Genesis Flood Narrative An Eyewitness Account



 Damien F. Mackey


This, the case of the Flood narrative in Genesis, being the beginning of JEDP theory, gives us a perfect view of how right the documentists could actually be (recognizing sources involved), whilst yet – at the same time – being pitifully wrong (positing various post-Mosaïc sources).


That the Book of Genesis shows every evidence of having been derived from various sources, at least in part, none but the very obstinate, or excessively pious, would deny. The clever pair of I. Kikawada and A. Quinn (Before Abraham Was. A Provocative Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis, Ignatius Press, 1989), who were able to prove against the JEDP documentary theorists that Genesis is in fact a unity, nevertheless regarded it as “mere polemic”, as they write, to dismiss the claims of the documentists out of hand, without giving them a hearing; or, more especially, without being prepared to confront the JEDP assertions in the process of one’s arguing for an alternative.

That is why I found quite unrealistic a paper sent to me for evaluation; an article written in French in which the author attempted to uphold a traditional view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch (or first five books of the Bible). This paper seemed to be proposing (as far as my knowledge of French would allow me to grasp it) a blanket view of this tradition: namely, that Moses wrote every single word of the entire Pentateuch, even the account of his own death. And that no extra-Mosaïc sources whatsoever were involved (whether pre- or post-Moses).

My own view, based on the tradition of substantial Mosaïc authorship of the Pentateuch, is that, whilst Moses substantially wrote the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy, he was the editor or compiler, not author, of Genesis.

  1. J. Wiseman (Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis. A Case For Literary Unity, Thomas Nelson, 1985) would come to the firm conclusion that the Book of Genesis itself gave clear evidence of its having been written on tablets according to the most ancient scribal methods, with 11 colophon divisions (the very key to the structure of the book, see his ch. V), also catch-lines and, in places, parallelism. {Kikawada and Quinn, in ch. III, have also pointed to parallelism – adding to that chiastic structure that Wiseman does not address – to explain the complexities of Genesis 1, though they have completely missed out on the Wisemanian notion that this is evidence for ancient tablets}.

Wiseman concluded that the sources that comprised Genesis were determinable from the names featured in the colophon divisions (like signatures at the end of each section), basically the names of the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Jacob; that these were ‘family histories’ (Hebrew, toledôt). Genesis was in fact the history of the great pre-Mosaïc patriarchs. Moses was the compiler or editor of this, his family history collection going right back to antediluvian antiquity.

The first tablet series, however, has no human name in the colophon, only God. Was this a direct revelation by the Creator to the creature?

Wiseman did what many who approach a literary study of the Bible fail to do, including the documentists and even the astute Kikawada and Quinn. He read (with expert help) the entire Book of Genesis from the point of view of an ancient scribe, not from a modern Western point of view. And that is why he was so successful in unravelling the structure of the book and writing an even more compelling argument for literary unity in Genesis than Kikawada and Quinn could possibly hope to have achieved.

P.J. Wiseman, being an amateur, could easily be dismissed by critics for that reason. Hence sometimes I think that it was a pity that his brilliant son, Donald (D. J.), did not develop his father’s ground-breaking work, though he did edit, and wrote the Foreword to, Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis, a single volume presentation of his late father’s 1936 study, New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis. “Ancient Records …” was published as D. J. wrote: “In response to a growing number of requests …”. Perhaps D. J. thought that his father had done so complete a job and that there was no necessity for him to try to improve upon it, except for some minor editing.


Sources for the Original Flood Narrative

What was P. J. Wiseman’s special insight?

All of a sudden he, having been an eye-witness to the birth of the ‘new science’ (archaeology) that would sweep away the very foundations of the documentary theory, can point to the documents that comprise Genesis and say who owned (or perhaps wrote) them. He could say, for instance, that this part of Genesis was Adam’s history, or that this one was Noah’s, and that this belonged to the three sons of Noah, recording their eye-witness account of the Great Flood.

Wait a minute, did I just say that one of the toledôt ‘family histories’ belonged to 3 persons? Even to 3 persons who had eye-witnessed the Flood?

But, now, isn’t this exactly where the documentary theory first began, when the French physician Jean Astruc (C17th AD) thought that he had discerned multiple versions of the Flood in Genesis?

Here is what biblical expert R. K. Harrison (himself a great promoter of P. J. Wiseman’s toledôt theory) has had to say about Astruc, and how close to the truth of the matter the Frenchman had actually come (Preface to Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis):

Only in the seventeenth century did serious questions begin to be raised about the composition of Genesis, and even these dealt with source criticism rather than with the author himself. Thus Jean Astruc (1684-1766) published an anonymous work which maintained that the material in Genesis had been transmitted either in written or oral form up to the time of Moses, and that he organized these ancient sources by making a chronological narrative out of them.

Astruc was probably much closer to the truth of the matter than he realized. Had he been in possession of information that has since come to light, he could well have performed a valuable service to the scholarly community and others in isolating or characterizing the underlying literary sources of Genesis. But having no option save to speculate, he marred his observations from the beginning by speaking of “duplicate narratives” of the Creation and the Flood in Genesis.

Even a casual observation of the material involved shows that the sections are not in fact duplicates, but constitute passages in which the longer accounts represent expansions of summary statements, as for example in connection with the creation of humanity (Gen. 1:27 and 2:7-23).

[End of quote]

While Harrison may well be right in his last comment, I think that his rejection of any notion of “duplicate narratives” in the Flood account is unrealistic. Astruc was, I believe, perfectly correct in this regard, since the account of the Flood was probably co-written by Noah’s 3 sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth (one could even add Noah’s partial account to make 4).

  Tablet    Starting Verse    Ending Verse    Owner or  Writer 
 1  Genesis 1:1  Genesis 2:4a   God Himself (?)
 2  Genesis 2:4b  Genesis 5:1a   Adam
 3  Genesis 5:1b  Genesis 6:9a   Noah
 4  Genesis 6:9b  Genesis 10:1a   Shem, Ham & Japheth
 5  Genesis 10:1b  Genesis 11:10a   Shem
 6  Genesis 11:10b  Genesis 11:27a   Terah
 7  Genesis 11:27b  Genesis 25:19a   Isaac
 8  Genesis 25:12  Genesis 25:18   Ishmael, through Isaac
 9  Genesis 25:19b  Genesis 37:2a   Jacob
 10  Genesis 36:1  Genesis 36:43   Esau, through Jacob
 11  Genesis 37:2b  Exodus 1:6   Jacob’s 12 sons

Chart taken from:

On the basis of Wiseman, the Flood narrative was not therefore written, as the documentists would claim, by un-connected writers scattered down through the centuries, one writer tending to prefer to use Elohim for God, hence the E document, exhibiting less familiarity with God than another who used Jehovah (in German), hence the J document. No they were written all at once, contemporaneously, by perhaps the three sons of Noah (though the general consensus, as we shall see, seems to be 2, not 3, distinct narratives here).

Thanks to Wiseman’s findings, one ought no longer have any difficulty at all in answering queries from the documentists – for all is quite naturally accounted for by his Toledoth theory. Chapter 7 of Genesis is part of Tablet (series) 4, written, or owned, by Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and signed by them. Their story is taken up almost entirely with the account of the Flood of which they were eyewitnesses.

Jean Astruc, who claimed to have discerned “three accounts” of the Flood story, instanced in support of his claim such repetitious passages as:

Genesis Chapter 7,

18: “And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth”.

19: “And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth”.

20: “Fifteen cubits upwards did the waters prevail”.


21: “And all flesh died that moved upon the face of the earth”.

22: “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life and all that was in the dry land died”.

23: “And every living substance was destroyed”.

In regard to Astruc’s theory, then, it is sufficient here to note with Wiseman “two significant facts”:

Firstly, the conclusion of the tablet informs us that more than one person was connected with the writings of the narrative, “for it is the history of the three sons of Noah”.


Secondly, an examination of the story reveals every indication that it was written by several eyewitnesses of the cataclysm.

The documentists have given considerable attention to the Flood narrative, thinking that the Hebrews would have borrowed it from the Babylonian mythology. Although they have been quite correct in identifying multiple accounts of the Flood story; they have completely missed the mark when it has come down to identifying the actual authors of it.

This, the case of the Flood narrative in Genesis, being the beginning of JEDP theory, gives us a perfect view of how right the documentists could actually be (recognizing sources involved), whilst yet – at the same time – being pitifully wrong (positing various post-Mosaïc sources).

Speiser’s Contribution

Here also, however, in regard to the Flood narrative at least, is where the documentary scrutinisers may have provided a real service. Their analytical dissection of the narrative may enable some astute scholar ultimately even to separate from the Flood narrative the individual contributions of the sons of Noah (be they 2 or 3 as regards actual contribution).

But that may not be all.

Since another very useful possible contribution of the documentary theory, this time specifically in regard to Moses’s editing hand in Genesis, may perhaps be discerned in the writings of E. Speiser, I shall persevere a bit longer with Kikawada’s and Quinn’s account of the late source theory – still in connection with the Flood story in Genesis 6-10 – including how cleverly they thought Wellhausen had manipulated this narrative to his own seeming advantage. This biblical narrative certainly indicates a degree of duplication:

The narrator of [the story of Noah and the Flood] moves easily back and forth from Elohim to Yahweh, from an imminently anthropomorphic God to a supremely transcendent lawgiver, from formulaic expression to human drama. All the contrasts found earlier between separate sections are here together in a single story of considerable charm and power. The documentary hypothesis drowns in the flood – or so it seems.

Actually, the documentary hypothesis had its own Noah, and his name was Wellhausen. Perhaps Wellhausen’s greatest achievement was to show how the Noah story could be transformed from a decisive defeat into a decisive triumph for the documentary hypothesis.

  1. A. Speiser summarizes how this transformation was achieved in his own much praised 1964 commentary on Genesis: “The received biblical account of the Flood is beyond reasonable doubt a composite narrative …. Here the two strands have become intertwined, the end result being a skilful and intricate patchwork. Nevertheless – and this is indicative of the great reverence with which the components were handled – the underlying versions, though cut up and rearranged, were not altered in themselves”.

Firstly, here is Kikawada’s and Quinn’s impression of Speiser’s explanation [op. cit., p. 22]:

The last sentence of this quotation is the key to why the documentary arrangement at this point is not circular. The claim is that the two flood accounts, although patched together, have been each kept intact. Hence each account can be almost completely recovered from the received text, and each of these will have a greater unity and coherence than the story as a whole. The claim is clear and germane – and the concrete textual argument in its favor is utterly stunning.

Important Comment: Speiser’s observation here, that so impressed Kikawada and Quinn, may actually provide us with a very good guide as to the degree of involvement of Moses in the editing of Genesis (significantly more than I had previously estimated), with a fair bit of cutting and pasting of the original that he had before him, to achieve his own literary creation, but without however altering the underlying texts out of “the great reverence” that he held for them.

The interested reader can look up for him/herself the painstaking comparisons that Kikawada and Quinn now have to undertake between the Priestly (E) and Yahwist (J) accounts of the Flood, beginning on their p. 24, and how cleverly the documentists have managed to ‘secure’ these in favour of their own theses (especially p. 30). Surprisingly, after all of this, Kikawada and Quinn will not themselves make their own critical analysis of these documents, saying that this has already been done by a new generation of scholars.

Fair enough.

But Kikawada and Quinn will later use these very same texts to show that they actually comprise a unity, not only within themselves, but in the context of Genesis as a whole. Here in brief, is their reference to this new generation of documentist refuters, thereby excusing themselves from what they would regard as further, unnecessary literary toil:

Indeed, to tell the truth, we are not going to attempt an original analysis of the Noah story. Over the past decade the Wellhausen interpretation of Noah has been systematically dismantled by younger scholars. There have been at least a half a dozen important contributions here. Typical of these critiques is the one made (almost by the way) in F. I. Andersen’s The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew.

Sentences used in the present chapter cut across passages generally assigned to ‘J’ and ‘P’ documents…. This means that if the documentary hypothesis is valid, some editor has put together scraps of parallel versions of the same story with scissors and paste, and yet has achieved a result which from the point of view of discourse grammar, looks as if it had been made out of whole cloth.

What Andersen has done from his own grammatical specialty, others have done from theirs. Objections to a unitary reading of Noah have, one after another, been explained, and objections to a documentary reading – apparently unanswerable objections – have been, one after another, raised.

Again the authors may actually be, at least here in regard to the Flood narrative – and due to their application of modern literary techniques, whilst apparently lacking any familiarity whatsoever with ancient scribal methods (Wiseman) – underestimating the insights of documentists like Speiser, whose view they now dismiss, though still tactfully, as outdated:

Speiser was accurately representing the situation when, in 1964, he wrote that the documentary interpretation of Noah was established beyond doubt, much as Gilbert Murray was accurate in 1934 when he said that no competent scholar believed Homer the single author of The Iliad. The wheel has now come full circle in Homer. And anyone who has examined recent studies of Noah will find it hard not to conclude that it is coming full circle here as well. (It is a measure of the strength of the documentary consensus that these specific studies have not been used to challenge the hypothesis in general).

To read more on all of this, see my series:

Tracing the Hand of Moses in Genesis

Part One:

and Part Two:






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