What the Flood in Genesis is Really About

Did you know that some of the fairy tales we grew up learning as children were actually sanitized horror stories, some of which were very salacious? For example, Little Red Riding Hood was originally about the werewolf fornicating with the girl, who herself was equated with a prostitute, and killing her after, first, seducing her. In the sixteenth century, the story was written during Europe’s werewolf epidemic. Men who committed horrific murders were said to have been werewolves since it would have taken such a beast to have achieved such horrible things. This was actually a legal charge of which some people were convicted in those days.

Sleeping Beauty, originally from the seventeenth century, was about a woman being assaulted in her sleep by a sex-starved king. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was initially about child labor in coal mines. Snow White was based on a beautiful woman whose father employed children in the mines since they were so small that only children could work in them. Disney went along and sanitized these stories to make them more child-friendly. Don’t even get me started on Pocahontas! Nevertheless, Sunday schools throughout the world have done the same with Noah and the Ark. We’ve caricatured this story by focusing only on Noah, the ark, and the animals going two-by-two, but this is actually very sad when read with ancient lenses.

In reading the flood story, we have to understand how ancient people told stories. We tend to read this as literal history with our Western minds. Still, ancient Easterners told stories using hyperbole—like some of the fishing stories our dads and uncles tell. We know the fish wasn’t that big and didn’t almost drown you with its strength, but we get your point. The flood was clearly a historical event, but the details surrounding this may, in fact, just be hyperbole. Take a comparison of Genesis 6:5–7 and Genesis 6:9. If we read this as literal, these passages are in contradiction of one another. Was not Noah a man, and would he not have been as guilty as the others? But the point is that amid such depravity on the earth, one man from whom the Israelites descended found grace in God’s eyes.

We see in Genesis a narrowing of their lineage. We’ve gone from Adam and Eve to Seth, and through him Noah, and from him Shem—from whom the Semitic people descend. As the story goes on and on, the focus becomes narrower and narrower until we arrive at Jacob and his descendants. The genealogy of Genesis 5 followed Seth and his son, Enosh, at the point when they began to call on the name of Yahweh (Gen. 4:25–26), which was another way to say that they worshipped God. Noah’s story derives from there and explains why he was a righteous man in a corrupt time, which will lead us closer to Israel and the Promised Land. Remember, Genesis is about Israel’s national story, its beginning, and focuses on land (that of Canaan) and people (Israel).

The Deluge

There is, however, something that should be noted: Israel wasn’t the only ancient civilization with a flood story. The oldest of these stories is the Epic of Gilgamesh (2150–1400 BCE). Other Mesopotamian civilizations had flood stories, as well as even the Greeks and Aztecs. Some archaeologists estimate that there was a catastrophic flood in the ancient Near East around 2900 BCE.[1] The telling of the story here should emphasize why more so than how. We should focus on why God did what He did rather than recreate a historical event with the details we have supplied. Sorry, Ken Ham. The point is human corruption precipitated the flood (Gen. 6:5, 11–13), and we may conclude that murder and the eating of live animals were a part of the issue (Gen. 9:1–7). There’s also the intro to this where divine figures are leaving their first estate (Jude 1:6; cf. 2 Peter 2:45; Eph. 6:12) to consort with humans, and the comingling of the earthly and divine figures are antithetical to God’s design making it, therefore, sinful to do so. This precipitates what follows. God, however, is not concerned with just being mean to humans, but out of all those who are on the face of the earth, none are good like Noah. God is going to hit the reset button. The flood will ultimately result in wiping off those humans who’ve placed themselves against God and His design. The one who honors Him will survive and go on to perpetuate people who, hopefully like himself, will continue in a good way.

This isn’t destruction so much as recreation. At least, this would be how Peter would explain it centuries later (2 Peter 3:5–6). There are some striking similarities between this recreation and creation itself. On the first day of creation, an empty void exists as a water mass (Gen. 1:2). God divided the waters above and below, and he partitioned the waters above with a dome or firmament (Gen. 1:6). We, next, read about this dome having windows in Genesis 7:11, so the flood-doors were opened and even the waters elevated from the deep below. God had divided creation, but now He’s undoing what He had done. Where chaos had existed, and God ordered it, He removes His order for the disorder to reign on inhabited earth. “If God’s creation behaves in a ‘disorderly’ and chaotic way, God will unleash the forces of chaos upon it.”[2] However, for Noah and his family, God has provided salvation.

After the flood is over, Noah builds the first-ever altar to Yahweh (Gen. 8:20). The animals on the ark are for offering to God. Remember Cain and Abel and offerings. Noah is now the new creation, the new Adam, who teaches worship via an altar. Then, we witness another first: God makes a covenant (Gen. 9:9–11). Rather than humanity living in constant fear of God’s judgment, God promises society to never allow chaos to have control, and the sign of this is the bow in the sky (Gen. 9:12–17). As God makes later covenants, we see Him give indications of the covenant. To Abraham, He gave the sign of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), and to Moses, He gave the Sabbath (Exod. 31:12–18). To we who are Christians, the covenant sign is the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20). “These signs are like brands. They serve as a reminder to the covenant partners of the relationship established between them.”[3]

[1] Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People, 74.

[2] Ibid., 82.

[3] Temper Longman III and John H. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 106.

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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