The story of the flood is one of the most iconic tales in the Bible. Many movies–”Evan Almighty”, possibly Steve Carell’s best work and a personal favorite of mine–and children’s cartoons have been based on this story. Many religions, especially around the near east and Mediterranean Sea, have a common flood myth. One other myth that I’m aware of is the one told in “The Metamorphoses” by Ovid, which is the Greco-Roman version. In this myth, Jove has become displeased by the actions of man, and decides to clear the Earth of all life. Jove instructs his brother Neptune, God of the seas, to bring down rain and crash the waves of the seas against the land. Neptune does as instructed and floods the Earth. After the Earth flooded only one man, Deucalion, and one woman, his wife, survive. Jove sees that these two are the purest of all of the humans and favors them. They are then told by the Gods to repopulate the Earth.
I digress from the original topic, but for good reason. The point is that the flood myth is common. This Greco-Roman myth is based on the Genesis myth, which the oldest written account is found written on tablets from the eighteenth-century BCE in Sumerian. The fact that it’s written in Sumerian, a dead language by eighteenth-century BCE, indicates the myth predates the Israelites by many centuries, and must have later been adopted as part of their religion and written in the Torah, or Old Testament as the Christians call it.
Let’s now take a look at the account of the flood that is given to us in Genesis. The story, “The Flood”, begins with an account of the development of society that stemmed from the lineage of Adam. The Bible states that the “sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose”. I had to do a little research to see what “sons of God” and “daughters of men” meant. What I found was that the “sons of God” refers to the line of Seth, and the “daughters of men” refers to the line of Cain. This passage mentions the Nephilim, we will hear more about them later in the Bible. God also says his spirit will no longer contend with man forever, because man is mortal; so from this time forth God decrees that no man shall live more than 120 years. God was displeased of “how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become”. God “grieved that he had made man on the earth”. God was displeased with all of his creation except for Noah and his wife, their sons, and their son’s wives. To fight the wickedness of man, God decides to kill everyone who displeased him by drowning them in a flood. God then gives Noah very specific instructions. Which I find interesting. Why here, unlike many other parts, is God so specific; whereas other times, when clarity would be nice, he is not? Anyways, God tells Noah to build an ark that follows these dimensions precisely: 450 ft. long by 75 ft. wide by 45 ft. high. God commands to “make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 in. of the top.” Also, he dictates to “put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks.” God establishes a covenant with Noah and commands him to bring two of every kind of animal, male and female, and take every kind of food. Noah did everything God commanded. Now this all occurred in Genesis 6.
In Genesis 7 the story differs slightly in regards to God’s commands about the animals. In this chapter of the story, God commands Noah to take “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate”. Noah was also commanded to take seven of every kind of bird, both male and female. The Bible does not give us a definition of a clean or unclean animal in this passage, so while God could be specific about dimensions of the boat, he chooses not to have it known what animals are clean and unclean here. Also, why the flip-flopping–if you will allow me to use such a humorous political phrase–on the number of animals. Originally one pair of each, now seven pairs of some and only one pair of the other. Why show favorites on certain animals? If God created all the animals, then why did he create some he didn’t prefer? There are obvious logistic problems with the gathering of all species. There are 1.3 million known species that live on the Earth currently, and scientist estimate that 8.7 million exist in total. So just based off of the number of we do know, how were they all suppose to fit into an ark that is smaller than the Titanic? You also have to take into account the space necessary to store the amount of food needed to feed all of these animals, Noah, and his family. And not just for forty days, as we find out, but to feed them for a year.
God tells Noah that he will make it rain for forty days and forty nights. The water then flooded the Earth for 150 days (about 5 months). God remembers that Noah, his family, and all those animals were in that ark, and he sends out a wind and the waters begin to recede. The ark settles on the Mountains of Ararat, somewhere in modern Armenia. According to the tale it wasn’t until a year later that the Earth was dry and they came out of the ark. God tells them to come out and be fruitful and multiply. Noah then makes an altar for God. He then takes some of the clean animals that he had saved from this flood and kills them as a sacrificial offering to God. God is then so pleased by the pleasurable aroma of the burning meat of these clean animals that he makes this promise, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease”.
This is a promising outlook from a “benevolent” deity. All of humanity from childhood is evil and every inclination rooted in evil. I find it interesting that the death of so many lives by the act of God did not change his perspective; it took the death of more lives, the sacrifice of animals, for God to finally ease up on the reigns a bit. There is some archaeological evidence that in early human life there was some serious flooding in the middle east region, but not to this scale. The Tigris and the Euphrates were prone to flood often and sporadically. The weather was very unpredictable in this region. There is an interesting anthropological outlook on religion that correlates weather conditions to a culture’s God(s).
In most places in the world the climate is unpredictable. In societies where the weather was volatile, so too were the moods of the Gods. In contrast, the Egyptian Gods were even-handed and mild-tempered. This reflected the nature of the Nile river. The Nile floods predictably and leads to predictable growing seasons. This is what contributed to the Egyptians stability and prosperity for generations.
The flood myth is a fixture in many culture’s. The story is in some ways a great metaphor for humanity’s ability to triumph over nature and humanity’s will to survive. I would argue that this particular version of the myth is not the best–I prefer the version told in “The Metamorphoses”–but it’s a matter of taste.
Next time I will look at “God’s Covenant With Noah”.
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