Genesis 5: Water, Water, Everywhere

June 1, 1997


“Water, Water Everywhere”

For those of you who may not have been present in previous Sundays, we are nearing the end of a series of sermons from Genesis . We have looked at both creation stories, and marveled at how different they are from each other. We have read the story of our own lives in the fable of the Garden and humanity’s fall from innocence. And last week we considered how quickly the contagion of pride and disobedience spread, so that in this ancient piece of Hebrew mythology the first boy born on earth killed his brother. This morning we come to the most dramatic of all these prehistoric tales, the story of the Great Flood, at the heart of which is the mysterious life-giving and life-denying property of water. We have to have it to live: too little and we die of thirst, too much and we drown. No wonder there is a flood myth in so many ancient cultures, including the Babylonian versions which the Israelites borrowed and adapted to their religion,and gave us the story every Sunday School kid knows: Noah and the Ark and the zoo inside, the dove and the olive branch and the rainbow at the end — all of it still as vivid in our minds as the day we made the wooden Ark out of popsicle sticks, and marched tiny rubber animals up the gangplank, while the teacher tried to explain why the dinosaurs got left out.
Fortunately, for her, none of us knew the actual beginning of the flood story because no one ever talked about it. To this day, millions of Sunday Schoolers who can tell you all about Noah and the ark cannot even begin to tell you the strange legend used to explain why the Hebrew God, Yahweh, caused the great Flood to happen. That myth is so brief and puzzling that it would take the entire sermon to make good sense of it, but I’m assuming today that this curious audience would enjoy at least a brief reference to it. It will help if you remember that in the Adam and Eve legend the two of them are expelled from the Garden because they tried to overstep the line between themselves and the gods. Our author is still dealing with that same theme as he sets the stage for his story of a mass annihilation of the human race. This is what he says:
“When people began to multiply on earth, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God [or the sons of the gods; it can be translated both ways] saw how beautiful the daughters of men were, and so they took for their wives as many as they chose.” As a result of this union, the writer tells us, giant demi-gods appeared on earth. This is a common theme in myths around the world, and most of us are t least familiar with Greek and Roman stories about superhuman offspring (like Hercules) born when the gods come to earth and mate with human beings. Although the Jewish people developed a strictly monotheistic religion, there are many traces in their scripture of an ancient time when they could still speak of the “sons of God” or “the sons of the gods” as inferior deities living in the heavens. (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7, Psa.89:7, etc).
Since those expressions are clearly polytheistic, they later caused embarrassmen to editors and translators , so they began to interpret “the sons of God” or “the sons of the gods” as “angels.” But that only helped for a while, because in times of even greater theological sensitivity — when angels came to be defined as “pure spirits” incapable of the kind of mating described in our primitive story — interpreters had to come up with something else. So, some of them took “the sons of God” to be simply good men who married bad women, others took them to be the sons of Seth versus the sons of Cain, and still others took them to be simply just men in general (created in the likeness of God) versus women in general (who were made from man). I am old enough, and secure enough in this pulpit, to say bluntly that this is almost certaqinly pure nonsense, theological gobbledegook meant to spare us from confronting honestly an ancient Biblical myth in which the gods are said to have cohabited with human women to produce a race of giant demigods.
Our Biblical flood story parallels in remarkable ways a much earlier Babylonian flood story, except that in this odd tale about gods and mortals it changes the cause for the great extermination. In the Babylonian story human beings make so much noise that they disturb the peace and serenity of the gods, who decide to send a catastro-phic flood to wipe them out. TheGenesis legend prefers a much more responsible deity who only orders history’s first great ethnic cleansing because humans were mating with gods, an action that might make them immortal —that godlike privilege denied earlier to Adam and Eve when they were driven away from access to the tree of life in the Garden.
Our flood story betrays its primitive nature by describing a very human God who decides he has made a bad mistake and needs to start over. Only ten generations before, he declared that everything he had made was good, but now he is represented as to unhappy about the colossal failure of his creation that he says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created — people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” A later view of the nature of God will say that he is “not a man that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23), but the flood story reflects an earlier and more naive way of talking about God. Once in a while some bright Sunday School kid, appalled by this wholesale massacre, will ask why innocent children had to be drowned, and after some lame answer about God having to start over with humans will also ask, “But why would he have to kill all the little Bambi’s and the songbirds just because the humans were bad?” — just two of many logical questions for which no answers are given in this famous folktale. I had a clear-thinking college student once who pointed out that the list of creatures killed does not include fish, probably because the author realized that fish do very well in water. “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” this student said, “to kill the birds and all the animals while the dolphins and the sharks are doing just fine.”
Anyone who reads this story literally has to confront such questions, of course, but when it makes God a mass murderer and says solemnly that water covered even the world’s highest mountains, it is a relief to read it as simply another example of folklore borrowed and adapted by the Hebrew people. In hundreds of books and articles, Biblical scholars point out the impossibility of reading this story as history, and the teacher in me makes me wish we had a couple of weeks in class to share them, but the pulpit person in me knows that one brief sermon on those kinds of problems is about the limit for Sunday morning patience. You can get into all that scholarly literature on the Genesis flood story if you’d like to master the subject. In the meantime, since he is both funny and logical in dealing with the story, I’ll mention that no one has worked it over with more iconoclastic zeal than Mark Twain in a collection called Letters From The Earth. In that book Twain has Satan writing about his visit to earth and what he calls the “Human Race Experiment” — which in his view is not going very well. Many things puzzle him, but he is especially confused about the story of Noah and the Ark.
Acting, of course, as Mark Twain’s mouthpiece, Satan has fun with literalists by wondering how enormous the ark would have to be to accommodate every animal species on earth, now estimated to be around one million, not to mention the difficulty of finding and catching and then housing all the different flying birds and over two million different species of creeping and crawling insects. He wonders how there would have been room on boad for each creature’s specialized food, how it was cool enough for polar bears and hot enough for crocodiles, how the tigers were kept from eating the sheep, how Noah and his family could stand a year in that boat with all the noise and stench — all of it, of course, Twain’s way of poking fun at trying to read a fable as if it were a real event. He suggests how nice it would have been, when the Ark sailed, if a thoughtful god had arranged to drown all the germs (he calls them microbes) so that uncountable millions of people in the future would have been spared the agony of polio, scarlet fever, bubonic plague and a few dozen other deadly diseases. But Twain saves his most savage satire for something that was agonizingly personal.
He had had a boyhood friend whose hope for a good life had been snuffed out by typhoid fever, a disease spread by the common housefly. It occurred to Twain that a literal reading of the passenger list for the Ark makes God responsible for centuries of terrible suffering and death: the male and female houseflies could have been left behind. In Letters From The Earth Twain actually has them left behind by mistake , but that great blessing for humanity is foiled when Noah discovers he has sailed without them and goes back to pick them up. In Twain’s irritation at those who take the story literally he even has this awful pest given a special richly-appointed suite on the Ark! I’m sure Twain would have appreciated a sceptical modern woman who published this little two-line jingle in the National Enquirer: “If Noah had been truly wise/ He would have swatted those two flies.”
All such comments are meant, of course, to point out the problems that arise from reading the story as a piece of history. That it is not historical became clearer than ever after archaeologists discovered the cuneiform tablets which told of a great flood in Babylonia hundreds of years before our Jewish author made it part of the sacred literature of his own people. The Gilgamesh Epic has been translated and is easily accessible, but for the sake of brevity I will list some of its motifs that were borrowed and modified for his own purposes by the Biblical author.
After the gods become angry with humanity in the Babylonian story, they decide to kill everybody except a man named Utnapishtim who, like the later Biblical Noah, is told how to build a boat that will save him. As in the Bible story, the boat is to be insulated with pitch and the hero is to take on board the seed of all living things. Everybody not in the boat dies, and as the flood begins to abate it runs aground on a mountain — details the Genesis story copies. One set of similarities is truly amazing. The Babylonian flood hero sends out three birds to reconnoiter: first a dove, which comes back; then a swallow which comes back, and finally a raven which stays since there is land visible at last. In the Genesis adaptation, Noah first sends out a raven which rather illogically just keeps flying around and never comes back; then a dove, which returns because no land is in sight; and finally another dove which comes back with the famous olive leaf in its beak.
When the flood is over the hero of the Babylonian story comes out of his boat and makes an offering to the gods who “smell[ed] the sweet savor…and….crowd[ed] like flies about the sacrifice.” The Biblical author believes in only one god, and would be disgusted by a comparison of gods to flies, but when his hero, Noah, offers up a his sacrifice we are told in a striking parallel that the Jewish God Yahweh “smell[s] the pleasant odor.” One final parallel: in the older Babylonian story, after the gods feast on this sacrifice, the goddess Ishtar flings her jeweled necklace into the sky as a sparkling promise that the gods will not destroy the earth again by a flood. In the Genesis adaptation, Yahweh uses a more natural necklace — the glowing arch of a rainbow — as the sign of his promise never to destroy humanity again.
There were many different versions of the old Babylonian flood story, and at least two different versions were written by the Israelites. Instead of printing one after the other, as was done with the two creation stories, an editor simply mixed them together, like this [fingers entwined], and it’s an easy matter to find the contradictions this caused. One result of the mixing is that almost every detail is unnecessarily told twice, but more importantly there are glaring discrepancies. Since this kind of close textual analysis is not exciting stuff, and since you can find them on your own if you care to, I will mention only two of the most obvious conflicts that result from joining two versions of the story. As one author told it, a single pair of each species, male and female, was to be taken on board. The other version has a total of eight pairs. Despite the confusion, the editors of Jewish scripture let them both stand. One more example before we turn to something else: The writer known to scholars as “J” has a flood that lasts for 61 days. The priestly author, called “P” for short, makes the same flood last for a year and seven days.
Whoever joined the two stories knew about these discrepancies and obviously did not care. He passed them both on just as they had come to him, making no attempt to edit out the contradictions, because he was interested in one thing only: using a famous old legend to show how important it is to obey the primitive God of ancient Israel. As the idea of God evolves in later Jewish and Christian history, and especially as Jesus describes a God of love who reaches out with infinite mercy to those who stumble, it becomes clear that the flood story is a relic of the infancy of Jewish religion.
This particular story is one of the reasons why Martin Luther finally came to have doubts about an infallible Bible. He worked out the exact measurements given for the ark, and knew how ludicrous it was to expect such an oversized footlocker to ride the swells. “If it weren’t in the Bible,” he said, “I wouldn’t believe it,” but he was trapped between his authority system and his own good common sense. He said he could rejoice, at least, that he hadn’t been on that strange vessel since the smell must have been terrible — a touch of humor that suggests he didn’t take the story too seriously. And he knew, of course, that the biggest problem of all is that the whole thing turns out to be a huge failure. The flood was meant to drown all wickedness, but the hero of it is no sooner down the gangplank than he gets drunk, lies naked in his tent, and is apparently assaulted by one of his sons — a dismal beginning for a brand new world. So God is represented as giving up on that particular method of straightening out the human race: “I will never do this again,” he says — which leaves the thoughtful reader wondering why he did it in the first place.
None of these difficulties impress people who feel that reading everything in the Bible literally is proof of saving faith, and so expeditions have trooped off time and time again to find the remains of the ark. And as you would expect, it has been found….several times, in several places. A local man by the name of Tom Crotser told us a few years back that he had found it, but that the Russians had kept him from bringing back proof. Similar stories crop up every few years, and fizzle out for lack of credible proof. As you might guess, reputable journals like the Smithsonian or National Geographic have yet to declare that someone has found Noah’s ark.
Do I believe there was ever a cataclysmic flood in the Euphrates valley where Abraham once lived? Absolutely! And do I believe that some lucky people survived in some kind of boat? Absolutely! Do I believe all the embellishments given that primitive event as it was told and retold around a thousand campfire through the centuries? Not for a moment. But it was part of the cultural baggage the Jewish people brought with them from Babylon, and it made a thrilling sermon about the need to behave under the eye of a wrathful god. Next week, as we close the series, human ambition is punished again in a fascinating myth which sets out to explain why some of us speak English and others of us speak French, German, Spanish and dozens of other languages. I hope you’ll come.