The Flood Narrative — Walter Brueggemann

September 1, 2010

The Genesis Flood, ceiling Sistine Chapel

The flood narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17 occupies both a disproportionate amount of space in the larger text of Genesis 1-11 and a pivotal theological position in that corpus. Three critical concerns should be acknowledged at the outset:

There is perennial interest in the question of the “historicity” of the flood, expressed especially in recurring claims that the ark of Noah has been found (Bailey 1989). These questions are at bottom fertile, because it is probable that in many different social contexts there were experiences of floods that evoked “flood stories,” but no one of which can therefore claim to be the flood that is remembered in our text. Thus even the discovery of the ark would only indicate the confirmation of “a flood,” which in any case is not in doubt, but such a find would still be well short of “the flood.”

There is no doubt that the flood narrative, as presented in the book of Genesis, has important literary antecedents in the Near East, especially in the Gilgamesh Epic. The recognition of such literary antecedents re-contextualizes the “historical” question, and permits us to focus instead upon the intention of the interpreters who took over the extant flood tradition and utilized it as a means of voicing Israel’s faith.

The flood narrative has been a primary arena in which scholars have traced distinct literary sources, one source using the name of YHWH and one clearly avoiding that name. Thus most of the commentaries dissect the narrative into two literary sources, and no doubt there is ground for such distinctions. Bernhard Anderson, however, has shrewdly shown how the final form of the text weaves the sources into an artistic whole with 8:1 at its pivot point in an intricate design: “But God remembered Noah” (Anderson 1994, 56-74). It is that divine remembering that turns the narrative away from the destructiveness of the flood toward restoration and renewed fidelity on the part of God.

Anderson’s analysis provides a way to move beyond these several critical questions that have claimed a disproportionate amount of interpretive energy to the theological exposition that bears Israel’s canonical intentionality. Indeed, it may be argued that the flood narrative articulates the primary claims of Israel’s faith in nuce.[vocab: In a nutshell]

1.  The theological premise of the flood narrative is YHWH’s speech of judgment consisting in an indictment of a failed creation (Genesis 6:5, 11-12) and a divine judgment whereby God resolves to “blot out” all creation (6:6-7) and “make an end of all flesh” (6:13). The release of the mighty floodwaters is a function of the divine resolve to terminate. The waters are the forces of chaos (see Genesis 1:2) that in this narrative function as obedient tools of God’s negative intention. Thus the narrative begins as a conventional account of judgment enacted.

2.   The speech of judgment and its ensuing enactment are, however, decisively disrupted by God’s notice of Noah (and his family), who stands in God’s favor (6:8) and who is rescued because of Noah’s righteousness (6:9). Noah and his family constitute a decisive exception to the general destruction. Thus the identification of the righteous remnant becomes a decisive qualification in the general destruction. The chaotic waters are eased and withdrawn as “God remembers Noah.”

3.  God’s willingness to nullify the threat of the flood and to reestablish well-being in the earth as God’s creation arises from the presence of Noah. As a consequence, God promises “never again [to] curse the ground” (8:21). Indeed that curbing of the negation is matched by a positive guarantee of the rhythms of creation:

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.

It is astonishing that the turn from divine judgment to divine assurance is not accomplished by any human repentance or resolve; the inclination of the human heart as “evil” at the outset (Genesis 6:5) continues to be “evil” at the end (8:2 1). Nothing has changed in the inclination of humanity. All that has changed, decisively changed, is God’s resolve to remain the faithful creator in spite of the condition of creation. That is, God is shown to be more fully gracious and positively inclined toward the earth.

4.  The second conclusion to the flood narrative in 9:8-17 also revolves around God’s promise that “never again” will the flood destroy the earth. The rainbow as a reminder to God who might otherwise forget, assures creation of God’s “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16). Patrick Miller writes of this text:

The natural environment is secured in covenant with human and natural creatures. The covenant with Noah restores and secures the creation for the benefit of the creatures, animal and human. Human treatment of the natural world, therefore, is a matter not only of the attitude toward the creation, but also how humankind receives the promise, which it shares with the animal world.  The nations are a part of the created order, the outcome of the blessing of God in the completion of creation. The restoration of the creation after the Flood involves also the restoration of humanity as a part of that creation and of the renewal of the blessing (Genesis 8:17; 9:1, 7) through the lineage of Noah (Genesis 9:19). So also the establishment of covenant with Noah is an establishment of covenant with all of humankind. ‘The text makes this point repeatedly and thus with much emphasis. The universal covenant with humankind as a way of perpetuating and maintaining the creation incorporates the nations of which Israel is a single part.
(Miller 1995, 165-67)

Thus in both proposed literary sources (identified as J and as P), the dramatic movement is the same:

  Judgment Assurance
J: Genesis 6:5-7 Genesis 8:21—22
P: Genesis 6:11-13 Genesis 9:8-17

The dominant story line concerns God’s change of mind, and God’s readiness to nullify God’s plan to destroy (see Jeremiah 18:1-11:  “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.  Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.)

The mitigating factor is Noah, who is perhaps a harbinger of faithful Israel, but such an identification of Noah with Israel of course is nowhere explicit (see Ezekiel 14:12-20; Hebrews 11:7). It is impossible to overstate the cruciality of Noah for the dramatic movement of the text. In the end, however, the decisive and most interesting character is not Noah but the God of Israel who freshly embraces creation.

In its present location in the text, the flood narrative is hardly less than another creation narrative, because of the way in which God reorders the world away from chaos, just as happened in chapter 1. The flood narrative, thus, is a crucial text for articulating the deep tension and defining contradiction between the recalcitrance of creation and the will of the Creator. Rolf Rendtorff comments:

Chapter 9, in particular vv. 8-11, serves as a solemn confirmation of that promise. What God has just declared will be the content of his berith (The Hebrew word “covenant” is berith): not to bring a flood over the earth again and not to destroy living beings again. But before that confirmation, God makes it clear that this world is no longer “very good.” God reconfirms his blessing of fertility (v. 1), but immediately he adds that peace no longer prevails between human beings and animals (v. 12), or among human beings, so that a strict commandment is needed to prevent murder (vv. 5-6).
(Rendtorff 1993, 127-28)

The flood story culminates in a recognition that God’s faithful commitment to creation and to human community has prevailed, thus assuring that the world has a future. The genealogies before and after the flood narrative are articulations of continuity that survive even through the chaotic disruption. While the story of the world as God’s creation is momentarily disrupted by the chaotic waters, that disruption does not and cannot prevail against the intention of YHWH to maintain the “family line” of humanity. This reassurance of continuity in the face of threat in Isaiah 54:9-10 later becomes an assurance cherished by exiles in Israel who faced a threat and a dislocation of their own.

It is evident that the process of interpretation in Israel has been able to articulate, through these diffuse materials, a steady theological affirmation concerning the interface of God’s good sovereignty and the sustained recalcitrance intrinsic to creation that resists the purpose of God and that recurringly places the world in jeopardy. Given the peculiar “mythical.” antecedents of this text and given the large themes now carried by these texts, it is not surprising that these texts, over long generations of interpretation, have become fertile materials for rich, diverse interpretation. The transposition of these ancient materials into a relatively coherent theological statement is unmistakably a powerful act of imagination, that is, canonical imagination. It is evident that while the continuing act of communal imagination is decisive, that definitive act did not terminate imaginative interpretation that continues, perforce, in both Jewish and Christian communities.

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  1. [...] Billabong Uniting Church1The Flood Narrative — Walter Brueggemann « Paying Attention To The Sky [...]

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