Narrative Art in the Noah Story
Jared Pfost was a senior in ancient Near Eastern studies when this paper was presented.
The last few decades have seen the emergence and eventually the mainstream acceptance of “literary” studies in the wider field of biblical studies. Evidence of this can be found in the large quantity of books and journal articles that have been published on the narrative art of biblical prose stories in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Most of the attention in these works goes to stories in Genesis, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, Jonah, Ruth, Daniel, and Esther. Within the book of Genesis, the cycles of narratives about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph have of course been abundantly analyzed, as have the primeval accounts of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babel.
A glaring omission from this list is the important story of Noah and his family in Genesis 6–9. Because of a wealth of comparative evidence for the Flood story from the ancient world, many scholarly discussions of the biblical Flood story center on its similarities and differences with these other narratives, particularly those from Mesopotamia. Other scholars have focused on the theological implications of the Flood, usually in the context of Jewish or Christian belief. However, to my knowledge, no one has conducted a narrative analysis of the entire Noah story, although smaller pieces of the story have of course been examined from a literary perspective. The purpose of the present study is to attempt an analysis of the biblical Noah narrative by applying current literary techniques in order to gain a greater understanding of that narrative as a whole. Due to the brevity of this essay, this will be accomplished primarily by analyzing the story’s characters, with necessary recourse to analysis of plot, theme, point of view, and linguistic structure for elucidation.
Before moving on to the analysis, it is first necessary to define the parameters of this study. The primary text will be Genesis 6:5–9:17, although connections with other parts of the primeval history (Genesis 1–11) will offer important contextual insights. Latter-day Saints enjoy the benefit of having Moses 7–8 to expound on and clarify several points that are unclear or missing from the biblical text. Information from the Book of Moses will also be brought forth when it is relevant. Considering the importance of Noah and the Flood in the Bible, it is somewhat surprising that they do not attract more attention in the canon, receiving relatively few scattered references throughout the standard works (see Isaiah 54:9; Ezekiel 14:14, 20; Matthew 24:37–38; Luke 3:36, 17:26–27; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 11:7; Ether 13:2; and D&C 107:52). These references are not of particular relevance to this study and thus will not be analyzed.
According to Adele Berlin, there are three main categories of characters in biblical narrative: “(1) the agent, about whom nothing is known except what is necessary for the plot; the agent is a function of the plot or part of the setting; (2) the type, who has a limited and stereotyped range of traits, and who represents the class of people with these traits; (3) the character, who has a broader range of traits . . . and about whom we know more than is necessary for the plot.” These three categories can be easily applied to the Flood narrative because all three categories of characters are represented. Noah’s family members are agents, Noah is a type, and God is a character. I will analyze each category of character while of course giving special attention to Noah and God for their larger roles in the plot.
Noah’s family members. Noah’s family members are agents because they play no real part in the action of the plot; they are objects but never subjects. For the most part they simply follow Noah’s lead. However, it is worth noting that, in an indirect way, Noah’s family does play a necessary role in the plot. Five times the text mentions Noah’s wife, sons, and daughters-in-law (see 6:18; 7:7, 13; 8:16, 18). This repetition is likely significant, because such repetition often reveals important themes. In this case, the text constantly pairs not only its human characters (Noah’s family) but also animals in the binary relationship of male and female (references to male-female pairs of animals occur in 6:19, 20; 7:2, 3, 9, 15–16). The text thus places emphasis on the importance of males and females of all species, most importantly humans, for the proper functioning of the earth. This becomes even more important when the earth must be repopulated after the Flood. While God established his covenant only with Noah before the Flood (see 6:18), after the Flood he establishes it with Noah and his sons (see 9:1, 8–9) and finally extends it to all living things (see 9:10, 12, 15–17). Without Noah’s family, without males and females to procreate, the earth could not have been repopulated, and God’s purpose in sending the Flood in the first place would have been frustrated.
Noah. Because of the complexity in assessing God’s characteristics and motivations in the story, I will discuss the Noah character first. According to the classification above, Noah is a type character. A primary reason for this is revealed by a careful reading that immediately uncovers something shocking: Noah never speaks in the entire pericope! This is shocking because nearly every major character in Hebrew narratives has direct quotation attributed to him or her. This also violates the typical conventions of Hebrew narrative. For example, Robert Alter notes that biblical narrative often introduces the speech of one character and then, after the recorded speech, notes that the same character speaks again without allowing the other character to participate in the dialogue. An example of this is in 9:1–17, where the entire unit consists of God speaking to Noah. God’s direct speech is introduced three times (vv. 1, 12, 17) but without any accompanying response by Noah. When this narrative technique is used it is often because the silent character is either confused or astonished, and “dozens of such instances offer persuasive evidence that this was a clearly recognized convention.” Curiously, it appears that this is not the case with Noah. He never seems confused or baffled; he simply does exactly as his deity commands. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for the author of the account to allow him a response, but such never occurs. Why should the convention be altered here? Would it not be reasonable to assume that Noah’s silence reveals something significant about him as a character?
I suggest that the author of the account deliberately refused Noah any direct speech to make a point: God is in charge, not humankind. The text explicitly states twice that Noah promptly obeyed God’s commands: “And Noah did according to all that God commanded him” (6:22); “And Noah did according to all that Yahweh had commanded him” (7:5). Thus, a primary reason why Noah was the one whom God chose to save was because of his silent, submissive obedience. The God who greatly influences the flow of history could not entrust the important mission of repopulating the earth to someone who was not worthy of it. Noah’s character type, then, is that of the ideal servant. The text reinforces multiple times that Noah indeed was worthy to be such a servant: “And Noah found grace in the eyes of Yahweh” (6:8) because he “was a completely righteous man in his generations” and he “walked with God” (6:9). While the biblical text does not explain what Noah did to become so favored, the Moses account clarifies by saying that “Noah prophesied, and taught the things of God” (Moses 8:16) and “called upon the children of men that they should repent” (Moses 8:20). Appropriately, the Moses account also portrays Noah mostly as a silent servant, but it does accord Noah, the preacher of righteousness, one very fitting speech: “Believe and repent of your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, even as our fathers, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost, that ye may have all things made manifest; and if ye do not this, the floods will come in upon you” (Moses 8:24). Ultimately, Noah’s almost complete silence in the scriptural record attests to his willing and humble submission to God’s will. He didn’t ask questions—he just obeyed. He was the ideal servant.
In addition to revealing the upright character of Noah, a literary analysis also demonstrates the importance of Noah’s name to his character and function in the Flood story. Noah’s name (נֹחַ in Hebrew) almost certainly comes from the verbal root נוח (n-w-h), meaning “to rest.” Thus Noah’s name simply means “rest.” Not so coincidentally, the biblical text implies even before the Flood that Noah would indeed be a major component in bringing some kind of rest or relief to the earth. Noah’s father, Lamech, explained the name in this way: “This [one] will relieve [נחם, n-h-m] us from our work [מעשׂה, ma’aseh] and the pain [עצבון, itsavon] of our hands from the ground which Yahweh has cursed” (5:29). The author makes somewhat of a stretch hereby relating the etymology of Noah’s name to the verb נחם (n-h-m, “to be sorry, comfort, relieve, have compassion, repent”) instead of נוח (n-w-h), thus causing some biblical scholars to amend the verb to נוח (n-w-h) to create a better pun. However, it seems that this choice by the author was deliberate when 6:6 is taken into consideration: “And Yahweh regretted [נחם, n-h-m] that he had made [עשׂה, ‘-s-h] man in the earth, and he was pained [עצב, ‘-ts-b] to his heart.” The same three Hebrew roots appear in the same order in both verses while playing especially effectively on the different meanings of נחם (n-h-m). This is an ironic wordplay showing that Lamech’s “hopes for consolation by Noah correspond to the creator’s disappointment with his creation.” In other words, Noah’s charge from his father to relieve humankind of the curse on the ground could only be accomplished by doing something that would remove God’s regret (נחם, n-h-m) that he had created humankind.
Further wordplays on the root of Noah’s name provide a clue to how Noah would help appease God. Wordplays on נוח (n-w-h) are prevalent in chapter 8, the chapter where the Flood concludes and God determines to never again curse the ground because of humankind. In 8:4, the ark came to “rest” (נוח, n-w-h) on the mountains of Ararat. In 8:9, the dove could not find a “resting-place” (מַנוֹחַ, manoah). Finally, in 8:21, Yahweh smelled the “restful” (נִחוֹחַ, nihoah) scent of Noah’s sacrifice. This last wordplay is especially significant because immediately afterward God said, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the imagination of the heart of man is evil from his youth, nor will I again smite every living thing as I have done” (8:21). Even though God recognized that humankind was still evil (see below for a detailed discussion), God’s anger was placated and he promised to never destroy the earth completely again. Thus a close reading of the biblical text demonstrates that Noah did indeed live up to the name his father had given him because the “restful” (נִחוֹחַ, nihoah) scent of his sacrifice pacified God and, at least for a time, brought rest to the earth. So although Noah is portrayed as a type character in the Flood story, it turns out that “the real transformation in the story is made by him.”
A final note from the Book of Moses confirms this reading of Noah’s role in bringing rest to the earth. Moses 8:9 is nearly a verbatim quotation of the King James Version translation of 5:29, which as we have seen shows that through Noah, the earth could hope for rest and relief from the pollution of wickedness and God’s curse on the ground. Further, Moses 7 portrays Enoch as he is receiving a vision about the future of the earth. Enoch sees the wickedness of the earth in the days of Noah and says that he “will refuse to be comforted” (Moses 7:44), hearkening to Noah’s role as the one “who will comfort us” (Moses 8:9). Then the earth itself asks when it shall rest (Moses 7:48), followed by Enoch twice asking when the earth would rest (Moses 7:54, 58). Finally, the Lord then twice says that the earth would rest (Moses 7:61, 64). While Noah would bring rest to the earth for a time, the Moses account takes the ultimate point even further than the biblical account by making it clear that it is through Christ, who would come through the lineage of Noah, that the earth will eventually rest forever.
God. God is undoubtedly the main character in the Flood story and also the most complex. This complexity is sometimes glossed over because “from a faith position, Jewish or Christian, there are powerful traditional reasons to read for a positively construed, flat character.” Indeed, many traditional treatments of the character of God in the Flood narrative emphasize a one-dimensional view where his sense of justice is the only motivation for sending the Flood. This is basically how the Moses account portrays him. He sends the Flood because wicked humanity would not repent despite the preaching of the righteous Noah. However, upon a close reading, the biblical account is not as clear-cut, nor does it have to be. God is a multi-faceted character with motivations, purposes, and methods that can all be reasonably questioned without sacrificing faith in the ultimate message of the story. Close attention to literary structure, language play, and context all help to reveal why God would resort to destroying all of his creations with a flood.
The first things to be examined are literary clues to God’s motivation for sending the Flood and whether that motivation warrants the destruction of everything on the earth. While the biblical text is clear about God’s displeasure with humanity, the terms it uses to describe humanity’s offenses, רַע (ra’) “evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity” and חָמָס (hamas) “violence, wrong,” are ambiguous. The latter term in particular eludes clear definition. Speiser translates it as “lawlessness,” saying that it is “a technical legal term which should not be automatically reproduced as ‘violence.’” Wenham states that it “denotes any antisocial, unneighborly activity.” Frymer-Kensky notes that it “has a wide range of meanings” and “encompasses almost the entire spectrum of evil.” Clearly, humanity was doing some abhorrent things, but what things exactly? Other parts of the Hebrew Bible list specific transgressions as evidence for why God’s people were being punished, so why is this not done here?
The answer may lie in the episode that immediately precedes the Flood, the enigmatic tale of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men (6:1–4). There are far more interpretations about these four verses than I have space to detail here. The most important thing to understand is that many commentators, based on an understanding of the Hebrew language and ancient context, believe that the “sons of God” (6:2, 4) refer to some kind of divine beings (see the usage of “sons of God” in Psalms 29:1; 89:7; Job 1:6; 2:1). Such a mixture of the sons of God with the daughters of mortals, in whatever way one wishes to interpret it, violates God’s natural order of having everything reproduce “according to its own kind” (1:11–12, 21, 24–25). The mixed-breed “heroes who were from ancient times, men of renown” (6:4) produced by the divine-human relationships breached the dividing line between the human and divine realms. The likelihood that this is at least part of the reason for God’s displeasure with humankind is that the verse immediately following states, “Yahweh saw that great was the wickedness (רַע, ra’) of humankind in the earth” (6:5). Contextually, it is thus possible that one of the evils of humankind that caused God such anger was the unsanctioned union of the human with the divine.
This, however, cannot be the conclusion of the matter. It is difficult to interpret Genesis 6:1–4 to mean that everyone on earth had been involved in the “sons of God” issue. In 6:12 God saw that “all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth” (emphasis added). Apparently everyone on earth (with the exception of Noah and his family) had displeased God to the point that he determined to “destroy them” (6:13) from the earth. A linguistic clue provides insight into why humankind became so odious to its creator. When God created Adam in 2:7 he “formed [יצר, y-ts-r] the man from the dirt of the ground.” The verb יצר (y-ts-r) means “to form or fashion” as a potter would mold the items of his creation (see Isaiah 29:16; Jeremiah 18:4, 6). To use this verb to describe the creation of man portrays God as a very hands-on creator who would have to show great care to mold his creation perfectly. Compare this to 6:5, where Yahweh observes of man that “every imagination [יֵצֶר, yetser] of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continually.” The word יֵצֶר (yetser) is a noun form from the verb יצר (y-ts-r) and can literally be translated as “something formed or fashioned.” The juxtaposition between the picture of God carefully forming Adam and, conversely, humankind forming nothing but evil things all of the time is striking. It is no wonder God was so angry: his forming of humanity had backfired and he now had to deal with the problems that his creations had themselves formed. From God’s own perspective, there was certainly plenty of justification for wiping out his creations and starting anew.
After deciding to destroy humankind and having given Noah instructions on how to build the ark, God essentially disappears from the narrative from 7:5–24 except for his act of shutting Noah and all of his cargo in the ark (7:16). The perspective distinctly shifts from God to everyone else as the boarding of the ark, the rising of the floodwaters, and the destruction of everything on earth are described. It seems that God simply gave his instructions to Noah, set the Flood in motion, and then left the scene. This is significant because God reappears in 8:1 with a curious comment from the narrator, “And God remembered Noah.” Had God forgotten about Noah? Can God forget? Most of chapter 7 certainly seems to imply that God had detached himself from the events of the Deluge. The narrator easily could have made God the subject of all of the verbs describing the sending forth of the floodwaters, but such is not the case. This is even more striking when it is seen that, after God initiates the subsiding of the waters in 8:1 (“God caused a wind to pass over the earth and the waters subsided”), he again disappears from the scene from 8:2–14. During this time the focus shifts back to the earth (the waters recede off the earth) and to Noah (who determines the progress of the waters by dispatching several birds). God’s seeming disappearance in large parts of chapters 7–8 is surprising considering that he is front and center in most of chapters 6 and 9. The following chiastic structure demonstrates the structure of the Flood story in regards to who is at the focus of the narrative:
a 6:5–7:4 God (inner thoughts decry human wickedness, instructions to Noah)
b 7:5–7:24 Noah, the earth, and its inhabitants (preparations for Flood, Flood destroys)
c 8:1 God briefly returns (remembers Noah, recalls the floodwaters)
b 8:2–14 Noah, the earth, and its inhabitants (Flood abates, earth becomes inhabitable)
a 8:15–9:17 God (assuaged by Noah’s sacrifice, rules out future floods, details the covenant)
What is the purpose of this structure? What is the significance of removing God as the focus during the coming and the going of the Deluge? I suggest that the narrator, despite having demonstrated that God was fully justified in wiping out all of humanity, still wanted to disassociate God from the actual act of destruction. This suggests that God did not want to destroy all of his creations, creations that he had referred to as being “very good” (1:31), but their wickedness and degeneracy forced his hand. The one exception to the chiastic structure above, 7:16, portrays God shutting Noah into the ark. This can be interpreted as God making certain that the ark was shut tight so that its precious inhabitants would be kept safe and be able to begin human and animal life anew upon the earth after the Flood. Certainly this reveals God’s apparent ultimate desire to save humanity. So while the necessary procedure required God to eliminate the undesirable to save the good, the narrator does not explicitly link God with the destruction during the actual unleashing of the Flood in order to emphasize God’s care for humanity.
Finally, the question has to be addressed of why, in 8:21, God seems to contradict himself: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the imagination [יֵצֶר, yetser] of the heart of man is evil [רַע, ra’] from his youth, nor will I again smite every living thing as I have done.” This is quite a puzzling statement because God seems to change his mind twice within only a single verse! Notice that God’s initial problem with humanity in 6:5 has not changed: the “formed thing” (יֵצֶר, yetser) of man is still evil (רַע, ra’) starting from his youth onward. The Flood did not fundamentally change the nature of humankind, so why would God promise to never send a flood again?
The immediate context, as noted above, suggests that Noah’s sacrifice (8:20) helped convince God to rescind his anger. Whether the sacrifice is the full explanation for God’s appeasement is difficult to ascertain, but what is certain is that God made a substitution in his attempts to control the evil inclinations of humanity: “God must do something if he does not want to destroy the earth repeatedly. This something is to create laws for mankind, laws to ensure that matters do not again reach such a state that the world must be destroyed.” In chapter 9, God institutes laws concerning the replenishing of the earth (see vv. 1, 7), the prohibition of eating the blood of animals (see vv. 3–4), and capital punishment (see vv. 5–6). The final law is particularly of note in this context because humans would now enforce the punishment for defiling the earth with the blood of the slain (see 4:10–11, 23–24) among themselves, eliminating the need for God to do it himself: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God he made man” (9:6). By beginning and ending 9:6 with the same verb (שׁפך [sh-f-kh]—“to shed [blood]”) the text drives home the point that anyone who begins by shedding blood will, in the end, have his own blood shed. Each of the new laws ultimately emphasizes how sacred life is to God, particularly human life, which was created “in the image of God” (1:26–27; 5:1; 9:6). At no point in the Flood story does God try to convince himself that humans will put an end to their evil ways, but he does try different methods of helping them be righteous.
Finally, as a vivid gesture of God’s change in tactics he places the rainbow, the symbol of his new covenant with humankind, in the sky. The word for rainbow (קֶשֶׁת, qeshet) is also the same word used in the Hebrew Bible for a bow of war. Thus God’s placing of the bow in the sky, pointed upward, is a “radical reinterpretation of divine power [where] the bow ceases to function as a symbol of combat and is now a symbol of peace and well-being. Its placement in the clouds points to the cessation of God’s hostilities against mankind.” The rainbow would serve to remind both God and humankind of the covenant that had been made in which God promised to never again destroy the earth by flood and humanity promised to keep God’s newly instituted laws.
This essay has been merely a sampling of the narrative art in the Noah story. Much more has been said and could yet be said about the literary aspects of this important narrative. The rich complexity of characters, plot, themes, literary structure, and language play make it quite surprising that this pericope has escaped the extensive attention of specialists in biblical narrative. I have analyzed the role of the Noah character and demonstrated that several wordplays on his name intimately connect him to the theme of rest/relief. I have also examined the motivations, purposes, and methods of the God character and shown that, while his character is not as straightforward as some try to make it seem, a literary analysis proves that his ultimate goal was to preserve his creations despite their best efforts to spoil his perfect design. These characters are just as complex and fascinating as any in biblical narrative, and a deeper knowledge of them serves to improve our understanding of the Flood story as a whole.
See, for example, Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992); Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994); J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Leiderdorp, Netherlands: Deo Publishing, 1990); David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985); Yairah Amit, Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, trans. Yael Lotan (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001); and Jerome T. Walsh, Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
The primary surviving versions from Mesopotamia of the Flood are the so-called Eridu Genesis (Sumerian Flood Story), the Atrahasis Epic, and Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The literature on the relationship of the biblical Flood story to the Mesopotamian Flood stories is voluminous. For the best summaries of these issues, see Alexander Heidel, The Epic of Gilgamesh and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 224–69; Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1–9,” BA 40 (1977): 147–55; David Toshio Tsumura, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction,” in “I Studied Inscriptions before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1–11, ed. Richard Hess and David Toshio Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 27–57; Edward Noort, “The Stories of the Great Flood: Notes on Gen. 6:5–9:17 in Its Context of the Ancient Near East,” in Interpretations of the Flood, ed. Florentino Garcia Martinez and Gerard P. Luttikhuizen (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 1–38; Gary A. Rendsburg, “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgames Flood Account,” in Gilgames and the World of Assyria, ed. Joseph Azize and Noel Weeks (Leeuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2007), 115–27; Hermann-Josef Stipp, “Who Is Responsible for the Deluge? Changing Outlooks in the Ancient Near East and the Bible,” in “From Ebla to Stellenbosch”: Syro-Palestinian Religions in the Bible, ed. Izak Cornelius and Louis C. Jonker (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2008), 141–53; and Hans Ulrich Steyman, “Gilgamesh und Genesis 1–9,” BZ 54 (2010): 201–28.
See, for example, James Montgomery Boice, Genesis Volume I: Creation and Fall Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 312–93; David Clines, “Noah’s Flood I: The Theology of the Flood Narrative,” Faith and Thought 100 (1972–3): 128–42; and Robert W. E. Forrest, “Paradise Lost Again: Violence and Obedience in the Flood Narrative,” JSOT 19 (1994): 3–18. Also see the relevant sections in commentaries such as Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990); Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972); Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001); Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984); and Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987).
Mostly from the scholars whose works are listed in note 1.
Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation, 32.
All scripture references in this paper are from Genesis unless specifically noted otherwise.
This fact takes on even more significance when it is observed that Atrahasis and Utnapishtim, the heroes of the Akkadian flood stories, have direct speech attributed to them in their flood pericopes.
Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 98.
All translations from Hebrew are mine unless otherwise noted. I have chosen to translate the divine name יהוה (“Yahweh”) literally instead of substituting “Lord” for the personal name of the God of Israel. In accordance with tradition, I translate the divine title אֱלֹהִים (“Elohim”) simply as “God.”
Classical source critics would of course assign these two very similar statements to different sources, P (Priestly) and J (Jahwist). Because this essay is a synchronic study, there is no need to worry about source divisions. The literary merit of the final form of the text is not in question.
This verse contains a wordplay with Noah (נֹחַ) finding “grace” (חֵן). See Jack Sasson, “Word Play in Gen. 6:8–9,” CBQ 37 (1975): 165.
Genesis 7:1 also states that Noah was “righteous” (צֶדֶק).
The lack of context for Noah’s election as the Flood hero in the biblical text has led non-LDS scholars to a number of conclusions that diverge from LDS understanding of Noah. Barnard argues that Noah represents the typical man rather than the exceptional one and states that the text is wholly unclear about why Noah had received such favor. See A. N. Barnard, “Was Noah a Righteous Man?,” Theology 74 (1971): 311–14. Clark posits that both the Priestly (P) source of the biblical Flood narrative and the Mesopotamian Flood texts presuppose the prior righteousness of the Flood hero as a condition of his salvation. In his opinion, however, the Jahwist (J) source views Noah’s righteousness as a condition of his election. See W. M. Clark, “The Righteousness of Noah,” VT 21 (1971): 262. Later Jewish and Christian tradition clearly came to see Noah as a very righteous man who was saved because of his righteousness. See Ezekiel 14:14, 20; Hebrews 11:7; and 2 Peter 2:5. Also Jack P. Lewis, “Noah and the Flood in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Tradition,” BA 47 (1984): 224–39.
It is worth noting that Noah does speak in the episode after the Flood, but it comes in a negative context where Noah curses his son Ham for uncovering his nakedness (9:21–25). Not until things went wrong did Noah finally speak, thus further confirming my reading of Noah’s silence as an essential aspect of his character type of the ideal silent servant in the Flood pericope.
The transliteration style in this paper follows that of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) general purpose style. Only the trilateral root for each verb is given while vowels are included with nouns and adjectives.
The etymology of Noah’s name is not completely certain. See Lewis, “Noah and the Flood,” 225, for alternate explanations.
Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1907), 636–37.
Lewis, “Noah and the Flood,” 225.
 נחם is a complex word with many different and even opposite meanings. For a more thorough analysis, see Ellen Van Wolde, “A Text–Semantic Study of the Hebrew Bible, Illustrated with Noah and Job,” JBL 113 (1994): 23–26.
Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 144.
The curse on the ground could refer either to 3:17, where God cursed the ground for Adam’s sake, or to 4:10–11, where the blood of the slain Abel caused God to curse the ground again.
Most translators will render this word as “pleasing, soothing, tranquilizing,” or the like. However, the translation “restful” seems reasonable here not only to emphasize the theme of “rest” but also because it is a natural synonym to the usual translations.
Van Wolde, “A Text–Semantic Study,” 26.
Gunn and Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, 85.
Surprisingly, the text in Moses seems to suggest that God decided to send the Flood because of Noah’s disdain for humanity’s sins: “I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth . . . for it repenteth Noah that I have created them, and that I have made them; and he hath called upon me; for they have sought his life” (Moses 8:26).
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 948.
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 329.
E. A. Speiser, Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 51.
Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 171.
Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic,” 153.
See, for example, Deuteronomy 32:15–18.
The literature on the subject is voluminous. For the most recent views, see Helga S. Kvanvig, “Gen 6,1–4 as an Antediluvian Event,” SJOT 16 (2002): 79–112; R. Gilboa, “Who ‘Fell Down’ to Our Earth? A Different Light on Genesis 6:1–4,” BN 11 (2002): 66–75; Horst Seebass, “Die Gottessohne und das Menschliche Mass: Gen 6, 1–4,” BN 134 (2007): 5–22; Sven Fockner, “Reopening the Discussion: Another Contextual Look at the Sons of God,” JSOT 32 (2008): 435–56; Walter Buhrer, “Gottersohne und Menschentochter: Gen 6,1–4 als innerbiblische Schriftauslegung,” ZAW 123 (2011): 495–515; and John Day, “The Sons of God and Daughters of Men and the Giants: Disputed Points in the Interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4,” HeBAI 1 (2012): 427–47; and the commentaries, especially Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Commentary, 363–83.
This can also be translated as “sons of the gods” because the Hebrew אֱלֹהִים can refer either to God or to multiple divine beings.
The Moses account poses more questions about the nature of the “sons of God” than it provides answers. Noah and his sons are referred to as “sons of God” (Moses 8:13) because of their obedience to the Lord. The men who took mortal daughters to wife are referred to by the narrator as the “sons of men” (Moses 8:14–15), thus effectively demythologizing the Genesis account. However, Moses 8:21 contains the words of people who Noah was preaching to where they called themselves the “sons of God” who had taken unto themselves the “daughters of men.” Perhaps this is an issue of perception. The wicked men of the earth considered themselves to be the “sons of God,” whereas the narrator viewed righteous Noah and his sons as the “sons of God.” The terminology of the Moses account does not lead to any certain conclusions.
Such half-mortal, half-divine beings (often called demigods) commonly appear in ancient Near Eastern and Greek mythology. Gilgamesh and Herakles are well-known examples.
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 427.
Incidentally, the Moses account ends with God’s firm determination to destroy humanity. The Lord must have considered the biblical account of the actual Flood and its aftermath to be sufficiently clear in the biblical text.
By displaying a chiastic structure of the entire Flood story, some commentators see 8:1 as the climax of the episode. They view God’s remembrance of Noah, whose ship contains all remaining livings things, as the turning point of God’s anger with humanity. From this point on everything is about re-creation, not destruction. See Bernard W. Anderson, “From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1–11,” JBL 97 (1978): 38.
The text uses several niphal (passive) verbs to deemphasize a specific instigator. For example, 7:11 states that “all the headwaters of the great deep were broken up and the windows of the heavens were opened.”
Many commentators have noted that one of the primary themes of the primeval history is the creation, un-creation, and re-creation of the earth. This observation is extremely well founded because the very same words are used in almost all instances to describe both the creation and the re-creation. See Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, 128–29.
Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic,” 151.
This law of capital punishment of course points to Christ: “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:11–12).
J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 34–35.
Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1–17, 317. Ancient Near Eastern deities are often iconographically represented with bows, and the God of Israel is often portrayed as a divine warrior in the Hebrew Bible. Thus this symbol of nonaggression is quite appropriate in its cultural context.