Evolving Thoughts

The Flood is perhaps the most scientifically interesting story in Genesis, and it has, in fact, been discussed by scientists for over 400 years. Now we are taking the text to tell us of a world, not taking the world to tell us what to think of the text, but let’s consider what the Flood story might mean for a world in which it occurred.

First the P author gives us a list of genealogy from Adam to Noah. These individuals live very long times – in Methuselah’s case almost a thousand years, so obviously the harm caused by the Fall did not take effect immediately. In fact, the collapse of YHWH’s order takes a long time once the humans know what is proper and improper. Enoch in particular is interesting – he walks with YHWH, who takes him away instead of the formulaic “He died” statement all the others have.

Lamech, Noah’s father, is in the previous chapter reported as having carried out a retributive feud on some young man who injured him, claiming Cain’s protection seventy times more than YHWH had.

In chapter 6, the wickedness has increased to the point YHWH cannot overlook it. First of all, men increase and have beautiful daughters. Then the “sons of Elohim” find them attractive and mate with them. Now traditional theology treats these sons of Elohim as part of the “divine counsel”, but in context of the Phoenician henotheism, they may in fact be literally sons of the supreme deity El (who is father to YHWH and Ba’al too) or of the other deities, thus corrupting YHWH’s choice of his created peoples. This worries YHWH enough that he sets a lifetime limit on humans – 120 years – so he doesn’t have to struggle with them for long.

So this mixing of YHWH’s people with the Elohim leads to giants, mighty men of renown. We might say, in the Greek tradition, that they are the heroes and kings of old (in other words, like Hercules and Prometheus and the kings of Homer’s stories). Most societies magnify the deeds of their ancestors, founders and folk heroes. Over time, stories accrete around them, and the scale of these stories (which like a woodsman’s stories of Paul Bunyan) have to be accounted for. Either you deny that the ancestors did these mighty deeds or you give a reason why they were able to do these things. Genesis (or J) gives us the reason – they were offspring of the Elohim. Just like the Greek stories of Hercules.

The story of Noah in Genesis 6: 9 and following doesn’t talk about YHWH, though, so we are back in another textual tradition (probably P). However, most commentators think this story is a mixture of several traditions.

Noah is the exemplary human, and he is the only one who is to survive, along with his family. He is instructed to build a floating refuge for himself and all living things, which is (so far as we can tell) around 135m long, by 22.5m wide, by 13.5m high (300 cubits by 50 wide by 30 high). To give you something to compare with, the larger container ships are 350m long, around 45m wide, and I don’t know how high, but say around 30m excluding the stacks. The Ark was pretty small when it comes to carrying capacity.

But into this was supposed to go at least two of, and in many cases seven of, all living things. Now this probably means animals, but even so, there’s a limit to what can be carried. Athanasius Kircher, who in the 17th century tried to work out the practical details, came up with 130 mammals, 150 birds, and 30 snakes, a total of 310 species. By the end of the century, Linnaeus knew of 15,000 species. We today know of tens of millions. But the world of Genesis is not rich in biodiversity. In fact it is a very sparse world. Assuming that many things (like worms and insects) are thought to arise from spontaneous generation, as Kircher did, even so, we know of around 4500 mammal species, a factor of nearly 35 times as many as the maximum that Genesis allows us to include. And they were to be confined on this vessel for 150 days.

The Flood is the result, in chapter 6, of rains, and the waters cover the highest mountains after rising 15 cubits, or about 7 m. This can’t be right even for someone who lives only in a flat region of the world like the Mesopotamian delta, so either there’s a mistranscription, or neither “land” nor “mountain” means what it is translated as. Eretz, the term used for land, is remarkably wide in its translation, according to Strong’s. It can mean everything from the locale one is now in to the entire world. But then, we have the rest of the text that suggests that every living thing that lives on dry land will die, so we are forced to conclude that the world of Genesis is very flat – and no hill (which is another meaning of the term har translated as “mountain”) was higher than 6.5m. The traditional reading is that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. This is even more problematic – even if we restrict mountain heights to those known to the ancient world, these rise to 900m in the old Judea, and most of Iran is 1200m above sea level. Peaks in that region rise to 5600m. So these mountains had to have risen after the Flood.

To stop the Flood, God closes the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven. Wind pushes the waters back. It seems that olive trees have survived 150 days under water, because the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf in her beak. And every living thing leaves the Ark (8:19), and now we’re back with YHWH, who is back to being an ordinary being again, because he smells the odour of cooking birds and meat. He really likes that meat, because he makes a covenant (a legal contract?) not to curse the ground again, largely because he’s reconciled to the fact that humans do evil in their minds from a young age.

The narrative again shifts to the use of “Elohim”, who tells Noah to replenish the earth. There’s some interesting genetics implied here. We have eight individuals, five of whom are directly related), but they are the source for all subsequent humans, including all the major genetic diversity found at least by the time of the Redactor. This suggests that in Genesis’ World, inheritance is not fixed, but is malleable. We might expect this, especially when we get to the story of Jacob and his sheep/goats; heredity is a mixture of the internal nature of things (particularly of the blood, 9:4) and of the surrounding environment. So there is no problem with eight people giving rise to all the variation seen in the “modern” world – such changes are unremarkable, and often depend on curses and blessings. But given our earlier interpretation – that this is a narrative of those who are open to YHWH Elohim’s covenants, we might infer only that the peoples of Palestine evolved from Noah’s family, in which case the Flood cannot have been universal. Of course, outside the text, there are many local similar stories, such as Zuisudra and Utnapishtim, so the story has antecedents or is simply something based on similar experiences of local floods. The Gilgamesh Epic story is extremely similar to the wording of some of the Genesis account.

Incidentally, the justification for displacing the Canaanites is here, in the fact that Ham, one of Noah’s sons, saw him when he (exemplar that he is) got drunk and exposed himself. Again, a political justification founded in the myths. Then we get another genealogy from P. This tells us that the Mesopotamian valley was inhabited by sons of Ham, so we might infer that the sons of Shem, from whom the Judeans and Israelites are supposed to be descended, are blessed where they are cursed (which will have all kinds of resonance in the post-Exilic period; nothing like feeling superior to your conquerors). The sons of Japeth are the ancestors of the Sea Peoples (the Phoenicians, who the Israelites are closely related in Real World, if not in Genesis World). Basically the anthropology of Genesis 10 suggests that the whole world with which it is concerned is the then-Fertile Crescent, which backs up the “local flood” interpretation.

The inconsistencies then in the Ark story about all living things can be explained as the melding of two or more distinct texts, with different intents. I think the consensus reading is that “eretz” means only the local world, the Fertile Crescent, and excludes all other regions (like, umm, Egypt? You know, that big empire to the south that keeps taking administrative control over your region? C’mon, P, you must have noticed, even if you did just come from Babylon…). P and R try to tidying things up, but it’s hard to redact when you have to treat the words as sacred stories.

Next, the Babel story.


  1. #1 tinyfrog
    June 11, 2007

    These individuals live very long times – in Methuselah’s case almost a thousand years, so obviously the harm caused by the Fall did not take effect immediately. In fact, the collapse of YHWH’s order takes a long time once the humans know what is proper and improper.

    As you point out later, the shorter lifespans were not a result of the Fall, but rather due to a statement by God in Genesis 6:3, “And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.”

    If we assume God is omniscient, this verse doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because you want to ask, “Why didn’t God make that change *before* human civilization turned evil? For example, why not make that change at the Fall?” If we assume a god with a limited knowledge (like the Greek gods), then this change in attitude over time makes sense. Also, what does it mean that God has to struggle with them for 120 years? If God is outside of time (as many Christians claim), then this doesn’t make much sense. From the perspective of Greek gods, however…

    Also, even though “120 years” is the “upper limit” on ages according to the Bible, there is at least one person who has lived longer than that – Jeanne Calment lived 122 years.

  2. #2 windy
    June 11, 2007

    Jeanne Calment lived 122 years.

    God was talking about the upper limit of a MAN’s age, wasn’t he? ;)

  3. #3 Salad Is Slaughter
    June 11, 2007

    Could the assumption of a world wide flood have come from people finding fossilized shells or other sea creatures in hilly areas? These people would have no knowledge that major land features change over time, nor the age of the earth. The only explanation that would make sense to them is that the great flood that they�ve been told about was larger and more devastating than they first imagined.

  4. #4 Susan Silberstein
    June 11, 2007

    I am enjoying this series very much, and learning lots. Thank you. Is this stuff that you have been thinking about for a long time (all that theology study) or is it a recently inspired project?

    I am always amused at the twisty ways the modern believing folks need to use to turn the multiple gods in the text into one.

  5. #5 faux_pseudo
    June 11, 2007

    I did my own take on the Flood in a three part post illustratd in ascii art.
    See it here, here and here

  6. #6 Rick T
    June 11, 2007

    I like the topic but I would rather that Genesis be approached scientifically rather than let customarily Judeo/Christian views be used without critique. Please read “Secrets of the Exodus, the Egyptian Origins of the Hebrew People” by Messod and Roger Sabbah. I think this book is going to create more study as it, for one, shows how the Hebrew alphabet came from Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Also, you will find Genesis described in much different terms based on linguistics, archeology, anthropology and what we know of history and Egyptology. I’m not trying to offend. It’s just that I find your interpretation of Genesis very compatable with most Biblical scholars and that bothers me. There is better information out there as of late that sheds more light on the topic.

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    June 12, 2007

    There is no reason to approach Genesis any more scientifically than in terms of textual analysis; it’s not a science book. That is rather the point of this series…

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    June 12, 2007

    Susan, I started reading the Genesis text closely when I did theology some 25 years ago. Since then I have kept up an amateur’s interest in it, and found parallels with the anthropology and history of the region. About five years ago I tutored (TA’d for you ‘Mericans) in the history of astronomy, and was amazed at how the early Hellenic cosmologies were both very like and in another way massively unalike, the Semitic myths. It all fell out of that.

    Of course, 20 years listening to creationists argue that Genesis is the source of scientific knowledge helped. I was on a camping trip with Chris Nedin, Ian Musgrave and Jim Foley in the Flinders Ranges a few years back and we were chatting as you might expect, when I came up with the idea of such a project. I sort of got sick of waiting for one of them to do it for me.

    Besides, I’m Avoiding Work…

  9. #9 Rick T
    June 12, 2007

    There is no reason to approach Genesis any more scientifically than in terms of textual analysis; it’s not a science book. That is rather the point of this series…

    Of course it’s not a science book but you can approach it in a scientific way as I mentioned before. I can look at a rock in many different ways also. I can collect them, throw them or study what they are made of and how they came to be. I guess I just don’t get the point of repeating what has been said so many times before. The common reading has tainted any attempt at a fresh reading of the text. I simply proposed textual criticism instead of textual analysis. In the first case you would bring other disciplines to bear on the subject and the latter you would simply read it and try and figure out what it means in light of what we know of the text, that is, Christian scholars learned opinions. Those opinions have been tainted by religious prejudice therefore it is not approaching the subject in a scientific manner.
    Why not give your analysis of the Tower of Babel story and I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about with an interpretation of the text based on historical writings and archaeology of the ancient city of Akhetaten (tell el-Armana). It’s not science, per se, be it is textual criticism approached in a scientific manner based on verifiable sources and commonly accepted facts and not simply a reread of the myth.
    Fair enough?

  10. #10 MG
    June 12, 2007

    Enoch, stands out as special because he was the 7th from Adam. 7 of course being a mystical number related to the 7 known celestrial bodies, Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. 70 and 77 are also derived from 7 and are typical examples of what happens to numbers in the bi-colon verses found at Ugarit and the Bible when they are “rhymed”. There is 4–>40, 7–>70 and 12–>120, all of which statistically stand out in their usage.

    70 is an Near East idiom used to describe a large family. El and Asherah had 70 sons. The total number that descended to Egypt prior to the Exodus was 70. It shows up over and over, just like 40, an idiom that just means “a lot”. It rained for 40 days, Solomon reigned for 40 years. Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days. Ali-Baba and the 40 Thieves. 3, 4, and 12 are others. 3 for the ever so famous “three days” motif ultimately derived from the moon being eaten by the sun (dying) and returning (resurecting) 3 days later. Also the sun at the winter solstice “hangs” in the sky at it’s lowest point (at meridian) for 3 days before beginning to rise northward again. Plenty of dying/rising gods do so after three days with their birthdays three days after the winter solstice, Dec 25. It’s not just a NT thing, the three day motif shows up plenty in the OT. It’s never, “then, on the 2nd day, (or 4th, 5th, etc…)”, magic things always happen after three days. Nineveh was so big… (How big was it?) It took three days to walk across! (From Jonah, who whas in the whale for three days and three nights.) 4 for the 4 cardinal directions and 12 of course for 12 lunar cycles per one solar cycle. Hence 12 months, 12 hours in a day (plus 12 at night), and systems of weights of measure based on 12. J uses 7 and 40 a lot, P uses 12 and 70 a lot. None of these numbers can be taken as literal values in their usage.

    If P is really post-exilic dating to the 5th century, that would explain the lack of mention of Egypt. Egypt was conquered along with the Levant by the Babylonians, and soon after by the Persians. That pretty much did them in as far as their past glory and they were no longer the major player they had been expecially during the New Kingdom, the time of their greatest control over the Levant. (Which the Bible’s chronology has coinciding with Joshua’s conquest.) Of course in 330 came Alexander who took Egypt after Tyre before heading to Babylon both to secure his flank and to control the farmland around the Nile.

    Also just as info, some differeneces between J and P in the flood story are listed here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rs/2/Judaism/jp-flood.html

    J and P seperated verse by verse can be found here: http://mb-soft.com/believe/txs/genesis.htm

    If you read just J in ch 6-7 it reads as a continous story. If you read just P in ch 6-7 it reads as a continous story. Of note is the fact that all the “inconsistances” identified in the 1st link resolve themselves when read seperately.

    Also Gen 5:1-32, 7:6, 9:28-29, 11:10-26,32) compose what is called the “Book of Generations”. This site lists these all as P. These are all verses when viewed together list the lineage from Adam to Terah (Abraham’s dad) in a distinct pattern and formula. Interestingly, the verses regarding Enoch fall in this range and break the pattern which may indicate the “taken by Elohim” was a late idea and inserted into the BOG. Also the 1st verse of the BOG (5:1) begins with “In the day…” just like Gen 2:4 does, the 1st verse identified as J. Also note that Noah was the 10th from Adam, just as Utnapishtim was the 10th Prediluvian king in Babylonia.

  11. #11 John Wilkins
    June 13, 2007

    Thanks for the explanation. MG. I learned something.

  12. #12 Thony C.
    June 13, 2007

    MG what is the source for your biblical number speculations. The subject interests me and I would like to know more.

  13. #13 MG
    June 13, 2007

    In answer to Thony C. Another long one, hope you don’t mind John…

    I’ve never run across a single source that details all the number info, expecially in relation to the Bible since it’s so taboo to accuse the Bible of being “mythology”. Your best perspective will come from general Near East history, texts from neighboring cultures, comparitive mythology, Israelite origins, Bible origins, etc…

    For Canaanite stories highly related to the bible, “Stories for Ancient Canaan” from Michael Coogan. You’ll find lots of 7′s and 70′s here in translations of primary sources from Ugarit in the stories of El and Baal. The verse structure of these sources are fantisticaly similar to portions of the Bible. Add a folk hero and tie them down in time and space and you would swear you were reading a book of the Bible. Also “Did God Have a Wife” by Dever addresses the “YHWH and his Asherah” inscription from Sameria and the Asherah references in the Bible and other Cannanite connections.

    Other related myths and legends where you’ll find lots of uses of “mystic numbers”, “Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia” from Jean Bottero is excellent, however it’s translated from French and loaded with run-on sentences that will strain your brain for comprehension. “Myths from Mesopotamia” from Stephanie Dalley has translations of Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation written on 7 tablets), Gilgamesh, Utnapishnum, and others with great introductions. It’s full of 7′s and 12′s as is “God’s Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia”, a dictionary loaded with great stuff and useful when you can’t remember if a particular deity was Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, etc… “Legends of the Egyptian Gods” from Budge is good, but there is probably something else avalible that’s more up to date. The elements of creation from Gen 1 are extremely similar to the Egyptian creation story from Heliopolis, only in the Egyptian version they are minor gods being called into existance by the creator god. If I recall correctly, this is also the only other NE myth where creation happens as a result of spoken word (like Gen 1) vs the “cosmic combat” from others.

    Highly recommended is Joseph Campbell’s “Primitive Mythology” and “Occidental Mythology” from the “Masks of God” series. Excellent, excellent, excellent. “Oriental Mythology” and “Creative Mytholgy” complete the series. It was Campbell who proposed how the Hebrews were not simply regurgitating the standard myths, but re-casting them in a different light as all doings of YHWH and shifting the blame for the state of affairs of the world to man rather than the gods. For more comparative mythology check out Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves. All of these touch on the origins of some of the numbers as well.

    For general NE history I liked “A History of the Ancient Near East” by Van De Mieroop. Also good is “The Oxford History of the Biblical World”. You’ll realize how much you didn’t pay attention in school.

    On the Biblical composition itself nothing is better than “Who Wrote the Bible” from Friedman and as a supplement, “The Bible with Sources Revealed”. The most up do date text of the “classic” view of the documentary hypothesis. Once you see his presentation of the evidence from the text itself you’ll have no doubt of it’s composite nature. (Though the jury is still out in places on the dating.)

    For Israelite origins, “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman and “Who were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come from?” by Dever. You’ll see where Dever and Finkelstein argue over details, but they paint roughly the same picture. Both give a good history of the past 100 years or so of “Biblical” Archeology. I also thought “Ancient Israel’s Faith and History” by Mendenhall was excellent. He looks at the history with “squinted eyes” and paints a picture no more detailed than is really known and resists drawing too much solely on the Bible. “Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times” by Donald Redford (and Egyptologist) is absolutely fantastic.

    Also interesting is “101 Myths of the Bible”, which is really more about parallel themes than “falsehoods”. “Secret Origins of the Bible” from Tim Callahan is full of interesting tidbits, but lengthy for the content. (Intro by Michael Sherman.)

    If you want to delve into more scholary works, check out “The Early History of God”, “Origins of Biblical Monotheism”, and “Memoirs of God” all by Mark Smith and “Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic” by Frank Moore Cross. A couple of these are avaliable online from Google Books I believe. All correlate Hebrew and Canaanite traditions and speculate on the origins of YHWH. A good psudo-summary is “The Rise of Ancient Israel” from a symposium at the Smithsonian in the late 90′s.

    For just the big picture, “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong is unbeatable. She’s an ex-nun with a very unique perspective.

    For a similar theme but from a theistic perspective, “The River of God” by Reiley presents a shorter, somewhat summerized version of Armstrong, but at the end of each chapter there’s an editorial about how (his view) despite the fact that the Israelites were essentially Canaanites who worshiped El, Baal, Asherah and a host of other deities alongside YHWH whose theology transformed from polytheism, to henotheism, to monotheism and shows all sorts of Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and even Greek influences by the ancient Israelites were God’s chosen people descended from Abraham, who was probably a legend, that received a revelation through Moses, who may have not even existed, during the Exodus, which probably didn’t even happen, the whole affair has been manipulated by the Supreme God in such a way that the people of the time could understand so that it all lead up to the revelation of mankind’s path to salvation through Jesus. (Think “theistic history”.)

    Finally, I saved this one for last because I offer it with a grain of salt. “Mythology’s Last Gods” from Harwood is also along the lines of Armstrong, but with a rather terse tone. His stance is somewhat spiteful of the fact that he was raised to belive one thing then when he grew up learned it was all myths and legends no different than other cultures. (Again like Armstrong but with attitude.) He tends to make some over-generalzations and in places draws upon some questionable ideas. Still, it will expose you to some things you won’t see otherwise that you’ll find worthy of further investigation. What I liked about it was the lack of hesitation if you will to treat parts of the Bible as mythology for comparative analysis, but method of presentation could have been better.

    The incredible thing is none of this is really new. The bulk of this has been taught at seminaries and universities for decades. If it weren’t for Wikipedia and Amazon I’d still be in the dark. There’s not a whole lot of this sort of material avaliable on the web, but if you search, and can weed through all the religious material, there are a few good pages scattered around. Kudos to you John for taking the time to do it.

  14. #14 Thony C.
    June 13, 2007

    MG Thanks! ThC

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    June 14, 2007

    MG: Wow, you’ve added about nine titles to my books-to-look-for list – thanks much!

    A quibble: I sincerely hope Armstrong’s A History of God is beatable, because I’ve been slogging through it for a week and can easily imagine it being much better. It’s not a history of “god”, but of theology in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition, focused narrowly on intellectual documents (no regard for religion as actually practiced); it’s massively whitewashed (except for half a page of tut-tutting on the witch-hunts, no mention of the bitter & bloody pursuit of heretics, nothing on Mohammed’s violence, etc, etc); and incomplete even within its stated limits (Manicheanism & the Nabateaens each get one tiny reference in passing).

    On a separate tangent: if you like the exercise of treating ancient worldviews literally, take a peek at Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters: A Novel of Alternative Science. A passably well-told story of derring-do is used to explore the implications of a universe which operates with Aristotlean physics, Ptolemaic cosmology, etc – it’s a lot of fun.