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.