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Two Flood Narratives

The flood story in Gen 6–9 appears to consist of at least two distinct traditions that were only later brought together to form a single narrative.


From Michelangelo’s famed depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to nursery room walls where colorful animals file two-by-two onto Noah’s Ark, few stories have left so indelible a mark on the human imagination as the flood narrative found in Gen 6-9. Yet, less well known is that the biblical account seems to be the product of at least two distinct traditions that were subsequently woven together to form a single narrative.

Why are there so many duplicate stories in the Bible?

Scholars have long noted the presence of parallel or repeated stories in the biblical text, including what appear to be two distinct creation accounts (Gen 1 and Gen 2), two descriptions of Abraham’s covenant with God (Gen 15 and Gen 17), two accounts of Jacob’s name change to “Israel” (Gen 32 and Gen 35), and two versions of Moses’s commission to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exod 3 and Gen 6), to name only a few. However, it wasn’t until the modern era that these repetitions—or “doublets” as they are often called— were critically evaluated and determined to represent distinct sources or traditions that were only later brought together to create an epic retelling of Israel’s past.

The flood narrative seems to be no exception. Although currently merged into a single story, different traditions lie behind the biblical account, each with its own unique narrative details and theological perspectives, including distinct divine names. Thus, those passages employing the divine name “God” (Hebrew ‘elohim) present a deity who is transcendent and systematic in carrying out the flood. The precise measurements of the ark (Gen 6:14-15), the age of Noah before and after the flood (Gen 7:11; Gen 8:13), and the recurring references to specific days, months and years (Gen 8:4-5, Gen 8:13-14), all seem to derive from this source. Conversely, those passages employing the divine name “the LORD” (Hebrew YHWH) depict a deity who is intimately involved in the action, including grieving over human wrongdoing (Gen 6:6), regretting having made humankind (Gen 6:7), personally closing the ark as the inundation begins (Gen 7:16), and taking pleasure in Noah’s sacrifice following the flood (Gen 8:21). Other differences include the duration of the flood (“40 days” in Gen 7:17; “150 days” in Gen 7:24), the number of each animal entering the ark (“two of each” in Gen 6:19; “seven pairs of clean” and “one pair of unclean” in Gen 7:2), and the types of birds sent to determine if dry land has appeared (“a raven” in Gen 8:7; “a dove” three times in Gen 8:8-12).

How do scholars interpret these differences?

Earlier interpreters attempted to reconcile these differences by addressing each individually. Thus, the apparent discrepancies in the duration of the flood were understood as different phases of the deluge, and the differing numbers of animals were interpreted as a clarification and expansion of the earlier command. And this may be. However, it is the number and character of these differences, found not only here but in numerous duplicate stories throughout the early books of the Bible, that have led most scholars to conclude that at least two distinct traditions inform the biblical account. By this view, the reason for “seven clean” animals in one tradition is that Noah will offer a sacrifice following the flood (Gen 8:20), whereas in the other tradition, which is often associated with priestly interests in ancient Israel, no such sacrifice will be offered since sacrifice is the exclusive domain of priests.

Similarly, the variations in the description of the flood correspond to the distinct cosmological and theological perspectives of these traditions—differences that first emerge in the opening creation accounts. One tradition, often associated with the first creation story, depicts a deluge that is the undoing of the very order established by God (‘elohim) in the beginning, as “the fountains of the deep” and “the floodgates of heaven” are ruptured (Gen 7:11), reversing the separation of “the waters above from the waters below” that was accomplished on the second day of creation (Gen 1:6-7). The other tradition portrays the flood as an extended rainstorm (Gen 7:12) and the divine as intimately involved in the action, paralleling the second creation account where the deity (YHWH) personally breathes life into the first human (Gen 2:7), forms animals out of the dust of the ground (Gen 2:19), fashions woman out of the man’s side (Gen 2:22), walks and talks with humans in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9), and provides them clothing following their act of disobedience (Gen 3:21).

Yet, it is only in bringing these varying traditions together, these differing perspectives of the divine as both powerful and personal, as both awe-inspiring and intimate, that an ultimately richer and more nuanced understanding of Israel’s God emerges—an understanding that has informed the lives and faiths of countless individuals and communities throughout history.

  • geoghegan-jeffrey

    Dr. Jeffrey Geoghegan received his PhD in History from the University of California, San Diego, and has taught history and religion for the past twenty years at several universities, including UCSD, Boston College, and the University of San Diego. He currently teaches at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where he holds the Gretchen Stroschein Thomson Chair in History, and is the author or coauthor of a number of books and articles on the Bible, including The Nine Commandments (Doubleday), The Time, Place, and Purpose of the Deuteronomistic History (Brown University), and The Bible for Dummies (Wiley).