Theological Reflections. Where Do We Go From Here?
Here is my claim: Christian theology does not need a global flood. No Christian doctrine depends on there having been a historical global flood. If it turns out that the flood was not global this has no implications for
the doctrine of God: the Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, divine attributes
the theology of creation
the doctrine of humanity – in God’s image, in sin
the doctrines of redemption
the theology of the last things
So in one important sense it makes little difference. But some might object that the Genesis writer and the NT authors believed in a global flood so, if we are to trust the Bible, it matters.
Before we focus on that question directly (which will mostly be tomorrow) let me step aside for a moment and look at some of the theological themes arising from the Noah story.
The flood narrative is a carefully crafted piece of narrative art. It has been shaped in such a way as to accentuate the feel of the rise of the waters and their fall (see G'J. Wenham's Genesis 1-15 WBC commentary). The centre of the story is 8:1, “And God remembered Noah…” The first half of the story leads up to the flood waters covering the earth and the second half leads away from it. The author balances elements of each half to correspond to each other.
Several important theological themes come out of the flood story
Sin and Obedience
The violence and wickedness of humanity contrasted with Noah’s obedience. “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Gen 6:5-7). Noah, by contrast, “was blameless among his contemporaries” (Gen 6:9).
“So the LORD said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth.’” (Gen 6:7). Then later, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth’” (Gen 6:11-13).
Just when we are thinking that humanity is doomed we read, “But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen 6:8). The flood story tells of God’s commitment to preserving humanity and all the animals through the judgment and starting again. God elects against total destruction in favour of mercy. And after the flood God covenants never to flood the whole earth again.
Decreation and Recreation
The flood story is told in such a way as to indicate to readers that the creation story of Genesis 1 has been put into reverse. In Genesis 1 God separated the waters above from the waters below (Day 2) and he separated the water and the land (Day 3). Animals and humans are created (Days 5 and 6). In the flood the waters above come down to meet the waters below (7:11) (reversing Day 2) and the waters cover the land again (reversing Day 3). All the animals and humans are wiped out (reversing Days 5 and 6). Apart from the ark, creation is set back to Day 1 – a watery chaos. But then, as the waters abate, God re-sculpts the world separating the waters again, separating the water from the land again and using the animals and people on the ark to repopulate the world.
Noah as a new Adam
Once we grasp the decreation and recreation symbolism in the flood story it becomes obvious that Noah and his wife come to play the role of the new Adam and Eve – the human pair that would populate the earth. Hence the theme of the animals being fruitful and multiplying (8:17) as in Genesis 1 and of Noah being told to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (9:1, cf. 9:7). Noah is the new Adam.
(I will come back to these theological themes tomorrow - there was a point to them, honest)
Back to the question of the inspiration of the Bible. I'll begin by problematising the issue.
We need to be clear - Genesis does present the flood as global. It is clear that it is presented as the destruction of all life on earth apart from those in the ark (Gen 6:7). And the water rises to such a height that all the high mountain tops under the entire heavens were covered by over 20 foot of water (Gen 7:18-20). Whilst some people rightly point out that the Hebrew word for ‘earth’ is the same word used for ‘land’ and can refer to something far more local it is very hard to read the flood story as if it was intended to picture a merely local flood. Any flood that would cover the highest mountain tops in the ancient Near East would have been global.
So I am controversially saying that the actual flood was not global but that the Bible does present it as a flood of the whole world. So is the Bible mistaken? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).