[This Article Is Part Of The Old Testament God Series]
Few things cause as much issue for Christians and skeptics alike as the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-9. For starters, geologists have long argued that not only do we have no geological evidence for a global flood, the evidence that we do have seems to suggest that it never happened at all (although recent discoveries in underwater archaeology have challenged this view). Then, even if it did happen, we have to wrestle with the character implications of a God who would choose to drown His entire creation. This goes well beyond genocide, it goes to world annihilation. So, it seems that we Christians are stuck in a pickle: either the Bible is not true, or God is a really scary, scary guy.
Thankfully, there is a third option. Ancient Israel often made use of a particular genre in conveying truths about the God of Israel. The genre, known as a polemic, would often take surrounding cultural stories and retell them with key changes, so that in the contrast we come to understand the uniqueness of the God that the Hebrews worshipped. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 was such a polemic. The flood narrative is another.
In the surrounding culture of the Ancient Near East we stumble upon two very similar stories that long predate the penning of the Genesis flood. The first was the Epic of Gilgamesh; the second was the Atrahasis Epic. Both tell the same story, a tale of Mesopotamian gods in which the lead figure, Enlil, unleashed the flood waters upon a humanity that had irritated him long enough. In the midst of this, Atrahasis (Ut-Napishtim in the Gilgamesh epic) discovers the coming watery apocalypse and builds a wooden cube to function as a ship that will house himself, his family, and a sampling of every animal on the earth. As the waters receded, he releases a dove, a swallow, and a raven, whose return (or lack of returning) signified dry land.
While the similarities are staggering, even more notable are the differences. It is these differences which Israel uses to teach about the uniqueness of Yahweh. It is in these differences that we find an often overlooked depth to Jewish and Christian theology.
5 Overlooked Lessons From The Flood
- God is Peerless. In an ancient worldview, gods and men were differentiated by degree, not by category. Gods and men were distinguished only by virtue that the gods have more of the divine “stuff”, much in the same way that Star Wars distinguishes Jedis from everyday individuals simply by virtue that they had more midichlorians in their blood (a gleefully nerdy analogy I stole from Old Testament scholar Dr. Brian Russell). Thus, the gods in the two epics were remarkably human – they hungered, they thirsted, they needed their sleep, they could get petty and cranky. By contrast, the God of Israel was categorically different. Unlike the pagan view of gods, Yahweh is entirely outside the created order, and not subject to the realities of creation. Yahweh is without peer.
- God is Personal. In the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis epics, Enlil decides to annihilate humanity and Enki decides to warn Atrahasis. However, Enki cannot communicate directly to Atrahasis, so he uses indirect means to bear his message. By contrast, the God of Israel sought Noah directly. He spoke with Noah intentionally. He encountered Noah relationally. He still speaks to His people today.
- God is Protective. The central offense that incited Enlil’s genocidal rage was the growth of the human population to a point where we simply became too noisy. Night after night Enlil lay his godlike head down to sleep, only to be awoken by those darn kids and their parties. It was his irritation that led to his murderous wrath. By contrast, the God of Israel looked across His creation, a creation that He had made and labeled “very good,” and saw widespread corruption and evil threatening to destroy the last remnant of anything good. So, to protect His creative intent, he scoops up the last vestige of righteousness and unleashes the forces of chaos to initiate a global reboot. This was not the knee jerk reaction of a cranky, sleep deprived aggravation; this was a drastic measure to rescue a good creation headed for self destruction. It should also be noted that while Atrahasis discovered Enlil’s intentions through a rebellious lesser god and thereby set out to save himself, Noah’s salvation was accomplished by God Himself.
- God is Powerful. When the heavens burst open and the flood waters released, Enlil and the rest of the gods fled before it, terrified, and hid in the upper sky where they are described as “cowering like dogs outside the wall.” Yahweh, however, did not flee. He did not fear the flood. He controlled the flood, and was present and able to communicate with Noah during the flood. Yahweh embodies power.
- God is Purposeful. Perhaps the most impactful of all, especially for us, is just what the waters themselves represent. In an ancient context, water depicted chaos. It was fickle. The sea was just as likely to swallow you up as it was to give you fish. Water was unpredictable and uncontrollable. The creation narrative begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of a world that was “without form and void.” Creation was seen as order overcoming chaos. The flood, then, was the means by which God released chaos back upon the earth and then re-created. This is important for one simple fact: it means that even the chaos serves the purposes of God. This idea plays out in all Scripture. God chooses to work with and through sinful humanity, rather than in spite of it. He encounters us in our brokenness, and even the chaos of our own lives ultimately works for the glory of God and the redemption of His creation.
In short, the flood narrative of Genesis should not be seen as a historical record of a cataclysmic event. Rather, it is a theological polemic that tells us about the God of Israel, the God we serve, the God who is at work even within the chaos of our own lives.
The flood waters are much deeper than we ever imagined, and there is plenty of space for our faith to swim.
Featured Image Courtesy Of Sister72