Was there really a flood?


The biblical story about Noah and the flood is not as simple as some people want to think. The story raises interesting and to some people disturbing questions about good and evil, divine intervention in this world, do miracles exist, should we take all the biblical stories literally, and much more.

In my book “Rational Religion,” I showed that many cultures had flood stories that are remarkably close to the Genesis tale. These stories were composed before the Bible was given to the Israelites. I showed that despite the similarities, the theology in the biblical tale is different than in the pagan versions. For example, the pagan tales are filled with unnatural events, such as the saved humans needing to throw stones to create people to repopulate the world. The biblical version is told in a natural event: Noah is given time to construct the ark and gather animals. Additionally, the gods in the pagan version disliked humans.

Does this mean that the Bible retold already-existing stories in a different manner to teach the Jewish concept of God and how God relates to humans? Does it mean that we should not take the biblical story literally, as actual events? Maimonides understood the story of the Garden of Eden as a parable. Is the flood story also a parable, an event that never occurred? Is it possible that there were only local floods and the Bible stating that it covered the entire earth should be understood as saying: it was so devastating that it seemed to cover the entire earth?

Here are some more ideas that are from my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations” that was published this week. One can either accept or reject these ideas, but even if they are rejected they prompt one’s thinking about the Bible and life.


Vegetarians vs. Carnivores

How should we translate Genesis 6:12: ki hishchit khol basar et darkho al haaretz. The Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures translates it: “[God decided to destroy the world with a flood] for all flesh corrupted their way upon the earth.” How did humans and animals corrupt their ways? The nineteenth century scholar Arnold Ehrlich offers a novel approach: humans and animals began to eat meat by killing God’s creations, by being similar to cannibals. This, Ehrlich writes, is contrary to the biblical spirit. We read in the Garden of Eden story that Adam and Eve were allowed to eat only fruits and vegetables. The prophet Isaiah foresaw that in the ideal world of the future the lion would lie with the lamb because humans and animals would no longer consume flesh. However, realizing that human nature desires meat, God “allowed” Noah and humanity to consume meat, but only under certain restrictive conditions.

Ehrlich also writes that the flood obviously didn’t destroy fish, who survive in water. However, we may ask why God didn’t kill fish as well, for they also eat living beings such as other fish and worms.


Is human nature evil?

In the fourth century, the Christian priest Augustine invented the notion of “original sin.” He claimed that humans are born evil because of Adam’s “sin” in eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil. This is not a Jewish belief.

Verse 8:21 should not be translated “The inclination [yetzer] of man is evil from birth,” which fits the Christian notion that we need Jesus to save humans from their evil nature. The true translation is “The human inclination today is more evil than it was in earlier times.” People’s behavior was getting worse and it was because of the increase in evil acts that God decided to kill the miscreants.

Can we understand this passage in a natural way: that it was their evil ways that resulted in their deaths, just as overindulgence in alcohol and smoking kills people?


Who did Noah curse?

Why does the Torah mention that Noah cursed his grandson Canaan that he would be the lowest level slave? There is no mention that Canaan did anything wrong; it was his father Ham who acted improperly by in some unspecified way degrading his father Noah. Also, why do we need to know this? Was it written to justify the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan? Slaves own nothing, so the Israelites could take their property.


Does God occasionally come down from heaven?

Scripture states in 11:5 and 18:19 that God came down from heaven to examine what was occurring on earth. This is contrary to our current notion of God not being restricted to a single place. However, Ehrlich points out that the ancients thought that God dwelt in heaven. The Greeks had a similar notion. Interestingly, after the story of the revelation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, this primitive notion does not reappear in the Hebrew Bible.

Does Ehrlich’s explanation make sense? It supposes that the Bible sometimes reflects the mistaken notions of the ancients. Does it make more sense to say that when the Bible states that God “came down,” we should understand this metaphorically as “God acted?”