The patriarch Noah and the Flood


An easy quiz question might be, “What do you know about Noah?” Most will effortlessly mention the Flood, its ark, prolonged rain, collecting all pairs of animals, the rainbow at the end, etc.  His fame and popularity are often, but not necessarily, tied to a religious view of world events. Also people who do not have this attitude will have watched the film about his adventures by director Darren Aronovsky, with Russell Crowe in the grandiose title role. This fascination is comparable to the large-scale response to other best-selling themes, such as dinosaurs. Perhaps they awaken vague representations buried deep within our subconscious.

In any case, this figure is not only fascinating, but above all a character directly inspired by God, characterized by enormous trust in Him. Who get in his head the construction of a big boat, in the face of a catastrophe of which there is no concrete indication, except for the voices in his head or the dreams he attributes to God? Only obsessed or exceptionally visionary  people are capable of something that seems so grotesque and absurd. With a little goodwill and intellectual effort, one can deduce more from his captivating story than the classical  exegetical acceptances. It is generally compared to that of Utnapishtim, which is covered in the epic of Gilgamesh and tells of a similar flood. The main story tells the adventures of Gilgamesh, who may have been king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk around 2620. From Ur, a town south of Uruk, several centuries later a distant descendant of Noah, the patriarch Abraham left. We can be fairly certain that he knew the narrative well and passed it on to his descendants. But – as we try to demonstrate next – apparently in a version that seems a little more believable and therefore better reflects the original story.

A major role in the creation of  such legends was very probably played by traditions, in which genealogical lists of ancestors or great rulers were memorized  from an early age, often in a family context. There was social control over them, for it was certainly seen as a sign of the proper functioning of the mind if one did not make mistakes in reciting it. We can therefore consider as a largely general rule the fact that the persons listed in these types of genealogical lists actually have existed. In the Bible, they were sometimes given an unacceptable age, which also happened with Noah. The common explanation for this is that these ancestors represented a part of the genealogical list, of which they were usually the first, but apparently they could also sometimes be  the last. In the  genealogy of Genesis which lists the descendants of Noah, they are even entire peoples or tribes.

A  very interesting aspect was that they were accompanied by countless stories, intertwined with ancestors who were remembered and made the rounds in families and other circles. At a time when there were still no  shared libraries  and artifacts for information and entertainment such as our television would have been even more improbable than the fantastic adventures of ancestral heroes, they were an ideal way to spend the evenings, listening to  the most gifted narrator and debating them. Gradually, these sagas were naturally exaggerated and mixed with other elements of their culture. In this evolution, priestly castes or scribes also played a major role. They had  the best access to the collection of stories, and  some of them enjoyed both the freedom and the authority to make “corrections deemed necessary” .  (Something that today’s scribes also engage in  constantly, usually indirectly, but if given the opportunity, even in the “renewed” translations).

Contrary to what we would spontaneously expect from a modern point of view, it was not the most developed societies  that resisted best the distortions of these narratives. It is the nomadic peoples with a strong family cohesion who have offered the greatest resistance to this. For them, maintaining their traditions was often a main task that helped determine their identity and was therefore strictly controlled. In the case of the Hebrew people, the descendants of Abraham, this was undoubtedly so. Although  the original  core of this people endured the slave yoke of Egypt for a long time under primitive conditions, they managed to maintain their cultural identity, based on a strong kinship, and to perpetuate it during their subsequent wanderings.

Illustration of the second vision of John, by L. Cranach Sr.

As a result,  the story of the Flood of their ancestor Noah – an important link in their genealogical list – seems more authentic and credible at first glance than that  of  the  epic of Gilgamesh. The basic elements are largely  the same, but the whole context is loaded with pagan fantasies in the latter and  gives a much more incomprehensible and unreal impression. Nevertheless, many biblical scholars uncritically accept that the story in  the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest and was later adopted by the Hebrew people. It would therefore be an exception to the general rule that an adopted story generally sounds less true than the original.

In the Bible, two stories have been mixed. The basic story is the version that we can reasonably assume was transmitted by Abraham, while the other was introduced by one or more scribe(s). The exegetes attribute the a firstto the Yahwist (i.e. Abraham according to the above hypothesis), while the second is attributed to a “priestly” tradition. It follows that also this Genesis story does not provide a reliable account of the events of the world catastrophe. We find elements that cannot be reconciled with a correct representation of facts and even flagrant contradictions. The final result of the  process of its creation was put in writing at the time of the Babylonian captivity, that is, in the 5th or 6th century BC.

An example of an introduced deformation are the stated dimensions of the houseboat to be built. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ship is given a square horizontal cross-section, instead of the rectangular one in the Genesis story. This results in a vessel that is very unstable and difficult to steer, so very dangerous. The cause of this improbability could be that one of its dimensions was  lost and therefore it was assumed it had a square shape. The precise details of the rescue of Noah and his relatives will likely remain hidden forever in the mists of time. But we can present the story as credibly as possible with caution. It is clear that the rectangular isection of the biblical description best satisfies this. The dimensions themselves also seem excessive, but we don’t have a reliable alternative for that.

As a believing archaeologist, I have always been very interested in this legend, because it seemed to me that it was one of the keys to a better understanding of our distant past. Reading the informative book “Und die Sintflut gab es doch” from the late Austrian geologist couple Edith and Alexander Tollmann was an important trigger for further study of this question. The authors studied the climate  phenomenon involved from two very different scientific angles. They have based themselves both  on the many legends spread worldwide on this subject and on geological indications which tell us something about the possible causes. From this, they not only concluded that there was more than enough evidence that this terrible event actually took place, but even managed to discover quite precisely the moment of the cause of it. According to their calculation, the disaster was due to the impact of debris from a comet around the year 9,500 BP.  In most regions, seven giant monsters on fire were seen approaching Earth at enormous speed, while nine “dragon sons” threatened Southeast Asia. These figures will never be forgotten, but they will play an important symbolic or sacred role. The number seven is usually associated with what is negative (as noticed, for example, in Acopalypse). In China, on the other hand, a turnaround has taken place (as is quite common in human thought) and now not only the nine, but also the dragon itself, are considered lucky charms.

Coincidentally,  a few years before I became aware of the results of this research, I had carried out an excavation in  the Ecuadorian Andes, during which many fossils of extinct animal species were found. They came  from a thin layer that extends over the entire surface of a vast mountain ridge.  Everything indicated that they came together during extreme rains, accompanied by a volcanic eruption and floods that brought them together in a limited muddy area. The obvious causes of death are exhaustion, lack of food (which particularly easily affects large animal species) and volcanic ejecta bombardment. The significant fragmentation and distribution of the bones found can be explained by the trampling of the corpses by the remaining animals. As C14 dating of organic matter, 9400 BP (± 130) was obtained and this result corresponds well to  the dating of the  comet impact, which, according to the Tollman couple, was the cause  of the Flood, with the subsequent extinction of species.  I, too, came  to the  conclusion that the  global   extinctions of the early Holocene were due to exceptional climate disruption and were not the result of exaggerated human hunting activity, as was still assumed in many scientific circles at the time. In fact, there were far too few people living in South America in that period to cause large-scale disappearances.

Illustration in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. S. Monath, Nuremberg

Although there has been much scientific criticism of the conclusions of the cited authors and the discussion on this subject is therefore far from over, we can say that the historical reality of the Flood has been increasingly accepted in recent years. But this  is not the subject of the Bible, but what this reality teaches us about the relationship between God and man. The Bible presents it as a “punishment” for sin.  At that time, it was generally assumed that many things that went wrong were punishments or even revenges from the gods. Apart from the fact that these last were immortal, the ancient world considered them to be very “human” beings and this humanization is also reflected  throughout many passages of the Bible. But is such a thing acceptable in a Christian context?  Can a great disaster simply be described as divine punishment? Listening to what Christ taught about this, when He commented on the  collapse of the Tower of Silo, generally not.

Sometimes man can punish himself, as happened with Judas Iscariot. In some monastic communities, monks combat or punish their evil tendencies or acts with flogging and other chastisements. But generally speaking, an event can only be considered a punishment in a believing vision of creation, which suppose human free will and the existence of a punitive Authority, which has triggered the chain of cause and effect and which consequently can also intervene in it. This was the case, for example, in Sodom and Gomorrhe. The Christian faith teaches us that God doesn’t just let things take their course, but keeps an eye on them. If He deems it necessary or if the situation threatens to spin out of control in a way that does not correspond to the purpose of His creation, He, the Almighty, can intervene and this can be done in different ways: healing, forgiving, punishing, warning, … He sent a warning to Noah so that his faithful chosen one and his relatives would not perish in the expected Flood. So they could continue human history and influence it with their good examples. If, on the other hand, one reads the Bible from an unbelieving point of view, this is largely a waste of time, because the essence of its message escapes us. You might as well read fairy tales.

As mentioned, we assume that this story is about a historical main character, who is therefore the primary source of it. He described the events from his own point of view and this was of course limited by the knowledge of the time. One important thing in his account is that he (as one of the few exceptions) continued to faithfully listen to God and this became his salvation. For the rest, he too was only a child of his time, reflecting what was thought and known at the time. His knowledge  of the world and his horizons were limited, which was reflected in the story of the Flood transmitted by his descendants and which finally came down to us through the Bible.

The conclusion we can draw  from  this is that this legend that this legend has an partially authentic character, but this does not mean that everything is true. For example, it is unacceptable that God, who had determined a few pages earlier that His creation was good, should suddenly be presented as someone who regretted it. When He created the world, it was with the intention of creating free beings and it is inconceivable that He did not knew the risks involved. Nor is it true that all the rest of mankind perished, or that Noah managed to get all species into his ark. More obviously, the animals that accompanied him and his companions served as a food reserve, especially for the resumption of normal life after the disaster. His experience of the  Flood is similar to what has been experienced almost simultaneously in many other places around the world, following the various impacts of debris from an exploded comet. Enough others were also saved in one way or another, so that humanity escaped the final extinction that struck a number of animal species.

We owe it to the infinite divine mercy, which wants above all to give new opportunities to men.  Thanks to Christ, we have obtained a very different picture of the Creator from what was common in Old Testament times. He called God without detours “Our Father”. We could also call Him “Our  Mother”, following the example of the  natives of South America, who worship Pachamama or Mother Earth as their main deity. In this case too, it is very important to interpret correctly what  is written in the Old Testament, that is, as Christ taught us. The main conclusion of the Flood  is not that we should constantly distrust God’s chastisements, but that we should rely in confidence on his inconceivable concern for us and His immense forgiveness.

He took the first step towards this end by sending his Son, to warn us and save us if possible. He will prevent our lives from ending in eternal sleep or nightmare. Those who are deemed worthy will awaken in a new Pachamama. There, our misery and mysteries belong to the forever sealed era of world history. The light of God reveals to us there the complete answer to our many outstanding questions, including those about the trials of Noah and his contemporaries, the temptations that caused the fall of many of them, and how others escaped through faithful trust.


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