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Scientists Examine Climate Change in Bible Tales
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Scientists Examine Climate Change in Bible Tales
Scientists Examine Climate Change in Bible Tales
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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

We turn now to a rather influential book filled with references to flames, floods, of droughts - the Bible. Whether or not you're a believer, it's part of our cultural DNA.

NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how biblical tales of environmental catastrophe may have helped to shape today's attitudes about climate change.

Here's your story - part of our yearlong series Climate Connection with National Geographic magazine.

NEDA ULABY: Obviously, manmade climate change was a non-issue in the biblical era. People had tiny carbon footprints. But the Bible brims with stories of environmental apocalypse. Think of Genesis and the Flood.

(Soundbite of film "The Bible: In the Beginning")

Mr. JOHN HOUSTON (Actor): (As God) And behold, I will bring the flood of waters upon the Earth to destroy all of life, and everything that is in the Earth shall die.

ULABY: In this 1966 movie adaptation, the flood is showed as God's righteous punishment breaking his rules incurred, well, acts of God.

Ellen Davis teaches the Bible and practical theology at Duke University's Divinity School. She says that biblical writers made deep connections between human morality and the physical order of the cosmos. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, warned of the consequences of ignoring God's laws.

Professor ELLEN DAVIS (Bible and Practical Theology, Duke University Divinity School): Jeremiah goes through the steps of the undoing of Creation in the same order that God created in Genesis. And at the end, he says, and (unintelligible), there's no human being and all the birds have fled.

ULABY: Images of a vanquished species and a broken world resonate for Davis when she thinks about climate change today. She says the Bible's writer has worked in a fragile, ecological niche, where lack of water was and still is a dire problem. In the Old Testament description of land - tried and laid to waste - is here read by actor.

(Soundbite of film "The Bible: In the Beginning")

Mr. HOUSTON: (As God) The earth mourns and languishes. Lebanon is shamed and shriveled. Sharon is like a wilderness and Bashan and Carmel shake off their fruits.

ULABY: The parched Earth in the Book of Isaiah illustrates the notion that God works through environmental cataclysms, an idea embraced by some religious leaders.

The late Jerry Falwell sermonized last February that certain climactic changes are pre-ordained.

Mr. JERRY FALWELL (Christian Pastor; Televangelist): The Earth will go up in disillusion from severe heat. The environmentalist will really be shook up dead, because God is going to blow it all away and break down new heavens and new Earth.

ULABY: Some scientists see in biblical stories a chance to understand a little more about the world. In a 2001 National Geographic documentary, geologist Walter Pittman discussed trying to find the scientific truth behind the ancient stories of Noah's flood.

Dr. WALTER PITTMAN (Geologist): There's a terrible way to do science, you know? You start with the myth and try to find the source of the myth. But this is what we did.

ULABY: Ancient flood legends of the Middle East led Pittman to theorize a great deluge swept the region over 7,000 years ago.

After global warming, at the end of the last Ice Age, the Mediterranean Sea may have hugely swollen.

Dr. PITTMAN: Sea level kept rising until enough glazier melt water had come down and sea level had risen high enough that it could penetrate through theā€¦

ULABY: And create what's now the Black Sea.

Michael Gill is an atmospheric scientist at the UCLA. A few years ago, he set out to analyze another old testaments story. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven thin and seven fat cows to mean 7 years of feast and seven years of famine.

Gill led his research team look at Nile River if the records meticulously kept by Egyptians for over a thousand years.

Dr. MICHAEL GILL (Neuroscience, University of California Los Angeles): They start in 622 and they end in 1922, which was the building of the first Aswan Dam which is probably the longest climatic record of this quality in existence.

ULABY: Gill applied modern statistical techniques to the Nile records and found consistent periodic cycles.

Dr. GILL: The biblical story posits a periodicity of 14 years, you know, seven plus seven. We find seven, which is not quite the same thing, but close enough for government to work as they say.

ULABY: Gill say manmade global warming may introduce extreme change to natural cycles around the world.

Bible professor Ellen Davis says that's beginning to affect people's personal theologies.

Prof. DAVIS: The biblical verses have always maintained that the world is not a permanent entity as we know it. It can change as likely to change for better or for much worst.

ULABY: That vision of a much worst world bridges the doctrines of secular science and biblical literalism. Both see the destruction of the world as consequence of man's actions.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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