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 tells a comforting story of God saving a family and their pets. By contrast, the story of the Flood confronts the mature reader with an image of the Almighty that is difficult for us to negotiate. After all we see genocide meted out by human beings we rightly regard it as the worst possible crime against humanity. How then are we to accept it when it’s meted 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 Genesis as we know 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.
Through the series I have noted that many of the stories in these scrolls are stories of such universality that it is easy to 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 timeline for 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? How much of our story on planet Earth have we forgotten?“
The remains of the city of Mesa Verde in the Grand Canyon
The remains of ancient pyramids in Bosnia
While the Babel Story of Genesis 11 may be totemic of a repeating patters through pre-history, the Genesis 6 story asserts something more wholesale – a root and branch rebooting of human civilization on a global scale, repopulating the human race we know today out of just five families. Genesis 6 says that this repopulation happened just once – and that it was occasioned by a flood. The Genesis 6 account gives us at least…
4 REASONS TO BE INTRIGUED
Intrigue 1) Mythologies from all around the world tell the tale of a global flood and the re-population of the planet. It’s in the indigenous mythologies of China, Peru, Korea, Malaysia, Ireland, Southern Iraq, Northern Iraq/South-eastern Turkey, Hawaii, Finland, Polynesia and the Philippines. It’s in the oral tradition of First Nation Americans and of Australian Aboriginal creation story.
Intrigue 2) Because there is a body of evidence for massive flooding around the world, and massive flooding as the closing chapter of a number of prehistoric sites. (Archaeology “under alluvium” – ie finding things under the flood sediment – is a recognized discipline all its own.)
Intrigue 3) Because DNA research completed in 1987 presented evidence that today’s human beings all descent from a single male progenitor. Curiously 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.
In the Genesis story Noah is our most recent shared male ancestor. Our most recent shared female ancestor is the one shared by Noah, Mrs. Noah, and the respective wives of their three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth ie a person of far greater antiquity! Indeed DNA researchers dubbed her “Mitochondrial Eve!” So the re-population portrayed in Genesis 6 reboots humanity from Noah’s family, comprising the DNA heritage of five families.
To me these 3 intrigues suggest at least the possibility of some genuine memory in the flood mythologies – Genesis 6 included.
Intrigue 4) Wouldn’t it be physically impossible to flood the entire planet???
This is where details in the Babel story might shine a light on details in the Flood story. Because the Babel story proposes that the very first human beings lived in a single society in a single region of the planet and did not begin their global diaspora for some time. What if the flood occurred when we all lived in the same place? The Babel story offers that scenario. It also raises another intriguing possibility.
SO HOW OLD IS THIS STORY?
The Babel story begins with a phrase in Hebrew which, for reasons of worldview rather than of linguistics, is almost never rendered with a plain-meaning translation. To cut to the chase, read with the key words in their normal mode of use, the first two verses give us several pieces of information, including that in the beginning, all humans lived in the same region and spoke the same language, and that all the Earth’s land was joined together and in one piece, bounded by a single coastline. (Gen 11:1-2)
For the C21st reader this is not an unimaginable world. The verse describes a primeval, single super-continent. Today mainstream geologists call it Pangea. And its ancient existence is accepted without controversy. However this is no 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 presence of such antiquity that a human population was resident on Pangea. Although ever more ancient human evidences are being unearthed, the proposal of a human population on Pangea goes way beyond what current scientific consensus can support. On the other hand, how many supposed “land bridges” have been postulated to explain prehistoric fauna and human migrations?
Whenever we see anomalies – whether in Biblical translation or in material evidences – they are clues that our meta-narrative is off!
Another conflict with our conventional timelines occurs in Genesis 10, which proposes that the tectonic fracture of Pangea and ensuing continental drift began during the course of human prehistory. In fact the Genesis 10 reference goes so far as to specify a human generation within which the continents began to separate – the 239 year “generation” of Peleg. (Gen 10:25)
Our conventional timelines predispose to find an allegorical reading or retranslation of the Genesis 10 text. But what if human ancestry and the memory of the flood really are that ancient? What if that collective memory really does originate a flat island-continent, absent of tectonic mountain ridges and valleys – inhabited by a long-forgotten prehistoric population of proto human beings? In the C21st new discoveries of human remains, remnants of prehistoric structures and long lost cities are certainly throwing spanners into the works of our conventional histories. 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 certainly invite us to wonder about what is being remembered and from how long ago. But they don’t answer our God-questions:
- In the Genesis 6 story of diluvian judgement are we listening to ancient theology, or an ancient human interpretation of a cataclysm or natural disaster?
- Could it be that the “God sent a flood to judge us” story comes from a time when everything that happened was credited to divine beings?
- There are portions of the Old Testament which combine historical memory with a narrator’s 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 Flood account that way. But wherever we conclude Genesis 6 sits in terms of genre, the story is quite specific in its premise. It says that God sent the flood to deal with a problem. So what was the problem?
Russell Crowe as Noah
WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM THAT NEEDED SUCH EXTREME MEASURES?
The Russell Crowe movie tells the story of the Flood as a case of divine punishment of human beings for bad behaviour. And in church that is often how the story of the Flood gets told. But, read more closely, the Genesis 6 text gives quite different and specific reasons. The “wickedness” that prompted the extreme measures from the Creator was an episode of interbreeding – an episode in which a group called the “Sons of God” decided to take wives from the “Daughters of Men.” (Gen 6:1-2)
Now it is clear that something unique is happening in this story. Earlier in the Genesis story God had commissioned humans to be fruitful and beget. Leaving and cleaving and getting married form a happy thread the in Genesis story. So this scenario with “Sons of God” taking “Daughters of men” as wives is clearly something else – an aberration of some kind.
Genesis 6:1-2 refers to the “daughters of men” as part of the picture of human expansion. And to translate very closely the text’s word for human, it is Earthling. The Earthlings are multiplying just as they were commanded! So their identity would appear to be uncontroversial. But who are the “Sons of God” that they shouldn’t be touching human girls? And what is different about them that their intercourse with human girls should produce giants – the Nephillim?
Sons of God is a phrase used in some texts to denote local powers or elites – chiefs, judges or land-barons. If land-barons were taking men’s daughters by force that would certainly be a problem. But would that really be a cause for an indiscriminate, genociding universal flood?
But let’s take a closer look at this phrase, Sons of God. The word “God” in this phrase is “elohim.” It is a plural; aword used in other contexts to denote angels, heavenly beings or false gods. On other words is used to refer to non-humans. This usage occurs in the OT books of Job, Daniel and the Psalms. The sons marrying Earth girls are the offspring of non-human heavenly beings. Now that would be an issue!
Intercourse between humans and heavenly beings may seem a bizarre scenario. But that reading of the text agrees with the vocabulary of the text, and the flow of the story, giving clear explanation as to why the offspring of these marriages would be genetically different. A local land-baron taking a peasant girl as a wife does not produce a giant!
However mind-stretching it may be, the notion of god-like, heavenly beings taking Earth girls as wives is in no way confined to Judaeo-Christian mythology. The same story repeats in Hindu mythology and in Graeco-Roman mythology. It’s part of the sagas of Norse and Celtic lore too. It is a story told in great detail in the ancient Sumerian tablets,. Its narrative, the Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a flood and a saving ark of humans and animals to repopulate the planet. In all the mythologies the Heavenly Beings’ intercourse with Earth-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 human/heavenly being hybrids 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 story of the prehistoric hybridization of human beings is a narrative that repeats from one indigenous mythology to the next. Is it conceivable that these ancient legends in fact carry another prehistoric memory?
THE SONS OF WHERE?
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 account of daughters of men being taken by the sons of God is – along with these other indigenous mythologies – express the earliest recollection of what today we could only term “alien-abduction” – and that the heavenly beings were quite literally people from another planet or dimension – be it Olympus, Meru or Asgard; people whom in today’s language we would call extra-terrestrials.
(It is intriguing, to say the least, that if every occurrence of “elohim” is translated as “heavenly beings” then the Bible’s narrative of human origins and the flood event suddenly corresponds very closely with the scenario described in the ancient Sumerian tablets’ account of the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Now someone might say that if there were any history to it it would seem a rather significant piece our humanity’s heritage for us all to have forgotten! But if it is there in the indigenous mythology of culture after culture, repeated from age to age; if it is there in the pages of the Bible, needing only to be read and translated, one would have to call it a secret “hidden in plain sight!”
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Personally, I don’t dismiss the ET explanation out of hand. I am aware of too many evidences that suggest that the human race is not 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 of course 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.
As a consequence the moral of the story 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 humans in the universe as humans and not as some kind of hybrid. It’s an interpretation that elicits a new aspect from the Psalmist’s question, “What are humans that you are mindful of them; human offspring that you would care for them?”
According to the story, the sending of the Flood is an action so horrendous in his own sight that God solemnly promises never to do anything like it again – demanding thereafter an account even of every animal that should ever take a human life. If the Flood is a story with a morality in it, then perhaps that’s a moral I can live with.
Not that we are free to gloss over the difficulties of the story. The mysteries of Genesis 6-9 remain mysteries. I would not suggest that allowing these details back into the story in any way magics the flood into a nice story. It remains the extinction of a civilization.
Furthermore the question remains of whether this could all be folklore, an ancient fiction carried around the world by the prehistoric diaspora of humans as they migrated across the planet. It could be an ancient memory, or something else – a cataclysmic bit of history interpreted by the ancient narrator, insurance-company style, as an “act of God.”
Or perhaps our Sunday School version of it all isn’t so far off after all. Perhaps this really is the memory of a time when God stepped in to the story of us and rescued the human species, doing it through the obedience of the one man who would listen to him, thus radically rebooting the human race – a people he prizes, whose humanity He loves, cherishes and protects as the apple of his eye.