See God Questions His Creation: Genesis 5 as a PDF document.
It is worth making a few comments about the story of Noah and the flood before beginning the reflections on the verses of Genesis 6. While the Patristic commentators certainly noted the variations, inconsistencies and contradictions which occur in the flood story (Genesis 6-9), they endeavored to interpret the story to show that it is really one story. They assumed there was but one author for the text and therefore it fell upon them as the interpreters of the text to show how the text was internally consistent even when literally it couldn’t be so. So they came up with ways to gloss over differences or harmonize them by offering explanations in which they tried to show how the text was consistent with itself.
Modern biblical scholarship on the other hand offers an insight into the scriptures which can help resolve some of the problems which a literal reading of the text presents. The insight of modern scholars is that in fact Genesis 6-9 is actually two separate stories that have been interwoven together by a third editor. This idea is contained in what is called Source Theory – an idea presented by modern biblical scholars based to a large degree on literary analysis of the biblical text. Source Theory is based in scholarship not in theology. Nevertheless it at times can be a very useful tool in helping to uncover a sensible understanding of some biblical passages and problems. I am making use of this tool in my reflections but am not endorsing every idea that gets proposed under the guise of Source Theory. Like most ideas in modern biblical scholarship Source Theory has branched in many directions, and not all of them are useful for an Orthodox reading of the Scriptures. Any tool can be dangerous, but we don’t stop using a saw or a hammer because of the risk it represents; rather, we learn to use them with great caution.
Source Theory suggests that when reading a section of Scripture like Genesis 1-2 or Genesis 6-9, it becomes apparent that there are such strong literary/linguistic differences that the section cannot have been written by one author but is the work of several authors/editors/sources. If you allow in these particular chapters of Genesis that there are two distinct stories which have been interwoven you can come to see how each of the two stories is consistent in itself. The contradictions and inconsistencies are actually between the two stories which were woven together. Source Theory reminds us that ancient texts were originally oral stories. These stories belonged to and were authenticated by a religious community – the people of God, the Jews – not by a single “author.” There often existed within the community more than one version of a story that was valued by the community. It is only when the story gets committed to a written form that sometimes an effort is made to harmonize the stories, probably because the differences in the stories appear more jarring to us when actually written down. Oral tradition tolerated some variations in the community’s story better than does a literary tradition. Source Theory says it is at times in Scripture possible to unwind the various threads that have been woven together into one story and to reconstruct the different original stories from these threads. This is merely a tool of interpretation. It can’t undo the fact that the authorized version of the story as written down in our Scriptures presents one harmonized story. But it can point out that if one carefully studies the Bible one can detect two interwoven stories in one text. It is no different than looking at a bouquet of spring flowers – together they are quite beautiful, and yet they are “artificially” arranged as they don’t occur in nature they way they do occur in the vase. Someone arranged the flowers in the vase, and the bouquet can to separated out to different kinds of flowers. Each flower or each species is also beautiful and we can appreciate the flowers singularly, separated by species, or placed together in a bouquet.
For our purposes, being able to distinguish a couple of stories within a biblical section does not mean that the scriptures are not inspired or from God. We will make use of Source Theory to help clarify some of the problems that arise from a purely literal reading of the. As it turns out, the biblical text of our immediate concern, Genesis 6-9, actually ends up having 3 “sources” which shaped it – the source of a first story, the source of a second story, and finally the editor who weaved the two stories together. Discerning the different “hands” which had a role in composing the written story, can at times help us to understand what we otherwise note as inconsistencies or even contradictions. Using Source Theory in reading the Flood story is using a tool to uncover the deeper meaning of the text. Tools of interpretation are good servants and bad masters. We do not need to become a slave to the theory in reading the Bible, but certainly using a tool of interpretation can help us uncover the deeper meanings of the text which the Fathers of the Church valued so highly.
We might call to mind here the Four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. While all four report the same basic story of the life of Christ, there is also variation in the stories between the Gospels and sometimes it is not possible to harmonize the details in anyone story reported in more than one Gospel. Even where 3 of the Gospels seem to share a basic storyline (the synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke), the fourth Gospel follows a different timeline. While some writers in history attempted to harmonize the four Gospels into One (like in the 2nd Century Tatian’s Diatessaron), the Church accepted all four Gospels as authentic and inspired without demanding or attempting to harmonize the four.
To take a totally secular comparison – this is like having two “competing” sports writers from two competing sports cities, newspapers and teams write a description of the big game. One ends up writing from the position of the losing team and one is the writer of the game for the winning team. They both will be describing the same game, but no doubt their emphases will be totally different. Who gets credited for the win and loss, what went right and wrong, we would really have two different stories. But then imagine that on Monday morning, a third sportswriter sits down and attempts to weave the two opposing accounts of the game together into a “harmonious” account. Perhaps you get the picture – it might be very hard to get the two stories to correspond exactly because the authors would have emphasized different things.