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.

How Humanity Chooses Death

Imagine we’re in heaven with God. No decay, no futility, and nothing of the world we know that contributes to human woes. Now, if I were to ask how many of you would rather die than live, we’d all look suspiciously at anyone who raised their hand. Yet, the first humans had heaven on earth, and they chose death. After God created the human (Gen. 2:7),[1] He planted a garden in the heavens and earth. In the Greek Old Testament, He planted paradise. Whenever you read about paradise in the New Testament, think heaven, or Eden. When Jesus said to the thief, “Today, you’ll be with Me in paradise,” He had Eden (lavish) in mind. When John told the Ephesians that if they overcame, it would be given to them to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God, he had in mind Eden. We often call it heaven, but that’s where the tree of life exists.

Next to the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the tree from which humans are forbidden to eat (Gen. 2:16–17), but before this prohibition is given, they are placed in paradise to “tend” and “keep” it (Gen. 2:15). God had given humanity a royal function in Gen. 1:28–29, but He now gives them a priestly function in Gen 2:15 (cf. Exod. 3:12; Num. 3:7–10). We often read the “tend” and “keep” as agricultural, but that isn’t the case though it can be. The work they would have done would be what we call worship, yet, not in the sense that we think of it. Rather, their jobs in the garden would have been to maintain the sacred space. If you’ve ever seen Buddhist monks tending the compound of their monastery, that’s what we have in mind here. That’s the tending that would have gone on. They were meant to maintain the area as sacred, and to protect it from the profane, which was why the command was given to not eat from the particular tree.

God gives the human a companion, an ‘ezer kenegdo. The second term means “besides,” so she’s to be by his side. “Helper” may give us the impression that she’s to aid him, but that also suggests that he takes the primary role. That isn’t what’s conveyed here. Rather, she’s to be actively intervening on his behalf. At least, that’s how the term was used in a military context.[2] Imagine two soldiers who are privates: they’re equal, they look out for one another, and they step up for the other in mutual service. This is what’s in mind. Man isn’t in control of woman, and she’s not subordinate to him. That doesn’t appear until God curses them. They’re two soldiers equal to one another and equally subordinate to God.

Remember how God ordered creation out of chaos? The serpent that shows up in the Garden is a chaos creature. In Christian theology we learn that this specific being was Satan, but ancient Israelites did not have such a view here. God created this creature (Gen. 1:21), and in the ancient east, they were mischievous and destructive.[3] Were Adam (human) and Eve (life) to do their royal and priestly function as image-bearers of God, they would have preserved the sacred space and ordered the creature gone when he clearly led them astray with lies. Yet, they bore with his nonsense and it cost them greatly.

A Repeat

The story that follows is Cain’s murder of Abel. God accepted both produce and meat as an offering, but one thing that differentiated the sacrifices was that Abel brought the firstlings of his flock while it appears that Cain brought just anything (Gen. 4:4–5). We later see reflected in Moses’ Law the importance of returning the first fruits to God (Exod. 13:12; Lev. 23:10), so when ancient Israelites heard this story read, they would make the connection. Because Cain grew jealous and killed his brother, he too would suffer a punishment akin to his parents. They were expelled from the sacred space of Eden, so Cain too would be exiled from the presence of God. When we recall that the earth was God’s temple, we can easily conclude that Eden corresponded to the holy of holies. God’s original plan was for all humanity to occupy the holy of holies, to be with Him and in His presence. Sin forces us out, away from God, but the blood of Christ brings us back.

Did Adam and Eve die on the day they ate the fruit? Yes! Centuries later when Israel was exiled, a connection was drawn between exile and death. Ezekiel envisions a valley of dry bones that represents Israel, but Israel is not literally dead. They were exiled, in Babylon. God’s promise to Abraham to give them land, and that a descendant of David would sit on the throne forever was all lost when they were exiled. Exile was death. The vision of Ezekiel was that the bones were brought back to life which represented Israel returning from captivity (Ezek. 37:11–14). When they are reconnected to their ancestral homeland with God, they are brought back to life.[4]

Abel is dead, and Cain is exiled and settles in Nod (“Drifting”). In exile, Cain builds a city—which was what the gods did, build cities. Cain invariably behaves as a god and in an irreverent manner, and one of his descendents follows in his footsteps and kills and even believes he’ll be protected more so than his father (Gen. 4:23–24). Adam and Eve wouldn’t ever claim Cain and his descendants, and Abel didn’t have offspring, so they had another son, Seth (“Granted”). Seth and his son Enosh began calling upon the name of Yahweh, which meant that they began worshipping Him (Gen. 4:26). Next is a long genealogy, and we’re prone to skip right over that part, but it bears some significance to the reading of this section. The genealogy reads from Adam to Seth, overlooking Cain and not able to claim Abel since he bore no offspring. The entirety of the genealogy of Genesis 5 is to set us up for the next section, and it does that by taking us from a righteous Seth to a righteous Noah. He was actually born to reverse the curse of Adam (Gen. 5:29).

[1] Adam is the Hebrew term for “human,” and adamah is the word for “ground.” It’s a play on words that’s used here.

[2] Alter, Books of Moses, 22.

[3] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 132–33.

[4] Peter Enns and Jared Byas, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible (n. p.: The Bible for Normal People, 2019), 49–51.

Reading Genesis 1 with Ancient Eyes

Imagine opening a puzzle box, only to dump out all the pieces. It’s a 1,000 piece puzzle. Your table looks like pure chaos, so you begin arranging the pieces, turning them face up. You arrange your outer perimeter. Then, you begin filling in the middle. It takes you time, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ve recreated the beautiful painting—da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. You affix it to a backboard, then you frame it and hang it on the wall. You’re finished, and you can admire your labor. This is something like what God did with creation. He had pure chaos, arranged it in order, put it together, and once it was complete, He stopped to appreciate it. 

Isaac Newton gave us the scientific method, which was a way of evaluating data to arrive at a conclusion of facts. One begins with a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis through experiments, and modifies it based on the tests and experiments’ outcomes. This method was then carried from science into various other disciplines—law, history, and sacred history (theology). In some sense, our manner of biblical interpretation, known as “hermeneutics,” borrows from this method. However, at times this is to our peril. 

Allow me to unequivocally say that Genesis is not a scientific textbook by which we determine the age of the earth, the viability of a worldwide flood or the ark which bore creatures in pairs, and other such things. Our understanding of the cosmos differs from theirs. We have made advances in knowledge that they didn’t have then. They know what they know, and we know what we know. Genesis is a very sophisticated book, but we shouldn’t try to make it say something based on what we know when it wasn’t an issue for them. Now, someone might ask, “So you don’t believe God created the earth in seven literal days?” I believe God can do that, but that’s not the point of Genesis 1. To draw that conclusion is to focus on a few details of an entire story whose aim wasn’t to answer that question in particular, and I doubt Moses and the ancient Israelites could have envisioned our time and technology. This is a sacred book, not a scientific methodology, so we must read it as if we were ancient easterners living in the first millennium BCE. 

Genesis is a story. It’s the telling of a nation’s history about the land where they were situated and the God who had brought them to that land. This book must be read literarily and then theologically. We must understand the type of literature this is before we can properly understand the book as a whole. When we recall that Moses is recording this as Israel’s national epic, we can conclude that some of the information will have to do with rebutting competing nations and their narratives. Remember, these folks just came from polytheistic Egypt, so Moses will have to deconstruct some of their beliefs in order to fully turn them to their God. 

A Genesis of Genesis

At some point during his last eighty years of life, Moses, maybe on Sinai, recorded the beginning of Israel’s national history as angels mediated the law to him (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2), or he received the revelation at some other time. Moses’ life is sectioned off into three blocks of forty years: the first being his life as in Egypt, the second with him as a shepherd, and the third as Israel’s leader. We may soon forget that we’re reading about a man who’s over 80. However, whenever he received the information on Genesis, we know that it was to tell Israel’s national story about the relationship they had with God and the land. He wasn’t an eyewitness. No one in that time was, but they likely had oral traditions and stories about the things he’d record. 

The entirety of the story centers on land and people: Canaan and the people of Israel. They had long been immersed in slavery, so they had little to no personal identity. Their entire identity had been as slaves, and breaking the mindset of being a slave was what Moses aimed to do. You can only go from being a slave to a free person when you have your own national story, and not your master’s. When you have your own God, and not the gods of your master. Rather than the plethora of temples, you want to know about Yahweh’s temple, and this is the story Moses tells. 

Sacred Space

We’re taken back to the beginning where God creates. To the original audience, everything was made for functionality and not merely as material, so we have to think about function over the material. For example, were I to hold up a pencil and ask you to describe it, you’d likely say that it was made of wood, give its color, and describe it based on its appearance. The ancient easterners would have described it as something they write with rather than how it appeared. The function was at the forefront of their mind more so than appearance or material, so this will shift us in our thinking. 

Elohim, so God is called, is creating order out of the formless, void earth. He’s arranging space for what’s to come by putting things in order on days 1–3, but beginning day 4, He fills it: the earth with light, the water with creatures, and the skies with birds. The world is filled with animals as well, and then God creates a human. At first, one human is made, but then two, a male and female, appear (Gen. 1:27). His crowning achievement is these humans. 

Unlike other creation accounts, or myths, Israel’s God creates everything to function a particular way. He’s Lord over it all. Also unlike other creation stories, when He creates humans, it’s not as His playthings or to entertain Himself, but to rule over His creation. Humanity bears His image and likeness. Whenever ancient deities faced a dilemma, they began arranging things to sort out the dilemma. Upon fixing everything, they rested in their temples. That’s why temples were built—not for humans to go to for worship and sacrifice, necessarily, but for the deity to occupy after a catastrophic issue that they resolved.

Given the literature and language of this passage, God built a temple for Himself. Let’s note some of the architectural language in the creation account. First, the “firmament” could also be translated as a “vault” (raki‘a) in verses, 6–8 and so on. Second, everything enclosed by this vault, the seas and earth, would have been akin to the floors of a temple and the lights for day and night may have been natural light for the day and candles or oil lamps for nights. Many temples contained elements of creation in them. The ceilings would have had sun, moon, and starts, though to many cultures those were gods in and of themselves, but here they are created by Elohim for a function, and not to be worshipped. Trees of some sort might have adorned the walls. In Solomon’s temple pomegranate and fig trees adorned the golden walls to remind the priests of the Garden. Within temples were images of the god, but in this case, the image of God resides in living beings, humans.  

Upon finishing His work of bringing order out of chaos, He stops and takes up residence in this new temple He formed. Once the existence of disorder, He’s ordered it, and now that His work was done, He inhabits it. This would have been how ancient audiences understood this story. We think merely in terms of the world, but they would have understood that a deity rested in a temple after some troubling event had been settled and peace reigned. The humans He created bore His image and likeness. Hence, their job is to embody God’s qualities and do His work, much akin to how the Vice-Regent in India was regarded as the King-Emperor himself in the early twentieth century. This is what we do: we tend the earth and its various parts while representing God. 

The heavens and earth were created as a sacred space where God dwelt with his creation, among whom were humans. While more time will be given to this in the next lesson, we should keep in mind the sacred space theme. A lot of Scripture is about sacred space and God being with His creation—humanity. This is how the Bible begins and, for all intents and purposes, ends. Everything in between shows us the love God has for creation. He continually pursues humanity who violates sacred space, pushing God away. Yet God, in His infinite power and mercy, cannot be kept from us. He does everything possible to draw near us, culminating with Him coming to the earth in the flesh, a doctrine known as the incarnation. God willingly sacrifices Himself in our stead, so He can have us with Himself. We must decide whether we shall keep pushing Him away or be drawn in by His warm embrace and love. 

How to Study Genesis

Suppose I were to ask you to describe Genesis to me. In that case, you might describe it as about the origins of the earth, the creation, sin, and subsequent fall of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and Abraham. Have you ever asked what purpose the book was supposed to serve? It wasn’t to decide whether creation or science was accurate—a false dichotomy, if you will—or tell us how old the earth is. Sadly, the way the church has taught the Old Testament has been to wrap it up in the childhood stories we learn in Sunday school. We don’t know the entire story, but only the stories within the story. 

The book’s Hebrew name is the first word of the book, bere’šit, and means, “In the beginning.” The term “Genesis” came from the Greek translation of the book, which dates to the third–second centuries BCE. The same date as the oldest manuscript we have of Genesis from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The purpose of Genesis was to detail the foundational story of Israel. This was, therefore, a national epic, and nothing less. The first eleven chapters are a synopsis of the world and answer various questions: “How did the world get here?” “Where did evil come from?” “Wouldn’t we have all spoken one language?” The story moves from this toward Israel’s history, beginning in chapter twelve with Abraham’s story. From there, through his son and grandson, the latter would be the head of the nation and from whom every Israelite is a descendant. 

Since many people aren’t Israelites, they might read it differently than we do. Jews read it differently from Christians, and academics read it unlike Christians in a pew might. Depending on why you’re reading this book and in what context you generally operate will determine how you read Genesis. I was hoping you could take off your context and go with me into the mind of an ancient Israelite. To do that, I’ll have to explain to you how you can do that. Don’t worry. You’ll be Jewish in no time! 


I’ve already mentioned two significant sections of the book: the first eleven chapters are usually referred to as primeval history. In contrast, the remaining chapters tell Israel’s national record through their patriarchs. However, various sections are marked off by the Hebrew term in the book, toledoth. This word translates as either “generations,” “chronicles,” or “lineage.” Moses used this term as somewhat of a boundary marker for the different sections: 

Genesis 2:4b–4:26

Genesis 5:1–6:8

Genesis 6:9–9:29 (new creation in 8:1–9:29)

Genesis 10:1–11:9

Genesis 11:10–26

Genesis 11:27–25:11

Genesis 25:12–18

Genesis 25:19–35:29

Genesis 36:1–37:1

Genesis 37:1–50:26

We’ll study the book based on Moses’s sections for us. 

I am a massive fan of the Avengers movies. There are four of them by that title, with many more making up the entire franchise. However, what makes me appreciate them is that I’ve seen them all in their order. Genesis is but one book in a collection of five. To read Genesis isolated from the other four is to miss the entirety of what Moses did for Israel. Unlike modern scholars, as I read even from the mouth of Jesus in the gospels, Moses authored these books. However, I grant that they are written in the vernacular of monarchical Hebrew and redacted (edited). What does this mean? If you read the King James Bible, you know from its vernacular and history written in Elizabethan English the same as Shakespeare. However, if you’ve tried to read the original 1611 version, it’s rather hard to read. Editors have updated the vernacular while preserving the Elizabethan sway it held. The same is true of the Hebrew in which Genesis appears (cf. Josh 24:26). 

In addition to the actual Hebrew style used, some clues point us to a monarchical period: Genesis 12:6 and 13:7 mention how the Canaanites lived in the land at that time which suggests that whoever added that detail wrote when they were not in the land. The list of kings in Genesis 36 is placed within the context of “before any king reigned over the children of Israel” (Gen. 36:31). Whoever added this detail lived during Israel’s monarchical period, which began about 1000 BCE. Abraham lived another thousand years before then (2100 BCE or so). 

I don’t believe that the entire Pentateuch was in the sixth century BCE, but it was edited over centuries. Something that makes me think this, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, is how Deuteronomy 34 records Moses’s death, which I’m confident he wouldn’t have written, and that no one to that day knew where he was buried (Deut. 34:7). Furthermore, there hadn’t been anyone like him up to that point (Deut. 34:10–12), but what point was that? This portion was likely added by someone who lived a long time after Moses, during the monarchical period of Israel’s history. Now that we have a setting, we’ll know how to read it: Israel’s national record before they were a kingdom. 

Since Moses is believed to have been the author of Genesis, we can safely say that he received the knowledge of the things written therein due to inspiration by the Holy Spirit. After all, we don’t learn about him until the next book of the Bible, so what we read about in Genesis wasn’t a result of an eye-witness account unless one considers God the eye-witness, who then passed it along to Moses.1

1 Daniel E. Fleming, “History in Genesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 251–62.

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