Flood-resistant lineages: Genesis 6-9

Again, in the flood story, we have two narratives, one featuring Yahweh and another featuring Elohim. But unlike the creation stories, these narratives are not separate, but intertwined.

The cosmic flood of Elohim

Elohim decides that the earth has become hopelessly corrupted with violence, and tells Noah, son of Lamech – described as a righteous man in his generation – that he is going to flood the world and start over. He tells Noah to build a watertight basket-like vessel to ride out the flood in, giving detailed instructions. Echoing the fifth and sixth days of the Elohist creation story, Elohim tells Noah to gather two of every kind of animal, a breeding population for after the earth has been depopulated. Elohim also says that he is establishing a covenant with Noah.

Noah builds an ark, fills it with animals and his family, and the flood waters come and go, wiping out all breathing animal life. When they’ve all exited the ark, Elohim tells Noah to repopulate the earth, and gives him two additional commands:

  1. Don’t eat an animal until it’s done bleeding out.
  2. Don’t murder people, because they’re all made in my image. The penalty for murder is death.

Elohim then promises never again to flood the whole earth, and institutes rainbows to serve as a reminder if things start getting suspiciously rainy.

The Yahwist narrative

The curse of Cain

Remember how, last time around, Cain’s descendant Lamech bragged about murdering a dude, and then things kind of started over? Well, now the other Lamech, the one descended from Set (and Kenan, the Cain replacement), has a son. He names him Noah (נח), because “this one will bring us rest (yenachamenu, ינחמנו) from our work and the toil of our hands, from the ground which Yahweh had cursed.” What is in the Elohist narrative an ongoing process of violence is in the Yahwist narrative the curse of Cain.

Yahweh tells Noah to take not one pair of every animal, but seven pairs of every ritually clean animal – ones suitable for sacrifice. (This is something of an anachronism if we take the Torah’s chronology literally.) After the flood, Noah builds an altar and sacrifices one of every kind of clean animal to Yahweh. Yahweh finds the aroma pleasing, and resolves to life the curse from the ground.

The curse of Cain begins with someone trying to get credit for a high-value message – an animal sacrifice – without sending one. Noah and his vessel are the ultimate high-value message: a time capsule capable of repopulating the world. When he sends a signal back to Yahweh from the other side of the flood, the curse ends.

Lateral and lineal information transfer

Yahweh’s decision to wipe out humanity (excepting Noah) seems to be part of a broader set of decisions to simplify things that are getting out of hand. The Yahwist flood story begins:

And it came to pass, when Man (Adam, אדם) began to increase on the face of the earth (ha-adamah, האדמה), and daughters were born to them, That the sons of Elohim saw that the daughters of Adam were good; and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. And Yahweh said, “My spirit shall not always strive with Adam, for he is but flesh; so his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days; and also afterward, when the sons of Elohim would come to the daughters of Adam, who bore them children. These were the mighty ones, who were always men of renown.

Yahweh saw that the wickedness of Adam was great in the earth, and that every urge of the thoughts of his heart was only evil every day. And Yahweh was sorry that he had made Adam in the land, and it grieved him to his heart. And Yahweh said, I will blot out Adam whom I created from the face of the earth (ha-adamah, האדמה); from Adam to animal to creeping thing to bird of the heavens; for I am sorry that I made them.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of Yahweh.

This casts Elohim in a very different light. As best as I can tell, this passage picks up the frame of the Yahwist Eden story. Yahweh was trying to cultivate a particular type of person over multiple generations, starting with Adam, and Elohim’s offspring interfere with the process by interbreeding with Adam’s. Yahweh responds to this by limiting the lifespan of his people.

Why would limiting lifespans help?

I am reminded of Max Planck’s aphorism:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

We should not assume that this is mere foolishness – academia has produced enough of value that we should think of this as an academic folkway to be studied, not prejudged. Academia’s lineage orientation, after all, has yielded impressive results.

Academic lineages are an important memetic analogue to genetic lineages; the people doing the best work very frequently are the ones who studied with the people of renown in the prior generation. The important idea here is that lineages contain information.

Some information is transferred laterally, through peers talking to each other, spreading ideas. The advantage of lateral transfer is that it is fast – it can spread to everyone within distance of verbal communication within a generation. But this can also lead to information cascades in which a message that is memetically fit but untrue or useless spreads anyway. Social dynamics can be corrupted, reality can be falsified, and pernicious ideas can acquire a momentum of their own, flooding the world and wiping out all competing information.

Some communities adapt to this with an immune response to marketing. Whether it is the Quaker meeting in which nothing can get done until everyone is on board (thus slowing down momentum), or a society where respected elders censor harmful opinions, a liberal marketplace of ideas where criticism is protected, or isolated villages that respond to well-meaning white saviors trying to sell them on an amazing new medical practice with a simple no, there are many strategies for trying to mitigate the costs of lateral information transfer, including opting out.

The other method is lineal transfer. Teach it to your children, who will teach it to theirs. The advantage of this is that it lets different lineages iterate on different strategies, try things out and make cumulative progress. After a while, you can just look and see which lineages have done something interesting (or survived at all). There’s less danger of wiping out all the accumulated progress in a single generation.

We now have a conceptual framework in which to interpret the problem, and Yahweh’s solution.

The problem is twofold. Interbreeding with the Elohist project is introducing too much noise into his lineages. Long lifespans are confusing his version control as well; for instance, Set somehow manages to be his older brother Cain’s grandfather

Yahweh responds with a twofold solution. He limits lifespans (so that earlier generations don’t prevent later generations from iteratively improving on their progress), and cleans house with a one-time winnowing (to start again afresh from a single origin without intergenerational confusion).

The Raven and the Dove

After the flood subsides but before Noah emerges, the ark is sitting in a mountain range, and Noah isn’t sure whether there’s enough dry land to open up the ark. (Perhaps he was worried that the flood wasn’t fully over, perhaps opening up the sealed vessel was a nonreversible operation.) So he sends out a raven, which keeps coming back to him until the waters have fully subsided. He also sends out a dove every seven days. On the second attempt, the dove returns with an olive branch, suggesting that there are at least some trees above water. On the third attempt, the dove does not come back, suggesting that it has nested somewhere, so he opens the ark and comes out.

Unlike doves, ravens are famously clever, but the raven provided less usable information than the dove did. Why? Ravens use their smarts to keep secrets from each other – they hide food, and track which other ravens might be aware of which food caches, so they know whom to watch in what circumstances. This presents Noah with a sort of principal-agent problem which is simply not present with the dove; the dove grabs a branch when a branch becomes available, and doesn’t think to hide this from Noah.

Cleverer agents do not necessarily compose into cleverer systems; trust is needed as well.

Yah and Ea

In the Babylonian flood story, the gods are going to destroy the world with a flood, so Ea (Yah?) picks his favorite person and secretly tells him to build a watertight basket-like vessel, thus subverting the plan of the Elohim (literally, gods).

In the Torah, by contrast, what we have is a correction, in which the cosmic and personal narratives cohere rather than conflict. Elohim tracks outcomes, and gives high-level advice. Yahweh is much more involved in the details, tracking individual lines of credit and blame. Characteristically, Yahweh recovers lost ground by getting someone to try to send high-quality signals, in a safe environment: there is literally no one else around to murder him for being better. If you get your signal processing right, you don’t waste time worrying about clever tricks; the main dangers are natural disasters, which can’t apply adversarial intelligence to defeat your foresight.

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