Noah's Covenant

The historical background

The Sumerian myth of creation and a great flood is called Eridu Genesis which is partially dated to c.2300 BC in its written form and is thought to be from an older oral tradition. It influenced the Egytian flood story known as the Book of the Heavenly Cow c. 2181-2040 BC. and also The Epic of Gilgamesh c. 2150-1400 BC, the Atrahasis, a 17th century BC Akkadian/Babylonian tale of deluge,  and the Genesis Noah narrative c. 1450 BC.

Babylonian cosmology (like Egyptian cosmology) believed in a world-destroying flood and a transparent firmament in the sky. These ideas go back in the writings of the Babylonian conquerors to The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE). The flood episode in Gen 9-11 is based on this previous babylonian tale.

The story of a worldwide flood was first challenged by Sir Leonard Wooley (1880-1960) who excavated the ruins of ancient Ur. He tested the historical flooding in the regiĆ³n and  conlcuded that there had been many local floodings in the area when the Tigris and Euphrates rivers overflowed their banks but that it was localised, not global.

Scholars nowadays suggest that a flood story captured the imagination of an ancient audience and was trasmitted through the trade routes, each time adapting to the visions of the particuoar culture. This then came to be written down in different versions. Wooley's hypothesis that the story came from river flooding, however, gives a pragmatic basis to this story.

To understand the Noahic narrative it is possible to compare it with the babylonian Atrahasis account, which comes from the older Sumerian Eridu, since the hebrew writers and their later editors were influenced by babylonian mythology.

In Atrahasis the god Enlil floods the world to stop noise and control over-population; Yahweh sends a flood to punish humanity for sin and to recreate the cosmos. The god Enlil tells Atrahasis to build an ark; Yahweh tells Noah the same. Both heroes survive the deluge and offer sacrifice. Both gods smell the sacrifice and bless creation. Both Enki and Yahweh are reconciled to humanity. Human lives are limited in both narratives. A sign of the gods' goodwill is the godess Nintu's fly necklace and Yahweh's rainbow. The hebrew narrative is definitively monotheistic compared to the plurality of the babylonian account. Contrary to the dear of over-population in Atrahasis Genesis has YAHW encourage Noah and his descendents to increase and multiply.

The Biblical Text (Genesis 6-11)

The flood story is a compilation between two narratives by J and P. This explains the constant repetition of different data such as God twice recognising human depravity, twice announcing the flood, twice ordering Noah to enter the Ark, Noah obeys twice, and at least six more. Discrepencies in the narrative also underline the compilation theory: animals are in pairs; then one clean and one unclean pair, the flood is caused by rain; then caused by rain (J) and the primordial sea (P), P has the flood begin Springtime; J says it starts with winter rain. In J the rain lasts for 40 days and nights; in P the storm is 150 days. The P tradition has been used more than J as it was more theologically explicit.

The babylonian flood story was amoral. The gods acted from caprice and the man saved was a pawn in divine rivalries. The gods are frightened by the catastrophe of the flood. Whe they smell the sacrifice they are vexed to learn that some of mankind have survived. They wrangle before concluding that the survivor must become a god. The hebrew account portrays YAHW as just and merciful in dealing with a sinful mankind. The biblical story is a counterpoint to the babylonian Atrahasis account.


God is revealed as Creator since this is the second creation story in Genesis. YAHW is also the redeemer who saves Noah and his family from destruction. The Hebrew God is revealed as a Judge who will punish those who break the covenant.

New Covenant

There were rules for this new pact:
- it is a universal covenant (9/9..)
- no consumtion of blood
- no shedding of blood (murder)
- be fruitful and multiply
- the sign was the rainbow


The building of the tower of Babel (= Babylon). Historically this is a reference to the ziggurat tower in Babylon which was interpreted as a human affront to YAHW.


Languages were confused and the tribes were dispersed.


 In 9/8... after the deluge YAHW promises no more universal destruction as part of the new Covenant.

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