Two Flood Narratives (Genesis 6–9) by Jeffrey Geoghegan

From Michelangelo’s famed depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to nursery room walls where colorful animals file two-by-two onto Noah’s Ark, few stories have left so indelible a mark on the human imagination as the flood narrative found in Gen 6-9. Yet, less well known is that the biblical account seems to be the product of at least two distinct traditions that were subsequently woven together to form a single narrative.

Why are there so many duplicate stories in the Bible?

Scholars have long noted the presence of parallel or repeated stories in the biblical text, including what appear to be two distinct creation accounts (Gen 1 and Gen 2), two descriptions of Abraham’s covenant with God (Gen 15 and Gen 17), two accounts of Jacob’s name change to “Israel” (Gen 32 and Gen 35), and two versions of Moses’s commission to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exod 3 and Gen 6), to name only a few. However, it wasn’t until the modern era that these repetitions—or “doublets” as they are often called— were critically evaluated and determined to represent distinct sources or traditions that were only later brought together to create an epic retelling of Israel’s past.

The flood narrative seems to be no exception. Although currently merged into a single story, different traditions lie behind the biblical account, each with its own unique narrative details and theological perspectives, including distinct divine names. Thus, those passages employing the divine name “God” (Hebrew ‘elohim) present a deity who is transcendent and systematic in carrying out the flood. The precise measurements of the ark (Gen 6:14-15), the age of Noah before and after the flood (Gen 7:11; Gen 8:13), and the recurring references to specific days, months and years (Gen 8:4-5, Gen 8:13-14), all seem to derive from this source. Conversely, those passages employing the divine name “the LORD” (Hebrew YHWH) depict a deity who is intimately involved in the action, including grieving over human wrongdoing (Gen 6:6), regretting having made humankind (Gen 6:7), personally closing the ark as the inundation begins (Gen 7:16), and taking pleasure in Noah’s sacrifice following the flood (Gen 8:21). Other differences include the duration of the flood (“40 days” in Gen 7:17; “150 days” in Gen 7:24), the number of each animal entering the ark (“two of each” in Gen 6:19; “seven pairs of clean” and “one pair of unclean” in Gen 7:2), and the types of birds sent to determine if dry land has appeared (“a raven” in Gen 8:7; “a dove” three times in Gen 8:8-12).

How do scholars interpret these differences?

Earlier interpreters attempted to reconcile these differences by addressing each individually. Thus, the apparent discrepancies in the duration of the flood were understood as different phases of the deluge, and the differing numbers of animals were interpreted as a clarification and expansion of the earlier command. And this may be. However, it is the number and character of these differences, found not only here but in numerous duplicate stories throughout the early books of the Bible, that have led most scholars to conclude that at least two distinct traditions inform the biblical account. By this view, the reason for “seven clean” animals in one tradition is that Noah will offer a sacrifice following the flood (Gen 8:20), whereas in the other tradition, which is often associated with priestly interests in ancient Israel, no such sacrifice will be offered since sacrifice is the exclusive domain of priests.

Similarly, the variations in the description of the flood correspond to the distinct cosmological and theological perspectives of these traditions—differences that first emerge in the opening creation accounts. One tradition, often associated with the first creation story, depicts a deluge that is the undoing of the very order established by God (‘elohim) in the beginning, as “the fountains of the deep” and “the floodgates of heaven” are ruptured (Gen 7:11), reversing the separation of “the waters above from the waters below” that was accomplished on the second day of creation (Gen 1:6-7). The other tradition portrays the flood as an extended rainstorm (Gen 7:12) and the divine as intimately involved in the action, paralleling the second creation account where the deity (YHWH) personally breathes life into the first human (Gen 2:7), forms animals out of the dust of the ground (Gen 2:19), fashions woman out of the man’s side (Gen 2:22), walks and talks with humans in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9), and provides them clothing following their act of disobedience (Gen 3:21).

Yet, it is only in bringing these varying traditions together, these differing perspectives of the divine as both powerful and personal, as both awe-inspiring and intimate, that an ultimately richer and more nuanced understanding of Israel’s God emerges—an understanding that has informed the lives and faiths of countless individuals and communities throughout history.

Jeffrey Geoghegan, "Two Flood Narratives (Genesis 6–9)", n.p. [cited 7 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/two-flood-narratives

Contributors

geoghegan-jeffrey

Jeffrey Geoghegan
Gretchen Stroschein Thomson Chair in History, The Bishop’s School

Dr. Jeffrey Geoghegan received his PhD in History from the University of California, San Diego, and has taught history and religion for the past twenty years at several universities, including UCSD, Boston College, and the University of San Diego. He currently teaches at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where he holds the Gretchen Stroschein Thomson Chair in History, and is the author or coauthor of a number of books and articles on the Bible, including The Nine Commandments (Doubleday), The Time, Place, and Purpose of the Deuteronomistic History (Brown University), and The Bible for Dummies (Wiley).

A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

Pertaining to the cosmos, i.e. the known universe.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Gen 6-9

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Gen 1

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 2

1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seve ... View more

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

Gen 32

1Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him;2and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God's camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.Jacob Sends Presen ... View more

Gen 35

35 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So ... View more

Exod 3

Moses at the Burning Bush
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Ho ... View more

Gen 6

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Gen 6:14-15

14 Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark ... View more

Gen 7:11

11In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst fort ... View more

Gen 8:13

13 In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of t ... View more

Gen 8:4-5

4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to abate until the tent ... View more

Gen 8:13-14

13 In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of t ... View more

Gen 6:6

6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

Gen 6:7

7So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I ... View more

Gen 7:16

16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

Gen 8:21

21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of th ... View more

Gen 7:17

17The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.

Gen 7:24

24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

Gen 6:19

19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.

Gen 7:2

2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate;

Gen 8:7

7and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.

Gen 8:8-12

8Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground;9but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned ... View more

Gen 8:20

God's Promise to Noah
20Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

Gen 7:11

11In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst fort ... View more

Gen 1:6-7

6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the water ... View more

Gen 7:12

12The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

Gen 2:7

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Gen 2:19

19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and ... View more

Gen 2:22

22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

Gen 3:8-9

8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the ... View more

Gen 3:21

21And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

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