There is no archaeological evidence for the universal flood described in Gen. 6–8, but there are several Mesopotamian stories about how a family marvellously survived such a flood. In Genesis the flood is a punishment from God who was determined to clear the earth of its gross impurities caused by the misdeeds of its inhabitants. Other flood stories, such as the Gilgamesh epic from 12th‐cent. BCE Babylonia, discovered at Nineveh in 1872, seem to regard the flood as somehow issuing out of disputes amongst the gods, and the hero who survives is granted immortality. There are so many similarities between the Hebrew and the Babylonian stories that both probably depend upon the same original version, which enshrined the memory of a devastating flood in the region.
The fate of Noah, who survived the biblical flood in his ark, is different; although he offers sacrifices he becomes a shameless drunkard (Gen. 9: 20–28)—an unedifying story in which patristic exegetes treated Noah's stupor as a ‘type’ of the passion of Christ. Protestant exegetes rejected this, and preferred a moralistic message: it was a warning against excessive drinking. The importance of the biblical flood story lies in its narrative of the covenant between God and Noah: God's promise is that there will never again be such a deluge, while Noah, as representative of humanity, is to observe certain basic laws, especially about the shedding of blood, and mankind is ‘to replenish the earth’ (Gen. 9: 1–7). These hints of a covenant, long before the covenant with Moses and the chosen people, were later elaborated by the Jewish rabbis into the ‘Noachian precepts’, the ‘way of all the earth’ which they regarded as obligatory on Gentiles. It has been suggested that the requirements laid on Gentile converts by the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 29) are in fact the Noachian code.
The symbolism of the flood is used in 1 Pet. 3: 20, where Noah's ark is regarded as a prototype of the Church conceived as a life‐boat launched upon the waters of time. Modern readers recognize the truth in the story that human beings match fateful choices with consequences for future generations and in which they are accountable to God. The rainbow in the story symbolizes a ‘nevertheless’: of God's fidelity in his creation.