Terminology . The Genesis flood is denoted in the Old Testament by the technical Hebrew term mabbul [ 2 Peter 3:6
Extrabiblical Parallels . Ancient flood stories are almost universal (up to 230 different stories are known). Floods are by far the most frequently given cause for past world calamities in the folk literature of antiquity. The stories nearest to the area of the dispersion at Babel are the closest in detail to the biblical account.
Four main flood stories are found in Mesopotamian sources: the Sumerian Eridu Genesis (ca. 1600 b.c.), the Old Babylonian Atrahasis Epic (ca. 1600 b.c.), the Gilgamesh Epic (Neo-Assyrian version, ca. eighth to the seventh centuries b.c.), and Berossus' account (Babylon, third century b.c.).
The Unity of the Genesis Flood Account . The detailed chiastic literary structure of Genesis 6-9 argues for the unity of the flood narrative instead of small textual units (J and P) as suggested by the Documentary Hypothesis. A close reading of the flood narrative as a coherent literary whole, with particular attention to the chiastic structure, resolves apparent discrepancies in the Genesis account.
Theology of the Flood. Theology as History: The Historical Nature of the Flood . In the literary structure of the flood narrative the genealogical frame or envelope construction (Genesis 5:32,9
:28-29 ) plus the secondary genealogies (Genesis 6:9-10,9
:18-19 ) are indicators that the account is intended to be factual history. The use of the genealogical term toledot [6:9) as throughout Genesis (13 times, structuring the whole book), indicates that the author intended this narrative to be as historically veracious as the rest of Genesis. A number of references in the Book of Job may allude to the then-relatively-recent flood (9:5-8; 12:14-15; 14:11-12; 22:15-17; 26:10-14; 27:20-22; 28:9; 38:8-11). The occurrence of the flood is an integral part of the saving/judging Acts of God in redemptive history, and its historicity is assumed and essential to the theological arguments of later biblical writers employing flood typology.
The Motive or Theological Cause of the Flood . In contrast with the ancient Near Eastern flood stories, in which no cause of the flood is given (Gilgamesh Epic) or in which the gods decide to wipe out their human slaves because they are making too much noise (Atrahasis Epic and Eridu Genesis), the biblical account provides a profound theological motivation for the flood: humankind's moral depravity and sinfulness, the all-pervading corruption and violence of all living beings ("all flesh") on earth (Genesis 6:1-8,11
-12 ), which demands divine punishment.
The God of the Flood (Theodicy) . The theological motivation provides a divine justification (theodicy) for the flood. In contrast to the other ancient Near Eastern stories, in which the gods are arbitrary, acting out of unreasoning anger, selfishness, and caprice, seeking to deceive the people and not inform them of the impending flood, the biblical picture of the God of the flood is far different. God extends a probationary period during which his Spirit is striving with humanity to repent (Genesis 6:3
). God warned the antediluvian world through Noah, the "preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5
; cf. 1 Peter 3:19-20
God himself makes provision for the saving of humankind (Genesis 6:14-16
). He "repents"—he is sorry, moved to pity, having compassion, suffering grief (Genesis 6:6
). God takes up humanity's pain and anguish (Genesis 6:6
; 3:16-17 ). The divine act of destruction is not arbitrary. God "destroys" what humanity had already ruined or corrupted; he mercifully brings to completion the ruin already wrought by humankind.
The God of the biblical flood is not only just and merciful; he is also free to act according to his divine will, and he possesses sovereign power and full control over the forces of nature (in contrast to the weakness and fright of the gods during the flood, according to ancient Near Eastern stories). Yahweh's omnipotent sovereignty seems to be the theological thrust of Psalm 29:10
, the only biblical reference outside Genesis employing the term mabbul
: "Yahweh sat enthroned at the flood."
The choice of divine names throughout the flood narrative, instead of indicating separate sources, seems to highlight different aspects of God's character: the generic Elohim when his universal, transcendent sovereignty or judicial authority is emphasized; and the covenant name Yahweh when his personal, ethical dealings with Noah and humankind are in view.
Human Moral Responsibility . The portrayal of humanity's moral depravity as the cause of the flood highlights human responsibility for sin. Noah's response of faith/faithfulness (Hebrews 11:7
) underscores that accountability to God is not only corporate but individual: Noah found "favor" in God's sight, he was "righteous, " "blameless, " and "walked together" in personal relationship with God (Genesis 6:8-9
); he responded in implicit obedience to God's commands (Genesis 6:22
; 7:5,9 ; cf. Ezekiel 14:14,20
Eschatological Judgment . When God announced the coming of the flood to Noah he said, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh" (Genesis 6:13
). The "eschatological" term qes ( end ), later became a technical term for the eschaton. The divine judgment involved a period of probation (Genesis 6:3
), followed by a judicial investigation ("The Lord saw " Genesis 6:5
; "I have determined, " Genesis 6:13
; RSV ), the sentence (Genesis 6:7
), and its execution (the bringing of the flood, Genesis 7:11-24
). The New Testament recognizes the divine judgment of the Genesis flood as a typological foreshadowing of the final eschatological judgment.
The Noahic Covenant . The word berit [ Genesis 6:18
; 9:8-17 ), and the covenant motif is an integral part of the flood narrative. The Noahic covenant comes at God's initiative, and demonstrates his concern, faithfulness, and dependability. He covenants never again to send a flood to destroy the earth. This covenant promise flows from the propitiatory animal sacrifice offered by Noah (Genesis 8:20-22
Unlike the other biblical covenants, the Noahic covenant is made not only with humankind but with the whole earth (Genesis 9:13
) including every living creature (Genesis 9:10,12,15,16
), and is thus completely unilateral and unconditional upon the response of the earth and its inhabitants. The sign of this everlasting covenant is the rainbow, which is not primarily for humankind, but for God to see and "remember" the covenant he has made with the earth (Genesis 9:16
The Flood Remnant . The flood narrative contains the first mention in the biblical canon of the motif and terminology of remnant: "Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained
" (Genesis 7:23
). The remnant who survived the cosmic catastrophe of the flood were constituted thus because of their right relationship of faith and obedience to God, not because of caprice or the favoritism of the gods, as in the extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern flood stories.
Salvific Grace . God's grace is revealed already before the flood in his directions for the building of the ark to save those faithful to him (Genesis 6:14-21
); and again after the flood in his covenant/promise never again to destroy the earth with a flood, even though human nature remained evil (Genesis 8:20-22
; 9:8-17 ).
But the theological (and literary, chiastic) heart of the flood account is found in the phrase "God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1
). The memory theology of Scripture does not imply that God has literally forgotten; for God to "remember" is to act in deliverance (see Exodus 6:5
). The structural positioning of God's "remembering" at the center of the narrative indicates that the apex of flood theology is not punitive judgment but divine salvific grace.
Numerous thematic and verbal parallels between the accounts of Noah's salvation and Israel's exodus deliverance reveal the author's intent to emphasize their similarity. Various references in the psalms to God's gracious deliverance of the righteous from the "great waters" of tribulation, may contain allusions to the Genesis flood (Psalm 18:16
; 32:6 ; 65:5-8 ; 69:2 ; 89:9 ; 93:3 ; 124:4
Flood Typology . The typological nature of the flood account is already implicit in Genesis. Isaiah provides an explicit verbal indicator that the flood is a type of covenantal eschatology (54:9), along with several possible allusions to the flood in his descriptions of the eschatological salvation of Israel (24:18; 28:2; 43:2; 54:8). The prophets Nahum (Nahum 1:8
) and Daniel (9:26) depict the eschatological judgment in language probably alluding to the Genesis flood.
The New Testament writers recognize the typological connection between flood and eschatology. The salvation of Noah and his family in the ark through the waters of the flood finds its antitypical counterpart in New Testament eschatological salvation connected with water baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22
). The flood is also a type of the final eschatological judgment at the end of the world, and the conditions of pre-flood morality provide signs of the endtimes (Matthew 24:37-39
; Luke 17:26-27
; 2 Peter 2:5,9
; 3:5-7 ).
Universality of the Flood . One of the most controversial aspects of flood theology concerns the extent of the flood. Three major positions are taken: (1) the traditional, which asserts the universal, worldwide, nature of the deluge; (2) limited flood theories, which narrow the scope of the flood story to a particular geographical location in Mesopotamia; and (3) nonliteral (symbolic) interpretation, which suggests that the flood story is a nonhistorical account written to teach theological truth. Against the third interpretation, we have already discussed the historical nature of the flood. Of the two first positions, the limited flood theories rest primarily on scientific arguments that set forth seemingly difficult physical problems for a universal flood. These problems are not insurmountable given the supernatural nature of the flood; numerous recent scientific studies also provide a growing body of evidence for diluvial catastrophism instead of uniformitarianism. Only the traditional universalist understanding does full justice to all the biblical data, and this interpretation is crucial for flood theology in Genesis and for the theological implications drawn by later biblical writers.
Many lines of biblical evidence converge in affirming the universal extent of the flood and also reveal the theological significance of this conclusion: (1) the trajectory of major themes in Genesis 1-11 creation, fall, plan of redemption, spread of sinis universal in scope and calls for a matching universal judgment; (2) the genealogical lines from both Adam (Genesis 4:17-26
; 5:1-31 ) and Noah (Genesis 10:1-32
; 11:1-9 ) are exclusive in nature, indicating that as Adam was father of all preflood humanity, so Noah was father of all postflood humanity; (3) the same inclusive divine blessing to be fruitful and multiply is given to both Adam and Noah (Genesis 1:28
; 9:1 ); (4) the covenant (Genesis 9:9-10
) and its rainbow sign (Genesis 9:12-17
) are clearly linked with the extent of the flood (Genesis 9:16,18
); if there was only a local flood, then the covenant would be only a limited covenant; (5) the viability of God's promise (Genesis 9:15
; cf. Isaiah 54:9
) is wrapped up in the universality of the flood; if only a local flood occurred, then God has broken his promise every time another local flood has happened; (6) the universality of the flood is underscored by the enormous size of the ark (Genesis 6:14-15
) and the stated necessity for saving all the species of animals and plants in the ark (Genesis 6:16-21
; 7:2-3 ); a massive ark filled with representatives of all nonaquatic animal/plant species would be unnecessary if this were only a local flood; (7) the covering of "all the high mountains" by at least twenty feet of water (Genesis 7:19-20
) could not involve simply a local flood, since water seeks its own level across the surface of the globe; (8) the duration of the flood (Noah in the ark over a year, Genesis 7:11-8
:14 ) makes sense only with a universal flood; (9) the New Testament passages concerning the flood all employ universal language ("took them all away"
; "destroyed them all "
; Noah "condemned the world "
); and (10) the New Testament flood typology assumes and depends upon the universality of the flood to theologically argue for an imminent worldwide judgment by fire (2 Peter 3:6-7
The theology of the flood is the pivot of a connected but multifaceted universal theme running through Genesis 1-11 and the whole rest of Scripture: creation, and the character of the Creator, in his original purpose for creation; uncreation, in humankind's turning from the Creator, the universal spread of sin, ending in universal eschatological judgment; and re-creation, in the eschatological salvation of the faithful remnant and the universal renewal of the earth.
Richard M. Davidson
See also Genesis, Theology of
Bibliography . D. J. A. Clines, CBQ 38 (1976): 483-507; idem, Faith and Thought 100/2 (1972-73): 128-42; W. A. Gage, The Gospel of Genesis: Studies in Protology and Eschatology ; G. F. Hasel, Origins 1 (1974): 67-72; idem, Origins 2 (1975): 77-95; idem, Origins 5 (1978): 83-98; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., New Perspectives on the Old Testament ; J. P. Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature ; B. C. Nelson, The Deluge in Stone: A History of the Flood Theology of Genesis ; A. A. Roth, Ministry 59 (July 1986): 24-26; idem, Origins 12 (1985): 48-56; idem, Origins 15 (1988): 75-85; W. H. Shea, Origins 6 (1979): 8-29; G. J. Wenham, Genesis ; idem, VT 28 (1978): 21-35; J. C. Whitcomb and H. M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications ; R. Youngblood, The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions About Creation and the Flood .