Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

Bookmark and Share

June 22, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

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

Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

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.

< Previous post in series


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 3   1 2 3 »
Ory Bower - #18381

June 22nd 2010

Good post Dr. Enns.

The very last comment you made concerning the “slippery slope” is something I think we need to address quite heavily.  People typically bring this argument into play without really considering literature distinction—some even see varying literary techniques as unimportant.  Granted the everyday layperson wouldn’t have such biblical knowledge, but it still amazes me when, despite their unfamiliarity, they dismiss the distinction.


Deb - #18391

June 22nd 2010

And added to the genre reminder regarding the “slippery slope” is interpreting scripture literally - as the author intended, and original hearers would have understood. These three put the SS to bed, IMHO.


JHM - #18392

June 22nd 2010

Pete,

This is a great post, really thought provoking and challenging for me. One question is when I talk to my family, etc. about the idea of “ancient Israelites wouldn’t even understand the concepts we use today to talk about the world” they say that while that may be the case, because the Bible is God’s Word he could write it in such a way that it spoke to both the ancient Israelites as ancient Israelites and to us as moderns. If you have time could you give a few thoughts on why (if?) we should strictly interpret the Bible through the “lens” of the original audience and not through the additional “lens” of (post-)modernity?


Norm - #18400

June 22nd 2010

I think there is a fine dividing line between the accommodation and a historical view that needs to be understood. Historically a flood was generally understood by the Jews as a judgment by God and they framed it theologically in that manner. I think we don’t give them enough credit when we imply that they were somewhat more ignorant about the world physically than a case can be made against them. The Jews actually had a Hebrew word (tay-bale) that was inclusive of the broader world at large. They did not choose to use it here instead utilizing “erets” which is more often a general word referring to the “Land” especially as it relates to Israel. The implication that the Genesis writer was ignorant about these concepts becomes more relevant if one holds to its redaction occurring somewhere toward the middle or end of the first Temple period. A writer of that period would be writing from a theological point of view and would have chosen to frame it differently if it was to imply the Roman world at large in the physical sense.

I heartily concur that the world flood supporters are way off base but we also can proceed too far with accommodation when there are better theological understandings possibly available.


HornSpiel - #18401

June 22nd 2010

Later biblical writers, even in the New Testament, were also ancient peoples, and so we should [allow] them to speak in those terms.

Of course the elephant in the room here is Jesus himself. This view has a profound affect our understanding of his nature. Would you argue that Jesus really believed Genesis was history but now we know better? This seem very presumptuous on the face of it. It is a dilemma on which I would like some perspective.


Pete Enns - #18402

June 22nd 2010

Good point, HornSpeil (great name by the way),

Why would this affect how we understand Jesus “nature?” Does Jesus’ nature imply that he would not have shared in ancient assumptions about, say, the historical referentiality of Genesis? What does the NT say about the implications of Jesus nature and, just as importantly, what does it not say?

I have heard some say that, for Jesus to be the son of God, he had to have had perfect knowledge of many things, like math, physics, cosmology, etc. I know you are not saying that at what point does Jesus stop being a 1st century Jew? Perhaps nowhere? That is part of the orthodox Christological equation.


Pete Enns - #18409

June 22nd 2010

typo…grrr

I know you are not saying that BUT at what point ...


HornSpiel - #18422

June 22nd 2010

Thanks for your response Pete, I do love playing the horn…

Part of me wants to say he was !00% God and 100% perfect 1st century Jew, in spite of having all that implies in terms of world view and cultural baggage, The troubling implication is, however,  that since 1st century Jewish culture and world view were/are not perfect, then we can mess with Jesus’ commands and words saying, “Well those were Just reflections of his culture. If he were alive today he would have….”

Would you agree that our hermeneutic should include “cultural adjustment? I would like to know what are the are the guidelines to how far we can reinterpret His words for our day.


Pete Enns - #18441

June 22nd 2010

I ask without a hint of aggression, why does you Christology require a “perfect” Christ? But you are right about the implications, and that means that people of faith have to invest theological energy into understanding how Jesus’ words are to be taken, which is an age old problem.

I am tempted to sign off AirGuitar


Chris Massey - #18452

June 22nd 2010

Pete,

This is a great article. I really appreciate you addressing the argument that we must adopt the NT writer’s view of the historicity of the OT. I find there is a tendency in evangelical thinking, tied to a certain view of inerrancy and inspiration, to think that Jesus and the NT authors were given some incredible supernatural omniscience into any and all matters on which they commented. But that’s certainly not what the texts reflect and it’s certainly not the way God communicates with us today.

But I also wonder how far one goes with the idea of Jesus, in particular, being a 1st century Jew. Kenton Sparks recently floated (although he didn’t appear to necessarily endorse) the idea that Christ could even have had errant theology. Is there a nice bright line that one can draw to avoid such a conclusion while still permitting Jesus to hold 1st century worldviews?


Norwegian Shooter - #18456

June 22nd 2010

“(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 offer objections just as predictable: (1) Really? Has he published his Top Innumerable list of all books, mixing fiction and non-fiction together? (I knew the NYT Bestseller Lists were un-Godly!); (2) Has He tweeted yet? Has he weighed in on iPhone vs. BlackBerry? (You know how much He loves judging)

(3) This goes back to the earlier part about the “world” to ancient peoples, so I will talk about this more rather than mock. You said:

“The “earth” was what they saw when they walked outside—a vast stretch of flat land with mountains off in the distance.”

Well, maybe that applies to the oral tradition in just the area between the two rivers, but it couldn’t possibly be true for the Jewish writers of the Hebrew bible. While perhaps Genesis was written East of the Jordan River Valley, the people there would have certainly known that there was land and other peoples living West of those mountains. Thus, their “earth” was bigger than their horizon.


HornSpiel - #18481

June 22nd 2010

Shooter,

RE: You’re predictions.

God never speaks except using a God-breathed human tongue*
God never wrote any Words except by an inspired human hand*
So if He Tweets, surely he will employ a human thumb.

*With a few rare and notable exceptions.


Irenicum - #18527

June 23rd 2010

Pete,

Regarding the theological importance of the flood, I agree that it doesn’t need to be worldwide based on the Hebrew term eretz. But after the flood narrative there was a covenant promise given to Noah’s descendants that God would never use a flood again as a form of judgment. My question is this: if the flood described by the biblical writer is a local or regional flood, is the promise to never use that form of judgment also limited to a regional or local area? For we’ve certainly seen similar floods throughout history and of course in other ANE flood narratives. So in light of this, would it be best to describe God’s covenant promise to Noah’s ancestors as being a Hebraic promise (per the Hebrew writer) that God would never strike down the Jewish/Hebrew people by flood? That seems to me to be the only way to read the covenant promise if the flood was not global but local/regional. In other words, the flood was not meant to be understood geographically in the first place, but ethnically and religiously.


davey - #18534

June 23rd 2010

Chris Massey - #18452: yes, why not Jesus was of his time in what he believed and said about morality and in his understanding of his place in the scheme of things (theology). He seems to have had a powerful experience at his baptism that then caused him to think why it had happened to him, and started him on his mission. The particular way he proceeded might have been ‘of his time’, his more general significance not needing what he actually did, ie redemption through Jesus may not have depended on the specific actions he chose. Then, what God wants of people after Jesus, ie what they are to believe and do (morality and mission) may not directly follow from Jesus’ and the apostles’ understandings of those things.


eddy - #18538

June 23rd 2010

Ah, Dr. Enns doesn’t want the global flood story as defined in Genesis to be historically true and would rather cast doubt to us on this one by saying:

“These stories simply reflect the ubiquity of floods in antiquity and the devastation that massive ones would bring.”

See, Dr. Enns, we are Christians, and we are trained, at any moment,  to take God’s Word over human word . Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but believe to be historically true the things that our Lord Jesus Christ also believed to be historically true.


O. Bower - #18539

June 23rd 2010

@eddy

Can I just say, it would be greatly appreciated if people reserved themselves and did not enter the conversation guns a blazing.  We all understand interpreting Scripture and the Christian faith are deeply important and must be guarded with the utmost seriousness.  Dr. Enns here is attempting to offer ways to interpret and apply Scripture in a faithful and unequivocally serious manner.  So please, don’t accuse him of trying to usurp God’s Word with human’s word.  Thank you.


eddy - #18543

June 23rd 2010

O. Bower, Dr. Enns, in his own words, says this:

“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.”

I’d say any kind of interpretation of Scripture with presumptuous notion that you hope the Scripture turns out to be not historically true at that point, is not a “faithful and serious” way of treating Scriptures. May be my tone was harsh on my post above, for that I apologize, but still the context is the same in a friendly tone.


Dunemeister - #18546

June 23rd 2010

*I’d say any kind of interpretation of Scripture with presumptuous notion that you hope the Scripture turns out to be not historically true at that point, is not a “faithful and serious” way of treating Scriptures*

Why should we not hope that God didn’t actually destroy all humanity on the earth save eight individuals? Why shouldn’t we view such an outcome with shock, horror, and incredulity? Why shouldn’t we say that such an event runs afoul of what we know about God? The fact is that our normal (God-given yet flawed) moral sense tells us killing a person is wrong. Killing a lot of people is more wrong. Killing an ethnic group or a nation is more wrong still. So what should we think about killing nearly every human being? Why wouldn’t revulsion be a “faithful and serious” response?


HornSpiel - #18552

June 23rd 2010

...we are trained, at any moment,  to take God’s Word over human word

eddy

Who trained you? Was it not a human teacher? How can you be so sure that the literalistic approach you espouse is truly the most faithful way to interpret Scripture?

Dr. Enns is, I believe, saying that a more faithful interpretation should be informed by 1) the clearly observable facts on the ground that there was no worldwide flood (God’s book of nature, if you will) , and 2) the documentary evidence of parallel flood stories—that btw God providentially allowed to survive and come to light in our day.

I would hope that all thoughtful Christians would prayerfully seek His guidance as to whether these indisputable facts could also be God speaking, guiding His children to a fuller understanding of His revelation in Scripture. I am quite convinced that this direction is reconcilable with with historical orthodox Christianity.


Justin Poe - #18558

June 23rd 2010

For me, to not take the flood account literally is just illogical.  It makes no sense.  None of these theories that Biologos puts forth,. quite frankly, make any logical sense in the context of the Bible.  It’s a confusion of language that Biologos is partaking in.  Once one small piece of historical writing is twisted to become mythology, most of scripture must become the same way to accommodate the theory.  Scriptural support is basically nonexistent for these theories and hypothesis. 

Example from above : t"hat God would never strike down the Jewish/Hebrew people by flood? “

Then why do we even have the OT?  What purpose does it serve us today, in America or wherever, as the “Gentile” race to even have this OT in our possession if it were simply written to the Jews, for the Jews, and about the Jews?  Logically, it serves no purpose in this case.  How could it have possibly made sense to Paul, who quoted it over and over, and he was a Gentile, writing to Gentile nations!!!!  So here’s the problem you have in light of these FACTS: one, Paul was fooled, two, he knew that it was myth and thought it just didn’t matter at the time, or three, he, guided by the Holy Spirit nonetheless, flat out lied to us.


Page 1 of 3   1 2 3 »