The story of Noah and the Flood, Genesis: 6-9, is one of the best known stories in the Bible. God tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with every species on the earth. When the ark is full, a flood inundates the earth. Only Noah and those on his ark survive.
God makes a covenant with humanity never to destroy the world again. The rainbow is given as a reminder of this covenant. When the ark lands, Noah gets drunk and misbehaves. What does it all mean?
The last major Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago. Water levels rose dramatically. Entire seaside communities were destroyed leading to memories of a great flood. Some scientists argue that the Mediterranean Sea breached a blockage in the Bosporus and flooded a valley which then became the Black Sea. This event, the Black Sea deluge, would have happened around 5600 BCE. Others speculate about a tsunami or a comet. Perhaps the memory of one or more of these deluges is carried forward in the Bible’s flood story.
Many civilizations have a story that involves a flood. The Israelites who gave us the Bible lived among the Semitic peoples of the East. Archeology has discovered tablets bearing flood stories from other cultures in the area. Two of these are the Sumerian “Myth of Gilgamesh” and the Babylonian tale of Atrahasis. Some argue that the Myth of Gilgamesh is the source of the Bible’s flood story. Others argue that they are independent stories derived from a common regional language of cultural metaphors and images.
If you think the Bible’s flood story is based on a memory of an ancient deluge, vote for Option 1: The story of Noah and the flood is a folk memory of a big flood.
In the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh, and some other stories, the gods act to destroy humanity because of overpopulation. The Genesis story of the flood has a different theme. It says in Genesis 6:12 “God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.”
Noah and the flood are also mentioned in the Koran (e.g. Surah 23:23-30). There, only the people who heard Noah’s call to worship Allah and ignored him are destroyed. The Bible and the Koran both serve to warn humanity. If you think this is the point, vote for Option 2: The story of the flood teaches that God can and will destroy humankind if we become corrupt.
The Bible story continues after the flood and we have the first use of the word “covenant” in the Bible (Genesis 6:18). When people from the ark have returned to land, (Genesis 9:16) God says, “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
If you think this is the purpose of the flood story, vote for Option 3: The emphasis of the flood story is the rainbow covenant that God will not destroy the world.
The hero of the flood story is Noah. Noah is chosen to build the ark because, as the Bible says in Genesis 7:1 “…You alone have I found righteous.” Yet at the end of the story, Genesis 9: 20-22, Noah is the first human to plant a vineyard, the first to get drunk, and the first to expose himself sexually to his children. Perhaps the message is that even the best person can fall into addiction and error. If you think so, vote for Option 4: The teaching of the story is that humans, no matter how righteous, will sometimes lose their way.
Another unique feature of the Biblical flood story is that it leads, in Genesis 9:1-7, to a set of laws for how people should live. Judaism teaches that these “Noachide laws” are the only things God requires of non-Jews. If you think this is the focus of the story, vote for Option 5: The emphasis of the story is on the simple rules that God requires of all humanity.
You may have a different idea than the ones I have listed or see more than one as very important. If so, vote for Option 6: I see the emphasis of the story in a different way.
I look forward to discussing this with you. online. Join the discussion and take the poll.
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