Monday, March 2, 2009

The Two Flood Stories

Sometimes surprises are hiding in plain sight. One of my biggest biblical shocks was when I first heard someone make a passing reference to the two flood stories. What? How could I not know about the second story if this is one of the many repeated stories in the Bible? How could someone mistakenly think there are two stories? This would lead to an enormous shift in the way I viewed the history of the writing of the Bible.

The Contradiction

I couldn't count how the dozens of times I've read the flood story straight out of the Bible. I was even told several times that Genesis contradicts itself by saying says seven of each kind in one place and two of each kind in another. But the reconciliation is easy: it was two of every unclean kind and seven pairs of every clean kind – right? No. In one place, it's two of every kind, and in the other, it's two of every unclean kind and seven pairs of every clean kind and bird.

Genesis 6:19-20 “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, and of the animals after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every kind will come to you to keep them alive.”

Genesis 7:2-3 “You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth.”

It's not a matter of the “two of every kind” instruction being less detailed. Two of every bird is explicit in the first instruction, and seven pairs of every bird is explicit in the second version, just as it is with the clean animals. I find it to be incredible just how long it took me to notice this after having been trained by creation scientists to not see it.

(Fellow skeptics and liberal Christians, take note: I would have noticed this one a lot sooner if I had been told that the Bible says two of each kind in one place, and two of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals and birds in another. If you screw this one up by saying two in one place and seven in another, Christians will remember 7:2-3 and know you are wrong.)

But there is an odd objection to this contradiction. What sense does it make to for this mistake to have been made? Jacob's mistaken view of genetics makes sense – the author didn't know about modern science and hence contradicted a truth that he had no way of knowing. But how could an author get this wrong? With something so blatant, is not the explanation that we misunderstanding the author more plausible than to call this a mistake? This discrepancy is not alone enough to support the conclusion I'm moving toward, so before stating it, I wish to first point out several other weirdnesses in the story.

Premeditated Lambslaughter

Bible contradictions are often dismissed by non-inerrantists is as trivial details that do not matter to the story. I wouldn't hold a newspaper up to a standard of perfection. Surely a report getting the number of sheep in a zoo wrong doesn't compromise the truth of a story about a zoo's existence. But once we get to the ending of the story in 8:20-22, the apparently trivial detail of the number of animals on the ark shows itself to be critically important.

If you plan on making sacrifices of the clean animals at the end, having extras of specifically the clean animals is a very good idea. If you only bring two of every kind like Genesis 6:19-20 says, and then sacrifice one of them when you get off the ark ... um ... that's quite the sacrifice. The pair could have had a baby in the year on the ark, but I wouldn't stretch my luck. (Also, mating in the ark lines up poorly with creationists' speculation that the animals on the ark hibernated.) So back at the beginning of the story, one of the sets of instructions quite specifically prepares for the sacrifices, while for the other set, a sacrifice would make for a comical blunder. Interestingly enough, the bit about the sacrifices isn't repeated like nearly everything else.

(And why is Noah sacrificing only clean animals centuries before The Law? This is like Marco Polo stopping to celebrate Thanksgiving. Now, I know that the laws of God are written on mens' hearts, but an example of a particular law that I have not found written upon my heart is: “You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud. There are some that only chew the cud or only have a split hoof, but you must not eat them.” Maybe Noah was wired differently than I am, but without the Bible, I certainly wouldn't have figured this one out.)

Choppy Narration

Genesis 6:5-8 starts out with a coherent narrative. The earth is wicked and God decides to destroy mankind, except for Noah because he is righteous. But then all of a sudden, Genesis 6:9 begins the story all over again. Starting at verse 9 makes a great opener – Noah is righteous, the rest of the earth is corrupt, so God decides to destroy all mankind except for Noah and his family. In the 6:9-22 segment, God gives Noah detailed instruction about what to build, how many animals to bring on the ark, and Noah does everything he has been commanded to do.

So now we should be ready to get on with the story. Next up should be actually entering the ark and the rain starting. But no, Genesis 7:1-4 takes us back a step and repeats some earlier information. Just like in 6:19-20 (well, not just like), Noah is told how many animals to bring in 7:2-3. It is important to notice that I'm not just pointing out the mere fact of repetition, but the fact that this part of the story is different under a retelling.

7:13 starts out with “On the very same day.” One would expect this to mean that the previous verse was something that happened on a particular day. “The final version of the Declaration of Independence was completed on July 4. On the very same day it was announced” makes sense. “The Declaration of Independence was written in June and July. On the very same day it was announced” does not make sense. 7:12's “The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights” leads into the grammar of 7:13 very poorly.

Two Calendars

In 8:3-4, the days line up differently than might be expected. In 7:11, the flood starts on month 2, day 17. In 7:24, the water floods the earth for 150 days until 8:3's month 7, day 17. What's worth noting is that the forty days of rain are not in there. I'm not suggesting that the idea that the forty days of rain are the first forty of the 150 days is impossible – what I am saying is that the chronology in the form of months lines up seamlessly if you just ignore the forty days.

8:6 tells us that “it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window.” From a purely literal perspective, there is nothing wrong with this. But from a literary perspective, it's out of place. In 8:4 and 8:5, time is marked in absolute terms – the month and day. Now it switches back to talking in time intervals. But this alone would not be that significant of an observation. In 8:3, “at the end of one hundred and fifty days” isn't a new number – it refers back the 150 days the waters prevailed in 7:24. Similarly, 8:6 seems to be referring back to some previously mentioned forty days that are now over. Flood story. Forty days. What could this possibly be referring to? Why the forty days of rain in 7:4, 7:12, and 7:17. I don't mean to oversell the significance of these new forty days. Noah waits seven days before sending out the dove again, and no one suggests it is the same seven days from 7:4. However, it is worth noting that if you ignore the chronology in the form of months, 7:4, 7:12, 7:17, and 8:6 all fit together very nicely: “I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights … The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights … the flood came upon the earth for forty days … it came about at the end of forty days that Noah opened the window.” But if you insert 150 days between the third and fourth mention of forty days, the continuity is disrupted.

Two Birds

In 8:7, a raven is sent out and flies around until “the water had dried up from the earth.” One bird later in 8:9, “there was water all over the surface of the earth.” I understand that “dry” and “water all over” are very relative terms, and in this story, the ground goes from being under miles of water, to under several feet of water, to being covered in pools of water, to horribly muddy, to “dry ground” in the sense of drier than a marsh, and finally to truly dry ground. But surely, the shades of meaning behind “there was water all over the surface of the earth” imply vastly more moisture than “the water had dried up from the earth.” It sounds like the raven wasn't sent out first, assuming these stories go together at all.

What was the point of the second bird? If you have a raven that flies around until the earth dries up, why send a dove? If you have a dove that you can send out until it doesn't return, why send a raven? It's not that I think these problems are completely irreconcilable. What I'm saying is that sending either the raven or the dove is a much more natural story than sending both.

The Two Flood Stories

So here's a recap: Noah is introduced twice. There are two conflicting versions of the instructions about the animals. Verse 7:13 looks like it was written to come after something other than 7:12. The time is marked while switching between seven and forty day intervals and month-based time. Viewed together, the two systems are in tension. Viewed individually, the two systems make as much sense as should be expected from a narrative that coherently keeps track of time. After the ground dries up, water is all over the earth again. Noah redundantly sends out two birds. And after only one of the two sets of instructions prepared for a sacrifice, and the repetition of nearly every detail, we have but one account of a sacrifice.

Suppose someone tried to harmonize Luke and John by cutting up each Gospel and putting them together in what they thought was the best order, added little or no extra-biblical text to smooth over the transitions, and just left the surface contradictions in place. If you only read the final product, you may or may not be able figure out which story went with which author – but you certainly would notice things like Jesus saying “it is finished” and dying followed by saying “into your hands I commit my spirit” and then dying a second time. You also might notice switches between two different writing styles. If you could fully split it up into the two sources this would greatly add to the case for two authors, but it wouldn't be essential to an argument that there are two authors. That's what the Documentary Hypothesis says the Torah is – the splicing together of primarily four sources. In the case of the flood story, there are two different authors.

Start with 6:5-8 and call this story A. 6:9-22 is a continuous piece and it's not A, so call it story B. 7:1-5 is a continuous piece and it isn't B, so it's part of A. (My A and B are usually called J and P, but I'm setting up my argument as step one in making the case for a JEPD source theory, not an argument in support of an existing theory. I'm using my own letters so I can't subliminally cheat and take advantage of what people know about J and P through other means.)

In what we have so far of A, the deity is called the LORD (Yahweh) all six times. In B, the deity is called God (Elohim) all five times. In A, there are sevens of some kinds and pairs of others, while in B there is a single pair of each kind. These differences are even more striking because they show up together in the rest of the flood story. In 7:8-9 and 7:14-16a, there are two of each kind and they come as Elohim commanded (both B.) In 8:20-22, Noah utilizes the extra clean animals and sacrifices to Yahweh (both A.)

From this point on, most my arguments are that this particular way of splitting the text in two is the correct split. They are not meant to be arguments that a split is correct, only that if a split is correct, this is the correct one.

Based on the names of God used, to A we can add 7:16b, and to B we can add 8:1 and 8:15-19.

Because the first mention of the seven days until forty days of rain is in 7:4 which is A, we can place the month-based verses in B and the other time interval verses in A. To A we can add 7:10, 7:12, 7:17, and 8:6. To B we can add 7:11, 7:24, 8:3-5, 8:13a, and 8:14.

One of the most obvious seams in the story is between 7:12 and 7:13. 7:12 is A already and so 7:13 is B. This fits nicely with 7:14-16a already being labeled B. 7:13's “On the very same day” now makes sense because it directly follows 7:11's “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth.”

In A, the floods come because it starts raining in 7:4 and 7:12. But in B, the floods come because the windows of heaven and fountains of the deep are opened in 7:11. And hence 8:2a is B, while 8:2b is A.

The dove account marks time not only in time intervals but also in seven days like A, rather than speaking in months like B. So 8:8-12 is A and the raven in 8:7 is B.

This leaves 7:6-7, 7:18-23, 8:13b without a clear story. I didn't leave them out because they don't fit, but because at my low level of OT scholarship, it works either way. There is no reason to open myself to criticism by guessing poorly, or doing “too well” and cleverly splitting them so as to create coherence in two accounts of my construction rather than discovering coherence in two accounts as they actually exist.

If you look at the accounts side-by-side, you can see two complete stories. Of course, I haven't completely argued for this splitting, but I have no disagreements with it, and it's certainly easier to see than pulling out a Bible and trying to read 7:1-5, 7, 9-10, 12, etc.

Dissenting Opinions

One criticism is especially important for me to point out because I held Josh McDowell's feet to the fire for a very similar problem. Of course, if I thought my case was even close to equally open to criticism, I wouldn't have written this post at all – but it's open enough that I feel the need to point it out.

The problem is that googling “two flood stories” brings up pages with slightly to significantly different ideas about what verses go in which story. The top 3 agree on how to split 6:1-7:5 and 8:8-22, but for the middle third of the story, two are similar while the third is in a world by itself. The cheap defense is that I'm right and he's wrong – while this is not necessarily false, I didn't throw McDowell this line, so I won't depend on it myself. The key difference between the two situations is that McDowell needs every single detail in his argument for it to work at all. If someone disagrees with his starting event, his ending event, or the time between them by a single day, then their entire arguments are contradictory.

If two people disagree on the authors of only a few verses, then the remaining points of agreement do support each other. Furthermore, details of the unweaving are not even required to argue for two authors. My arguments about the conflicting concepts like one pair/seven pairs, raven/dove, forty days/months, Yahweh/Elohim all stand without figuring out what goes together. People getting different answers is evidence that the stories cannot be fully and definitively separated (or at least not easily.) Contradictory opinions on even significant details is not a rebuttal to the evidence that there are two authors in the first place.

To present a broad theory and only then look back and see if the evidence supports it is a form of reasoning that easily admits poor arguments. He writes “But, what really proves beyond any doubt that there were two authors—not one--is the wealth of unique correspondences found in disconnected passages.” This is quite inconvenient for me because with several of the correspondences (seven/seventh/seventeen, six hundred years, and probably sons), I think the correspondences don't really exist in the correct splitting.

The way scholarship is supposed to work is to begin with evidence and show how the evidence itself points toward the theory. Every single piece of the theory must be individually supported. One cannot bind up related claims into one package and use truth by association. When this is done, five good ideas get mixed with five bad ideas and yet the overall theory has real evidence in support of it due to the parts of it that are true. For instance, he's not completely wrong about one author caring about the number seven, so some of the correlation he's finding isn't just a coincidence. The problem is that lots of authors of the Bible liked the number seven, so you can't just go by that. He writes “Not once does the [Elohim] author use the numbers seven, seventh, seventeen.” Yes, but only in 7:1-5 is seven associated with Yahweh, so that's not saying very much. This is the problem with just presenting a split – it's not clear when you have found a characteristic of one author and when you have simply moved similar verses to one side.

But still, the only reason he can find two stories at all is because there really are two stories which provide an abundance of repetition that makes it very easy to divide Genesis 6-8 into two complete stories. But that is not to say it is easy to correctly divide Genesis 6-8 into the real two stories from which it came.

There are drawbacks to arguing from the evidence instead of starting with the theory and showing it has evidence in support of it. It's much, much more work and when you get done, it might not be the answer you wanted. But that is the price of knowledge.

What it Means for Christianity

While this alone need not undermine Christianity, it can and should very greatly change how the Bible is viewed. It seriously undermines inerrancy by the mere idea that the “surface” discrepancies are actual discrepancies that come from different authors. But it also makes perfect sense for more liberal Christians to use this to make the case that the problems conservatives have come not from the Bible itself, but from misunderstanding what sort of a book it is. Historically speaking, these arguments did originate from within Christianity. (And this is not just because they were “liberal Christians.” These are the reasons many are liberal in the first place.)

But there are two features in particular that are especially difficult to reconcile with Christianity. The first is that this means Moses didn't write Genesis 6-8, or at least not in the way conservatives think he did. Even if Moses wrote the original flood story, which split into two different traditions and were later merged, the Genesis version isn't Moses' version. Or maybe Moses was the compiler of earlier and contradictory sources, but this is vastly different from the idea that God quite nearly dictated the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. And yet Jesus talks about the Law as if Moses wrote it. Of course, we could be misunderstanding Jesus and he might have meant the Law as the legal code rather than the Torah, but the hope that Moses at least wrote the legal code does not survive the remainder of the Documentary Hypothesis. The possibility that Jesus as a man was ignorant of the real authors is possible, but saying that something Jesus said that is directly relevant to core doctrine was wrong is a very dangerous direction to move in for conservative Christianity.

The second problem is that it makes belief in the inspiration of the autograph of the Bible look completely arbitrary. Why not look to the two flood stories pre-combination for the inspired version? If the two stories have a common literary source, why not look to that as the inspired version? Why look to the combination in Genesis? Why not go a step further and say that the Septuagint or the King James Version is inspired? Even under the assumption that something Bible-related is inspired by God, to say it is the original Hebrew of Genesis and not the true original seems just as arbitrary as randomly pointing to an English translation and assuming it to be inspired.

When you come to Genesis 6-8 with the Documentary Hypothesis in mind, the text makes sense. But that's not point. You don't have to come to Genesis 6-8 with the Documentary Hypothesis to come away with it. This is what it means for evidence to support a position. Countering with how it might be a single story isn't an argument. The consistency of evidence with a position is not enough – real evidence for a position is evidence that has the ability to point someone to a conclusion they don't already accept or even know about.

Of course, I have only provided evidence to get as far as two authors of Genesis 6-8 – that isn't the Documentary Hypothesis yet, but it's a start.

(Kudos to Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible. My argument is set up very differently than his and hence any errors are mine, but his book and a private email greatly enhanced my partial understanding of this topic.)


  1. Jeffrey,

    As I was reading your post, I was very much reminded of Friedman's book. I'm glad to see you mentioned it.

    I just read it a few months ago and it has greatly aided me. The Old Testament makes so much more sense now.

    The two flood stories are only the beginning. There's so much more to the puzzle.

    - Jim

  2. If I take 2 apples, 2 oranges, 2 bananas, and 7 grapes haven't I taken 2 of all of them? Yes I may have taken more than 2 of some of them, but I have still haven taken, as the text says, 2 of all of them.

  3. "Countering with how it might be a single story isn't an argument. The consistency of evidence with a position is not enough – real evidence for a position is evidence that has the ability to point someone to a conclusion they don't already accept or even know about."

  4. In reference to the comment about the contradiction, my bible reads this, "Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate..."(Genesis 7:2) There is also a note at the bottom that says, "or seven pairs," meaning "take with you seven pairs of every kind of unclean animal etc." So in fact this is not a contradiction here...It says to take two of every kind and to take seven pairs of two in reference to clean animals.

  5. Claim 1: Suppose you are Noah and your instructions are given in 6:19-20. You would take a single pair of every clean animal and feel that Elohim had made this very clear.

    Claim 2: Suppose you are Noah and your instructions are given in 7:2-3. You would take seven [pairs] of every clean animal and feel that Yahweh had made this very clear.

    Which of these two claims are you disagreeing with?

  6. Just wanted to say thanks for this post. Of all the times I've read this story as a christian, I was brainwashed into not noticing the discrepancies. Very interesting!

  7. I'm going to assume that Noah didn't get his instructions from the bible but rather from God. If I was Noah then I would know exactly what God told me to do. I do see your point about there being two possible authors, and a third party that compiled the two works. However, I don't think that the two parts concerning the animal instructions are contradictory. I think they are connected; the second being more specific. Noah is told to bring a male and a female of each species, and more specifically 7 pairs of clean animals and only 1 pair of unclean.

  8. One problem with suggesting 7:2-3 is the more specific instructions is that it is actually shorter than 6:19-20. The first version doesn't quickly pass over “two of every kind” but is very specific about covering birds, animals, and every creeping thing.

    Even assuming these two versions come from a real event, we have every reason to think that 6:19-20 and 7:2-3 are two versions of the exact same conversation, and hence one or both stories are paraphrasing God. Thus, discrepancies in the paraphrases would not have resulted in confusion for Noah.

    So by the time one finally gets to the question of how many of each kind in each story, the possibility of a contradiction isn't more surprising than the possibility of consistency. And it's not seven pairs v. a male and a female. Noah is told a specific number to bring: two.

    Only Monty Python could have made this clearer:

    “Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three.”

  9. Understanding that the people who wrote the Bible weren't idiots, and could see these contradictions, leads inescapably to the conclusion that they thought they didn't matter, that is, that they knew they weren't writing an inerrant history but instead something that was vaguer and more important.

    It's only people who insist that every single word is factually accurate who have problems and have to contort their minds to explain two flood stories, two creation stories, etc. Others can accept that it's like various versions of Robin Hood: the core story is important, not the frills. And everybody's frills get to be included in a book for everybody.

  10. It is two of every kind and then it states for clean animals to bring 7 pairs. How does this contradict. There are clean and unclean birds as described later on in the laws.