteful and defeating.” This does not adequately explain what is behind my thinking.

CARRIER: I agree, and this is the only real problem with the entry. Your readers cannot simply “assume” that you are dismissing 7:2 as having no bearing on 8:20. Should you not at least make it clear that this is what you are doing, and that there is more to the story than your list indicates?

MORGAN: Perhaps I should have referred at this point to the fact that there are two different stories which are somewhat inconsistent in detail. A problem in doing so is that there is almost always more to it than what my list indicates. But on to another matter: you argue that we do not know what the full priestly story said. This involves a logical fallacy known as the Argument from Ignorance. Instead of basing your argument on what is not known and cannot be known, you need to base your argument on what is known. It is known that the priestly tradition as we have it does not mention seven pairs.

CARRIER: Consider your argument: ‘since we don’t know what the priestly story said, then we can assume it said what this third story said and no more’. That is an argument from ignorance, which is why historians don’t accept it. You only avoid this by equivocating (“may”).

MORGAN: To me, this sounds more like your argument than it does my argument.

CARRIER: Imagine that a reporter sews together two stories of two witnesses. We think we can sort out which facts come from which witnesses (we certainly can never be sure–and cannot use an Argument from Authority to declare certainty about it), but does that entitle us to say that we know what those witnesses said in their entirety? It certainly does not. We only know what thereporter said. And in this case, our ‘reporter’ said there were seven pairs of clean animals. He even went out of his way to make sure the story included that detail.

DON “Out of his way” is an assumption on your part, an assumption that I believe is unwarranted. Another assumption might be that the third party redactor didn’t care about the inconsistency in detail between the two stories.

CARRIER: We are assuming the same thing: the author went out of his way to include a whole additional witness when composing his own, third version of the story. Although neither of us can know what his motives were, we both know that he went out of his way to do this, and that in doing this he created, accidentally or not, a partial consistency by setting up clean animals paired by sevens which later appear in the sacrifice scene.

MORGAN: But you say that we do not have the full priestly story, only the excerpts that were included in the transmitted text. And this is an assumption, an assumption which, though it may be correct, cannot likely be supported with evidence.

CARRIER: Think about this…use the reporter example again: “We do not have the full story directly from the two witnesses, only what the reporter chose to include.” You are saying this is “an assumption that cannot be supported with evidence” but it is: the only evidence needed is the fact that we do not have the full story directly from the two witnesses, only what the reporter chose to include. Maybe he included everything, but how can we ever assume that? We never can.

MORGAN: In my opinion, we cannot and should not conclude either that he did or that he did not include the full stories of the “witnesses.” Remember, this is a book that was allegedly inspired by a perfect, omniscient and omnipotent God; there should be no such inconsistencies regardless of how little or how much of the “original stories” an editor or redactor chose to include.

CARRIER: Maybe so, but that is a totally different point. We are addressing whether we can say that, in the present Bible story, there “may” have been only two of every clean animal. The answer to that question, and that question alone, is no–because the present story establishes seven pairs of those very animals. There is no “may” about it. There “may” have been a contradiction in a lost version of the story used for this third version, but that is a different argument.

MORGAN: We need to go on what we actually have, not on what we might have–what might be missing.

CARRIER: What we have is the Bible, not the priestly story. At best you can say that the remaining priestly story in the Bible, as identified by certain scholars, says there were two animals, not fourteen. But that is an absurdity in the remnants of the priestly story, not an absurdity in the Bible (nor even in the original priestly story, as far as either of us can know).

MORGAN: It is an absurdity in the Bible inasmuch as it is in the Bible as a remnant of the priestly story.

CARRIER: Then you have to say that. But as with the reporter, a seeming contradiction in one account only tells us what we think may be a contradiction in what we think may be part of one account. It does not tell us that the reporter’s story is contradictory. To the contrary, the reporter may have intentionally weaved the two stories so as to make them into a single, consistent story, and this appears to be what the author of Genesis has done, or attempted to do, without changing the words of his witnesses. And if we read an account of an accident, where one witness said there were two cars in the intersection, and another that there were fourteen, these two testimonies do not automatically contradict each other. For if there were fourteen, then there certainly were two. If we are further told, as we are, that the second witness was including emergency vehicles that later arrived at the scene (i.e. “clean animals” were added to Noah’s instructions just before the rain came), then there is no contradiction at all.

MORGAN: There is a significant difference in the way that a reporter would typically handle the inconsistency in detail(s) offered by two witnesses. The reporter would typically identify his sources, identify who said what, and perhaps even point out the inconsistency in details.

CARRIER: I agree, but that is not relevant to the importance of the analogy. I am talking about how we treat ancient historical accounts as well, since they often weave multiple stories without citing sources, just as our Bible redactor has done. The same rules of interpretation apply, and I didn’t make them up.

MORGAN: But in the Flood story, on the other hand, we have a story which–if taken from the beginning–would necessarily involve either dictation by or inspiration by God himself, an allegedly perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent being who would reasonably be expected to see to it that the resulting story had no inconsistency in detail.

CARRIER: That is a different claim than the one we are discussing. But if we can read the text in a way that has no inconsistency, then that may have been what the “perfect” God intended–it may have been perfectly clear to an ancient Hebrew reading the Hebrew–but even if it wasn’t, if it can make sense, why assume that it doesn’t? The point is that the Bible says there were seven pairs. And I merely said that, in my opinion, you need to make a case for your statement that there may have been only two–do you mean there may have been only two in real life? Or in the priestly story?

MORGAN: In “real life” as the Bible has it.

CARRIER: Ultimately, the statement “there may have been only two in the Bible story” is false, so you cannot be saying that.

MORGAN: I didn’t say that, of course.

CARRIER: I know. Of course, this is what our patron thought you were saying, and that is why we need clarification.

MORGAN: I agree that it needed clarification. But your assertion about what I allegedly assume is a straw man argument. Not only that, it is incorrect. What I actually believe is that there is very good reason to feel that the sacrifice of any animals is absurd given that there may have been only two of every kind aboard and given that the alleged reason for taking animals aboard the Ark was “to keep them alive” (GE 6:20).

CARRIER: As you have noted before, the original patron is disputing the omission of the fact that the story adds seven pairs of clean animals to the Ark. Now, the sacrifice might still be absurd (our patron may disagree), but this is not the argument originally presented in your list of Bible Absurdities. You fail to mention the seven pairs altogether, and only suggest that there may have been only two–yet you do not specify “in the priestly story.” As for whether it is absurd to sacrifice one out of fourteen animals, I, personally, will grant you that–when you actually say it.

MORGAN: Whatever the number of animals which might be involved in such an endeavor, given the logistics and given the stated purpose (“to keep them alive”), and given that both meal offerings and the religious requirements regarding sacrifices came later, it seems to me to be quite absurd to sacrifice even one animal.

CARRIER: This I agree with–but it needs to be said, not left unstated.

MORGAN: Still, the question remains, of course, as to how much detail I should include along with each listing. I acknowledge that both you and the original patron have a point.

CARRIER: And after all that, it is such a trivial point! But at least the believers cannot claim we are not fair and self-critical about our own arguments.