Noah’s Flood (i) Two in One

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In the ancient near east, where the Israelites lived, there were several versions of the story of the Great Flood. These were contained in the national epics of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian peoples. These texts, the earliest of which precede the Hebrew Bible by hundreds of years, were used in the training of scribes, and so numerous copies have been unearthed. A great number of similarities show that the writers/editors of the Hebrew Bible borrowed, not only general themes, but also numerous details from these other texts.

Most readers don’t realise that the biblical tale of the Flood merges two different Israelite sources into one story. In previous posts I’ve shown that different sources gave us 2 ‘creation’ stories in Genesis 1-3. Genesis 1 came from a later priestly source ‘P’,  that used the designation ‘God’, whereas Genesis 2-3 came from an earlier source ‘J’, that used the name ‘Yahweh’. These same sources also produced different versions of the Flood story but now, rather than keeping these versions separate, the writers/editors have combined them. The differences, however, have not entirely been smoothed out, and we can see where they differed.

The ‘J’ version.

  • This uses God’s name ‘Yahweh’. 
  • Into the boat, Noah takes 7 pairs of ritually ‘clean’ animals and birds, and 1 pair of unclean. (This is so there can later be offerings of some of the ‘clean’, while leaving others alive to procreate).
  • An ‘on the ground’ Yahweh shuts the boat’s door once Noah is inside. 
  • The Flood is caused by torrential rain, which lasts for 40 days and nights. 
  • After the rain stops, 3 doves are released in succession. The 1st 2 return, but the 3rd does not.
  • Noah disembarks, builds an altar and sacrifices some of the ‘clean’ animals to Yahweh.
  • The ‘on the ground’ Yahweh is so delighted by the smell of the cooking sacrifice, that he promises never again to send a Flood.

The ‘P’ version

In this priestly version there are, unsurprisingly, numerous echoes of the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1.

  • God’s name Yahweh is not used, and he doesn’t have an ‘on the ground’ role. 
  • Noah takes on board only 1 pair of every kind of animal and bird.
  • The Flood is caused by a partial undoing of Genesis 1’s creation – “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” – and it lasts for 150 days.
  • The way it ends suggests a new ‘creation’. In another echo of Genesis 1, “God made a wind blow over the earth“, just has he had over the primeval deep.
  • After the waters subside, Noah releases only a single raven and, when it fails to return, he disembarks.
  • There is no altar and no sacrifices. (According to the priests, there were no sacrifices until after the exodus from Egypt, when they were appointed to make them!)
  • Again suggesting a new ‘creation’, God blesses Noah and his descendants using the same language as Genesis 1 – “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth“.

I’ll say more about the Flood story in my next post but, let’s remind ourselves here, that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of stories initially repeated orally, eventually written down by scribes, and ultimately gathered together and assembled by skilled editors, who added the linking material needed to produce an ongoing narrative. It didn’t descend from heaven as a finished entity embodying ultimate and infallible truth. It’s far more challengingly interesting, unashamedly entertaining, and kaleidoscopically colourful than that. It deserves an honoured, and well-read place, among the very greatest literature of all time.

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