Comparing the Two Flood Stories of Genesis

There are two separate flood stories in the book of Genesis that differ in important ways, notably in their depiction of God and in the finer details. The book of Genesis, based on studies of its grammar, style, and content, is considered a composite of three literary sources: Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), and the Priestly (P) sources. These sources were carefully combined by one or more editors to produce the book we have now. Two sources, P and J, are relevant to the two Flood stories of Genesis 6-9.

Looking close enough, one notices slightly different perspectives on why God caused the Flood. According to the Jahwist (J) source,

“Yahweh saw how great was the evil of man on the earth, for every design of their hearts was only evil all day long. Yahweh regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was pained. Yahweh said, “I shall wipe out man, [whom I created,] from the face of the soil, [from man to land animals to crawling creatures to the birds of heaven,] for I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor in Yahweh’s eyes” (Gen. 6:5-8).

According to the Priestly (P) source,

“These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a man of virtue, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was ruined before God, for the earth was filled with violence. God saw the earth, and behold, it was ruined, for all flesh had ruined its way on earth. God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I shall soon ruin them on the earth” (Gen. 6:9-13).

Laying J and P side-by-side, similarities do emerge; for example, God perceives that things on Earth have gone horribly wrong (1). In both accounts, God decides he will destroy humanity and Noah is chosen to be spared and enjoys an exceptional status. But there are also differences. For one, both accounts refer to God by using different names: in the J source God is called “Yahweh”; in P he is referred to by the generic title, “God”. This difference in title reference to God is not limited to the Flood stories. In J, God is called Yahweh from the beginning of creation (Gen. 2:4) and he is worshiped by that name at the time of Enosh (Genesis 4:26). In P, God is called God beginning with creation (Gen. 1:1) until the time of Moses, when God reveals his true name, Yahweh (Ex. 6:2-3).

A further difference is the emotional nature of God in the two accounts (2): In J, God or Yahweh evidences strong emotions; one reads that he “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was pained” (6:6). His heart is pained because human beings, who are the jewel of his creation, have evil in their hearts all day long. Yahweh’s response is to “wipe out man… from the face of the soil” (6:7). It is a decision to end life through decisive destruction but we are then told that Yahweh approves of a specific person called Noah who finds favor in his eyes. Because Noah has found favor, humanity will be saved from total destruction in the Flood. It took one good man to change Yahweh’s heart and he promises never again to destroy all life. In J’s depiction, Yahweh is willing to live with flawed and evil human beings. Indeed this is a somewhat dark view of humanity, which is further confirmed given that even Noah is flawed (9:21).

There is a contrast in P where God is portrayed without emotion or regret (3). He is an utterly transcendent God who is not focused on the human heart but on the harmonious order of the cosmos. We read that God sees the ruined earth: “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” (6:11-12). 

God’s concern is with the cosmic condition caused by this corruption. There is also a lack of an emotional response that is found in J. The Earth is filled with violence because of humanity and this leads the transcendent God to announce a consequence: “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” (6:13). Because humanity has ruined the Earth, God will ruin humanity. The image here is not one of a God of regret or wrath but of one who levelheadedly repairs the broken structure of the cosmos. God essentially decides to reduce the cosmos in which humanity exists to what it was before creation, that of a watery chaos. Yet in P’s account, Noah also saves the day for humanity because he is “blameless among the people of his time” (6:9) and is saved by God.

The God of J is one that has the human traits of anger, regret, compassion, and delight; the God of P is a transcendental, cosmic deity. When these two cosmological images are meshed together, one finds Genesis presenting a multifaceted picture of reality.

References

1. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. “The Genesis of Genesis.” In The Book of “Genesis”: A Biography, edited by Ronald Hendel, 14-44. Princeton University Press. p. 20.

2. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. Ibid. p. 22.

3. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. Ibid. p. 23.

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