So is the Bible mistaken? That might be the wrong way to think about things.
First, the flood was global from the perspective of the biblical author. The Genesis author is not remotely interested in places much outside of the Near East – indeed, he would have known little, if anything, of their existence. He would have no clue, for instance, of the existence of the Americas. His whole world was the ancient Near East so what would be to him a worldwide flood is not one that we would consider worldwide. The author is not lying. From his perspective this was a global flood even if from ours it may not have been.
The animals were all species from the perspective of the biblical author. The animals that Noah was keen to preserve would have been all the local species but to the author (and to Noah) this simply was all the species. They knew nothing of most of the animals species that we now know about. There were no Koala bears, kangaroos, dinosaurs or polar bears on the ark. Realizing this immediately mitigates some of the logistical problems we discussed earlier.
We need to beware of our tendency to judge the ancient biblical texts by modern standards of what reliable historical narrative ought to look like. We often expect far more literal accuracy from ancient histories than ancient conventions required. It was not considered dishonest to shape and craft stories in such a way as to bring out certain points. They were not so concerned about getting everything in a strictly historical order, or preserving the exact words spoken. They were quite happy to invent speeches for characters so long as those speeches were what we might call 'plausible' (i.e., explained the known facts and were consistent with what we know). It was not considered inappropriate to use some imagination to fill in the gaps in out knowledge. They were also happy to engage in hyperbole for effect. For instance, the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in Moses’ day are depicted in ways that suggest an impact on everyone in Egypt. This is surely hyperbolic!
We also need to bear in mind that even on a best case scenario, this story was only written down in the form we have it over 1,500 years after the flood. In fact, we are more likely looking at 2,500-3,000 years after. Now oral traditions in ancient oral societies were far more reliable and stable than they are in our non-oral, modern societies. The passing on of tradition was not like Chinese whispers. Nevertheless, it does suggest that it is very unreasonable of us to expect the same kind of historical accuracy that we would expect from a modern history text.
Now you might be thinking, “Ah, but the Bible is inspired so God would make sure that the text did get all the facts straight.” The problem here is that you are presuming that you know what kind of book the Bible would have to be to count as ‘inspired’ – one that conforms to our requirements for total factual accuracy. Because this is the kind of book we think that God ought to have given us we decide that the Bible simply has to be that kind of a book.
But what if we started the other way around? What if we asked what kind of book the Bible we have is and allow that to shape our understanding of ‘inspiration’? The Bible is inspired by God but perhaps God’s concerns in inspiring it do not conform exactly to our modern ones. Perhaps the total number of days that the flood lasted are not literally correct but serve instead to shape the story in such a way that it has literary and artistic balance (see Wenham's Genesis 1-15 WBC commentary) and allows the story to be told in a pallistrophic form. Perhaps the language about the waters being 20 foot higher than the highest mountains is simply hyperbole to communicate the idea of a reversal of Genesis 1 (after all – how on earth would Noah have discovered this fact unless God told him. But in the story God’s communications with Noah seem to be confined to more pressing matters than trivial details on water depth).
I maintain that the theology of the flood story can be affirmed even if the flood was not global. Imagine the following scenario: Several thousand years ago there is a catastrophic flood the likes of which people have never before seen or imagined possible. This was not a typical annual flood or even a big occasional flood. This is a vast, destructive flood that wipes out populations centres across the world known to those people. It is the end of their world. There are some survivors in a boat and after the flood civilization can begin again.
Their story is told down the generations and takes various shapes in different ancient Near Eastern cultures. The closest parallels to the biblical story come from ancient Mesopotamia. The fullest version is found in tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic. That flood story is older than the one in the Bible and was probably based on an even earlier flood story found in the old Babylonian Atrahasis story. We cannot tell whether the author of Genesis knew of these versions of the story or not. In some ways they are pretty similar but in others they are very different.
A divine decision to destroy humanity, a warning to the flood hero, a command to build the ark, the hero’s obedience, the command to enter the ark, entry, closing the door, a description of the flood, the destruction of life, the end of the rain, the ark grounding on a mountain, the hero opening a window, bird reconnaissance, exit, sacrifice, livine smelling of the sacrifice, and the blessing of the flood hero. One fascinating similarity is the way that in the old Atrahasis version of the story the flood is part of a longer story covering the creation of humanity, the long-lived antediluvians and the universal flood. Genesis 1-9 also places the flood story in just such a grand narrative.
The name of the flood hero (Ziusudra in Sumeria, Atrahasis in the old Babylonian story, Utnapishtim in Akkadian Gilgamesh, Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Deucalion in Greek mythology). The biblical name, Noah, means ‘restful’/’soothing’ and is related to the ‘soothing’ sacrifice to God that he makes in 8:21. It is a symbolic name and need not have been the actual name of the historical figure.
The Hebrew version is monotheistic, the others are polytheistic.
The motive for the flood was that the council of gods decided that humans had multiplied too much and made too much noise. The biblical story has a far more positive attitude to human fertility and sees the flood as rooted in moral reasons and not trivial ones.
Thus the decision to flood the earth is not unanimous amongst the gods in other ANE versions and the rebel gods tip off the flood hero to the plan. Enlil, the god who sent the flood, was surprised to find any survivors afterwards. These gods do not act in concord, are not all powerful or all knowing.
Once the flood comes, in the polytheistic versions the gods cannot control it and cowered like dogs before it in fear. Not so Yhwh in the Bible version.
In ANE versions the gods need the humans to feed them so when the flood hero offers the sacrifice they crowd around jostling for a place at the BBQ. The Bible version is not like that.
The pagan flood heroes are raised up much more than Noah. Noah is a 2-dimensional character on purpose. He never speaks. His only role in the story is that of one who obeys God. That is the all that matters about him, as far as the biblical version goes.
Now we do have evidence for ancient flooding in Mesopotamia. Whilst we cannot say with certainty that such and such a flood deposit layer at any particular excavation is the flood, it is not unreasonable to take such evidence, along with the ancient flood legends from across Mesopotamia, as evidence of a cataclysmic, civilization disrupting flood. Some think that what evidence we have could suggest a rough date for the flood as about 3000BC.
Anyway, back to my ‘let’s suppose’ story. God wants to communicate certain things to his people Israel and, by the Spirit, shapes the way that they tell the flood story in order to do so. The things that God wishes to communicate are true but it does not follow from that that every detail in the flood story must be believed literally (or even all of the broader points). Let’s suppose that God wished to communicate the following kinds of things?
The ‘world-destroying’ flood that is remembered by many was not the result of capricious deities annoyed by the noise of humans but by the act of a righteous God punishing sin.
Sin is destructive and will be destroyed.
Obedience to God is a virtue to be prized and cultivated.
God rules over the creation and works through the channels within the world (floodgates of the deep and rain) to bring about his purposes.
God created the world and God has the power and the right to un-create it. The flood symbolized an act of almost total uncreation.
God is merciful and chooses to preserve creation – both human and animal. It was not a rival deity who opposed the flood that warned the hero to build the boat. It was God in his mercy.
The flood hero symbolized hope for the world – a new start beyond destruction.
God is then saying – there really was a flood and this is what it means. Is it a violation of the biblical text to suppose that the biblical flood account uses a major Mesopotamian event in order to make vital theological points concerning human depravity, faith, obedience, and divine judgment, grace and mercy?
- 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).