Did Noah's Flood Happen? Theological Reflections, pt 1

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).

Divine Judgment
“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).

Divine Mercy
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.


Teresita said…
Christian theology does not need a global flood. No Christian doctrine depends on there having been a historical global flood.

Except that Christ is portrayed as believing the Noah story was true:

Luke 17:26-27 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.

Noah is the new Adam.

It seems the author of the Noah story knew there was something fishy about the Adam story (like where did Cain get his wife?) so he (or she, if you're a fan of Professor Bloom) embarked on a retelling that fixed certain plot holes. But they left in a big glaring boo-boo. Ham's son was Cush, and Cush's son was Nimrod, and Nimrod is the founder of four cities in Mesopotamia which became the Babylonian empire. Even assuming Mormon or Catholic-sized families, there would be enough people in the third generation after Noah to found a village, maybe, but hardly a nation.
Josh H-W said…
That makes a certain amount of sense, teresita. The story looks to me to be something wedged in to a genealogy anyway.

You have a standard series of begats, then Noah who, "shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed."

Suddenly you have the flood story, then back to Noah who plants a vineyard and makes wine. It would make a certain amount of legendary sense for Noah to "comfort us concerning our work and toil," if he were viewed as the first person to make wine. But there's a huge story between Gen 5:29 and Gen 9:20. If the flood story were a separate story that was inserted into the genealogy, then I think that would explain some things.
Jordan Barrett said…
I see what your getting after when you say that the flood doesn't effect other doctrines. However, the objection I hear often goes something like this: the concern is not with a direct cause/effect relationship with other doctrines, but it does effect the way we read the Bible. If we can't take the Genesis account as if it was a literal, global flood, then where does this leave us with other passages? Can we start explaining away the atonement, the Trinity, etc.? At this point such a reading of the Bible implicitly effects other doctrines as they begin to be questioned in ways similar to that of the flood narrative.
Wyatt Roberts said…
Matthew 3:5 says that "all of Judea" went out to hear Jesus preach. But does anyone really believe EVERY PERSON person in Judea actually went out to hear him?
Jordan Barrett said…
Wyatt, why are you using a NT example for an OT text? The authors are so separated by time and context that I don't see how you can make such a strong comparison. I see what you're getting after, but it doesn't compute.
Anonymous said…
Most of the biblical literalists I have met tend to be Evangelical. They claim that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the bible to believe.

I ask them if they take Jesus' words at the Last Supper literally "This is my Body, this is my Blood". They usually reply that His words 'Body' and 'Blood' were symbolic and not to be interpreted as Transubstation.

I then say that I (a Catholic) read different parts literally, in accordance with the community Jesus founded and which continues to this day.

Popular Posts