Sunday, September 1, 2013

Noah's flood


The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
A classic statement of total depravity. Leaves little more to be said: "every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually"
 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
What theologians call anthropopathism: ascribing distinctively human emotions to God. It's a vivid way of expressing God's moral disapproval. 
 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
This is a topic sentence. The flood account is quite repetitious. So we will encounter many variations on this statement. The repetitious style is both for emphasis, and shaping the account. Repetition is also characteristic of oral literature. Something written for the ear.  
 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
This introduces the theme of the remnant. 
These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
"Righteous" is a legal term while "blameless" is a ritual term. Both have religious connotations. Noah is righteous and blameless compared to his contemporaries.
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 on 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.
Although "all flesh" could denote all biological organisms, here it refers to human beings. 
14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.
i) We don't know what kind of wood that is. Presumably a type of wood used in ancient shipbuilding. Cypress is often proposed, but that's just an educated guess.  
ii) The "ark" foreshadows the basket that the mother of Moses put her child in (Exod 1-2).
Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 
Pitch is a sealant used to waterproof the ark. Some critics of creationism cite this as evidence of fossilized animals before the Fall. However, the Hebrew word isn't a technical term for a petroleum product. 
This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits.
i) This is usually translated into feet as 450x75x45, assuming that a cubit is about 18 inches. If so, the ark would be 50% longer than a football field. Enormous for a wooden ship.
ii) Although most commentators agree on the length of a cubit, at least one bucks the conventional wisdom:
"Cubit" was a measurement derived from the length of the elbow to the tip of the fingers. It varied in length among the peoples of the Near East, including the Hebrews (e.g. Deut 3:11; Ezk 40:4; 43:13). Most scholars work with cubits measuring 50 cm. per cubit, but this cannot be verified since it is a modern approximation based on circumstantial evidence (Mathews 1996). 
Since we're dealing with cubic feet, if the cubit was smaller, the ark would be significantly smaller. Proponents of a global flood favor a larger ark whereas proponents of a local flood favor a smaller ark. 
Critics of the ark allege that a wooden ship that large (esp. lengthwise) would lack structural integrity. I'm not qualified to comment on that. If so, that would be evidence for a smaller cubit. Of course, whatever the text says is true. 
16 Make a roof [or skylight] for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side.
The wording is a bit obscure, but it seems to suggest clerestory. A skylight would be useful, both for illumination and astronavigation. Even if the ark was rudderless, a skylight would give the passengers a sense of where they were–judging by the constellations. 
 Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 
The architectural design of the ark appears to be a symbolic microcosm of the world, from a phenomenal viewpoint (e.g. Exod 20:4; Deut 4:18). 
17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life 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.
This is the first explicit covenant in Scripture, although there are covenantal ideas in Gen 2.
 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.
i) Critics of the (global) flood raise logistical objections. There wasn't room for every species. How did animals cross natural barriers? How did species adapted to diverse ecological zones survive in the ark? 
However, that's anachronistic. It takes our current status quo as the frame of reference, then projects that back into the past. But the text itself doesn't make any particular assumptions about prediluvian biodiversity or biogeography. Critics are introducing extraneous assumptions into the text. Even on a global interpretation, the text doesn't invite that treatment.
ii) On a local interpretation, the ark would sample representative local "species." And they'd be nearby. 
 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. 
i) Noah doesn't have to fetch the animals: they come to him. Like the ravens feeding Elijah (1 Kigs 17:2-5), God guides the animals to Noah.
ii) One local flood proponent thinks this refers to livestock. Unlike wild animals, livestock would be very hard to replace if you had to start from scratch by domesticating wildlife all over again (Custance 1979). But even though that's logical, it doesn't seem to be the logic of the text. The text is hearkening back to the taxonomy of Gen 1, which doesn't single out livestock. Rather, the objective is to preserve the same kinds of animals we find in the creation account. The only distinction the text will draw is between clean and unclean animals, not between livestock and wild animals. 
21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Critics of the (global) flood ask how it would be possible to meet the specialized dietary needs of some species. But, once again, that's anachronistic. And that's even less of an issue for a local flood proponent. 
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. 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, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth.Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. 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. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 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.
i) Critics imagine a numerical contradiction between the single pairs in Gen 6 and the seven pairs in Gen 7. However, that simply reflects a synoptic/resumptive-expansive compositional technique in which the narrator begins with a general statement, changes the subject, the circles back to fill in details.  
ii) Critics also think this is anachronistic, because the kosher laws were not in place until the Mosaic covenant. But that objection is flawed on several grounds:
a) This probably foreshadows the kosher laws.
b) The kosher laws could simply codify a preexisting custom.
c) In any event, the distinction here is not between ritually edible and inedible animals, but sacrificial animals (Gen 8:20-21).
For in seven days I will send rain on 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.” And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.
The flood account repeatedly uses seven, multiples of seven, or forty. The fact that the narrator constantly juggles these figures suggests the account is fairly schematic. These aren't exact figures. Real life isn't that symmetrical. So the account is a stylized history rather than a prosaic chronicle. 
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.
i) The "windows of heaven" are a figure of speech for rainclouds. Ancient Jews were certainly used to seeing rainfall from clouds. 
ii) It may also invite an analogy with the "skylight" in the ark.
iii) The "windows of heaven" and "fountains of the deep" are synonyms for the "waters above" and "waters below," alluding to the creation account (Gen 1). 
iv) The water is "below" or "under" the land (not earth) in the sense that dry land is above sea level–except in case of coastal flooding or rivers at flood stage. 
v) On a local interpretation, the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys are suggestive:
Mesopotamia supplies a natural locale for a flood tradition. Both cuneiform documents and archaeological research provide abundant testimony to periodic inundation of the flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates. Torrential rains coupled with seasonal cyclones, and the early melting of the snows in the mountains of Anatolia, have from time to time combined to cause rivers to burst their banks and turn the land into hundreds of miles of lake (Sarna 1989).
In the case of Noah's flood, this would be a deluge of unprecedented severity. 
vi) On a global interpretation, what's the source of water? Flood geologists propose various mechanisms. If, however, we stick with the natural resources in the narrative, Gen 1:9 is suggestive. If natural barriers to flooding were miraculously breached, then the dry land might be inundated by coasting flooding. This doesn't require extra water. And by the same token, reversing the process would drain the excess water. 
What makes the dry land dry is relative elevation. Higher than sea level. Most land is under water.  
12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
The repeated accent on rainfall is more consistent with a local flood. Rainwater would make a negligible contribution to a global flood, which is why flood geologists minimize the rain factor and focus on alternative flood mechanisms. 
In addition, the waters above and below aren't necessarily, or even probably, two independent sources of water. Torrential or sustained rainfall causes rivers to overflow their banks. So the steady rain is likely the primary source of the floodwaters. The swollen rivers are a secondary source. That's the effect of rainfall and snowmelt–which turns placid rivers into raging torrents. 
17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on 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.
What mountains are alluded to? It's important for a modern reader to guard against reassigning the ancient landmarks to modern world geography. The original audience didn't have that frame of reference.
The depth of the flood and the height of the mountains are correlative. But according to the narrative, rainfall makes a very significant, or even primary, contribution to the rising waters. So the high-water mark is indexed to the amount of rainwater. Water rises on a floodplain as rivers overflow. Rivers overflow due to rainfall from storms. The question is how high the water could rise considering the source. 
Given where the ark lands (Gen 8:4), the flood extends upward and outward to the foothills of Urartu (i.e. the Armenian tableland). It submerges the mesas. The general elevation is a mile high in relation to sea level, but ground level (i.e. the plateau) is the immediate frame of reference. 

If debris like downed trees (from mud slides) were snagged in a narrow valley, blocking the outlet, that would cause the runoff to backup like a clogged drain. So the ark could float upstream.  
By the same token, that would contain the floodwaters, representing the outer limits of the deluge. The mountain range above and behind the foothills would be a natural barrier. That's how I visualize the description, given the various clues in Genesis.  
24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.
The narrative has a 7-40-150-40-7 symmetry. To some extent that represents a literary arrangement. And the same time, that tracks the natural cycle of a flood. 
But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.
i) Wind would have no effect on a global flood. If the whole surface of a spherical earth was submerged, wind would just move the water around and around. But if the flood were local, wind action in a downstream direction might facilitate drainage (cf. Exod 14:21-22). 
ii) Of course, the "wind" backshadows the "wind" in Gen 1:2 while foreshadowing the Red Sea episode (Exod 14:21; 15:10). However, commentators are frequently more interested in tracing intertextual parallels than discussing the practical function of the wind in Gen 8:1.  
 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. At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 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.
i) Notice that the scene is relayed from an observational perspective (8:5). How it would look to a passenger. So the vantage-point is local. 

ii) Gen 8:5 recalls Gen 1:9:

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (1:9, NRSV). 
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 appeared (8:5, NRSV).
The "mountains" are roughly equivalent to the "dry land." These two verses are mutually interpretive. 
How should we visualize this scene? Seems to me that where the ark ran aground would depend on whatever the ark happened to be floating above at the time floodwaters were receding. From what I’ve read, the land of Ararat is a hilly region with many narrow valleys. So, for instance, the ark might be caught in the eddy of a steep mountain cove or box canyon. The sides would ring the ark, like a toy boat in a bathtub after you pull the plug. The elevation would vary, depending on the location of the cove. 
If the ark came to rest in a steep mountain cove, Noah wouldn’t be able to see above or around the surrounding hillsides. Indeed, that would be a good reason to release the raven and the homing pigeon.

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. 
These are realistic details: 
The use of birds which could be released for determining the presence and direction of land (Gen 8:6-12) is not a folkloristic invention, but reflects actual navigational practice…A cage full of homing pigeons is not a bad method of direction finding (Gordon 1971). 

James Hornell [“The Role of Birds in Ancient Navigation”] shows that several ancient peoples used birds for the purpose of finding out whether there was land within a navigable distance, and in what direction. Hornell adduces references to the practice of carrying aboard several “shore-sighting birds” among the ancient Hindu merchants when sailing on overseas voyages contained in the Hindu Sutta Pitaka (5C BC), according to which these birds were “used to locate the nearest land when the ship’s position was doubtful.” The same practice is mentioned in the Buddhist Kevaddha Sutta of Digha, written about the same period (Patal 1998). 

In traversing their seas, the people of Taprobane [Ceylon] take no observations of the stars, and indeed the Greater Bear is not visible to them; but they carry birds out to sea, which they let go from time to time, and so follow their course as they make for the land (Pliny).
One of the first Norwegian sailors to hazard the voyage to Iceland was a man known as Raven-Floki for his habit of keeping ravens aboard his vessel. When he thought he was nearing land, Raven-Floki released the ravens, which he had deliberately starved. Often as not, they flew "as the crow flies" directly toward land, which Raven-Floki would reach simply by following their lead (PBS).
Returning to Genesis:

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 out 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 behold, in her mouth was 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 anymore.
Olive oil fueled the menorah (Exod 27:20; Lev 24:2-4). 
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 had dried out. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. 17 Bring out 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 swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. 19 Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark.20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down 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.” 
Gen 8:22 is a classic statement of ordinary providence. Human existence is characterized by a measure of natural stability and predictability, which makes it possible to plan ahead. 

Although God continues to exact mass judgment during the subsequent course of OT history, these fall short of universality until the Day of Judgment.
References:
Custance, A. The Flood: Local or Global (Zondervan 1979). 
Gordon, C. Before Columbus (Crown Publishers 1971), 77.

Mathews, K. Genesis 1:11:26 (Broadman 1996), 364n26.
Patai, R. The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times (Princeton 1998), 10-11.

Pliny, Natural History, 6.24.

Sarna, N. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (JPS 1989), 48.