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Noah and the Flood


DW | Old Testament

2.7 - Noah and the Flood


Ancient Israelites undoubtedly fully believed that a flood had once destroyed the Earth. Indeed, almost every nation around them also believed that a major flood had occurred near the beginning of time. But Israel also understood that the story of Noah was not just history in the ordinary sense. It was also a religious lesson told in mythological language about how God's mercy and promise far exceeded any terrible disaster to human life.

The J and P stories of the Flood are closely joined in one of the most dramatic episodes in the Old Testament. P has built on the older J tradition so that the disaster leads to a moment in Gen 9 when God renews his blessing on humankind that matches the first blessing to Adam in Gen 1:28. We can detect certain signs that there were two original accounts of the flood story in the fact that God announces the flood twice (Gen 6:13 and 7:4), and twice promises never to send a flood again (Gen 8:21 and 9:15). Noah is told to take a pair of each kind of animal in some passages, but seven pairs of clean animals with one pair of unclean in others. There also seems to be two different numbering systems at work, one based on seven and forty day periods, the other on longer lengths that add up to a full year.


J and P share a single message, however. When God decides he must punish the world for its sin, he spares the one man who has been faithful to him by allowing Noah to ride out the flood on an ark.

When the disaster is over, God restores the covenant with the world through this man. The climax for the J version comes in Genesis 8:20-22, in which God's forgiveness extends even to lifting the curse upon the Earth for what humans have done in their hearts. People may still choose sin, but the goodness of God and his everlasting mercy will be seen in the bounty and the regularity of nature's seasons.

“ long as the Earth lasts, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”

P's climax comes in Gen 9:1-7 where God renews the blessing of Genesis 1 on human beings. P even enlarges the covenant conditions so that now people may eat meat as well as plants, thus removing the last restrictions on their rule over the creatures of the world. But with it comes an increased obligation to respect human life.

“Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed;

for in God's image has God made man.” (Gen 9:6)

If you watched our series on the Ancient Near East, we focused on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Flood. To review briefly, it tells how the hero King Gilgamesh is so much greater than his subjects that he tyrannizes them. To divert his attention, a goddess makes a companion for him nearly as strong as he is. They become fast friends and embark on a series of exploits, killing the great Humbaba who guards the cedar forest of the gods, rejecting the love of the goddess Ishtar, and then slaying the bull of the god Anu. The gods decree that Enkidu, his friend, must die, and this leads Gilgamesh on a quest for immortality. He goes to the ends of the earth where he has heard that the hero of the original flood, Utnapishtim, has been given immortality by the gods.

Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood and how the gods had blessed him for his role in saving humanity. He does this all in order to point out to Gilgamesh that he cannot hope for personal immortality. And although the details of the Babylonian flood are remarkably similar to those in Genesis, the point of the Babylonian version is always this lesson in the mortality of human beings. Gilgamesh himself is sent home to his capital city of Uruk disappointed but wiser. There his adventures end as he resumes his duties. The final episode contains a melancholy description of the underworld by the ghost of his friend Enkidu. This is to be man's fate, even for Gilgamesh, because the gods reserve everlasting life to themselves.

Early models of the same story are known from about 2000 B.C. in Sumerian, and the setting is always somewhere in Mesopotamia. There is no question that the biblical account of the flood is a later development or offshoot from the Babylonian version. The differences in detail, such as the size of the ark, or the length of time that the water stayed on the land, or the types of birds, may argue that the biblical writers knew a slightly different version, perhaps one from an area closer to them, such as Syria. Like their neighbors, Israel believed that a flood, like the giants, or the long life span of the primal humans, or the struggle of the first humans to be like gods, was part of the way it was in the beginning. Where Israel's version is unique, was in its understanding of God.

The Babylonians believed in a mysterious tension between gods and humans. This usually resulted in wrathful actions by the gods because the humans annoyed them and disturbed their peace. The Babylonians felt a great deal of uncertainty about what the gods wanted and what would please them. Israel, in contrast, believed that God was always the same, always faithful, and always loving toward the creatures he had made. To the Israelites, God only punished for clear moral evil and was always quick to forgive.


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