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Genesis flood narrative

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The Flood of Noah and Companions (c. 1911) by Léon Comerre. Musée d'Arts de Nantes.

The Genesis flood narrative is the flood myth[a] found in chapters 6–9 of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament.[1] The story tells of God's decision to return the Earth to its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.[2] The narrative has very strong similarities to parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the Book of Genesis.

A global flood as described in this myth is inconsistent with the physical findings of geology, paleontology and the global distribution of species.[3][4][5] A branch of creationism known as flood geology is a pseudoscientific attempt to argue that such a global flood actually occurred.[6]



Building the Ark (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

The flood narrative is part of what scholars call the primeval history, the first 11 chapters of Genesis.[7] These chapters, fable-like and legendary, form a preface to the patriarchal narratives which follow, but show little relationship to them.[8][7][9] For example, the names of its characters and its geography—Adam ("Man") and Eve ("Life"), the Land of Nod ("Wandering"), and so on—are symbolic rather than real, and much of the narratives consist of lists of "firsts": the first murder, the first wine, the first empire-builder.[10] Few of the people, places and events depicted in the book are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.[10]

This has led scholars to suppose that the primeval history forms a late composition attached to Genesis to serve as an introduction.[11] At one extreme are those who see it as a product of the Hellenistic period, in which case it cannot be earlier than the first decades of the 4th century BCE;[12] on the other hand the Yahwist (Jahwist) source has been dated by others, notably John Van Seters, to the exilic pre-Persian period (the 6th century BCE), precisely because the primeval history contains so much Babylonian influence in the form of myth.[13][b]

The flood narrative is made up of two stories woven together.[14] As a result many details are contradictory, such as how long the flood lasted (40 days according to Genesis 7:17, 150 according to 7:24), how many animals were to be taken aboard the Ark (one pair of each in 6:19, one pair of the unclean animals and seven pairs of the clean in 7:2), and whether Noah released a raven which "went to and fro until the waters were dried up" or a dove which on the third occasion "did not return to him again," or possibly both.[15] Despite this disagreement on details the story forms a unified whole (some scholars see in it a "chiasm", a literary structure in which the first item matches the last, the second the second-last, and so on),[c] and many efforts have been made to explain this unity, including attempts to identify which of the two sources was earlier and therefore influenced the other.[16][d]

The flood narrative at large is composed of the Jahwist and Priestly sources; the Elohist source that the Jahwist narrative was later conjoined to apparently lacked any of the narratives pertaining to events that preceded the strife between Sarai and Hagar.[17] The Jahwist narrative, centuries older than the Priestly,[18] appears to constitute all the similarities with the flood myth from the Epic of Gilgamesh: After being discovered as righteous in a world full of iniquity, Noah builds the Ark at Yahweh's behest. He receives instruction on the number of animals to store (seven of clean animals and fowls, but two of unclean beasts). A week-long torrent causes the Deluge, which lasts forty days, after which Noah releases a dove once a week for four weeks until the dove doesn't return. Noah takes this to mean that the bird has finally found dry land to nest on. So he leads his family out of the Ark, at which point he builds an altar to Yahweh, prompting the deity to establish the Noahic covenant. The Priestly source serves largely as a tool of promoting God's overall influence in the event, inserting a narrative where God speaks directly to Noah and extolls his virtues, before vowing to establish a covenant with him and providing strict instructions as to the structure of the Ark. He then commands Noah to take with him the more famous two of every animal onto the Ark, although because the Priestly source's urtext never actually described Noah doing this, it is immediately followed by the Jahwist's contradictory claim of Noah bringing sevens for most and two for some. The Priestly source then describes the flood as lasting for 150 days, without making mention of how the waters rose as the Yahwist had — although it then explains that God shut the windows of the firmament and the abyss in order to abate the waters, which would imply they were likewise its origin as well. The end of the Priestly source's Deluge is far more gradual than the Yahwist's; instead of taking seven days, it now takes a full year, and Noah sends out a raven at the end of the tenth month, as opposed to a dove after only 40 days of rain. Eventually, at the Ark's resting place, now clarified as Ararat, it is God, and not Noah, who commands the Ark's occupants to disembark.[19][failed verification]

In summary, the 'original', Jahwist narrative of the Great Deluge was modest; a week of ostensibly non-celestial rain is followed by a forty day flood which takes a mere week to recede in order to provide Noah his stage for God's covenant. It is the Priestly Source which adds more fantastic figures of a 150-day flood, which emerged by divine hand from the heavens and earth and took ten months to finally stop. Gilbert Christopher argues that the Jahwist source's capricious and somewhat simplistic depiction of Yahweh is clearly distinguished from the Priestly source's characteristically majestic, transcendental, and austere virtuous Yahweh.[20]

Comparative mythology

The flood myth is said to have originated in Mesopotamia.[21] The Mesopotamian story has three distinct versions, the Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra, (the oldest, dating from about 1600 BCE), and as episodes in two Babylonian epics, those of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh.[22] Allusions to the flood are also found in The Sumerian King List and The Instructions of Shurrupak. Yi Samuel Chen Argues that this narrative was added during the Old Babylonian Period, analyzing how texts before didn't contain the myth and texts containing it were written during and after the Old Babylonian Period.[23] The Old Babylonian Period was after the Ur III Period, an era known for self-deified kings.[24] Chen argues that the demise of the Ur III Period inspired elements of the flood narrative.[23]

Genesis 6:9–9:17


The Deluge by Gustave Doré (1865)

Noah was a righteous man and walked with God. Seeing that the earth was corrupt and filled with violence, God instructed Noah to build an Ark in which he, his sons, and their wives, together with male and female of all living creatures, would be saved from the waters. Noah entered the Ark in his six hundredth year, and on the 17th day of the second month of that year "the fountains of the Great Deep burst apart and the floodgates of heaven broke open" and rain fell for forty days and forty nights until the highest mountains were covered to a depth of 15 cubits, and all earth-based life perished except Noah and those with him in the Ark.

In Jewish folklore, the kind of water that was pouring to the earth for forty days is not common rainfall; rather, God bade each drop pass through Gehenna before it fell to earth, which 'hot rain' scalded the skin of the sinners. The punishment that overtook them was befitting their crime. As their sensual desires had made them hot, and inflamed them to immoral excesses, so they were chastised by means of heated water.[25]

1896 illustration of the symbol of the rainbow, which God created as a sign of the covenant

After 150 days, "God remembered Noah ... and the waters subsided" until the Ark rested on the mountains of Ararat. On the 27th day of the second month of Noah's six hundred and first year the earth was dry. Then Noah built an altar and made a sacrifice, and God made a covenant with Noah that man would be allowed to eat every living thing but not its blood, and that God would never again destroy all life by a flood.

The Flood and the creation narrative

The flood is a reversal and renewal of God's creation of the world.[26] In Genesis 1 God separates the "waters above the earth" from those below so that dry land can appear as a home for living things, but in the flood story the "windows of heaven" and "fountains of the deep" are opened so that the world is returned to the watery chaos of the time before creation.[27] Even the sequence of flood events mimics that of creation, the flood first covering the earth to the highest mountains, then destroying, in order, birds, cattle, beasts, "swarming creatures", and finally mankind.[27] (This parallels the Babylonian flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where at the end of rain "all of mankind had returned to clay," the substance of which they had been made.)[28] The Ark itself is likewise a microcosm of Solomon's Temple.


Intertextuality is the way biblical stories refer to and reflect one another. Such echoes are seldom coincidental—for instance, the word used for ark is the same used for the basket in which Moses is saved, implying a symmetry between the stories of two divinely chosen saviours in a world threatened by water and chaos.[29] The most significant such echo is a reversal of the Genesis creation narrative; the division between the "waters above" and the "waters below" the earth is removed, the dry land is flooded, most life is destroyed, and only Noah and those with him survive to obey God's command to "be fruitful and multiply."[30][full citation needed]

Religious views


The Genesis flood narrative is included in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (see Books of the Bible). Jesus and the apostles additionally taught on the Genesis Flood narrative in New Testament writing (Matthew 24:37-39, Luke 17:26-27, 1 Peter 3:20, 2 Peter 2:5, 2 Peter 3:6, Hebrews 11:7).[31][32] Some Christian biblical scholars suggest that the flood is a picture of salvation in Christ—the Ark was planned by God and there is only one way of salvation through the door of the Ark, akin to one way of salvation through Christ.[33][31] Additionally, some scholars commenting on the teaching of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:18-22), connect the Ark with the resurrection of Christ; the waters burying the old world but raising Noah to a new life.[33][31] Christian scholars also highlight that 1 Peter 3:18-22 demonstrates the Genesis flood as a type to Christian baptism.[34][35][31]


The Quran states that Noah (Nūḥ) was inspired by God, believed in the oneness of God, and preached Islam.[36] God commanded Noah to build an Ark. As he was building it, the chieftains passed him and mocked him. Upon its completion, the Ark was loaded with the animals in Noah's care as well as his immediate household.[37] The people who denied the message of Noah, including one of his own sons, drowned.[38] The final resting place of the Ark was referred to as Mount Judi.[39]


Mandaeism teaches that the Flood of Noah was the last of three events where the world's population was reduced to a single family. Thirty generations after Adam, most of the population was killed by pestilence and war, leaving only Ram and his wife Rud. Twenty-five generations later, most of the population was killed by fire, leaving only Shurbai and his wife Shurhabil. Fifteen generations later, most of the population was killed by flood, leaving only Noah and Shem,[40] in addition to the latter's wife Nuraitha.[41]


While some scholars have tried to offer possible explanations for the origins of the flood myth including a legendary retelling of a possible Black Sea deluge, the general mythological exaggeration and implausibility of the story are widely recognized by relevant academic fields. The acknowledgement of this follows closely the development of understanding of the natural history and especially the geology and paleontology of the planet.[3][42]


The Masoretic Text of the Torah places the Great Deluge 1,656 years after Creation, or 1656 AM (Anno Mundi, "Year of the World"). Many attempts have been made to place this time-span at a specific date in history.[43] At the turn of the 17th century CE, Joseph Scaliger placed Creation at 3950 BCE, Petavius calculated 3982 BCE,[44][45] and according to James Ussher's chronology, Creation took place in 4004 BCE, dating the Great Deluge to 2348 BCE.[46]

Flood geology

The development of scientific geology had a profound impact on attitudes towards the biblical Flood narrative. By bringing into question the biblical chronology, which placed the Creation and the flood in a history which stretched back no more than a few thousand years, the concept of deep geological time undermined the idea of the historicity of the Ark itself. In 1823 the English theologian and natural scientist William Buckland interpreted geological phenomena as Reliquiae Diluvianae: "relics of the flood" which "attested the action of a universal deluge".[citation needed] His views were supported by others at the time, including the influential geologist Adam Sedgwick, but by 1830 Sedgwick considered that the evidence suggested only local floods. Louis Agassiz subsequently explained such deposits as the results of glaciation.[47]

In 1862, William Thomson (later to become Lord Kelvin) calculated the age of the Earth at between 24 million and 400 million years, and for the remainder of the 19th century, discussion focused not on the viability of this theory of deep time, but on the derivation of a more precise figure for the age of the Earth.[48] Lux Mundi, an 1889 volume of theological essays which marks a stage in the acceptance of a more critical approach to scripture, took the stance that readers should rely on the gospels as completely historical, but should not take the earlier chapters of Genesis literally.[49] By a variety of independent means, scientists have determined that the Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old.

So-called "Flood Geology" was championed in the latter half of the twentieth and on into the twenty-first century by Christian fundamentalists who believe in Young Earth creationism. Historian Ronald Numbers argues that this ideological connection by Christians wanting to challenge aspects of the scientific consensus they believe contradict their religion was first established by the publication of the 1961 book, The Genesis Flood.[50] The scientific community maintains that flood geology is a pseudoscience because it contradicts a variety of facts in geology, stratigraphy, geophysics, physics, paleontology, biology, anthropology, and archeology.[6][51][3][52][53][54][55][56] For example, in contrast to the catastrophism inherent in flood geology, the science of geology relies on the Charles Lyell's established principle of uniformitarianism. In relation to geological forces, uniformitarianism explains the formation of the Earth's features by means of mostly slow-acting forces seen in operation today. In contrast, there is a lack of evidence for the catastrophic mechanisms proposed by flood geologists, and scientists do not take their claims seriously.[57]

Species distribution

By the 17th century, believers in the Genesis account faced the issue of reconciling the exploration of the New World and increased awareness of the global distribution of species with the older scenario whereby all life had sprung from a single point of origin on the slopes of Mount Ararat. The obvious answer involved mankind spreading over the continents following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and taking animals along, yet some of the results seemed peculiar. In 1646 Sir Thomas Browne wondered why the natives of North America had taken rattlesnakes with them, but not horses: "How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange".[4]

Browne, among the first to question the notion of spontaneous generation, was a medical doctor and amateur scientist making this observation in passing. However, biblical scholars of the time, such as Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) and Athanasius Kircher (c.1601–80), had also begun to subject the Ark story to rigorous scrutiny as they attempted to harmonize the biblical account with the growing body of natural historical knowledge. The resulting hypotheses provided an important impetus to the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and indirectly spurred the emergence of biogeography in the 18th century. Natural historians began to draw connections between climates and the animals and plants adapted to them. One influential theory held that the biblical Ararat was striped with varying climatic zones, and as climate changed, the associated animals moved as well, eventually spreading to repopulate the globe.[4]

There was also the problem of an ever-expanding number of known species: for Kircher and earlier natural historians, there was little problem finding room for all known animal species in the Ark. Less than a century later, discoveries of new species made it increasingly difficult to justify a literal interpretation for the Ark story.[58] By the middle of the 18th century only a few natural historians accepted a literal interpretation of the narrative.[52]

See also



  1. ^ The term myth is used here in its academic sense, meaning "a traditional story consisting of events that are ostensibly historical, though often supernatural, explaining the origins of a cultural practice or natural phenomenon." It is not being used to mean "something that is false".
  2. ^ See John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (1992), pp. 80, 155-56.
  3. ^ The controversial existence of a chiasm is not an argument against the construction of the story from two sources. See the overview in Friedman (1996), p. 91
  4. ^ The two sources are the Priestly and the Yahwist or "non-priestly". See Arnold (2009), p. 97


  1. ^ Leeming 2010, p. 469.
  2. ^ Bandstra 2009, p. 61.
  3. ^ a b c Montgomery 2012.
  4. ^ a b c Cohn 1999.
  5. ^
    • Kuchment, Anna (August 2012). "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood". Scientific American. Retrieved 31 December 2018.
    • Raff, Rudolf A. (20 January 2013). "Genesis meets geology. A review of the rocks don't lie; a geologist investigates Noah's flood, by David R. Montgomery". Evolution & Development. 15 (1): 83–84. doi:10.1111/ede.12017.
    • "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood". Publishers Weekly. 28 May 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2018.
    • Bork, Kennard B. (December 2013). "David R. Montgomery. The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood". Isis. 104 (4): 828–829. doi:10.1086/676345.
    • McConnachie, James (31 August 2013). "The Rocks Don't Lie, by David R. Montgomery - review". The Spectator. Retrieved 31 December 2018.
    • Prothero, Donald R. (2 January 2013). "A Gentle Journey Through the Truth in Rocks". Skeptic. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  6. ^ a b Isaak 2007, pp. 237–238.
  7. ^ a b Cline 2007, p. 13.
  8. ^ Alter 2008, p. 13-14.
  9. ^ Sailhamer 2010, p. 301 and fn.35.
  10. ^ a b Blenkinsopp 2011, p. 2.
  11. ^ Sailhamer 2010, p. 301.
  12. ^ Gmirkin 2006, p. 240-241.
  13. ^ Gmirkin 2006, p. 6.
  14. ^ Cline 2007, p. 19.
  15. ^ Cline 2007, p. 20— Which was it—40 or 150 days? ... And how many animals ... One pair of each ... Or seven pairs of each ... And did he release a raven ... until the waters were dried up ... or did he release a dove three different times ... ?
  16. ^ Arnold 2009, p. 97.
  17. ^ Carr, David M. (2014). "Changes in Pentateuchal Criticism". In Saeboe, Magne; Ska, Jean Louis; Machinist, Peter (eds.). Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. III: From Modernism to Post-Modernism. Part II: The Twentieth Century – From Modernism to Post-Modernism. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 978-3-525-54022-0.
  18. ^ Gmirkin 2006, p. 4.
  19. ^ Genesis 7
  20. ^ Gilbert, Christopher (2009). A Complete Introduction to the Bible. Paulist Press. ISBN 9780809145522.
  21. ^ Chen 2013, p. 1.
  22. ^ Finkel 2014, p. 88.
  23. ^ a b Chen 2013, p. [page needed].
  24. ^ Frayne, Douglas R. A Handbook of Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East: Three Thousand Deities of Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Elam. Penn State University Press, 2021.
  25. ^ Ginzberg, Louis (1909). The Legends of the Jews Vol I : The Inmates of the Ark (Translated by Henrietta Szold) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
  26. ^ Baden 2012, p. 184.
  27. ^ a b Keiser 2013, p. 133.
  28. ^ Keiser 2013, p. 133 fn.29.
  29. ^ Bodner 2016, pp. 95-96: "There is increasing recognition that the pentateuchal narrative is seldom careless or arbitrary," write John Bergsma and Scott Hahn, "and intertextual echoes are seldom coincidental."17
  30. ^ Levenson 1988, p. 10-11.
  31. ^ a b c d "Flood, the - Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology Online". Bible Study Tools. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  32. ^ "Creation Worldview Ministries: The New Testament and the Genesis Flood: A Hermeneutical Investigation of the Historicity, Scope, and Theological Purpose of the Noahic Deluge". Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  33. ^ a b W., Wiersbe, Warren (1993). Wiersbe's expository outlines on the Old Testament. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books. ISBN 978-0896938472. OCLC 27034975.
  34. ^ Matthew, Henry (2000). Matthew henry's concise commentary on the whole bible. Nelson's concise series. [Place of publication not identified]: Nelson Reference & Electronic. ISBN 978-0785245292. OCLC 947797222.
  35. ^ "The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament, by G.R. Schmeling". Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  36. ^ Quran 4:163, Quran 26:105–107
  37. ^ Quran 11:35–41
  38. ^ Quran 7:64
  39. ^ Quran 11:44
  40. ^ "Book Two, 1st Glorification: Upon Each Faithful Mandaean, I Will Place My Right Hand". Ginza Rabba. Right Volume. Translated by Al-Saadi, Qais; Al-Saadi, Hamed (2nd ed.). Germany: Drabsha. 2019. pp. 18–19.
  41. ^ "Book Nineteen: The Deluge". Ginza Rabba. Right Volume. Translated by Al-Saadi, Qais; Al-Saadi, Hamed (2nd ed.). Germany: Drabsha. 2019. pp. 203–204. [Note: this book, or a larger text containing it, is numbered book 18 in some other editions.]
  42. ^ Weber, Christopher Gregory (1980). "The Fatal Flaws of Flood Geology". Creation Evolution Journal. 1 (1): 24–37.
  43. ^ Timeline for the Flood. AiG, 9 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
  44. ^ Barr 2013, p. 380.
  45. ^ Young & Stearley 2008, p. 45.
  46. ^ James Barr, 1984–85. "Why the World Was Created in 4004 BC: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 67:604 PDF document
  47. ^ Herbert, Sandra (1991). "Charles Darwin as a prospective geological author". British Journal for the History of Science (24). pp. 171–174. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  48. ^ Dalrymple 1991, pp. 14–17
  49. ^ James Barr (4 March 1987). Biblical Chronology, Fact or Fiction? (PDF). The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 1987. University of London. p. 17. ISBN 978-0718708641. Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  50. ^ Numbers, Ronald L. (2006). The creationists : from scientific creationism to intelligent design (Expanded, First Harvard University Press paperback ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-674-02339-0. OCLC 69734583.
  51. ^ Senter, Phil. "The Defeat of Flood Geology by Flood Geology." Reports of the National Center for Science Education 31:3 (May–June 2011). Printed electronically by California State University, Northridge. Retrieved 7 June 2014.
  52. ^ a b Young 1995, p. 79.
  53. ^ Isaak 2006, p. unpaginated.
  54. ^ Morton 2001, p. unpaginated.
  55. ^ Isaak 2007, p. 173.
  56. ^ Stewart 2010, p. 123.
  57. ^ Isaak 1998, p. unpaginated.
  58. ^ Browne 1983, p. 276.


Further reading