Friday, January 21, 2011

The Theme of Flooding in the Bible: Noah's Flood

The tragedy of the widescale flooding in Queensland and other parts of Australia recently has prompted me to consider the theme of flooding in the Bible.

The most famous flood in the Bible is, of course, Noah’s flood. As a response to the growing wickedness of humanity (Gen 6:5–7), God “brought a flood of water upon the earth” with the intention of “destroying all flesh” with the exception of Noah and his family and a remnant of the land animals and birds (Gen 6:17–19). This was achieved by the unleashing of torrential rain over a period of forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:11–12). The floodwaters were so great that “all the high mountains that were under all of heaven” were covered by up to seven meters of water (Gen 7:20).

The effect of the flood was catastrophic:
“all flesh that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all of humanity, died. Everything in whose nostrils was the breath of life from all that was on the dry ground died. [God] exterminated every living thing that was on the face of the ground: human beings, and animals, and creeping things, and the birds of the sky. They were exterminated from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark” (Gen 7:21–23).
The floodwaters “prevailed upon the earth” for five months (Gen 7:24)! On the seventeenth day of the seventh month (around seven days after what would later on become the Day of Atonement, during the period of the Feast of Tabernacles) the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, and the floodwaters began to abate (Gen 8:3–4). It was not until some two and a half months later that the tops of the mountains were seen (Gen 8:5), and another three months until the floodwaters had dried up completely! In the meantime, the olive leaf in the mouth of the dove was a sign to Noah that the waters had begun to abate, a sign that new life had emerged out of the destructive waters of the flood. The day that the floodwater had dried up completely was the first day of the first month (Gen 8:13), a new beginning for the human race. Even then, Noah had to wait another 57 days until the ground was dry (Gen 8:14). Altogether, the floodwaters ravaged the earth for around 315 days, while Noah was in the ark for around 378 days. This was an enormous flood.

Yet God’s purposes for the world would continue. The repetition of the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 to Noah in Gen 9:1–2, 7 signaled that the work of extending the kingdom of God on earth (a privileged task that God had assigned to the human race back in the beginning) was to continue.

The theme of flooding in the rest of the Old Testament will be explored in my next post; but it should be noted that, because Noah’s flood is the paradigmatic flood in the Bible, it provides the referential point for the metaphor of being encompassed by floodwater and the related metaphor of being rescued from floodwater, which occur at various points thoughout the Old Testament.

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