The Torah's Version of the Flood Story
In 1929, while excavating Abraham’s native city of Ur, the great British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) observed a thick layer of sediment covering the valley. Not a man to shy away from publicity, Woolley telegraphed messages to the leading newspapers in Britain and the USA announcing that he had found proof of Noah’s Flood. But he was a scholar too, so when he compiled his report, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1935), he acknowledged that what he had discovered was evidence not of a universal deluge, but of a disaster confined to the lower Tigris/Euphrates valley.
Knowledge of the ancient world has increased exponentially since Woolley’s time. If you think Noah’s Flood was a universal deluge rising to 15 cubits above Mt Ararat in 2100 BCE (1656 years after Creation), give or take or few years, forget it, it never happened; there is overwhelming evidence that most life around the planet continued on its normal course.
Does that mean that the story of Noah’s Ark is a fantasy? Not at all. The truth behind the words is more wonderful than the plain meaning, and reaches far back in time. The story of a Great Flood sent by God or the gods to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution is widespread; there are the legends of Matsya in the Hindu Puranas, of Deucalion in Greek mythology, there are stories from China, and in the Americas the Toltecs, Aztecs and Inca are just some of those who told similar tales. Closest to the biblical narrative – as Woolley knew – is the episode of Utnapishtim, Noah’s equivalent in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Fragments have been found of earlier versions, in Sumerian, dating back to the third millennium BCE, long before Genesis; Sumerians call the hero Ziusudra, meaning ‘he saw life.’
Creationists falsify the evidence, claiming that all these stories are reminiscences of one and the same Great Flood, Noah’s Flood, but they are wrong. There were many floods, many memories, in many parts of the world. The geological record is clear. Humankind has survived vast catastrophes since the northern ice sheet retreated following the last ice age, among them the pluvials, when the North American lakes formed and the Mediterranean area was subjected to frequent inundations.
But how could memories of these events be preserved before the advent of writing? A survivor would perhaps tell his son, who passed it on; ‘explanations’ were added to fit the understanding of the hearers, interpretations were added to fit the theological bent of the tellers. Eventually the stories were committed to writing, ‘sources’ were created, passed from culture to culture, were mixed and embellished. Some sources – there are traces of at least two, differing in animal count and divine names – were crystallized into the beautiful narrative of Genesis, fitted to the new revelation of the One God, just and merciful, who saved Noah whom he had found worthy, and made the ‘rainbow covenant’ with all humanity and with nature (9:11), guaranteeing that ‘While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease’ (8:22).
When I read parashat Noach I see not just ‘words from the sky’ but a distillation of millennia of human experience, of traumatic events that have forged us into what we are and have become etched into human consciousness. Much of this could be read into other ancient texts, such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is phrased in a similar way to the biblical account. But it is precisely the differences in detail that alert us to the distinctiveness of Bereshit. The Hebrew word תיבה teiva, conventionally translated ‘ark,’ offers a powerful clue to this distinctiveness.
Biblical Hebrew has several words for ‘boat,’ so why was Noah told to build an ‘ark,’ that is, a box or container, rather than a boat? Utnapishtim, in the Babylonian version, not only had to build a ship seven stories high, he was to take a crew with him to navigate: ‘I handed the tiller to Puzur-Amurri the steersman, with the navigation and care of the whole boat’! But Noah is to place himself entirely in God’s hands, simply floating in a box on the waters, he knows not where. It is God, not his own skill, which alone can save him from catastrophe; he does not even ‘batten the hatch’ himself – God does it for him (7:16), demonstrating compassion. And when Noah emerges he does not, like Utnapishtim, become an ‘immortal’; instead, his humanity is recognized and he is blessed with a new dispensation, the ‘Seven Laws of Noah’ (9:1-7).
Bereshit is not the last word, though. With Bereshit as their starting point, the Rabbis embroider and interpret the ancient narrative in the light of their own beliefs and concerns. Was Noah righteous, they ask, only ‘in his generation’ because men were so wicked? Had he lived in the time of Abraham would he have been so special? What is the significance of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals in a period before the laws of kashrut were decreed? What do the changes of divine name tell us about the relationship between God’s justice and mercy? (Rashi cites the Rabbis’ views on all these questions.)
We can go further, drawing on the text to address contemporary issues, such as the universality of human values (from the Seven Laws) or the imperative to conserve nature (maintain a viable population of every species.)
Certainly, as Samuel Noah Kramer wrote (The Sumerians, p. 299), ‘The law which came forth from Zion (Isaiah 2:2) may have had not a few of its roots in the soils of Sumer.’ But the growth that emerged from those roots has sent forth branches and borne fruit that could only come from Sinai.
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September 28, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.
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