By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Biblical account of the Flood, in the Book of Genesis, is similar to the older Babylonian accounts of a Great Flood. These texts, written much earlier, include the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem which predates Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the earliest Old Testament accounts, by more than a millennium.
It’s possible, therefore, that despite the difference in time periods, the Flood recorded in the Gilgamesh story and the Flood from the Book of Genesis are fictionalised versions of a real event which took place in the Middle East thousands of years ago, the memory of which was preserved through first oral and then written accounts (a Black Sea Deluge some 7,500 years ago has been proposed as one candidate for the Great Flood).
Noah and the Flood: summary
God looked down on the human race and saw wickedness, violence, and evil everywhere (Genesis 6:5). He decided to destroy all living things on the earth, except for Noah, who had ‘found grace in the eyes of the LORD’ (Genesis 6:8).
God instructed Noah (Genesis 6:14–16) to build an Ark that is 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. How long a ‘cubit’ precisely is in this context has been disputed: although a common cubit was said to be 18 inches (the length of a man’s arm from elbow to fingertip), it’s been argued that ‘sacred’ cubits were several inches longer than this.
God then instructed Noah (Genesis 6:19-20) to take ‘two of every sort’ of animal into the ark, so that whilst the other animals would be wiped out, each species would be preserved through these two specimens. (Though see our analysis below on the number of each animal.)
When Noah was 600 years old, God released the rains that lasted for forty days and nights, causing the Flood. Noah and his wife, sons, and their wives, along with the animals he had taken aboard the ark, were spared the Flood and survived.
But every living thing outside of the ark was destroyed in the waters of the Flood. The ark eventually came to rest on the ‘mountains of Ararat’ (Genesis 8:4) – not Mount Ararat, as is often supposed, because there was no such mountain (Ararat was a region, not a mountain, although Ararat is now the name of a peak in Turkey).
When the waters receded, Noah sent a raven out of the ark to search for dry land, and then a dove. The dove returned, so Noah waited a week and then sent it out again. This happened several times before the dove eventually returned with an olive branch in its mouth: a symbol of peace ever since.
In 9:13 God showed Noah the rainbow he had set in the clouds, which he told Noah was his covenant with man, that he would never flood the earth again.
Noah and the Flood: analysis
In Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of the Flood symbolises God’s punishment of sin among mankind. He decides to destroy all of man except for Noah and his family, because Noah alone among men had lived a life free from sin and evil. Noah and his descendants thus mark the beginning of a new relationship between God and man, with the rainbow symbolising God’s promise not to flood again.
This ‘covenant’ paves the way for the New Testament and Jesus Christ, whose covenant with mankind will be even more pronounced, since Jesus will sacrifice himself for all humans, to redeem their sins.
The moral meaning or moral message of the Flood story might be interpreted, then, as a warning about the dangers of evil: life is a rare gift, and it is squandered if man spends his lifespan engaged in violence and corruption. (The reason the poor animals have to be drowned as well, as it is often stated, is that these were created by God for the purpose of man; if man is to be drowned, there is no point in having all the fish of the sea and the fowls of the air to benefit him. Although how the fish ‘drowned’ has always been one of the potential plot holes in such a flood story.)
We mentioned at the start of this post that the Judeo-Christian account of the Flood and the Babylonian story share a number of features. In the Atrakhasis Epic, Atrakhasis is the Noah figure, whom the gods warn about their plans to flood the world, instructing him to build a boat on which he and his family, and their animals, can take shelter and be spared from the waters.
The gods here (the Babylonians were polytheistic, and the Flood was a team effort on their part) also promise Atrakhasis and his descendants that they will not flood the world again, although their motives are less noble than Yahweh’s in the Judeo-Christian version: they were growing hungry, since the sacrifices humans offered to them had naturally stopped when they drowned everyone.
Curiously, the raven and the dove also feature in the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh. The ‘Noah’ figure releases a dove to find land, but it merely circles the area and returns. After the dove’s failures, he releases the raven, and when the bird doesn’t return, he concludes that it’s found land. This is a reversal of what happens in the Biblical account of the Flood (in Genesis 8:6-12):
And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
How long did the Flood last? ‘For 40 days and 40 nights’, every Christian will surely reply. But this isn’t what Genesis tells us. Or rather, it is and it isn’t: the Flood lasted 40 days according to Genesis 7:17, but for 150 days according to 7:24. This is one of several inconsistencies in the Biblical account.
Nor did Noah take two of every animal onto the Ark – or rather, again, he did and he didn’t. In 7:2, God tells Noah to take seven of ‘every clean beast’, ‘and of beats that are not clean by two, the male and the female’. This contradicts what had been said in 6:19: ‘And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark’. The same goes (6:20) for every fowl, cattle, and ‘creeping thing’.
Just as confusing is the material that Noah was told to make the Ark out of. Genesis 6:14 mentions Gopher (or Gofer) wood, but this wood is only mentioned once in the Bible, and occurs nowhere else. So what on earth was it? It’s been suggested that it was a Hebrew translation of a Babylonian word for cedarwood, which would chime with the idea that the Flood story was derived (if only indirectly) from earlier Babylonian accounts.
Another theory is that gopher was confused with kopher, meaning ‘pitch’, so ‘Gopher wood’ was actually pitched wood, or wood painted with pitch.
Equally intriguing is the word ‘ark’ itself, which is inextricably linked to the story of Noah and the Flood.
The word ‘ark’, used of the boat Noah built, is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary with several meanings: to refer to a large wooden bin or hutch for storing food (Northern English dialect) or as the name for the wooden coffer containing the tables of the law, which God gave to Moses (i.e., the Ark of the Covenant).
The only reference to an ‘ark’ as a boat is in early English translations of the Noah story, although subsequently, the word did enter extended use to refer to a ship or boat.
But originally, ‘ark’ just meant a coffer or box, like a treasure chest: the word comes from the Latin arca meaning ‘box’ or ‘chest’.