Listen Up, Noah

March 24th, 2014

Read Genesis 6:5-9:17

The Writers of Genesis

Readers of Genesis notice that several of the events in the book are told twice. There are two accounts of creation, two records of the generations between creation and the flood, two flood narratives (woven together), three stories of Israel’s ancestors presenting their wives as their sisters on foreign soil, two stories of Hagar’s exile from Abraham’s family, two explanations of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and so on. These are all genuine marks that the book of Genesis wasn’t written down as a single story by a single author—such as Moses, as tradition has it—but that the book is a collection of multiple traditions of Israel’s beginnings from different sources or authors. The book of Genesis itself doesn’t identify its authors, and biblical scholars have suggested a number of different proposals for them.

The classic proposal is that there were three authors. None of these figures should be considered authors in the modern sense, but rather skilled communicators who preserved and passed along traditions that had been developed over time by many before them. The two earliest of these are the Yahwist and the Elohist.

The Yahwist, it is believed, lived during the Davidic monarchy, founded around 1025 BCE, an important and influential ancient Near Eastern kingdom (1 and 2 Sam; 1 and 2 Kgs). Scholars gave him his name because he used Israel’s personal name of God, “Yahweh,” rendered in the CEB as “the Lord,” a title traditionally substituted for Yahweh. The Elohist, it is believed, lived during the monarchy as well and has been associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. His name comes from his avoidance of God’s personal name in Genesis and his use of the common Hebrew word elohim, “God.” The third author is the Priestly writer, so called because his contributions to Genesis reflect the practices of Israelite religion, like the Sabbath and circumcision, and his interest in thorough record keeping. He lived either during or after the Babylonian exile, which began in 587 BCE, a time when the Israelites hoped for the restoration of their monarchy and the reconstruction of their temple.

Editors skillfully combined the stories of these three writers into a single account of Israel’s beginnings. Genesis, therefore, provides the reader not one but multiple viewpoints on beginnings. The reader will still notice at times the special styles and perspectives of the writers and differences in their traditions. As a result, the reader experiences a richer picture of God, of the world, and of God’s people than would be possible from a single ancient writer. At key places in Genesis where details and religious viewpoints differ, the notes will help the reader hear these unique voices more clearly.


“Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him. The Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark with your whole household, because among this generation I’ve seen that you are a moral man.’” Genesis 6:22-7:1 CEB

This summary statement about Noah’s obedience is meant to emphasize his moral and exemplary character (Gen 6:9). ... Noah was the first obedient person (Gen 6:22).

The Ark

Neither the ark’s building materials nor its design is completely understood. They don’t appear to reflect the typical structure of ships in ancient times. The terms for the ark’s wood and the tar to cover it in 6:14 (see translation note a) are used nowhere else in the Bible. The ark’s dimensions in 6:15 suggest a rectangular shape. Such a boxy design appears to be part of the ancient Near Eastern flood tradition: The ship described in the Epic of Gilgamesh was a perfect cube, 180 feet on a side.

The Flood

Israel shared with its neighbors the idea that history was divided into two ages. The first age ended with a great flood. Both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic from Mesopotamia describe such a flood. They have many parallels to the biblical story. One key difference is that the Atrahasis Epic explains the flood as the gods’ attempt to control overpopulation, while Genesis describes it as God’s judgment of human sin. All of these flood stories appear to give expression to the deep human uneasiness about the stability of order in the world and the constant threat of chaos. In the biblical world, uncontrolled floodwaters were the primary symbol of chaos. The reader will notice a number of details that contrast or conflict with each other in the flood story. These can be best explained as coming from two writers, whose different stories have been skillfully combined here (rather than set side by side, as were the two creation stories). In the Yahwist’s flood story, God is referred to by name (Yahweh, “the Lord” in the CEB). Heavy rain brings on the flood (7:4, 12; 8:2b), and it lasts 40 days and nights (7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Noah brings seven pairs of the clean animals onto the ark (7:2-3), because they can be eaten and sacrificed, as Noah does immediately after the flood (Gen 8:20). The Priest always uses the word “God” in his story. The flood happens because the orders of creation fall apart (7:11; 8:2a), and it lasts an entire year (7:11, 24; 8:3b, 4-5, 13-14). Noah brings only one pair of all the animals onto the ark (6:19-20; 7:9, 15), since the Priest’s traditions say that people don’t eat meat until after the flood (Gen 1:29, 9:3), and they don’t make sacrifices until God gives instructions for them at Mount Sinai (Lev 1–7).

God's Covenant

The orders of the new era following the flood are guaranteed by a covenant God makes with the entire world: with the earth (9:13); with every living being (that is, with all the world’s animals; 9:10); and with Noah and all his descendants (that is, with all the world’s people; 9:9). It’s the first of three covenants that mark the major periods of history in the post-flood era. The second is with Abraham (Gen 15:1-21; 17:1-27); and the third and climactic covenant is with Israel at Mount Sinai, where all the instructions for living as a religious people are given (Exod 31:12-17).

The covenant is initiated, drawn up, and guaranteed by God. It is eternal (Gen 9:11, 12, 16).

The symbol of the covenant with the world is a natural phenomenon: the rainbow. The Hebrew word is actually bow, which usually refers to the weapon used by ancient Near Eastern soldiers and deities, including Israel’s God (Hab 3:9; Lam 2:4). God’s weapon of war and death is laid aside in the clouds and becomes the sign of the peace and life assured in the covenant.

Additional resources for kids can be found here!

Excerpted from: The CEB Study Bible, Copyright © 2013 Common English Bible. Used with permission.

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