Noah was the well-known biblical flood hero, who saved a remnant of humanity and the animals by building an ark, following God’s instructions. In addition, after the flood he received God’s commandments and covenant and discovered wine. According to Gen 5 he was the tenth in the line of patriarchs starting with Adam.

Noah and the Flood: a combination of two sources

According to most scholars, the flood story is not an original unity but made up of two sources, J (sometimes called non-P) and P, the priestly source (see Pentateuch). The two stories are easily distinguished, as the editor did not eliminate discrepancies and unnecessary repetitions. J uses the divine name Yahweh, “the LORD” in most English versions, and P employs Elohim, “God.” Both J and P introduce the story by speaking of humanity’s universal wickedness, Noah’s favoured position and God’s determination to destroy the world (6:5-8 J; 6:9-13 P; but the words in 9:12, according to many scholars, cover animals as well as humanity). Only P (6:9) says that Noah was an especially good man. P alone gives God’s instructions to Noah for the construction of the ark (6:14-16), which include making it of gopher (cypress?) wood, reeds, and pitch (6:14, if one reads qanim, “reeds,” instead of qinnim, “rooms,” literally “nests”). But whereas in P God commands Noah to bring the animals in by twos (6:20), J prescribes the clean animals (see Lev 11) to enter in sevens and the unclean animals in twos (7:2-3). Noah’s wife, his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives accompany Noah (7:13 P).

For P the flood comes not only from the sky but also from under the earth (7:11; 8:2-3), the waters coming forth for 150 days (7:24; 8:3), though the earth is not dry till a year and ten days later (7:11; 8:14; as the calendar was a lunar one this is a full solar year). However, for J the rains alone cause the flood and pour down for forty days and forty nights (7:12; 8:6). In Gen 8:4 (P) the ark lands on the mountains of Ararat (a country, roughly what is now Armenia and north-eastern Turkey; not modern Mt Ararat!). In J another 21 days pass before the earth is dry, while Noah sends out a dove three times (8:6, 8-12); P speaks only of the sending forth of a raven (8:7). Following the descent from the ark, J mentions Noah’s offering sacrifices to Yahweh, who promises never to curse the ground again (8:20-22). For P God’s promise never to flood the earth again constitutes his covenant with Noah (9:8-17).

The Mesopotamian flood myth

There is no doubt that the biblical flood story is based on the Mesopotamian flood myth. Palestine is not subject to serious floods, and although flood stories are attested all over the world, the biblical story stands particularly close to the Mesopotamian myth, which is obviously older. This myth is known in various versions. The oldest is the fragmentary Sumerian flood story (ca. 1700 BCE), where the flood hero is called Ziusudra. Next comes the Atrahasis epic (ca. 1650 BCE), which starting with the creation of the world goes on to speak of a series of disasters climaxing in a flood brought about by the god Enlil because humanity has become too noisy; Atrahasis is the flood hero. The Atrahasis version of the flood was taken over and modified to some extent in tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic (ca. 1200 BCE), in which the flood hero, Utnapishtim, recounts the flood story to Gilgamesh. Even later the flood story is recorded by Berossus, a Babylonian priest writing in Greek ca. 280 BCE, who calls the flood hero Xisouthros (recalling the earliest name Ziusudra).

The Mesopotamian myth and the Genesis story

Although Gilgamesh contains the fullest preserved version, it is likely that the biblical flood story is dependent on Atrahasis. Like Genesis and unlike the Gilgamesh flood story, the Atrahasis epic is recounted in the third person and moves from creation to flood following the multiplication of humanity. In contrast, in Gilgamesh the flood is wrenched from its original context and narrated in the first person. Another pointer to the biblical story’s dependence on Atrahasis is that God predicts the coming of the flood seven days before the event (Gen 7:4 J), just as Ea does to Atrahasis, but this is not the case in Gilgamesh. Furthermore, in a neo-Babylonian fragment of Atrahasis Ea promises there will never be another flood, just like Gen 8:21-22 (J), 9:8-17 (P), something again not in Gilgamesh.

In all Mesopotamian versions the flood hero offers sacrifice following the flood, just as Noah does. Although the sending out of birds from the ark is attested in Gilgamesh but not in Atrahasis (dove, swallow, raven), the Atrahasis epic is broken at this point and it was doubtless originally there, since Gilgamesh 11 follows Atrahasis quite closely.

Irving Finkel has recently pointed to a new version of part of the Atrahasis epic in which the ark appears to be round, rather than square or rectangular, and in which the animals go in two by two as in the Priestly version in Genesis.

The theological differences

There are fundamental theological differences between the biblical flood account and the earlier Mesopotamian flood tradition.

(1) One God, not many

Whereas in the Mesopotamian stories one god (Enlil) brings the flood and another (Enki/Ea) delivers the flood hero, and all the gods are afraid of the flood, in Genesis the same God does both, displaying complete sovereignty.

(2) A moral tale

The biblical flood is a judgment on human (and animal?) sin, whereas in Atrahasis Enlil brings the flood because humanity has grown too noisy and it disturbs his sleep, while in Gilgamesh the flood is simply a whim of Enlil.

(3) No immortality

In all versions the Mesopotamian flood hero is made immortal following the flood, but this does not happen to Noah.

Historicity of the Flood

There is no evidence for a universal flood in the last few thousand years such as Gen 6-8 describes. However, a historical kernel probably lies behind the story, namely a particularly severe localized Mesopotamian flood. Various alleged flood deposits are attested in Mesopotamia but they are from different dates. The Mesopotamian flood hero (including the earliest, Ziusudra) is said to have come from Shuruppak. It is therefore striking that a flood deposit at Shuruppak dates from ca. 2800 BCE, and flood deposits of this date are also attested at Uruk, Kish, and Lagash. Quite plausibly, therefore, it was this great flood that eventually got blown up into universal proportions.

The commandments to Noah

Genesis 9:1-17 is from the Priestly source. In 9:1 and 9:7 God instructs Noah to be fruitful and multiply, reiterating the original commandment of Gen 1:28. But whereas in Gen 1 humans are limited to a vegetarian diet, in the post-flood situation they are permitted to eat meat, provided the blood is drained (9:2-4). However, killing humans is forbidden, since they are made in the image of God. Those who disobey this command must themselves forfeit their lives (9:5-6).

The covenant with Noah

Genesis 9:1-7 is not part of the covenant with Noah, which is given in 9:8-17, though later Isa 24:5 (probably) and the rabbis came so to regard it. In Genesis the covenant is simply God’s promise never to bring a universal flood again, and as a sign of this covenant he sets a rainbow in the sky. Some scholars have seen the rainbow as God’s war bow, which he now hangs up in the heavens as a sign of peace. But there is no evidence for this. Gen 9 (like the P covenant with Abraham in Gen 17) says God “established” (heqim) or “gave” (nathan) this covenant, rather than ‘made’ it (karat, literally ‘cut’). This is probably because for P there was no sacrifice before Moses, and the verb karat had sacrificial overtones (see Gen 15:10; Jer 34:18).

Noah’s curse and blessings and the discovery of wine

Afterwards, in Gen 9:20-27 (J), we have a story of a totally different character. In contrast to the Mesopotamian flood hero, who was made immortal, Noah gets drunk through drinking wine and lies naked. It was the first occasion of wine drinking, so doubtless forgivable! Noah’s son Ham sees his father naked, but Noah’s other sons, Shem and Japheth, walk backwards and cover his nakedness. Following this Noah curses Canaan, the son of Ham, but blesses Shem and Japheth, who are to enslave Canaan. We have here a story accounting for the Canaanites’ subjugation by the Israelites (Shem) and Philistines (Japheth).

Noah after Genesis

Noah elsewhere in the Old Testament

The earliest reference to Noah outside Gen 6-9 is in Ezek 14:14, 20, which states that if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in the land they would deliver only their own lives by their righteousness. Another reference is in Isa 54:9, which compares the exile to “the days of Noah,” and promises that, just as God had promised Noah never to flood the earth again, so he will have now compassion on Israel. Finally, Isa 24:5 refers to the earth being polluted by transgression of the everlasting covenant, whereupon a curse devours the earth. Probably the Noachic covenant is intended, which is similarly universal and called an “eternal covenant” in Gen 9:16. Doubtless bloodshed is in mind (Isa 26:21), and the command against this in Gen 9:6 is here associated with the following Noachic covenant, as in later rabbinic Judaism.

Noah in later Jewish sources

In Jubilees there are far more dates to the flood story and the ark lands on Mt Lubar.

Philo allegorizes the story of Noah’s flood; it is both a flood of passion from which Noah barely escapes but also a cleansing of the soul. In contrast, Josephus is more interested in the flood as an historical event and compares various pagan flood stories; he even equates Noah’s flood with the Babylonian flood story, which he knew from Berossus. He is one of the first to present Noah as a preacher of repentance.

Noah as a preacher of repentance became common in rabbinic literature. Some rabbis saw Noah as only relatively righteous, and the ark was said to land on Mt Qardu (southern Armenia/Kurdistan). Ham’s action towards Noah became interpreted as homosexual incest, while God’s commands to Noah in Gen 9:4-6 were elaborated by the rabbis into seven ‘Noachic’ commandments, laws of a general nature that were believed to be binding on all nations.

Noah in the New Testament

Luke 3:36 lists Noah as of the tenth generation from Adam (Gen 5). Matt 24:38 and Luke 17:26-27 compare the days leading up to Noah’s flood with the time preceding the coming of the Son of Man, thereby emphasizing the need for watchfulness. Heb 11:7 declares that it was by faith that Noah built the ark, and 2 Pet 2:5 speaks of Noah as “a herald of righteousness” (contrast the silent Noah of Genesis). 1 Pet 3:19-20 mentions Christ’s preaching to “the spirits in prison” who were disobedient when Noah’s ark was being built; most likely this refers to wicked humanity at the time of Noah rather than the evil angels of Gen 6:1-4.

Noah in Islam

Noah, a prophet in Islam, is mentioned several times in the Qur’an, but the flood story is recounted in most detail in Sura 11:25-48. Noah called the people to repentance but the people scoffed at him (also Sura 71). We read that the animals went in two by two, a fourth son of Noah was a sinner and got drowned, and the ark landed on Mt Judi. Noah was aged 950 when the flood came, which in Genesis is Noah’s age at death.

Further reading

Bailey, Lloyd R. Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Cohn, Norman. Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Day, John. From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11. The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 592. London: Bloomsbury Academic [T&T Clark], 2013.
Finkel, Irving. The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.
Lewis, Jack P. “Noah and the Flood in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Tradition.” Biblical Archaeologist 47 (1984): 224-39.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. London: SPCK, 1984.