Prologue to the Flood: Gen 6:5-8
Hebrew nuances lost in translationThis is the third post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9). For the first two posts:
1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
This is a summary of broad findings. For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.
First read Gen 6:5-8:
6:5 But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.
(a) Wickedness and evilMost English translations use two different words in Gen 6:5, namely ‘wickedness’ and ‘evil’. The Hebrew, however, uses the same word1 for both parts of this verse. In English, ‘wickedness’ and ‘evil’ are essentially synonymous and interchangeable. In Hebrew, however, there is a clearer distinction–even if it can sometimes be blurred.
The Hebrew word for ‘wickedness’ (אָוֶן), never appears in the Flood narrative. Hebrew ‘wickedness’ is most often used to describe the act of committing a sin, or more commonly a sinner. As such, ‘wickedness’ in Hebrew is best defined as ‘doing something against God’ or ‘opposition to God’.
By contrast, the Hebrew word for ‘evil’ (רָעָה) appears 3 times in the Flood narrative (Gen 6:5 twice, and Gen 8:21). It is more global in its use, and even God is described as doing it in the Bible. ‘Evil’, in Hebrew, means ‘opposition’, not necessarily sinning, which is opposition to God. God often does things to oppose humans; in other words, God often does ‘evil’ in the Hebrew (Scriptural) sense of the word. For example, he specifically guides us away from things that aren’t good for us. He also punishes us to guide us back towards him.
This blog will use the standard convention in evangelical commentaries of not translating the name of God, YHWH, into ‘the LORD’.
Unfortunately, English readers of the Bible are unaccustomed to thinking of God doing ‘evil’ because English translations have found literally dozens of words to translate Hebrew ‘evil’ into ‘softer’ words instead of ‘evil’. This helps perpetuate the modern Christian conception that God is ‘incapable of doing evil’ or that ‘God is the opposite of evil’. But Scripture tells us the exact opposite in several passages (i.e. Isa 45:7). So whereas ‘wickedness’ in Hebrew means ‘opposition to God’, ‘evil’ in Hebrew means ‘opposition’.
As far as the Flood is concerned, Gen 6:5-8 describes the cause of the Flood as the ‘evil’ of humankind, whose “hearts are only ever focussed on evil, all of the time”. Theologically, then, it is not just that humankind were in opposition to God that brought the Flood down on us–it was our opposition, period. Or, it was our opposition to everything (otherwise, Moses would have used the word for ‘sinning’). We should see the strife and depravity of humanity at this period as one of emotional and physical violence against each other, against the land, against even humanity’s own thoughts and feelings, against ideas, and of course worst of all, opposition against God himself.
(b) Chaos vs. OrderOne of the most universal things in ‘Introduction to the Bible’ textbooks, taught in both secular and Christian schools, is the theology of ‘chaos and order’. It’s a tough thing to introduce in summary form, because it takes some background to see how prominent it is in Scripture. Essentially, all of the surrounding cultures of Biblical Israel had a common motif in their religions of the opposing forces of chaos and order. The concept is that the earth/cosmos is by nature chaotic, and we need the gods and their vassals (kings) to bring order to it. In these religions their Creation myths all involve a state of chaos before Creation, namely one marked by primordial waters, often deified as gods (Apophis in Egypt, Tiamat in Mesopotamia, Yam in Canaan, etc.). Creation is achieved by a god defeating the chaos waters (often represented as a chaos serpent) and bringing order to it, for example by forming land to separate the waters.
The kings in these religions secured their positions by claiming to be the representative on earth of the divine force of order. Kings maintained order by protecting the borders of their lands from chaos (foreigners, armies, and foreign ideas).
The priests maintained temples which people attended for healing and protection. The priests supported the cause of order by feeding and clothing the idols. The idols represented the gods who maintained order. By maintaining the temple (home) of these gods, the priests satiated the gods and helped to maintain order.
Finally, on the level of the ‘common folk’, mass industries existed for talismans, amulets, and jewelry, which warded off evil spirits and the forces of chaos. Scores of these have survived to be found by archaeology
Furthermore, an industry of healers, magicians, and priests sold their services to common folk to protect them from the forces of chaos and evil. Sickness came to a person when chaos attacked them, and they required healers that mixed natural remedies with incantations and magical formula to ward off the chaotic evil spirits.
The cultures surrounding Israel held these common associations with the words order and chaos:
Nearly all evangelical scholars would argue that the Israelites shared this same view, which in turn the Bible addresses in both using it’s language and also criticizing it.
If order vs. chaos doesn’t sound familiar to you from the Bible, you’re not alone. It takes a full chapter in many textbooks to demonstrate that the Bible is chock-full of references to these theologies. However, the Bible is unique in that while it references and shares the language of this theology, the writers of the books of the Bible, writing God-breathed Scripture, both downplay and critique this worldview. At the same time they employ it’s language and, in slightly contradictory form, uphold this worldview. Many point to Genesis as an example of this, but it is actually the Psalms which most reflect this worldview. Read these Scriptural passages to see how God used the language of this theology of chaos vs. order to communicate to a people who believed in the ‘higher’ concepts of Biblical theology. Hover your mouse over these passages (or touch them if on a tablet or smartphone) to get a cursory overview. There are many more examples than these.
Gen 1 (notice how ‘good, light, day, land, and life, i.e. the associations with ‘order’, are created in Gen 1?), Ps 2:1, Ps 6:5, Ps 8, Ps 11:2, Ps 16:10, Ps 18:4, Ps 18:15-16, and Ps 24:2, for just some examples from the first 25 psalms alone. In addition, almost any time either Leviathan/Rahab, Sheol, or Yam (the Sea) is mentioned, it’s association with chaos is quite immediate. The Hebrew word for sea is, in fact, the name of the Canaanite sea god of chaos. The Hebrew word for death, Mot, is also a Canaanite god. The Scriptures gradually overturn the Canaanite meaning of this ‘evil’ sea god of chaos and use it just for the sea There are numerous passages, especially in the Psalms, where YHWH subjugates or controls Yam (‘sea’) or Leviathan, most often in an alternate (not different) view of Creation. Gen 1:1-3 contains a conflict between God and chaos (Job 7:11-12, Job 26:12-14, Ps 68:22-23, Ps 74:12-17, Ps 89:6-11). Notice the word ‘sea’ and descriptions of the ‘beast’ in these Scriptures [can] refer to Yam and Leviathan.
As we’ll see, the story of Noah and the Flood is one of the most picturesque examples of this worldview being used to communicate God’s desire for a covenant relationship with us–but it is communicated in a language steeped with this worldview.
(c) Undoing CreationThe entire story of the Flood is a literary ‘reversal of Creation’ or ‘anti-Creation’. Throughout the narrative, Moses uses language, ideas, and images that show an unraveling and undoing of Creation itself. We’ll talk about this more as the Flood narrative develops this theme and brings it to a climax, but for now let’s take a look at how the unravelling of Creation is first introduced in this prologue to the story.
The ‘reversal of Creation’ we see in Gen 6:5-8 recalls the language of Creation in Gen 1, but the actual words and grammar differ considerably–it is only the idea of God’s Creation that is being reversed. The closest Moses comes to ‘anti-quoting’ an actual text in Creation is that of Gen 1:31, a summation of God surveying all of Creation at it’s completion:
Gen 1:31 ‘Elohim’ ‘saw’ ‘all that’ ‘he had made’ and it was ‘really very good’
Gen 6:5 ‘YHWH’ ‘saw’ ‘that’ ‘humankind’ had ‘great evil’
This is of course significant, because in Gen 1:31 Elohim surveys his work and ‘steps up’ his satisfaction from it being just ‘good’, to being ‘really very good’. At the beginning of his ‘anti-Creation’ in Gen 6:5, YHWH surveys humankind, made in his image and certainly his work, and declares it to be of ‘great evil’.
Taking now both the concept above of ‘evil’ in Hebrew meaning ‘opposition in general’, coupled with the other concept of ‘chaos vs. order’, we see what Moses intended and his original audience implicitly understood, was that the ‘wickedness/evil’ of humankind was a statement about humankind descending into chaos. They were not just sinful and opposed to God, which an English cursory reading might imply to a modern reader. Rather, they were opposed to each other, to order, to the land, to God, to themselves–to everything. They had descended into a state of ‘opposition’, and chaos was threatening God’s order that he had ‘just’ created chapters earlier. Indeed, the text makes sure to imply that humankind was full of great evil.
In an intentionally ironic move, therefore, God will oblige chaotic humankind by unleashing the primordial chaotic waters from both above and below, which he separated when he created order in Gen 1, and declared ‘really very good’. In other words, God is saying: ‘Oh, you think that’s chaos? Fine, then, here’s the chaos you so clearly request.’
In doing so, God is reaffirming, and redeclaring, his authorship of Creation and of humankind. Unlike the flood narratives found in other cultures2, in the Bible God sends the Flood in response to the chaos of humankind. It is God, not some ‘god of Chaos’ in opposition to God, who unleashes the primordial flood waters of chaos. Unlike all of the gods of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, who are at constant struggle with chaos, God is bigger than all of them, for he is not at odds with chaos–he is its author and creator. Unlike the other gods of the ancient near east, God is fully in command of chaos. It answers to his whim, and he does not struggle against it like. Moses is telling his generation of Israelites a story they already know (the Flood narratives were universal, and all Israelites already knew a version of it). In Moses’ God-breathed version, he is saying: ‘You don’t need to be afraid of chaos. The only thing you need to fear is YHWH, and you need to follow him, because he is in control of everything, even chaos.’
In Genesis, Moses takes the concept of chaos as a force to be reckoned with, and deflates it’s power over the minds of the Hebrews of his generation, who feared it as much as their neighbours in Egypt and Canaan. In Moses’ revelation of God, God is author of chaos, and the Flood is the narrative in which this is made clear. There are few stronger symbols of chaos in the ancient world than the primordial waters–those which come from above and below–and whereas Gen 1 might have implied to the Israelites that God brought order to chaos, which preexisted him, by separating the primordial waters, here Moses takes it one step further and has God pull back the firmament which he used to separate the waters of chaos, unleashing it on the earth. Moses tells us in the Flood narrative that God wasn’t struggling against some opposing deity at odds with him, like Tiamat (Mesopotamia) or Apophis (Egypt). Instead, God had and has full control over chaos at all times, and can at his will have it do his bidding.
Like Moses (the author of Genesis) in the Flood narrative, the author of Job makes this clear. Leviathan, the great Serpent, is a borrowed word and creature from Canaanite religion, predating it’s use in the Bible. While Gen 1 makes no mention of Leviathan, it’s original audience would have understood the primordial waters to be those of chaos. The Psalms, which reveal far more Canaanite mythological language than the Prophets or Histories of the OT, do attest to the existence of Leviathan in Creation, and God’s overpowering of him (Ps 74:12-17, Ps 89:6-11). Job, which is itself older than the Psalms, takes it one step further by describing how God created Leviathan (Job 7:11-12, Job 26:12-14, Job 41). Again, God is author and creator of chaos, as he is author and creator of everything. It is this knowledge that Job hears that makes him surrender to the will of God, and finally find peace.
This too is a declaration of ownership and authorship over what all other religions of the time claimed was beyond their gods’ control. Job is an incredibly obscure piece of writing that of all the books of the Bible requires the most background to access it’s meanings. The description of Leviathan and Behemoth at the end of Job in particular fall flat, emotionally and spiritually, to modern readers, who are waiting for God’s answer to Job’s question of why God afflicted Job. Leviathan and Behemoth represent chaos. Their cosmetic description in the book of Job is written to show that God has detailed knowledge of their nature. In other words, God knows the minutest details of the most fearsome images of chaos, and is indeed creator of it. God is actually telling Job that he is lord of everything, including death, chaos, darkness, and night. This makes God unique among the deities of the ancient world, and in the case of Job is used to tell Job that God is lord of everything and the only peace is to be found in submitting to his will, however terrible it might seem.
Christians often tend to picture the Flood in the ‘colours’ of the animals walking two-by-two up a ramp. But in fact the Flood is scarcely a children’s tale, tailor made for Sunday School. The Flood is Israel’s God declaring himself lord of everything, even evil (Isa 45:7) and chaos (the primordial waters, Leviathan). It is a frightening tale. Humankind tasted of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and lacking the maturity to handle it, descended into chaos and evil. God, creator of order and good, is also the creator of everything else, including chaos and evil. He is in complete control. There is only one answer, and it is him. Noah responds to this knowledge, long before God reveals his moral wishes for humankind. The story follows Noah–and not the chaos humankind descended into, to teach the exodus generation what they failed to learn time and again–trust in God–he is our God, he is one. There is no other before him, there is no challenger. Chaos holds no sway or influence, nor does evil, for God commands and authors everything.