The Flood

From the city-states of ancient Greece to the tribes of the Amazon rainforest, cultures everywhere have preserved similar stories about heroes slaying monsters, talking animals playing tricks on each other, and jealous siblings fighting to the death. Especially common in world mythologies are stories about world-ending floods and the chosen individuals that managed to survive them, like the biblical Noah.

Even older than the Noah account is the story about Utnapishtim, the ark builder in the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” This is a story originating in Mesopotamia. But far away in the Americas in Aztec mythology, a man named Tata and his wife Nena carve out a cypress tree after being warned of a coming deluge by the god Tezcatlipoca, while Manu, the first man in Hindu folklore, was visited by a fish that guided his boat to the peak of a mountain. The list goes on.

Why is there such similarity between the oral traditions of geographically separated peoples? Some argue that these similarities are evidence of cultural transmission in the distant past before human migration really got underway. Others maintain that they developed independently as the result of comparable experiences.

Archaeological and genealogical research suggests that our species originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, then spread to the rest of the world via the Middle East. This means cultures that are geographically separated at present would have been able to exchange beliefs and practices back when they lived in roughly the same area. Anna Rooth, author of “The Creation Myths of the North American Indians,” analyzed small narrative details in more than 300 Native American creation myths and found that many of those details also showed up in myths from Eurasia, strongly suggesting a common origin. This is perhaps true of the flood accounts.

The oldest myth we know of comes from Babylon and is mentioned by Eusebius Caesarea, a historian of early Christianity who mentions the lost works of the Babylonian historian Berosus, who in turn talked about lost Babylonian records that allegedly dated back to the empire’s founding at the dawn of civilization itself. According to Berosus, a great flood took place during the reign of Xísouthros, a Sumerian king who lived sometime around 2900 BC. Warned of the deluge by a god, Xísouthros built a ship for his family, friends, and various animals — motifs that should sound familiar. Considering he also used birds to locate land after the rain had ended, it’s not unlikely that this legend was the basis for Gilgamesh and Noah.

You can read the Gilgamesg story here. There are the elements of the flood story that Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible share:

  • A divine commitment to destroy most of humanity
  • The focus on a named flood survivor
  • Building an ark or boat that is described in detail in the narrative
  • Animals being put on board to preserve their species
  • The flood
  • Sending out birds to see if the flood waters have receded
  • Post-flood sacrifices to repair the relationship between humanity and the divine

As well there are many detailed differences: monotheism vs. a pantheon of gods – and more. While both offer the reader an understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmic order of things, the Biblical Noah account offers the reader an understanding of morality — the destruction of the wicked and the saving of the righteous. When one reads the Biblical account, the story of Noah really is an extension of the original sin, Cain and Abel, Lamech, and a world that was consumed by evil and sin. The Noah account reveals where humanity stands in the moral order of the world.

The story of the flood is found in Genesis 6-9, but it really begins a bit earlier. We can’t forget that this story is part of a larger literary unit from Genesis 1 to 11. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3), things began a downward spiral. Humanity multiplied and violence reigned. Cain killed his brother Abel. One of Cain’s descendants, Lamech, became a man renowned for violence, boasting his exploits (Genesis 4). Sin and evil were only intensifying. How would God react to this state of humanity?

Just before the story of the flood begins, we learn that “When the LORD saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil” (Genesis 6:5) and “his heart was grieved” (Genesis 6:6). So God sent the floodwaters as a judgment, a block in the way of humanity’s wickedness that rose out of the grief of his heart. Genesis describes the flood as the de-creation of the world—the earth sinks back into the chaotic waters that God cleared away at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:6-10). In the ark, God carries Noah’s family through the flood unharmed to start afresh in a world returned to innocence. It is a new beginning and a chance to have a different end.

You might be saying, “But no matter how you tell the story, God still wipes out all of humanity except one family!” How does the flood reflect the goodness of God when he sent such a disaster on the earth? Let’s make three observations from the context of the story.

Just Mercy: The story of the flood is one of God taking merciful action to restrain humanity’s ever-increasing evil. Genesis tells us that God saw that every intention of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). In the Bible, context means everything. Genesis firmly anchors the meaning of the flood in the context of God’s intervention to stop humanity’s headlong slide into evil.

Grief, Not Vengeance: God doesn’t take pleasure in the flood. Rather, Genesis highlights how the wickedness unleashed by the Fall caused him sorrow and grief. God made the earth to be a place where humanity could flourish, but instead they turned it into a theater of violence and disaster (Genesis 4:8, 4:23, 6:1-7). And God’s heart was broken.

The Curious Climax: Covenant – Later on, when Isaiah the prophet remembers Noah (Isaiah 54:9), he doesn’t think of the flood but the covenant God made with Noah afterward. In that covenant, God promises that nothing like this will ever happen again. This points to the key meaning of the story: the flood is about God’s mercy and commitment to the goodness of what he has made.

The flood wasn’t an act of wanton destruction by a capricious God. God was acting to restore the goodness of his creation. God preserves one family through the flood and elevates Noah as a new Adam, placed once again in a garden on a high mountain paradise with the commission to be fruitful and multiply.

And this is a major difference between Gilgamesh and Noah.

Of course, just as in Eden, instead of spreading God’s goodness, Noah and his family begin again to spread the disaster of human evil (Genesis 9:18-29). All of this begs the question: how does Noah’s story further God’s plan of redemption?

Noah becomes a paradigm for the kind of leader we are awaiting—the righteous one in a wicked age who enters the waters of death and comes out the other side into a new creation, bringing about a new covenant of peace and life. The gospel authors use allusions to the flood story to confirm Jesus is this leader.

There is a curious moment in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus talks about a future baptism he must accomplish (Luke 12:50). What was Jesus talking about? Hadn’t he already been baptized earlier in the story (Luke 3:21)? As the story unfolds, it becomes clear—Jesus’ death on the cross was his submersion under the dark waters of chaos. But this flood story has a different ending.

In the flood account in Genesis, the wicked died and the righteous one was spared. With Jesus, the wicked were spared and the righteous one sank beneath the waters of death. Unlike Noah, Jesus did not escape the flood alive; the waters of death rose and drowned him. Noah survived the flood by taking shelter in the ark. But in his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus became a shelter, not just for his own family but for all of creation.

The ultimate consequence for sin wasn’t expressed by the flood; instead, it fell on Jesus on the cross. The flood was violent, but it wasn’t the work of a violent God. Rather, this God took on flesh and died a violent death at the hands of violent men, a death that became the very means he would use to save his enemies and usher in an eternal kingdom of peace.

When we read the story of the flood as part of the ongoing narrative of redemption, it points beyond itself to the goodness of God. This violent event in history turns out to be one step along the way of God restoring broken creation.

Image credit: The Flood of Noah and Companions (c. 1911) by Léon Comerre. Musée d’Arts de Nantes
Sources: Tim Brinkhof, — February 3, 2023 and “Why did God flood the world? from Bible Project

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