In my left hand is a filled-in book of Halloween Mad-Libs. In my right hand is a Bible. Let’s do a show about… THE BIBLE.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a Bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue our journey through Genesis, the first scroll of the five-part Torah, the family album of the ancient nation of Israel. We have a lot of ground to cover today, but before we dive in, I want to say a little more than we’ve said so far about the literary structure of the book we’re reading.
In just a few short chapters we’ve already seen how many different stories, themes, genres, and authors have come together to form the chunk of text we call Torah. These include songs, fables, genealogies, laws, and histories. We shouldn’t be surprised or concerned when the tone and style of writing changes from bit to bit, while the themes and trajectories stay consistent and familiar. But I want to say a word in particular about this first section of Genesis – the first eleven chapters, to be precise.
In a book that appears to have been edited together from many sources, this first collection of legends and stories – often referred to as the “primeval” or “pre-historical” material – is by far the most unique and peculiar. The primeval material covers everything from creation to the so-called “Tower of Babel” in what amounts in our Bibles to only eleven chapters. The pace is quick and the literature is diverse, and when we hit chapter twelve and Abraham, things slow down and it’s clear that the story of Israel has properly begun. Basically, the pre-historical texts function as a tether between creation and the story of Israel.
The varied – and often problematically vague and truncated – stories of Genesis 1-11 are held together by two major concerns, our old friends LAND and OFFSPRING. Every story, no matter how strange or seemingly disconnected, has something to do with the possession or loss of land, or the possession or loss of lineage, or both. This is the key to keeping our eye on the text even when things get rough.
This brings us to Genesis 6 and following, and the familiar old story of Noah and his ark. We’ll peel back the layers on this wacky old tale in a moment, but I wouldn’t be a very good Bible podcast talking guy if I didn’t deal with a very strange bit of text at the beginning of the chapter, verses 1-4:
 When men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them,  the sons of god saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives as they pleased.  The LORD said, “My breath shall not remain in man forever, since he is flesh. His days shall be 120 years.”  It was then that the nephilim appeared on the earth, and also afterward, when the sons of god lived with the daughters of men who bore them children. These were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
This brief and odd passage apparently caused as much speculation in the ancient world as it does today. Who are the “sons of god?” Who are the “nephilim?” There are many interpretations of these verses, but two in particular represent the range of possibility. One is a thoroughly supernatural reading, and the other is more practical and earthbound.
Tradition says that the “sons of god” are angels who came down to earth and mated with human women, creating a race of giants called the “nephilim.” This interpretation was clearly favored at a point much later in Israel’s history, as it forms the basis of the Book of Enoch, one of the non-biblical Jewish texts we talked about in a previous podcast. Enoch tells the story of these angels, their earthly sex-capades, and their subsequent punishment. The book of Enoch is quoted in the New Testament, suggesting that this version of the story would have been well-known to Jews at the time of Jesus.
Modern scholarship has offered an alternative view, however, one which makes a little more sense of the text in its historical and literary context here in the Torah. It’s true that the phrase “sons of god” in ancient literature often refers to angels or heavenly beings. But the phrase has another well-known ancient connotation, as it was frequently self-applied by the kings of old who saw themselves as divine representatives of local gods. In this reading, the “sons of god” are the kings of the great city states established by the men of Cain’s genealogy in chapter four. The “daughters of men,” then, refers to the offspring of the “normal” people from Seth’s line in chapter five. The point apparently being, that the world moved on, society evolved, people mingled and married, and the earth was populated. It’s just a description of early life on earth.
The benefit of this reading is that it connects with what came before, and as we’ll see, with what is to come. But we still have to deal with these “nephilim” characters. Tradition says that these are giants, perhaps even monsters, but you’ll notice that the text here doesn’t actually say that. “Nephilim” comes from the Hebrew verb “naphal,” and just means “fallen ones” or “losers.” The “giants” thing comes from the scroll of Numbers later in the Torah, where a specific group of nephilim are described as “giants.” Here in Genesis 6, however, they may simply be the offspring of kings and women, the “heroes of old.” Important to note, however, that in the ancient Israelite mindset, “men of renown,” are not heroes in the way we would expect. They are brutes, men who carve out their renown through violence and oppression. These are bad guys.
And that provides the connection to what immediately follows, the story of Noah and the great flood. Here’s the rest of Genesis 6:
 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness was on earth, and that every intention of his mind was only evil all the time.  And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved his heart.  So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created, along with the beasts and creeping things and birds of the sky, for I regret that I made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time. Noah walked with God.  Noah fathered three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
 The earth became corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth,  God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am about to destroy them along with the land.  Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make compartments in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.  This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its width 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits.  Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and finish it within a cubit of the top. Put an entrance to the ark in its side. Make it with bottom, second, and third decks.  For my part, I am about to bring the flood waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which there is breath of life. Everything on the earth will die.  But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.  And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into ark to keep alive with you. They shall be male and female.  From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive.  For your part, take with you every sort of food and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.”  Noah did this. He did all that God commanded him.
Most modern readers don’t know what to do with a story like this. The great Ricky Gervais has a comedy routine where he simply reads this story out of the Bible, without comment, and his audience laughs with derision. The story of Noah simply doesn’t meet the post-enlightenment criteria of a believable or relatable tale. But once again, I would suggest that history and literature are the key to appreciating the place and value of a story like this one.
As with many other stories in the primeval chapters of Genesis, we do well to look to Israel’s neighbors and their mythic traditions which often shed light on the biblical material. In the 19th century archaeologists discovered the Mesopotamian epic of “Gilgamesh,” which among other startling things contains an account of an ancient flood with many striking parallels to the biblical story of Noah – as well as some striking differences.
Of course the existence of these and other similar flood narratives points to the probability of some kind of ancient historical reality. Whatever that reality was, all we’ve got are the tales which different societies told to make sense of the event. And a quick comparison between the Israelite and the Mesopotamian and Babylonian versions reveals a lot. We’ll contrast the legends at three points: 1) the cause of the flood, 2) the hero and the method of survival, and 3) the aftermath.
First, the cause of the deluge. In the Babylonian myth, the gods are distracted by the noise of life on earth and can’t get any sleep, so they send the flood to silence man so they can get some rest. In Genesis, Adonai Elohim – the god of Israel – sees the violent sinfulness of men spreading as they populate the earth, and so “regrets” that he ever created them. Remember the creation account and the significance of water, which represents chaos and evil. Essentially, God decides to “uncreate” the earth by returning it to its pre-creation state. It’s like hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del on the world.
Next, the “hero” of the tale and the method of survival. In the Gilgamesh epic, the hero is Utnapishtim, a Sumerian King who employs his own cunning and strength to build a boat and out-row the flood waters. He is a mighty ruler, basically one of the descendents of Cain from the Bible, a king who built a city. He is the model of Mesopotamian pride: strong and clever enough to outwit the gods and save life on earth.
In Genesis, the protagonist is Noah, a “blameless man.” He’s a normal guy with a family, someone who obeys God and knows his place. He is basically a good Israelite before there were any Israelites. He apparently keeps the sacrificial law (which won’t be given for thousands of years) and he distinguishes between clean and unclean animals. In one sense this is very odd and perhaps anachronistic. Then again, given the nature of the Torah and the way ancient people told and retold ancient stories to say something about themselves and their present reality, it shouldn’t be very surprising that the one good guy in the ancient flood story looks just like a model citizen of future Israel.
Noah builds an “ark,” which is not just a big boat. The word appears in two other settings in the Bible: the ark of the covenant, and the Egyptian coffin in which Joseph is buried. What do all three have in common? They are all boxes, simple containers. The difference between Utnapishtim and Noah is that one escapes by his wits and strength, and the other has no control over where the vessel is taken. God will decide where the ark comes to rest. And while the ark contains only Noah’s family and the many pairs of wild beasts, the boat in Gilgamesh also contains artists and craftsmen. It’s not just life on earth that’s being saved, but culture as well. We’ve already observed that the Hebrew Bible views culture as a counterfeit of what God created, but in Mesopotamia culture represents man’s glory, his achievement to spite and surpass the gods.
Then, third, there is the aftermath of the flood. Utnapishtim safely runs the boat aground and offers a sacrifice to the gods, who reward him and his wife with powers which make them “like the gods.” There is an understanding between the gods and the new demi-gods that nothing as destructive as the flood will ever happen again. Meanwhile in Genesis, Noah and his family exit the ark, and Noah also makes a sacrifice to his god. Here’s the text, from Genesis 8 and 9:
 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.  The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, and the LORD said to himself, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, since the intentions of man’s mind are evil from his youth. Nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”
[9:1] God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  The fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.  Every creature that lives shall be food for you. As with the green plants, I give you all of these.  You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.  But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning, as from every beast. Of man too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.
 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
 Be fruitful, then, and multiply, abound on the earth and increase in it.”
 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  “I now establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,  and with every living creature that is with you, birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well, all that came out of the ark, every living thing on earth.  I establish my covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you, for all future generations:  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on the earth. That,”  God said to Noah, “is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
So God blesses Noah and his family, and gives them a cool bonus: they can now eat meat! I’d say that was worth the death of 99.8% of the earth’s inhabitants. Two very important things come out of the aftermath of the flood: the re-establishment of LAND and OFFSPRING (farming and repopulating the earth) as the main thrust of the story, and the introduction of a huge biblical idea – COVENANT.
This is the first of many times God will be depicted as making a covenant – that is, a treaty or agreement – with humans in the Torah. Given all the tension between God’s original purposes in creation and the selfish interests of humans, covenant is the way ancient Israel navigates life on earth. And the fact that covenants are usually sealed in the blood of animals shouldn’t be surprising, given what we observed in the last podcast about animal sacrifice in the ancient world. The exchange of blood for blood, life for life, is made explicit in this passage.
Just as LAND and OFFSPRING are the underlying themes of all Torah texts, CREATION and COVENANT are the driving themes throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and – I would argue – the New Testament as well. We’ll get there eventually.
One more little bit to deal with for today. Here’s the strange and unexpected epilogue to the story of righteous Noah and his magic floaty box:
 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth – Ham being the father of Canaan.  These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
 Noah, a tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.  But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him,  he said,
“Cursed be Canaan. The lowest of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
 He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem, and let Canaan be their servant.  May God enlarge Japheth,and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be their servant.”
 After the flood Noah lived 350 years.  All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.
Noah and his sons have a redneck holiday, and Noah lashes out and curses his grandson, who wasn’t even involved in the kerfuffle. What’s going on here? The clue to the whole thing is the grandson’s name, Canaan. Canaan, of course, is the father of the nation which will occupy the so-called “promised land,” the patch of earth which the farmers and shepherds of Israel will eventually claim as their own.
The people and gods of Canaan will prove a continual foil AND lure for the people of Israel for the rest of their national life. And while the conflict between Israel and Canaan is often viewed from a modern perspective in terms of holy war and racial cleansing, it’s remarkable to discover here in the Torah that Israel and her biggest enemy are in fact COUSINS. This tension hangs thick in the air for the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
For most modern readers, the story of Noah is nothing more than a juvenile relic of ancient etiology, offering a simplistic account of the origin of the rainbow. But I would suggest that the real value of the story is the view it gives us into the mindset of the people who wrote the Bible. It has a lot to say about the way Israel viewed itself, and how it distinguished itself from its neighbors and enemies.
For Babylon and Mesopotamia, the big flood was a clash between heroes and gods, a chance for man to prove his mettle and carve out his own path. For Israel, the flood was a second chance for creation, a new opportunity for humans to live in peace with God and each other. But already by the end of the account, man is in trouble again, as sin begins to divide the only family that’s left. The stage is set for the story of Abraham, which is the beginning of Israel’s story.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.