The story of the Flood is a crucial text for understanding Earth history. The catastrophe was the biggest geological event of all time, destroying the land and annihilating every creature on the land. However, some academics see discrepancies in the internal chronology of the story and argue that the text was composed from different, mutually conflicting sources (the ‘documentary hypothesis’). If this is true, the text cannot be a reliable record of an ancient and faithfully preserved tradition of a historical event; either the tradition was garbled or it was completely factitious. On the other hand, if the problems can be resolved, its credibility and importance are only enhanced.
Perceived inconsistencies and proposed solutions
The normally understood sequence of events may be summarised as follows (Kidner 1967).
|Genesis reference||Events||Date in terms of Noah’s life||Day number|
|7:11||The flood begins||17.ii.600||1|
|7:12||Cataclysm till the 40th day||26.iii.600||40|
|7:24||Inundation until the 150th day||16.vii.600||150|
|8:4||The ark aground||17.vii.600||151|
|8:5||The hill-tops visible||1.x.600||224|
|8:6f||The raven sent||10.xi.600||263|
|8:8||The dove sent||17.xi.600||270|
|8:10f||The dove and the leaf||24.xi.600||277|
|8:12||The dove departs||1.xii.600||284|
|8:13||The ground appears dry||1.i.601||314|
Set out like this, the narrative seems straightforward enough, but to some it is complicated by the following inconsistencies:
- In 7:17 the flood is said to have lasted 40 days, in keeping with the warning to that effect in 7:4, whereas the recorded calendar dates (column three) suggest a duration of up to 370 days (assuming months of 30 days and a year of 360 days).
- According to 7:12 the rain lasted 40 days and nights, whereas 8:2 suggests it was not restrained until after 150 days.
- 8:13 says that the earth became dry on the 1st day of the 1st month, whereas 8:14 states that it was dry on the 27th day of the 2nd month.
- The birds were sent out ‘to see if the waters had abated from the face of the ground’ after the hill tops had already become visible.
These possible discrepancies are seen as evidence of the story’s having been cobbled together from different accounts.
This is in effect to charge the supposed compiler with a degree of incompetence – not, one would have thought, a conclusion to be jumped to lightly. Is it plausible that any compiler wishing to convey the impression of a historical event would have tolerated the imputed inconsistencies? Could he not make up his mind about which was the more reliable of his sources – sources for whose existence we have no independent evidence? The narrative shows itself to be a product of immense elaboration, in some ways more elaborate, more worked, than literary story-telling is today. It would be odd if the compiler failed, nonetheless, to produce a seamless whole.
The reality of discrepancies unnoticed by the ancients but not the modern scholar is central to the documentary hypothesis. Taking them for granted, the scholar’s role is to deconstruct the text and see if he can get back to the original documents. Below we briefly discuss the solutions proposed by Adolf Dillmann, Niels Lemche, Frederick Cryer and Lloyd Barré.
In Dillmann’s view, the statement (8:3) that the waters continually receded and were abated after 150 days refers to a second 150-day period, not the 150 days which terminate with the date ‘17th day of the 7th month’. Thus, in the first period the waters rise; in the second, they fall. Unfortunately for this assumption of literary symmetry (not a symmetry that real events would be likely to follow), the text omits the date which might have terminated this second period. On the other hand, it does, Dillmann suggests, specify the midpoint, namely the 1st day of the 10th month. However, this generates another difficulty, for even if one overlooks the fact that the date is one day short of the midpoint, it is not balanced by a corresponding midpoint in the first period (the final disappearance of the hilltops as they became submerged). So the solution has to hypothesise two omissions. One set of perceived inconsistencies is replaced by another set.
Lemche contends that Genesis 7:6 (‘Noah was 600 years old when the flood of waters came on the earth’) conceals an original tradition (‘P’) that the flood began on the 1st day of the 1st month. The flood, ending on the same day in the 601st year, then lasted exactly one year – assumed to be a solar year of 365 days. Lemche further postulates that, according to another tradition (‘J’), the ark – a vessel measuring 135 metres long, 22 metres wide and 13 metres deep – was built in just 40 days. Evidence for this chronological detail is lacking only because it was edited out. In the J tradition the flood lasted 148 days and began on the 17th day of the 2nd month. Later, a redactor blended the two traditions together and, wishing to translate P’s solar year to his own 354-day lunar year, added 10 days so that the flood ended on the 27th day of the 2nd month. Unfortunately, he could not count, since, as Barré observes, the difference between 365 and 354 is 11 days, not 10.
Cryer’s principal contribution to the complexities is to postulate that one tradition had the flood lasting 360 days, another 370 days, and that the sum of these, being exactly equal to two solar years, accounts for the ‘perplexing’ reference to two years after the flood in 11:10.
For most of the way Barré follows Dillmann’s analysis. Agreeing that there were two 150-day periods, he considers the problem of how to account for the 14-day gap between Dillmann’s missing 17th day of the 12th month when the second period came to an end and the date preserved in the text at Genesis 8:13. His solution is to assign the sending forth of the raven to J and the two sendings forth of the dove to P, so that the latter sequence immediately follows P’s second 150 days. Since the word ‘another’ in 8:10 implies that there was a 7-day interval before the first sending of the dove (after the release of the raven), and this does not accord with the solution, he proposes that this word was not part of the original P tradition. Two 7-day intervals passed between the first sending of the dove and the third, with the latter coinciding with the end of the flood on the 1st day of the 1st month, in Noah’s 601st year. Not everyone will agree that this multiplying of untestable hypotheses amounts to a solution. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it loses sight of its own premise, namely that according to P the flood ended on the 17th day of the 12th month. It solves a problem that never existed.
The literary approach
Another contributor to the discussion is Gordon Wenham (1987). Wenham points out that parallels with Mesopotamian flood stories from the early second millennium make it unlikely that the Genesis narrative was stitched together from independent Hebrew versions. Either the biblical account was a rewriting of the Mesopotamian account or each went back to a tradition common to both. Analysis indicates that the dates and periods of the Genesis text fit neatly together without the need to postulate different Hebrew sources.
To scholars who take this approach, the text exhibits a chiastic (mirror-like) structure, in which corresponding verses fan out from the hinge phrase ‘And God remembered Noah’. Wenham’s scheme (1978) is probably the most elaborate of those proposed, and all have been criticised by J. A. Emerton. His principal criticisms are: (a) there is no symmetry in the length of the paired units, which varies from half a verse to several verses; (b) the schemes are selective, omitting phrases and sentences at least as significant as those which are included; and (c) some of the pairings are forced. He therefore rejects the literary analysis as being too subjective: although it has the merit of dealing with the text in its final form rather than with its hypothetical antecedents, it does not account for the whole text.
Both the ‘documentary hypothesis’ and the ‘literary analysis’ schools place a high premium on formal symmetry and seek to establish their arguments by focusing on parts at the expense of the whole. One deals with the evolution of the text, the other with its eventual form. Despite Wenham’s raising the possibility that the biblical and Mesopotamian stories might derive from a common oral tradition – in which case neither a ‘documentary hypothesis’ nor a ‘literary analysis’ approach meet the case – neither thinks to ask whether Genesis is describing an occurrence which actually happened.
Though it may be unfashionable, that is the all-important question. Literary qualities need not be incompatible with historiographic ones (Younger 1990); it is only in recent times that historians have seen themselves as social analysts rather than literary artists. If our outlook is not to be limited to a peculiarly modern concept of historiography, we need to consider whether a text’s formal and rhetorical qualities – chiasmus, repetition, variations of vocabulary and so on – are not simply devices of a skilful story-teller, of the ancient historian’s art of capturing memorable events memorably.
That chiasmus has been employed to enhance the intrinsic symmetry of the events is undeniable. Wenham sets out this structure as it relates to the chronological intervals as follows:
7 days of waiting for flood (7:10)
40 days of flood (7:17a)
150 days of water triumphing (7:24)
150 days of water waning (8:3)
40 days’ wait (8:6)
7 days’ wait (8:10)
7 days’ wait (8:12)
The reality of a deliberate pattern seems confirmed by the suppression of another 7-day period obliquely referred to in 8:10, in which the dove searched for a place to rest: to have included it overtly would have disturbed the symmetry. But even here the symmetry is not perfect. Whereas the initial pair of sevens refer to the same period, the corresponding pair in 8:10-12 are consecutive. Similarly, whereas the first 40 days are the first days of the flood, the second 40 days are not the final days of the flood, and there is only one 150-day period, not two – the five months between 17.ii.600 and 17.vii.600.
The literary structure is not identical with the chronological structure. As shown by the artful but ‘imperfect’ symmetry, the author/editor has resisted the temptation to amend the true chronology in the interests of an exact chiasmus
Flood distinct from ‘cataclysm’
The alleged discrepancy between the chronology of 7:17, which allocates 40 days to the ‘flood’, and the chronology of the whole narrative, whereby it lasted some 314 or 370 days, is an artefact of translation. In English a flood is an inundation which ends only when the land returns above water. The word might therefore properly designate the entire period from 17.ii.600 to 01.ii.601. The Hebrew word mabbul, however, has quite a different resonance.
The word is used thirteen times in the Old Testament: twelve times in Genesis 6-11, and once in Psalm 29:10. In each case it refers exclusively to the event which blotted out all living things in the days of Noah. Other words were available if an author wished to refer to floods within the compass of ordinary experience, such as nachal (Job 28:4, Ps 74:15, Jer 47:2) and ye’or (Jer 46:7f, Amos 8:8, 9:5). Mabbul was never used in a general sense.
The twelve occurrences of mabbul in Genesis may be analysed as follows:
The final week of preparation
The event itself
9:11 (twice), 15, 28; 10:1, 32; 11:10.
After verse 7:17, stating that the mabbul was upon the earth 40 days, the term is not used again until 9:11, when the narrative looks back, and it is not used at all in describing events after the 40th day. Instead the author chooses the term ‘waters’: the waters prevailed, were assuaged, decreased, were abated, dried up. To translate it by the word ‘flood’ is misleading, since that term is not reserved for events of extreme violence and destruction. A better translation would be ‘deluge’, or ‘cataclysm’, equivalent to the term κατακλυσμος by which mabbul is rendered in the Septuagint and the New Testament. ‘Cataclysm’ connotes a sudden and violent outbreak of waters, and this was largely spent by Day 40. The continual rain, which was the most perceptible manifestation of the mabbul (7:4, 12), had ceased.
The cognate Akkadian word, abubu, has a similarly restricted range. Here the situation is not so straightfoward, since the Sumerians conflated the primordial cataclysm with a flood that overwhelmed much of southern Mesopotamia at the end of the Jemdet Nasr period (c. 2900 BC in radiocarbon dating). Consequently, when they referred to the abubu, they did so in terms which were a mixture of what they knew from tradition and what they themselves had experienced, and the event as portrayed took on something of the non-global character of the later inundation. Nonetheless, they still looked back on it as a unique event, as the Deluge, and the word referred uniquely to it. Time was divided into lam abubu and arki abubu, before and after the Deluge. The word came from the verb ebebu, ‘to purify or clean,’ a reflection of the fact that the effect and purpose of the cataclysm had been to purge the Earth of its moral pollution, not, as in later myth, to solve a problem of overpopulation.
Even as a metaphor, it denoted power of extraordinary violence. In the Gilgamesh epic a demon called Humbaba guards the forest of the gods (a Sumerian version of the garden of Eden), and ‘his voice is the Deluge (abubu), his speech is fire, and his breath is death’. When Marduk in Enuma elish is appointed the gods’ king and the champion who will fight the monstrous Tiamat (the Sea), the gods give him the Deluge for his most fearsome weapon, and the ensuing battle with the dragon and her demonic allies is a dramatisation of the event, after which the Earth is recreated. Occasionally gods were pictured standing over Tiamat and the abubu, the latter represented as a lion with raptor-like legs and wings to convey the ferocity and suddenness of the onslaught. Assyrian armies boasted of overwhelming their enemies like the Deluge. The abubu had been a cosmic battle, a day when God had confronted and punished his enemies and shown in its waters his overwhelming power.
Enuma elish is the Mesopotamian counterpart of a similar Canaanite myth, the Epic of Baal, where El (‘God’) appoints his son Yam (‘Sea’, the equivalent of Tiamat) as king of the gods in place of his son Hadad (or Baal, the equivalent of Marduk). In the ensuing battle Hadad defeats Yam and obliges El to accept him as king of heaven. As in Enuma elish, the battle is a polytheistic dramatisation of the Deluge, where Hadad in effect usurps the kingship of heaven. So Psalm 29 is a call to remember who really is king. Whereas Israel was continually tempted to follow the heresies of the nations around her and worship the sons of God instead of God himself, David exhorts the host of heaven to ascribe glory to Yahweh (not Hadad), for it is he, king of the universe, who thunders over the waters, flattens the forests and makes the mountains quake. It is he who is enthroned above the abubu beast, the ‘many waters’ that were once his instrument of wrath.
The narrative structure
In narrative the basic unit is the paragraph. Where dates and periods are recorded, typically they begin the paragraph, and the remainder then describes what occurred during the time specified. For example, in I Kings 15-16, which summarises the reigns of successive kings of Judah and Israel, each is introduced with the date in which he came to the throne and the duration of his reign, and the sentences following then describe significant events of the reign. The opening statement outlines the chronology of what is to come. The first verse of Genesis is another example. The statement ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ summarises the events which the rest of the chapter goes on to narrate in detail.
Much the same structure governs the Flood narrative. The first paragraph begins at 7:11. “In the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the 2nd month, the 17th day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened, and rain fell upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights.” The succeeding sentences focus on the first of those days, describing the completion of the task of herding all the animals into the ark on that same day, until Noah and his family boarded the vessel themselves and Yahweh shut the door behind them.
The second paragraph (to some extent expanding on the first) begins at 7:17. “The cataclysm was 40 days upon the earth; and the waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.” The succeeding sentences elaborate on the summary. The waters increased greatly during the period and the ark began to float. The waters increased so greatly that every mountain under the entire heaven was covered. The earth’s creatures perished, without exception, and were totally obliterated. Only those in the ark survived.
The third paragraph begins at 7:24. “And the waters prevailed upon the earth 150 days.” As 8:4 makes clear, this period is inclusive of the initial 40 days. The word ‘prevail’ (gabar) means to have mastery over, have the upper hand, be stronger than (cf. Ex 17:11, II Sam 11:23). The Hebrew does not signify a passive covering of the earth, but active dominance over it. The waters prevail from the very first day, and cease to do so when the land re-asserts itself by emerging above the waters. During these 150 days, but by implication not until after the first 40 days, a wind blows over the earth, the flood waters are no longer multiplied from below, and the rain abates. The waters flow back and forth, subsiding. On the 151st day (this date ending the paragraph) the ark runs aground.
The fourth paragraph begins at 8:5. “And the waters continued to abate until the 10th month; in the 10th month, on the 1st day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.” The first 40 days of this period, beginning from the 151st day, end with Noah sending forth a raven. At this point no land is visible. Noah watches the raven flying back and forth but never venturing far enough, or high enough, to detect whatever land might lie beyond the horizon. After a week he sends forth a dove, which looks for land but does not find it, so returns. The second time she brings back a fresh olive leaf: a sign that the waters were abated (since she was unlikely to have picked the leaf from a branch bobbing in the waves). After leaving the ark a third time, she does not return. Thirteen days later, land is seen from the ark.
The fifth paragraph, at 8:13, is a short note recording that by the 1st day of the new year the waters had receded to the point where all land within view appeared dry.
Finally, the sixth paragraph, beginning at 8:14, records that by the 17th day of the 2nd month of the new year, the earth – not merely the surface of the ground – was dry. It was dry enough to walk on, and Noah at last receives the order to disembark.
Implications for the historicity of the event
In this analysis there are no longer chronological discrepancies. The chronology of the events is as follows:
|Days 1-40||The Cataclysm|
|Day 151||The ark runs aground.|
|Day 191||A raven is released|
|Day 198||A dove is released|
|Day 205||The dove sent forth again|
|Day 212||The dove sent forth a third time|
|Day 225||The hilltops appear|
|Day 315||The surface of the ground is dry|
|Day 371||The earth is dry; all animals released|
The first 40 days are the period in which all land becomes submerged and all terrestrial life perishes; it is distinct from the total duration of the flood. The cataclysm is accompanied by 40 days of unceasing rain, and since verse 8:2 is within the paragraph relating what happens up to Day 150, it no longer appears to say that the rain abated only after Day 150. Finally, the birds are sent out before, not after, land becomes visible.
The chronology is consistent with the events being related. (Contrast the exotic idea that eight adults could have built a wooden vessel 130 metres long in 6 weeks.) In particular the following points should be noted.
The entire earth was overwhelmed with water and destroyed (6:13) in just 40 days – a frighteningly brief period which began when, all on the same day, the earth convulsed with the eruption of the fountains of the deep. These were terrestrial springs supplied by waters underneath the earth (the dry land of 1:10) (Tsumura 1989, Seely 1997), their eruption releasing the waters much as a volcano releases magma. A cataclysm of unimaginable ferocity is implied, simultaneously affecting every part of the earth and shattering its whole fabric, destroying even mountains (as foretold for the day of wrath at the other end of history, in Isa 40:4). The narrative describes an event quite different from floods within normal experience, both in origin and scale. It was not a tsunami hitting low-lying coastlands, or a river bursting its banks, or the undamming of a lake – disasters in which there are always some survivors, leaving other regions and lands untouched. The inundation came, first and foremost, through the eruption of water from below, affecting ‘all the high mountains under the whole heaven’. Accompanied by a continual downpour of water from the heavens, it resulted in the death and obliteration of every animal on the earth, every flying creature, and all mankind, without exception.
Whereas the period of destruction was concentrated into just 40 days, the period in which the earth was under water was possibly as much as 200 days, since the first definite mention of emergence is the appearance of the hilltops on Day 225 (1.x.600). No ‘normal’ flood could have sustained total inundation for over six months. The duration is, however, consistent with the magnitude of the initial cataclysm. The water level falls gradually: the ark runs aground on Day 151, land first emerges above water after a further 74 days, and is completely above water only after a further 90 days.
The narrative is also credible in its portrayal of human actions. Noah, it seems, was forewarned only about the period of destruction, not how long the waters would persist on the earth after the rains had subsided. After 6 months’ confinement he was getting restless. He had received no word from Yahweh since Day 1, and although the ark had run aground, land was still not visible. Anxious for reassurance that the inundation was coming to an end – further off if not in his immediate vicinity – he sent out a raven. But the bird frustrated the intention of the inexperienced seafarer (as animals often do). So he tried again, this time with a dove.
Finally, the report in 8:13 that the earth is dry is repeated in 8:14, but with a different date. Followers of the documentary hypothesis see the repetition as evidence that two traditions have been ineptly pasted together. However, if an author gives different dates for two similar events, the presumption must be that he intends the reader to understand that the events were not the same, albeit similar. In verse 13 what is being recorded is apparent dryness: hence the term ‘behold’, and the reference to the surface of the ground. In the next verse we are told simply that the earth was dry, with the implication that the water table was now low enough and the sediments sufficiently dewatered for animals to walk on the surface without getting bemired. Because of the enormous scale of the flooding a further 56 days had to pass before the animals could disembark with safety.
Analysis of the story shows that it is divided into paragraphs, each of which begins with a synoptic statement that sets out the chronology of the events about to be described. Once this is recognised, the narrative makes sense as the work of essentially one writer, describing an event which, although unlike anything either a Hebrew or a Sumerian could have experienced, is devoid of inconsistencies. The discrepancies alleged by the documentary hypothesis disappear, allowing the focus to return to what the text was intended to communicate rather than how it was put together. The tradition of the Hebrews was that, long ago, the whole earth had been inundated and destroyed. After 40 days, the divine wrath was spent. Almost a year passed before it was safe enough for the survivors to step onto what was once more dry land. The dates that carefully delineated the Flood’s various stages underscore the magnitude of the cataclysm.