A closer look at the narrative of the Flood

An “editor’s note” from Renée Antrosio, Co-Pastor at New Covenant Fellowship:

In times of change and uncertainty, I am thankful for the ongoing contributions of our founding pastors to steady and encourage us. Last Sunday we focused on God establishing and renewing covenants throughout scripture, particularly in times of crisis, as a promise of God’s faithfulness to the next generation. I asked Ron to supplement that with a focus on the Flood Narrative, since we are working to wrap up Gen 1-11 before Advent.  May his post, below, intrigue your mind and encourage your spirits.   

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The careful structure of the Genesis Flood narrative interests me a lot. When I was a young seminary student the prevailing scholarly “certainties” were that Genesis in general, and the Flood narrative in particular, was clumsily compiled out of various written sources partially identified by what name was used for “God.”

Since that time, it has become more evident that Genesis is a very carefully and skillfully constructed book. The author’s repetitions, for instance, would have been a great memory aid for people who didn’t have access to a scroll of their own including some who would not have known how to read.

Robert Alter and Nahum Sarna, two Jewish Biblical scholars, call attention to the numbers “7” and “12” in Genesis 6:9-9:29. The author of Genesis explicitly used “7” throughout the flood account, but also used it as a subtle literary device. (For those of you with a Bible App, the awkward-sounding American Standard Version of 1901 actually reflects the Hebrew repetitions better than more recent, easier-to-read translations.) Here are some examples:

  • God speaks to Noah directly 7 times (6:13; 7:1; 8:15; 9:1, 8, 12, 17);   
  • In 6:13-22, which describes the construction of the ark, the Hebrew word “aasah” (“made”) occurs 7 times though only indicated 5 times even in the ASV and less often in other English translations;  
  • The word “boh” (“come in” or “go in”) occurs 7 times in the account;
  • The word “Shihit” (“corrupt”) bookends the account, appearing at the beginning and the end,  and 7 times in all (6:11, 12 [2x]; 13, 17; and 9:11; 15);
  • “Covenant” appears 7 times in the account;  
  • “Flesh” occurs 14 times (2×7) in the account;
  • “Water” appears 21 times (3×7) in the account;
  • Noah’s name appears 35 (5×7) times in the account;
  • “Flood” appears 12 times in the account;
  • The overall flood narrative is in 12 sections, according to Alter;    
  • The author transitions into and out of the flood narrative with the phrase “these are the generations of…,” a phrase the author uses elsewhere in Genesis to tie together the 12 sections of the book.

Such structure is not there by chance. The book of Genesis is a careful composition. There are unexplained tensions in the narrative. But while the author felt free to style the text, he apparently did not feel free to change information that had been handed down from ancient sources by faithful ancestors, who believed these ancient memories best reflected God’s actions in human history and their forbearers’ experiences with God.

 

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