Promise in the Clouds
April 19, 2018
following is based partly on a Biblical story, which I've referenced
with chapter and verse. But it's also based partly on the story
of Atram-Hasis from ancient cuneiform documents. I've
referenced those as tablets.
Tablet of the Covenant and at least eight other versions of this
tale have been unearthed in what is now Iraq.
was recently translated by Dr. Irving Finkel of the British
Museum (right), who realized that the boat it describes is
round, not rectangular. More details are here.
the 19th century A.D., scholars were surprised to learn that Bible
stories weren't necessarily original. Ancient Mesopotamians had
their own flood myth, strikingly similar to the story of Noah's Ark
but two thousand years older.
Sumerians were apparently the first to record the tale on tablets,
as early as about the 28th century B.C. Later the Babylonians
composed an epic poem in which the title character, Gilgamesh, seeks
out a very old man. He calls him my ancestor Utnapishtim,
who joined the Assembly of the Gods and was given eternal
life. The old man tells how he once survived a flood
by building a boat. The boat which you are to build, its
dimensions must measure equal to each other. Its length must
correspond to its width.
seems that the Jews heard this legend during their exile in Babylon
in the 6th century B.C. They rewrote it in their own way:
replacing the foreign gods with their own, making the boat
rectangular, specifying the hero's age as 600 years, and so on.
Then they included the story in their book of Genesis. I've
rewritten it again below, adding my own twists.
for fun, I've spelled names as they're found in John Wycliffe's
14th-century translation of the Bible: Therfore thei that
yeden out of the schip weren Noe, Sem, Cham, and Japheth. [Genesis
9:18] It was not until later
translations that schip became ark, from the Latin word arca
like other Wycliffian phrases, like the warning that the ende
of al fleisch is comen and the description of the rainbow as
a signe of boond of pees bitwixe me and erthe. The
Covenant is a bond of peace.
I'm Gomer. I'm an adult now, but I'd like to tell about what
happened when I was only eight years old.
I was even born, my parents had moved far away from the level plains
they once called home. I had never known my grandparents or my
aunts and uncles.
one day my father said, My boy, I think it's time for you to
see the farm where I grew up. Let's take a trip. You can
meet my father. That's your Grandpapa Noe. Maybe
he'll tell you about our family's great adventure. You can meet
your Grandmama Naamah, too.
Naamah, I echoed. That's funny.
to the Homeplace
we arrived, we walked up to a farmhouse, a fairly new home
constructed of mud bricks. An older man and his wife greeted us
at the door. Japheth, my son! the man said,
embracing my father. How long has it been? A century?
Not quite. Dad, I'd like you to meet my son,
fine young lad! Grandpapa exclaimed. How old are
you, my boy?
about that! Myself, I'm 700 years old, he said with a
twinkle in his eye.
hope to live until I'm a thousand! Or at least 900.
Write it down. [Genesis
no, Noe! scolded his wife. You're exaggerating
again! Turning to me, she said, Don't believe
everything your Grandpapa says. He likes to multiply everything tenfold.
so! he exclaimed. I don't claim to have sired thirty
sons, like some people around here. No, Gomer, I have only
three sons. One is your father, and the other two are your
uncles Sem and Cham. [Genesis
that's true, his wife admitted.
I have only this one house.
it a hundred years ago.
years ago, she corrected.
know, I was the first man in the world who ever tilled the
soil. I was the first to plant a vineyard. I invented
Noe! Grandmama Naamah exclaimed. And she hurried all of
us indoors, before the neighbors could get a whiff of her husband's
grandparents' living room wasn't large, but apparently there were
other rooms beyond the walls on either end. Those interior
walls were not built out of bricks. They were made of reeds,
wasn't much furniture, but over in a corner I noticed an imposing
wooden armoire. It was set off by itself, like a shrine.
The doors of this upright box were decorated with round plaques.
that chest, Grandmama? I asked.
our ark. Inside it, we keep the scriptures that tell our
a curious boy! said my grandfather. Here, I'll
unlock it for you. He opened the doors, reached inside,
and carefully withdrew a terra-cotta object. There was writing
on it. He held it up high, as if it were a sacred scroll.
you ever seen anything like this, Gomer? I shook my
head. These words are written in what we call
cuneiform. They record the story of the great flood.
sure your father has told you about it. He was there when it happened.
a scary story, said my father. I was intending to
save it until Gomer was older. But maybe now he's ready.
believe he is! exclaimed my grandfather. Let us
all pay heed, and I shall recite my tale.
sighed. She had heard the narrative many times before.
But she sat down, drawing my father and me next to her, and motioned
for her husband to proceed.
first, said he, let me prepare something to soothe my
throat. Returning the cuneiform tablet to the chest, he
withdrew two other earthenware objects, a wine jug and a drinking mug.
just one cup, his wife reminded him. To my father she
said, We have to keep the wine locked up nowadays.
Remember that time when you boys found Noe passed out drunk?
course, my father recalled. Our family was living
in a tent, he explained to me, because this new house was
still under construction. Cham came in one day and discovered
our father sprawled out on the floor without any clothes on. He
called Sem and me, and we covered Dad up.
spluttered, I was so angry with Cham for invading my
privacy! I pray that you two older boys turn out to be more
successful in life, that's all I can say. [Genesis
poured a mug of wine, drank deeply, refilled the mug, put the jug
back on its shelf, and locked the chest. Then, taking another
sip from the mug, he struck a dramatic pose, cleared his throat, and
began to speak.
was a dark time for the world, a frightful time. Turmoil had
God had seen fit to bless all his creation, saying, Be
fruitful and multiply. Fill the water of the sea, and let birds
increase on the land. [Genesis
And to our human race, he said, Be fruitful and multiply.
Inhabit all the earth and rule over it. [Genesis
we did so with great enthusiasm. We multiplied by ten.
Again we multiplied by ten. Again we multiplied by ten, until
the earth became overpopulated! It was crawling with people.
family in particular was surrounded and besieged. The
neighboring farms encircled us on every side. They were
loathsome. The farmers were violent. Their every thought
and inclination were wicked. [Genesis
was an intolerable situation. I knew I alone could fix
it. I alone was righteous I, and my household. I
walked with God, and I was the only blameless man of my time. [Genesis
Word from Beyond
day I remember I had just turned 600 I was sitting by
myself, shuttered within my house.
I heard a voice coming through the bedroom wall.
voice said, Wall,
wall! Reed wall, reed wall! [tablets]
has dared enter into my home? I cried.
am God! And I am not happy. I have seen how your
neighbors have crowded the land and become wicked to each other.
now regret having created such monsters. The whole human race
is corrupt. I shall destroy it, and the earth along with
wept bitterly. God was about to bring everything to an end
not only my evil neighbors who deserved it, but also my
righteous family and even the earth itself. The blameless
beasts and birds and creeping things, all of life, would be caught up
in the destruction.
then the voice came a second time.
wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Insubstantial reed
wall! Heed my words, Noe, that you may live forever.
must sacrifice your house, because it would never survive the
disaster that I am bringing upon the earth.
And build a boat!
Renounce your goods
And save your life!
must tear down your house. You must use the materials for
boatbuilding. Take the reeds and the wood and turn them into
ropes and ribs and stanchions.
the boat that you shall build, use a circular design. Let its
length and breadth be the same. [tablets]
circular boat? I interrupted. I never heard of
such a thing.
course you have, said my father. Those coracles,
bobbing along out on the river?
yes. I always thought they were just big round baskets.
so they are. But they do float, and they're stable. A
coracle is merely a basket, woven from reeds and rushes, made
watertight with a coating of pitch. [Exodus
Asphalt. That black sticky stuff that comes bubbling up out of
bitumen pits. Now let your grandfather continue.
I say something first? asked Grandmama. I must
admit, when my husband told me about God's words, I thought he was
crazy. Or drunk, at least.
agreed. You made that very plain, my love.
he heard it was going to rain, he overreacted. He wanted to
rip apart our house the home our family had lived in for years
and use the pieces to build a boat! Of course, it all
did turn out for the best.
I obeyed the voice of God, said Noe.
asked Grandmama whether she had heard the voice too. No,
dear, your grandfather was all alone with his wine when the voice
came to him. He was the only one who heard God's
instructions. And they were very specific, weren't they?
nodded and resumed telling what he heard.
is to be the design of the boat, said God. Build
it from ribs of cypress, cover it with reeds, and pitch it inside
and out with pitch. Put a door in the side. [Genesis
construct two decks. On the upper, make a house with a roof
over it so the sun can't see inside. On the lower, make a place
for animals. Each deck is to be an acre in size. The
length and the breadth of the boat are to be 220 feet, and the walls
20 feet high. [tablets]
you go again, Grandmama interrupted, inflating all your numbers!
Gomer, look at this drawing I made. The decks weren't anywhere
near an acre.
still a pretty big coracle, my father observed. At
least triple the diameter of most.
had to hire a whole construction crew to build it. I gave the
workmen beer, ale, oil, and wine. They made a party like the
New Year's festival!
told me, Store
plenty of food inside the boat. When all is complete, go on
board, you and all your household. You may also bring along
some of your livestock: seven pairs of sheep, and seven pairs
of goats, and seven pairs of doves. But take only one pair of
pigs. They're not clean.
get ready, because starting a week from today I'm going to make it
rain until all of my rotten Creation has been washed away.
it was time, Grandmama recalled, we all climbed into the
boat, but poor Noe was so nervous! He was in and out. He
couldn't sit, he couldn't crouch, he could only throw up. He
said his heart was broken with fear. [tablets]
paused, remembering. He took several sips of wine. I
turned to my father and asked, Were you scared, Daddy?
course I was. Storms always frighten me.
it crowded on the boat?
indeed. There were eight of us aboard: your
grandparents, and your two uncles and your two aunts, and your mother
and I. Plus all those animals and stored provisions. We
were afraid of leaks, so we sealed the door shut with pitch. [tablets]
We all huddled together, watching the sky.
recalled a storm back home on our farm. One time last
winter, it rained for four days straight. The lower end of our
field had a puddle four feet deep.
nothing, sniffed Grandmama. Your grandpapa is
about to tell you how it rained for forty days straight.
than a month? How big a puddle did that make?
wasn't four feet deep. It was four miles deep.
I couldn't begin to imagine that. But Grandpapa was ready to resume.
remember the date. It was February 17th of my year 600.
All the springs of the great deep burst out, the windows of the
heavens were opened, and rain fell upon the earth for forty days and
forty nights. [Genesis
what about your neighbors? I asked. When the rain
didn't stop, they must have been worried. Did you let them come
aboard your boat, too?
Lord closed the door on them. The swelling waters lifted our
boat high off the ground. [Genesis
that's awful! You just let all those other people suffer and drown?
course, my father explained. They got what was
coming to them. They were sinners. I can hear their
screams and cries even yet. They called out desperately to
merciful God to save them, but there was no answer. Let us
praise the justice of the Lord!
added more gruesome details.
of men floated on the surface
bloated white sheep.
flood pushed their corpses into heaps
piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh.
an enraged bull.
a wild ass screaming.
was no sun.
boat floated on the surface of the swollen waters, and they
increased to cover the whole earth. Even the high mountains
were covered, to a depth of twenty feet. Everything on dry land
perished. Only I survived, along with those aboard my
shuddered. That must have been terrifying, to be out
there all alone.
the rains came to an end and the flood waters began to subside.
On July 17th the boat grounded, coming to rest on a
mountaintop. But we could still see nothing but water, water
everywhere around us. It was October before we caught sight of
other mountaintops. [Genesis
Grandmama whispered, your grandfather loves to multiply.
The flood did cover everything we could see, but we weren't adrift
from February until July. It wasn't five months before we
touched ground again. It was more like a couple of weeks.
released one of our doves from her cage, and she gladly flew
away. But everything was underwater and she couldn't find any
place to land, so she had no choice but to come back to me.
tried again a week later. This time the dove brought back a
freshly plucked olive leaf. That showed the flood was receding.
one more week, I sent her out a third time. When she didn't
come back, I looked out and saw a bit of muddy ground! It was
January 1st of my 601st year.
we didn't dare disembark until February 27th. That was a year
and ten days after we had gone on board. We immediately kissed
the ground, built an altar, and offered up a burnt sacrifice to
God. [Genesis 8:8-20]
hadn't really been shut up in that overgrown coracle for 375
days, Grandmama whispered again. It was a tenth of
that. It was less than 40 days. And 40 nights.
the Return to Earth
haven't mentioned the Covenant, my father said.
Tell us how God's voice again came to you.
God smelled the sweet savor of our burnt sacrifice, he said to me
and he included you, Japheth, in this, as well as your
brothers Sem and Cham he said, I
am now establishing my Covenant with you and with your descendants
after you, and with every living creature that is with you, all that
have come out of the boat.
not the rain! Never again will the water become a flood to
destroy all creation!
bow I set in the clouds, to be a sign of this promise.
Whenever I bring rain upon the earth, the rainbow will also appear,
and I shall see it and remember this Covenant. [Genesis
had come to the end of his story.
father added, God had promised to remember his Covenant, and we
wanted to remember that promise, too. So when Dad rebuilt our
farmhouse, he drew a symbol with a rainbow on top and attached it to
the door of our ark.
the chest standing over there in the corner, Grandmama
reminded me. We call it our ark of the Covenant.
indeed! my father exclaimed. Let us never forget
to that! said Grandpapa. And he again unlocked Noe's ark
so he could pour himself more wine.
here for other Bible
stories I've retold in the first person.