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The Flood Myth Contradictions Explained by the Documentary Hypothesis

The Flood Myth Contradictions Explained by the Documentary Hypothesis June 29, 2021

I am knee-deep in a bunch of research, and some of it every technical, all surrounding dating of the Pentateuch and concerning the Documentary Hypothesis. For those uninitiated, the Pentateuch contains some irreconcilable issues that fall into four categories: repetition (redundancy), contradictions, discontinuity, terminology and style. There is only one coherent solution: it was compiled using multiple sources, and written at multiple times. Though there are several alternative theories, they all agree on this point. The Documentary Hypothesis remains the best theory for the job, and work that is constantly being carried out in academic institutions across the world further refine it.

Within this theory, there are four sources that are interwoven into the Pentateuch, but these were all pulled together by another “source”: redactors. Thus, in a sense, there were five sources, one could argue.

Anyway, I was wondering what a good example of this would be to discuss, and the most famous one is the flood myth. Most of the sources I am reading are pretty complex, so I thought I would choose Tim Callahan’s The Secret Origins of the Bible to pull out the details:

While the P and J creation stories have been kept separate, the final redactor blended the flood myths of the two traditions. This becomes fairly obvious from the number of conflicting doublets in the flood narrative. J has God instruct Noah to bring one pair of each kind of animal that is unclean and seven pairs of each that is clean, apparently for a sacrifice to be made after the flood (Gen. 7:3). Since according to the P tradition the designation of clean and unclean animals and sacrifices in general did not occur until the establishment of the Levitical code, God tells Noah in the P narrative to take two of each kind of animal, whether clean or unclean, onto the ark (Gen. 6:19-20). Again, in the J narrative the flood is caused by rain alone, and it rains for 40 days and nights (Gen. 7:12, 17). The P version is far more grand and complex. In Gen. 7:11 the windows of heaven are opened and the fountains of the deep are broken up. Thus, not only does it rain but the oceans rise from water rushing in from below. Not only that, but the flood lasts 150 days rather than 40 (Gen. 7:24). After the flood P simply says that Noah sent out a raven to look for dry land (Gen. 8:7), whereas J has a rather more involved story of sending a dove out three times. First, it returns unable to find a dry place to land. Next, it returns with an olive leaf in its mouth. The third time, it does not return (Gen. 8: 8-12). When the two narratives are untangled and the strands read separately, two coherent versions are seen. This would not be the case if Genesis 6 through 8 were a single, unified narrative by one author.

While it is obvious that the Biblical flood myth in general is based on Mesopotamian material going back to Sumerian tablets from between 2000 and 3000 BCE, what also becomes apparent upon comparison of the two stories is that J is based on the flood myth in Atrahasis, while P is based on a worldview derived from Enuma elish. For example, at the end of Atrahasis the gods are attracted by the sweet smell of Atrahasis’ sacrifice and resolve never again to destroy humanity, reconciling themselves to the fact that the human spirit has rebellion built into it from the blood of Wa’ila that was mixed with the clay to make the lullu. Compare this to Gen. 8:21 from the J narrative:

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” [p. 65-66]

I could go on as there is lots to talk about concerning the connection to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis. The simple fact of the matter that in one part of Genesis the flood is 40 days and nights, and in another it is 150 days. These sorts of contradictions are ten-a-penny and are best resolved by multiple sources writing at multiple times and being woven together by redactors.


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