The Internal Chronology of Noah’s Flood, Part 2: The P Source Chronology

For Part 1: An Overview, click here.

In Part 1, I noted that the story of Noah’s Flood combines two sources, which the scholars nicknamed J and P. I indicated that I would follow Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? to separate the sources but that I would challenge his assignment of two verses to the P source. It is my view that these two verses were inserted by the Redactor in order to harmonize the J and P sources into a single narrative. I’ll explore that issue in a subsequent post in this series.

Here, I am going to look at just the P chronology and ignore the two verses in question. For completeness, though, I’ll show where they appear in the sequence of P chronological verses so that you will know what I am leaving out. The first of the two verses is Genesis 7:24. “And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. “ The second is Genesis 8:3. “and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated;”

As I noted in the overview, all the other verses assigned to P follow a fixed date format, giving us the day, month and year in which the event happened. As to the J verses, the time frames are relative, telling us how many days passed from one event to the next. As you can see, the format of the two verses cited above more closely aligns with the J format than the P format. In what follows, I set out the P chronological sequence of events. Numbers in parentheses are the Genesis verse numbers. Verses not directly related to the P chronology are omitted.

  1. “Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth.” (7:6)
  2. “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened [emphasis added].” (7:11)
  3. On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, [emphasis added].” (7:13)
  4. [Friedman’s 7:24 omitted.]
  5. “And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed,” (8:1–2a)
  6. [Friedman’s 8:3 omitted]
  7. “and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared [emphasis added].“ (8:4–5)
  8. and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth [emphasis added].” (8:7)
  9. In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying [emphasis added].” (8:13)
  10. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry [emphasis added].” (8:14 )

The chronology laid out is simple, direct and precise, without any apparent hiccups. The Flood begins on the seventeenth day of the second month of Noah’s six hundredth year (presumably calculated from Noah’s chronological birth date in Genesis 5) and the ground dries out on the twenty-seventh day of the second month on Noah’s six hundred and first year. I will comment on the significance of this in a moment. I want to note two other points first.

As laid out, this chronology eliminates the ambiguity created by the insertion of the Genesis J verse 7:12 between the two surrounding P verses (Paragraphs 2 and 3 above). The J verse reads, “The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights..” When did Noah and sons enter the ark? Was it forty days after Paragraph 2 or the same day as Paragraph 2. The P source clearly places Paragraphs 2 and 3 on the same day. The inserted J verse creates some confusion.

Next, consider the chronology of the raven’s flight. Paragraphs 7, 8, and 9, taken together, indicate that on the first day of the tenth month the Raven was released and didn’t land until the waters were dried up from the earth. That day was the first day of the first month of the New Year. That refers to the waters on the surface, but the earth was still wet, “the face of the ground was drying.” The earth, itself, didn’t dry out until the twenty-seventh day of the second month of Noah’s six hundred and first year. The raven’s landing date is also a significant chronological point and I will explain its importance after we look at the duration of the P Flood story.

According to the P source, the flood cycle begins on the seventeenth day of the second month of the starting year and ends on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of the following year. These are clear calendar style references, so this time period equals one year and eleven days. One problem perplexing scholars is what kind of calendar year is this, solar or lunar. The solar calendar year has 365 days. (Put the extra quarter day aside for this discussion.) The lunar calendar year is 354 days long.

Compounding the problem is that a 354-day lunar year plus 11 days equals a solar year. Is the total time period in question 365 days based on a lunar calendar or 376 days based on a solar calendar. The difficulty here is that the Hebrews, Canaanites and Mesopotamian cultures used a lunar calendar and made no corrections for a solar calendar (but they did make corrections for the solar seasons.) The Egyptians, however, used both solar and lunar calendars. Here, I need to detour for a brief discussion on lunar and solar calendars.

The lunar calendar is based on the time period for 12 lunar months, in which the months fluctuate between 29 and 30 days each. Twelve full lunar moths equal 354 days. In order to keep the calendar closely aligned with the seasons of a solar year, the standard practice was to insert an extra month every couple of years, usually mixing some combination of two and three year intervals for inserting a month. This is the practice of the Hebrews, Canaanites, and Mesopotamians. They did not use solar calendars and had no need to adjust the lunar calendar other than by periodically inserting an extra month into the year so that the calendar remained in close alignment with the solar seasons. Why, then, would a Hebrew scribe, using a lunar calendar and having no need for a solar calendar, attach eleven days to a lunar calendar instead of an extra month? What was the P source relying on?

While it is true that one could argue that the scribe was simply harmonizing the lunar calendar with the solar year, assuming the scribe knew how long a solar year actually lasted, there is no evidence that the Hebrews ever did such a thing. The Egyptians, however, did work with both solar and lunar calendars.

Egyptologists recognize Richard Parker as perhaps the most influential expert on ancient Egyptian calendars, although not every Egyptologist agrees with everything he says. Let me briefly summarize his study of Egyptian calendars as laid out in his Calendars of Ancient Egypt: Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (26).

Sometime in the fourth or fifth millennium B.C.E., Egypt introduced a standard lunar calendar of 354 days and every couple of years, based on a formular involving the star Sothis (i.e., Sirius), they periodically inserted an extra year. This lunar calendar system kept the calendar in reasonably close alignment with the solar year seasons.

Towards the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E. (or perhaps earlier) the Egyptians invented the first known solar calendar, which served as their basic civil calendar. This solar calendar did not allow for the extra quarter day in each solar year, so every four years the calendar fell one day further out of alignment with the solar seasons. It took 1,460 solar years or 1,461 civil years for the cycle to start all over.

According to Parker, the Egyptians eventually found it problematic to have a lunar calendar aligned with the seasons and a solar calendar aligned with business and administrative needs, and they invented a second lunar calendar that would run in approximate tandem with the solar civil calendar. This calendar still had the same twelve lunar months, but instead of inserting an extra month every couple of years, they added eleven days to the end of each year. In this manner, both the solar and lunar calendars would place New Year on the same day every year and both would simultaneously fall out of alignment with the solar seasons. In the meantime, the original lunar calendar, in approximate alignment with the solar seasons, also remained in use.

Eventually, in the latter third of the first millennium B.C.E., the Egyptians introduced a new lunar calendar based on a 25-year cycle. The key property of this calendar, for our present discussion, is that there are exactly 309 synodic lunar months (which is slightly different than a standard lunar month) in 25 solar years. (Actually, there is a tiny fraction of a day difference between the two calendars, which causes a very slow misalignment.) Although the calendar was introduced late in the first millennium, the 25-year solar-lunar cycle would have been well known by the Egyptians for centuries if not millennia.

Parker’s second lunar calendar would appear to be the only logical model for the P source duration of one year and eleven days. While some (many? most?) biblical scholars would hesitate to accept such a conclusion, I think Occam’s Razor makes a strong case for this thesis. It is the simplest and most obvious explanation for using a time frame of one year and eleven days when no other clues are provided for why this time frame was chosen. That said, let me return now to the flight of the raven.

The flight of the Raven is odd. It was in the air for three months according to the P source. That’s a really long time for a bird to fly around without landing. Contrast that with the J source, where Noah releases a dove and it returns right away because there was no where to land. In the combined narrative, the raven is released before the dove. The unusual flight duration suggests that there might be some symbolism involved in the raven’s landing.

If we count the number of days in the flood cycle, beginning on the first day of the cycle when the rains began to fall, and continue through the raven landing on the first day of the next calendar year, New Year’s day, and we assume a lunar calendar as suggested above, the number of days encompassed is interesting. Because lunar months can be either 29 or 30 days long, depending on phenomenon associated with the length of the monthly cycle, a precise count is a bit tricky and may involve rounding a number up and down. For this calculation, I’ll assume an average length of 29.5 days for the lunar month.

The simplest way to proceed is to count the days in the first ten months. This will work out to 295 days as the 29 and 30 day months balance each other out. That takes us from the start of the Flood cycle on the seventeenth day of the second month to the sixteenth day of the twelfth month. Depending on whether the last month was 29 or 30 days, there are either 13 or 14 days to the end of the month. Working with the average of 29,5 days, we have 13.5 days to the end of the month. On the next day, the raven lands, which day includes either part or the whole of the fourteenth day. This permits us to calculate the length of the flood cycle from the first day to the landing of the raven as the sum of 295 + 14, which equals 309 days.

As noted just above, 309 equals the number of lunar months in the 25 year solar-lunar cycle. Twenty-five years is the time it takes for New Year’s day to fall on the same day in the twenty-five year calendar, the civil solar calendar, and the 365-day lunar calendar (the one with eleven days added to the end of the year.)

The raven, apparently symbolically, lands on the 309th day, which is set on New Year’s day in the civil calendar, pointing to an alignment of New Year’s day in all three calendars. The coincidence, when taken in concert with the parallel to Parker’s second Egyptian lunar calendar, is certainly suggestive. If the raven’s landing serves as a symbolic pointer, and I think it does, then the figure of 309 points further to Egyptian lunar calendars standing behind the P source.

The next installment will examine the J Flood chronology.

For more on the relationship between the P source and the story of Noah, see my essay on Noah’s Flood: Babylonian or Egyptian in Origin.

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