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The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Derek Caldwell

Is the flood an example of God’s arbitrary anger and rage?

As I have written about elsewhere, the flood narrative in Genesis is attempting to interact with and correct other ancient Near Eastern flood myths while also telling its own coherent true story. In other versions like Atrahasis or the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods create humans as a sort of slave labor (after lesser gods who had been created as slaves revolted). However, these humans—largely despised by the gods—began procreating and increasing in number. Eventually, this led to a lot of noise that disrupted the peace of the gods, especially the supreme god. And so, the supreme god sends a flood to kill humans. Another god warns one human who then survives and is able to repopulate humanity. The gods are happy that a human survived, for humans are the slaves who provide food for the gods, and they were starved during the flood without any humans to offer them sacrifices.  

The biblical flood story is very different: God created men and women in His image, but they turned to extreme wickedness. After centuries of warnings and patience, He decides to send a flood to eliminate wickedness, but He warns Noah and allows him to save his family. God’s flood is to preserve humanity, not destroy it, because He loves humanity. Humanity was destroying itself, but through Noah God can secure the survival of His beloved creation. God is not in a battle with other “gods,” for He alone is sovereign, and none can thwart His providential plans.

In these two examples of flood narratives, we see very different understandings of gods or a God (a capricious being who kills because he hates humans vs. a loving Being who eliminates wickedness to save humanity) and of humanity (created as slaves from the blood and spit of other gods vs. created as God’s co-workers in His image and given His breath to live abundant lives of love and flourishing). The depictions couldn’t be more different. In the words of Gordon Wenham, Genesis “discloses the fundamental nature of God, a God who is one, almighty, and concerned for human welfare.”[1]

How Deep and How Wide?

But what is the nature of this flood? Was it local or global? This is another question with very entrenched views on either side. But the deceptively simple answer may be both. In line with what we have noted above in the hyperbolic nature of ancient Near Eastern literature, we may again see that in play here. Old Testament scholars John Walton and Tremper Longman believe that the flood recalls a historical event, but it is recounted in figurative language for a theological purpose. The narrator—and through the narrator, the Holy Spirit—is more concerned with our understanding the theological significance of the event rather than reconstructing the minute details of the event itself.[2] They refer to this way of history-telling as “theological history.”[3] This response will understandably open more theological questions, so we will turn to those now before continuing with the function of the flood narrative in Genesis.

Significantly, we should note that the word for earth used in Genesis 6, as in “Everything on earth shall perish” (v. 17), can also refer to a parcel of land or the ground.[4] In other words, in Hebrew the word has some semantic flexibility that allows it to mean either the whole world or a much smaller fraction of the world. Given the fact that geological data does not support the hypothesis that there was at one time a worldwide flood (though there were large local floods), this observation on semantic range is most welcome.[5] There are even places where the phrase “all the earth” is used in which it is clear that not all the earth is intended, like in Genesis 41:57. C. John Collins explains that, knowing the poetic nature of much of biblical literature, we should expect some level of creative license. “No doubt the covering of the mountains (7:19),” he writes, “tends in the direction of universality—but only if we are expecting straight descriptions, with no room for hyperbole or qualification (that is, where ‘all’ = ‘all of what interests us’).”[6] Indeed, many of the questions we moderns bring to the text today, including how “big” the flood was—were of little interest to the original audience. “To ask what would we have seen had we been in North America at the time, or whether the Ark’s passengers included polar bears, seems extraneous to the function of the text,” Collins continues, “and extraneous as well to its truth value in light of its function.”[7]

Understanding the Flood in Context

There are clues within the text that this ancient community had a nuanced understanding of the flood as well, no doubt understanding their cultural language far more than we do. For instance, while there will later be a table of nations that will be birthed from Noah, Collins notes that there are many people groups listed, but none of the future peoples in East Asia or northern Europe. There does not appear to be an attempt at an exhaustive listing of all peoples known to exist at the time of writing this narrative.[8] Moreover, we see no shock at the survival of Anakites/Nephilim in Numbers 13-14; rather, we sense only defeat and sorrow at the fact that they are inhabiting the land of Canaan. Like the accounts with the “total annihilation” of Canaanites, there is no apparent contradiction in the minds of the narrators between a “total annihilation” that leaves many survivors for whom death was never sought as a punishment. Luke had a similar “whole world” notion in mind in Acts 2:5 when he discusses Pentecost, and the “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” But when he lists these nations, there is no mention of nations from southern Africa, eastern Asia, western Europe, or the Americas.[9] Nonetheless, in the case of Pentecost, as in the case of the Flood, we know that something has taken place—perhaps locally and not exhaustively global—that has global significance and consequences. This is not unlike, positively, how one man’s invention of the printing press impacts the whole world or, negatively, how a small terrorist organization’s attack in New York City and Washington, DC can alter the way airlines operate the world over. And we still use language like this today every time we repeat Ralph Waldo Emerson’s telling of the first shot fired in Concord, Massachusetts—sparking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War—as “the shot heard round the world.”[10]

It may be helpful to again discuss the notion of hyperbole. I can’t remember a time where I had to wait in a doctor’s office without eventually texting someone to let them share in my pain: “I’ve been waiting here forever!” What does that mean? It means I waited twenty minutes past my appointment time in the waiting room, only to be moved back to the exam room where I waited another thirty minutes. My friend will not grow concerned with the text, which would seem to suggest that I have an inability to know my own past or some delusion that there has never been a time when I was not in that doctor’s office. The point is made and understood: I’ve been waiting for a period of time that is much longer than I expected to wait (and much, much longer than I think I should have had to wait). Likewise, supposing there is hyperbole used in the flood account, then we can see its purpose. Like in my text to my friend, without explaining all of my reasons for being upset (and why I had expectations for the contrary based on my understanding of appointment times), I could use a hyperbolic statement that got to the point quicker than a long explanation would. It was also more factual than a simple matter of fact statement would have been. The emotion of the wait is brought forth in my retelling more in hyperbole than if I had said “I had an appointment at 9:00 AM, and it is now 9:40 AM.” Likewise, if the Flood narrative is indeed using hyperbole, it is not for the sake of making things seem worse than they truly were. Rather, it is so readers get some understanding of how bad it truly was. It makes us feel the facts with our imaginations. In the Flood account, then, hyperbole “certainly expresses well the fact that evil had reached an unprecedented level and that God was going to act to restore order.”[11]

Israel did not use this method to describe the destruction of others only. They used it even of themselves, as evinced by the lament of Lamentations 2:22, “In the day of the LORD’s anger, no one escaped or survived; those I cared for and reared my enemy has destroyed.” But, in fact, there were survivors of the Babylonian ransacking of Jerusalem, some remaining in the land and others being taken into exile.[12] Interestingly, other nations did the same thing. For instance, on the unearthed mid-ninth century BC Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone, the Moabite king Mesha used hyperbole concerning Israel when he claimed to have destroyed Israel forever. The battle he is referring is the battle over Nebo, which is also referenced in 2 Kings 3:4-5, Isaiah 15:2, and Jeremiah 48:1-2.[13] Webb and Oeste explain that this style of writing should not negate the historicity of events described. Rather, it just means we have to understand better how these cultures wrote their histories. When we read that there were no survivors after a battle, and then we read about survivors later in the text, it may seem like an insurmountable contradiction to modern readers. “However,” they explain, “this is a modern assumption that was not shared by ancient writers.”[14] If we are to judge the ancient world’s language, we must first make sure we’re speaking the same one.

The Purpose of the Flood

Before we look at the function of the flood in Genesis 1-11, we should take note of its function to later interpreters. I mentioned previously how certain events, though not global in and of themselves, could have global ramifications. Along those same lines, certain events can be hyperbolized precursors to future global phenomena. Walton and Longman suggest that the New Testament itself, like Second Temple literature, viewed the flood as the penultimate version of an ultimate judgment to come. Jesus and other New Testament authors, they posit, would have understood the hyperbolic nature and the meaning of its foreshadowing. Jesus refers to the flood in this way in Matthew 24:36-41 where the sudden nature of the flood is used to describe the sudden nature of Jesus’s future return and the need to always “keep watch” and “be ready” (vv. 42, 44).

Even if we accept what has been proposed so far, we have not quite landed anywhere comfortably with this story. Whether one believes the story is true or untrue, it is still presented in Genesis as a flood sent to end the lives of many people. So, to anyone trying to wrestle with Christianity and considering the faith, within our texts is the notion that God is capable of such a thing and, in fact, has enacted it in the past. But built within the discomfort is the notion that these were probably good people, maybe just trapped in their time and culture. So let us turn now to Noah’s flood and ask whether our modern hesitation concerning the judgment of the flood is well-founded.

The story of Noah and the flood is the story of divine rescue. Humanity had entered into a particular type of wickedness from which it needed deliverance. Adam and Eve had listened to the lies of a serpent and sought to become gods themselves; their son, Cain, manifested the logical outcome of this discretion by murdering his own brother, as if he were the one with the right to give and take away life. By the time we get to Noah’s generation, we see that this pattern has continued in partnership with evil and the destruction of both humankind and nature. But God intends this as a rescue, giving Noah the dimensions to build an “ark,” the same Hebrew word used for the basket the infant Moses would later be placed in to safeguard him from the evil of tyrannical Egyptians.[15] The earth was to be covered in water, again, as sort of a de-creation and re-creation of the world, leaving Wenham to remark that “the flood story may be read as a kind of commentary on the preceding chapters,” meaning the creation narratives, the Fall, and exile from the Garden of Eden.[16] Another hidden-in-plain-sight clue of this as a rescue story is the name of Noah himself, which means “relief” or “rest,” an affirmation of both hope and rescue/relief from the world of the cursed ground (Genesis 5:29).[17]

But wait, there’s more! In Akkadian, the cognate to the root of Noah’s name, nwh, is nahu, which means to relent. This connection suggests that beyond this being just a judgment and rescue mission of humanity, it is also something of a “reset button” on the order of creation.[18] God’s creation brought forth order from non-order, but certain agents within this created order subjected the good creation to disorder.[19] Creation itself needed to be cleansed, as the mutually symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature can also apparently become mutually antagonistic and detrimental. Humanity set about bringing the world to disorder, and the creation reacted in kind. This is not a tale of God destroying the earth and humankind—that is what human beings were already doing themselves. God is removing the destroyers so that peace may be restored and humanity can survive. Within the story as understood in Genesis, human beings survive today because of God’s continuous rescue of them from the clutches of death that they often take part in creating.

Some of the language above may sound familiar if you read the previous article in this series on the Canaanites and herem warfare. In that article, I mentioned that this type of warfare may have only been utilized in areas where Anakites—descendants of the Nephilim—had resided. And I suggest here that perhaps that is why a flood was used even earlier than that on the Nephilim. As a matter of fact, since God had promised to never send a flood again in instances of this magnitude (Genesis 9:11)—implying that perhaps there would be times where it wouldn’t be such a bad idea—it may be that herem warfare is the post-flood alternative to flooding.

A Flood of Nephilim Proportions

To make sense of why this was such a terrible time in the history of the world, it will be important to say a bit about the Nephilim, offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of humans” (Genesis 6:4). There are essentially three main views on their identity, and I have held all of them at various points in my life! There are some who think that they are wicked kings, while others think that they are the offspring of the godly line of Seth and the wicked female descendants of Cain. But I have been more and more convinced that Genesis presents these figures as the offspring of regular human beings from any human clan and fallen angels, or demons. Without going into the whole debate, let me list a couple reasons why.

First, this interpretation fits into type of literature we know Genesis 1-11 to be, which is often a polemical response to other cultures. In this case, it is a response to what is known as apkallu. The apkallus were cultural heroes of pre-flood Mesopotamian culture (Genesis 6:4 refers to the Nephilim as “heroes of old, men of renown”). They were known for bringing all the good—or bad—of culture then known in the world. They were “divine sages of a bygone era.”[20] Babylonian kings claimed that they were the descendants of the apkallu. However, biblical authors and other Jewish authors did not agree with Babylonian claims concerning the apkallu and instead thought they had demonic origins. Babylonian elites believed the apkallus survived the great flood somehow. These surviving apkallu were “giant, quasi-divine offspring fathered by the original preflood apkallus.”[21] They are also synonymous with a group of beings referred to as “Watchers” in the book of Enoch. The Watchers are the parents of the Nephilim and the bringers of preflood arts and civilization, thus describing both the Babylonian apkallu and the shadowy “sons of God” in Genesis 6. Significantly, all three groups listed here—“sons of God,” apkallu, and Watchers—intermarry with “daughters of men” (i.e., human females) and bring disorder when they are supposed to bring order in their appointed tasks. Angels are meant to watch over and protect human beings but fallen angels (from the first one to all who followed him) have done the opposite.[22] In this, they are not unlike human beings who were tasked with being co-workers with God in their appointed space and tasks, but sought to usurp other more sovereign roles. Mesopotamian culture loved these heroes of old, those that seemingly invented cultural pleasures and brought worldly wisdom and the arts. But the Hebrew people had different notions: these usurpers brought false wisdom and dark arts. They sought to destroy and turn what was good to evil. The more we understand about the cultures that revered them, the more we understand why the biblical authors recast the “heroes” as villains.  

Second, the title “sons of God” never refers to those from Seth’s lineage. And while an individual king may be called a “son of God,” the plural form of this refers to supernatural beings, not human kings.[23] The idea that the plain title of “daughters of humans” is about Cain’s female descendants and that “sons of God” are males from Seth’s lineage are, according to Heiser, imported into the text. The plain reading of this and other passages (such as Psalm 82’s mention of judgment upon the host of fallen angels— where the “sons of the Most High” are condemned to “die like mere mortals”—which would not be such a punishment for, well, mere mortals) suggests that we are dealing with a mixture of human beings and something quite different from human beings.[24]

Lastly, though there is much more that could be said, we come to the evidence from the New Testament itself. Both the apostle Peter and Jesus’s half-brother Jude have letters included in the New Testament. In 2 Peter 2:1-10 and Jude 5-7, both authors refer back to the type of sin that led to the flood, and both identify that it was because of “angels who sinned” (2 Peter 2:4) and “angels who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling place” (Jude 6). Scholars agree that these passages refer to the biblical flood (indeed, there is no other mention of multiple angels sinning in the Bible for which it might be a referent), which is in line with a pre-Christian Jewish understanding of the flood narrative. In fact, Heiser explains, “All Jewish traditions before the New Testament era took a supernatural view of Genesis 6:1-4,” and non-supernatural views do not appear until the 3rd or 4th century AD, most notably with Augustine.[25] What we see in the flood narrative is something much more sinister than what other interpretations allow, which makes more sense out of God’s wrath. “The great heroes and men of renown, part human and part divine” De Young posits, “were reconceived as demonic tyrants and their creation seen to be a demonic act of angelic apostasy.”[26] Like in the Garden, they transgressed order to bring deathly disorder.

What then does this mean for the story of the flood and Noah’s ark? It means that this is not a story of God slaughtering the innocent—whether it was truly worldwide or, as has been suggested here, a hyperbolized account of a local (though still catastrophic) event. Rather, it is God’s attempt to rescue humanity from the clutches of those who hate them most. If any one of our loved ones entered a cult that abused them, we would hope to rescue our loved ones and that the cult members would be held responsible. In this case, the beings humanity is rescued from are demon-human hybrids who had decided to live the demonic life of destroying all in their wake. Indeed, as Pete Enns referred to it, the sin of the pre-flood world was one of anti-creation, which “willfully injected dis-order/chaos” into an already hurting world.[27] The demonic always chooses to attack the already weakened. They can only destroy, and that is what they were doing with humanity’s help, continuing in the legacy of the serpent and Cain, a precursor to this destruction.

Regret and Restoration

As Lamb has rightly observed, God was excessively patient and delayed judgment for centuries, even having mercy on the aforementioned Cain in the wake of his homicidal rage against his own brother, Abel. “God was slow to punish, not impetuous, impulsive, or vindictive,” which puts Yahweh in stark contrast to the depictions of gods in the other ancient Near Eastern flood narratives that Genesis is correcting and transcending.[28] But in the end, when judgment does finally come, God does nothing to the world that human beings weren’t already doing in, no doubt, cruelly innovative ways. “Because human beings were already ruining the world (Gen 6:11, 12),” Lamb explains, “God’s punishment involved no longer preventing the ruination (Gen 6:13, 17) but using a flood to wash away the evil.”[29] God does not do this gleefully, either. Instead, we read that His “heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6). God gives not an unfeeling and coldly cruel response, but one of intense emotion. And this emotion is not wrath but, perhaps surprising to some, “divine sorrow. God’s regret is motivated by his intense love for his creation.”[30]

After the floodwaters had receded, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant between Him and all life on earth, promising to never send another catastrophic flood in such a manner (Genesis 9:12-17). The rainbow was a bow in reverse, the bowstring side facing life on earth, which was understood as a gesture of peace like a soldier approaching with his weapon turned backward. God had promised not to bring a flood again, but He had to take decisive steps to attempt restoring and maintaining the shalom of creation. He tells Noah and his sons, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (v. 6). Wenham observed that just because God has promised to never send such a flood again, that is not the same as saying another flood would not be warranted.[31] And so, this declaration about the shedding of human blood is the beginning of the steps God will take with a fallen humanity to avert the need for floods in the future. “To avoid another flood,” Lamb clarifies, “anyone who takes another’s life must have their life taken. That person—and that way of life—must be taken out of the equation.”[32]

Which brings us to the Law.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Maria Bozosky (1917-1996), “Apocalyptic Angel,” 1976.

[1] Gordon Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11: Gateway to the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 52.

[2] Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 37.

[3] Ibid, 22, 92-93.

[4] David T. Lamb, God Behaving Badly, expanded ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 205.

[5] See Stephen O. Moshier, “Geology Does Not Support a Worldwide Flood,” in Longman and Walton, 150-161; Jeff Zweerink, “Is a Global Flood Scientifically Possible?,” Reasons to Believe, September 21, 2015, https://reasons.org/explore/publications/articles/is-a-global-flood-scientifically-possible.

[6] C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 129.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 196-97.

[9] Lamb, 205.

[10] This phrase was later used in regard to other historical events as well. For more, see Elizabeth Nix, “What was the ‘shot heard round the world’?” History, August 30, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-shot-heard-round-the-world.

[11] Longman and Walton, 38.

[12] Ibid., 36.

[13] William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 165.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby, Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11 (Nashville, TN: Morgan James Publishing, 2019), 162.

[16] Wenham, 40-42.

[17] Dru Johnson, The Universal Story: Genesis 1-11 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 69.

[18] Longman and Walton, 118.

[19] Ibid., 94.

[20] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 108.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Longman and Walton, 126-27.

[23] Heiser, 96. Heiser lists Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 82:6; 89:6-7 as examples.

[24] For Heiser’s explanation of Jesus’s use of Psalm 82 in John 10, see Michael Heiser, “Michael S. Heiser,” Faithlife, December 30, 2016, https://faithlife.com/posts/776815.

[25] Heiser, 99.

[26] Stephen De Young, The Religion of the Apostles (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021), 85-86.

[27] Pete Enns, “Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and the Flood,” Biologos, June 1, 2010, https://biologos.org/articles/gilgamesh-atrahasis-and-the-flood/.

[28] Lamb, 209, 213.

[29] Ibid., 209.

[30] Ibid., 210.

[31] Wenham, 42.

[32] Lamb, 127.