A Secret In The Ark

Part Of: History sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15min read


Today, I want to try something unusual: I want to analyze the story of Noah from a literary perspective. Some surprises lurk beneath the surface.

A Fresh Take On Noah

Try your utmost to read the following with fresh eyes. There will be a quiz after! (Okay, so you can review its four question above, and there is no grade. :P)

Ready to begin? Okay. See you soon!

Examining The Text

Q1. How many animals?

You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.

Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female

Now, the above seems contradictory.  The difference seems to be:

  • { “clean”:”1 pair” ; “unclean: “1 pair”}     vs    
  • { “clean”:”7 pairs” ; “unclean: “1 pair”}

Is this apparent contradiction a real one? Can it be resolved? Such questions are irrelevant to the argument. The simple point is: there is tension in the narrative.

Q2. How long did the flood last?

Another hard question. Take your best guess.

As you re-read the story, you are probably struck with the fact that there is A LOT of temporal information in this story. The task of constructing a coherent answer is hard. Especially when you compare quotes like these:

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth

The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

Again, the point here is about tension. Notice your confusion.

Q3. How was the narrative flow?

Yes, the narrative had structure. Yes, its plot holds together. But was it a pleasure to read?

Well, I didn’t think so.

To most modern readers, perhaps, the level of detail is painful, the amount of repetition tiresome. What are we to make of this? Are we to judge the story’s author as less enlightened regarding narrative structure?

A typical counter-argument appeals to chronological snobbery. Writing styles change, and over the millennia they plausibly change a lot.

But this response misses the point. For it turns out that these Israelite authors were better at constructing prose than the text might suggest at first glance.

Q4. What is the point-of-view of the author?

Could you create a compelling answer to this question, dear reader? I’m not sure if I could. My answer would be vague, and would lean heavily on the contents of story itself.

A New Hypothesis

Okay, so we’ve identified a few points of discomfort within the story.  If we modify our beliefs about how it was constructed, can we better explain our confusion?

Consider what happens if we view this text as the work of two different authors. We’d then need to get out two highlighters, and guess which passages come from the first, and which come from the second. Let consider one such guess now. I’d like you to just briefly skim through the following:

Notice anything cool?

As an aside: I want you thinking about how we could automate this “highlighter procedure”. Could we teach a computer how to reconstruct multiple authorship, if and only if such blending had occurred? How would we make it learn the process? How could we test it?

Okay, time to name the authors.

  • The author of the orange text we shall call J: the Jahwist source (because he likes to use the YHWH title).
  • The author of the pink text we shall call P: the Priestly source (for reasons I’ll explain in my next article).

Refining Our Hypothesis

Imagine for a moment I have written a novel. Do you think you would be able to carve my novel into two pieces, and preserve the structure and coherence of both halves?  I suspect not.

Let us name our hypotheses:

  • Let H1 represent the original, one-author hypothesis.
  • Let H2 represent the new, two-author hypothesis.

H2 can be visualized as follows:

Compilation of Noah (2)

I’ve already shown you the right hand side (the previous excerpt). Now, I’ll introduce you to the (more exciting) left hand side: the original narratives.

Evaluating The Evidence

Like good little Bayesians, we have H1 (one author) and H2 (two author) floating around in our mental apparatus.  Which hypothesis best explains this document?

To find out, let’s revisit the evidence.

Q1: How many animals were brought onto the ark?

  • The Jahwist narrative has the rule: 7 pairs for clean animals, 1 pair for unclean animals.
  • The Priestly narrative has the rule: 1 pair of all living creatures.

The tension dissolves.

Notice that the burnt offering only occurs in the Jahwist tale, and he is careful to describe the sacrifice of only clean animals (which in his version, has 7 pairs). No more need to worry about burnt offerings causing extinctions! 🙂

Q2: How long did the flood last?

  • The Jahwist narrative has the flood lasting for 40 days.
  • The Priestly narrative has the flood lasting for 150 days.

The tension dissolves.

Q3: How would you rate the narrative flow?

… it’s a lot better!

Q4: How well can you make out the author’s point-of-view?

Recall that, before, we didn’t have much of an answer: we just mumbled something about the story. But now, look:

  • P only uses the more universal term God (16 times). J uses the more personal YHWH exclusively (10 times).
  • P is interested in details such as ark dimensions, and lineages (only he names the sons of Noah). J is more oriented around the events.
  • P uses very precise dates, reminiscent of a calendar. J uses the numeric theme of 7 and 40.
  • Stylistically, P reads like the work of a scribe. J reads like an epic saga, like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Epistemic Status

I am not a philologist. I did not make this argument. What do the experts think?

The multiple authorship solution to the story of Noah (H2)  is the consensus of modern academia. It is not a contentious issue.

That this consensus is not public knowledge to those who would like to know is a rather interesting cultural failure mode.

Parting Thoughts

I hope that learning about the two authors of Noah elicited an “aha moment” from you. A few parting thoughts:

  • The debates surrounding apparent contradictions in the Bible would be more useful if they incorporated source criticism results like these.
  • It seems long overdue for resources like BibleGateway to offer different versions of authorship highlighting, just as they do for translation options.
  • Which narrative did the Noah movie borrow from the most, and will the OTHER STORY also land a blockbuster hit? 😉

Next time, I will be immersing this example of multiple authorship inference within the context of the Documentary Hypothesis and the modern atmosphere of Biblical studies. See you then!


During the construction of this article, I drew from this textbook and this UPenn resource.