Genesis 6:15-9:17 Noah and the Flood
Because I’m so behind in the series, I’ve decided to skip a couple weeks. I promise to fill in the gaps in the coming weeks, but for now, hopefully your restless questions about the serpant and the sinful Cain can wait.
I. What exactly was the flood?
a. The Bible’s View of the World
It is well documented that the Bible’s view of the world was rather limited and based on the knowledge of the era. For example, Isaiah 40:22 says that God sat above the circle of the earth; while some have suggested this indicates a Biblical awareness that the earth was a sphere, it’s far more probable that Isaiah was drawing from the known knowledge of his day which suggested that the earth was a flat circle. In Matthew 12, Jesus says that the queen of the South came “from the ends of the earth” to hear Solomon’s wisdom, but we know in that the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 came from the area which is modern day Yemen. The term “the ends of the earth” referred to the approximate boundaries of Mesopotamia because that was the border of the world as they knew it. As explained in the section on Genesis 1, this fits in with the principle of accommodation – that God speaks to people where they are at. With this in mind, there is no need for us to interpret tales of a worldwide flood in Genesis as covering the entire world as we know it today.
b. The Scientific Evidence
There are a number of scientific problems with the hypothesis of a worldwide flood. Fossil records, genetics, topography, meteorology, and ecology all point against it. For a more thorough explanation, you can investigate: http://biologos.org/questions/genesis-flood There is, however, widespread evidence of flooding in Ancient Mesopotamia.
c. Other Accounts
The Gilgamesh Epic notes a similar story of a man surviving a flood by building an ark and rescuing animals. Tremper Longman explains in How to Read Genesis:
Like Enlil, Yahweh determines to use a catastrophic flood to bring judgment on his human creatures. However, what motivates them is importantly different. Enlil was tired of the “noise” of humanity, probably as a result of overpopulation. The biblical account is set in the framework of the creation of humanity, which encouraged the multiplication of the human race (Gen 1:28). And the biblical motivation for the flood was moral rather than a matter of divine inconvenience. The biblical flood story begins with the statement that “the LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (Gen 6:5). The moral dimension of the flood story is missing from the Mesopotamian rendition. Indeed, if anything, we might almost say that the Gilgamesh Epic depicts Enlil and the gods as doing something wrong and paying the consequences.
What are the implications for us? Do the differences between Gilgamesh and Genesis suggest that both stories are fables without any substance in truth or do their similarities point to a shared historical event? We cannot know for sure. Tremper Longman offers a hopeful solution, perhaps “The Gilgamesh Epic and the other ancient Near Eastern flood traditions was representative of the tradition that remembered the flood through the lens of a polytheistic religious system, while the Genesis account is a later written form of the interpretation of those who worshiped Yahweh.”
II. What About the Animals?
a. How many were there?
Astute readers may have noticed the presence of doublets in the flood narrative. While 6:19-20 features Noah being asked to bring a pair of animals, in 7:2, Lord commands Noah to take seven pairs of the clean animals and two of the unclean. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible explains:
“Critical scholars explain the contradiction by attributing 6:19-20 to the Priestly source (P) but 7:2 to the J. Only hte latter reports Noah’s sacrifice when he emerges from the ark (8:20-21). If there were only one pair of each animal, this sacrifice would lead to the counter productive result that the species offered would thereby become extinct… Traditional commentators have other explanations, for example, that ‘two’ in 6:19 means ‘at least two’ (Rashi) or that a pair of each species would come of their own accord, but Noah would later have to capture seven of the ‘clean’ species to use for the sacrifice (Ramban).”
It’s important to note that, given the flood was not worldwide, it’s obvious that two pairs of each animal were not necessary to preserve all the species of animals on the planet.
b. How should we teach this to children?
I realize this realization may be jarring to many who remember the felt or flannelgraph animals and ark of their youth, with two pairs of each animal going into the ark. One of my fathers favorite lessons (he’s a professor) from his classes is when he posed the question to his students “how many pairs of animals did Noah take on the ark?” Of course, most people in the class will say a pair. One woman even insisted that she knew she was right; after all, she taught Sunday school! It was terribly embarrassing for her when my father (an atheist) pointed straight to Gen 7:2. So if all this is new to you – if you’ve only been taught the pair of animals version your whole life – I am sorry that this is the first time you’re hearing this. I am sorry that the Christians who taught you didn’t know better. I am sorry that I don’t have more time now to go through this with you to explore the wonderful world of Genesis and how these true myths wonderfully demonstrate the glory of God!
All I can say is this: let us correct this Biblical illiteracy in future generations lest we be shamed by our ignorance!
III. Why a flood?
a. Why does God feel regret? Why didn’t he just make us right the first time around?
There are two important things to note here. First of all, our idea of God is strongly influenced by the Western philosophical tradition; nowhere does scripture define God as an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, unchanging being. (Though his promises and his character are described as steadfast.) Instead, we see in scripture a personal God, grieved by sin and abounding in love.
Secondly, God seems to find some value in redeeming creation through processes like the flood. With us, too, he knits us together in the womb but lets us experience the world to grow and mature in our love for him. 1 Peter 3 specifically draws parallels between our own redemption and the redemption of Noah:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, ESV)
b. The undoing of creation!
But why a flood? Biologos offers an explanation of the significance of the imagery of the flood:
“The flood waters are not a random punishment, however, but an undoing of creation –– a return to the state of chaos that existed before God gave order (this is described in Genesis 1). The waters of chaos had been kept at bay by the firmament, the raqia, which is a solid dome above, and by the earth below. That is how Earth became habitable. When we read in Genesis 7:11 that the “fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened”, it means that God is letting the barriers give way so that the waters of chaos can crash back down upon the Earth, thus making it uninhabitable again.”
The Oxford Jewish Study Bible explains: “In Genesis ch 8, too, the world is, as it were, being created anew from the watery chaos that had undone God’s original work of creation. A new beginning is at hand, with Noah as the new Adam.”
Of course, we see that Noah and the many generations after him fail to succeed as the new Adam until God himself comes in the form of Jesus Christ to take on this role (Romans 5).