Noah and the flood

The first eleven chapters of the book Genesis, in the Old Testament of the Bible, describe the creation and early history of the human race. The events are set in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq. The story of Noah and the flood, found in Genesis chapters 6-9, has parallels with the Epic of Gilgamesh, found in 1883 on clay tablets in the palace of Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital on the banks of the Tigris. Ancient accounts of a great flood are also found in many countries across the world.

God sends the flood

Noah and the arkThe biblical account of the flood shows not only God's anger at the persistent wickedness of human beings, which causes him to regret having made them, but also his willingness to preserve those, like Noah, who are living in obedience to him. In order to punish the people's disobedience, God decided to send very heavy rain and cause a flood.

Noah was given detailed instructions by God about how to build an ark, or boat, in which he, his family, and pairs of all kinds of land animals would survive the deluge. He obeyed. Genesis 7:11-12 recounts that:

all the springs of the great deep burst forth and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth for forty days and nights.

It took 150 days after that for the water to go down sufficiently for the ark to come to rest on the top of Mount Ararat. Noah sent out a raven and a dove, to establish when the land was able to support life again.

When Noah, his family and the animals emerged on to dry land, he offered a sacrifice to God. God, in turn, made a promise:

never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease Genesis 8:21-22.

God placed a rainbow in the clouds, to be a sign of this covenant or promise.

The flood in the New Testament

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that his Second Coming ‘will be like what happened in the time of Noah', in that people will be taken unawares. He warns, ‘You must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.' (Matthew 24:37; Matthew 24:44).

Noah is also named in the New Testament book, the letter to the Hebrews, as one of the great heroes of faith. Peter, in his letters, speaks of God's patience, giving people time to repent of their wicked ways, while Noah warned his fellow-men by ‘preaching righteousness.' (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5) Peter also sees the way that the eight people in Noah's family who were in the ark were ‘saved by the water' as a symbol of baptism (1 Peter 3:21).

Noah in medieval Mystery Plays

The story of Noah featured in Medieval Mystery Plays or Miracle Plays, such as the York, Wakefield and Chester Cycles. In these, Noah's wife is vigorously depicted as a scolding shrew who gives Noah a hard time and refuses to get on board the ark till the very last moment. The plays combine entertainment with a serious message about obeying God for an audience, most of whom, even if literate, would not have had the text of the Bible in English.


‘Antedeluvian' literally means ‘from before the deluge'. This adjective is often used to describe things which are so old they seem to belong to a by-gone age, even before the flood.

In Andrew Marvell's poem, To his Coy Mistress, the poet's way of indicating the whole span of time on earth is ‘before the Flood … till the Conversion of the Jews' (which Paul foretold in the New Testament, would not happen until the end of human history).

Related topics

Big ideas: Dove

Other cultural references

Barnes' A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters

Marvell's To his Coy Mistress

Lawrence's The Rainbow

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