Noah’s Flood – the Genesis Story in Western Thought by Norman Cohn

Noah's Flood - Norman Cohn

Noah’s Flood (

Noah’s Flood (

Noah’s Flood (Powell’s Books – new or secondhand)

Over time, the Genesis 6-9 story of Noah, his Ark and the Flood has *taken on board* quite a number of different interpretations but it has also been a story that has had an affect on Western science and philosophy.

The story does not begin with Genesis. The earliest written Flood story dates from Sumeria in 1600 BCE and contains the essential elements: the gods sending the Flood to try to wipe out mankind; a pious man (a king in this version) saved by revelation; and the construction of a vessel which saves him. It was probably oral folklore before being written down. Excavations in present-day Iraq have shown that the Sumerian city Shurrupak (now Tell Fara) was destroyed by flood when the Tigris and Euphrates rivers burst their banks around 2800 BCE. Like other bible stories, such as the exile in Egypt and the kingdoms of Solomon and David, the Flood story has its origin in a small localized event.

When the Imperial Babylonians took Sumeria in approximately 1800 BCE, they absorbed much of Sumerian religion and literature. The Flood story was adapted, as is evidenced in the Atrahis Epic and the
Epic of Gilgamesh. The Atrahis Epic introduces into the story the dove that finds dry land.

The Genesis version was written sometime between 550 and 450 BCE, the historical context being the exile of Jews in Babylon. The Genesis version was written with the purpose of promoting the Jews’ patron god to the position of omnipotent creator. All versions of the story have some kind of political purpose. The earliest Sumerian version connects divinity to the establishment (the priesthood and the monarchy); and the Atrahis version was written by the scribes of the Babylonian *tablet-house* to demote the supreme god and promote the god of intelligence and scholarship (who saves Atrahis, the Noah-figure, from the genocide).

Early Christian interpretations of the Genesis story sought to find the prefiguration of Christ in Noah and the prefiguration of the End of Time in the Flood (regarding the latter, see II Peter 3: 5-7). Both Jews and Christians speculated on gaps in the story, such as day-to-day life in the Ark! The Flood was assumed to be a literally true historical event. This meant that when the age of science began, curiosity arose about the nature of this universal deluge. The Sacred Theory of the Earth by Thomas Burnet (d.1715) married the theological version of Earth’s history to Descartes’ mechanistic world. William Whiston (1667-1752) did as much in Newton’s time. Both their theories are explained in this book, as are the many other theories that arose from the discovery of fossils. In fact, the whole formation period of geology as a discipline is inextricably bound to the Flood, because the deluge was used to explain much of the new mysterious information. The Flood became ce
tral to science because its occurrence was a universally accepted assumption.

The eighteenth century debate on the true age of the Earth (was it older than the *biblical* six thousand years?) had consequences for Genesis. The six days of creation became open to allegorical interpretation. Dublin’s Robert Kirwan (1733-1812) – whose pet eagle perched on his shoulder whenever he was out of doors – was horrified in his Geological Essays at how geology was descending into *atheism*. William Buckland (1784-1856), Oxford University’s first professor of geology – and who claimed to have eaten his way through the entire animal kingdom (his belly must have been some kind of contemporary Ark) – is described by Cohn as a *harmonizer* of science and religion, because he kept diluvial geology intact at a time when it was being discredited on the more fluctuating, revolutionary and secular European continent. His opinion was that the Earth had existed for untold aeons but the Flood occurred in the most recent epoch of Earth’s history: the human era, as recorde
Moses (to whom the authorship of Genesis was attributed). The Flood was Buckland’s explanation for, as Cohn summarizes, “unsorted deposits of clay and gravel, huge boulders scattered across hills and valleys, the very shape of hills and valleys…” Louis Agassiz’s glacial theory of 1840 was the nail in the coffin of that theory.

Flood geology continued on among Christian Fundamentalists. This started in the 1820s as a rebuttal of Buckland, who had *atheistically* asserted that the fossil record went back more than six thousand years. Fundamentalists held – and still hold – that fossils were created all at the same time, by the Flood.

Other twentieth century interpretations have included the solar/lunar; the Frazerian; the Freudian; the Jungian; and the Feminist, all of which were taken seriously at one time or another but Cohn rightly points out that “Not one of them shows any awareness of the thought which obsessed the men who composed the Genesis story.”

This book is highly recommended. Norman Cohn is also the author of such seminal books as The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Warrant for Genocide (1967), Europe’s Inner Demons (1975) and Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come (1993).

Barry Kavanagh

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.