Dismantling the Noah Story


We’ve explored “Noah” the movie. Now let’s turn to Genesis to see what the Noah story actually says: Yahweh saw that mankind had become wicked, and he regretted his creation. “It grieved him to his heart.” He resolved to wipe man from the face of the earth, plus all the animals, “for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:6–7)

Noah was the one righteous exception, so God told him to take his family into an ark. God also commanded that he take seven pairs of all clean animals plus one pair of all other animals. After a week to get everything on board, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Water covered even the highest mountains, drowning everything—animals, birds, and humans.

After 40 days [this was presumably an additional 40 rain-free days, though the text is unclear], Noah sent out a dove to scout for dry land, but it returned. After a week, he tried again, and the dove returned with an olive leaf, showing that some land was dry. He sent out the dove again a week later, and it didn’t return.

Noah went to the top of the ark and saw that the land was dry. He left the ark and built an altar and sacrificed one of every clean animal to Yahweh. Yahweh was pleased, and he thought: I will never again destroy life on earth, because man is inherently evil. While the earth exists, I will preserve it.

Another version

Does that sound familiar? See what you think about this version:

Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah was righteous, but the earth was corrupt, and man was violent. Elohim decided to flood the earth and kill everything, and he gave Noah instructions for building an ark. It had to be 300 × 50 cubits in area, and 30 cubits tall. It needed three decks, with a door in the side and a roof on top, and it must be covered in pitch.

Noah, his family, and one pair of every living thing would be safe in the ark. They must bring provisions for them and the animals.

When Noah was 600 years old, on the 17th day of the 2nd month [I’ll abbreviate this as 2/17], “the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Noah, his family, and the chosen animals boarded the ark. Everything else—animals and human—drowned.

The water covered the earth for 150 days, but then Elohim made a wind blow, and the water receded. The sources of the water closed. On 7/17, the ark rested in the mountains of Ararat. By 10/1, the tops of the mountains were visible.

Noah sent out a raven to see when the land was dry.

By 1/1, the ground was dry [presumably just the nearby land], and by 2/27, the earth was dry. Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark, and Elohim told them to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Contrast the two accounts

Both versions are in Genesis. The first version was from the J source (J because this source refers to God as “Jehovah,” which is another way of saying “Yahweh”). The second version was from the P (“Priestly”) source. They are interleaved to make Genesis chapters 6–8. (I used Richard Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed and Who Wrote the Bible? to identify the two sources.)

Note the differences in our Noah accounts.

  • God has different names: Yahweh in J and Elohim in P.
  • Yahweh acts like a human—he regrets and grieves—while Elohim doesn’t.
  • In the J account, the flood comes from rain. In the P account, water poured in from the two great sources—the fresh water underneath and the salt water in the dome above: “the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened.” This cosmology comes from the Sumerian creation myth, which we see in Genesis 1, which is also from the P source:

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.”

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:6–10)

  • J uses a dove, and P uses a raven.
  • J demands seven pairs of clean animals, but P demands only one pair. This is because only J has a sacrifice at the end of the trip, and you can’t sacrifice animals if they’re the only ones of their species.
  • P gives details of the ark’s construction and detailed dates (Noah was 600 years old, plus the precise dating of milestones), while J has none of this.
  • In J, the rain lasts for only 40 days, and the entire ordeal takes less than 100 days. In P, 150 days is mentioned, and Noah’s family is on the ark for over a year.

Note also what is the same. Both stories have an introduction that explains that the world was wicked but Noah was good. In the interleaved story, this appears redundant, but this is an additional clue that they were originally independent stories that needed their introductions.

Amusingly, one of God’s justifications is that the earth was full of violence (Gen. 6:11). So what does he do? He responds with a record-setting amount of violence. (Maybe irony hadn’t been invented yet.) It’s also interesting that when God told Abraham about his plans to destroy Sodom, Abraham protested (Gen. 18), and when God wanted to destroy the Israelites after the golden calf fiasco, Moses protested (Exodus 32). But when God wants to destroy the entire world, Noah says nothing in protest.

I’ve written more about the illogic of the Noah flood story here.

Documentary Hypothesis

The theory explaining many of the duplications and different perspectives jumbled throughout the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is called the Documentary Hypothesis. It hypothesizes four different sources, with J and P being two of them. There are other doublets besides the two Noah stories—two creation stories, two Goliath stories, two stories of Abraham lying about his wife Sarah to a king, and so on—and the Documentary Hypothesis nicely explains them.

60% of Americans insist that the Noah’s ark story is literally, word-for-word true, but a far better explanation is that it is a composite of several sources of Mesopotamian mythology.

The man who prays is the one who thinks
that god has arranged matters all wrong,

but who also thinks that he can instruct god
how to put them right.
— Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/31/14.)

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  • Ignorant Amos

    Where did the dove get an olive leaf, that’s what I wanna know? Also…talking vehicles…pfffft!

    • epicurus

      And I don’t understand why he needed a dove at all. Noah could just climb up on top and look for himself. Even if there is land somewhere how does that help you if your arc is floating in the middle of an ocean.

      • Greg G.

        Noah could just climb up on top and look for himself.

        I think he could let the crows out and wait for them to build a nest. Then he could climb up and get a better vantage point.

        • epicurus

          Haha. I had to do a double take. Crows nest!

        • Ignorant Amos

          He’s clean shaven isn’t he?

      • Camorris

        How did an unpropelled boat manage to avoid being blown onto jagged mountain rocks before the water covered them? Unless the Arc was constructed near sea level, how did it survive the tumultuous flush of water carrying it downstream?

        • Greg G.

          It was made of gopher wood. That’s the stock answer for any question about the boat.

        • Kevin K

          Which, of course, doesn’t exist anymore.

        • Michael Neville

          Pretty much every kind of rodent wood is either extinct or approaching extinction.

        • Kevin K

          Which is why you rarely see rodents build houses anymore.

        • Greg G.

          I have heard that swine have given up straw and sticks in favor of bricks for their houses.

        • Michael Neville

          That’s only if wolves with bad breath are around.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          After the seeing the pictures of Florids and Puerto Rico, I think they are looking for much better construction materials.

        • epicurus

          Depends if it’s an African or European rodent.

        • Kodie


        • Kevin K

          I see what you did there!

        • Greg G.

          Do you know the difference between a donkey and a ground hog home? One is a burro and one is a burrow. Or, if you prefer, one is an ass and one is a hole in the ground.

        • David in Tucson

          Makes sense, since all the rodents were busy eating rodent wood, right?

        • Cozmo the Magician

          “Damn!” said the beaver, “now they stole our name to use for naked lady parts that they put pictures of in magazines made from the wood we used to use to made dams!” Sucks to be a small furry creature.

        • Wile F. Coyote

          There are buttloads of rodents on this planet. They’re still getting wood, and plenty of it.

        • grasshopper

          Would woodchuck wood have been as good?

        • Lark62

          Makes sense. There ain’t no forests there, so Noah had to go-fer wood.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          The gophers came out of the wood and paddled.

        • Ignorant Amos

          I thought that was a miscom.

          YahwehJesus: “Noah, build a big boat”

          Noah: “What with?”

          YahwehJesus: “Go fer wood”

          Noah: “Ah, right, Gopher wood, oakee doakee big lad”

        • epicurus

          That’s easy. Jesus!

        • Ignorant Amos

          AKA God’s guiding hand.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Bog’s strong right mouth.

  • RichardSRussell

    Yes, Bob, you have correctly identified where the 2 stories differ, but those differences pale in comparison to what the one big thing have in common. If you kill yourself, it’s suicide. If you kill another person, it’s homicide. If you kill off an entire race, it’s genocide. If you kill off every living thing on Earth, it’s omnicide. And any TB who thinks that humanity had it coming is welcome to try this little experiment. Find a child under the age of 2, fill your bathtub nearly to the brim, then hold the child under water for, oh, let’s say about 45 seconds. That should be enuf to demonstrate how loving and compassionate you are, compared to the “all-loving” Supreme Being whose very own fan club proudly contends that he did this to about a billion babies and literally quadrillions of other creatures.

    • Kevin K

      And every single pregnant woman to boot.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        The hell with those hussies. What about the infants in their bellies? See, even in genesis god has no problem with abortion…

    • Cozmo the Magician

      ” about a billion babies” your #’s may be off. Considering the earth was not even 6,000 years old as it is now, then the population was probably much smaller. So if trump causes a world wide nuclear war, he would actually kill more peeps than god. Which is something he(trump) would be proud of. He has to be the best at EVERYTHING, even world wide genocide.

      • epeeist

        ” about a billion babies” your #’s may be off.

        The estimate of the population of the earth at the time of the supposed flood was about 20 million. Hence my standard response to the literalists that their god killed 99.99996% of the human population.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          I’m probably going to regret this, but can you provide a citation? I might need a good laugh, and seeing somebody calculate the population of the flood era earth could be worth a giggle or two.

        • epeeist

          I’m probably going to regret this, but can you provide a citation?


        • Cozmo the Magician

          well that is interesting, but i was talking about pop estimates at time of flood based on BIBLICAL time frame.. ie earth baked 6000 years ago and following all the begats to Noah and arriving at a pop figure for the world.

        • Ignorant Amos

          That fuckwit creationist “physicist” Lambert Dolphin claims a conservative population of 9 billion at the time of The Flood.

          He seems right proud of the fact that YahwehJesus wiped out in excess of 9 billion men, women, and children, he also thinks he has the science to back him up too.


        • epeeist

          Barry Setterfield – ROFLMAO

          As for his population numbers, the words “pull” and “arse” come to mind.

        • Ignorant Amos

          As for his population numbers, the words “pull” and “arse” come to mind.

          Of course…even a know nothing like me knows at least that much. The problem is that the know nothing creotards such as we get around here, who know a whole lot less than this know nothing, tend to glaze over all teary eyed and think that because all that bullshit is good enough to baffle their own brains, everyone else will be in the same boat.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          9 billion? Damn, thats a lot stiffs. Hitler must be feeling pretty insignificant. No wonder the right wing bible thumping nazis are now trying to deny the holocaust, it makes them look like weanies compared to god.

        • Greg G.

          According to the Bible, the lifespans were hundreds of years without television. Their primary means of entertainment would have been reproducing.

        • TheNuszAbides

          they edited out names of women because they needed more space for the torrent of “begat”s.

    • Benny S.

      Yes, my favorite part of the flood story is God’s outrage toward all those wicked babies and toddlers, as well as His hatred of withered and crippled 400+ year old widows just trying to get by on their monthly Mesopotamian social security checks. And don’t even get me started on those poor helpless puppies and kittens.

      He sure was pissed, but, of course, He should’ve seen it coming.

      And then, a little over 100 years later, having begun with a single family reset, civilization has once again rebounded in vast areas of knowledge (mathematics, architecture, urban planning, transportation, sewage treatment, soil management, mass communication, doggy day care, etc.) to the point where the rather large city of Babylon is actively functioning with enough people who have too much time on their hands and an itch to begin building a tower to the skies.

      • Rheingold

        I’m wondering how long it will be before an acommodationist pops in and tells us we’ve got it all wrong because the flood was really only local.

  • Carol Lynn

    Completely rhetorical question as the answer is pretty obvious – Didn’t Noah’s ‘only good family worth saving’ morph into the drunken, naked experience in the cave that condemned Noah’s son’s, Ham, line forever to be second class people? ONLY family worth saving? Yeah, right…

    • Greg G.

      When God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s family was the only one god thought was worth saving and they immediately started having drunken incestual orgies as soon as the wife was out of the way.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        Goes to prove the point I have been trying to make for a long time. Xtians have it all wrong, God LOVES drunken orgies. Oddly, the police did not like me calling my last party a ‘worship service’ and I could not afford a decent atheist lawyer. (/snark snark, but hey, i COULD have happened).

        • Greg G.

          I expect an invitation to your next worship service.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          OK, but keep in mind the BBQ is BYOB (bring your own baby)

      • Ignorant Amos
        • Michael Neville

          Remember, boys and girls, if you don’t sin then Jesus died in vain.

    • Ignorant Amos
    • Pofarmer

      It seems like the most consistent part of the Bible is “People Suck.”

      • Kodie

        Well, then the bible must be true.

      • Robert Templeton

        That’s the hook to get people into the pews.

    • adam
  • ThaneOfDrones

    God has different names: Yahweh in J and Elohim in P.

    Both aliases. God’s actual name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14)

  • ephemerol

    No, no, no, the Noah story is literally true. NASA is on the verge of finding those windows of heaven. Then you’ll see. Just wait. You’ll see. Then I’ll say I told you so. No, really. Any day now and the evidence is gonna come rolling in…

    • Sonyaj

      And, we’ll all be waiting around with baited breath for that, won’t we? Meanwhile, science goes on to observe 2 neutron stars colliding out there in the vast, amazing, real-life universe, detects and measures the gravitational waves that resulted, and essentially confirms that said collisions are what produce the heavy elements like gold, platinum and uranium. Who needs to believe in a crude, bronze-age mythology when reality is so much more amazing?

      So, instead of thanking an imaginary god, we should say: “Thank my lucky [colliding neutron] stars!”

      • ephemerol

        And, we’ll all be waiting around with baited breath for that, won’t we?

        Ya will if ya know what’s good fer ya! Colliding neutron stars? Ha! Fake news! /s

      • Greg G.

        e’ll all be waiting around with baited breath

        Baited breath comes from eating sushi.

        • Sonyaj

          Did I fuck that word up? Bated…yep, I sure did. Thanks for pointing that out; I had apparently shut that part of my brain off for the evening.

          Ain’t no one want breath that smells like bait…that’s what cats are for.

        • Bob Jase

          You’ll never get a cat on a hook let alone use it for bait.

        • Bob Jase

          There are other things that smell like fish.

  • Kevin K

    There are actual-real experts on this who I am sure will chime in if I’m incorrect, but my understanding is that “Elohim” is a plural, meant to denote the pantheon of many gods. “Let us do thus-and-such” is not merely the editorial “we”, but a collective pronoun representing all of the gods.

    • Greg G.

      “Elohim” is in the form of a plural but they use singular verbs with it, or so I have read. It must be like “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish”. Maybe they were trying to transition from polytheism to monotheism and were starting with the verbs.

      • Paul D.

        That’s right, the plural/singular verb usually tells you whether Elohim is one god or “the gods”.

  • Grimlock

    I recently started listening to the Reasonable Doubt podcast. (Yes, I’m a bit late to the party.) I’m listening to the episodes in a very haphazard manner, but still. Right after I listened to their review of God’s Not Dead, the post here on that topic pops up. Then I listen to an episode about the Documentary Hypothesis. What comes next, then, I wonder? Why, a post here about the Documentary Hypothesis.

    Funny coincidence.

    • Yes, that’s one of my favorite podcasts, and I’m re-listening to it myself.

  • Frank R Nicholas

    Did Jesus lie ?

    Jesus Christ referred to the Flood, saying: “Just as it occurred in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of man: they were eating, they were drinking, men were marrying, women were being given in marriage, until that day when Noah entered into the ark, and the flood arrived and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:26, 27) If the Deluge had not happened, then Jesus’ statement about “the days of the Son of man” would be meaningless.

    No he didn’t

    • epeeist

      So that’s it, Jesus said it, you believe it, that settles it.

      Just one question for you, which of Noah’s sons married the Chinese woman?

      • Bob Jase

        Seth-Hung Lo?

        • epeeist


          You’ll notice I didn’t get a response. Most creotards don’t understand the point of the question and have to have it spelled out to them. Once it is spelled out to them (how do we get from eight Semitic people to the mix of Oriental, Asiatic, Caucasian and Negroid peoples we have today?) you can have lots of fun watching them trying to avoid the “evolution” word.

    • MNb

      Depends on what you mean with lying. If we assume he was omniscient because divine, then yes.

      Matth. 16:18 “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
      All the guys who were standing there have tasted death – and we are still waiting.
      Also see Matth. 23:36, 24:34, Marcus 9:11, Lucas 9:27, 21:25-33.
      But if we assume, like I do, that Jesus was human who erroneously believed himself what he proclaimed, no, then he was not a liar. He merely deluded himself.

      Also the Great Flood never happened, so thanks for pointing out Jesus’ ignorance in Lucas 17:26-27.

    • Greg G.

      Matthew is the liar by saying Jesus said it and that it occurred in the days of Noah. (Matthew 24:37-39) Luke just fell for it.

    • You’re taking as a given “The words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are always correct”? You’ll have to prove that first before you can use it.

    • Halbe

      Your commenting history is hilarious. A JW that is a regular of Breitbart, Infowars and other assorted conspiracy nut sites. You take this whole RWNJ thing to caricature level. Poe? I sure hope so. And by the way, the Jesus of the Bible never existed, so no, he did not lie.

      • Max Doubt

        “Your commenting history is hilarious. […] Poe? I sure hope so.”

        There was a time when I thought that much crazy has to be a put-on, but… I have a sis-in-law who is very Christian, chemtrail believer, earthquake/forest-fire/end of the world paranoiac, 911 conspiracy wacko… a regular Whitman sampler of nuttery. Truly. She’s a live human being I’ve seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, and she’s like a walking talking GOP Christian Poe. These people do exist in real life.

        • “a regular Whitman sampler of nuttery”

          That’s a keeper.

        • Susan

          These people do exist in real life.

          As do internet trolls.

          For the life of me, I so often can’t tell which I’m dealing with.


          Hence, Poe’s Law.

        • Clint W. (Thought2Much)

          Upvoted for “Whitman sampler of nuttery.”

    • adam
    • Lerk!

      “If the Deluge had not happened, then Jesus’ statement about “the days of the Son of man” would be meaningless.”

      Exactly! And this is why liberal Christianity is not the answer. The fundamentalist has it right: If it isn’t all true, then none of it is.

      And that’s how I finally (at age 51) figured out that none of it was true. For about a month after I realized the OT was full of errors, I tried to figure out whether I should accept the NT the way that the mainline Protestant denominations do.

      The deluge didn’t happen. Jesus (if he really said what is attributed to him here) believed the myth. He also believed in a literal Adam and Eve. He seems to have believed that the serpent in Genesis 3 was Satan (there’s nothing in the context of Genesis 3 that allows for that… it was an ordinary snake that, in true mythological fashion, could talk.) If Jesus really said that stuff, then he believed things that weren’t true, just like a lot of other people of his day believed them. Did he lie? Well, that’s just silly. I’m sure he believed the myths to be true, but that doesn’t make it so, it just makes him human.

    • Kevin K

      Well, I see your mistake. You think that Jesus is “real”, as opposed to being a fictional character.

    • adam
    • TheMountainHumanist

      There is a flaw in that argument. It assumes that Jesus said X just because a book says X. It is plausible that no such thing was ever said by any such person.

      • adam
        • TheMountainHumanist

          Yep I never noticed that scene from the Garden until years ago. “They were all asleep! who wrote his words down?”

        • adam

          It just demonstrates how fictional the stories really are.

        • TheMountainHumanist

          Right…like a novel.

        • Greg G.

          Did you ever notice how Jesus got mad at a fig tree, then got mad at the temple? Then the tree was found to be withered. The reader would then think about Jerusalem and the temple being destroyed.

          Also in Mark, Peter is in the courtyard being asked if he was with Jesus while Jesus is on trial, being slapped around and ordered to “Prophesy!” while his prophecy that Peter would deny him was being fulfilled.

          Mark used Latin words and Aramaic words but he only explained the Aramaic, which indicates he was writing to Romans educated in Greek. He says that Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus”. He has Jesus open the Gethsemane prayer with “Abba, Father”. So when Barabbas is introduced, the reader knows his name means “Son of the Father”, too. That brings in Leviticus 16:5-22 where one goat is killed and the other is released into the wilderness to take away the sins of the nation. But that is the Yom Kippur (Atonement Day) ritual that is performed months after Passover.

          Mark makes the reader think.

        • TheMountainHumanist

          There are definitely some recognizable literary devices in the Gospels.

        • Greg G.

          Mark used mimesis to bring in Homer’s writings, midrash to bring in the OT scriptures, and chiasmus, which makes those sandwiches. I don’t think there was much difference between mimesis, midrash, and imitatio other than the language and culture that used them and the favored sources.

        • TheMountainHumanist

          I seem to recall some scholar..Dennis McDonald — lay out that hypothesis.

        • Greg G.

          Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark [LINK] by Richard Carrier is an excellent review of MacDonald’s book. MacDonald says he included some things that are probably coincidence to be inclusive but Carrier says he found something that MacDonald did not and I did as well. I don’t know if Carrier revealed his example but I think the name Legion is a bilingual pun on the name of the Cyclops, “Polyphemus”.

          Polyphemus means “famous” as it is literally “many speak about”, as the roots can be seen in “polygon” and “blasphemy”. Mark put the clues in the text. In Mark 5:9, the text has “he said, ‘Legio my name, for we are many.'” The “he said” is the Greek word “lego” and it immediately precedes “Legio”, a Latin word for many soldiers, which is emphasized by the “for we are many” and the word many is the Greek “polys”. Mark has “Legio” for the name because it has a connotation to “many” and it is similar to a Greek synonym for speech.

        • sandy

          Good points. The temple being destroyed analogy is also another example of putting the date for Mark past 70ce.

        • Bob Jase

          And as Matthew. Luke and John were obviously written even later…

  • Syzygy

    As the warrant officer in Catch 22 says, “Who gives a shit?”

  • Kahn_Tango

    God Is Imaginary Proof #45 – Consider Noah’s Ark

    “Have you ever taken the time to read the Bible’s story of Noah’s flood? And have you ever pondered what this story’s position in the Bible might actually mean?” Read more… https://godisimaginary.com/i45.htm

  • John Do’h

    Of course the Noah story is absurd, stupid, and absolutely horrible, but the idea of them saving “all” of the creatures is especially absurd. They didn’t care about “all” of the animals (and bugs, trees, birds, worms, freshwater fish, etc), Noah collected the domesticated animals and maybe a few iconic creatures. They barely had an understanding of the Earth beyond a small geographic region, they didn’t care about the biology of the Earth.

    Next time someone says “god doesn’t make mistakes”, point out the Noah story. Yahweh failed horribly, then reacted like Donald Trump by trashing his creation irrationally.

    • Kahn_Tango

      “Next time someone says “god doesn’t make mistakes”, point out the Noah story.”

      Weak minded people love a good strongman. Be it an authoritarian president or an invisible sky-daddy, stupid people feel comforted by the notion that there is someone in absolute control. Even if the controller is destructively insane and a threat to everything that actually matters.

  • ColdFusion8

    They spent 40 days and nights in stormy weather over open ocean and yet only traveled what… 1 maybe 2 thousand miles? It’s laughable.

    • al kimeea

      Moses traipsing aboot the Sinai for 40 years when any decent desert nomad would take a week or so…

      • Bob Jase

        You’d think the Egyptians would have sent a second army after him but noooooo, what, couldn’t they find his tracks?

        • Greg G.

          If there were the reasonable number of people at two million plus livestock, the front of the line should be in Judea before the end of the line was out of Egypt.

  • Pennybird

    If nothing else, it makes a cute nursery motif. And yeah, that’s about it.

    • I want to buy a Noah play set with lots and lots of dead people. Y’know, to be authentic.

  • John Smith

    Personally, I prefer the original version, Gilgamesh chapter 12.