Did Noah's Flood Happen? Theological Reflections, part 2 (Genesis in ancient context)

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.

Similarities include:
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.

Differences include:
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?


Teresita said…
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.

But if the flood was sufficient to cover the tallest Near-East mountains, like Mt. Ararat, that still amounts to a flood that is 17,000 feet above mean sea-level, which would cover all the Americas except for certain peaks in the Andes and Alaska, and there would have been little time for all those people to prepare a year's worth of food and migrate to the high ground under such conditions as would dump 17,000 feet of water in 40 days. So the Americas would have been depopulated, and since this was after the ice age, there would have been no land bridge to bring in fresh ancestors of the Indian people we have today.

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.

Some bible inerrantists assert that Moses had the divine gift of seeing backwards in time with the same accuracy that a prophet like Daniel or Ezekiel are believed to see forward in time. So the book of Genesis represents a sort of reverse prophesy.

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.

This "truth" of course is undermined by what St. Paul says in Romans 5:13 For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. He held the whole world accountable for transgression of a law they didn't even know they were supposed to keep. But this wasn't the first time God did that. He held Adam and Eve accountable for disobeying his order not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good of Evil before they know it was wrong to disobey (since that knowledge came with the eating of the fruit).
Robin Parry said…

1. You are absolutely correct ... except that my claim is that the Genesis flood account uses hyperbole and that the water was not literally that high (so the Americas were safe - Hooray!).

2. Some inerrantists would indeed say that, but then they run into all the problems discussed with the empirical evidence (discussed in my flood posts 1 and 2 and in some of your comments). If they can live with beliefs that fly in the face of so much evidence then that's fair enough. I feel no need to do so.

3. Me thinks that thou art something of a biblical student! Well, in the Genesis story Adam and Eve knew perfectly well that they were not supposed to eat of the tree and they acted in deliberate disobedience (as Paul makes clear in the very passage you quote in Rom 5). I'd have to look more closely at Rom 5:13. My memory is that Paul is saying that sin came into the world with Adam but the coming of the Law clarified what God required and thus compounded our guilt when we disobey.

But, of course, Paul was quite clear that even before the Law was given humans still had some awareness of what was right and wrong (e.g., Adam and Eve) and were held accountable for their actions. The Genesis story tells of Cain and Abel - God warned Cain and Cain still killed Abel (and was thus accountable). So I don't see that Rom 5:13 runs counter to what I said and nor does Gen 2-3. (Adam and Eve may not have appreciated the full impications of their action until after they performed it, but they did know that they were not supposed to do it and they had some idea of the consequences - "You will surely die".)

How am I doing???
Anonymous said…
"How am I doing?"

You're doing well. Thanks for doing this series, because it's been very interesting.
Anonymous said…
Your description of understanding inspiration by what we have in the Bible instead of understanding it with our own ideas about what inspiration should is a great example of a Lyotard's rejection meta-narratives in a Christian worldview. Instead of claiming that the Bible corresponds with some other standard over arching view of the world, here, what our modern views of epistemology, historicity and accuracy tell us inspiration should be, we understand the text of scripture in its own right and use it as the story which shapes our lives. Not easy to do I admit, but I think continuing down the path of understanding inspiration as you explained here might be a good start.
Weekend Fisher said…
When you say that Noah never speaks, I wonder which edition of the account you're considering? Probably not the B. Cosby recension.

Riight. ;)

Take care & God bless
jonny_norridge said…
Thanks Robin,
One thing thats stuck me as you've gone through this, is that the judgement is on 'violence' and 'wickedness' and as far as I understand it probable that Genesis was written after Exodus.

With that in mind, the story takes on (in my mind) a resonance with 'Some trust in chariots but we trust in the LORD our God' — and so works as a counter script to the narrative of Empire, or wickedness and violence [yes, I've been reading Bruggemann]. Amongst the dominating and surrounding narrative or wickedness and violence, there is one man, one family, that trust in God and walks in his ways; and you can imagine him thinking 'Is it worth it? ... When everyone else lives opposed to the way of God.'

Taking this line gives the story the purpose of saying, yes it's worth walking in the way of the YHWY. God honors those who walk humbly before him, do not trust in wickedness and violence as a means of self preservation.
Robin Parry said…

What an interesting thought. It has never crossed my mind. Must ponder that.

To be honest, my biggest theological problem with the text is that it looks like God says, "You wicked people are all so violent! That is bad. As a punishment I will drown you all!" (an act which is itself more than a tad violent. Indeed an act which also killed all the babies who had not yet been violent)

Now I know that God's violence is a punishment for wrongdoing whereas the human violence has no such warrant - I don't think that God's action is morally equivalent to the human violence ... But it still 'feels' out of place.

I know that the ancients did not seem to share this problem and perhaps I am just a bleeding heart but any reflections would be welcomed.
jonny_norridge said…
yes, I too struggle with the violence of God which seems to crop up here and elsewhere - ie: liberation from Egypt. I guess thats a pretty big question what do we do with all that... the stories are told that way, how do we live with that?

I recently read something on the plagues of Egypt - talking about how each plague represents a dismantling of the myth Egypt told about itself, its myth of being able to provide and protect. The plague clear the ground for the new community to be formed in the desert.

My comment here was intending to emphasis the violence attributed to God less — but rather see it as a story critiquing the methods of the prevailing culture.

But I agree with remaining problem with the vengeance/anger/violence attributed to God - with [what we call] a natural disaster [but the writter(s) didn't], I have similar problem with Sodom and Gomorrah.
Mason said…
Thanks for a very well presented and thought provoking series on the flood. Not sure where I stand but i think you put forth your case in a very clear and honest manner.

On a side note, how does this perspective on a local flood affect your reading of the Bable story in Gen 11? Verse one states "the whole earth had one language and the same words" and it seems to give an account of how the nations began when God splits these people and their languages.
Would you then also see this as local? Perhalps the socity of the fertile cresent was united and then split, but this is not the begining of American or Asian ethinic groups?
Robin Parry said…

Thanks - you have inspired me to clarify my thoughts on that topic a little more (later this week)

Robin Parry said…

are you an OT student? - your thoughts on the text are unusually interesting.

Robin Parry said…
m slater

Funny that you should mention the tower of Babel. I recently read an article by Paul Penley (a PhD candidate at TEDS) called "A Historical Reading of Genesis 11:1-9: The Sumerian Demise and Dispersion Under Ur III Dynasty" (I think it will be published in JETS).

Penley argues that Gen 11:1-9 is an historical summary of the rise and fall of Sumerian dominance in Mesopotamia. The ziggurat (tower) in the story serves as a symbol of Sumerian culture. The rise and fall of this civilization is represented in Gen 11 by a highly compressed and symbolic story (it took place over a very long period of time).

On the language issue Penley argues that the confusion of languages took place over time as invading Semites with their languages displaced the once-unified Sumerian tongue.

I found his general approach to be a very plausible way of connecting Gen 11 with actual history though I am simply not qualified to comment on the details of his account.

So Gen 11 may not be historically accurate in anything like our sense of the term but it does not follow that it is entirely mythical and unrelated to history. It is, on Penley's view, an inspired theological interpretation of, and a mythical and stylised presentation of, real cultural history.

jonny_norridge said…
not sure how to take that Robin!

no, I'm not an OT student. Just a graphic designer, though also spending time reading and reflecting. But, I would love to study theology more formally at some point.

thanks for the stimulating conversation,

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