From Michelangelo’s famed depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to nursery room walls where colorful animals file two-by-two onto Noah’s Ark, few stories have left so indelible a mark on the human imagination as the flood narrative found in
Why are there so many duplicate stories in the Bible?
Scholars have long noted the presence of parallel or repeated stories in the biblical text, including what appear to be two distinct creation accounts (
The flood narrative seems to be no exception. Although currently merged into a single story, different traditions lie behind the biblical account, each with its own unique narrative details and theological perspectives, including distinct divine names. Thus, those passages employing the divine name “God” (Hebrew ‘elohim) present a deity who is transcendent and systematic in carrying out the flood. The precise measurements of the ark (
How do scholars interpret these differences?
Earlier interpreters attempted to reconcile these differences by addressing each individually. Thus, the apparent discrepancies in the duration of the flood were understood as different phases of the deluge, and the differing numbers of animals were interpreted as a clarification and expansion of the earlier command. And this may be. However, it is the number and character of these differences, found not only here but in numerous duplicate stories throughout the early books of the Bible, that have led most scholars to conclude that at least two distinct traditions inform the biblical account. By this view, the reason for “seven clean” animals in one tradition is that Noah will offer a sacrifice following the flood (
Similarly, the variations in the description of the flood correspond to the distinct cosmological and theological perspectives of these traditions—differences that first emerge in the opening creation accounts. One tradition, often associated with the first creation story, depicts a deluge that is the undoing of the very order established by God (‘elohim) in the beginning, as “the fountains of the deep” and “the floodgates of heaven” are ruptured (
Yet, it is only in bringing these varying traditions together, these differing perspectives of the divine as both powerful and personal, as both awe-inspiring and intimate, that an ultimately richer and more nuanced understanding of Israel’s God emerges—an understanding that has informed the lives and faiths of countless individuals and communities throughout history.