Contradictions in the Flood Story

Contradictions in the Flood Story

#14. Noah is commanded to gather 7 pairs of clean animals OR only 2 of each animal? (Gen 7:2 vs Gen 6:19-20, 7:8, 7:16)
#15. The flood lasts for 40 days and 40 nights OR 150 days? (Gen 7:4, 7:12, 8:6 vs Gen 7:24, 8:3)
#16. The flood starts 7 days after Noah enters the ark OR on the day Noah enters the ark? (Gen 7:7, 10 vs Gen 7:11-13)
#17. The flood is caused by rain OR the waters above and below the earth are unbound? (Gen 7:4, 7:12 vs Gen 7:11, 8:2)
#18. Noah lets out from the ark a series of doves (three) OR a raven once? (Gen 8:8-12 vs Gen 8:7)

Genesis’ flood narrative—or rather narratives—is the classic example used to illustrate how the Documentary Hypothesis works. There is little doubt that the narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17 is a composite of two once separate flood stories. In other words, a later redactor has woven together two independent and different traditions of the flood narrative in an attempt to preserve them both. Yet unlike the two creation accounts where both traditions are preserved one after the other (see #1), the J creation (Gen 2:4b-3:24) following directly after P’s creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3), the two flood stories, J’s and P’s, have been skillfully stitched together to produce a single narrative—a narrative, however, that contains a number of inconsistencies and contradictions.

The following reproduction of Genesis 6:5-9:17, a patch-work of both J and P sources, separates the two accounts visually by printing the P account in boldface and the J account in italics. The italic and boldface print is the work of R (the redactor) attempting to harmonize J with P at a few spots. If you read the J narrative separately from beginning to end, then the P narrative from beginning to end, it becomes apparent that each flood story is a whole continuous narrative, each with its own vocabulary and theological emphasis.

Genesis 6:1

And Yahweh saw that the evil of humans was great in the earth, and all the inclinations of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the day.

And Yahweh regretted that he had made humans in the earth, and he was grieved to his heart.

And Yahweh said, “I shall wipe out the humans which I have created from the face of the earth, from humans to beast to creeping thing to bird of heavens; for I regret that I have made them.”

But Noah found favor in Yahweh’s eyes.

These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God.

10 And Noah sired three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

11 And the earth was corrupted before God, and the earth was filled with violence.

12 And God saw the earth, and here it was corrupted, for all the flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.

13 And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of them, and here I am going to destroy them with the earth.

14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood, make rooms with the ark, and pitch it outside and inside with pitch.

15 And this is how you shall make it: Three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its width, and thirty cubits its height.

16 You shall make a window for the ark, and you shall finish it to a cubit from the top, and you shall make an entrance to the ark in its side. You shall make a lower, second, and third stories for it.

17 And here I am bringing the flood, water over the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under the heavens. Everything which is on the land will die.

18 And I shall establish my covenant with you. And you shall come to the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.

19 And of all the living, of all flesh, you shall bring two to the ark to keep alive with you, they shall be male and female.

20 Of the birds according to their kind, and of the beasts according to their kind, and of all the creeping things of the earth according to their kind, two of each will come to you to keep alive.

21 And you, take for yourself of all food which will be eaten and gather it to you, and it will be for you and for them for food.”

22 And Noah did according to all that God commanded him—so he did.

Genesis 7:

And Yahweh said to Noah, “Come, you and all your household, to the ark, for I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation.

Of all the clean beasts, take yourself seven pairs, man and his woman; and of the beasts which are not clean, two, man and his woman.

Also of the birds of the heavens seven pairs, male and female, to keep alive seed on the face of the earth.

For in seven more days I shall rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I shall wipe out all the substance that I have made upon the face of the earth.”

And Noah did according to all that Yahweh had commanded him.

And Noah was six hundred years old, and the flood was on the earth.

And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him came to the ark from before the waters of the flood.

Of the clean beasts and of the beasts which are not clean, and of the birds and of all those which creep upon the earth,

two of each came to Noah to the ark, male and female, as God had commanded Noah.

10 And seven days later the waters of the flood were on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, in the seventeenth day of the month, on this day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of the heavens were opened.

12 And there was rain on the earth, forty days and forty nights.

13 In this very year, Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife and his sons’ three wives with them came to the ark,

14 they and all the living things according to their kind, and all the beasts according to their kind, and all the creeping things that creep on the earth according to their kind, and all the birds according to their kind, and every winged bird.

15 And they came to Noah to the ark, two of each, of all flesh in which is the breath of life.

16 And those which came were male and female, some of all flesh came, as God commanded him. And Yahweh closed it for him.

17 And the flood was on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and the waters multiplied and raised the ark, and it was lifted from the earth.

18 And the waters grew strong and multiplied greatly on the earth, and the ark went on the surface of the waters.

19 And the waters grew very very strong on the earth, and they covered all the high mountains that are under all the heavens.

20 Fifteen cubits above, the waters grew stronger, and they covered the mountains.

21 And all flesh, those that creep on the earth, the birds, the beasts, and the wild animals, and all the swarming things that swarm on the earth, and all the humans expired.

22 Everything that had the breathing spirit of life in its nostrils, everything that was on dry ground, died.

23 And he wiped out all the substance that was on the face of the earth, from human to beast, to creeping thing, and to bird of the heavensand they were wiped out from the earth, and only Noah and those who were with him in the ark were left.

24 And the waters grew strong on the earth a hundred fifty days.

Genesis 8:

And God remembered Noah and all the living, and all the beasts that were with him in the ark, and God passed a wind over the earth and the waters were decreased.

And the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were shut, and the rain was restrained from the heavens.

And the waters receded from the earth continually, and the waters were abated at the end of a hundred fifty days.

And the ark rested, in the seventh month, in the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountain of Ararat.

And the waters continued receding until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.

And it was at the end of forty days, and Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made.

And he sent out a raven, and it went back and forth until the waters dried up from the earth.

And he sent out a dove from him to see whether the waters had eased from the face of the earth.

And the dove did not find a resting place for its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the earth, and he put out his hand and took it and brought it to him to the ark.

10 And he waited seven more days, and he again sent out a dove from the ark.

11 And the dove came to him at evening time, and here was an olive leaf torn off in its mouth, and Noah knew that the waters had eased from the earth.

12 And he waited seven more days, and he sent out a dove, and it did not return to him ever again.

13 And it was in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the first month, the waters dried from the earth. And Noah turned back the covering of the ark and looked, and here the face of the earth had dried.

14 And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth dried up.

15 And God spoke to Noah, saying,

16 “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

17 All the living things that are with you, of all the flesh, of the birds, and of the beasts, and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, that go out with you, shall swarm in the earth and be fruitful and multiply in the earth.”

18 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went out.

19 All the living things, all the creeping things and all the birds, all that creep on the earth, by their families, they went out of the ark.

20 And Noah built an altar to Yahweh, and he took some of each of the clean beasts and of each of the clean birds, and he offered sacrifices on the altar.

21 And Yahweh smelled the pleasant smell, and Yahweh said to his heart, “I shall not again curse the ground on man’s account, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from their youth, and I shall not again strike all the living as I have done.

22 All the rest of the days of the earth, seed and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

Genesis 9:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

And fear of you and dread of you will be on every living thing of the earth and on every bird of the heavens, in every one that will creep on the earth and in all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.

Every creeping animal that is alive will be yours for food: I’ve given every one to you like a plant of vegetation,

except you shall not eat flesh in its life, its blood,

and except I shall inquire for your blood, for your lives. I shall inquire for it from the hand of every animal and from the hand of man. I shall inquire for a man’s life from the hand of each man for his brother.

One who sheds a human’s blood: by a human his blood will be shed, because he made the human in the image of God.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm in the earth and multiply in it.”

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying,

“And I: here, I am establishing my covenant with you and with your seed after you

10 and with every living thing that is with you, of the birds, of the domestic animals, and of all the wild animals of the earth with you, from all those coming out of the ark to every living thing of the earth.

11 And I shall establish my covenant with you, and all flesh will not be cut off again by the floodwaters, and there will not be a flood again to destroy the earth.”

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I am giving between me and you and every living being that is with you for eternal generations.

13 I’ve put my rainbow in the clouds, and it will become a covenant sign between me and the earth.

14 And it will be when I bring a cloud over the earth, and the rainbow will appear in the cloud,

15 and I’ll remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living being of all flesh, and the waters will not become a flood to destroy all flesh again.

16 And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I’ll see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth.”

17 And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I’ve established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

It is clear from the foregoing presentation that Genesis’ supposed flood narrative is in fact a composite of two different textual traditions, each expressing the story in its own terms, language, and emphasis. Contradictions #14-18 are therefore a byproduct of having stitched these two separate flood stories together.

Consistent with what we saw in P’s and J’s creation accounts, here too in their flood narratives P uses the generic Hebrew term elohim, “god,” while J the name Yahweh. Yet not only are there differences between the presentation of P’s God and J’s anthropomorphic Yahweh—who grieves (6:6), personally closes the door of the ark (7:16), and smells Noah’s sacrifice (8:21)—but also in their terminology: J consistently uses the expression “male and female” (6:19, 7:9, 7:16) while P uses “man and his wive” (7:2); J says everything “died” (7:22), while in P everything “expired” (6:17, 7:21); J speaks of the earth with the Hebrew ha’adamah (7:4, 7:23, 8:8, 8:21) while P uses ha’eres (6:11-13, 7:17, etc.), etc.2

P is additionally concerned about issues of age, chronology, and measurements. Only in P are there instructions for building the ark (6:14-16), the term “cubit” used, and dated descriptions of Noah entering the ark (7:13), of the coming of the flood (7:11), and the emergence of dry land (8:14).

Moreover, these dates have specific connections to the Priestly creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3). First, P presents its flood narrative as an undoing of creation: the firmament in the Priestly creation account that originally separated the waters above from those below the earth (1:7) is here opened up so that these waters flood the earth for 150 days, and then are shut back up again (8:2). Second, 8:13 emphasizes that the earth dried on exactly the anniversary of the first day of creation. It is on the New Year that the earth dries. P’s refrain “be fruitful and multiply” (9:1, 7) additionally highlights this “new creation,” and again could have specific relevance for an exilic community attempting to recreate its cult and relationship to its god. We will additionally see that for P, the New Year also has a very important significance: it is the day that the tabernacle and cult are established (Ex 40:1).

J’s flood narrative, on the other hand, is not concerned with such issues, and highlights different ones. For example, 8:21—”I [Yahweh] shall not again curse the ground on man’s account”—alludes to J’s earlier narratives: the creation account (3:17) and the story of Cain (4:11), each of which accentuates the relationship between man (’adam) and the cursed ground (’adamah). Additionally, we see the Yahwist’s concern with proper worship of Yahweh after the flood, that is offering sacrifices (8:20-21)—thus the reasoning behind the gathering into the ark of 7 pairs of clean animals in J’s version; these are for the sacrifices to Yahweh at the end of the flood. Lastly, in J’s account the flood is caused by rain, not the undoing of the firmament as in P, and for forty days and forty nights, also in variance with P’s 150 days.

Finally, the stitching together of these two flood narratives creates some awkward moments with the chronology of the current JP composite account. Besides the more obvious contradictions listed above, there are a number of details narrated twice: the corruption of humanity (6:5 [J]; 6:11-12 [P]), the decision to destroy (6:7 [J]; 6:13 [P]), the commission to enter the ark (7:1-3 [J]; 6:18-21 [P]), entering the ark (7:7 [J]; 7:13 [P]), the coming of the flood (7:10 [J]; 7:11 [P]), the death of all creatures (7:22-23 [J]; 7:20-21 [P]), the end of the flood (8:2b-3a [J]; 8:3b-5 [P]), and the promise that the flood will not recur (8:21b-22 [J]; 9:1-17 [P]).3 Many of these doublets actually jumble the chronology as it now stands in the composite account. Thus, at 7:7, a J text, Noah and the animals enter the ark, and the flood comes (7:10-11), but at 7:13, a P text, Noah and the animals enter the ark again. Additionally, J asserts that the forty-days-forty-nights rainfall starts seven days after Noah has entered the ark (7:7, 10). Thus the flood has already started in the J account and Noah, his family, and the animals have been boarded into the ark seven days prior. In the P narrative (7:8-9, 11, 13), however, which is stitched in between the J material (7:7, 10, 12), the flood has just started, inline with J, but it is “on this day” (7:11, 13), P informs us, Noah, his sons, his sons’ wives, and the animals enter the ark, not seven days prior to the flood as J asserts.

There is also the discrepancy at the end of the flood narrative. Although Noah’s sacrifice to Yahweh in 8:20-22 and the god’s proclamation of an eternal covenant with Noah and the animals in 9:8-17 are not necessarily contradictory, the manner in which Yahweh internally mulls over never to destroy man (8:21), and the god’s direct communication to Noah concerning the very same thing (9:17) does create a narrative tension in this doublet.

It should furthermore be kept in mind that J celebrates the end of the flood and man’s renewed relationship with Yahweh through the medium of sacrifice. P, on the other hand, celebrates the recreation ushered in at the end of the flood, along with man’s renewed relationship to his god through a covenant, the sign of which is the rainbow, reminding the deity not to destroy mankind again by a flood. In fact, this is the first of three major covenants used by P to help periodize the chronological narrative. Thus contrary to J, P has no report of a sacrifice after the flood narrative, especially since for P sacrifices cannot be instituted until the revealing of the ritual law code at Sinai and the sanctification of the Aaronid priesthood (see #199).

We should furthermore not neglect to note that both sources display unmistakable similarities to parallel flood narratives from the Israelites’ earlier Babylonian neighbors, especially that of P. Such influences have long been noted by scholars, the most common of which is the flood narrative found in the Gilgamesh epic. As in the biblical account of the Priestly source, the Babylonian account also singles out a hero—Utnapishtim—to be delivered from the impending cataclysmic flood; both are directed by their respective deities to build an ark with specific dimensions; in both the P account and the account in the Gilgamesh epic, the ark lands on a mountain, mount Ararat and mount Nisir respectively; and both Noah and Utnapishtim send out a series of birds to seek out dry land (in the Gilgamesh epic, Utnapishtim sends out first a raven, then a swallow, and finally a dove). There can be little doubt that the biblical narratives were modeled on their Mesopotamian predecessors.4

  1. Reproduced from David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 60, with some modification.
  2. For a detailed list of terminological and thematic differences between the J and P flood account see Carr, ibid, 52-55.
  3. Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch (214), following Westermann, Genesis 1-11.
  4. For a nice chart on the similarities and differences between the Israelite and Mesopotamian flood narratives, see Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology, 134-135. Cf. the account in Atrahasis and Berossus’ account with the hero Xisouthros. See also the Greek version of the flood with its hero Deucalion.