The story of Noah’s Flood is particularly thorny when we insist on reading Genesis from a narrowly historical perspective. (See the recent series of posts on Robin Parry’s blog, Theological Scribbles, asking, “Did Noah’s Flood Happen” [historical overview; evidence says “no”; theological reflections (I); and theological reflections (II)]; nb: Parry, like me, is committed to the Bible and its message.) I’m not here claiming that the Flood didn’t happen, but I am trying to nestle into the space between the event to which the text bears witness and the discursive and narratological maneuvers through which the text bears that witness. In other words (and this is important here; if you don’t understand this you won’t understand the rest of the post), I’m not here making claims about the Flood as an historical event but rather about the Flood as a literary event. My focus here is not the deluge that happened sometime around 2300 BCE (for the young-earthers) or in primeval history (for, basically, everyone else); my focus is on the deluge that happens in Gen. 6.1–9.17. As ever, let me start with some observations.
- 1. My spidey senses are triggered from the very first verse (again, not about historical problems but rather about literary ones, viz., that the way the Flood narrative is told differs significantly from the way twenty-first century Americans narrate the world around them). The account begins, “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose” (Gen. 6.1–2). Had I started reading Genesis here rather than at 1.1, this verse would make me suspect that, up to this point in history, all children were sons. Indeed, in some significant ways this is exactly what we found in Genesis 1–5; remember that, except for Eve and Lamech’s wives, there were no named females in the opening five chapters, and the only words to come from a female character thus far were Eve’s tragic conversation with the serpent (3.1–5) and her self-serving deferral to said serpent (3.13). Even so, the text is sufficiently clear that the sudden appearance of “daughters of men” in 6.4 is not an historical appearance but rather a narratological one.
- 2. The Flood is God’s response to the epic increase in humanity’s sin (cf. Gen. 6.5), such that we find the shocking declaration, “The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” (6.6–7). What a dramatic moment in the story, especially when we remember that this humanity [האדם; ha’adam; twice in 6.6–7] that God now rues is his own image! The marker that God put in his creation as a sign of his sovereignty over the universe brings sorrow and grief to the Creator’s heart. The icon that God placed in the garden as an authority over the whole creation no longer turns creation’s gaze heavenward.
- 3. Significantly, in light of the previous point, I was surprised that God’s judgment against humanity is meted out upon the whole creation. I guess this makes perfect sense, given the connection between creation-ha’adam-Creator; these are so intricately symbiotic that catastrophe for one is catastrophe for them all. And the Flood is catastrophic not just for creation and humanity but for God himself, who nearly weeps throughout this whole episode. Even so, the expansion from “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” to include “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air” (6.7) is shocking. Why must the water buffalo innocently grazing in the savannah suffer the condemnation incurred by humanity’s wickedness and evil? The narrative doesn’t address this question; as before (cf. my earlier comments on Gen. 4.3–5), I suspect the text’s opacity stems from its status as a “high-context narrative.”
- 4. I think the most intriguing comment of the Flood narrative is found in Gen. 6.9: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (my emphasis). This same language was used of Enoch in 5.24, where Enoch was taken up by God. Obviously the idea of “walking with God” is an honorific (hence its infrequent use). In both passages the LXX doesn’t provide a literal translation [περιπατέω; peripateō = “I walk”] but instead reads that they were “well-pleasing to God” [εὐηρέστησεν τῷ θεῷ; euērestēsen tō theō]. This is not the same Greek word that is used of Jesus after his baptism and at the Transfiguration, but it is conceptually similar [εὐδοκέω; eudokeō].
- 5. It seems to me that the patterns according to which the story uses universal language are also surprising. Words like “all,” “every,” and “whole” [כל; kol] pepper the narrative (e.g., at 6.5, 12, 13, 17 [twice], 19 [thrice], 20 [twice], 21; 7.2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 14 [six times!], 15, 19 [thrice], 21 [thrice], 22, 23). Indeed, this language is an important part of the argument for a literal, global Flood. But the text itself demands us not to push the significance of this language too far. As an example, God announces to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh [כל־בשר; kol-baśar; LXX = πάντος ἀνθρώπου; pantos anthrōpou], for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth” (6.13). But the destruction of all flesh is precisely what God does not mean here, since his entire conversation with Noah is expressly for the purpose of intervening and saving the life of Noah, his family, and his cargo (which certainly comprise a portion of “all flesh”)! A significant amount of the kol language in Genesis 6–7 falls under this category (e.g., 6.17; 7.4, 21, 22, 23). An even more significant portion of the kol language describes Noah’s rescue of “every” living thing, kind of bird, etc. Should the not-quite-universal connotations of the first use of kol be applied to the second use? I’m not sure. Even more significant is the statement at 7.19: “The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains [כל־ההרים הגבהים; kol-heharim haggebohim] under the whole heaven [כל־השמים; kol-haššamayim] were covered.” Should these uses of kol be pressed universally? Perhaps; perhaps not. The appearance of the “freshly plucked olive leaf” in 8.11 makes me think probably not; here we find flora that survived the deluge that so emphatically killed all the fauna. I’m not sure how that works, but I am confident that the this language is not as clear-cut as some would like. [NB: Again, I’m not making an argument about whether the Flood, as an event in history, was or was not a global phenomenon; rather, I’m asking whether the text intends us to understand its language — here, kol — universally or hyperbolically. And it will not due to dismiss the possibility of hyperbole here as “watering down” the narrative; I’m not aware of anyone who would seriously (let alone convincingly) suggest that Jesus’ own use of hyperbolic language in the Sermon on the Mount was “watered down.”]
- 6. If I’m being polemical, I think the Flood narrative also illustrates the contextual and situational (rather than systemic, at least as some understand the term) nature of theology. I have in mind the notice at 7.1, where God tells Noah, “I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation,” a comment that fits well with what we read of Job, and even David, and even Paul. But this jars with a too-strong reading of Psa. 14//Psa. 53 and the catena in Rom. 3.8–18. As in the previous point, the statement that “There is no one who does good” (Psa. 14.3//Psa. 53.3) should not be pressed too literally, especially since the point of the psalmist’s lament seems to be that there is none who do good other than Israel. We should recognize that it is the situation that warrants the declaration of Noah’s (or David’s, or Paul’s) righteousness or of humanity’s depravity, rather than some ontological status revealed by God.
Six points may be five too many, so I’ll draw it to a close. Once again we find the tension between God’s judgment and God’s mercy pervasive in the text. Recall our discussion of Cain; who was both protected by God and yet removed from him. That tension only increases in the Flood narrative: God destroys the “whole earth” and enters into covenant with creation (Gen. 8.20–22; 9.8–17). Similarly (though not exactly the same), immediately after the climactic judgment of human sinfulness we find an affirmation of humanity as the bearers of God’s image: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen. 9.6; my emphasis). Sin has marred the image of God (cf. 6.6–7), but God has redeemed that image. With judgment comes vindication — judgment against sin and those who oppress God’s people (to use an image from later in the biblical narrative), but vindication of those who trust in his name and are obedient to his command.