When I started this reading exercise that I call “adventures in comparative mythology,” nearly two years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to achieve was to get readers to be able to read the story of the Flood in the Bible “with fresh eyes.” So let’s imagine someone doing just that — picking up the Bible for the first time and reading this story, much as we have read the flood accounts in the two long, narrative works we’ve already examined, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses.
Let’s give our reader a name — Joe Blow — and an occupation – traveling salesman. Joe spends a lot of times in hotel rooms — cheap hotel rooms, at that, where the TV is often out of order, so he does a lot of reading and thinking. He has read, for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh (better than anything on TV!) and even Ovid’s Metamorphoses (it was free on Kindle). Tonight, Joe checks into his motel and flips through 72 cable channels of nothing, berating himself for leaving his Kindle at home on this trip. After a long day of trying to convince people to buy more widgets, he needs something to read before bedtime. So he rummages around in the bedside table and finds a Gideons’ Bible. He has heard of the Bible, of course, but this is the first time he has cracked the cover on one.
God and Man in Genesis
He flips past the table of contents, the introduction, and all the other boring front matter, looking for the beginning of the story. And there it is – chapter 1, Genesis. The beginning of … everything. When the story starts, there is nothing and no one except God. God speaks and says, “Light!” And there is light, where before there was nothing. Who is God talking to when He speaks? Himself. There isn’t anyone else yet. He is thinking aloud. He is pronouncing facts, which come to be even as He says them.
So speaking things into being — that’s one of God’s super-powers, which He uses to create an orderly – and good – world. Joe knows it’s good because, after He makes each thing, God admires His own work and says, “That’s good.” After He has created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, all sorts of vegetation and animals – all good – He makes a Man and a Woman, and these two are good, as well, made in the very image of God. God is so pleased with them that He gives them all the other good things He has made. It’s all good! So He takes a rest.
Joe figures he’ll go to bed, too. Maybe he’ll read some more tomorrow night, to find out what else God does, after His rest.
The next night, Joe returns to his motel room, flops back onto the bed, and picks up the Bible again. He thought he had marked the place where he left off last night, but when he resumes reading tonight, he has to double check the bookmark, because the next part is the story of creation all over again. This time, when God makes the man, He breathes His own life into him. Then He makes the woman to be the man’s companion. God gives the pair complete freedom in the beautiful world He has made, even though you might expect Him to want to keep it, since it’s so good and beautiful. (Pretty cushy set-up, Joe thinks. They’ll never have to work for a living or sleep on lumpy motel mattresses.)
But they manage to mess things up right away. God warned these two brand-new people that, although they have all of creation to lord over — and it’s all good stuff — eating fruit of one particular tree will make them know not only good but also evil. So, of course, that’s the first thing they do. Pretty stupid move, Joe thinks, but that’s human nature, ain’t it? And who could help but listen to a talking snake, anyway?
It turns out God was not kidding (neither was the snake) when He said that, once they tried the forbidden fruit, the man and woman would know evil as well as good. Bad things start to happen to them — and not just them, but their sons as well. And the next generation, and the next … (Joe knows that every decent story runs on conflict, and suddenly there’s plenty of it). Things get worse and worse until everything gets so bad that God (Joe had kind of forgotten about Him) asks Himself why He ever thought making free human beings was a good idea. The world of man has become a stinking mess, so God decides to cause a great flood that will wash away all the badness …
Joe stops and puts the book down for a minute. This sounds a lot like a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That story also started with a god making the world (although it didn’t really say much about the first man and woman). And later on, there was a god (a different one?) who didn’t like the way human beings were behaving, so he decided to destroy them all with a flood. Hmm, is there some plagiarism going on here?
He reads ahead to see if things turn out the same in this version: sure enough, one man and his wife survive the flood, which wipes out everything else. Unlike Deukalion and Pyrrha in Ovid’s story, though, this man, Noah, is warned ahead of time about the coming flood. God wants Noah to survive, so He tells him how to build a boat that will allow him and his family to live through the flood. So now Noah sounds more like Utnapishtim than Deukalion. God even tells him to put all kinds of animals in the boat, so that they’ll survive, too, just as Ea instructed Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. And, like Utnapishtim, Noah uses birds to find dry land, after the flood waters start to recede.
At this point, Joe wonders if whoever wrote the story of Noah was just creating a mash-up of the other two – there are so many details in common, some like the Gilgamesh story and others like the one in Metamorphoses. But he remembers that the authors of those two flood stories seemed to be getting at different meanings — one was saying that human beings shouldn’t try to be immortal like the gods, and the other emphasized that you’ve got to be tough if you’re going to survive all the trouble that the gods throw at you.
This Bible story doesn’t seem to be saying either of those things. Instead of either sending Noah away into exile, as Enlil did Utnapishtim, or leaving him to figure stuff out on his own, as the gods did in the Metamorphoses, in this story God gives the Earth to Noah, as clean and good as it was in the beginning, and He makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, promising never to flood the Earth that way again. He even gives him a sign to remind them of His promise. That’s something Joe never saw in the other stories — in those, the gods never would have bothered to try to make friends with mortals. And God keeps his promise, even though Noah gets falling-down drunk right after God saves him. (Wasn’t drunken revelry one of the things that convinced God that most of humankind should be washed away?)
A Rocky Friendship
Joe reads on to the end of Genesis, noticing that this covenant God makes with Noah is just one of many. From time to time, things turn bad and God has to clean up another mess, but He keeps His promise about not flooding the Earth again. But no matter how bad people get, God keeps making new covenants with them, and sometimes human characters even make a covenant with each other, as if that’s something they’ve learned from God.
When he gets to the end of Genesis, Joe is still trying to figure out if this story has a hero, or if it’s just one of those generational sagas where, right when you get interested in one character, the next thing you know you’re reading all about his great-great grandson. As he puzzles over this, he realizes it might be both. It’s certainly a human story, but there’s not really any single human protagonist. It’s more as if the whole human race were the protagonist, except that every time one of them starts acting like he’s in charge, God reminds him that they are all secondary characters in the overarching plot — God’s plan for humankind.
In fact, the more he thinks about it, the clearer it becomes to Joe what the big difference is between this story and the other two ancient accounts of a Great Flood. In the others, the gods seemed to regard human beings as insignificant, pests even, whom they try to exterminate by flooding the whole Earth. But in Genesis, God floods the Earth to save the decent people (Noah and his family) from all the filthy behavior of the others. He cleans things up and then puts Noah and his family back in charge — pretty much the way He had done with the first man and woman back at the beginning, when everything was good. Back when God walked with them in the Garden.
Then it hits Joe — this is a story about a friendship. A pretty rocky friendship, where one friend is faithful and forgiving, and the other is pretty fickle, but some friendships are like that. In this story, though, the faithful friend never gives up — no matter how many times the fickle friend acts like a jerk, the faithful one is ready, not only to forgive, but to make new promises of faithful friendship. Joe scratches his head. How realistic is that? Shouldn’t it be the fickle friend who promises to be good in the future, not the good friend? And why would anyone in his right mind keep taking back someone who has ignored him and done him dirt so many times?
Maybe putting up with a lot of bad behavior from His friends is another of God’s super-powers. And the fickle friend? Well, that’s a lot of people, maybe all of them. You might say that the fickle friend is Man with a capital M. But while some individuals in this story seem to be truly rotten, taken altogether humankind is not totally faithless, because they keep trying to get back into God’s good graces, even after they’ve really messed up. This thought reminds Joe of a scene right at the end of Genesis, when Joseph, the son of Jacob, faces his brothers (who had sold him into slavery when he was a youngster). Now that he is an important man, right-hand man to the Pharoah, they are trembling with fear that he will his revenge on them. But he says, “Don’t be afraid. All the evil that you intended, God has used to bring about good. So I won’t hold it against you, either.” Joseph, at least, has learned to be faithful to his brothers, even when they don’t seem to deserve it. So even though he says, “Who am I, God?” he really does seem a little bit like Him. A faithful friend, even when others are fickle.
Joe closes the book for the night. Why didn’t anyone ever tell him that the Bible was a buddy story? Because if the first chapter is anything to go on, that’s exactly what it is.
Next Time: the Flood in the Context of the Whole Bible
We’ll let Joe get some sleep now. Next time, we’ll see if he’s right about this being a buddy story, by examining how the Flood account relates to the meaning of the Bible as a whole. If you’re not as well-read as Joe, you can catch up by reading the earlier part of this series, about the flood stories in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Just click the link below.
This post originally appeared on A Catholic Reader, my literary discussion blog.