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Noah and the Flood: an Epic Poem of Mythological Proportions

 

Join the author in a fascinating journey as he explores the differences between the Biblical story of Noah and the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, and examines the inappropriate attempt of Biblical criticism to split this story into two versions. This is an epic poem of considerable sophistication and beauty.

 

The Biblical story of Noah and his ark stretches belief.  There is no archeological evidence that a flood, or any other global catastrophe for that matter, disrupted human civilization, and the notion that all animals in the globe could be rescued in an ark seems naïve in the extreme.

Perhaps this is a story about a local flood of unusual intensity and extent rather than a global catastrophe?

 

At least one Midrashic source was prepared to consider this possibility when it suggests that the Land of Israel was excluded from Noah’s flood.1

 

However, the text belies such a notion.  This is a story about global destruction.  The words “all” and “every” are keywords in this passage from the Flood story: 

And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of bird, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, and every man; All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And He wiped out all existence that was on the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the bird of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth; and Noah only remained alive, and those who were with him in the ark.” (Genesis 7:21-23).

 

Moreover, the Biblical description of the onset of the Flood returns us to the first chapter of Genesis and the disorder accompanying the very beginnings of the earth:

 

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep (tehom raba) (תְּהוֹם רַבָּה) burst forth; and the windows of the heavens (hashomayim) (הַשָּׁמַיִם) were opened.” (Genesis 7:11)

 

The “tehom” (תְהוֹם), usually translated as “the deep,” are the primordial waters of chaos that covered the earth at the time of creation: 

 

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and earth, when the earth was bewilderment and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep (tehom) (Òתְהוֹם), and the spirit of God was hovering upon the surface of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)

 

Subsequently, the land mass arose from within the deep primeval waters and seas were formed, while the “tehom” remained deep within the oceans.  During the Flood, however, these deep primeval waters surged up into the seas and flowed over the land.  Simultaneously, windows present in the barrier between the waters above the heavens and the heavens themselves opened up.  After the flooding the process reversed itself - the fountains of the “tehom” closed up and the deep waters receded back into the seas.  Moreover, just as the “spirit of God” hovered over the “tehom” on the first day of Creation guiding the creative process, so also the “spirit” of God passed over the earth during the Flood to guide its resolution:

“…..  And God caused a spirit to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided.  The fountains of the deep (tehom) ((תְהוֹם) and the windows of the heavens were closed, (Genesis 8:1-2)……  The waters then receded from upon the earth, receding continuously, and the waters diminished at the end of a hundred and fifty days.” (Genesis 8:3)

 

This is a lot more than an extensive local flood.  This is a return to the primeval chaos of Creation.  

 

But if this is an imaginary tale, what is it doing in the Bible?

 

I have posed this question over the years to many orthodox Rabbis and none have been able to gave me a satisfactory answer.  All were wedded to a very literal understanding of the text.  Some were even perturbed that I would question the historicity of the Bible.  Eventually, I became acquainted with the writings of two Biblical scholars, Umberto Cassuto and Nahum Sarma, who would lead me on a trail that was to change my entire perception of the early chapters of Genesis. 2,3   

 

Both scholars considered the Pentateuch to be written by a single author, and both were able to show that the Noah story borrowed heavily from Mesopotamian sources.  

 

Stories about a great flood existed for hundreds of years before the Bible was written and were widely disseminated throughout the Near East.  The earliest extant flood legend is found in the fragmentary Sumerian Eridu Genesis written in about the 17th century BCE.   These fragments relate how an individual called Ziusudra was warned by the god Enki of the gods' decision to destroy mankind in a flood and how he was instructed to build a large boat.  Ziusudra means "he saw life," and is a reference to the gift of immortality bestowed upon him by the gods after he was saved.  The Atrahasis Epic is another version of this story and the hero of this story is called Atrahasis.  

The most complete Mesopotamian flood story was found in Nineveh during excavations of the library of King Asshurbanipal, and is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh.  A flood story comprises only a small part of this epic and is thought to be a version of the Atrahasis Epic.  

The Epic of Gilgamesh is about a king called Gilgamesh and his quest for the secret of immortality following the death of a close male friend.  Gilgamesh visits Utnapishtim who has achieved immortality and discovers that he has gained immortality not by dint of wisdom but as a gift from the gods following his survival from a great flood.  

 

Common to all these Mesopotamian flood stories is that the gods decide to bring a flood on mankind, that one person is saved in a ship, and that he brings animals on board to save them from the deluge.  After the flood, the boat alights on top of a mountain, birds are released to determine if the land has dried, and the hero then emerges and offers sacrifices on his deliverance.  

 

Cassuto considered these flood myths to be too important an aspect of ancient culture to be ignored by the Bible and they were therefore incorporated into the Bible after their polytheistic content had been erased.  Sarma’s approach is somewhat different, and his approach is the one adopted in this essay. He viewed the Biblical Noah story as a polemic against Mesopotamian religious and political ideas.  The Bible borrowed the outline of this popular and well-known pagan myth and changed key aspects as a means of promoting Biblical rather than pagan ideas.  In this way, new and revolutionary religious ideas were brought into the religious consciousness of the Near East.  

 

Our first task, therefore, in understanding this polemic is to examine both the similarities and differences between the Noah story and Atrahasis and Gilgamesh flood myths.

 

The competing ideologies of the Noah and Gilgamesh epics 

 

Ancient myths were more than just fanciful stories.  They were designed to answer some of the most fundamental questions asked by man, such as how humanity arose, Where do we come fromwhat happens after death, and whether immortality is possible, 

 

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that gods were immanent within nature and that conflict was a fundamental construct of the cosmos (see chapter 1 of this book).  It followed, therefore, that success in this world could only be achieved by brute force.  The Bible was in opposition not only to polytheism but to the entire pagan mindset that might makes right.  

 

The Bible and Mesopotamian mythology also had very different views on the role of man.  From their myths we learn that man was created by the gods to do the hard manual work they would otherwise have been their lot.  Within this sociological framework, man possessed no intrinsic dignity or worth.  By contrast, the Bible introduced the radical idea that man was created in the “image of God” and almost on a level with God Himself.  Elokim gave him dominion over the entire earth and he thereby achieved dignity, purpose, and worth.

 

The Atrahasis myth introduces the question as to why sickness and famine exist in this world, and answers that natural disasters are engineered by the gods in order to achieve population control.  Disturbing noise is a recurring theme in Mesopotamian mythology and perhaps reflects a problem of a lack of gathering places for boisterous youth in Mesopotamian towns and cities.  

 

In the following passage from the Atrahasis epic, the god Ellil decides that man’s activities have become too disturbing and he therefore engineers a famine:

 

Twelve hundred years had not yet passed 

And the country became too wide, the people too numerous,

The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull.

The gods grew restless at their clamor,

Ellil [head of the younger generation of Sumerian and Akkadian gods] had to listen to their noise,

He addressed the great gods:

“The noise of mankind has become too much for me,

I am losing sleep over their racket.

Cut off food supplies to the people!”4

 

When this does not succeed he brings on a second famine.  It is only when this proves unsuccessful, that Ellil and the assembly of gods decide on a radical solution – the total annihilation of mankind.

 

In contrast to the Atrahasis epic, the Gilgamesh myth provides no reason for the Flood, and this probably reflects its focus on Utnapishtim’s immortality rather than the flood’s beginnings.  Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the Gilgamesh myth found no reason to justify the whimsical decision of the gods.  This is clearly how it is.

 

Contrast this with the Bible’s explanation as to why the eradication of mankind has become a necessity:

 

The earth also was corrupt before Elokim, and the earth was filled with unrighteousness (chomos) (חָמָס).  And Elokim looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.  And Elokim said to Noah: The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with unrighteousness (chomos) (חָמָס) through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:11-13)

 

There is discussion among Jewish Biblical exegetes as to the meaning of the word chomos (חָמָס).  It is often translated as violence, and in the Rabbinic tradition as robbery.5  However, a more literal translation is injustice.6  In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are prohibited from being an “eid chomos” (עֵד חָמָס) – “a witness to injustice.”(Exodus 23:1)   Hence, the contrasting message of the Bible is that it is not the whims of gods that lead to society’s destruction but its moral breakdown.  A world that is totally unjust cannot exist. 

 

The heroes of the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics possess no particular virtues.  The only reason they are chosen for survival is that for unknown reasons they have attracted the attention of one of the gods, Ea, who indirectly warns the mortal Utnapishtim of the impending flood:

 

So he repeated their speech to a reed hut,

“Reed hut, reed hut, brick wall, brick wall,

Listen, reed hut, and pay attention, brick wall.

Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu,

Dismantle your house, build a boat,

Leave possessions, search out living things.

Reject chattels and save lives!

Put aboard the seed of all living things into the boat.”7

 

By contrast, in a world based on justice, the person saved will be one who is perfectly righteous:

Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with Elokim.” (Genesis 6:9)

 

In this sentence, the Bible introduces the yardstick by which human behavior will be forever judged, namely the principle of imitating God.  Referred to in the Bible as “walking with God” or “before whom I have walked” (Genesis 24:40), it will become the guiding principal for all of Jewish ethics and subsequently those of Christianity:8 

 

In the Gilgamesh myth, Utnapishtim responds to Ea’s advice by building a craft to save himself.  Utnapishtim’s priorities are clear.  First he must save his worldly possessions, his silver and his gold, and only then his relatives:  

“I loaded her with everything there was,

Loaded her with all the silver,

Loaded her with all the gold

Loaded her with all the seed of living things, all of them

I put on board the boat all my kith and kin

Put on board cattle from open country, all kinds of craftsmen……”9

 

Moreover, Utnapishtim will save himself in a boat, a craft over which he has control.  Noah, on the other hand, will be saved in an ark.  An ark has no rudder or oars and for the duration of the flood Noah will be totally under the protection of YKVK.  Moreover, Noah’s priorities are to save humanity and the animal kingdom.  Silver and gold are of no consideration to him:

But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark – you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And from all that lives, of all flesh, two of each shall you bring into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From each bird according to its kind, and from each animal according to its kind, and from each thing that creeps on the ground according to its kind, two of each shall come to you to keep alive. And as for you, take yourself of every food that is eaten and gather it to yourself, that it shall be food for you and for them. Noah did according to everything Elokim commanded him, so did he.” (Genesis 6:18-22)

 

The pagan notion that nature is controlled by a multitude of gods is very apparent from this excerpt from the Gilgamesh myth describing the onset of the great flood they bring about:

 

When the first light of dawn appeared, 

A black cloud came up from the base of the sky. 

Adad [storm god, canal controller] kept rumbling inside it. 

Shunish and Hanish [a minor god, servant of the weather-god) were marching ahead, 

Marched as chamberlains [over] [?] mountain and country. 

Erakal [probably the god of war, hunting and plague] pooled out the mooring [?] poles, 

Ninurta [god of agricultural and pastoral fertility] marched on and made the weir(s) overflow.

The Anunnaki [deities of fertility and the Underworld] had to carry torches, 

They lit up the land with their brightness. 

The calm before the Storm-god came over the sky, 

Everything light turned to darkness.”10

 

In the Bible, however, there is but one God controlling all the forces of nature. This is the same God who brought about all of creation:

 

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened.” (Genesis 7:11)

 

And whereas God is able to manipulate the forces of nature according to His will, the gods are horrified at the forces they have unleashed:

“Even the gods were afraid of the flood-weapon.

They withdrew; they went up to the heaven of Anu.

The gods cowered, like dogs crouched by an outside wall.

Ishtar screamed like a woman giving birth;

The mistress of the gods, sweet of voice, was wailing

“Has that time really returned to clay,

Because I spoke evil in the gods’ assembly?.....”11

 

This next section of the Gilgamesh myth is excerpted so that not only differences but also similarities between it and the Biblical story can be appreciated.  The precise details in these two accounts are somewhat different but the broad outlines are very similar.  The hero’s vessel alights on a mountain, a bird is sent out to ascertain if there is dry land, since this was the way that sailors assessed for dry land in those days, and he then offers sacrifices in thanksgiving for his delivery.

 

I looked for banks, for limits to the sea.

Areas of land were emerging everywhere.

The boat had come to rest on Mount Mimush.

The mountain Mimush held the boat fast and did not let it budge.

The first and second day the mountain Mimush hled the boat fast and did not let it budge.

The third and fourth day the mountain Mimushheld the boat fast and did not let it budge….

When the seventh day arrived,

I put out and released a dove.

The dove went; it came back

For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned around.

I put out and released a swallow.

The swallow went; it came back.

For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned around.

I put out and released a raven.

The raven went and saw the waters receding.

And it ate, preened, lifted its tail and did not turn around.

Then I put everything out to the four winds, and I made a sacrifice,

Set out a surqinnu-offering upon the mountain peak,

Arranged the jars seven and seven;

Into the bottom of them I poured essences of reeds, pine and myrtle.

The gods smelt the fragrance,

The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance,

The gods like flies gathered over the sacrifice.”11

 

Note the marked difference between the pagan approach to sacrifice described in the last three lines of this passage and that of the Bible.  The difference in wording is subtle, but its implications are huge.

 

In the Mesopotamian concept of sacrifice the gods physically imbibe the burnt food.  In the excerpt above from the Gilgamesh myth, the gods have been deprived of food for the duration of the flood and are hungry; hence they gather over the sacrifice “like flies”.  

 

God, on the other hand, does not eat man’s sacrifices.  Nevertheless, He does smell the burnt flesh and appreciates the sacrifice.  The anthropomorphism - “to smell the sweet odor” - will be found elsewhere in the Torah: 

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.  And YKVK smelled the sweet odor and YKVK said in His heart……” (Genesis 8:20-21)

 

In sum, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the broad outlines of the Noah and his flood story and the Gilgamesh myth are very similar.  Nevertheless, the details in the Torah reflect exclusively a Jewish outlook.  In other words, the Bible used a story with which people were familiar to promote new religious ideas and to indirectly critique the Weltanschauung of ancient Mesopotamia.  This will have momentous implications for the progress of mankind.

  

Biblical optimism versus Mesopotamian pessimism

No surveys are available to tell us how people in ancient Mesopotamia viewed their lives.  Probably, it was little different from today.  There would have been times of joy as well as of anxiety and sorrow.  Nevertheless, scholars have noted that Mesopotamian myths reflect a profound pessimism that permeated their society.  Procreation and human enterprise were gambles that could run counter to the whims of the gods.  Survival, not progress, was the most that could be hoped for.  The Atrahasis epic, for example, describes the uncertainty of human existence and the realization that humanity is a plaything in the hands of the gods.  Such a philosophy would have had an extremely inhibiting effect on the cultural and scientific progress of Mesopotamian society.  

 

By contrast, the message of the Noah story is that the world is founded on the basis of justice and that the world that we live in is a rational one.  Because of these foundational beliefs, Judaism would become a potent force for human progress.

 

In the Gilgamesh myth, the wind god Ellil has now become reconciled to the fact that Ea has outwitted the other gods and saved two human beings and he is prepared to grant Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.  However, as a consequence of this they will now need be placed far from the rest of society:

“Ellil came up into the boat,

And seized my hand and led me up.

He led up my woman and made her kneel down at my side.

He touched our foreheads, stood between us, blessed  us:
“Until now Ut-napishtim was mortal,

But henceforth Ut-napishtim shall dwell far off, at the mouth of the rivers.”12

 

There is not a glimmer of optimism in this part of the Utnapishtim story.   Utnapishtim has achieved immortality but only by dint of good luck and perhaps good looks.  There is no commitment on the part of the gods to prevent another flood and there is little hope that anyone other than Utnapishtim will have such good fortune in the future.  

 

By contrast, the message of the first chapter of Genesis is that procreation, and not population control, is the will of Elokim:  

 

God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them; “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)  

 

Nevertheless, in sending a global flood, Elokim has almost abrogated an implied commitment made to Adam and Eve, namely that filling the earth is part of the Divine plan. The fate of this commitment now hangs on Noah and his family:

 

“But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark – you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” (Genesis 6:18)

 

And once they left the ark:

 

“God blessed Noah and his sons and He said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land.  The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, in everything that moves on earth, and in all the fish of the sea; in your hand they are given.” (Genesis 9:1) 

 

However, Man can only repopulate the world with confidence if he has confidence in the Deity.  At this stage in the narrative, the Bible introduces a radical idea in religious thought - that God is prepared to make a binding commitment to mankind and formalize this commitment with a “covenant”.  This covenant will be immortalized by a sign, namely a rainbow that joins heaven to earth.  A unilateral obligation such as this on the part of the gods would have been unthinkable in pagan thought:  

 

And I will confirm my covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.  An Elokim said: This is the sign of the covenant that I give between you and every living being that is with you, to generations forever.  I have set my rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.’ (Genesis 9:11-13)

 

In our day and age, we take it as a given that the world will not collapse around us, and we have international organizations, the hopes of science, and the covenant of Noah to allay our fears.  However, prior to the Bible none of this existed.  It was the Noah story and the covenant with YKVK that promised an unimpeded future for the world and thereby provided the philosophical underpinnings for the material and religious progress of mankind.

 

The chiastic format of the Noah story

 

The Noah story is prose and not history and it contains a number of literary forms typical of Biblical writing.  One of these forms is number associations.  This was discussed in detail in chapter 2 of this book, but will be reviewed here as it pertains to the Noah story.  

 

In ancient Mesopotamia, aspects of the physical world were represented by the number 6, and an hexasimal system was frequently used for these functions. 13  We have vestiges of this even today with our 60-minute hour (6 x 10), 24-hour day (6 x 4), and 360-degrees circle (6 x 60).  The physical world was created by Elokim, and it is not surprising, therefore, that His creative activity was within the framework of an hexasimal system.  This is why there are six days of creation.

 

In Mesopotamian literature, the number seven was considered to be a number of perfection. Consider, for example, the following passage from the Gilgamesh myth:

 

"For six days and [?] nights

The wind blew, flood and tempest overwhelmed the land;

“When the seventh day arrived the tempest, flood and onslaught

Which had struggled like a woman in labour, blew themselves out (?)…..

When the seventh day arrived,

I put out and released a dove.

The dove went; it came back,

For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.”14

 

Since God is absolute perfection, the number seven is found in the Bible in sentences relating to both Elokim and YKVK and becomes a code for God’s involvement.  

 

In the Book of Genesis, the number seven is associated mainly with Elokim.  Hence, the seventh day of the week is sanctified by Elokim as the Sabbath.  It is in sentences involving Elokim that Noah waits seven days before setting foot in the ark, and it is in an Elokim-section that the birds fly around for seven days seeking land.   These number associations imply that God is involved in all that is transpiring.

 

The number seven is also found hidden within the Noah story.   For example, the most important word in the following paragraph is the word “covenant”.  This word is mentioned seven times:15

 

“And Elokim spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;  And with every living creature that is with you, of the bird, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.  And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.  And Elokim said, This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations.  I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud.  And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.  And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between Elokim and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.  And Elokim said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17)

 

The message from these hidden sevens may well be that the rainbow is part of the natural world, but once it becomes a symbol of Elokim’s covenant it becomes elevated one step beyond the mundane and now serves a loftier purpose.

 

The number forty is found a number of times in the Bible and is exclusively associated with YHWH.  Hence, Moses was twice secluded with God for 40 days on Mount Sinai.  The Children of Israel also wandered for 40 years in the wilderness.  The number 40 is indicative of a very strong and tangible relationship between man and the Divine from a spiritual or physical perspective.  It is for this reason that YKWK shuts up Noah within the ark for 40 days.  A contrast may also be intended here between the supernatural aspects of the 40-day period of the Flood and the natural aspects of the 150-day (6 x 25) period of flooding.  These number associations are not incidental to the story but an integral aspect of the account.

 Another literary form used in the Noah story is a chiastic format, i.e. sentences with mirror image symmetry.   In the excerpts below it can be seen that the Flood develops and recedes in relation to days 7, 40 and 150.

 

And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. (Genesis 7:10)  …………  And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights”(Genesis 7:17) …..  And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” (Genesis 7:24)

 

When the flood dissipates, the order of the days is reversed:

 

And the waters then receded from upon the earth, receding continuously; and the waters diminished after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.” (Genesis 8:3)  ……  “And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made” (Genesis 8:6)…… “And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.” (Genesis 8:10) …… “And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which did not return back to him any more. (Genesis 8:12)

 

This chiasmus is telling us that Elokim will not forget his commitment to Adam and Eve that they procreate and multiply, and just as He orchestrated the beginning of the Flood so also He orchestrates its resolution.

 Others have pointed out an even more elaborate chiastic structure for the Flood story (see below),16 with the center of chiasmus (i.e. the tip of the horizontal pyramid) being the following verse.  This diagram also shows the proposed sources of these sentences according to the Documentary Hypothesis and this will be explained in the next section: 

 

“God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the animals that were with him in the ark.” (Genesis 8:1):   

A. Noah  (6:10)  [P]

B.   Shem, Ham and Japheth (6:10)  [P]

C.       Ark to be built (6:14-16)  [P]

D.            Flood announced (6:17)  [P]

E.               Covenant with Noah (6:18-20)  [P]

F.                  Food in the ark (6:21)  [P]

G.                   Command to enter ark (7:1-3)  [J]

H.                       7 days waiting for the flood (7:4-5)  [J]

I.                           7 days waiting for the flood (7-10)  [J]

J.                                Entry to ark (7:11-15)  [J and P]

K.                                   Yahweh shuts Noah in (7:16)   [J and P]

L.                                        40 days flood (7:17a)   [J]

M.                                           Waters increase (7:17b-18)  [J and P]

N.                                                Mountains covered (7:19-20)   [P]

O.                                                   150 days waters prevail (7:21-24) [P]

P.                                                         GOD REMEMBERS NOAH (8:1)   [P]

O.                                                    150 days waters abate (8:3)   [P]

N.                                                 Mountain tops visible (8:4-5)

M.                                              Waters abate (8:5)   [P]

L.                                         40 days (end of) (8:6a)   [J]

K.                                     Noah opens window of ark (8:6b)   [J]

J.                                   Raven and dove leave ark (8:7-9)   [J]

I.                                7 days waiting for waters to subside (8:10-11)   [J]

H.                            7 days waiting for waters to subside (8:12-13)  [J and P]

G.                        Command to leave ark (8:15-17)  [P]

F.                      Food outside ark (9:1-4)   [P]

E.                Covenant with all flesh (9:8-10)  [P]

D.      No flood in the future (9:11-17)  [P]

C.    Ark (9:18a)   [J]

B.   Shem, Ham and Japheth (9:18b)   [J]

A. Noah (9:19)   [J]

 

One might argue with some of the details of this chiasmus.  For example, in line I, in the first part of the chiasmus, food is brought into the ark.  A complete (but not very elegant) mirror image might be that refuse is discharged the ark.  Instead, the second F of the pyramid discusses the permission given to the sons of Noah to eat meat.  Noah and his family have “entry into the ark” in line J, whereas the exit from the ark in the second line F is by birds.  Nevertheless, most components of this chiasmus fit very nicely. 

 

These chiastic structures show God’s involvement of God in every aspect of the flood from beginning to end.  They also have considerable relevance to the Documentary Hypothesis, and this is the subject to which we now turn.

 

Reconnecting the pieces of the Documentary Hypothesis

 

The Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, introduced the Bible to the Western world, and the Bible would become a foundation stone of Christianity and its culture.  However, the Bible was written exclusively for the Jewish people and they are the ones who extracted meaning from its pages.  At least initially, source criticism was a non-Jewish project aimed at destroying the meaning that Jews had extracted from their Torah over the centuries. 

It was Julius Welhausen, living in Germany in the 19th century, who brought together ideas in source criticism that had been developing over the previous centuries.  He proposed that the Pentateuch was derived from four primary sources, a Jahwist source (J source) that used exclusively the name YKVK and which was considered to have been written in the southern Kingdom of Judah in about 950 BCE; an Elohist (E) source that used the name Elokim and was written in about 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel; a Deuteronomist source (D source) written in about 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform; while much of the remainder of the Torah was from a Priestly source (P source) written in about 500 BCE by Aaronic priests in exile in Babylon.  Others have argued that the Priestly source was composed much earlier during the First Temple period.  The God of the priestly source reveals himself in stages, first as Elokim, then to Abraham as Kel Shaddai, and finally to Moses as YKVK.  

 

Each of these sources reflects a perspective germane to the writers of that era, and they were joined together by a “redactor” to produce the Pentateuch we recognize today.

 

As discussed in chapter 2 of this book, there are significant differences between the two creation accounts in Genesis.  The Documentary Hypothesis suggested that the first creation story was derived from a Priestly source (P) while the second was from a Jahwist (J) source.  Hence, chapter 1 of Genesis uses the name “Elokim” for the name of God, while the second creation story in Genesis chapter 2 uses predominantly the Tetragammaton linked together with Elokim as “YKVK Elokim”.  

 

The Noah story contains a mixture of YKVK and Elokim sentences, and Biblical critics regard it as a patchwork of P and J sources.  They also point out that it is possible to prize apart these two sources to reveal the original P and J flood stories, the P flood story containing the name Elokim and the J story the Tetraggamaton.  Consider, for example, the following “two accounts” of God’s decision to bring about a flood shown first as the composite story and then as two separated stories: 

5. And YKVK saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6. And YKVK regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7. And YKVK said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, to creeping things, and the birds of the air; for I regret having made them. 8. And Noah found grace in the eyes of YKVK. 9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with Elokim. 10. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11. And the earth had become corrupt before Elokim, and the earth was filled with corruption. 12. And Elokim looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. 13. And Elokim said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with corruption through them; and, behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. 14. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood ……..” (Genesis 6:5-13)

 

And these are the separated verses according to their proposed sources:

PROPOSED “YAHWIST” SOURCE    

PROPOSED “PRIESTLY” SOURCE

 

5. And YKVK saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6. And YKVK regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7.  And YKVK said: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, to creeping things, and the birds of the air; for I regret having made them.” 8. And Noah found grace in the eyes of YKVK. 7.1 Then YKVK said to Noah: Go into the ark you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation…..

9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with Elokim.  10. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem,  Ham, and Japheth. 11. And the earth had  become corrupt before Elokim, and the  earth  was filled with corruption. 12. And Elokim looked upon the earth, and,    behold, it was  corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way  upon the earth. 13.  And Elokim said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with corruption through them; and,  behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. 14. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood …. 

 

The questions posed by Biblical criticism are far more penetrating than their proposed solutions.  It has to be admitted that there is a serious question to be asked here.  There is indeed something different about these two “sources” as they wind their way through the Noah narrative.  What is the significance of the story being written in this form? 

A very satisfactory explanation does exist, but it has nothing to do with the origins of these sentences.  What the Torah is doing here is describing two types of relationship to God in relation to the destruction of the world and the rescue of Noah. 

 

Elokim is a transcendent God who created the universe and hallowed the Sabbath.  He is the God of all humanity.  YKVK is an immanent God who established a relationship with Adam and Eve. 

 

The immanent and transcendent aspects of God also appear in the Noah story.  In the “J” passage above, YKVK approaches man, discerns his thoughts and sees his corruption.  Noah has developed a relationship with YKVK based on his religiosity and his righteousness makes him worthy to be saved.  Elokim, on the other hand, looks down on the world from the heavens on high.  A world that is totally corrupt cannot endure.  Noah is viewed by Elokim not in terms of developing a relationship but with respect to his suitability for repopulating the earth.  The Flood story is, in the main, a passage about God’s judging humanity and is predominantly, therefore, an “Elokim” account.

 

 Another passage from the Flood story considered by Biblical critics to be derived from consecutive P and J sources is worth examining since contradictions within the text seem to point to different textual sources.  

 In a presumed P source, Noah is asked to bring two animals from each species into the ark, whereas in a subsequent J source he is requested to bring seven pairs of each pure animal and one pair of each impure animal.  Biblical critics would regard the “redactor” as having such reverence for the original sources that joining them together was considered to be of far greater importance than eliminating even obvious contradictions:

“PRIESTLY” SOURCE 

“YAHWIST” SOURCE

6;18. But with you will I establish my covenant; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shall you bring into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20. Of birds after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind, two of every sort shall come to you, to keep them alive. 21. And take to you of all food that is eaten, and you shall gather it to you; and it shall be for food for you, and for them. 22. Thus did Noah; according to all that Elokim commanded him, so did he.  

 

7:1. Then YKVK said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation. 2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female. 3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. 4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. 5. And Noah did according to all that YKVK had commanded him.

 

However, this is a faulty reading of the passage.  There are not two textual sources here but only one.  The reason for the apparent contradictions is that the YKVK and Elokim aspects of God have different agendas.

 

With but one exception, all sacrifices in the Bible are offered to YKVK.   This makes eminent sense, since a sacrifice is a means of drawing close to an immanent Deity.  

 

The single exception in the Pentateuch highlights the rule.1

 

In the Book of Exodus, following the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a priest of Midian, arrives at the Sinai encampment together with Moses’ wife and two children: “And Jethro said: “Blessed be YKVK, who has saved you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of Pharaoh, who has saved the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that YKVK is greater than all gods; for in the thing where they dealt proudly He was above them.  And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for Elokim; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before Elokim.” (Exodus 18:12)

 

Jethro recognizes YKVK as the God of Israel who delivered them from Egypt.  In the midrashic literature he is considered to have converted to Judaism.18 However, the names of God used in this passage suggest a very different story.  Jethro cannot wrench himself away from his background and his position in Midian as priest.  In his worship to God, Jethro’s thoughts are not to the national God of Israel, but to Elokim, the universal God of mankind.  What the Bible is describing here is the first monotheistic interfaith prayer meeting in human history!  continues: “And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dried [completely].” (Genesis 8:14).  

 There is, however, one surprising omission from this gathering.  Aaron and the elders are present, but Moses, Jethro’s son-in-law, is not.  There was good reason for this.  Moses was on a different spiritual plane to everyone around him.  How could a person with direct communication with YKVK sacrifice to a distant, universal God?  Moses knew Jethro well from the years he had been in his house.  His father-in-law would never change, which is why Moses excused himself.19 

The Noah story follows the rule that everything pertaining to sacrifices is associated with YKVK, the God of personal relationships.20  Hence, following his deliverance from the Flood, Noah offers sacrifices to YKVK: 

 

“Then Noah built an altar to YKVK, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

 

With this understanding, it can be seen that there is no contradiction in the number of animals brought into the ark.  Elokim is concerned about the general providence of the world and directs all animals to come of their own accord in pairs to the ark and Noah brings them into the ark as instructed. (Genesis 6:20)  In addition, YKVK tells Noah to collect and bring into the ark seven pairs of pure animals for future sacrifices:

 

“18. But with you will I establish my covenant; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shall you bring into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20. Of birds after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind, two of every sort shall come to you, to keep them alive. 21. And take to you of all food that is eaten, and you shall gather it to you; and it shall be for food for you, and for them. 22. Thus did Noah; according to all that Elokim commanded him, so did he. 7:1. Then YKVK said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation. 2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female. 3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. 4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. 5. And Noah did according to all that YKVK had commanded him.” (Genesis 6:18-7:5)

 

In general, the presumed “redactor” of the Biblical critics limited his “cut and paste” activities to complete sentences, and it is unusual for the two names of God to be found within a single sentence.  When it does occur it is extremely illuminating:

And those who went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as Elokim had commanded him; and YKVK closed him in.” (Genesis 7:16) 

 

The Documentary Hypothesis would regard this is an example of the “redactor” joining together J and P phrases within a single sentence to maintain the flow of the narrative.  However, there is a much better explanation.  This verse is a transitional verse.  The transcendent God Elokim has instructed Noah to bring all animals into the ark, but it is YHVH who will now care for Noah as the earth reverts to its primeval beginnings.  In the Mesopotamian flood stories, the hero is saved in a boat and a crew is brought on board to assist him.  Noah, however, will be saved in a rudderless ark and will be totally dependent on the protection of YKVK.  It is appropriate, therefore, that YKVK, in an embracing manner, shuts him into the ark to avoid the ravages of the flood.

 

There still remains, however, a major challenge to a unitary account and this is that the “two” flood stories seem to be of different durations – the flood of the J source lasting for only 40 days while the P flood story lasted 150 days:

PROPOSED “YAHWIST SOURCE”

PROPOSED “PRIESTLY SOURCE”

 

(7:17). And the flood was on the earth forty days, and the waters increased and raised the ark and it was lifted above the earth; (22). All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life died, of everything that was on dry land, died. (23). And He wiped out all existence that was on the face of the ground – from man to animals to creeping things and to the bird of the heavens; and they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah survived and those with him in the ark. (8:2). And the rain from heaven was restrained. (3). The waters then receded from upon the earth……… 

(7:18). The waters strengthened and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark drifted upon the surface of the waters. (19). And the waters strengthened very much upon the earth, all the high mountains which are under the entire heavens were covered. (20). Fifteen amos above did the waters strengthen and the mountains were covered.  (21). And all flesh that moves upon the earth expired – among the birds, the animals, the beasts, and all the creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all mankind. (24). And the waters strengthened on the  earth a hundred and fifty days. (8:1) Elokim remembered Noah and all the beasts and the animals that were with him in the ark, and Elokim caused a spirit to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided. (2). The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed (3). And the waters diminished at the end of a hundred and fifty days. (4). And the ark came to rest in the seventh month, on the seventeenth of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat…….

 

The Biblical timeline of the Flood has puzzled Biblical exegetes throughout the ages.  Discussions can be found in the Midrash and Talmud,21 and the topic is discussed extensively by Medieval Biblical commentators such as Rashi and Nachmanides, albeit without consensus.22  However, an explanation that hangs together very well is provided by the Biblical scholar Cassuto and his explanation is summarized in the table below:23

 

Biblical date

 Occurrence  according  to Cassuto

Time interval according to Cassuto

Time interval according to P

10th of the 2nd month (Genesis 7:5) [J]

 2nd warning  to Noah about the  impending  Flood. 

 

17th of the 2nd month (Genesis 7:11) [P]

Flood begins: fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heaven opened. [J]

Flood commences 7 days after the 2nd warning.

Flood commences.

27th day of 3rd month 

Fountains of the deep ceased releasing their water [P], rain ceases [J]. 

40 days from the onset of the Flood.

Between 40-150 days from the onset of the Flood, the waters prevailed, but also began returning into the depths.

Between 40-150 days from the onset of the Flood.

 

17th day of 7th month (Genesis 8:3) [P]

Ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. [P]

150 days or 5 months from the onset of the Flood. [P source]

150 days  from the  onset of  the Flood.

1st of 10th month (Genesis 8:5) [P]

Tops of mountains become visible. [P]

 

*10th day of 11th month

Noah sends out a raven from the ark. [P]

40 days from the tops of the mountains becoming visible (Genesis 8:6) [J]

 

17th of 11th month

Noah sends out a dove. [J]

7 days from Noah sending out a raven [P source], 9 months after Noah entered the ark [P source], and 4 months after the ark rested on mountains of Ararat [P source].

 

24th of 11th month

Noah sends out a dove a second time. [J]

7 days from previously sending out a dove.

 

1st of 12th month

Noah sends out a dove a third time. [J]

7 days from previously sending out a dove.

 

1st day of 1st month (Genesis 8:13) [P]

 

The waters had dried from the earth (but were still muddy according to the Midrash).

Anniversary of the creation of the world.  3 months after the mountaintops first become visible [P source], and 1 month after sending out the non-returning dove [J source].

Anniversary of the creation of the world.  3 months after the top of the mountains become visible.

27th day of 2nd month (Genesis 8:14) [P]

The earth now sufficiently dry for Noah to emerge from the ark.

11 lunar months after the fountains of the deep had ceased releasing their water, and exactly one solar year after the flood began.

 

Exactly one  solar year  after the  flood  began.

 

Cassuto uses the dates mentioned in the Bible for elucidating his timeline.  Hence we read: “And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters had dried from upon the earth.” (Genesis 8:13), and this section

Before proceeding further, we need to resolve an apparent contradiction between these two sentences, in that the drying of the earth seems to be reported as occurring on two different dates.  The midrash Bereishis Rabba resolves this contradiction (and there is no reason to reject this explanation) by explaining that on the first day of the first month there was still a crust of mud on the earth making it difficult for Noah and his family to leave the ark. 24  However, by the 27th day of the second month the earth was sufficiently dry for them to step outside.  

But why the first day of the first month?  Prior to the Exodus, this date was Rosh Hashona (literally the Head of the Year), the Jewish festival commemorating the creation of the world;22 and it is likely that the Bible is implying here that with the survival of Noah and his sons the earth was now destined for a new beginning.   The 27th day of the 2nd month is exactly one solar year after the flood began, suggesting perhaps that God was totally in control of the natural elements both by solar and lunar dating. 25

Cassuto’s explanation does make a number of assumptions.  Like Nachmanides he assumes that the forty period of the flood is included within the 150 days.22  He also assumes that this 150-day period is equivalent to five 30-day lunar months.  In actuality, 5 lunar months is 147 days (and the Talmudic explanation does account for the days in this manner).  He also assumes that the “fountains of the deep” and the “windows of the heaven” were closed at the end of 40 days, i.e. on the 27th day of the third month.  During the first 40 days the full strength of the flood was maintained and was sufficient to cover the mountaintops to a depth of 15 amos (Genesis 7:20).  He also suggests that the word vayigburu in Genesis 7:24 means not that the waters strengthened but that the waters prevailed, i.e. that the waters had sufficient power that they did not decline appreciably until after the 150-day period had passed.  Nevertheless, during these 150 days the waters were already receding back into the “tehom (depths),” so that by the end of the 150-day period they had diminished sufficiently for the ark to rest upon a mountaintop.  This is exactly five months from the onset of the Flood.  He also assumes that the birds were sent out at seven-day intervals.  The text does not explicitly state that the dove was first sent out seven days after a raven had been sent out, although the Bible does mention that he waited yet another seven days (Genesis 8:10) with respect to sending out the dove a second time.

 

One needs to appreciate what Cassuto has achieved here.  He has integrated the 40 days of a J source with the 150 days of a P source and shown that they both fit neatly into the dating provided by the Bible.  Note in particular the 7th line of the table below (marked by an asterisk) in which the raven from a P source is sent out exactly 40 days from the tops of the mountains becoming visible, which also is a P source.  This 40-day period is found in a J sentence which is part of the chiastic structure and is also a J number.  Note also from the table that J sentences usually avoid dates.  Also how eviscerated the dating system becomes when P verses stand alone.  Moreover, in the J version, God discusses in His heart that He will never again destroy every living creature, but makes no formal commitment to mankind.  This covenant is only present in the P version.  In effect, the J version has eviscerated the story.  Ironically, it is only the “cut and paste” activities of the “redactor” that brings purpose back to the story.

There is another support for the unity of this story and this is the chiastic structures discussed in the previous section.  These structures are a complete mix of P and J sources.  In the second chiasmus discussed these proposed sources are indicated in square brackets.

 

Could a “redactor” have juggled these J and P sources to produce a story with such a natural flow and elegance?  It is possible– but not very likely.

 

Another very strong proof against source critique ideas as it pertains to the Noah story is Mesopotamian mythology!  The Noah story is based on a mythic story and its details are followed quite closely.  However, once the story is split into J and P sources most of this semblance is lost.  For example, both the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis myths mention the hero offering a sacrifice on his deliverance.  However, this is not present in the P version.  

 

There are many other arguments that can be raised against Biblical criticism in general.   The hypothesis assumes that whenever a group produced a new addition to the Bible the entire nation soon accepted it.  This is a highly unlikely scenario.  Writing a portion of the Bible may not be too much of a challenge, but getting it accepted most definitely is.  Moses needed a sound and light show on Mount Sinai and the guest appearance of God Himself to convince the people.  The Jewish people are natural doubters.  

 

Moreover, the entire people listened to God at Mount Sinai and not just one inspired individual.  It would be very difficult to keep such a tradition alive and passed down from generation to generation if it were untrue.  Someone somewhere would question the link.  There is, moreover, a specific Biblical prohibition against adding or subtracting to the Torah.  It is very difficult to believe that God-fearing Jews would deliberately violate this command to have their own portion added in.  

 

In one of his popular books, the influential Bible critic Richard Friedman notes that the Torah contains a pleasing “balance between the personal and the transcendent quality of the Deity.”   To Friedman this is coincidental and occurred with no intention on the part of the “redactor”. 26  The reality is very different: this balance is a fundamental construct of the Torah.  

 

But this does all lead to a fundamental question - why is the Bible, and particularly the Book of Genesis, written this way using a mixture of YKVK and Elokim sentences? 

 

At least two answers can be given:

 

YKVK is the tribal God of the Jewish people while Elokim is the God of all humanity.  Judaism is a tribal religion, but Jews are also priests to all of humanity.  Similarly, Abraham was the forefather of the Jewish people, but his name also means the father of a multitude of people.  There are two strains of thought existing within Judaism, the tribal and its service to all of humanity, and the beginning of these concepts is to be found in these two Biblical names of God.

 

Second, a single Deity being both immanent and transcendent at one and the same time was a radically new concept in the ancient world.  In our own time, we have no difficulty in oscillating from one perception of God to the other because we are very familiar with both aspects of God.  Most people can stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon in awe at Elokim’s creative powers, and the next moment turn and pray to YKVK.  We feel no dissonance because we are used to this oscillation.  But this was by no means the case in the ancient world.  The world needed to be educated about these two aspects of God and the Bible was the textbook. 

 

And it worked!

 

A new stage in the moral development of civilization

A passage in the Noah story has puzzled exegetes throughout the centuries since it seems to imply that nothing changed after the Flood, including man’s propensity to wickedness:

 

“YKVK smelled the pleasing aroma and YKVK said in his heart: I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing, as I have done.  Continuously, all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22) 

 

The Biblical commentary the Akeida formulates the problem in this way:

 

If man’s bad qualities brought about the Flood in the past, why should they not do so in the future?  Does God then play favorites?” 

 

An answer given by Midrashic and later commentators is that changes occurred in the nature of the world after the Flood that limited man’s ability to sin.  However, there are no changes mentioned specifically in the text, except that the fear of man would now be upon the animal kingdom. (Genesis 9:2-3)25   

 

To my mind, the most satisfactory explanation is that the aftermath of the Flood sets the scene for a new stage in the moral development of mankind.  Room was made for one particular family to flourish, expand and fill the earth, and eventually to provide moral guidance to mankind.  

An introduction to this branching family comes with the following albeit somewhat enigmatic passage:

 

Noah awoke from his wine and realized what his younger son had done to him.  And he said: “Cursed is Canaan, a slave of slave shall he be to his brothers.”  And he said: “Blessed is YKVK, the G-d of Shem, and Canaan shall be a slave to them.  May Elokim extend Japheth, and may He (he) dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:24) 

 

Many questions can be asked about these verses.  It was the younger brother Ham who saw his father naked and he was the one who told his two brothers (and possibly mocked his father in front of them).  Shem and Japheth subsequently cover him.  Why then did Noah curse his grandson Canaan who had nothing to do with this event?  Moreover, what did Ham do to his father?  

There is a sense from this passage that the event was so horrific that the Torah is loath to elaborate on it.  One Midrash suggests that he castrated him.  More likely is that he sodomized him.28  

 

And a further question - do individuals living at the time of the Bible really have the power to curse people, and why would God permit such a curse to be fulfilled? 

 

Although it is possible to regard this as a curse, there is an alternative suggestion, and this is that Noah’s words were not a curse at all - but a prophecy.29  Noah does not say: “Canaan will be cursed,” but “Canaan is cursed.”  It is a fact – Canaan is cursed.  

 

The Bible is pointing out that there is something morally abhorrent about the practices of Ham and his descendants, especially those of the Canaanites.  In fact, these practices are so abhorrent that the Bible feels it inappropriate to dwell upon them.  And most likely it is related to their sexual activities.  

 

The aberrant sexual practices of the Canaanites reached their peak at the time of the Israeli conquest, but was already evident in Ham.  Even at the time of Abraham pockets of extreme immorality existed amongst the Canaanites.  This is illustrated by the reception the three angels receive when they arrived in the Canaanite city of Sodom to inform Lot that his city and the neighboring city of Gomorrah are about to be destroyed and that he and his family should flee forthwith: 

 

“They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the people of Sodom, converged upon the house, from young to old, all the people from the end. And they called to Lot and said to him: “Where are the men who came to you tonight?  Bring them out to us that we may know them.” (Genesis 14:4-5)

 

This was not just a few individuals converging on Lot’s house to “know” (i.e. sodomize) the visiting angels, but “all” the people of the city.  Sodom was a city that was totally sexually perverted.

 

Another son of Noah was Japheth, the father of the Greek people:

 

May Elokim extend Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be a slave to them.”  (Genesis 9:27)

 

Western thought is a combination of the ideas of Greek philosophy together with the morals of the Jewish Bible.  As in the Noah passage above, Jewish morality and Greek ideas are capable of dwelling together.  Japheth’s relationship to Elokim is not described in the pages of the Bible.  However, the early Greek philosophers do develop the notion of a “primary cause,” and with the appearance of Christianity in the Roman empire there is further refinement in the Western perception of Elokim.   

 

Greek philosophy will develop a relationship with God, but it will be to Elokim, the universal God of mankind.  Moreover, the intensity of that relationship will never be the same as that of Shem’s.  Says Noah continuing in a prophetic vein:  

Blessed is YKVK, the G-d of Shem…..”  (Genesis 9:26)

 

Shem and his descendants are to possess a unique perception of YKVK, the God of relationships.  YKVK is the God who will soon reveal Himself to Abraham and his offspring, and who will eventually reveal Himself to Moses at the burning bush as the God of the Israelite people. 

 

Shem’s appearance on the world stage initiates a new stage in the moral development of mankind.  Shem is the answer to the depravity of the generation of the flood.  Immorality and unrighteousness will always exist in the world since “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 21).  But there is now an antidote to the natural tendencies of the world - a family destined to bring within it sparks of righteousness. 

 

Even from birth, Noah, the first-born son of Lemech and a descendent of Shem, had a special significance to his father: 

 

“And he called his name Noah (Noach), saying “This one will comfort us (yenachamenu) (יְנַחֲמֵנו) from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which YKVK had cursed.” (Genesis 5:29)

 

Agriculture in Mesopotamia was not easy.  Southern Iraq is a semi-arid desert, and it is only because of its large rivers, particularly the Euphrates River, that agriculture is possible.  However, to bring this water to its potentially fertile fields requires back-breaking trench-building work. 

 

The name Noah (Noach) is derived from the root nichem (נחם), and has the meaning of “to comfort”.  But it also has another meaning of “to regret, grieve or be sorry”.  That the same word should have two such different meanings might seem strange at first glance, but actually has considerable logic.  One only derives comfort from something that is undesirable.  The Torah will play on both these meanings.  

 

“I will dissolve Man whom I created from upon the face of the earth – from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I regret (nichamti) (נִחַמְתִּי) My having made them. And Noah (Noach) ( וְנֹחַ) found grace (chen) (חֵן) in the eyes of YKVK.” (Genesis 6:7-8)

 

Lemech assumed that the relief and comfort Noah was destined to provide was entirely a family matter.  God, however, saw matters much differently.  This individual Noah was a person with the potential to bring relief and comfort to the entire world. 

 

There is another world play here.  The letters of the word Noah (Noach) (נֹחַ) are the reverse of “chen” (חֵן) (grace).  Noah would provide “comfort” to the world because he found grace in the eyes of YKVK.  

“Then YKVK said to Noah: “Come to the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I have seen to be righteous before Me in this generation.” (Genesis 7:1)

 

The hallmark of Noah was righteousness in a generation totally devoid of righteousness.  Moreover, within several generations, a new chapter in the history of the descendants of Shem will occur when Abraham will receive a call from YKVK to leave his homeland and make his way to Israel to become the progenitor of a nation destined and worthy of becoming a moral beacon to the rest of humanity. 

 

Conclusions

 

It is highly likely that the story of Noah and his flood is based on a Mesopotamian flood story.  In the culture of Mesopotamia no new religion could be promoted without a flood story, and the Bible used its own flood story to negate the pagan ideas of the surrounding cultures and to promote new and radical religious ideas – the power of a single God over nature’s elements, the importance of righteousness for the continuing existence of humanity, and the role of Shem’s descendants for the moral future of mankind. 

 Does this mean that Noah is a fictitious character and that the Torah deliberately made up history to deceive its followers?  Most assuredly not.  People at that time were familiar with the Gilgamesh myth and would have readily appreciated the intention of the Torah.  Moreover, it is likely that an exceptionally righteous person named Noah did exist in ancient times and that his offspring populated all or much of the Near East.  The Gilgamesh myth is also based on a great true-life individual living at the beginnings of civilization.  

 

Nevertheless, it is notable that the Pentateuch does not refer again to Noah, whereas the merit of the forefathers is mentioned time after time.  Their historicity is of a very different nature to that of Noah’s.

 

References

1.  Midrash Raba 33:6

2.  The Flood in Understanding Genesis by Nahum S Sarna, p37. The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Schocken Books, New York, First paperback edition 1970.

3.   Section One, The Flood in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham by U Cassuto, p3. First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel.  

4.   Atrahasis tablet II, SBV iii in The Flood, Gilgamesh and Other in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley, p21, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

5.   Rashi to Genesis 6:11 and Midrash Rabbah, Genesis XXXI:1.

6.   Act One, The Punishment in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham, V19-XI32 by U Cassuto, p52,  First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel.

7.   Gilgamesh Tablet XI in The Flood, Gilgamesh and Other in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley, i, p110, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

8.   Maimonides Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:6.

9.  Gilgamesh, tablet XI in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, ii, p111, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

10. Gilgamesh, tablet XI in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, ii, p112, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

11. Gilgamesh, tablet XI in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley, iii, p113, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

12. Gilgamesh, tablet XI in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley. iv, p115, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

13. The Names of God Rabbi in The Koren Siddur by Sir Jonathan Sacks, pxiv, Koren  Publishers, Jerusalem, Israel, First Hebrew/ English Edition, 2009. 

14. Gilgamesh, tablet XI in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others by Stephanie Dalley. iv, p113-114, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

15. Twelfth paragraph: the Sign of the Covenant in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham by U Cassuto, p134, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel.

16.  Wenham Gordon J. The coherence of the flood narrative. VT 28 (1977); 336-348, and discussed in Isaac M Kikawada and Arthur Quinn. A Provocative Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis. Before Abraham Was. Chapter IV, One Noah, One Flood, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, original edition 1985.

17. Lecture 3, More about the Divine Names in the Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto, p40, Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York, 2006.  Also Sifre Numbers 143.

18.   Rashi to Exodus 18:1. 

19.  According to Rashi to Exodus 18:12 that is based on a Mechilta, Moses was serving the meal to his father-in-law, and this is why he is not mentioned.

20. Introduction 6 in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham, A Commentary on Genesis V19-XI32 by U Cassuto, p36, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel.

21.  The Midrash Genesis Rabah 33:7 assumes that the 150 days follow the first 40 days of flooding.   However, if this were the case, the ark would have rested on Mount Ararat too early, on the 17th of the 7th month, when the waters were still engorging.  The Midrash resolves this problem by reinterpreting the seventh month to mean not the 7th month of the year, but the 7th month from the beginning of the flood, which would be the 17th day of the 9th month, i.e. one month later.  Following a strict lunar calendar, the flood would then have ended on the 1st of the 9th month, and during this 16 day period the waters would have subsided sufficiently for the ark to come to rest on Mount Ararat.

22.  Nachaminides to Genesis 8:5.  Nachmanides has a problem with the interpretation of the Midrash, since it seems to deviate from the plain meaning of the text, especially as the Midrash will go back to using the normal months of the year a few verses later (Genesis 8:13).  This leads him to the interpretation that the 40 days of the flood are included within the 150 days.  Hence, the rain commenced on the 17th of the 2nd month and 150 days later (i.e. 5 months later) on the 17th of the 7th month the ark came to rest.  On that very day “G-d caused a spirit to pass over the earth and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1), with the waters subsiding from being 15 amos above the mountains to an amount sufficient for the ark to come to rest on Ararat.  Nachmanides assumes that the waters started to abate from the time the ark rested on Ararat.  

23.  7 The Chronology of the Flood, in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham, A Commentary on Genesis V19-XI32 by U Cassuto, p43, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel. 

24.  Bereishis Rabba 33:7.   See also Rashi to Genesis 8:13.  

25.  Rashi to Genesis 8:14.  A regular solar year is 365 days.  A regular lunar year, in which 6 months have 29 days each and 6 months have 30 days each, contains 354 days.

26. Chapter 14 The World that the Bible Produced in Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.  

For political intrigue - this is excellent reading.  If you want religion – turn elsewhere.  

27. Based on the Bible’s comments about the consistency of the seasons, Bereishis Rabba 34 suggests that climatic changes after the Flood would limit man’s ability to sin, since he would no longer be able to move swiftly from one part of the world to the other.  Another change mentioned in the Torah is that after the Flood man was permitted to eat meat, whereas previously he had been a vegetarian. This may relate to a change in man’s role in the world, in that he no longer has complete sovereignty over the animal world and to an extent is now part of it.  Whether these changes were sufficient to prevent another Flood situation can be questioned.

28.  Rashi to Genesis 9:22 based on TB Sanhedrin 70a.

29. The Story of Cain and Abel, Introduction, p192 in “A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One. From Adam to Noah” by U Cassuto, p192, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem 91076, Israel. 

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