A Secret In The Ark

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

noah-ark

Context

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!

Welcome back. Keep that tab open. Your “test” begins now!

Quiz Time

How many animals were brought onto the ark?

Take some time to formulate your own answer.

Do these verses help?

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.  Compressing these verses makes comparison more straightforward:

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

Now, if you go Google-fishing for “Bible contradictions”, most of your results will reside at a quality bar similar to Youtube comments. Fortunately, we don’t have to dredge through the mud. Our point here is pre-controversial: there exists a tension in the narrative; a wound that some seek to heal, others to excise. That tension explains the controversy.

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.

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 goes like this: such a move feels presumptuous. Narratives were constructed in a cultural context, and translating from a modern context to this “distant umwelt” is non-trivial. (Be careful, though: be wary of ignorance becoming a fully general counterargument).

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?

To be honest, I had read this story dozens of times in my life, and had not once hit on what I am about to show you.  (If only I was able to view texts from the eyes of an expert!)

Highlighters Out!

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 successfully clone myself, and my clone participates in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If I were to publish my novel to this blog, do you think you’d be able to perform the above highlighting trick? Could you carve my novel into two pieces, and preserve the macrostructure and coherence of both halves?  Most likely not, which points to the impressive nature of the trick we just pulled.

Let us name our hypotheses:

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

The process conceived of by H2 is 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. Please read the following text from start to finish, because, again, be a “test”! 😉

Evaluating The Evidence

Like good little Bayesians, we have H1 and H2 floating around in our mental apparatus.  Let us now update these two “hypothesis bars”.

Keeping the last excerpt open for easy reference, let us now revisit our “quiz” in light of H2.

Q: 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.

Amusing aside: 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). Conclusion: no more need to worry about burnt offerings causing extinctions! 🙂

Q: 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.

Q: How would you rate the narrative flow?

You’ve read the before and after… it’s a lot better!

There is a counter-argument here, though, that I should not neglect. Perhaps the biggest reason we like H2  is simply in virtue of their length: cut any essay in half, and it becomes more pleasant to read (this article being the one exception! :P) This counter-argument has some weight… but does it strike you as more convincing than the removal of the above redundancies?

Q: 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

In light of the above, it seems reasonable to claim that H2 is more likely to be correct. Do you agree?

One common problem with such agreement-seeking emerges here: your expertise is (probably) not in literature, and you don’t fully trust your ability to evaluate my arguments.

In light of this, a common recourse is authority seeking: to trust in the opinions of the relevant authorities. Are the experts convinced? And here is perhaps the most surprising fact of all:

  • 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. But I probably don’t have the space to address science-culture barriers here.

Parting Thoughts

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

  • Counterfactual history is really fun. I wonder how knowledge of multiple authorship would have affected the canonization debates in the early Christian church.
  • The fight over “contradictions” debates about the Bible might benefit from the following distinction: between-source, and within-source tension. The two “alleged contradictions” we saw today are clearly between-source.
  • 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!

References

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

The Original Noachian Narratives

[Parent Article]

The Jahwist Version

YHWH saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. YHWH regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So YHWH said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.

YHWH then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family,because I have found you righteous in this generation. 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, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that YHWH commanded him. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.  And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. Then YHWH shut him in.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.

Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. 

And the rain had stopped falling from the sky.The water receded steadily from the earthAfter forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

The Priestly Version

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. 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. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.

On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah.

Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

And he sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

The Story Of Noah, With Sources Revealed

[Parent Article]

Genesis 6:5 – 9:17

YHWH saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. YHWH regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So YHWH said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.

This is the account of Noah and his family.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. 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. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

YHWH then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family,because I have found you righteous in this generation. 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, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that YHWH commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then YHWH shut him in.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

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

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky.The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and he sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”