Author’s Note: I decided to combine these chapters because they are part of the same story, and otherwise Chapter 7’s post would have been very short.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Genesis 7 shows the first indications of the importance of the number seven. The “clean beasts” and “fowls” are brought into the ark “by sevens,” as instructed by God, and it was “after seven days” that the floodwaters came upon the earth (7:8-10).
The number seven, of course, is already significant because that’s how many days it took for God to create the earth plus one day of rest. This motif of a single number is a classic literary technique, and I’m sure it’s why seven has been and still is an important number in Western culture. (Harry Potter, anyone?)
Anyway, there’s a lot of repetition in general — how many animals were taken into the ark, etc. This got me wondering about the reason for all the repetition. Did the Bible come out of an oral tradition? If so, then the repetition would make sense. (Another possibility is the repetition emphasizes how everything happened just as God commanded: “God said X. And then X happened.”)
There’s also an obvious “cleansing” metaphor here: the floodwaters are meant to wash away the sinful “flesh” of the world besides Noah et al. But it’s also clear that the ark symbolizes a higher state. During the flood, Noah, his family, and all living flesh considered worthy is literally “lift up above the earth” (7:17), while represents uncleanliness, sin, humanity, and everything that is the opposite of God, an incorporeal being. By being in the ark, they’re literally ‘above’ the sin that gets washed away.
Even as the rain is “abated” (8:3), the ark rests upon “the mountains of Ararat” (8:4), still standing ‘above’ the earth while the water drains. (Where does the water go? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question here. I’m just an English teacher—what do I know about climate and geography?)
Speaking of the sin that gets washed away, my favorite line of chapter 7 is:
All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. (7:22)
I know it’s morbid, but it’s also really strong imagery. It’s also less cliché than getting the breath sucked out of one’s lungs, which is more common in modern writing.
But, although Genesis 7 ends with the supposedly necessary mass slaughter of every living creature, Genesis 8 begins with what one could call a ray of hope:
And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark. (8:1)
To be honest, one could make a joke here about how it sounds like God literally forgot about Noah for 150 days, but, remember, that’s not the purpose of this blog. (For the record, though, it would have been less syntactically ambiguous if it had said “But God remembered Noah,” which would have implied that God had it in his head the whole time.)
Noah, meanwhile, is still held up as a savior and even god-like figure. The line where he sends out the dove, my favorite of Chapter 8, exemplifies this:
But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. (8:9)
The relationship between Noah and the dove—she as the weary soul who is taken in—casts Noah as the savior. He both gives the dove a larger purpose but also serves as a reliable place of solace. That plus the metonymy—“no rest for the sole of her foot,” with the foot representing the dove as a whole—makes this some quality writing.
After another seven days (of course), the dove is sent out again, but this time returning with good news:
And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. (8:11)
Interestingly, it’s an olive leaf rather than an olive branch, which is the common phrase. I’m not sure if that’s something that could vary in translation, but, in any case, the olive leaf and the dove’s return both symbolize hope and growth.
On a related note, throughout the chapter there’s a motif of new beginnings and allusions to earlier creation. For one, Noah first looks out and sees “the face of the ground was dry” in the “six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month” (8:13). The “first” in this significant moment emphasizes how the world is starting over. Additionally, after Noah offers a burnt sacrifice to God after leaving the ark,
the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (8:21-22)
There’s a LOT in here that parallels earlier chapters. For instance, in the beginning of Genesis 7, God is grieved in his “heart” that humans have evil thoughts—this time, though, God says “in his heart” that a flood of this sort won’t happen again. And God rests this promise on the stability of binaries, the fundamental concept established in Genesis 1.
At the same time, though, it establishes once and for all another critical theme: that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” God apparently realizes there’s nothing even he can do about that, or at least decides to leave it alone.
Original sin: it’s one hell of a drug. And no human is immune…not even Noah.