Genesis Flood Narrative

The Genesis flood narrative is a flood myth found in the Tanakh (chapters 6–9 in the Book of Genesis). The story tells of God’s decision to return the Earth to its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation. The narrative has very strong similarities to parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh which predates the Book of Genesis.

A global flood as described in this myth is inconsistent with the physical findings of geology and paleontology. A branch of creationism known as flood geology is a pseudoscientific attempt to argue that such a global flood actually occurred.

The Deluge (1840) by Francis Danby. Tate Gallery.

Composition

Sources

See also: Documentary hypothesis

The flood is part of what scholars call the primeval history, the first 11 chapters of Genesis. These chapters, fable-like and legendary, form a preface to the patriarchal narratives which follow, but show little relationship to them. For example, the names of its characters and its geography—Adam (“Man”) and Eve (“Life”), the Land of Nod (“Wandering”), and so on—are symbolic rather than real, and much of the narratives consist of lists of “firsts”: the first murder, the first wine, the first empire-builder. Few of the people, places and events depicted in the book are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. This has led scholars to suppose that the primeval history forms a late composition attached to Genesis to serve as an introduction. At one extreme are those who see it as a product of the Hellenistic period, in which case it cannot be earlier than the first decades of the 4th century BCE; on the other hand the Yahwist source has been dated by others, notably John Van Seters, to the exilic pre-Persian period (the 6th century BCE), precisely because the primeval history contains so much Babylonian influence in the form of myth.

The flood narrative is made up of two stories woven together. As a result many details are contradictory, such as how long the flood lasted (40 days according to Genesis 7:17, 150 according to 7:24), how many animals were to be taken aboard the ark (one pair of each in 6:19, one pair of the unclean animals and seven pairs of the clean in 7:2), and whether Noah released a raven which “went to and fro until the waters were dried up” or a dove which on the third occasion “did not return to him again,” or possibly both. Despite this disagreement on details the story forms a unified whole (some scholars see in it a “chiasm”, a literary structure in which the first item matches the last, the second the second-last, and so on), and many efforts have been made to explain this unity, including attempts to identify which of the two sources was earlier and therefore influenced the other.

Comparative mythology

A flood myth or deluge myth is a narrative in which a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization, often in an act of divine retribution. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primaeval waters found in certain creation myths, as the flood waters are described as a measure for the cleansing of humanity, in preparation for rebirth. Most flood myths also contain a culture hero, who “represents the human craving for life”.

The flood myth motif is found among many cultures as seen in the Mesopotamian flood stories, Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology, the Genesis flood narrative, Pralaya in Hinduism, the Gun-Yu in Chinese mythology, Bergelmir in Norse mythology, in the arrival of the first inhabitants of Ireland with Cessair in Irish mythology, in the lore of the K’iche’ and Maya peoples in Mesoamerica, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa tribe of Native Americans in North America, the Muisca, and Cañari Confederation, in South America, Africa, and some Aboriginal tribes in Australia.

Genesis 6:9–9:17

Summary

Main article: Noah

Noah’s Ark, oil on canvas painting by Edward Hicks, 1846 Philadelphia Museum of Art

Noah was a righteous man and walked with God. Seeing that the earth was corrupt and filled with violence, God instructed Noah to build an ark in which he, his sons, and their wives, together with male and female of all living creatures, would be saved from the waters. Noah entered the ark in his six hundredth year, and on the 17th day of the second month of that year “the fountains of the Great Deep burst apart and the floodgates of heaven broke open” and rain fell for forty days and forty nights until the highest mountains were covered 15 cubits, and all earth-based life perished except Noah and those with him in the ark.

In Jewish legend, the kind of water that was pouring to the earth for forty days is not the common, but God bade each drop pass through Hell of Gehenna before it fell to earth, and the ‘hot rain’ scalded the skin of the sinners. The punishment that overtook them was befitting their crime. As their sensual desires had made them hot, and inflamed them to immoral excesses, so they were chastised by means of heated water.

After 150 days, “God remembered Noahand the waters subsided” until the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat. On the 27th day of the second month of Noah’s six hundred and first year the earth was dry. Then Noah built an altar and made a sacrifice, and God made a covenant with Noah that man would be allowed to eat every living thing but not its blood, and that God would never again destroy all life by a flood.

The flood and the creation narrative

nain articles: Creation Myth and What Is Creationism?

The flood is a reversal and renewal of God’s creation of the world. In Genesis 1 God separates the “waters above the earth” from those below so that dry land can appear as a home for living things, but in the flood story the “windows of heaven” and “fountains of the deep” are opened so that the world is returned to the watery chaos of the time before creation. Even the sequence of flood events mimics that of creation, the flood first covering the earth to the highest mountains, then destroying, in order, birds, cattle, beasts, “swarming creatures”, and finally mankind. (This parallels the Babylonian flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where at the end of rain “all of mankind had returned to clay,” the substance of which they had been made).The ark itself is likewise a microcosm of Solomon’s Temple.

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the way biblical stories refer to and reflect one another. Such echoes are seldom coincidental—for instance, the word used for ark is the same used for the basket in which Moses is saved, implying a symmetry between the stories of two divinely chosen saviours in a world threatened by water and chaos. The most significant such echo is a reversal of the Genesis creation narrative; the division between the “waters above” and the “waters below” the earth is removed, the dry land is flooded, most life is destroyed, and only Noah and those with him survive to obey God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Religious views

Christianity

See also: Biblical literalismBiblical inerrancy, and Biblical infallibility

The Genesis flood narrative is included in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (see Books of the Bible). Jesus and the apostles additionally taught on the Genesis flood narrative in New Testament writing (Matthew 24:37-39, Luke 17:26-27, 1 Peter 3:20, 2 Peter 2:5, 2 Peter 3:6, Hebrews 11:7). Some Christian biblical scholars suggest that the flood is a picture of salvation in Christ—the ark was planned by God and there is only one way of salvation through the door of the ark, akin to one way of salvation through Christ. Additionally, some scholars commenting on the teaching of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:18-22), connect the ark with the resurrection of Christ; the waters burying the old world but raising Noah to a new life. Christian scholars also highlight that 1 Peter 3:18-22 demonstrates the Genesis flood as a type to Christian baptism.

Islam

Main article: Noah in Islam and Qur’anic and Biblical Narrations of The Flood

The Quran states that Noah (Nūḥ) was inspired by God, believed in the oneness of God, and preached Islam. God commanded Noah to build an ark. As he was building it, the chieftains passed him and mocked him. Upon its completion, the ark was loaded with the animals in Noah’s care as well as his immediate household. The people who denied the message of Noah, including one of his own sons, drowned. The final resting place of the ark was referred to as Mount Judi.

Historicity

While some scholars have tried to offer possible explanations for the origins of the flood myth including a legendary retelling of a possible Black Sea deluge, the general mythological exaggeration and implausibility of the story are widely recognized by relevant academic fields. The acknowledgement of this follows closely the development of understanding of the natural history and especially the geology and paleontology of the planet.

Setting

The Masoretic Text of the Torah places the Great Deluge 1,656 years after Creation, or 1656 AM (Anno Mundi, “Year of the World”). Many attempts have been made to place this time-span at a specific date in history. At the turn of the 17th century CE, Joseph Scaliger placed Creation at 3950 BCE, Petavius calculated 3982 BCE, and according to James Ussher’s chronology, Creation took place in 4004 BCE, dating the Great Deluge to 2348 BCE.

Narrative criticism focuses on the stories a speaker or a writer tells to understand how they help us make meaning out of our daily human experiences. Narrative theory is a means by which we can comprehend how we impose order on our experiences and actions by giving them a narrative form. According to Walter Fisher, narratives are fundamental to communication and provide structure for human experience and influence people to share common explanations and understandings. Fisher defines narratives as “symbolic actions-words and/or deeds that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them.” Study of narrative criticism, therefore, includes form (fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry), genre (myth, history, legend, etc.), structure (including plot, theme, irony, foreshadowing, etc.) characterization, and communicator’s perspective.

Flood geology

The development of scientific geology had a profound impact on attitudes towards the biblical flood narrative. By bringing into question the biblical chronology, which placed the Creation and the Flood in a history which stretched back no more than a few thousand years, the concept of deep geological time undermined the idea of the historicity of the ark itself. In 1823 the English theologian and natural scientist William Buckland interpreted geological phenomena as Reliquiae Diluvianae: “relics of the flood” which “attested the action of a universal deluge”. His views were supported by others at the time, including the influential geologist Adam Sedgwick, but by 1830 Sedgwick considered that the evidence suggested only local floods. Louis Agassiz subsequently explained such deposits as the results of glaciation.

Old Testament Lesson 6: Noah…Prepared an Ark to the Saving of His House

In 1862, William Thomson (later to become Lord Kelvin) calculated the age of the Earth at between 24 million and 400 million years, and for the remainder of the 19th century, discussion focused not on the viability of this theory of deep time, but on the derivation of a more precise figure for the age of the Earth. Lux Mundi, an 1889 volume of theological essays which is usually held to mark a stage in the acceptance of a more critical approach to scripture, took the stance that readers should rely on the gospels as completely historical, but should not take the earlier chapters of Genesis literally. By a variety of independent means, scientists have determined that the Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old.

Flood geology is the attempt to interpret and reconcile geological features of the Earth in accordance with a literal belief in the global flood described in Genesis 6–8. In the early 19th century, diluvial geologists hypothesized that specific surface features were evidence of a worldwide flood which had followed earlier geological eras; after further investigation they agreed that these features resulted from local floods or glaciers. In the 20th century, young Earth creationists revived flood geology as an overarching concept in their opposition to evolution, assuming a recent six-day Creation and cataclysmic geological changes during the Biblical Deluge, and incorporating creationist explanations of the sequence of rock strata.

The scientific community regards flood geology as pseudoscience because it contradicts a variety of facts in geology, stratigraphy, geophysics, physics, paleontology, biology, anthropology, and archeology. Modern geology, its sub-disciplines and other scientific disciplines utilize the scientific method to analyze the geology of the earth. Scientific analysis refutes the key tenets of flood geology, which, as an idea, is in contradiction to scientific consensus.Modern geology relies on a number of established principles, one of the most important of which is Charles Lyell’s principle of uniformitarianism. In relation to geological forces, uniformitarianism holds that the shaping of the Earth has occurred by means of mostly slow-acting forces that can be seen in operation today. In general, there is a lack of any evidence for any of the above effects proposed by flood geologists, and scientists do not take their claims of fossil-layering seriously.

Scriptural geologists were a heterogeneous group of writers in the early nineteenth century, who claimed “the primacy of literalistic biblical exegesis” and a short Young Earth time-scale. Their views were marginalised and ignored by the scientific community of their time. They “had much the same relationship to ‘philosophical’ (or scientific) geologists as their indirect descendants, the twentieth-century creationists.” Paul Wood describes them as “mostly Anglican evangelicals” with “no institutional focus and little sense of commonality”. They generally lacked any background in geology, and had little influence even in church circles.

Species distribution

By the 17th century, believers in the Genesis account faced the issue of reconciling the exploration of the New World and increased awareness of the global distribution of species with the older scenario whereby all life had sprung from a single point of origin on the slopes of Mount Ararat. The obvious answer involved mankind spreading over the continents following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and taking animals along, yet some of the results seemed peculiar. In 1646 Sir Thomas Browne wondered why the natives of North America had taken rattlesnakes with them, but not horses: “How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange”.

Browne, among the first to question the notion of spontaneous generation, was a medical doctor and amateur scientist making this observation in passing. However, biblical scholars of the time, such as Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) and Athanasius Kircher (c.1601–80), had also begun to subject the Ark story to rigorous scrutiny as they attempted to harmonize the biblical account with the growing body of natural historical knowledge. The resulting hypotheses provided an important impetus to the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and indirectly spurred the emergence of biogeography in the 18th century. Natural historians began to draw connections between climates and the animals and plants adapted to them. One influential theory held that the biblical Ararat was striped with varying climatic zones, and as climate changed, the associated animals moved as well, eventually spreading to repopulate the globe.

There was also the problem of an ever-expanding number of known species: for Kircher and earlier natural historians, there was little problem finding room for all known animal species in the ark. Less than a century later, discoveries of new species made it increasingly difficult to justify a literal interpretation for the Ark story. By the middle of the 18th century only a few natural historians accepted a literal interpretation of the narrative.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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