The flood accounts
November 15, 2005 · Originally posted on MB Forum
Quite a while ago I heard the claim that there are two flood accounts stitched together in Genesis 6–8. This is widely accepted by those who hold to the Documentary Hypothesis, but it does not depend on that. Even if the Documentary Hypothesis is not true, the evidence for two flood accounts remains.
When I first heard about this idea, I decided to check it out myself. The claim is that there’s one flood account that uses the word “God” (Elohim in Hebrew), while the other uses the word “LORD” (Yahweh in Hebrew). Also, many things are described twice. When I researched this, what I found compelling is that when things are described twice (or more), one time uses the word “God” while the other uses the word “LORD”. For me, that’s the clincher that moves it from a vague idea to a real likelihood.
After trying myself to separate the two accounts, I also looked at what others had come up with. For the most part, my divisions agreed, but not always. I made a few changes, and the result is as follows. The largest detail that is not duplicated in these chapters is the description of the ark. That only appears in the second account, meaning the ark’s first mention in the first account is abrupt.
The accounts that follow use every phrase of every verse in Genesis 6:5–9:17 (ESV) exactly once. Headings have been added for clarity, and any minor word changes are marked in square brackets.
The “LORD” or Yahweh account
Increasing Corruption on Earth
GENESIS 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Instructions for Noah
7:1 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into [an] ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.
7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9A two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah. 16B And the LORD shut him in. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.
12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark.
The Flood Subsides
8:2B The rain from the heavens was restrained, 3A and the waters receded from the earth continually.
A Bird is Sent
6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. 9 But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. 11 And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.
God’s Covenant with Noah
13B And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
The “God” or Elohim account
Increasing Corruption on Earth
GENESIS 6:9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
Instructions for Noah
14 “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
7:6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth.
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature, 9B as God had commanded Noah. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16A And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him.
21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.
The Flood Subsides
8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. 2A The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed. 3B At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, 4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.
A Bird is Sent
7 And [Noah] sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.
God’s Covenant with Noah
13A In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh -- birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth -- that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19 Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark.
9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. 7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
A short summary of distinctives in the accounts
- There are many vocabulary distinctives. As an example, “flesh” is used repeatedly in the second account but never in the first, while “blot” is used repeatedly in the first account but never in the second. This alone does not support the idea that there are two accounts, because vocabulary became a criteria for dividing the accounts. However, it is telling that the flow of the separated stories makes sense when this criteria is used, and it aligns with separating duplicated events. This would not be expected to happen if the account was indivisible. I noted about 20 Hebrew words that occur more than once and yet always appear in the same account.
- The first account makes a lot of use of the number seven, while that number only shows up once in the second account when referring to the seventh month.
- The clean/unclean restrictions are only mentioned in the first account, as are the seven pairs of clean animals and all birds, and the offerings of Noah after the flood.
- The source of the water is different in the two accounts. So is the duration of the flood (40 days or 150 days), the bird sent out (a dove or a raven), what God says will never happen again (curse the ground and strike down every living creature, or send a flood that destroys “all flesh”), and many other minor details.
- The first account has the LORD performing more human actions (“And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth”, “I have seen that you are righteous before me”, “And the LORD shut him in” the ark, “And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart . . .”).
- Many practical details only show up in the second account, such as bringing food, how to build the ark, how a wind dried the land, the names of Noah’s sons, and precise dates, ages and places.
- The first account mirrors Genesis 2:4–4:26 in many respects. Both take concepts revealed later and add them to earlier events, including sacrifices and the covenant name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush; the flood account also brings in clean/unclean restrictions that were revealed to Moses even later. Both give a picture of God that is quite personal, with human emotions and traits. Both are written from an agricultural focus, as shown by their concern about rain, the cursing of the ground, and their lack of any mention of sea creatures.
- The second account mirrors the Genesis 1:1–2:3 creation account in word usage and themes (“And God saw . . .”, “according to their kinds”, “the fish of the sea”, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, “God made man in his own image”, etc.).
Now briefly, why does this matter? If one doesn’t treat the flood narrative as two accounts, there are many contradictions. Perhaps the most obvious is the number of birds brought onboard according to Genesis 6:20, 7:3. It would be quite unlikely that a single author writing the entire account would make such an obvious mistake.
But, if one does treat this passage as having two accounts merged into one, then by seeing the inconsequential differences between the accounts one can see the level of detail that was important and what details varied based on how the story was told. The person who compiled the accounts together preserved their differences, and this shows how much he valued both of them and was unwilling to make even small changes to harmonize them.
One theory is that one account was passed down in the Northern Kingdom and the other in Judah. The author who compiled them together preserved the distinctive bits of both traditions in a single account in a way to help bring the nation together. By doing so, he creates a work that shows a more balanced view of God: not just like a human, but also not distant and unemotional. No human language can do justice to God’s character, but by combining the two pictures in this account, one gets a more accurate view of God than either picture presents on its own.