Noah’s Birds and the Documentary Hypothesis

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by Tim Widowfield

Noah, a few birds, and a mermaid

Neil recently posted about the Documentary Hypothesis, citing Thomas Brodie’s Genesis as Dialogue (2001), a book I enjoyed but in the end did not convince me to abandon the DH. While reading the post, one quotation caught my eye.

Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources. (Brodie 2001, p. 182)

This sort of overstatement, which comes with implicit eye-rolling and foot-tapping, plays well to the converted, but falls flat among the rest of us. Do DH adherents think there are two sources merely because there are two species of bird? Surprisingly, no.

Here are the arguments, briefly:

  1. Gen. 8:7 is self-contained.
    • Noah releases the raven.
    • The bird goes out and returns, back and forth, until —
    • “the water dried up from the earth.” The flood is over; the narrative restarts at 8:8, wherein water still covers the earth.
  2. The language in 8:7 is different from the language in 8:8.
    • Noah releases the dove from him.
    • The words translated as “earth” in this passage and in 8:7 are different.

You will likely recognize the Hebrew word for “the earth” in the P source — הָאָֽרֶץ (haaretz) — from the news site Haaretz. We should probably translate the word in the J source (verse 8.8) — הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה (haadamah) — as “the land” or “the ground.” Recall that in the J source, God creates “the man” (haadam), Adam, out of the ground (haadamah).

Unfortunately, nearly every translation, even Friedman’s, renders both words as “the earth,” ensuring that readers remain ignorant of the difference. I don’t mean to suggest these translations are necessarily wrong, only that they mask an important divergence.

As a third reason — a theological reason — I think we can argue strongly that the P author(s) deliberately chose an unclean animal, the raven, while J picked a clean, kosher dove. These aren’t arbitrary or even “artistic” choices.

The theological differences come forward even more strikingly when you compare Gen. 8:20-22 to 9:1-7. In the former, Noah selects a suitable sacrifice to God (YHWH, of course) from his collection of clean birds, where “clean” obviously refers to the definitions laid down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the latter, however, God (elohim, of course), introduces the Noahide covenant, saying:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Gen. 9:3-4, NRSV)

As far as P is concerned, even these basic strictures are entirely new to humankind. At this point no one knows the divine name, and every living creature is fair game for any purpose.

Brodie here refers to Herbert Brichto from The Names of God (1998), who compares the sequence of events experienced by Utnapishtim of the Gilgamesh Epic to those of Noah in Genesis.

In Utnapishtim’s case, the first two birds return because the flood waters deny them a perch. The last, the raven, does not return because the waters have receded. In Noah’s case, the first bird—the raven—seems not to return, despite the prevalence of the flood waters. The dove returns twice, once empty-billed, the second time with the olive leaf; the third time it stays away. (Brichto 1998, p. 116, emphasis mine)

But the floodwaters were not prevalent or even present when Noah’s raven left for good. Here’s exactly what verse 7 says (my translation):

And he sent out a raven, and it went out and came back [repeatedly] until the waters had dried up from the earth.

Here’s the KJV:

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

The raven opted not return because the land was dry. The flood wasn’t just receding; it was gone.

Brichto correctly notes that most translations wrongly interpret verse 7:

The standard translations render the verbs describing the raven’s activity along the lines of “went to and fro.” Only a rendering along the lines of our own is faithful to the Hebrew, which literally reads, “it left, leaving and returning,” the normal Hebrew way for expressing the repetition or continuance of an action. The raven kept coming back to the ark and leaving it. (Brichto 1998, p. 116)

This much Brichto gets right. And more scholars should take note of the problem here. But the wheels come off almost immediately thereafter, as he tries in vain to harmonize the two separate stories into an “artistic” whole.

If the raven returned, Noah could have dispatched the same bird a second time. Furthermore, it is not told of the raven as it is of the dove that Noah reached out and pulled it back into the ark. Thus do translators, missing the point, conceal the clue from the readers who depend on them for faithful rendering.

In both narratives there is clearly dry ground; if not in the vicinity of the ark, atop the ark itself, for the birds to alight upon. The perching-place, the “resting-place for its foot,” is therefore a metaphor for a condition making for survival: until edible vegetation is uncovered, the dove must return to the ark for food. But the raven? Ha! says the Genesis storyteller: the raven proves an undependable harbinger indeed! Neither his return to perch atop the ark nor his ability to do without the food in the ark signifies anything about the retreat of the water. (Brichto 1998, p. 116-117, formatting and emphasis mine)

One would almost think Brichto has confused Utnapishtim’s first-person account with the Genesis story, told in the omniscient third-person perspective of fairy tales. We don’t have to guess what the raven’s exit means. The narrator tells us:

. . . the waters had dried up from the earth.

Perhaps the author of the book of Genesis did not compile it from two distinct sources. Perhaps instead he used clever and artful language that only made it appear so. I’m open to arguments from all sides. However, both Brichto and Brodie fail to make their case when they misrepresent the DH position and when they make mistakes on basic points of fact.

One last thing — when Brodie et al. say that DH proponents think the redactor of Genesis blindly, slavishly, artlessly, stupidly joined the J and P sources together in the story of the Deluge, they surely know better. Rather, we presume that the redactor had reverence for the text of both traditions and tried to preserve them as best as he could. Brodie and Brichto prove once again that misrepresenting the positions of your opponent serves only to hurt your own case.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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2 thoughts on “Noah’s Birds and the Documentary Hypothesis”

  1. For me, it’s the chronology of the flood story that makes absolutely no sense if a single author was involved. Three different dating systems can be detected — a relative one based on 40- and 7-day periods, an absolute one based on Noah’s age, and a third system that adds the relative dates onto the absolute dates.

    If you try to make a timeline of the events using the time markers in their final form, the narrative is largely incoherent.


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