Washing Away Political Resistance

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 11 2012 @ 7:19am

After observing the media coverage of Hurricane Sandy, Avi Steinberg ruminates on the political dimension of ancient flood myths, especially those that preceded the Biblical account of Noah:

The Sumerian flood texts that preceded the Noah story were court narratives, propaganda. The basic elements of these stories—the anger of the god; the man who is warned of the flood, fashions a boat, seals it with pitch, and invites some other species aboard; the washing up on a mountaintop, the dispatching of scouts in the form of birds—are familiar to anyone who has read the biblical story of Noah. That’s because the Noah story is probably an adaptation of sagas that were already long in circulation. In the earliest of the written versions, a Sumerian poem etched into a tablet dated around 1600 B.C.E.—though it is thought to be an even older oral story—the flood survival story is an explicitly political tableau celebrating the staying power of the ruler, the ability of his regime to survive the absolute worst that the gods can impose on earth, and to flourish in the rebuilding process. Unlike Noah, an everyman, these earlier flood survivors were identified as political leaders. The image of the man emerging from his sealed boat—as from a tomb, as Christians would later point out—was, in the earliest texts, the image of a human sovereign unscathed, as strong as ever, ready to impose his governing will as before, stronger than before.

The ancient link between political propaganda and storms has stubbornly persisted into our day. We know from Katrina and Bush, and now Sandy and Obama, how much is at stake in the chief creating a compelling official post-storm narrative.