The Flood narrative as a composite text
The Flood narrative is an account of two sources, something that is explained by what biblical scholars call the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis explains that two of the sources for this flood narrative are the Priestly and the Yahwist (P and J) – each with their distinct views about God, the flood, and how this story fits into their overall narrative in what we call the book of Genesis. A careful reading of the Flood story reveals a series of significant narrative challenges that demand explanation if the reader is going to work to make real sense of the story.
How many animals?
As an example, when readers analyze Genesis 6:19 they are told that God required Noah to bring animals to the ark, “two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.” (Genesis 6:19 RSV) However, as the story unfolds, we read in Genesis 7:2 that God commanded Noah to bring with him not “two of every sort… male and female,” rather he was told that he needed seven pairs of clean animals and two of the unclean (meaning animals that God could not accept as sacrifices). This is just one example of the inconsistencies of this text.
How long did the flood last?
Genesis 8:6 tells us that the flood lasted for 40 days, yet two verses earlier we read that the waters subsided at the end of 150 days. Verse 7 tells us that in order to discover if dry land existed, Noah had to send out a raven, and that this raven did not return. But when we read verse 8 and 9 the reader is informed that Noah released a dove. If the reader wants to make sense of this story, the inconsistent data needs to be understood in some way that helps to make sense. The idea that we are reading texts that are woven together, as the Documentary Hypothesis is suggesting, helps readers to analyze the text and see it for what it is: a composite record.
The Sources Revealed
J P R Other
1 When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” * 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown. 5 The LORD (YHWH)** saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. *** 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
* YHWH sets the maximum age of human beings to 120 years in the J text, but many people live way beyond this age limit in the Bible. See for example Genesis 9:29; 11:10-26, 32 – all of which come from a different textual strain, what some scholars call the Book of Records. In J, nobody lives longer than 120 years, and it concludes with the report that Moses lives to the maximum age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7).
** The deity is referred to by name (YHWH – יְהֹוָה – translated LORD) in the J flood narrative – for a total of ten times; and is referred to as “God” (Elohim אֱלֹהִים – translated God) in the P account of the flood, sixteen times.
*** The number of animals on the ark is seven pairs of pure and one pair of impure in Genesis 7:2,3 (J); but it is only one pair of each, whether pure or impure, in 6:19-20; 7:8,9,15 (P). This fits with the fact that in J Noah will offer sacrifices at the end of the flood, so he needs more than two of each animal – or else his sacrifice would end a species forever! But in P, there are no sacrifices in the story until the establishment of the Tabernacle in Exodus 40, so there is no need for any excess animals because Noah doesn’t offer sacrifices in P.
1 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him. 6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth. 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. * 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast according to its kind, and all the cattle according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth according to its kind, and every bird according to its kind, every bird of every sort. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And they that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in. 17 The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died** that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; 22 everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.
* In the P creation story, God creates a space (רָקִ֫יעַ raqia, or the firmament) that separates waters that are above it from the waters below. The universe in the P account of creation is thus a place where humans can survive, a bubble surrounded by water. This same conception is assumed in the P account of the flood, in which “the windows of heaven” and the “fountains of the great deep” are opened or burst forth, allowing the waters of chaos to enter into the realm where the humans live, thus destroying all life. In the Jahwist account, or the J flood narrative, it simply rains because there is no conception of the firmament holding back the waters of chaos.
** In P, the author uses the word גָּוַע gava, or “expired,” a word that is used eleven times throughout P, but never in J, E, or D.
1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2 the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3 and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; 4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ar’arat. 5 And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. 6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7 and sent forth a raven,* and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more. 13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. ** 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18 So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19 And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark. 20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. *** 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
*In P Noah sends out a raven. In J he sends a dove (three times). In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero of the flood sends out a raven, a dove, and a swallow.
** In P the flood lasts a year (or a year and ten days). In J it is the more recognizable story of forty days and forty nights.
*** In J’s narration of events, Noah had seven pairs of each of the pure (sacrificeable) animals, so now he is able to sacrifice some of these. P has no stories involving animal sacrifice until the establishment of the Priesthood and the Tabernacle to Jehovah as found in Exodus 40 under the prophetic rule of Moses. For this reason, P has no use for sacrifice at this time, as it hasn’t been introduced to mankind yet in the story.
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.” 8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.” 18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21 and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 27 God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 28 After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. 29 All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.
The reader is directed to read Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 2003. Friedman’s book does much to help explain the Documentary Hypothesis and to shed light on the sources of the first five books in the Old Testament, according to our understanding today.