WHAT IS THE STORY WE TELL?
It’s often the first Bible story we tell to children. A story of cute furry animals bunking down with a Grandma and a Grandpa in their safe and cosy boat – or ark. The Sunday School version has it as a comforting story of God saving a family and their pets. By contrast, as adults the story of the Flood confronts us with an image of the Almighty that is the hardest for us to negotiate. When we see genocide meted out by human beings we rightly regard it as the worst crime against humanity there could be. So how are we to accept it when meted it’s out by God?
If you’ve followed my series in Genesis you will know that I understand Genesis 1-11 to be a collection of books – or more accurately a library of scrolls. The use of the Holy Name of God revealed to Moses clues us that it is a library that was brought together as a single work sometime after the time of Moses to form a collection that came to be known as the Books of Moses.
In that series I note that many of the stories in these scrolls are stories of such universality that one can see their truths play out from generation to generation. The story of Adam and Eve turns out to be a story that repeats. It’s the story of all of us. Same with Cain and Abel.
In the Genesis 1-11 library we have two scrolls recounting a re-set of human history. Genesis 11 speaks of God confusing and ending a civilization, with a dispersion of people groups and a proliferation of language – leaving behind the abandoned city of Babel with its amazing state of the art architecture.
In recent years satellite imagery has uncovered previously unknown abandoned cities. Other research has unearthed the built evidence of civilizations far older than would correlate with our conventional understanding of the antiquity of the human race. These discoveries would appear to evidence a human presence on this planet far more ancient than we had previously imagined. These kinds of discoveries raise a question for Genesis 11 vis “How many times has this happened? How many human civilizations have come and gone?“
The Genesis 6 story says that there was a rebooting of human civilization which happened on a global scale only once – and it happened through a flood. This account gives us at least…
FOUR REASONS TO BE INTRIGUED
Reason 1) Mythologies from all around the world tell of a global flood and the re-population of the planet. It’s in China, Peru, Korea, Malaysia, Ireland, Hawaii, Finland, Polynesia and the Philippines. It’s everywhere. The flood is in the oral tradition of First Nation Americans and of Australian Aboriginal creation story.
Reason 2) Because there is a body of research demonstrating evidence of massive flooding as the closing chapter of a number of prehistoric sites.
Reason 3) Because through DNA research completed in 1987 evidence emerged that all living human beings share a single male ancestor. Yet the evidence further suggested that our most recent shared female ancestor is a person of far greater antiquity. On first reading this may be a brain-twister but what the disparity implies is a moment of global re-population through the family of one man.
According to the Genesis story Noah is our most recent shared male ancestor. Our most recent shared female ancestor would be the one shared by Noah, Mrs. Noah, and the respective wives of their three sons. Somebody from way back! DNA researchers dubbed her “Mitochondrial Eve!” The re-population portrayed in Genesis 6 reboots humanity with the DNA of five families: the respective ancestors of Noah , Mrs Noah, and the respective wives of Shem, Ham and Japheth.
To me these 3 correlations indicate a possibility that there may be some genuine memory in the flood mythologies – Genesis 6 included.
Reason 4) Because, surely, it would be physically impossible to flood the entire populated world???
However Genesis 11 proposes that the first human beings lived in a single society and did not begin their diaspora for some time. What if the flood occurred when we all lived in the same place?
JUST HOW OLD IS THIS STORY?
Genesis 11 also raises another intriguing possibility. The story begins with a phrase in Hebrew that is almost never rendered with a plain-meaning translation. It says that in the beginning, when all humans lived together and spoke the same language, all the Earth’s land was in one piece and shared a single coastline. (Gen 11:1)
This is not an unimaginable world. The verse describes the primeval, single super-continent we call Pangea. But this is not a neat correlation of mythology and geological history confirming each other. Far from it!
The challenge to our conventional timelines is that Genesis 11 proposes a human race so ancient that a human population was there on Pangea. Genesis 10 also proposes that continental drift began during human pre-history. The Genesis 10 reference goes so far as to specify when the continents began to separate – in the generation of Peleg. (Gen 10:25)
What if the human race and the memory of the flood are really that ancient? What if those memories really do come from a flat island-continent, absent of tectonic mountain ridges and valleys – and populated by a long forgotten ancient civilization of proto human beings? New discoveries of human remains and long lost cities are certainly throwing spanners into our conventional histories. And Genesis 10 and 11 do the same. Do we need to re-imagine everything, I wonder, if our timelines are that off beam?
WHAT’S GOD GOT TO DO WITH IT?
These points of intrigue may get us to wonder about what is being remembered and from how long ago. But this doesn’t answer our God-questions. In this story of dilluvian judgement are we listening to ancient theology, an ancient human interpretation of a natural disaster? It could be that the “God sent a flood to judge us” story belongs to a time when everything that happened was accredited to divine beings? And of course there are other portions of the Old Testament which combine historical memory with interpretation or which weave historical elements into a carefully crafted moral tale. Think I and II Kings or Ruth, or Esther or I & II Chronicles. Might the flood be a story of that kind?
Certainly it would be far more comforting to read the text that way. But the story is quite specific in its premise. So perhaps we need to read the story through again as a whole and only then come back to the question of what we do with it.
Russell Crowe as Noah
The Russell Crowe movie tells the story of the Flood as a case of divine punishment of human beings for bad behaviour. And that is often how the story of the flood gets told. But the Genesis 6 text gives different reasons.
The “wickedness” that prompted the Divine Spirit to go to such measures to reboot human DNA was an episode of interbreeding. This episode occurred when a group called the “Sons of God” decided to take wives from the “Daughters of Men.” (Gen 6:1-2)
WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM THAT NEEDED SUCH EXTREME MEASURES?
Clearly something unique and new is happening here. Marriage doesn’t offend God in Genesis. God has told humans to be fruitful and beget. Leaving and cleaving and getting married are all happy parts of the story. Clearly this scenario with “Sons of God” taking “Daughters of men” as wives is something else.
Genesis 6:1-2 refers to the daughters of men as part of the story of human expansion. So their identity is uncontroversial. So who are the “Sons of God” that they shouldn’t be touching human girls, and that their mingling with human girls should produce giants – the Nephillim?
Sons of God is a phrase used in some places to denote local judges or land-barons. If they were taking men’s daughters by force that would certainly be a problem. But would it really result in an indiscriminate global flood?
Elsewhere in the Bible the term Sons of God is used to refer to non-humans – to angels. This usage occurs in the OT books of Job, Daniel and the Psalms.
The mingling of humans and angels may seem a bizarre proposition. But that reading of the text fits with the flow of the story because it gives explanation as to why the resultant children were genetically different. A local land-baron taking a peasant girl as a wife does not produce a giant!
However mind-stretching it may be, godlike beings taking human women as wives is not a story confined to Judaeo-Christian mythology. The same story occurs in Hindu mythology and in Graeco-Roman mythology. In those mythologies the heavenly beings’ intercourse with human girls produces super-humans – demi-gods and titans – what the Bible calls “nephilim” – the “giants” – “men and women of legend.”
In Greek mythology these hybrid “men of legend” include Achilles, Aeneas, Heracles, Perseus, Theseus, Orpheus and Helen of Troy – to recite some of the more familiar names. In all there are 28 such hybrid people named in the Greek panoply. Hindu lore names 17 – and there are a couple in Norse mythology and one in Celtic mythology.
It is intriguing that this prehistoric hybridization of human beings repeats from one culture’s mythology to the next. Is it conceivable that these ancient legends in fact carry another prehistoric memory?
Greek mythology has gods coming down from Mount Olympus and mixing their DNA with that of the human population. Hindu, Japanese, Chinese and Persian mythologies all tell of gods coming down from other respective mountains. Norse gods lived in a parallel dimension. Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods came down from and return to space.
These intriguing correlations have led some to consider whether the ancient memory being recalled is of what today we call “alien-abduction” – and that the gods being remembered were in fact people of another species – people from another planet or dimension – be it Olympus, Meru or Asgard; people whom in today’s language we would call extra-terrestrials.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Personally, to be quite candid about it, I don’t dismiss the ET explanation out of hand. I have seen too much to imagine that the human race is alone. But whether it is other species or angelic beings being referenced in Genesis 6:1-2, the moment we allow those two verses to frame the story of the flood (which they do) the narrative changes. Including the first two verses changes the narrative from one of God punishing and destroying humanity to one of God saving and rebooting the human race. It becomes an explanation of God taking the most extreme action possible to keep human beings human.
The moral of the story then changes. It proposes that in the sight of the Most High there is something so unique and precious about the human race that he would stop at nothing to keep them in the universe as humans and not as some kind of hybrid. The account describes an action so horrendous in his own sight that God would solemnly promise never to do such a thing again – demanding thereafter an account even of every animal that should ever take a human life. If the flood is a story with a moral message, perhaps that’s a moral I can more easily live with.
Not that I intend to gloss over the difficulties. The mysteries of Genesis 6-9 remain mysteries. I wouldn’t suggest that allowing these details back into the story magics the flood into a nice story. It remains the extinction of a civilization. And then of course the question remains of whether this could all be fictional folklore, carried around the world by the prehistoric diaspora of humans as they migrated across the planet.
The questions also remains of whether this could be an ancient memory – something with history in it – albeit interpreted by the ancient narrator in insurance-company style as an “act of God.”
So perhaps our Sunday School version of it all isn’t so far off after all. Perhaps this really is the sharing of a memory, the story of a time when God stepped in and rescued the human species through the one man who would listen to him and radically rebooted the human race – a people he loves, cherishes and protects as the apple of his eye.