Recently I was asked some questions about the Genesis flood by an evangelical Christian. After hearing my views on the subject, she was clearly taken aback. I quickly reassured her that I wasn’t judging her for taking it literally. At that point she informed me that she was judging me for not doing so. I chuckled at this, but to an extent she was serious. Thus, I decided to write this article and explain my views. To be clear, this has nothing to do with the science. Rather, my views are based largely on the text, which I believe contains clues that this story is metaphorical.
Let’s suppose you are bored one day and you pick up a book with which you are unfamiliar. Without researching it, you pick it up and begin reading. In the story, somebody comes down with an odd illness that doctors struggle to diagnose. Hence, they can’t properly treat the victim. This leads to his untimely death. However, he is reanimated somehow and bites one of the attendants preparing his body. This attendant also dies and is reanimated. The two of them go around perpetrating this new form of existence on everyone they encounter. Victims of their bite can’t be put down unless their heads are severed from their body. What kind of story are you reading?
That was an obvious one. Often there are similarities between books. We call this a “genre”. Moreover, when we read another story with these same features, we know that we are reading from the same genre. The plot changes, but they stick to the rules of the genre. So, imagine this.
A story of a man and his ark.
Let’s say I told you a story of a man who lived during hard and abusive times. God decided to punish the evil that mankind was doing. However, he took pity upon humans and decided to save one particular family. Thus, this man was placed in an ark. He passed through the waters until he came out on dry land, at which point God established a covenant with him and his family. It doesn’t take a theologian to realize that I’m talking about Noah. However, a theologian would probably pick up on the clues that I’m not. I’m actually talking about Moses.
In Exodus 2:3 we read about Moses’ mother placing him in a basket and hiding him in a river. However, the Hebrew word there is the same word that is used for Noah’s ark. And while these stories are similar, they seem to draw off a third and closely related story. That of creation in Genesis chapter 1. Consider verse 2.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.Genesis 1:2
The Genesis Flood and chaos.
In the opening lines of this story, we see multiple representation of chaos. The earth is formless and void. Darkness is a representation of chaos in Tanakh literature. Likewise with water. In ancient times, the ocean was a scary, chaotic place. Without technology for navigating or predicting the weather, each voyage out on the ocean was risking one’s life. Thus, we see this story emphasizing the chaotic nature of the universe in the moments before creation. All that is good (order) will emerge from this chaos.
We have similar events in the Genesis Flood and Exodus stories. Genesis 6:5 stresses the chaotic nature of civilization. Their wickedness was great, and they did only evil continually. Verse 4 even tells us of powerful men forcing women to produce children for them. Exodus 1 tells of similar oppression in the days preceding Moses birth. There arose a king who knew not Joseph, and enslaved his offspring. The Egyptians became brutal taskmasters over the Israelites.
The Spirit or Wind of God.
In our above verse we read about the spirit of God hovering over the waters. However, the Hebrew word used the is “ruach”, which means either “spirit, breath, or wind”. In this verse, I prefer the NRSV translation because they use the word “wind”, which seems more fitting to me. We have a “formless void” (chaos), darkness (chaos), the deep (chaos), and the waters (chaos). The word “spirit” breaks up this theme. However, if we read the NRSV translation it follows the theme to the conclusion. Thus, it opens the door to the introduction of order in the next verse.
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.Genesis 1:2 NRSV
Similarly, in Genesis 8:1 we are told that after the flood, “God made a wind blow over the earth and the waters subsided”. Moreover, in Exodus 14:21 we read that Hashem “drove the sea back by a strong east wind” so that the Israelites could cross the Sea of Reeds. Thus, in all 3 stories we have the wind of God manipulating the waters for people that he has chosen.
The Genesis flood and covenants.
Here I must make a confession. The covenant with Adam is never explicitly mentioned in the text of Genesis. For this reason, I will not make any arguments about this covenant here in this article. Moreover, to be entirely fair I see it as more of a creation of theologians than an actual covenant with Hashem. However, in our next 2 stories we clearly have covenants. These covenants have striking similarities.
- Both covenants are made with men who are referenced as having survived certain death in an ark.
- They are made with a people that God just saved by passing them safely through tumultuous waters.
- Both covenants include a new law that has not been previously given.
- The laws are given to the rescued patriarch and his offspring for all future generations.
The covenantal genre.
Because of these and other smaller similarities, I believe we are dealing with a genre of stories here. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that they are not factual presentations of historical events. However, it is an indication to me that some of the details may be used as a metaphoric plot device. The waters represent chaos, while the wind represents the saving actions of Hashem. The ark represents human efforts working alongside the divine plan. and carries the divinely specified leader of the chosen saved people.
God drives away the chaos (waters) so Noah‘s family can reassert itself on dry ground (order). He separates the Sea of Reeds so Moses and the family of Israel can cross on dry ground to the promised land. Moreover, at creation the wind of God blows across the waters to create the dry ground (dust) from which Adam is created.
Textual clues to the metaphoric nature of the Genesis Flood story.
In Genesis 8:21 God says “nor will I again destroy every living creature as I have done”. Therefore, every living creature has been thoroughly and efficiently destroyed. Correct? Well, not exactly. Noah survived, as did his family. Furthermore, there were representative animals taken aboard the ark that also survived the flood. Hence, why would God have claimed to have destroyed every living creature in a story specifically narrated to tell us about the survival of living creatures? And our problem with this contradiction doesn’t end there. Moreover, it doesn’t even start there. Consider the introductory chapter to the flood story, specifically chapter 6 and verse 4.
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.Genesis 6:8
If all living creatures outside of the ark were destroyed, than why does the text specifically tell us about a group of people who existed before the flood and also afterward? Moreover, we see a similar development in the Exodus story. Consider chapter 9 and verse 6, which tells us about the 5th plague. It says that “all the livestock of the Egyptians died”. However, in the 10th plague we learn that the dead include “all the firstborn of the livestock”. If all of the livestock died in the 5th plague, how were there livestock to die in the 10th plague? Clearly, this is hyperbolic language. Likewise in the story of the Genesis Flood.
In Genesis 8:5 we are told that the waters abated so that “the tops of the mountains appeared”. However, in verse 9 the dove “found no place to set his foot” because “the waters were still on the face of the whole earth”. This can’t simply be an error. Any author would catch that, and certainly a later editor would. So how can it tell us that the waters were on the face of the “whole earth” immediately after telling us that the tops of the mountains weren’t covered? Moreover, how can he claim the dove had nowhere to set his foot if he could’ve landed on a mountain? But it gets worse. Seven days later, he sends out the dove again and it returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf. How does a tree go from completely submerged to growing fresh leaves in 7 days?
Oh ye of little faith…
This is what it all boils down to. The woman with whom I shared my views was disappointed that I lacked the faith to believe the story as it was written. Perhaps this is a fair criticism. God could’ve miraculously driven out the water, and stimulated the olive tree to instantly sprout leaves. Anything is possible with God. However, the story doesn’t give us these details. Moreover, it does give us hyperbolic language that is typical of metaphorical texts. It furthermore follows a genre which we see in two other places bookmarking this story. Hence, I would argue that I do have the faith to believe the story exactly as it was written. As a metaphor.
Having been raised in an evangelical family, my view is clearly in the minority amongst the people closest to me. Certainly, one can read these stories as literal representations of historical events. However, when one does that they run into all kinds of problems with the text. Additionally, they find themselves battling with science. Yet there is no part of this story beyond the reach of a miracle, so long as I’m willing to read one in that isn’t there. But does reading things into the story also cause me to read things out of the story?
All three of these stories from Torah are beautiful stories of beginnings. First we have the beginnings of the human family. Next, in Noah we have the origins of the tribes that will come to be known as Gentiles. Lastly, in Moses we have the formation of the Nation of Israel. These stories abound with similarities.
- Coming out of the water or chaos.
- The hand of God choosing humans to lead us to our destiny.
- The wind of God turning chaos into order.
- An immediate fall from grace. (Eating the fruit, the sin of Ham, and the golden calf.)
- The settling of new territory.
- The beginnings of new tribes.
Perhaps God is simply trying to relay historical events. Maybe we’ll be tested on the Genealogy of Shem later, who knows? But I doubt it. All of these stories are in Tanakh for a reason, and I don’t honestly think it’s a historical one. Moreover, I think that the Bible makes it clear that the reason isn’t historical. Here is how.
Landmarks in the Bible.
As you read through Tanakh, you will repeatedly find people making, observing, or searching for landmarks. We are told that nobody knows the burial place of Moses to this day. Clearly, someone must have looked for it. Abraham buried his wife in a city, and it is later visited as the city where Sarah was buried. Joshua erected a monument where Israel crossed the Jordan, which is there “to this day”. Clearly people had visited it. Joseph’s bones were brought out of Egypt 400 years after his death. They had to have known where it was. However, not once do we have someone visiting Noah’s ark. Wouldn’t this be the premier monument of the time? They saved a jar of manna as a memorial and they hated the stuff! But nobody cared to swing by the ark for old time’s sake?
Perhaps this is because the ark never existed. Or perhaps it could be that the ark was a rickety structure that barely survived some small scale regional flood. Maybe this is how the nephelim escaped. Or, perhaps it is an entirely true historical story and they just didn’t care. I’m not here to tell you how to read it. I’m simply offering an alternative view to the literal one. Agree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. Find me heretical? Get in line and tell me why.