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The Cause of Noah’s Flood (Order vs. Chaos) — Gen 6:5-8 (Geeky Version)

Prologue to the Flood: Gen 6:5-8

Hebrew nuances lost in translation

Shedding the controversy of Gen 6:1-4, we now enter the straightforward domain of Gen 6:5-8.  There’s still lots of cool nuances that are easily lost with a cursory reading, and most of these are nuances in Hebrew that get accidentally lost in English translations.

This 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 detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.

Let’s start out with the text itself:

5 But YHWH 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 YHWH regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 7 So YHWH 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 YHWH.



(a) Wickedness and evil

One important nuance in the text that is easily lost in translation is the distinction between the Hebrew words often translated ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’.  In the text of Gen 6:5 the word used is רָעָה (‘evil’), not אָוֶן (‘wicked’).  English translations have the tendency to use these terms synonymously, as if they are interchangeable.  In Hebrew, however, the words, while having the potential to overlap in some contexts and situations, have distinct meanings.

אָוֶן or ‘wickedness’ is more related to one of the three Hebrew words that get ‘funneled’ into one English word, ‘sin’ (Hebrew distinguishes between three types of sin, and does not have a word, as English does, for all three types together–this changes in Greek, which English Christian theology is more influenced by).  ‘Wickedness’ in its Hebrew form implies a specific nuance of ‘going against God’, which in English parlance is encapsulated quite well by the word ‘sin’.

רָעָה or ‘evil’, by contrast, has in common with ‘wickedness’ the concept of ‘going against’, but unlike ‘wickedness’, the object that it is going against is not necessarily God.  In fact, God himself is described dozens of times in the OT as doing ‘evil’ himself, a concept that might be surprising to some Christians, since English translations have a tendency of translating the Hebrew word for ‘evil’ differently when God does it (‘destroy, calamity’) than when humans do it (‘evil’).  These sometimes dozens of different words in English used to translate one single Hebrew word reflects a range of meanings that are not present in the Hebrew, and thus can mislead people away from what the text actually says.  Unlike English, which borrowing from Greek loads ‘evil’ with all kinds of ‘absolute’ connotations, Hebrew does not place such a heavy load on the word, and it might better be defined as ‘antagonism’ or ‘opposition to’.  As such, God can easily be ‘evil’ (in the Hebrew, or rather, Biblical sense) against humanity, or an individual when he opposes them, as he does when they are, for example, ‘wicked’.

If it helps to clarify the difference, God is ‘incapable’ of doing ‘wickedness’, since it’s definition might be summarized as ‘going against God’ and we can hardly speak of ‘God going against God’.  By contrast, God cannot only do ‘evil’ in the sense of opposing individuals or even humanity, but in multiple passages ‘evil’ is attributed to God, and in Isaiah 45:7 it is clarified that God is even the creator of ‘evil’ (again, we must distinguish the ‘real’ Hebrew/Biblical meaning of this word from it’s ‘incorrect’ English usage).

In Gen 6:5, though some English translations use the word ‘wicked’, the Hebrew word used both times is actually ‘evil’.  We mentioned earlier that in some contexts, ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ can overlap in meaning, namely, when the object of ‘evil’ is God, it takes on the same meaning as the word ‘wicked’.  In oversimplified terms, ‘wicked’ means ‘against God’, and ‘evil’ means ‘against’, so when the Bible uses ‘evil’ and the thing that it is ‘against’ is God, ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ become interchangeable terms.

In Gen 6:5, we have just such a situation, at least in part and in most interpretations.  This is important because later we will see the word ‘evil’ used of God, and more importantly the story of Noah raises the question, in modern culture’s minds (not so much in the original author or audience’s minds, however), of God ‘going against humanity’ or, in Hebrew, ‘God doing evil against humanity’.  It is important to adopt the author’s, and original audience’s vocabulary when we do so, or we risk entering into confusing and incorrect theologies.

I’ll be posting an article on a word study of ‘Biblical evil’, including the shifting meaning when the language switches to Greek, in the near future.

Evil being attributed to God - Flood - Noah - Ark

The Hebrew word for ‘evil’ being attributed to God


(b) Chaos vs. Order

This brings us to a key concept of the Flood narrative, and indeed of the ancient near east as a whole, which is the theology of chaos and order.  One of the first things modern students learn in ‘Bible School’ or seminary when they study the background of the OT are the concepts of chaos and order.  These are endemic to the Bible, but foundational to the neighbouring ancient near east religions.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Marduk battling Tiamat (Chaos). 900-750 BCE (Mesopotamian). Source: http://www.tali-virtualmidrash.org.il/ArtEng.aspx?art=155


The ancient near east–Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria, Persia–was obsessed with chaos.  The concept is absolutely foundational for their religions.  The fear of chaos was the foundation for the divinity that kings claimed in their systems of ruling their people.  Pharaoh, just like the kings of Canaanite and Mesopotamian states, held a good deal of his power over his subjects through a developed theology that Chaos was constantly trying to overthrow Order, that the king/Pharaoh was Order, and that he was necessary to hold the demonic, magical forces of Chaos at bay.  Amulets, talismans, and magical instruments were worn by nearly all people in the ancient near east to ward off evil spirits and the chaos they brought with them.  The gods themselves were forces of order, and villainous divine beings or ‘bad gods’ were part of many of these religions, in a constant war over the cosmos.

For example, nearly all religions of the ancient near east saw day and light as Order, and night and darkness as Chaos.  Nighttime was the domain of evil and chaos, and the night was to be feared.  Magical rituals were performed to ward off evil spirits who were more prominent and more powerful in the darkness.  Most religions had a variation on a theme were the sun was a god, and for half the day that god was in the sky, but for the other half, the sun god went below the earth into ‘the pit’ or ‘the abyss’ or ‘the netherworld’, where he was at war with an evil god (usually of death) who tried to defeat the sun.  Every morning, the sun god defeated the forces of evil, death, and chaos, and rose victorious into the sky–but the forces of chaos were still at work–just weaker–during the day.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Marduk battling Tiamat (Chaos). (Mesopotamian). Source: http://www.bible-history.com/ibh/Babylonian+Gods/Marduk/Battle+Between+Marduk+and+Tiamat



For the ancient near east religions and their people, evil was chaos.  Today many think of religion as worshipping a god(s), praying to that god(s), and living a moral life whose morals are dictated by that god(s).  However, it was very different in the time of the Bible.  In that time, religion was worshipping a god in order to get what you wanted out of them.  Sacrifices and rituals were performed to appease angry gods, and to ‘bribe’ gods into granting wishes.  Magical items (amulets and talismans worn around the neck) were a major industry, bought and sold to ward off evil spirits and bring the blessings of gods down on the wearer.  Diviners (people who tried to determine the desire of the gods and tell the future through arcane practices like throwing dice and reading the entrails of animals), healers (who mixed natural remedies with magical incantations), and ‘professional cursers’ (‘dark magic’ practitioners who could be hired to ‘curse’ or summon evil spirits or fortunes on an enemy) were massive markets used by kings in times of war, famine, as well as good fortune, and even by those who could afford their services.

All of these industries and their religious nature were wrapped around the concept that Chaos predated Order, that the Creation of the cosmos was willed by the gods and was indeed the creation of Order out of Chaos, and that since Creation, Chaos is constantly trying to undo and destroy the cosmos and return the world to chaos.  Evil spirits hid just outside your city or state, and your king and his priests were constantly keeping chaos outside the state through their imposition of order.

The Bible exists with both feet planted in this world–but while both feet are planted in it, it also rises above it.  Indeed, the Bible and it’s religion are a noticeable curiosity in the ancient near east.  They are unique in many ways.  The Bible speaks of one Creator God, not many gods, who is Creator and Lord over all, so that there is no need to fear opposing forces.  This same Creator God makes known his desire and will, codifying a morality, so there is no need to guess how to please, or manipulate him to get blessings.  There are many other unique attributes of God and the Bible in the context of the ancient near east.

But at the same time, the Bible is full of these concepts.  Gen 1 never uses the word chaos, as indeed the Flood narrative does not do so either, but it too testifies to a time before Creation where the primordial waters were in existence.  Just like all ancient near eastern religions, the waters were seen as forces of chaos, along with death, night, and darkness.

To sum up, in both the world and cultures around the Bible, and the Bible itself, evil and chaos were intertwined.  Chaos was evil and evil was chaos.  Associated with chaos was death, night, darkness, and the waters (oceans, seas).  Just as Elohim created order out of the primordial chaotic waters, so too in the Flood he undoes this creation by unleashing the primordial waters back upon creation, opening up the waters he separated (that is, ordered) to pour from above and spring forth from below.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Set fighting Apophis (Chaos) (Egyptian) Source: http://ferrebeekeeper.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/apopis.jpg

The prologue to the flood uses the word ‘evil’, not ‘wickedness’, because when it describes the state of humankind, it is describing not ‘sinfulness’ specifically–though certainly that is implied–but rather evil itself, which is to say chaos.  God, having granted free will in the Garden of Eden, need only step back for the blink of an eye (10 generations of centuries-long ‘heroes of old’) in order to watch his Creation–his ordering of the cosmos–degrade into chaos, or evil.  Because he sees that his “really very good” Creation (Gen 1:31) had turned to “great evil” (Gen 6:5), he obliges and permits his Order to come crashing down upon the chaotic state the cosmos had found themselves in by humankind’s actions and inclinations towards chaos, or evil.  Like most of God’s ‘Old Testament’ retribution, he is giving humankind exactly what they asked for–they desired chaos and evil, and he obliges them by sending the Flood.  Again, ‘evil’ only means ‘opposition’, so we are Scripturally sound, if not appropriate, to describe the Flood as an evil brought upon humankind by God in answer to their own chaotic evil (so too all of the evils God brings on humankind in the chart above).

The Flood narrative in the Bible cannot be seen without a foundational understanding that the waters of the Flood are, in ancient near eastern thought, forces of Chaos which God himself separated (controlled or ordered), and that he has been keeping them at bay–the custodian of order–until such time as we ‘fill our evil’ and bring down his judgment on us–in a penalty that fits the crime–his chaos for our chaos.  The Flood is the greatest judgment on humankind in scale and imagery, and it’s  ‘anti-mirroring’ of Creation is entirely intentional and purposeful.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Order vs. Chaos


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, while at the same time employing it’s language and, in slightly contradictory form, uphold this worldview.  Many point to Genesis for example of this, but it is actually the Psalms which most reflect this worldview, and to conclude this far-too-brief summary of the concept, 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 it 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 all of the words in the chart above under ‘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 exactly (the Hebrew word for death, Mot, is also a Canaanite god).  While 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 or Leviathan, most often in an alternate (not different) view of Creation in which 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).

(c) ‘Undoing Creation’

While some commentaries point out that the phrase “YHWH saw that great was the evil of humankind” (literal translation) points back to the Creation account’s “God saw that it was good” in a deliberate antithesis, the words and grammar of, for example, Gen 1:4 and Gen 6:5 are more distinct, relatively, than Gen 1:4 and Gen 6:2, so we should be careful in overstating our certainty that Gen 6:5 is a deliberate antithesis of the Creation idiom “God saw that it was good”.  The case for Gen 6:2 mirroring the Creation idiom is quite strong.  The case for Gen 6:5 not so much, since Moses could have said the same concept using the idiom of the Creation account (i.e. the ‘definite direct object’, ‘YHWH’ instead of ‘Elohim’, and no adjective attached to ‘good/evil’) but chose not to:

English:

Gen 1:4 ‘God’                       ‘saw’ ‘that’       ‘the light’                                        was ‘good’

Gen 1:31 God’                      ‘saw’ ‘all that’ ‘he had made’                               and it was ‘really very good’

Gen 6:2 ‘The sons of God’ ‘saw’ ‘that’      ‘the daughters of humankind’ were ‘good’

Gen 6:5 ‘YHWH’                 ‘saw’ ‘that’       ‘humankind’                                 had  ‘great evil’

Hebrew:

Gen 1:4 וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאֹור כִּי־טֹוב 

Gen 1:31 ַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טֹוב מְאֹד 

Gen 6:2 ַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֹות הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת 

Gen 6:5 וַיַּרְא יְהוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם 

If Moses wanted to recall the Creation idiom in order to make a point of how evil humankind had become, he had the ability but chose different words here, when just 3 verses earlier he chose the ‘right’ words.  To be safe, the idea might still be exegetically present, but the vocabulary and grammar don’t support it.

Also included above is Gen 1:31, which is suggested by Wenham in WBC and hits closer to the mark with Gen 6:5 though not, as visible in the Hebrew text above, as close as Gen 6:2 to 1:4.  At any rate, we can certainly agree that the statements in general point towards Creation, and that while the degree is debatable (I do think Gen 6:2 is a very deliberate allusion–almost quote–and that other connections merely contain the same idea), there is an idea behind the Flood as a kind of ‘anti-Creation’.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

La Deluge – Gustave Doré (1832-1883) Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flood_myth

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 cultures, like Mesopotamia, 1, in the Bible God sends the Flood in response to the chaos of humankind, and it is God, not some ‘god of Chaos’ in opposition to God, who unleashes the primordial flood waters of chaos–the waters that predate Creation.  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.  The Flood of Genesis is a reclaiming of a story from Moses’ ancestors–the fathers of Abraham who came from Mesopotamia–who misappropriated just as Paul would later accuse all Gentiles of misunderstanding God’s authorship of history (Rom 1:18-25).  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, first at Sinai and later in his life, through his writing in Genesis, 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.  God, Moses tells us in the Flood narrative, 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.

God and Leviathan - Book of Job

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan)

Not only Moses in the Flood, but also 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, though 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.  Job, which is itself older than the Psalms, takes it one step further by describing how God created Leviathan.  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.  In context, however, God’s description of the physical characteristics of Leviathan and Behemoth is not about the cosmetic level of their description, but rather about the detailed knowledge God has of their nature, because what they represent is chaos.  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, and the Sunday School and toy industry that comes out of that, but in fact the Flood is scarcely a children’s tale, and scarcely G-rated material tailor made for Sunday School.  The Flood is Israel’s God–for Moses’ generation and thereafter–declaring himself lord of everything, even evil (Isa 45:7) and chaos (the primordial waters, Leviathan, Behemoth).  It is a frightening tale.  A horror story.  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, we thought from Gen 1, of order and good, is also author of everything.  There is only one answer, and it is him.  Noah responds to this knowledge, long before God reveals his moral wishes for humankind, and the story follows him–and not the chaos humankind descended into, to teach Moses’ 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.

This 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
3) Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.