Genesis: Lesson 10: The Flood, according to J

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 10: The Flood, according to J (Genesis 6-8). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 27, 2005

Cultural Literacy:      This week we are turning our attention to the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis chapters 6-8. This is such a familiar stories that it has become a part of our cultural literacy. Just last week the cover of the New Yorker magazine pictured pairs of animals dressed as New Yorkers holding umbrellas waiting for the ferry in the rain. Some of you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. The math series used Noah’s Ark to teach how to multiple by two. There was even a Broadway musical titled Two by Two about the ark. One of the songs has Noah’s children raising questions about their father’s sanity as he builds a boat when there is no rain. Even Bill Cosby took up the story of Noah. According to Cosby, when Noah had doubts about building the ark, God asked him “How long can you tread water?” And finally there was the teacher who asked her class who Joan of Arc was. One student replied, Noah’s wife. In short, this is a very familiar story. I think most Americans know the basic outline: God tells Noah to build a boat because there is a flood coming. Noah takes two of every kind of animal on the boat and they are saved. Today we’re going to look a little closer at the story.

Complex Story:          The first thing to be aware of is that the recorded story of the flood is longer and more complicated than you probably remember from Sunday School. A lot of people find the story rather hard to read. This is in part because it doesn’t focus on the things we might expect. One of the reason comedians and playwrights create such funny dialog between God and Noah is that the Bible gives no conversation between them. No one speaks in the story but God. This silence has allowed preachers for centuries to invent dialog. We picture Noah’s wife and neighbors saying, “You’re building a what?” There is a lot of room for imagination with the Noah story because so much is left unsaid.

            Instead we have information on the size of the ark, the length of the flood, numbers of animals, and the chronology. We also discover that there are repetitions in the story and some confusion in the chronology. Noah puts the animals on board four times, so we know that’s important. But it is not clear if the flood lasted forty days and forty nights, or 150 days, or 365 days. One of the great trick questions is how many of each kind of animal did Noah take on the ark? Most of us say two, but in Genesis 7:3 Noah brings on board 7 pairs of the clean animals. This interest in chronologies, clean and unclean animals, and the dimensions of the ark indicates that this story was preserved by the priests and scribes of Israel.

            The repetitions and discrepancies, though, indicate that the story as we have it in Genesis is actually a blending of at least two different accounts of the flood. Scholars attribute some of the verses in chapters 6-8 to the J source that we’ve talked about before. The rest are from the P or priestly source. There may even be a third source. The final author of Genesis wove these sources together because the story of the flood was so important. It communicates important aspects of faith and morality. For this lesson, I will be using the flood story from the J materials in Genesis rather than all of Genesis 6-8. Consider it an excerpt of the story.

Ancient Flood Stories            The story of Noah and the ark is not the only flood story from the ancient world. The Babylonians, Sumerians, and other ancient people told of a great flood that wiped out most life on earth. The most famous of these stories is found in the Gilgamesh Epic. In 1873 George Smith discovered tablets written around 2000 BC that told the story of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh who was seeking for the secret of immortality. It includes a long and vivid account of a deluge sent by the gods because they were angry at humans. Gilgamesh’s ancestor Utnapishtim used the lumber from his house to build a boat and took on board every kind of animal so that life would be preserved. After the deluge, he offered sacrifices to the gods. They hungrily ate the incense of the sacrifice, and they rewarded Utnapisphtim with immortality.

            Archaeologists also discovered shorter versions of the flood story that are far older than the time of Moses. The common elements in the ancient stories are: a flood covered the known world; a righteous man was warned to build a large boat; and a boat preserved all of the land animals. Some scholars have seen these ancient stories as evidence that the flood story in Genesis is literally true, but the evidence is not convincing. It is interesting that all of the ancient deluge stories come from one part of the world, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which we call Mesopotamia.

            The great evangelist George Whitefield was rumored to be able to move crowds to tears just by how he said Mesopotamia. I can’t do that. But it was in Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq, that the Israelites lived in exile after the destruction of the Temple. It was most likely that during the exile that they learned the ancient myth of Gilgamesh. The Canaanites, Assyrians, and Egyptians did not have such stories of a great flood. That ancient story became a means of revelation for the Jews in exile, and it continues to be a source of revelation for us today.

            It is interesting that some of the accounts of the ancient flood identify Ur as the city where the big boat was built. Ur, as we shall see, was the hometown of Abraham. There is geological evidence that there was a catastrophic flood in ancient Ur over 5000 years ago. There were major floods at other cities mentioned in ancient deluge stories. We can’t go into all of the research on ancient floods this morning, but what the evidence points to is that there was at least one flood in ancient Mesopotamia that was so devastating that it became part of the folklore and literature of ancient Babylon. We have to remember that in ancient times, the “whole world” was a lot smaller than today. Just like our World Series involves only a few cities in North America, the whole world in ancient times meant the world they knew about.

            The modern science of geology began in the 19th century in part because a number of European scientists wanted to prove that the story of Noah and the ark were historically factual. Scientists went all over the world looking for a layer of silt that covered the whole earth 5000 years ago, but they didn’t find it. There were many floods, some of them mind-boggling large, but no universal flood. In the 1830s Charles Lyell published his research into the geological history of the earth, and he concluded that the earth was far older than people had previously imagined. For much of the 19th century scientists, preachers, and journalists engaged in a vigorous and rancorous debate over the Biblical deluge, but the final result is that there is no physical record of a world-wide flood like the one described in Genesis 6-8.

            But there remain people who are dedicated to finding evidence that Noah once built an ark that held every animal on earth. In the 1960s James Whitcomb and Henry Morris published a book entitled The Genesis Flood. Whitcomb and Morris tried to prove that it was possible for all the animals to fit on a ship smaller than Groves Stadium. It is a complicated book, but it is not convincing. Even if one assumes that all of the species of animals that live in the artic, tropics, and temperate zones at one time lived within walking distance of ancient Ur, it is hard to fit them all on one boat and carry enough food for a year. No, the story of Noah’s ark is not literally true in terms of history. In fact, the effort to convince people that it is factual it all its details has given more fuel to atheists and opponents of the Bible than support for people of faith, as a quick review of the Internet shows.

            The most we could claim, based on the geological and historical evidence, is that there was a devastating flood in Mesopotamia. A heroic man and wife built a large boat and carried many animals to safety. The story of that deluge and rescue of the animals was the basis for the Babylonian myths and the flood stories in Genesis. What is important for us is not the history of the flood; it is the meaning of this story in Genesis and in our lives today. We don’t need to find geological or archaeological evidence for Noah and the flood to find meaning and insight in this biblical story. The story of Noah helps us interpret the fundamental story of creation and redemption. It is a story of judgment and the hope for salvation. It is a story of exile and restoration. It is also a story about our ethical obligations to the earth and all its inhabitants.

Judgment:                   When we look at the story in detail, we see that both the J and P versions agree on the basic details. The deluge begins with God’s judgment. God saw that humans had filled the earth with evil and violence. Notice that the problem was not “sin;” it was evil and violence. According to Genesis, the problem with humans is that we choose to kill, destroy, and maim what God has made. We harbor hatred in our hearts. “Every inclination of our hearts is only evil continually.”

            I find it interesting that the story of Noah does not place the blame for evil on Satan or the devil. No, Genesis puts the blame on humans. We are the ones who like to cause pain. We are the ones who solve problems with guns and bombs rather than justice and reason. All we need to do is watch TV to see how accurate this Genesis account is. Violence is everywhere in our society: violence as entertainment; violence as a solution to all problems. Violence is justified. Violence is celebrated. Hatred is endorsed and rewarded at the highest levels of our society. But God rejects this sort of society.

God’s Sorrow :           There is a very important verse in the Noah story that is often overlooked: “God was pained in his heart.” The NRSV is a bit too delicate in translating this verse saying “it grieved him to his heart.” The Hebrew is much stronger. God was in anguish as he watched the evil of humans. He deeply regretted that he had made them at all. Though we don’t want to think about God feeling pain, deep down we understand this. We know what this pain of God is like. We feel compassion for the innocent who suffer. We feel anger at those who cause suffering. We are also ashamed that another human being could torture someone. We see the pictures and we suffer. God suffers with us.

            Here is where the story of Noah differs so significantly from the story of Utnapishtim and other tales from ancient Babylon. In those myths and legends the gods were angry at humans because humans had neglected their duty to serve the gods. They were not offering the required sacrifices. Genesis is much different. God was not grieved because humans didn’t go to church, or pray, or sacrifice, or perform their ritual duties. God was sorrowful because humans were wicked and cruel and violent. Churches tend to forget this. Too often we tell people that God is more concerned with matters of piety than matters of justice. Too often we turn the story of Noah into the Gilgamesh Epic, missing the whole point. God was in anguish because humans are violent and cruel and unjust, and Noah found favor because he was righteous. The flood story tells us that world suffers because of human evil. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this connection between the wickedness of humans and the destruction of the earth in his portrayal of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Evil corrupts, tortures, and destroys all that is green and good in the world. According to Genesis, this was what led to the deluge.

Starting Over:            The J account in particular portrays God in human terms, and I think that we can empathize with God in this story. Have you ever wanted to just wipe the slate clean and start over? If only we could rid the world of human evil and make everything all right. If only we could just wash it all away and make the world clean and fresh. This is the part of the imagery of the Noah story. The rains come to clean away corruption and evil. In early Christianity the story of Noah was used in the ritual of baptism. Baptism washes away sin like the flood washed the earth.

            There is more to the imagery here than a good bath though. Especially in the priestly (P) version of the story, the flood is a reversal of creation. Several weeks ago we discussed the priestly story of creation when God separated the waters above from the waters below. Dry land appeared as God held the waters back. Here in the Noah story God allows the waters to flow back over the earth. The heavens open letting the waters down. Other waters flow up from the deep. Land disappears under the watery chaos. In other words, creation is undone by human violence and the earth is cleaned by the waters. This is a frightening story, especially for those who lived between the rivers. The creator unmakes his creation because he is ashamed of what humans have done. We don’t like this image of God as the one who creates and destroys, but it is vital to the story.

The Ark:         Of course the story begins with the flood, but it doesn’t end there. The LORD warned Noah in order to save him. All we know about Noah is that he was a righteous man who found favor in God’s sight. We can deduce that this meant they he did not participate in the violence of his age. God chose him as the one who would preserve creation because he valued creation. He saw himself and others as the living images of God. Noah listens to God’s warning and he builds a large boat about 450 feet long. The priestly version of the story is very interested in the type of wood and dimensions of the ship, but the focal point of the story is that Noah listened to God’s warning. Noah took action long before the rains started falling.

            It is very interesting that the story of Noah is told without reference to miracles. God speaks to Noah, just as he did to Adam. And God sends a big flood, but Noah wasn’t saved by miracles. Noah was saved because he took action. He believed and he acted wisely. Belief alone was not enough. Nor was action along enough. Faith and action go together here; faith and wisdom.

Conclusion:                 Compare the story of Noah in Genesis with more recent history. We just had a devastating flood in the Mississippi Delta. If the government had listened to the warnings about the levees the way Noah listened to God, much of the flooding could have been prevented. Wouldn’t it be great if we had practical people like Noah in charge of FEMA and other agencies? It’s too late to start sawing lumber for the ark if it’s already started raining. I think it is time for Christians to remember that faith includes good government, good planning, and wise decision-making. Faith means trusting in God’s promises and seeking to do God’s will.

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