The Flood Story of Genesis 6-9

A universal Flood couldn't have happened for so many reasons that I don't know where to start. Let's start with the story itself.

The first thing to notice in the story is that there is a great deal of repetition. We are told that Noah is commanded by God to make an ark, load it with food and animals, and then board it. Afterward it says Noah “did everything just as God had commanded him.” (6:14-22). But after doing all of this once, God repeats similar instructions to Noah, and once again it says Noah “did all that the Lord had commanded him.” (7:1-5). Did Noah make two arks and board them twice? But we’re not done yet. It goes on to say Noah and his family boarded the ark again (7:7-9), and again (7:13-16).

There are also discrepancies in these chapters. In 6:14-22 God is referred to as “Elohim”, and only one pair of each species of animal was put in the ark, whereas in 7:1-5 the word for God is “Yahweh” and Noah is told to put in the ark seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. There are also discrepancies with how long the flood lasted: 40 days (7:17), 150 days (7:24), or one year (compare 7:11 with 8:13)?

Biblical scholars now see the way the flood is presented here as reflecting two ancient sources that were combined into one account. This was done by “following a very conservative principle of keeping virtually everything from both sources, even though that produced considerable repetition” and, I might add, discrepancies. Donald Gowan, From Eden to Babel: Genesis 1-11 (Eerdmans, 1988, p. 89).

The closest stories we find to the flood story in the Bible are from Mesopotamia: the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis. According to Gordon J. Wenham the Epic of Gilgamesh was written about 1600 B.C. and it “may be based on the flood story told in Atrahasis.” These stories have several striking similarities, including a flood hero, an ark, a universal worldwide flood because of man’s disobedience, and even a dove! [See “Ancient Parallels to the Flood Story,” in Gordon Wenham’s book, Genesis 1-15 (Word, 1987, pp. 159-166). “These texts are evidence for the transmission of a very popular story from century to century and from people to people; among the recipients of this tradition were the Greeks and the Hebrews.” (Gowan, p. 91).

If this is the case, then the flood story in the Bible is taken and reshaped to fit the purposes of the final editor of Genesis 1-11. And if we consider prior sources to be the more authentic sources (and historical scholars consider this to be the case in every other historical investigation), then the true account of the flood (if there is one, and it reflects something that historically happened) is to be found in Atrahasis along with the Epic of Gilgamesh! Genesis 6-9 is very late and therefore unreliable, historical analysis would reveal. Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh would be our primary sources for information about a great universal flood that covered the whole world. And in them neither a person named Noah, nor a God named “Yaweh,” are to be found!

How much of the flood story that we find in the Bible can be regarded as historical, if it is based upon ancient superstitious polytheistic folk-tales which were handed down throughout the centuries?—tales which have been told by almost every ancient culture except most of Africa, and in central and eastern Asia? [To read 97 pages of summaries of these tales see Sir James G. Frazer’s book, Folklore in the Old Testament]. Textual analysis cannot really lead us to think all of these tales speak of the same event. Rather, these tales are told based upon local devastating floods (notice the absence of Egypt!) which most ancient cultures believed were sent by the gods to punish people for their disobedience. We now know why floods take place, and it isn’t because of our sins, but because of atmospheric, and oceanic conditions.

Problems Connected to the Flood Story. Bernard Ramm’s critical analysis of a universal flood (while dated a half century ago) is still one of the best summations of the evidence. [See Bernard Ramm’s book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Eerdmans, 1954, pp. 163-169). 1) “There is no known geological data to support those who defend a universal flood.”

Gowan sums up the available evidence with these words: “Not only have all archeological excavations failed to uncover any such evidence (for a universal flood), the record of the earth’s history discovered by geology virtually rules out the possibility that anything of that sort has ever happened.” (p. 89). [There is a recent discovery by Robert Ballard that the Black Sea shoreline increased by 60,000 square miles around 7,500 years ago. But he admits this could have been the result of an earthquake, a massive storm, or perhaps the sheer weight of the ocean waters, none of which demands a worldwide flood (See U.S. News & World Report “Mysteries of the Bible," November 2004)].

2) “The problems in connection with a universal flood are enormous.” a) “It would have required eight times more water than we now have.” b) The mixing of salt water and fresh water along with the pressure of the waters would have been devastating to marine life. Fresh-water fish would die in salt water and salt-water fish would die in fresh water. The pressure of the water six miles high (to cover the Himalayas) would crush to death the vast bulk of marine life that lives within the first fifty fathoms in the water. c) Getting rid of such a vast amount of water would be impossible—think of it! d) “The astronomical disturbances caused by the increase of the mass of the earth would have been significant.” e) There are improbabilities with regard to the animals involved. How did Noah get them all into the ark? Bringing them from all four corners of the globe would take considerable time. How did they get along in the ark? Some are carnivorous and would be prone to eating the other animals, while others would have vegetarian diets. Where did the food come from to feed all of these animals from around the world? How could a few people care for them all in the ark? Some animals need a moist climate, and others a dry one; some need it very cold, while others need it warm. f) After the flood how did these animals all migrate back to their original lands, like the kangaroo, from Australia?

There was no universal flood to discount the geological evidence that leads scientists to believe the earth is billions of years old. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Scholars are agreed that archaeological evidence for a universal flood in the historical past is wanting.”

First posted 2/8/06

13 comments:

Zachary Moore said...

John-

Great post. I did something similar with the Ten Commandments narrative. Although the PDF file linked there is no longer working, the text is still up on Jason Gastrich's Inerrancy.com forum.

The Jewish Freak said...

JWL: Regarding your the quote from the Anchor Bible Dictionary, it is not accurate to say that the evidence is wanting; the evidence is in fact against a global flood as literally understood in the bible.

John W. Loftus said...

Okay, but think of it, a great Bible dictionary from a scholarly Christian source says that the evidence is "wanting." Even Christian scholarship sees the problem!

Anonymous said...

John,

You said: "The closest stories we find to the flood story in the Bible are from Mesopotamia: the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis. According to Gordon J. Wenham the Epic of Gilgamesh was written about 1600 A.D. and it “may be based on the flood story told in Atrahasis.”

Is this date correct? Maybe B.C.?

John W. Loftus said...

From 1600 A.D. to 1600 B.C. with the pounding of the keys...thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the entire planet being flooded is obviously false. But everyone seems to be forgetting that around 11,000 years ago the last ice-age ended and indeed the waters across the globe did rise. Most coastal villages would have been flooded. Handed down tales of these floods survived and became the flood myths we know of today, told all around the world by every culture. Why does everyone ignore this fact? No the whole world was not covered by water, but there is a basis to the flood myths, they have just been exaggerated.

Sharon Mooney said...

Curious verse in Genesis.

Shortly following the departure from the Ark, the descendants of Noah are recorded to have spread out to new settlements:
Genesis 10: 5, By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided [presuming, the "Gentile" were not survivors of the flood] in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.

question arises (presuming Gen. 11:1 is correct, 'the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.') Yet the verse in question states, "every one after his tongue". How exactly is land divided, when there is only one tongue, language, speech?

Have I missed something in the translation?

Tommykey said...

What is really ridiculous about the flood story is the bizarre way that God goes about in cleansing the Earth of the wicked. Since he is the all powerful creator of the universe, surely all he had to do was to make the wicked people spontaneously combust!

And without getting into the details, the ark would have stunk something fierce from all of the animal waste. Noah's family would have had to work 24/7 throughout their entire stay on the boat shovelling all of that shit.

Since early agricultural societies would have been near rivers and other bodies of water, it would only make sense that cultures throughout the world would have their own flood myths. That does not mean that their ancestors all encountered the same worldwide flood.

Mark Plus said...

The organisms which form coral reefs can live only in shallow subtropical or tropical waters, and they build up the reefs at a rate of only a few centimeters a year. Piling miles of water on top the world's coral reefs would have caused the extinction of all these organisms, and we'd see only the remains of dead reefs now.

Chris said...

If you pick up a copy of "The Bible with Sources Revealed", by Richard Elliott Friedman, you can read each of the intertwined stories separately. Friedman has color coded each of the source threads in the pentateuch as best he was able to identify them. That is, J, E, P, D and the subsequent redactor. This book is highly recommended, as are his other books on the topic, "Who Wrote the Bible?" and "The Hidden Book in the Bible".

The flood story is to me the single best illustration of the presence of multiple sources composing the Pentateuch. When you read the J and P threads separately, they not only are complete stand-alone stories that make sense on their own, but every single discrepancy is completely eliminated. Seeing this, I'm simply astounded that there are those who can see this and still steadfastly believe that Moses single-handedly wrote the Pentateuch. As J.P. Moreland says in his references to every book that comes out in support of the Documentary Hypothesis, "JEPD is dead". I can only imagine what sort of mental gymnastics he must be doing to keep repeating this mantra.

As if the flood story alone wasn't compelling enough, Friedman lists in the appendix to "The Bible with Sources Revealed" a staggering array of independent lines of data that all converge on this same conclusion. It's sort of like evolution -- there are so many independent pieces of data that converge on the same conclusion, yet mental gymnastics are employed by some to avoid this.

Good writeup. I'm a textual studies junkie and I really love this sort of article.

EW said...

Before you say there's no evidence of a flood, please take a look at a Creationist's point of view and his researched evidence.
Dr. Ken Ham and Dr. Kent Hovind both put out DVDs that'll at least make you think about Creation and a Flood.

Do you have an open mind ?

Chris Jones said...

I generally do hate to be dismissive, but I'm going to be dismissive in this case. Hovind and Ham aren't unfamiliar to me. They're 100% at odds with the relevant fields of science. You're seriously going to go with the "are you open minded" thing, as if you or Hovind or Ham are actually the least bit open minded with respect to the relevant fields of science?

I'd suppose that I've given more of a hearing to the claims from these guys (I was a Southern Baptist for roughly 25 years, but that's neither here nor there) than should reasonably be due. I have put a great deal of time into their arguments in favor of a global flood and don't personally intend to spend even more time ordering and watching DVDs that will only rehash the same nonscientific mistakes that I've already heard. They aren't compelling unless you've already reached a theological commitment to biblical inerrancy and cannot fathom the possibility that reality may not line up well with these particular stories. I'd suspect that the other contributors here are likewise familiar and need not be subjected to more of the same.

Do give some thought to that "open minded" question and see how far you're willing to go with it yourself. How much time are you willing to put into working through the claims of the geocentrists, who believe the sun, stars and other planets to orbit the Earth? Those people are making a comeback recently, and they're serious. How about the astrologers? What about the holocaust deniers? The "Flat Earth Society"? Voodoo? Do you dismiss these things out of hand, or do you go obtain books and videos from each group and try working carefully through all of the evidence each has to offer? If you haven't done that and you've rejected their conclusions, it may be time for you to figure out exactly why you've done that.

Don't even get me started on the heap of philosophical absurdities that are implicit in the story.

You're quite late in joining this discussion, as the most recent post had been written nearly a year ago and it's just sheer chance that I happened to have flagged it for e-mail notification and may have been the only one to have done so.

As with someone who might show up arguing for geocentricism, flat earthism, holocaust denial, astrology, or voodoo, I have no intention of investing more time in ongoing argument over a patently nonscientific defense of a 3,700 year old ancient near eastern folk tale. Just take this as a long-winded way of saying, "those guys are totally off the deep end and there is nothing of substance to investigate or argue over".

Chris Jones said...

Hovind and Ham aren't unfamiliar to me. They're at odds with the relevant science. You're going to go with the "are you open minded" question, as if you or Hovind or Ham are open minded with respect to the relevant fields of science?

I've given more of a hearing to the claims from these guys (Southern Baptist for 25 years) than should reasonably be due. I have put a great deal of time into their arguments in favor of a global flood and don't intend to spend even more time ordering and watching DVDs that will only rehash the same errors that I've already heard. They aren't compelling unless you've already reached a theological commitment to biblical inerrancy and cannot fathom that reality may not line up well with these particular stories. I'd suspect that the other contributors here are likewise familiar and need not be subjected to more of the same.

Give some thought to that "open minded" question and see how far you're willing to go with it yourself. How much time do you put into working through the claims of the geocentrists, who believe the sun, stars and other planets to orbit the Earth? Those people are making a comeback recently, and they're serious. How about the astrologers? What about the holocaust deniers? The "Flat Earth Society"? Voodoo? Do you dismiss these things out of hand, or do you go obtain books and videos from each group and try working carefully through all of the evidence each has to offer? If you haven't done that and you've rejected their conclusions, it may be time for you to figure out exactly why you've done that.

Don't even get me started on the heap of philosophical absurdities that are implicit in the story.

You're quite late in joining this discussion, as the most recent post had been written nearly a year ago and it's just sheer chance that I happened to have flagged it for e-mail notification and may have been the only one to have done so.

As with someone who might show up arguing for geocentricism, flat earthism, holocaust denial, astrology, or voodoo, I have no intention of investing more time in ongoing argument over a patently nonscientific defense of a 3,700 year old ancient near eastern folk tale. Just take this as a long-winded way of saying, "those guys are totally off the deep end and there is nothing of substance to investigate or argue over".