Sunday, October 2, 2016

How to Read the Bible Chapter 4, by James L. Kugel

The World Destroyed by Water, by Gustave Dore
Chapter 4 discusses the story of Noah's ark, delving into details about how the flood story was predated by a strikingly similar story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The similarities and differences of these two stories are covered in my earlier blog post about the Epic of Gilgamesh

Kugel's point was that the similarities were very striking in a literary sense - they didn't only agree on the basic idea of a flood, which could have been observed by two distinct cultures, but also on how the events took place. For instance, a god telling a human to build a boat and take a pair of each animal, and the god being pleased at the smell of the sacrifice at the end of the flood. Such similarities showed that the later story was almost certainly derived from the earlier story. This idea enraged (and still enrages) many people since it draws into question the divine source of the biblical story. 

Kugel also pointed out an inconsistency in the Noah story which suggests that it was written by two different sources. God instructs Noah to bring seven pairs of all clean animals, and one pair of all others. 

"Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate." (Genesis 7:2)*

The reason for the seven pairs is because Noah will need a sacrifice when he has finished his journey. Such a sacrifice must be a clean animal, and he wouldn't want to kill the only surviving members of a species to do so. Later, Noah seems to disregard this order, and brings only two of each animal. 

"Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah." (Genesis 7:8-10)

As in Chapter 2, scholars believe that the two sources are J and P because the word "Lord," an indication of J source, was used when God ordered Noah to bring the seven pairs and when Noah made his sacrifice. Kugel suggests that the reason this sacrifice wasn't included in P source was because the priests who wrote it would be disturbed by the idea of a non-priest preparing a sacrifice. P source doesn't refer to sacrifices until the existence of priests later in the Bible. 

*All Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version

This is part of a series of posts for my upcoming Bible as Literature Group Read. To read the rest of my notes, go here


  1. I remember reading Gilgamesh and thinking about the commonalities between the Flood stories. It is interesting how this story was told between cultures.

    I love that Gustave Dore painting.

    1. Yes it's fascinating. Lots of other cultures have a flood story of some kind, I hear.