Noah story is not literal
While arguments justifying or supporting a literal interpretation of the Noah flood story can be presented, adopting this approach is to miss the point of the story.
Everyone would agree that it would be a serious mistake of historical interpretation not to take into account the genre of any work. This applies to every book in the Bible, but in the current age it applies with special force to some of the early narratives in the Bible, like Noah’s flood and the extraordinary genealogies. Even though they look like history, are we really entitled to view them as history when the content clearly shows that they are not historical? In a different context, who would use the Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey as if they were historical narratives of the Mycenaean age, even though they may reflect customs and usages of those times? Similarly, how can the story of the flood be used as a historical resource when it fails tests of historicity, and is not confirmed by geology? In this case, it would be prudent to seek to understand it in its context, to see what kind of literature it is, and to examine whether there are other examples of this kind of literature.
The determination of some conservative Christians to maintain a literal interpretation of the Genesis flood narrative presents more problems than it solves. Those who continue to hold to this position, in the face of the evidence, can consider themselves to be like the teachers of the law and the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned for putting heavy loads on men’s shoulders, yet were not willing to lift a finger to help them. May such modern Pharisees be forgiven for creating a wall of incomprehension that keeps others from entering the kingdom of the heavens.
Egyptian context of the Noah story
In the main creation account, in Genesis 1:1-2:3, everything is going well. Indeed, it is reported that God saw all that he had made, and said that it was very good.
This can be considered to be absolutely in line with the Egyptian view of creation, as discussed in Creation in Genesis. According to Egyptian cosmology, the world was created without a flaw as well as being created for mankind to enjoy; only mankind could spoil the good work that the gods had completed. Even in this event, it was thought that Amun (the supreme god according to the Theban theologians), was inclined to forgive the mistakes that were often made by men. This was strikingly at odds with the view of creation held by the Mesopotamians.
The Mesopotamian view of the cosmos was quite different from that followed by the Egyptians. This is reflected in the Mesopotamian flood story. Whereas Egyptian life is ordered in relation to the relatively regular annual flooding of the Nile, the floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates are much more erratic. Whether this was the reason, or whether the Mesopotamian flood story relates to an even more catastrophic event, such as the flood that established the Black Sea, the Mesopotamian people appear to have had a collective memory of a devastating flood some time in the distant past. Possibly a number of devastating floods over time, in various places, merged in society’s remembrance as one great flood. Such a collective memory would demand some kind of explanation. It was the normal function of myth to provide this kind of explanation, both as a way of understanding such phenomena, and to suggest a means of managing it.
The earliest surviving Mesopotamian flood story is found in the Sumerian Atrakhasis myth. In this myth the gods created man in order to relieve themselves of certain tiresome activities. This involved digging the canals and clearing the channels necessary to allow irrigation to be carried out in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. According to this myth, the men that the gods had created became too noisy for the counsellor of the gods. He complained that their noise was depriving him of sleep. He convinced the other gods to reduce their population. When even this did not help, he convinced them to bring a devastating flood that would destroy all mankind. Man’s ally among the gods advised the man, Atrakhasis, to build a boat and save himself from the flood. So Atrakhasis built an enormous boat and put his family on board, and also brought many domesticated animals, birds, and wild creatures into the boat. For seven days and nights the deluge prevailed, but finally the boat came to rest. On disembarking, Atrakhasis made an offering to the gods, which they ate eagerly. They were happy with the offering and agreed to allow the human race to continue, on the condition that their numbers would be kept down. As a result, it was decreed that some children would not survive childbirth. It was also established that the position of celibate priestesses be established, so that they would not have children. Both measures were intended to limit the growth in population.
During the Egyptian New Kingdom period (16th century BC – 11th century BC) – if not earlier – the Egyptians would have been exposed to Mesopotamian ideas. Certainly, there was a growing awareness of the importance of international relationships, firstly by Amenhotep II (1427 BC – 1401 BC). This was continued by his son and successor Thutmoses IV (1401 BC – 1391 BC) and then by his son and successor Amenhotep III (1391 BC – 1353 BC), and this resulted in active contact with the Babylonians. The Babylonian idea of the gods setting out to create mankind so that their labour could be exploited, and then destroying mankind on a whim would have been quite confronting to the Egyptians. One can easily imagine the Egyptians, with their propensity for myth-making, transforming the Mesopotamian myth into something more tolerable within their way of thinking about the gods. Furthermore, one can also imagine the Israelites, with their family tradition of being specially chosen by God, also wanting to transform the Sumerian myth so that this story of the primeval flood was anchored on the justice, rather than upon the arbitrariness, of God.
The transformed version of the Atrakhasis myth is found in the P source material in Genesis. Instead of being a story about the vengeful acts of the gods, and their self-serving behaviour, it became a myth about the fall and restoration of the man and the animals. The flood story is the only account in P that deals with the fall of man into sin, and the only representation of the end of the idyllic state established in the main Genesis creation account.
In the Noah story, it is said that God decided to destroy mankind and the animals because both men and the animals were being excessively violent towards one another, and not living in harmony as God had intended. Because of this, God planned to start again with Noah, and with a set of rules to guide behaviour. Only Noah, his family and the selected animals were to be saved. After the flood, when Noah emerges from the ark, God shows that he wants mankind to replenish its numbers, and indeed, to fill the earth. (There is no indication that celibate priestesses would be established to hold back population growth, as in the Atrakhasis myth.) God also extended mankind’s rights to gather food, giving men and women authority to kill animals and eat their meat; men and animals were no longer restricted to only eating fruit, seed-bearing plants, and green plants (as in the main creation account). However, man himself remained sacrosanct, and was not to be killed .
It is reasonable to think that the Israelites could not allow the Mesopotamian view of God, as presented in this Sumerian myth, to remain unchallenged. With hindsight, we can see that they were in the process of developing their own view of God and his relationship with mankind. This makes the creation of a new mythical explanation of the remembered Mesopotamian devastating flood quite appropriate, and perhaps necessary.
The P source story of Noah ends quite emphatically. The author had already rejected the idea that God’s actions were arbitrary (as in the Atrakhasis myth). Instead, he assured his audience of God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness. He now introduced the idea of covenant based on the sign of the rainbow. It is a one-sided covenant, which required no action or response from mankind, and which endured for all time. In this way, the author demonstrated that he believed that the story of the destructive flood must be put into the past, for he considered that there was a new paradigm. Because both mankind and the beasts had failed to live up to the ideals of the perfect world God had previously created, a new more pragmatic world order was established. However, it was not one based on fear, but upon confidence in God’s goodness:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you, every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all the living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
There is some significance in the fact that the P source version of this story has no reference to the gods being appeased by the sacrifices of the people, and no reference to God “eating the sacrifices” that mankind offered. Since it is likely that Aramean customs, carried forward by the Patriarchs, included offering animal sacrifices (as is suggested by the account of the confrontation of Moses with Pharaoh). Since animal sacrifice does not appear to have been an important part of Egyptian religious practices, this omission points to an Egyptian origin for this story. Yet even if the myth of the flood that has come down to us in the P source was originally an Egyptian adaptation of the Sumerian story, at least the Israelites should be credited with whatever changes were necessary in order to transform it into the form in which we have it today (even though we do not know what these changes might have been).
The time that the Egyptians are most likely to have become interested in this Sumerian story was during the time of Joseph’s ascendancy in Egypt, which is also co-incident with the period when the Egyptians had greater international awareness. On this basis, it is not surprising that this story found itself as one of the foundation texts of the Hebrew Bible.
[While it is possible that the Babylonian Gilgamesh flood myth could have been the basis of the P source Noah myth, and not the Sumerian Atrakhasis myth, the fact that the Sumerian king lists seem also to have inspired the genealogy of the pre-Abraham figures, which is closely tied to the P source Noah myth, the balance of probabilities strongly points to Atrakhasis as the original for this story, and not the Gilgamesh story.]