I have to start this article by thanking my neighbors, Charlie and Christine Gingo, for inspiring it. We met recently at a Baby Bear-like party here in town, a night where everything was going well. They had gone for a walk and I was going home. We stopped to chat, but as we talked it became clear that all was not well. Fires in New Mexico, floods in Yellowstone, historic droughts in the Southwest; 159 million acres of crops are experiencing drought conditions this week. And that’s just here in the United States, just nature-related events; we haven’t even touched on things like mass shootings.
“Fire and flood,” Charlie said. “This should be your next article.”
Fires and floods are interesting to consider from a religious point of view. To begin with, we can think of the flood from the perspective of the Abrahamic religions. In the Hebrew Bible we learn that God destroyed the earth with a flood, except for Noah and his family and two of each animal, to cleanse the earth of people because of the violence they had brought to the world (Gen. 6:13 ). For forty days and forty nights the rain fell and the waters rose, and the deluge lasted for 150 days. So God allowed the waters to recede. After about a year, the land was dry, and Noah, his family, and the animals began to repopulate the world.
As old and well known as this flood story is, it was not the first. In fact, there is evidence that the story of Noah’s Flood comes from older Babylonian stories. In the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, we discover Utnapishtim, a Noah-like figure who survived a great flood sent by the gods that destroyed the world. He survived by building a huge ship that saved himself, his family, and the animals and plants of the world. The god Ea, who had warned Utnapishtim of the flood, defended his heroism to Enlil, and in exchange for Utnapishtim’s efforts, the god Enlil granted immortality to Utnapishtim and his wife, who want to repopulate the restored land .
All over the world, different cultures have had their own stories of flooding. In ancient Norse mythology, the land was flooded with the blood of the giant Ymir, and Bergelmir and his wife built a boat, escaped the flood, and repopulated the land. In one of the Buddhist Jataka tales, Samudda-vanija jataka, a thousand unscrupulous carpenters set out and desecrated an island. The local spirits got angry and decided to flood the island. Two men led the carpenters, a wise man and a fool. The sage heeded the warnings about the flood and told his party to build a ship in case the threat was real. The madman decided the warning was a joke. When the flood came, the wise carpenter and his party sailed to safety, and the foolish carpenter and his party drowned.
Throughout the various stories, floods both destroy and cleanse. Flooding is regenerative; the flood offers a new start. Fire has similar but different connotations. In ancient Greek religion, fire was a gift from the god and deceiver Prometheus. In Christian mythology, fire is associated with Hell, a place of eternal burning punishment for the damned. In Revelation 8, the first of the seven angels sounds his trumpet, and hail and fire mingled with blood are hurled upon the earth, burning a third of the trees, a third of the world, and all the grass (7). In Revelation 9, four angels are released upon the world and a third of mankind are killed by the plagues of fire, smoke, and brimstone that issue from the mouths of the angels (14:18). In Hinduism, Agni is the god of fire, this useful but destructive energy. Vedic Hindu rituals often include fire sacrifices. Agni has ten forms, ranging from sun to digestion to cremation fire to encompass the many forms of fire.
Around us, the world is burning. The world is drowning. If we watch everything – it’s so comforting to look away in denial, isn’t it? – we are looking for meaning. Some evangelical Christians welcome destruction as signs of the end times. Such a vision sees more than destruction; he anticipates the second coming of Jesus who will gather the righteous, a deep hope that we will be saved by God. Hindus can see destruction as part of Kali Yuga, the current era of darkness which will end with the destruction of the world as it is and the subsequent creation of a new and purified cycle of life. In the midst of all the stories, science tries in vain to make us realize that we are in fact the destroying gods; we are the cheaters.
Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion courses for CCV and NVU Online. She is the author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.