I have a problem with the story of Noah’s ark and the flood.
Growing up in church I learned that God caused the flood because of the wickedness of people. This isn’t really a stretch, the flood story said so. In Genesis 6:11-14 we read,
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”
This text makes it pretty clear that God’s solution to the violence and corruption caused by humanity is to wipe them all out and start over with just Noah. Noah, we’re told earlier in the story, “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time and he walked faithfully with God.”
This isn’t terribly uncommon. We see something similar in Exodus 32. Right after the Golden Calf incident, where the Israelites melt all their gold to form an idol in the form of a calf, God initially tells Moses he’s going to destroy them and start over with just Moses. Moses actually pleads with God to reconsider and eventually, God recants and agrees to let the Israelites live.
So my problem isn’t with the idea that God is tired of wicked humanity and decides the best solution is to start over. My problem is that he lets Noah live.
Growing up Evangelical, I was taught a particular doctrine known as Original Sin. This is the idea that all people are born inherently sinful because of what Adam did way back in the Garden of Eden (if you remember, in Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to eat the fruit of the only forbidden tree in the garden).
We got this idea from how St. Augustine (354-430) interpreted Paul in Romans 5:12. In Romans 5 Paul Paul says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”
Augustine, who was working from a bad Latin translation of this passage, believed Paul argued because Adam sinned in the Garden, all people are born inherently sinful. In this sense, you could think of sin like a blood-borne illness being passed from each generation onto the next generation. We are a sinful race and we can’t help but sin constantly.
But if that’s true, why did God let Noah live? By allowing Noah and his family to escape the flood, God allowed the illness to continue. And if God was okay allowing the illness to continue, why kill everyone else?
In the churches in which I was raised, the answer seemed to lie in the idea that God was trying various solutions in his attempt to save humanity. First, he tried to kill everyone except the righteous Noah and start over. When that didn’t work, God instead tried to institute the Mosaic Law through the Israelites. When that didn’t work, God decided to send Jesus.
But that’s problematic if we believe God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). God would have known genocide would not cure our sin problem as long as anyone was left alive.
In this sense it would be like quarantining a town because of a deadly virus, deciding to destroy the town to prevent an outbreak, but then letting one person leave the town because he’s a really nice guy. Nice guy or not, by allowing the virus to continue others will get infected, in which case the deaths of all the other residents are pointless.
So what if there’s a better way to read the flood story in Genesis? What if the point of the flood wasn’t an attempt to control the sinfulness and wickedness of humanity?
Like the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, the flood narrative comes to life when we understand some context. In ancient Mesopotamian culture, flood stories were common. The Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra, the Akkadian Epic of Atrahasis, and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh all contain flood stories. Each borrowing from and building on the last.
The flood myth which has been best preserved into the modern area is the Epic of Atrahasis. In this particular story, the gods Enlil and Enki are concerned with overpopulation. First, they try famine and drought but eventually decide to flood the earth in order to destroy everyone. Enki disagrees with the plan but swears an oath to keep the plan secret.
Of course, in order to preserve humanity, Enki warns Atrahasis, the hero, anyway. He tells him to build a boat with many decks and to bring his family and animals on board for safety. Enlil eventually sends the flood which is so bad it scares the other gods as well. After the flood, Enki and Enlil agree to find other means of controlling the population of humanity.
It’s in this context that the Hebrew flood narrative is written. And we see plenty of similarities between the stories. Both stories have a decision by the deities to flood the earth. Both have a single character tasked with building a boat which will rescue him, his family and the animals.
But there are distinct differences between the stories as well. In the Epic of Atrahasis, the decision to flood to earth is because the gods were concerned with over-population. In Genesis, the single God is concerned with wickedness.
In the Epic of Atrahasis, the hero is simply someone who is very wise. In the Genesis version, the hero is someone viewed as righteous, blameless and one who walked faithfully with God. While there is no direct connection between over-population and wisdom—in which case, why choose Atrahasis?—the connection between the wickedness of humanity and the righteousness of Noah is obvious.
While the Epic of Atrahasis paints the flood as something which scares the other gods, Genesis makes it clear that this one God is in control the entire time. In Genesis, the writer takes the common flood myth of his contemporaries and reframes it to encourage his readers to live a life of righteousness rather than wickedness.
According to archaeology, there is significant evidence to suggest a local flood occurred near what is modern Tell Fara, Iraq somewhere around 2900 BC. Like most of us, when this bad event took place, the residents asked the natural question, “Why did this happen?” They wondered why the gods allowed a flood to occur. The Epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh, along with the Genesis narrative, attempt to answer that question.
The flood story in Genesis is not God’s first of many attempts to address the issue of Original Sin brought upon humanity by Adam in the Garden of Eden. Rather, it is the story of God who is concerned with humans deciding to do what is right rather than what is evil.