Noah in Context

All of the hubbub about the new Noah movie has me thinking about what the Noah story was actually suppose to do in its canonical context in the “Primordial” history of Genesis (1-11). I teach a monthly class called “Re-Reading Scripture”  for those who want more than you usually get from a Sunday morning church Bible study. My hope is to give the students a touch of seminary-level education.

In a couple of recent classes, we explored the early chapters of Genesis and—as I always do—I try to stay with exegesis. In fact, what I usually want for the students is that they might experience the text in the shape they find it in their Bibles. So one of the driving questions for me is “How was this story intended to be heard as it is now–however it got here?”

I recently discovered that the narrative of Genesis 1-11 has an amazing symmetry I had never seen before.   discovered that, in fact, Genesis contains two creation stories, but I not thinking the E and J stories of the first two chapters. Rather the entire text Genesis 1-11 can be outline into two halves with the Noah story marking the second “creation” story, thus indicating that the Noah story is intentionally positioned in a much larger narrative.

First Half: Creation to the Flood (Ten Generations)

  1. Creation (1-2)
    1. Deeps (1.2)
    2. Blessing (1.22)
    3. Mandate (1.28)
    4. Food (1.29-30)
    5. Adam worked the ground (2.15)
  2. Adam and Eve Ate Fruit of the Tree (3)
    1. Fruit of the Tree (3.1-7)
    2. Nakedness Exposed (3.7)
  3. Cain Sinned and Cursed (4)
    Genealogy: Adam to Noah (5)
    Sons of God (6.1-4)

    1. Divine-human mix (6.1-2)
    2. Men of a name [Heb. shem] (6.4)
    3. Flood (6.5-7.24)

Result:  Creation Undone

Second Half: Noah to the Ancestors (Ten Generations)

  1. Re-Creation (8.1-9.17)
    1. Deeps (8.2)
    2. Blessing (8.17)
    3. Mandate (9.1-2, 7)
    4. Food (9.3)
    5. Noah worked the ground (9.20)
  2. Noah Drank Fruit of the Vine (9.18-28)
    1. Wine (9.20-21)
    2. Nakedness viewed (9.21-23)
  3. Ham Sinned and Cursed (9.25-27)
  4. Genealogy: Sons of Noah (10)
  5. Tower of Babel (11.1–9)
    1. Reach Heaven (11.4)
    2. Make a Name [shem]  (11.4)
  6. Genealogy of Shem [shem] (11.10-26

New Direction: God will make Abram’s name [shem] great (12.2)

Though I liked to say I discovered this on my own, I did not. I found it in Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (4th ed.; Belmont, Calif.: Wadworth 2009), 73. If it goes back to earlier Old Testament scholars, he does not say.

This outline did a couple of things for me. First, it shows that Genesis 1-11 can be read as a unified narrative rather than a patch work of  pieces from a variety of sources. This not to deny that such is the case, but only that—in final analysis—the text has a cohesiveness and a logic that argues for intentionality in arrangement.

More importantly, as a unified narrative, the Noah story is but a piece of the overall goal of the text. In this reading, the Noah story represents a second act on the part of God to set his rather feisty creatures in the right direction. The text argues that though God gave humans a second chance, they nonetheless returned to old habits, dispositions, and inclinations. The Noah stor, from this vantage point, is a retelling of the Adam and Eve saga. The outcome of both is nakedness. They, Adam, Eve, and Noah, are exposed for who they really are and it’s not good.

Finally, the  story of Noah is framed as a story of grace (I know a lot of folks died). But the Noah story represents a new beginning for humanity, the real “grace” in the story is not human response to divine gracy but rather God’s decisions to forgo another cleansing, but rather to work slowly with his creation by choosing one person (Shem) the then work through his family (Abraham’s) to accomplish God’s goals.

Against the other “Noah stories” available in the ancient near east, the biblical Noah story had a particular tale to tell but the story did not end in itself.


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