26. Genesis 7:1 to 8:19

II. A. continued

3. The Flood (Genesis 7:1 – 8:19)

Before we consider the historicity of the Flood, let’s look at the details given in this account. The ark was approximately 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, with three decks each 15 feet tall. As a building project for one family of four men working alone, it was enormous. They must have been good carpenters, and spreading such a project over as much as one hundred and twenty years may have been necessary. We need not suppose that Noah took a pair of every species of animal and bird in the world, particularly if the Flood was local (I’ll discuss this shortly). On the contrary, the idea seems more likely to have been to preserve every type of animal and bird in a more general sense, a kind of owl, a kind of bear, a kind of deer, etc. The ark came to rest in the mountains of Ararat, not necessarily on Mt. Ararat itself. Babylonian tradition, for example, claims that the ark came to rest on Mt. Nisir. Noah was given as being 600 years old at the Flood and 500 years old by the time his three sons had been born, with no information about the relative ages of Shem, Ham, and Jepheth. These numbers are clearly rounded off. The sons were all about a hundred years old, all married and at the normal age, in those days, for begetting children, though apparently all still childless.

Noah and his family were in the ark for just over a year. The Flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month and Noah finally left the ark on the 27th day of the 2nd month of the following year, Noah’s 601st. It is odd that calendar dates were given for the Flood. We don’t know how early in human history the sky was used to organize the year and name its parts. This passage of Genesis implies that astronomy predated the Flood, and that some human knowledge was preserved through the Flood. The account given here could not be using a later calendar system extrapolated back to Noah’s life; it must have been a calendar developed before the Flood  and preserved in the oral tradition through Noah’s own knowledge. Furthermore, verses 7:11 and 8:3,4 show that the calendar he used divided the year into months of thirty days each. This was not a lunar calendar like the early Sumerian calendar, the oldest calendar known. A lunar calendar must have months averaging 29½ days, from new moon to new moon. The Sumerians, and the Hebrews after them, alternated 29 day months with 30 day months and in addition, to make the calendar match the sky, they varied the number of months in the year, sometimes 12 and sometimes 13.  The Egyptians, who came much later in a distant land, did use a month of 30 days, but then made it match the sky by inserting five extra days named for five of their gods. Hence the dating given in this part of Genesis appears to be using a less sophisticated calendar, something older than the more accurate later calendars of recorded history.

For 40 days it rained, and for another 110 days the world was covered in water, 20 to 25 feet above the tallest mountains – whether the whole world or only the Middle East we will discuss shortly. After this the ark came to rest and there were about 220 days after the ark landed until everyone finally went out. It was not until the 1st day of the 10th month, 73 days after the ark landed, that they could see other mountains in the distance. Forty days later, on the 10th day of the 11th month Noah sent out the raven and then the dove for the first time and the dove returned with nothing. He sent it out again on the 17th day of the 11th month and this time it brought back an olive leaf. Finally he sent it out on the 24th day of the 11th month and it did not come back at all. We will consider why he sent the birds out later on.

Still he waited another 36 days before removing the covering from the ark and looking at the dry ground. The covering was probably a door on the roof of the top deck so they could stand on top of the ark in the open air. Even so, knowing the ground to be dry, he did not leave the ark for another 57 days. This is an oddly important fact that we will consider more closely later. All of these details may have had a larger metaphorical meaning, but it would require a much larger book and a different author to explore. The early Christians believed that all of the details were symbolic. Though I do believe symbolism is critical to understanding the Bible, it would go against my purpose to get too carried away with it, and it should never be allowed to hide the more literal meaning in any case. It is the literal meaning I am aiming at, both the factual aspects and the more obvious metaphorical aspects of the literal meaning.

There is some variety in ancient flood stories and it is enlightening to consider them along with the biblical account. The Sumerians had three or four versions, and other nations had their own versions. One of the Sumerian versions is the most interesting and detailed non-biblical account. In it, there was a council of gods that decided to destroy mankind, a decision bitterly contested by a minority of them. Enki and a few other gods saw that people were much too valuable as slaves to lose; without us the gods would have had to go back to hunting and preparing their own food. So Enki warned the king, Ziusudra, to build a big boat. This flood lasted seven days. In one version, the sin of mankind, for  which the whole race was to be destroyed, was that we were so noisy that we kept one of the older gods awake; he decided to kill us all to get some peace and quiet. Ziusudra was chosen because of his piety (he was a good slave, attentive to his god’s needs) to save a few people and animals. Afterward, Ziusudra was rewarded for his piety and obedience with the gift of immortality and a permanent home in paradise.

This story is typical of the ancient myths. Except for the common idea of a great flood, there is little similarity between the myths and the Bible, but the differences between the two are particularly revealing. First, only the Bible gives anything like a legitimate reason for sending a Flood; the myths always credit it to some trivial reason. Only the Bible portrays  God as other than a selfish and petty man. Only the Bible portrays the hero/deliverer as an ordinary man. Ziusudra (the Sumerian hero) and Utnapishtim (the Akkadian hero) were kings and priests; after the flood, they were rewarded for their piety with the appropriate god-like gifts of immortality and a home in paradise. In contrast, Noah had no status worth mentioning.  The Bible portrays Noah as simply a good man (without detailing what made him good) building the ark and  an altar and then lapsing into an embarrassing episode of drunkenness; not the stuff of dramatic fiction, certainly not inspiring or noble.  And then, confounding our expectations, no particular reward was given to him after the Flood; he just got off having to drown. Lastly, the Bible insisted on including the boring details: measurements, dates, ages, the sort of stuff that good stories and myths are not interested in. The biblical version of the Flood is the most matter of fact and unadorned of all the accounts. On the face of it, if there was a Flood to describe, the Bible is the most straight-forward and least super-natural account of the facts. Setting aside the question of when and where the Flood may have occurred for the moment, what can we make of the question: did the Flood occur at all?

First it must be stated that there is no evidence geologically for a world-wide Flood, though I don’t consider the lack of evidence conclusive of anything. There is some evidence of a catastrophic flood over a large portion of the Middle East. The lack of proof will not dissuade those who are inclined to believe the Bible and will seem more conclusive than it is to those who are inclined to disbelieve the Bible. What about the widespread occurrence of Flood stories in mythology? Again, those who are inclined to disbelieve the Bible will conclude that the biblical account is just one of many and therefore no more to be taken seriously than they are; those who are inclined to believe the Bible will argue that multiple versions of the same story indicate  that something occurred to cause them all; they would then point out the differences between the biblical and mythical accounts (as I have done) and conclude that the Bible is by far the most believable. In other words, our conclusions are our assumptions; we believe or we disbelieve as we did when we began to think about the question.

I follow the second line of thinking. Multiple accounts do suggest a common source for the stories, but they do not imply that they are all fictional. The simplest hypothesis for a common source to the stories is that something like a Flood did happen and the tradition of it was handed down in stories around the campfires for dozens or hundreds of generations. And if something like the Flood did happen, then one account or another is the closest to the facts of the matter. If nothing like the Flood did happen, then the invention of the story of a Flood was the earliest of myths and its near universality in mythology over so many cultures is unique in the ancient world. Where could such a story have come from? What is the source of its hold on the human imagination? How did it get so widespread? The possibility that all the stories derive from an actual event is too easily dismissed, and too casually dismissed, to have been carefully considered.


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