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Genesis: Noah's Ark

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

Chapter 6 begins with reference to a demographic explosion. People, we are told, were beginning to multiply on the face of the Earth. God declares that his spirit won't abide in humans forever and decrees that the maximum number of years anyone can live is 120 – perhaps He thinks of this as a way to reduce the population. Next, we learn that a people called the Nephilim are on Earth, and that these – quote – sons of God are having intercourse with the daughters of man and producing offspring, referred to as heroes of long ago.

These verses are extremely puzzling. And I don't intend to spend much time attempting to explain them. At the centre of the puzzle is the identity of the Nephilim. They are referred to twice again in the Hebrew Bible, once in Numbers and once in Ezekiel. The most probable explanation is that they are to be thought of as giants. Enough to say that this passage has been taken by some to indicate that aliens from outer space had intercourse with human beings at some point in the distant past.

There follows the famous story of Noah's Ark. This begins with God's observation that the human beings He has created were entirely bent on evil. He now regrets creating them and decides to obliterate them, along with all the animals and creeping things and birds of the air. The animals and creeping things and birds of the air are what we would call collateral damage in this story. God goes so far as to declare that he regrets or is sorry that he made humans and is upset. Once again, the author is suggesting that God isn't omniscient. He just hadn't bargained for man's capacity to sin, it seems.

The one person the Lord intends to spare is Noah, along with his family. He does so because, the author tells us, Noah (1) was a righteous man, (2) was blameless among those of his generation, and (3) walked with God. "Walked with God" – a beautiful image. Well, not really four reasons but only one because all four statements mean much the same thing. They're there for emphasis. The author is saying Noah was a really, really, really good man. And that by the way is about all that we learn about Noah, except that he was partial to a cup or two of wine, as we'll see.

God then proceeded to instruct Noah as to how to make a cyprus wood ark of sufficient dimensions so that it would be able to house lots of animals and survive the flood that he was going to cause. It then becomes apparent that two versions of the flood story have been preserved: one, the more famous one, the Priestly Version, that Noah should accommodate two of every kind of living thing in the ark; the other, the J Version, that he should only take seven pairs of clean animals, a pair of animals that aren't clean, and seven pairs of birds. There are also discrepancies between P and J in the length of time the flood lasted: 40 days and nights according to P, 150 according to J. In the two creation accounts, the P version was followed by the J version. Here, by contrast, we see them interwoven and without any acknowledgement of the discrepancies into a single account.

The story of the flood isn't exclusive to Genesis. It also turns up in the Epic of Gilgamesh, whose roots lie in the third millennium BCE, though there are marked differences between the two accounts. The gods in Gilgamesh don't flood the earth because humans are sinful and though one man, Utnapishtim, survives, it's not because he's good. No doubt there was a folk memory common to many people living in Mesopotamia of a time, possibly several times, when the Tigris and Euphrates rivers burst their banks and killed a large number of people and animals. What is specific to Genesis, however, is that it uses the account of the flood to explain how an agreement was reached between God and humans. The word for this is covenant. This, the first covenant, limited God's power for all eternity. Never again, He promised, would He flood the Earth. As a "sign" of His covenant He set his bow – a rainbow – in the clouds. This is why we see rainbows in the sky. They're God's way of telling us that He will never break His promise.

Several other consequences ensue from the Flood event. First, Noah builds an altar and performs sacrifices to God. God, we are told, smelled the sweet odour. I'm always moved by the thought of God deriving pleasure from the aroma of roast meat. It indicates that the author conceived of God in anthropomorphic terms, that is to say, in human shape and with human senses. God is so gratified by it that He says to Himself that He will never damn or curse the ground again. In other words, the cycle of the seasons will go on forever. The human heart is wicked from youth upwards, but He's acknowledging that He's going to have to accept that fact and, to use a common phrase today, move on.

After blessing Noah and his sons, God declares that all animals, birds, reptiles and fish will fear and dread them – note again the repetition. This means that henceforth humans will no longer have to be vegetarians, as they were in the Garden of Eden. Now they can be carnivores. The symbiosis between humans and animals has been ruptured once and for all. This, of course, for us today is extremely problematic, since it gives licence to humans to kill animals indiscriminately. The only thing humans can't eat is flesh with its life, i.e., its blood. In other words, God here establishes a dietary requirement essential to Kashrut or Kosher.

God then reverses the statement he made in the Cain and Abel story, to the effect that murderers should not be killed, by declaring that anyone who sheds human blood will have their blood shed by a human, since humans are created in God's image. Blood for blood is henceforth to be the rule.

The last part of the Noah story is very problematic. We learn that Noah was the first person to plant a vineyard and that one occasion he became drunk and lay naked in his tent. It's so happened that his youngest son, Ham, saw his father lying naked. When Noah woke up, he realised what Ham had done and cursed Ham's son Canaan and declared that his descendants would be slaves. It's unclear what exactly Ham's crime was. Some scholars have suggested he castrated his father; others that he had sex with him.

What makes this so problematic is that the Canaanites where the enemies of the Hebrews. This episode – another aetiology – provides justification for the belief that the Canaanites were racially inferior to the Hebrews because their ancestor had broken a taboo. It is, as one scholar has put it, one of the most toxic texts in history.

Noah's sons propagate and become the patriarchs of many nations. In the next lesson we're going to discuss how those nations came to speak different languages.

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Written by

Robert Garland