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A Promise in the Clouds
Written April 19, 2018


Background:  The 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.”

The Tablet of the Covenant and at least eight other versions of this tale have been unearthed in what is now Iraq.

One 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.

In 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.

The 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.”

It 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.

Just 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 (safe-keeping box).

I 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.


Hello.  I'm Gomer.  I'm an adult now, but I'd like to tell about what happened when I was only eight years old.

Before 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.

But 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.”

“Grandmama Naamah,” I echoed.  “That's funny.”


Back to the Homeplace

When 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?”

“Ha-ha!  Not quite.  Dad, I'd like you to meet my son, Gomer.”  [Genesis 10:1-2]  

“A fine young lad!” Grandpapa exclaimed.  “How old are you, my boy?”

“I'm eight.”

“How about that!  Myself, I'm 700 years old,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Seven hundred?  Really?”

“I hope to live until I'm a thousand!  Or at least 900.  Write it down.”  [Genesis 9:28-29] 

“No, 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.”

“Not 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 6:10] 

“Well, that's true,” his wife admitted.

“And I have only this one house.”

“One is enough.”

“Built it a hundred years ago.”

“Ten years ago,” she corrected.

“You know, I was the first man in the world who ever tilled the soil.  I was the first to plant a vineyard.  I invented farming!”  [Genesis 9:20] 

“Oh, Noe!” Grandmama Naamah exclaimed.  And she hurried all of us indoors, before the neighbors could get a whiff of her husband's bizarre boasting.


Inside the House

My 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, bundled together.

There 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.

“What's that chest, Grandmama?” I asked.

“That's our ark.  Inside it, we keep the scriptures that tell our family's story.”

“Can I see?”

“Such 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. 

“Have 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.”

“The great flood?”

“I'm sure your father has told you about it.  He was there when it happened.”

“It's a scary story,” said my father.  “I was intending to save it until Gomer was older.  But maybe now he's ready.”

“I believe he is!” exclaimed my grandfather.  “Let us all pay heed, and I shall recite my tale.”

Grandmama 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.

“But 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.

“Now, 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?”

“Of 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.”

Grandpapa 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 9:21-27] 

He 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.


Noe's Saga Begins

It was a dark time for the world, a frightful time.  Turmoil had engulfed us.

Once, 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 1:22]  And to our human race, he said, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Inhabit all the earth and rule over it.”  [Genesis 9:7] 

Well, 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.

My 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 6:5]

This 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 6:9] 


The Word from Beyond

One day — I remember I had just turned 600 — I was sitting by myself, shuttered within my house.

Suddenly I heard a voice coming through the bedroom wall.

The voice said, Wall, wall!  Reed wall, reed wall!”  [tablets] 

Who has dared enter into my home?” I cried.

I am God!  And I am not happy.  I have seen how your neighbors have crowded the land and become wicked to each other.

I now regret having created such monsters.  The whole human race is corrupt.  I shall destroy it, and the earth along with it!”  [Genesis 6:13] 

I 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.

But then the voice came a second time.

Wall, wall!  Reed wall, reed wall!  Insubstantial reed wall!  Heed my words, Noe, that you may live forever.

You must sacrifice your house, because it would never survive the disaster that I am bringing upon the earth. 

     Destroy your house
          And build a boat!
     Renounce your goods
          And save your life!

You 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.

“For the boat that you shall build, use a circular design.  Let its length and breadth be the same.”  [tablets] 

“A circular boat?” I interrupted.  “I never heard of such a thing.”

“Of course you have,” said my father.  “Those coracles, bobbing along out on the river?”

“Oh, yes.  I always thought they were just big round baskets.”

“Well, 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 2:3]  


“Tar.  Asphalt.  That black sticky stuff that comes bubbling up out of bitumen pits.  Now let your grandfather continue.”

“May 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.”

Grandpapa agreed.  “You made that very plain, my love.”

“When 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.”

“Because I obeyed the voice of God,” said Noe.

I 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?”

Grandpapa nodded and resumed telling what he heard.


Construction  Plans

This 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 6:14,16] 

And 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] 

“There you go again,” Grandmama interrupted, “inflating all your numbers!

“Here, Gomer, look at this drawing I made.  The decks weren't anywhere near an acre.”

“That's still a pretty big coracle,” my father observed.  “At least triple the diameter of most.”


I 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!  [tablets] 

God 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.

And 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.”  [Genesis 6:21-7:4] 

“When 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] 

Grandpapa paused, remembering.  He took several sips of wine.  I turned to my father and asked, “Were you scared, Daddy?”

“Of course I was.  Storms always frighten me.” 

“Was it crowded on the boat?”

“Yes, 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.”

I 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.”

“That's nothing,” sniffed Grandmama.  “Your grandpapa is about to tell you how it rained for forty days straight.”

“More than a month?  How big a puddle did that make?”

“It wasn't four feet deep.  It was four miles deep.”

“No!”  I couldn't begin to imagine that.  But Grandpapa was ready to resume.


Casting Off

I 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 7:11-12] 

And 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?”

The Lord closed the door on them.  The swelling waters lifted our boat high off the ground.  [Genesis 7:16-17] 

“But that's awful!  You just let all those other people suffer and drown?”

“Of 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!”

Grandpapa added more gruesome details.

Bodies of men floated on the surface
like bloated white sheep.

The flood pushed their corpses into heaps
like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh.

The flood roared
like an enraged bull.

The winds howled
like a wild ass screaming.

The darkness was total.
There was no sun.

Our 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 coracle.  [Genesis 7:18-23] 

I shuddered.  “That must have been terrifying, to be out there all alone.”

Finally 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 7:24-8:5] 

“Remember,” 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.”

I 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.

I tried again a week later.  This time the dove brought back a freshly plucked olive leaf.  That showed the flood was receding.

After 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.

However, 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] 

“We 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.”


After the Return to Earth

“You haven't mentioned the Covenant,” my father said.  “Tell us how God's voice again came to you.”

When 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.

Fear not the rain!  Never again will the water become a flood to destroy all creation!

My 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 9:8-17] 

Grandpapa had come to the end of his story. 

My 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.”

“That's the chest standing over there in the corner,” Grandmama reminded me.  “We call it our ark of the Covenant.”

“Yes, indeed!” my father exclaimed.  “Let us never forget God's mercy!”

“Amen!” said Grandmama.

“I'll drink to that!” said Grandpapa.  And he again unlocked Noe's ark so he could pour himself more wine.


Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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