Noah’s Flood: Climate Change Then & Now

Noah’s Flood: Climate Change Then & Now May 13, 2012

6:1 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. 7:1 Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”

Genesis 6-7

Note: This sermon is part of an ongoing series tracing “The Book of J” strand of Genesis. A link to previous entries in this series can be found at the bottom of each post. Also see the notes at the end for introductory information.

I would like to tell you “The Story of the Flood”:

You know the city Shurrupak, it stands on the banks of Euphrates? that city grew old and the gods that were in it were old…. In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of humankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate humanity. Enlil did that, but Ea because of his oath warned me in a dream…. “Tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down our house, I say, and build a boat. These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her. Let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the board the seed of all living creatures….”

On the seventh day the boat was complete…. I loaded onto her all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kind, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the [artisans]…..

One whole day the tempest raged, gathering fury as it went, it poured over the people like the tides of battle. One could not see one’s own brother or sister nor the people be seen from heaven. Even the gods were terrified at the flood, they fled to the highest heaven….

For six day and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world…. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the flood was stilled…on the mountain of Nisir the board held fast, she held fast and did not budged…. When the seventh day dawned I loosed a dove and let her go. She flew away, but finding no resting-place she returned. Then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away but finding no resting-place she returned. I loosed a raven, she saw that the water had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back. Then I threw everything open to the four winds, I made a sacrifice and poured out a libation on the mountain top.

As you may have guessed, this flood story is not from the Bible. It is from The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was recorded perhaps a thousand years before the biblical flood story was written down. There are many striking similarities between the flood accounts in Genesis and in Gilgamesh including the order of events, the use of water for a divine clean-up of the world, the material, methods, and measurements for building the boat, saving the animals from destruction, the boat ending up on the top of a mountain, releasing a bird to check on the waters receding, and making a sacrifice when the flood has abated.

The more familiar story of Noah’s Ark, as well as the rest of the material in “The Book of J,” was likely written down on the Kingdom of Israel sometime during the period of the Divided Kingdoms (922-722 BCE) — that is, sometime after Saul, David, and Solomon each ruled over a United Kingdom and sometime before the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 722. During the intervening two centuries, the Book of J was written.

In contrast, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written approximately a millennia earlier c. 1700 B.C.E. The larger point is that similar stories were being told in and around the Ancient Near East and these parallel versions influenced one another. Indeed, as we will explore further, there are two versions of the flood story in Genesis in the same way that there are two Creation stories. An editor stitched together the two versions at some point to preserve both accounts.

If you take the time to unstitch the original source material, one point that stands out is Genesis 4:26, which says, “At that time people began to invoke the name of the YHWH.” We’ve noted previously that one of the most obvious clues that distinguishes J material from E and P material is that the J Source calls God “Yahweh” (which many English Bibles translate as “Lord”) and the E Source calls God “Elohim” (which many English Bibles translate as “God”). This unequivocal statement that the Hebrew people were calling God “Yahweh” is in tension with both the E Source and P Source, which hold that the name “Yahweh” is not revealed until Moses encounter with the Burning Bush, which doesn’t happen until well into the Book of Exodus.

Another clear indication that there are multiple flood stories preserved in Genesis is that, according to The Book of J, Noah takes seven pairs of each animal (Genesis 7:2). But according to the P Source, Noah is told to take only “two of every kind…male and female” (Genesis 6:19-20). This discrepancy becomes particularly important after the flood. According to the Book of J, “Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). Since, according to the J Source, Noah has seven pair of each animal, sacrificing one of every animal is not a problem because there are at least six more pair in reserve.

But for the P Source in which only one pair of each animals was taken into the ark, sacrificing one of every clean animal would have resulted in massive extinction. But  this matter isn’t a problem for the P Source, which holds that no ritual sacrifices happened until the Tabernacle is built, almost at the end of Exodus. Moreover, for the P (“Priestly”) source, only sons of Aaron can make proper ritual sacrifices of “clean” animals, and Noah predates Aaron. It’s the same dynamic that we saw earlier: for E and P, God isn’t called Yahweh until Mt. Sinai, but The Book of J knows no such distinctions.

Let me also quickly mention a few other differences that help distinguish the two different flood stories in Genesis. There are different animals released as the flood recedes, different lengths of the flood, and different life expectancies. Similar to one of the animals used in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the P Source says that Noah released a raven once to determine when the waters had lowered enough to exposed dry land, but J tells us that Noah sent out a dove three times (Genesis 8).

And the J Source tells us that the flood lasted “forty days” (Genesis 7), whereas P tells us one chapter later that the flood lasted a year and ten days.

Also according to The Book of J, God says definitively that, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). And consistently in the J Source, humans do not live any longer than 120 years, whereas other places early in Genesis depict humans living for centuries. Most famously, Methuselah is said to have lived almost 1,000 years (Genesis 5:27).

But attributing these accounts of incredible longevity to sources other than The Book of J is not to say that there aren’t some wild stories in the J Source. For example, almost nothing in Genesis screams “myth” or “fairy tale” as much as the opening verses of Genesis 6:

1 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose…. 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

This account sounds like those many stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses disguising themselves and cavorting amongst humankind.

However, as much as I enjoy inviting you to trace the seams of these ancient biblical sources, I do not want to end this sermon without making the leap to how this flood story still speaks to us today. One of the most enduring universal resonances of the flood myth is that humans have always told stories about the end of the world. For evidence of this phenomenon today, look no further than all the films and TV shows about asteroids hitting the earth, a deadly virus spreading, or the onslaught of a zombie apocalypse.

But perhaps the most salient parallel for the early twenty-first century is that Climate Change seems to be causing — among many other dire weather patterns — a melting of Arctic sea ice, resulting in a rise of flood waters, potentially not unlike those ancient floods of Noah or Gilgamesh, which were “caused,” at least according to the mythological accounts, by human behavior.

According to The New York Times:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery. Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists. The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.


Because greenhouse gases are causing the Arctic to warm more rapidly than the rest of the planet, the sea ice cap has shrunk about 40 percent since the early 1980s. That means an area of the Arctic Ocean the size of Europe has become dark, open water in the summer instead of reflective ice, absorbing extra heat and then releasing it to the atmosphere in the fall and early winter.

This past week I attended a conference in D.C. on “Children, Youth, and A New Kind of Christianity,” which included reflections about how we need to change how we do children’s and youth ministry to help reverse these trends. Brian McLaren, one of the speakers, asked in his Keynote Address, “How many culture wars, nuclear wars, and sea level rises will our kids face, and how do we shape a more holistic view of [the church’s] mission in light of this?”

Talking about Climate Change is appropriate on Mother’s Day, which at its best honors and celebrates the blood, sweat, and tears put in to creating both new life and a better, more life-giving world for future generations. Although the problems contributing to Climate Change can seem overwhelming, if you feel called to take further steps to prevent this looming disaster, I encourage you to visit the website This organization is doing some of the most innovative work of grassroots organizing to “build a global movement to solve the climate crisis.”

Relatedly, this past week, the social justice organization Sojourners released the following action alert:

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a new rule that would limit the amount of carbon pollution new power plants could release into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel-burning power plants account for 40 percent of all CO2 emissions. New power plants are among the largest individual sources of greenhouse gases. The EPA is accepting public feedback until June 25. Sojourners’ goal is to submit 1,000 comments in support of the proposed rule before the deadline. Please take five minutes and send your message of support for this key public health and creation care opportunity.

(For more information or to take action, visit:

As we enter into a time of contemplative silence, I will leave it up to your individual conscience how you feel led to respond (or not) to the findings of Climate scientists. Either way, in a world of nuclear weapons and immense disparities of wealth and power, I invite you to reflect on how you are called on this Mother’s Day to help create a more peaceful, life-giving world for future generations.

As some streams of American Indian wisdom challenge us to consider, we must take into account not only how our actions affect ourselves, our neighbors, and this world, but also how our actions will affect the world into which children seven generations from now will be born.  So this Mother’s Day, how are we being called to live differently to help ensure a life-giving world even with regard to the “seventh generation to come?”


Previous Sermons in this Series

“The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible? (Genesis 2). Description: Many scholars think that there are “hidden” books in the Bible: the books used as source material to compile the final version of the biblical books with which we are familiar.

“Paradise Lost or Outgrown? Genesis 3, Original Blessing, and Original Responsibility” (Genesis 3). Description: Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. It’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment in time when we realize that we too are someday going to die. This metaphorical, mythological, and archetypal way of reading the Bible’s earliest chapters is so much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. It also makes much more sense than asking question like, “Did Adam have a belly button? or “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?”

“Before and After: Cain, Abel, and Archetypes” (Genesis 4). Description: In our postmodern times, there is much to be regained in reclaiming some premodern reading strategies: allowing ourselves to say both “Yes, many of these story are more mythological than historical” and “Yes, many of these stories still have significant meaning on the level of myth and metaphor, allegory and archetype, symbol and sacrament. From this angle, the story of Cain and Abel becomes the universally true story of the farmer “killing” the lifestyle of the semi-nomadic herder and moving to the city. God’s rejection of the fruit of Cain’s farm and Cain being cast out from the plains east to Eden into the city reveals that the authors and promoters of this biblical myth had an anti-city bias and were far from convinced that the move toward urbanization was “progress.” They saw many dangers in city life, and we were see a similar anti-urban bias in future texts, especially regarding the Towel of Babel.


1 The four main original independent sources used to compile the early books of the Bible are called J, E, D, and P. Similar to the “Q Source” used to compose the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, J-E-D-P are each shorthand for the full title scholars have given to these sources. The Book of J, which stands for the “Jahwist.” Normally, we English-speakers would begin spelling YaHWeH with a “Y,” but the landmark scholars who developed this “Documentary Hypothesis” were Germans.

The J source almost exclusively refers to God as “Yahweh,” whereas the second source uses the basic Hebrew word for God, Elohim. And, hence, is known as a the “E Source.” Then we have the “P Source,” which was written by the Priestly class as a response to the version of history in J and E. The fourth and final source is the “D,” which is primarily in Deuteronomy. J, P, and D also continue into Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

Two pieces of evidence particularly contributed to this Documentary Hypothesis: doublets (two, slightly different versions of the same story) and the names of God. As scholars compared the doublets in Hebrew Bible, they also noticed that usually one of each pair used the name Elohim for God and the other used the name Yahweh for God. Moreover, the E stories showed a bias toward the northern kingdom of Israel, and the J stories showed a bias toward the southern kingdom of Judah.

In 722 B.C.E., after the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, J and E were likely woven together. We cannot know for sure, but many scholars wagers an educated guess that weaving these two rival documents together was a symbolic way of “reuniting” the rival kingdoms in the wake of one kingdom being tragically conquered and destroyed.

For more on “The Book of J” and related resources, see the first sermon in this series, “Preaching “The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible?” Available at I particularly recommend the work of Richard Elliott Friedman as an accessible entry point into the source behind the Hebrew Bible.

2 “The Story of the Flood” is from chapter five of the Penguin Classics translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh (108-113), which is translated by N.K. Sandars. For a more recent and scholarly version, see the Norton Critical Edition. For a more accessible, popularized translation, see Stephen Mitchell’s rendering. In addition, for many similar parallel stories, see Victor Harold Matthews’ classic book Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (New Revised and Expanded Third Edition).

3 “the P Source, which holds that no ritual sacrifices happened until the Tabernacle is built” — for more see Robert S. Kawashima, “Sources and Redaction” in Reading Genesis: Ten Methods, edited by Ronald Hendel, 66-69.

4 The New York Times — In general, see Specifically, see James Hansen’s recent article, “Game Over for the Climate” about actions President Obama can take at

5 The New York Times — Justin Gillis and Joanna M. Foster, “Arctic Sea Ice Eyed for Clues to Weather Extremes” (March 28, 2012): This article says further that, “United States government scientists recently reported…that February was the 324th consecutive month in which global temperatures exceeded their long-term average for a given month; the last month with below-average temperatures was February 1985. In the United States, many more record highs are being set at weather stations than record lows, a bellwether indicator of a warming climate. “ See also the National Snow & Ice Data Center’s “Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis” page (

6 For more on the children and youth conference, visit

7 For more on the activist and non-commercialized origins of Mother’s Day, see “Why Mother’s Day Horrified, Ruined Its Own Mother” at

8How will this affect the seventh generation” — this perspective has been particularly identified with the Iroquois Nation. For more, see “An Iroquois Perspective” in American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History, edited by Christopher Vecsey and Robert Venables, 173-174.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

"As a fogie, I remember the query, “What if they gave a war and nobody ..."

What Happens If We Withdraw Our ..."
"> the song lyric... was from a Sarah McLachlan album... about a man wearing “a ..."

“The Price of Monotheism”
"Checking out ScripturesNow these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received ..."

Unitarian Universalism in 30 Seconds: Developing ..."
"Appreciated your article but I do have a comment, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher ..."

Preaching the Didache: What Is Your ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment