Bible as Literature: The Flood Story (Genesis 6 – 9:17)

The Noah flood story is probably one of the most familiar stories in the entire bible. Its “natural disaster threatens to destroy civilization as we know it” narrative lingers even to this day, inspiring such popular films as Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and so many others. While none of these are great films, their prevalence does suggest this archetypal plotline resonates with people. It is important to note, though, that the work has not only a mold for other works, but itself is a product of copying. Most scholars agree that Noah’s flood is based off the flood tales of Mesopotamia, especially the one told by Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Both stories involve deities that destroy the world because of humanity’s wickedness by means of a flood in which one person is chosen to be saved. This alone might not be enough to prove a connection since flood myths are ubiquitous cross-culturally (existing outside of the Mediterranean) and a better explanation in my view than worldwide cultural diffusion or the existence of an earlier proto-myth is that floods are a pervasive disaster. With that said, some flood myths do appear to be copies of each other. The major clue is that beyond the basic story pattern, specific details such as measurements of the ark, building process, the sending out of birds, and even word-for-word phrases are exactly the same between both stories. However, there are some differences: the order of the birds, monotheism versus polytheism tweaks to the plotline, different character names, and Utnapishtim is granted immortality at the end, while Noah is not.

As literary works, it is important to remember that these works aren’t presented as individual stories in isolation. The Babylonian version is part of a larger epic. It is a side-story recounted by Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh on the latter’s quest to find immortality in order to save his friend. The story fits into the larger epic by its exploration of life and death. The bible story is part of Genesis, which not only recounts the mythical early history of humanity, but thematically explores the boundaries between humans and God. The Babylonian tale is one character recounting the past to another so that character may gain insight on his present situation, while the Noah story is presented as the next chronological event in the Hebrew mythological history. The different narrative contexts give both stories very different feels and literary purposes, despite being almost the same exact story, which goes to show the importance of the literary material that bookends any other part of a work.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that the Bible doesn’t have one flood story, but rather has two flood stories that are intertwined with each other. For starters, there are inconsistencies with how many animals are supposed to be aboard the ship.

“And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:19, JPS translation)

“Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate” (Genesis 7:2)

“Of the clean animals, of the animals that are not clean, of the birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two of each, male and female, came to Noah into the ark, as God had commanded Noah” (Genesis 7:8)

“They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life” (Genesis 7:15)

The two parts switch back and forth between their narrative in a pattern: Part of story A, then part of Story B, part of Story A, then part of Story B, etc. In one version there are seven of each clean animal and two of each unclean animal; in the other version, there are two of every animal. This also explains why God seems to repeat many times, that yes, he, indeed, plans to destroy the earth as if we don’t trust the first three or four times he tells Noah. Of course, he probably only tells him two or three times per a narrative, but since these are two stories spliced together, it sounds like he is repeating himself over and over again.

In each story the reason for the flood is different. In one story, the main reason he destroys the earth seems to be that humans are copulating with divine beings (angels?), thus crossing the boundaries of the divine and mortal, which is a theme found throughout Genesis, such as in Genesis 3 with the tree of life and the Tower of Babel story. This theme consistently repeats itself throughout Genesis and other parts of the Bible (humans are not meant to be divine like God, and bad things happen to them when they try to surpass their limitations). In the other version of the story, the main reason for the flood is that the people of the time have become evil and wicked. No specific details are given.

The ending of one of the stories occurs at the end of Genesis 8, while the end of the other version occurs at the beginning of Genesis 9. Yes, there are even two endings.

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20)

The sacrifice at the end of Genesis 8 almost undoubtedly is part of the 7 animal version of the narrative. It says he specifically kills one of each clean animal, which means an animal he is allowed to eat (it’s kosher) and sacrifice to God. The seventh animal that is sacrificed represents the Sabbath and the end of “new” creation at the end of the flood, while the other six go off to mate and repopulate the earth. This is a symbolic reenactment in the form of a ritual of Genesis 1’s seven day creation. The other ending is an etiological and gives us the origins of rainbows (God’s bow in the sky as his symbol of the new covenant with humanity).

Now that we discussed the main body of the familiar story and talked about the ending, let’s return to the beginning of the tale at Genesis 6:

“When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine begins saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.–The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”–It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth–when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”

The children of these divine beings mate with humans and produce Nephilim, who were “the heroes of old, the men of renown,” and this mating angered God.

I see at least two possibilities to explain this enigmatic passage:

1) there is the possibility that extra-biblical tales known to the ancient Israelites of the time about the Nephilim, the children of divine beings mating with humans, existed that have since been lost during the passage of time and were not considered Canonical enough to be included in the Bible or maybe purposefully kept out due to the fact that God is presented as critical of these beings and thus stories of their exploits would’ve been considered sinful. This would make the Biblical line a faint cultural memory of lost Israelite mythology, which later became verboten.

2) this is a mocking commentary on their neighbors’ mythology, whose mythological stories often focused on the exploits of great heroes descended from deities. The J writer, who is associated with this passage, would be slyly implying that such unions anger God and directly led to the destruction of the world by flood.

If option two is correct, we also see that the appropriation of the flood story from Mesopotamia may have been a purposeful act that fits directly into the writer’s agenda. The J writer would be appropriating another culture’s myth to challenge the other cultures’ assumptions in an ironical way; the world was destroyed in the flood not because of warring deities annoyed with humans (as suggested in the Babylonian version), but because of the very heroes descended from deities that you celebrate in your stories.

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