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Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

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June 22, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the third part of a series. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

When we place the biblical flood story and the other versions side-by-side, the polemical nature of the biblical flood story is clear. But we shouldn’t conclude too much from this.

Yes, the biblical story is a distinct piece of theology. It offers a very different view of God and the role of humanity. But that does not mean that the biblical story is of a “higher order” than the extra-biblical stories from a historical or scientific point of view.

It is virtually certain that one or more local floods in Mesopotamia—perhaps around 3000 B.C. according to some scholars—provide the historical basis for all the flood stories that come from that area. But the geological record, at least as interpreted by mainstream scientists, discounts any notion of a “worldwide” flood that killed every single creature on earth, save a few (Genesis 6:7; 7:21-23), a few thousand years ago.

Of course, for the ancient writer of Genesis, the world was a much smaller, flatter place. Perhaps what he and other ancient writers wrote reflects how they perceived the world. The “earth” was what they saw when they walked outside—a vast stretch of flat land with mountains off in the distance. When a devastating flood came and swept away everything in its path, it seemed like “the whole earth” to the ancient writer. If you think about it, one should actually expect ancient writers to use “worldwide” language given their state of knowledge.

To interpret the Genesis flood as a complete global catastrophe is a modern imposition onto an ancient story. Ancients simply did not think of the earth in that way. This is where “Flood Geology” gets off on the wrong foot. Apart from the well-documented scientific problems with this approach, it expects a worldview that Genesis is not prepared to deliver.

But what about the dozens of flood stories found throughout the ancient world, not only in Mesopotamia? Might that support the notion of a “global” flood, not merely a local one?

The presence of flood stories from various time periods in other parts of the ancient world (e.g., Asian, European, Mayan) does not support a global flood, as some Christian apologists try to argue. These stories simply reflect the ubiquity of floods in antiquity and the devastation that massive ones would bring. The fact that the world flood stories are so different from each other reflects how each culture told the story of their local floods in their own way.

That fact that the biblical version is strikingly similar to the Mesopotamian versions, as we have seen, reflects the cultural connections between these peoples. The differences between them reflect their different theologies. The Israelite version is a statement of theological independence from the older stories of the superpower nations around them. The common medium of a well-known flood story was used by the Israelites for its own purpose.

For both contextual and scientific reasons, the biblical flood story is clearly not a statement of vital historical information. It is a powerful expression of theological identity among the other peoples of the world.

I understand this does not satisfy everyone. Some feel that for the flood story to have any theological value for readers today, it must be historical in nature. I hope this is not the case. If the flood story’s theological value depends on all of the earth’s population being wiped out a few thousand years ago, we have a problem. We will have erected an impassable obstruction between the present state of knowledge, scientific and biblical, and any hope of a viable Christian faith that is connected to the Bible.

A position that claims the necessity of historicity throughout Genesis is not the default position of faith. It is an hypothesis, as much as any other, only without much explanatory force given the current state of knowledge.

That hypothesis is based on certain assumption. (1) A truth–speaking God would be concerned with history primarily throughout every portion of the Bible. (2) A revealing God would not lean on older Mesopotamian stories but provide Israel with fresh information. (3) The fact that subsequent biblical writers assume the historical nature of the flood as presented in Genesis should settle the matter for us, too.

These assumptions are unwarranted, and I think entirely indefensible. (1) God seems to like stories as much as history. (2) God speaks in ways that are necessarily rooted in the cultural moment. (3) Later biblical writers, even in the New Testament, were also ancient peoples, and so we should expect them to speak in those terms.

To nip in the bud a predictable objection: the slippery slope argument does not hold here. To say that the flood story is fundamentally more story than history does not mean that the crucifixion and resurrection are also unhistorical. Genesis and the Gospels are different types of literature written at very different times for very different reasons. Failing to make such basic genre distinction is perhaps at the root of some of the conflict over Genesis.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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arthur - #19057

June 26th 2010

Congratulations for all, i’m a biology student, but i’m a christian too; a love this way of to look again the scripture, as a modern scientific person and face theological controvert points.  i like this site because my feel for this area motivates me to read (English inst my tongue) and practice. I’ll try to make a question: wath about the cretaceous fossil on Andes?

John VanZwieten - #19059

June 26th 2010


I am quite aware of what scripture says concerning the uniqueness of Christ.  I’m surprised you don’t know what the scriptures say about what is required for salvation: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Maybe your version has inserted, “...and believe that Jesus is the ONLY way, you will be saved,” but mine doesn’t.  To question someone’s faith based on something never stated in scripture as a requirement for salvation is to play God.  The way you cavalierly question the faith of your brother Bono, I’d say you need to think more about what Jesus meant when he said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Your ignorance of the present work of Christ among Muslims is appalling, given the ease of learning about such things these days.  And I’m surprised you don’t know what Jesus said concerning people who are “impossible” to save: “With God all things are possible.”

Scott Jorgenson - #19077

June 26th 2010

And Justin, let us not forget the preamble to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”  He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

There are varying answers in scripture to the question of the way of salvation, like this one in which conscious faith in Jesus is never mentioned.  It requires an act of interpretation to integrate across them all, and positions within Christian thought are varied.  The integration I find most convincing is that all who are saved are saved by Jesus as they seek to follow in his way, but not all of these are yet cognizant of it.  As you may be unfamiliar with the possibilities, let me recommend John Sanders’ “No Other Name” for an introductory survey.  In this area, too, Christianity is wider than American evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism would have it.

Sinner - #26039

August 18th 2010

I am a 21 year old Bible College student interested in the topic at hand.  While reading through it I felt that I should just comment that as Christians we are to treat one another as we want to be treated.  Even if we are talking to people of a completely different faith we should strive to love them and gently attempt to convince them of the truth. 

I know that I do not like to be sarcastically mocked, though I am guilty of it on numerous occasions.  Jesus saved me from my sins and I need to take his golden rule more seriously.  May we seek and want to be more like Jesus more than we want to be right.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71657

August 3rd 2012

In my opinion history is history. 

It is the task of historians to make sense of the past.  As far as the Hebrews and everyone else knew the Flood was part of the past. 

God enabled the historians and people to make sense of the Flood in theologically sophisticated manner that can educate us too. 

God works through people as they are, not as we think they should be.  God’s Truth is primarily not scientific truth, but theological reality.  Theological reality is revealed by God’s actions in history, not by writings or philosophical speculation. 

The Bible is the story of the historical experience of God’s relating to God’s people.  That is the Truth that science cannot determine. 

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