Genesis 7b: The Flood

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This chapter describes the beginning of the flood. At first glance, it might appear that it merely repeats what has already been said in the beginning of the chapter. It begins with "on that very day…." The day in question refers to the information given in verse 11—the 17th day of the second month in the 600th year of Noah's life. The timing is precise. That very day! Most scholars think the flood occurred sometime in the fall, either October or November. Others argue that it was a spring event, but the text is decidedly silent. Since scholars really can't be sure which calendar might have been in use at this period, the actual time of year remains open for discussion.

Nonetheless, Noah and his sons (all three are named), together with their wives, entered the ark. As usual, each son is mentioned before his wife, who remains nameless. This undoubtedly reflects the patriarchal nature of this story, since none of the women have any storyline of their own. Their only existence is in relation to their husbands. This is somewhat astonishing, given the enormity of the tasks that needed to be done to arrange for all the animals, by providing food, space, accommodations, etc. It's hard to imagine them sitting passively on the sidelines while the males did all the work.

We also know that these sons were at least one hundred years old. Yet, there is no mention of them having any children. That, apparently, will have to wait until after the flood, when God will again command Noah and his sons to "be fruitful and multiply."

They had every wild animal, livestock, and creatures that moved along the ground, and every bird with wings on the boat. "They were all in pairs; all the creatures that had the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. They included a male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah." Nothing is said about how this actually happened. It is almost as though such details are specifically omitted so that the reader can focus on the bigger picture. But the reader is left to imagine an orderly procession, perhaps even a festive one, comprised of those who will repopulate the earth.

"Then the Lord shut him in." This is an interesting aside by the narrator who suddenly switches from "God" to "the Lord (Yahweh)." The scholars who subscribe to the documentary hypothesis simply relegate the change to a different source, in this case, J. Others, however, are more curious about its purpose in the story. Perhaps the notion of closing the door is best done by a more personal understanding of deity, hence, "Yahweh." And by taking responsibility for shutting the door, Yahweh has effectively determined which animals will be saved. Those left on the outside have been judged and condemned; those brought inside have been shown mercy and will experience salvation. The decisions are now final. Once inside, all the inhabitants are under God's protection. Though inside the ark, they are completely dependent upon his care.

With everyone safely inside, the story turns to what was happening outside. "For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth." This notation of time corresponds with verse 12. The results are quite predictable given a forty-day deluge of rain. As the waters increased, they "lifted the ark high above the earth." Yet the rain kept on coming and the water kept on rising, increasing greatly upon the earth. Not only do the waters "multiply," but they also "triumph," using a military term that suggests victory. The water "won," so to speak, and eventually "the ark floated on the surface of the water." It should be noted that this ark had no steering mechanism, no rudder, nothing that would allow the passengers inside any measure of control. It simply rose with the rain and heaved with the waves. Clearly, this is an important point. Noah and his family did not survive because he was an accomplished sailor. This was all God's doing, God's saving work. Humans would not be able to take credit for anything.

Even, then, the rains continued. The waters kept on rising until "the earth and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered." As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but water. All land had disappeared. In fact, the narrator informs us that the waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. That amounts to a water depth of roughly 22 feet above the tallest mountain. This little detail not only allows the ark to float on top of the highest mountain, but also makes certain that no land animals could have survived.

Indeed, the narrator now turns his attention to all the living creatures outside the ark. The picture is grim. "Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind." Three more times the narrator states the inevitable result of the flood. "Every thing on dry land lost the breath of life in its nostrils." "Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out." "People and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth." Though translated as "were wiped from the earth," the words really mean, "were washed away." The water simply washed everything away. One might presume that all the animals and people drowned, but that is never stated. For obvious reasons, aquatic animals are not included in this destruction. Such basic repetition, however, emphasizes the point over and over again: There was a total loss of life outside the ark. Much like the creation story, people are mentioned last. The initial focus is all on the animals. It should be pointed out that the narrator does not offer any insight into the ethical dilemma raised by the question that if the sin was with the people, why were all the animals included in the punishment as well?

In contrast to the events outside the ark, "only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark." In both instances the verbs are written in the passive tense, which again highlights the fact that this was God's decision. All were wiped away; only Noah was left. Nothing is said to indicate that he merited saving; this was God's merciful act. And because of Noah, his whole family was saved. He owed his life to God; they owed their lives to Noah.

"The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days." Though a matter of semantics, scholars wonder whether this included the forty days and nights of rain, or if they were in addition to it. There is no way to completely answer that question, though later chapters will suggest the flood lasted 150 days after the rain started. Again, the details are sparse, but the desolation is complete.

Most assume that after the initial storm, things settled down. According to this account, the water level maintained itself for 150 days. Only at the end of this time did it begin to abate, and then only slowly. At this point, we have to imagine the ark simply floating around in the massive sea, with no land anywhere in sight. In essence, creation has been undone. The earth has returned to its primeval watery state. Yet, one little group remains safe—the people and animals in the ark.