A Tale of Two Floods: The Evolution of the Noah Myth

Does God make mistakes? It’s a simple question that has frustrated religious thinkers for thousands of years. If she does, it would explain a lot about our world (with its cracking plates and wobbly axis) and our bodies (with their genetic deficiencies and farcical design features — like sewage pipes in recreational areas). But it would also imply that much of mankind’s collective faith has been seriously misplaced for the last few thousand years.

While the church continues to assure us it’s all going according to plan, the faithful are left to wonder, if everything that happens in this place is being done on purpose, who exactly is running this show? Perhaps, as H.L. Mencken proposed, Creation is just badly run company: “It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists, it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.”

It is in the context of this question that we come to the biblical account of Noah and the Flood. It’s a gripping tale of genocide, incest, and murder most foul. And, according to the Bible in your hotel rooms and church pews, it also tells the story of God’s greatest mistake (making humans) and his first plan to fix the universe (kill everyone).

The flood account, found in Genesis 6:5-8:22, has held our interest for thousands of years because of its powerful imagery, evocative themes, and fundamentally mysterious logic. Just what was God so angry about? What could people have done that required such a brute force solution? And how could a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful deity regret creating something, especially something he personally made “in his image”? And having destroyed nearly all life, could he change his mind again? Just what was the author of this story trying to tell us?

Though of some of these questions remain fundamentally unanswerable, parsing the biblical account may help shed light on some confusing aspects of the Noah story. It also brings up a surprising fact about the Bible that has eluded most readers for thousands of years: there are two accounts of the Flood in Genesis.

Two Creations

Many people have noticed there are multiple and discrepant versions of some Bible stories, starting with the two different accounts of creation in Genesis. In chapter 1, first God creates plants (the third day), then birds and animals (the fifth day), then man and woman at the same time (the sixth day).

In chapter 2, the story starts over and diverges. On this account, the first thing that happens “in the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens” is that Yahweh personally sculpts man out of dust and breathes life into his nostrils, only then does he makes plants and trees (for the garden he creates for man in Eden), then (so that man will not be alone) he creates animals and birds, then Adam names all the animals (but no suitable match for him is found — which, if I may editorialize, was probably a relief), and so finally Yahweh knocks Adam unconscious, pulls out a rib, and makes woman.

Chapter 1 is emphatic plants came three days before man. Chapter 2 is emphatic that there were no plants when Adam was made: “When no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up … Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:5-7). Chapter 1 says man and woman were made on the same day, after the animals. Chapter 2 says man was made before everyone, then Yahweh made plants and animals, and lastly woman.

They each use different grammar, vocabulary, and style. Chapter 1 always calls the Creator “God”; chapter 2 always calls him “Yahweh.” In Genesis 1, the Creator is a distant and cosmic spirit overseeing an orderly process of creation which ends with humans. In Genesis 2, he is portrayed as a personal, corporeal being, who literally handcrafts Adam from dust, creating animals and plants ad hoc for man to use and enjoy — and finally he makes woman, not as part of a logical continuation of his prior creation of bi-sexed creatures, but as a very personal and specific answer to the needs of man. These are clearly different stories, written by different people, for different purposes.

Throughout the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), you will find multiple versions of most important stories: Creation, the Fall, the Covenant, and so on. They differ on details (like the order of events), as well as broader theological questions (like how man properly relates to and converses with God).

Over the last few hundred years, scholars investigating these curiosities eventually discovered that what now appears to be a single, continuous anthology was actually edited together by scribes (probably around the fifth century BC) from four different source documents, known as J, E, P, and D. (Genesis 1 comes from the P-source, or so-called “priestly” documents, and Genesis 2 is from the J-source, the source that only refers to God as “Yahweh”).

Unwoven and examined separately, you can see each source is its own complete set of myths, laws, and stories, focusing on unique concerns and ideas about the Jewish religion in the context of the time and place in which their authors lived. This way of examining the Bible is brilliantly and usefully explained by the scholar Richard Elliott Friedman in his book Who Wrote the Bible?.

Two Destructions

So far so good: sometimes stories are repeated because they were combined from different books. But what of the Flood story? In your Bible, there appears to be only one version. Although it seems to jump around a bit, overall it seems to be continuous. But it is, in fact, a very clever synthesis of two different versions of the Creator’s apocalyptic judgment.

In many places, such as the creation narratives, the editor who combined these different sources into a single anthology was content to simply place the accounts back to back. In other places, he had to be more creative, cutting up the two versions sentence by sentence and pasting back them together again as a single story. This is an incredibly difficult task, and the fact most people have never picked up on it is a testament to the editor’s skill. Fortunately, thanks to their linguistic differences, it’s actually possible for scholars to untangle the two sources, and restore them to two complete and separate versions of the flood story.

Here is Noah and the Flood, as originally told by J and P, in Genesis 6:5-8:22, extracted from Richard Friedman’s book. Words from J appear as regular text, and words from P are in bold. You can read through it and see that each is its own distinct narrative.

It is remarkable in itself that you can separate a story in this way and still come away with two complete accounts, but the details, style, language, and focus of each is distinct. J only refers to the Creator as Yahweh; P only refers to him as God. J says everything “died”; P says everything “expired.” J describes the animals’ sexes as “man and his woman”; P only uses “male and female.”

As Friedman points out,

The two versions do not just differ on terminology. They differ on actual details of the story. P has one pair of each kind of animal. J has seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. (“Clean” means fit for sacrifice. Sheep are clean; lions are unclean.) P pictures the flood as lasting a year (370 days). J says it was forty days and forty nights. P has Noah send out a raven. J says a dove. P obviously has a concern for ages, dates, and measurements in cubits. J does not.

Old Testament conception of the cosmos.
The Old Testament vision of the cosmos.

Genesis 1, the first creation story, is from the same source as the bold text in the link above, the P-source. In P’s creation story, we find this account of the second day: “And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.

In P’s Noah story, the flood is a cataclysmic event in which the “firmament” (the “sky dome” from the creation account) is ruptured, and the “waters above” pour through it, while the waters under the earth blast through its foundations: “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” In the flood, God is fundamentally shattering his creation.

In the J account of the flood? It rains.

This stark and interesting contrast reveals some other key differences. In J, Yahweh is “grieved to his heart” by man’s sins, and he “regrets” making mankind. He personally closes the door to the ark, and he smells Noah’s sacrifice after the flood — and being rather pleased by the aroma, decides not to curse the ground or destroy all life again. In J’s other stories, Yahweh personally shapes Adam from the dust, he walks in the Garden, audibly speaks to people, and looks for Adam and Eve. He personally kills an animal to handcraft clothes for Adam and Eve.

Friedman further points out, these human qualities, emotions, and actions in the J stories are completely absent from P. In P, God is completely in control. In the flood, he doesn’t have grief or regret, and he never changes his mind about anything; he’s administering justice on mankind for breaking his law. When it’s finished, he commands the survivors to go start over.

The “priestly” document’s God is far more austere and less anthropomorphic than J or E. He doesn’t speak to just anyone, he cannot be physically seen, and he is never referred to by His name. There are no talking snakes or angels. In all of P’s stories, no one except consecrated priests make sacrifices to God — so in P’s story, Noah didn’t need 7 pairs of “clean” animals because also he didn’t make a sacrifice. The message is clear: God is only reachable through certain rituals and protocols, which must be obeyed at all costs.

These divergent perspectives are the clear and consequential results of writers with very different viewpoints on God. The reasons for these differences have everything to do with who wrote (and rewrote) these stories, when and where they lived, their intended audience, and the theology they were trying to express through these traditional myths and homilies. While definitive answers may be lost to history, scholars have made a lot of progress in investigating these questions. For accessible accounts of this scholarship, I suggest Richard Friedman’s books on the Jewish scriptures, and Bart Ehrman’s books on the Christian New Testament.

The fundamental point is that the Bible is a very human book, written by and for people — ignoring its rich and complex history in favor of the “God wrote it and that’s that” perspective misses what is most interesting and valuable about the most powerful book in human history.

PS: Sorry if you thought this was going to be a review of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah — I’ll just say that I basically liked it, except for the rock monsters.