Historic reading of the flood myth shows us how the ancient Israelites understood their place in the universe, their relationship to God, their relationship to other nations, and God's feelings toward and desires for them.
A historical reading of the story of Noah can tell us many things about the ancient Israelites. McDermott explains how comparing the Biblical account of the flood to a similar and undoubtedly related story in the epic of Gilgamesh helps demonstrate the worldview of the ancient Israelites. First of all, the prevalence of such tales across a diversity of cultures suggests to modern readers "that there must have been some wide event behind them" (McDermott 31-2). However, as tantalizing as this information is, it is not specific to the Pentateuch. More interesting are the differences between the two views of God and intention. In particular, the Gilgamesh account portrays a world with many gods, who do not always agree, and who do not entirely control the universe. There is an element of chaos and lack of control in the Gilgamesh account, with a renegade god and an unplanned survivor. The Genesis account, on the other hand, naturally speaks of one, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all merciful god who set out to create the exact flood and the exact result delineated in the story of Noah. This represents a huge shift in religious thought.
In Gilgamesh, the flood "is simply an arbitrary act" (McDermott 33) while in Genesis it is done for the purpose of giving "creation a second chance to live righteously" (McDermott 33). In Gilgamesh, the survivor is an accident, while Noah is part of God's plan. In Gilgamesh, the flood "was so terrifying that even the gods were frightened and retreated to the high heaven" (McDermott 32); in Genesis, God "remembered Noah and all the wild animals and domestic animals that were with him on the ark, and God passed a wind over the Earth and the water decreased" (Friedman 45). From this, we can understand that the Israelite's world view of a merciful and all-powerful god was in opposition to earlier portraits of arbitrary and conflicted multiple gods. The Israelites believed things happened for a reason, while the Babylonians saw the gods as also at the mercy of a random and unknowable universe. The Israelite god presumed that the people retained a scrap of goodness, and could be convinced to act in certain ways. The Gilgamesh epic has a more nihilistic bent; it scarcely matters what men do, because the gods don't love them in the same way, and furthermore, the gods do not have complete control over the world anyway. They are more powerful than humans, but not omnipotent. The god of the ancient Israelites was, first and foremost, omnipotent.
The deliberate nature of the flood in Genesis helps shape the Israelite understanding of who God was and what God wanted from them. Noah is chosen because of his virtue: "He was unblemished in his generation" (Friedman 42). On the other hand, "the earth was corrupted before God, and the earth was filled with violence" (Friedman 42). From this was can understand that Noah alone was unblemished. The rest of his generation was corrupted with violence. God, in giving humans free will, has created a situation in which humans may choose to displease God. With infinite power, God chooses