Noah and Real Estate: Or, How Should We Then Read Genesis 6-9?

Article by   April 2014

No, this is not some extended joke about water-front property. But let the reader bear with me for a bit. The three laws of real estate are said to be "location, location, location." In other words, the evaluation of a property is going to be greatly affected by its location. Imagine, if you will, two 5,000-square-foot houses. They are identical in every feature. One is located on a tree-lined lane along with similar houses. In addition, each house on the lane sits in the midst of a sizable lot with plenty of lawn and garden space. The other house is situated in an industrial section of town, sandwiched in between two warehouses, with only narrow walkways separating the house from the warehouse on either side. In addition, there is a busy interstate highway nearby, with traffic noise around the clock. Even though the two houses are identical in every aspect as far as the house itself goes; these are nonetheless two very different houses. As a result, the house on the tree-lined lane will be worth more than the one in the warehouse district. The difference between the two houses is found in their contexts.

As the context of the house affects its evaluation, so the context of a text affects its interpretation (its evaluation, if you will). As the three laws of real estate are "location, location, location," so the three laws of interpretation are "context, context, context." As the context changes, so does the meaning of the text. Take, for example, the word "lead." What does it mean? We can't answer that question, because we have no context. There are some things it might mean, but we don't know what it does mean. It might, for example, be a noun, in which case it might refer to a piece of metal, or it might refer to a position in a race. Or it might be a verb, in which case it might mean "to be in command of," or it might mean "to conduct or escort someone or something." Without context, the meaning cannot be determined.


This issue of context and meaning has been raised by the recent movie Noah. Apparently (not having seen the movie, but relying on reviews) there are many things in the movie that are not included in the biblical account of the Flood in Genesis 6-9. Some of these things may be taken from such works as The Book of Enoch (a pre-Christian apocalyptic work out of a Jewish context). Other elements may be taken from later gnostic literature, or from Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) stories about the Flood. In any case, the writer has created a new story. He has provided a new context for some elements of the Bible account of Noah. In so doing, he has given these elements an entirely new meaning, a meaning they do not have in the account as we have it from the Bible. 

Context and the Ancient Near East

In the nineteenth century, literary material was found among the remains of ancient societies in the Near East. These literary materials were largely in Sumerian and Akkadian (the language of Assyria and Babylon). Included among these literary materials were accounts having to do with the creation of the world, as well as the flood. The mindset of many of the nineteenth century scholars who studied these remains was that Israel had simply borrowed these stories, reworking them for their own purposes. In other words, the allegation was that the writers of the Bible had done to the ANE materials what Darren Araonofsky (the director of Noah) did with the biblical materials. However, more recent scholarship is of the opinion that, while there are certainly similarities among these pieces of literature, there is little evidence of direct borrowing.

In brief, apart from the Bible, there are three (or perhaps four) pieces of ANE literature that present stories similar to those in Genesis 1-11, including the story of the Flood. These three are the Sumerian King List, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Sumerian Flood Tale (also known as Eridu Genesis). The fourth (The Epic of Gilgamesh) is the best-known outside of scholarly circles, but its version of the Flood story has been taken from the Atrahasis Epic. The similarities between these and Genesis 6-9 is that in each case there is a great flood. In the Sumerian King List, however, there is no ark. Other than the fact of the Flood (and in two of the three ANE sources there is also a man and an ark), there is little similarity with the biblical account. In fact, the differences are more significant than the similarities. Anyone interested in running down the details can find them conveniently in one place in K. A. Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 421-447. 

It is often the case that Old Testament scholars will insist that we need to read the Bible in its ANE context. That is, for example, the view of John Walton in his book The Lost World of Genesis One. In some sense, this insistence makes good sense. The Old Testament was written in the Near East a very long time ago, so it is by definition ANE literature. But on reconsideration, maybe it doesn't make such good sense. The observation that the Bible is technically ANE literature avoids asking a number of pertinent questions. First, it seems to assume a unity of mindset geographically across the ANE that simply did not exist. Most ANE societies were tenaciously polytheistic. That fact alone sets the Bible apart from other ANE literature, since the Bible is so persistently monotheistic. Even among the polytheistic societies of the ANE, views were quite different. The gods of the Egyptian pantheon tend to be presented as pacific, whereas the gods of the Mesopotamian pantheons appear much more war-like. So there are clearly differences among the various ANE cultures that argue that we should not be too quick to see deep similarities, even where there are surface similarities between literatures. 

A second question that should be asked is temporal. Identifying a particular piece of literature as ANE avoids asking the question as to when that literature was produced. The period covered by the term ANE is, in conventional systems, from about 4,500 BC (the Ubaid period in Mesopotamia) to about 540 BC (the Persian conquest of Babylon), so roughly 4000 years. The idea that two pieces of literature, with time differences of even two thousand years between them, could be considered as coming from the same culture (especially when it also covers the geographical space that includes modern Turkey, Egypt, and Iran) is not only absurd on the face of it, but absurd when given any serious consideration. Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, and Stephen King's The Shining are all technically Western literature. But the idea that they share the same culture, and hence are to be interpreted in the light of each other, is patently absurd. Yet that is very much the claim made with the Bible and the other literature in the ANE. The Bible, it is said, is to be interpreted in light of other ANE literature. But what exactly does that mean? That is a question almost impossible to answer. John Walton, in The Lost World of Genesis One, gives an answer that he considers obvious. 

I would suggest that the other ANE flood stories are in fact almost no help in understanding Genesis 6-9. The Genesis Flood account is shorter and simpler than the ANE accounts. The fuller context of the Flood (Genesis 1-11) differs in profound ways from the ANE accounts. As noted previously, the ANE accounts are polytheistic. The relationship of man to the gods in the ANE accounts is very different in character from the relationship of man to God as presented in the biblical account. Further, the very details of the events surrounding the Flood are very different between Genesis and the ANE literature. The one thing that the ANE sources do is that they place the flood in the context of history, not mythology. This is most obvious in the Sumerian King List, where the account of the flood is preceded by lists of kings who served in certain cites. Then after the flood account, it again takes up the listing of royal dynasties. So, with perhaps a little help from the ANE sources, we should see the account of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 as history, not mythology.(1)

Context and the Modern West

In the modern West, we are coming through a period in which academics have told us that there is no fixed meaning in a text, but that each reader draws out of a text essentially what he brings to it. This is particularly so with a text such as the Bible. The reader tends to see in the Bible those things that he is personally interested in, or that personally affect him. 

The idea that there is no fixed meaning in a text is patently false, as is demonstrated by the fact that those who insist otherwise still want us to receive the "fixed" meaning of their own texts. To be sure, there is some truth to the idea that readers of the Bible bring their own interests to the text, and read those interests into the biblical text. Nevertheless, what that means in practice is that such readers of the Bible focus on those dozen or so passages that they consider most pertinent to themselves. They do not do it with the whole Bible. Those portions of the Bible that they consider irrelevant to their own life-setting, they simply ignore. Thus, the proliferation of references to Philippians 4:13 as being equivalent to "I can succeed at sports through Christ," with no corresponding references to Ecclesiastes 9:11.

There is, of course, also the tendency to read our own concerns and issues into the Bible, regardless of whether or how the Bible addresses some of those concerns and issues. So we have the example of The Green Bible, a study edition of the Bible that focuses on what the Bible has to say about the environment. In some sense, there is nothing wrong with taking note about what the Bible says about something. In fact, that is what we are to do. But there is a question of balance, and The Green Bible strikes me as unbalanced. Apparently, and again I speak without having seen the movie, in Noah the chief sin is the abuse of the environment. I have no doubt that the antediluvians were at least as abusive of the environment as we are, but that does not seem to me to be the chief concern of the story of Noah and the Flood as we find it in the Bible. Such a reading of the Flood account is an example of imposing our context upon the text of the Bible. But that leaves us with the question of how we are to read the Bible, that is, in what context is the Bible to be understood?

The Bible in Its Own Context

Christians generally affirm that the Bible is the Word of God, though precisely what that means differs from one communion to another. But in confessional Reformed circles, whether holding to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Standards, the Bible is "the Word of God written ... given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life" (WCF 1.2). Implicit in that statement (and spelled out more particularly in the paragraphs that follow) is the idea that the Bible is the self-contained Word of God. That is, the Bible provides its own context. Everything necessary for understanding the Bible is contained within it. That is how it can function as the "supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined" (WCF 1.10). 

Does this mean that a knowledge of ANE literature and culture is unnecessary for understanding the Bible, particularly such parts of the Bible as the story of Noah and the Flood? In short, yes. Such knowledge can be helpful as a way of reminding us that the Old Testament was not written yesterday. But such knowledge is not necessary. If that were not that case, then for the first eighteen centuries of the life of the church, God withheld information from the church that was necessary for her proper understanding of the Scriptures. That assertion seems contrary to reason, as well as to the Scriptural assurance that "in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1:2). The Bible is its own context.

With that in mind, how are we to understand the story of Noah and the Flood? We are to understand that the present world was created by the one true God. That mankind was the crown of that creation, having been created in the image of God, unlike the other creatures. That mankind fell in the transgression of the first man, and the race as a whole was plunged into sin and misery. That God promised a redeemer for the salvation of mankind. That mankind continued and increased in sin, violence, and corruption. That God determined to destroy the earth with a great flood, though this destruction would not be complete, but rather would save not only the human race, but the animals as well. As a result, the Flood becomes a picture not only of a final and complete judgment in which the wicked are destroyed, but also of the saving and preserving of God's people. That Noah and his family were not saved from the Flood due to their own righteousness (apparently the movie got this right), but due to the grace of God (Genesis 6:8). That the Flood did not remove sin and its effects either from the human race or from the earth (Genesis 8:21). That God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants, the sign of which is the rainbow, that God would not again destroy the earth by flood, but that the earth would remain until God's purposes are complete. That we currently live under the covenant of Noah (at least) with all its promises and benefits. That is the meaning of Noah and the Flood as the Bible itself gives us the meaning out of its own context.

Dr. Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He blogs regularly a


1. For those who are interested, there are reasonably reliable translations of the ANE sources online. For Eridu Genesis: For the Atrahasis Epic: For the Sumerian King List:

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