The Flood Narrative III

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(continued from here and here)

Another way to respond to the findings of source critics is to deny their most basic claims. Biblical commentators have, for centuries, explained the flood narrative as a flowing, continuous passage. Even many modern commentators with a traditional bent ignore Bible criticism and follow the path of the pre-modern commentators. However, it is possible that they are able to view the passage as a whole because they ignore, intentionally or not, some of the points raised by source critics. There are some modern commentators, though, who are fully cognizant of the detailed arguments of source critics and still see the narrative as one flowing text. Chief among these scholars is Prof. Umberto Cassuto.

Cassuto first brought to light the literary structure of the narrative by dividing it into smaller, discreet units and showing that each section is a direct progression from the previous, in addition to being a part of a larger literary unit. Subsequent scholars have continued his work, including William Shea, who has an essay on this subject posted online. I will present here this basic approach.

I. Units

The general passage of the flood lends itself into division, although there are places where there is room to debate the actual cut-off points. Shea divides the flood narrative into 17 units as follows:

1. Primary Genealogical Inclusio: 5:32
2. Prologue: 6:1-8
3. Secondary Genealogical Inclusio: 6:9-10
4. First Divine Speech, Pre-Diluvial Covenant: 6:11-22
5. Command to Enter the Ark, Preservation of the Animals: 7:1-5
6. Preservation of the Animals: 7:6-10
7. Entering the Ark: 7:11-16
8. Flood Waters Rise: 7:17-24
9. Apex and Climax of the Flood 8:1-5
10. Flood Waters Abate: 8:6-12
11. Leaving the Ark: 8:13-19
12. First Purpose for the Animals: 8:20-22
13. Second Purpose for the Animals: 9:1-7
14. Last Divine Speech, Post-Diluvial Covenant: 9:8-17
15. Secondary Genealogical Inclusio: 9:18-19
16. Epilogue: 9:20-27
17. Primary Genealogical Inclusio: 9:28-29

Shown in a diagram to reflect the chiastic literary structure of the entire passage, the units take the following impressive form:

1. Primary Genealogical Inclusio: 5:32
2. Prologue: 6:1-8
3. Secondary Genealogical Inclusio: 6:9-10
4. First Divine Speech, Pre-Diluvial Covenant: 6:11-22
5. Preservation of the Animals,
Preservation of the Animals: 7:1-5
6. Preservation of the Animals: 7:6-10
7. Entering the Ark: 7:11-16
8. Flood Waters Rise: 7:17-24
17. Primary Genealogical Inclusio: 9:28-29
16. Epilogue: 9:20-27
15. Secondary Genealogical Inclusio: 9:18-19
14. Last Divine Speech, Post-Diluvial Covenant: 9:8-17
13. Second Purpose for the
Animals: 9:1-7
12. First Purpose for the Animals: 8:20-22
11. Leaving the Ark: 8:13-19
10. Flood Waters Abate: 8:6-12
9. Apex and Climax of the Flood 8:1-5

The connections between corresponding sections are not only thematic, but often linguistic as well. Thus, for example, sections 4 and 14 both use forms of the word “shahas,” “mabul,” and “b’ris.”

As mentioned earlier, the dating of the flood follows a similar chiastic pattern:

1. 7 days of waiting for the flood (7:4)
2. 7 days of waiting for the flood (7:10)
3. 40 days of flood (7:17)
4. 150 days of water prevailing (7:24)
9. 7 days of waiting to send next dove (8:12)
8. 7 days of waiting to send dove (8:10)
7. 40 days of waiting to send raven (8:6)
6. 150 days of water waning (8:3)
5. The flood cresting, the ark resting, God remembers Noah (8:1)

The ability of the narrative to further the story, unit by unit, while still maintaining this overall chiastic structure is stunning. Cassuto wrote about this:

[T]he section in its present form cannot possibly be the outsome of the synthesis of fragments culled from various sources; for from such a process there could not have emerged a work so beautiful and harmonious in all its parts and details. (From Noah to Abraham, p. 34)

II. Repetition

All of this overall structure is lovely, but it has only bypassed some of the more basic questions that source critics asked without actually answering them. Why is there so much repetition? Why do the different recurrences of similar passages appear differently?

Cassuto (Me-Noah Ad Avraham, pp. 25-26) answers by claiming that this form of narrative with frequent repetition is common in ancient Near Eastern literature and, therefore, should not strike the reader as indicating multiple authors or sources. This response is not, necessarily, contrary to traditional Jewish beliefs. The Rambam explains at length, in his Moreh Nevukhim, that some commandments have as a primary reason that they were directed against common practices in the world of the original recipients of the Torah. The Torah was given to them as well as to all future generations. It is not unthinkable to suggest that the Torah was written in a language and style that would be familiar to those original readers (see here for an essay on a similar topic by R. Chaim Navon).

Furthermore, each repeated phrase is unique in its wording to reflect its position within the plot’s progression. Thus, for example, the list of animals is repeated in 6:19-20, 7:2-3, 7:8-9 and 7:15-16 (see this post section I.2). The second list has the unique characteristic of referring to a pair as “husband and wife” rather than “male and female.” The reason for this is that this list is part of the unit in which Noah was commanded to bring 7 pairs of animals to the Ark. Were it to say “male and female” in regard to 7 pairs, one might have thought that one male and many females or one female and many males is sufficient. “Husband and wife” is an economic way of making the point that the number of males and females must be the same.

Additionally, both the second and third lists distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” animals. The corresponding units to the sections in which these two list are mentioned discuss the sacrifices that Noah brought after the flood and the permission to eat animals. It is, therefore, not surprising that “clean” and “unclean” animals are mentioned.

However, while the repetitions in the narrative can be attributed to literary style, this does not imply that they have no deeper meanings. It only means that the style should not surprise us. These additional meanings have been expounded throughout centuries of biblical commentary. However, the style of repetition itself, that caused critics to investigate multiple sources, is a common feature of ancient Near Eastern literature.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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