Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Corrupt Humanity Drowns in a Flood

Posted by foryourfaith on October 3, 2010


The story of Noah and his family riding out the flood in an ark filled with birds and other animals, is among the Bible’s most cherished episodes. At the same time, the description of the cataclysmic inundation that covered the earth is among the most terrifying.

Ten generations after the creation of Adam and Eve, God announced his intention to erase all life from the earth and start anew. Humanity had grown corrupt, so much so that God resolved to unleash a flood that would destroy mankind.

“The Lord 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. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). Man, granted free will to live either righteously or wickedly, had chosen the evil path. What sins had been committed?

Corruption and violence – the breakdown of human society – were what sealed the world’s fate. According to the Bible, even the lower animals were somehow guilty. “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.’” There was but one man who was “righteous . . . blameless in his generation,” a man who “walked with God.” This one man was Noah.

God told Noah of his intention to destroy the world, and instructed him, for his salvation, to build “an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” God specified the dimensions of the ark, the need for three decks in it, and the location of the door. Only after giving these instructions did God explain: “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 . . . . 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” (Genesis 6:17-18).

In order to ensure the survival of all living species, Noah was to take into the ark seven pairs – male and female – of all animals and birds known in Israelite tradition as “clean” (permissible to eat), and one pair each of all “unclean” creatures. He stocked the ark with food for all of them. Without comment, Noah “did all that the Lord had commanded him.”

The coming of the flood is described graphically. “All the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” As time went on, “the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth . . . . And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.” Other than fish, all living creatures outside the ark drowned – “birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man” (Genesis 7:11-21).

Archaeologists have found tantalizing evidence of flooding in the Mesopotamian area. In 1929, the English scientist Leonard Woolley, tunneling into a Sumerian burial pit at the site of Ur on the Euphrates, struck a layer of water-deposited silt, over eight feet thick, and below it the relics of an earlier, more primitive culture. Woolley declared that a great flood had swept through the region late in the fourth millennium BC, wiping out the existing culture. Centuries later, he said, a new culture had taken shape on the site. Later researchers uncovered evidence of flooding at a number of other locations in Mesopotamia. Archaeologists believe, however, that these flood layers were formed during the third millennium BC. Thus, scholars today reject Woolley’s conclusion regarding the Great Flood.

It rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Then God “made the wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually.” After 150 days, the ark came to rest upon solid ground, on Mount Ararat – thought to be in modern Turkey.

Still, Noah did not know how much the flood waters had receded. So he opened the window and sent out a raven, which ‘went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” He next released a dove, “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” (Genesis 8:9).

A week later, Noah again released the dove. This time, it brought back an olive branch, “so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” The image of a dove clutching an olive branch has been a symbol of peace and harmony ever since. Waiting another week, Noah sent out the dove once more. It did not return.

When Noah opened the door of the ark, the world was once again pristine. All wickedness had been purged from it. God reiterated the command made to his original creation: Noah and his family, as well as the surviving animals and birds, were to “be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” Noah expressed his thanks for the deliverance by offering sacrifices to God.

Later Jewish folklore, elaborating on the account with a wealth of detail, described the troubles Noah encountered with the animals in the ark. The patriarch and his sons labored day and night to feed them, hauling fodder for the zebras and gazelles, dried meat for the tigers and other carnivores. At one point, the lion, grumpy and seasick, bit Noah in the leg, laming him.

According to these legends, filth piled up and rats proliferated. Noah solved these problems by creating two new animals. Passing his hand over the elephant, he caused it to give birth to a pig, which soon devoured the filth. Then, when he rubbed the lion’s nose, the beast produced a cat, which began to eliminate the rats. Special attention was given to two creatures too large for the ark to accommodate: a gigantic beast called the reem that swam behind, tethered by a rope; and the giant Og, who straddled the roof, and whose food was passed to him through a hatchway.

Interestingly, many cultures around the globe have preserved ancient folklore about a primeval flood that destroyed everything and everyone except one lucky man, or one chosen family. Many people today believe that the very universality of such sagas proves that they are based on fact. Others suggest that the existence of these traditions among so many different cultures illuminates a deep human fear of nature’s destructive power.

One early version of the story comes from Babylon, located in what is now Iraq. It forms an episode in the classic Epic of Gilgamesh. Its counterpart to Noah is Utnapishtim of Shuruppak. One night, as Utnapishtim slept, the god Ea whispered a warning through the reed walls of his house: Enlil, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, was about to send a flood that would destroy humanity.

Ea gave instructions for building an ark, and Utnapishtim arranged for its construction. He then embarked with this family and servants, a supply of silver and gold, and “the seeds of all living things.” The rains came, the water rose, and the storm raged six days and six nights. On the seventh day the ark came to rest on a mountaintop. The land below, shrouded in silt and debris, lay “flat like a roof,” the chronicle states, “and all of mankind had returned to clay.”

Utnapishtim opened a shutter and, to make sure that the earth was dry, released first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. Then, on the mountaintop, he offered up a sacrifice to the gods. Enlil’s rage was eventually appeased, and he conferred immortality on Utnapishtim and his wife.

The Gilgamesh narrative resemble an even older Babylonian source, which in turn is similar to an extremely ancient Sumerian text. A fragment of the Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra, written on a clay tablet, was excavated in 1890 in Nippur, holy city of Sumer.

Thus, many cultures preserved the story of a flood that killed all but a favored few. In addition, Bible scholars, closely examining the verses in Genesis, have noted some interesting patterns in the biblical text. The Genesis account may in fact derive from two separate sources that were pieced together to make a single story.

The first version, dating from around the time of King Solomon, reads like a folktale. Noah loaded the animals – seven pairs each of ritually acceptable animals and birds that the Israelites used in their sacrifices, and one pair apiece of the other animals. The rains fell just 40 days and 40 nights; when the flood subsided (this version does not say where), Noah first sent out the raven and then the dove. Then, he went forth from the ark, and sacrificed to God.

The second, probably later, account is both more seeping and more precise. In it, only single pairs of animals entered the ark. The narrative shows a careful concern for detail, giving Noah’s age (600 years) and the lengthy duration of the flood. The deluge itself was not just a rainstorm, but a return to the primordial chaos of creation, when God parted the waters to differentiate heaven from earth. The ark came to rest on Ararat. And when the crisis was ended, God established a covenant with Noah.

What is finally so marvelous about the biblical account is neither its literary value nor its historicity, but its moral force. Indeed, Genesis raises the story to new levels of dramatic power and moral insight.

The Bible story is concerned not only with the salvation of the world that occurs after the cataclysm, but also with moral law. God resolved that he would never “again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (8:21-22).

God then provided other means to deal with corruption and violence. Whoever was guilty – man or beast – would be punished individually for his crime. God told Noah and his family, “for your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” God set forth a theological basis for the significance of every human life: “for God made man in his own image.” Thus, whoever spills blood attacks God.

God then established a covenant with Noah, which extended to all of his progeny – all people forever after. He promised that he would never destroy the world by a flood again. A rainbow in the sky symbolized this pledge: “when the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant.” Upon emerging from the ark, Noah began to till the soil.


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2 Responses to “Corrupt Humanity Drowns in a Flood”

  1. Corrupt Humanity Drowns in a Flood…

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