one of TA's brightest and best regulars, Pam, posted a response
to a recent thread where she mentioned the two contradictory flood stories in Genesis. Pam told us that she had brought up the two flood accounts to a person who had done some religious studies and that this person then invoked the classic inerrantist dodge by saying that the first flood account is just a general overview followed by the second flood account which is more specific. coincidentally i have had an email exchange with a friend that coincides with this very subject so after asking her permission i'll reproduce my email to her here almost in it's entirety. here i'll explain why the innerrantist's explanation fails and why in fact there are two flood stories. throughout this explanation i've relied on Richard Elliot Friedman's excellent, Who Wrote the Bible.
to begin with, tradition dating back hundreds of years had always been that Moses wrote the first 5 books of the bible. in fact, besides "the Torah" and "the Pentateuch", the first five books were known as "the five books of Moses". until.............
back in the 18th century people started noticing that sections of the bible contained a certain literary style that was different than other parts. within each literary style were also repeated and favored phraseology and vocabulary. they also noticed that within one literary style god was always called by his name Yahweh and in the other style he was called Elohim which means simply "God". then they noticed that there were repeated stories in the bible with one version of the story being in the literary style that called god Elohim and the other version of the story calling god by his name Yahweh. these repeated versions of the same stories came to be called doublets. there are two stories of creation, two stories of the flood (as we shall see in a minute), two of the covenant between god and Abraham, two of the naming of Abraham's son, Isaac, two of Abraham claiming to a foreign king that his wife, Sarah, is actually his sister, etc...
so with the understanding of differing literary style, phraseology, vocabulary, and the way one literary style always referred to god in one way and the other style referred to him another way people began to be formulate a hypothesis of authorship.
to be fair, there had always been people who had noticed that there were passages in the bible that referred to Moses in the third person, that referred to events that came hundreds of years in the future from Moses' perspective, that used words, phrases, or philosophies that weren't known or in favor in Moses' time (assuming he was a historical person at all of course) and even a story of Moses' death and the events directly after his death- something he could not have written since he was dead!; the text also refers to Moses at one point as the humblest man on earth- something the humblest man on earth is not likely to have written about himself - but these things had always been explained away by interpretation and apologetics. but these new insights into the recognized literary styles was something altogether different.
eventually the style that referred to god as Yahweh was called J for short (Yahweh was incorrectly translated to mean Jehovah back then) and the style that called god Elohim was called E for short.
but then it was noticed that there were even triplets in the text and that much of the narrative seemed concerned with rites, rituals, laws, weights, and measurements- all stuff that had to do with priests- and so it was called P for short.
much later it was noticed that Deuteronomy, Kings, and Chronicles is in a style totally different from the previous books and so that material was called D for short.
finally, it came to be understood that an editor or "redactor" had taken the J, E, P, and D material and woven them, through little additions and redactions to smooth the narrative over at the place where the text had been joined together, to form one (semi)consistent narrative.
okay, so now we know the hypothesis accepted by nearly every biblical scholar except for innerantists who still cling to Mosaic authorship and believe the text is perfect, free from errors of any kind, leading them to make the sort of excuses for the doublets that Pam heard.
first of all, let's back up for a second. even without the documentary hypothesis, the explanation that the first flood story is general and the second expands and provides specifics fails when you take a closer look at the text itself. examining them in parallel shows not that the first is general and the second specific but that they flatly contradict each other.
the P story has god instruct Noah to bring 2 of every animal while the J says 7 of every clean animal and 2 of every unclean animal. J has the flood caused only by rain for 40 days and 40 nights (biblical shorthand for "a very long time") while P has the springs of the great deep and flood gates of heaven open up. P has the flood lasting 150 days while J says 40. after the flood P has Noah sending out a raven to look for dry land while J has a more involved story of Noah sending out a dove 3 times. these are not complimentary accounts.
now, a short digression is important here. both of the biblical flood myths are based on earlier Mesopotamian mythologies going back to at least 2000-3000 BCE (we have Sumerian tablets that depict the material.) J is based on the flood myth of Atrahasis (dating between 1900-1600 BCE but being derived from Ziusudra dating to 2300 BCE) while P is based on a world view common to the myth of Enuma elish (as early as 1600 but no later than 1100 BCE but Enuma elish has its basis in Atrahasis which in turn is based on Ziusudra). at the end of Atrahasis the gods are attracted by the sweet smell of Atrahasis' sacrifice and resolve never again to destroy humanity. they reconcile themselves to the fact that the human spirit has rebellion built into it from the blood of Wa'ila that was mixed with the clay to make the lullu. now keep that in mind and reread the J story from Gen. 8:21.
the cosmology of Enuma elish is easy to see as present in the P story of the biblical flood once you know that myth.
Enuma elish begins even before the time of the gods, who are generated when Apsu, the sweet water abyss, representing the male principle, mixes with Ti'amat, the female salt water abyss. Apsu probably represents the ocean-river, thought to circle the world in ancient times; while Ti'amat represents the sea. Ti'amat gives birth to a series of divine pairs. one of them, Kishar and Anshar, give birth to Anu, who in turn sires Ea. eventually all of the original Anunaki are born and begin to take charge of the cosmos. their activities disturb the rest of Ti'amat, who sends out her husband, Apsu, to deal with them. Ea kills Apsu and makes a palace out of his body. within that palace he sires Marduk. Ti'amat brings forth a series
of monsters and elevates her son Kingu to be her new spouse. when she comes against the gods, neither Ea nor Anu can face her. Marduk offers to destroy her if the gods will make him their king. they agree, and Marduk sallies forth to do battle armed with a bow and lighting bolts. when Ti'amat opens her mouth to devour him, Marduk uses the winds to distend her belly and shoots arrows through her gaping mouth into her heart. as she dies, her army flees in terror, only to be caught in a net by the victorious god. he cuts Ti'amat's body in two, using one half to form the heavens as a barrier to the waters (of chaos) above and the other half to make the earth to keep back the waters below.
having established divine order and shut out chaos, Marduk kills Kingu and mixes his blood with clay. under his direction the goddess Aruru molds the lullu to be servants of the gods. having finished his great work, Marduk hangs his bow in the sky. he and the other gods rest and rejoice. (Callahan 2002) see, the mythology of the time held that the waters below were held back by the earth above and that above the land and air where people lived was another body of water. it's easy to see how they believed this when you consider that when you dig a well you get water, where does the water from underground springs come from if not from the "springs of the great deep"? and indeed, where does the water for rain come from if not from the waters above through the windows of heaven? remember that in P god opens the springs of the great deep and the floodgates of the heavens!
so, not only do we see that the accounts aren't complimentary but rather often contradictory, we also see how each story is derived from earlier Mesopotamian mythologies.
so let's take the flood story and show how a doublet works and how we can spot the J and P material.
Gensis 6:5-8:22 (NIV) follows. the J material is in regular type while the P i've put in bold. try first reading just the regular type through to the end and then go back and read just the emboldened type. notice how each one still remains a cohesive narrative without the other, though each story is very different.
5The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them." 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
9 This is the account of Noah.
Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God. 10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 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. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. 16the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. 17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. 21 You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them."
22 Noah did everything just as God commanded him.
1 The LORD then said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3 and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made."
5 And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.
6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, 9 male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. 14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. 16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah.
Then the LORD shut him in.
17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. 21 Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.
22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
24 The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.
1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
6 After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth.
8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. 10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.
13 By the first day of the first month of Noah's six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth.
Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.
15 Then God said to Noah, 16 "Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it."
18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons' wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on the earth—came out of the ark, one kind after another.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
22 "As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease."
the P story, the one in bold, always calls god "God" while the J story calls him Yahweh. P refers to the sex of the animals as "male and female" (6:1; 7:9, 16) while J uses "male and it's mate" (7:2) in addition to "male and female". P says that everything "perished" (6:17; 7:21) while J says that everything "died" (7:22).
now obviously you can see how the stories differ. P cares about ages, dates, and measurments in cubits but J doesn't care about these things at all. many times bible believers will acknowledge a contradiction but try to say that the contradiction has no theological implications and so who cares. but importantly for theology, J deptics a god who can regret things that he has done (6:6-7); it depicts god as anthropomorphic- god personally closes the ark (7:16) and smell's Noah's sacrifice (8:21). this anthropomorphic quality of a god who can regret things is totally absent in P. P depicts god as a transcendent controller of the universe.
so there you go. the Hebrew Bible has had at least 5 authors. the Yahwist, J, author; the Elohist, E, author; the preistly, P, author; the Deuteronomist, D, author; and the R material from the redactor(s) who took the existing books and wove them together to create the narrative we have today. that is why there are two different flood stories.
thanks for reading!