Seeing the Flood Story Through an Ancient Israelite Lens
Though some may believe that moving the science/faith dialogue forward is best left to scientists, scholars, and theologians, we at BioLogos recognize that our pastors play an invaluable role in the conversation. Across the globe, pastors are helping their congregations work through difficult issues of science and faith with honesty, insight, and a gentle spirit. To this end we present an ongoing series recognizing sermons (and the pastors who give them) that are helping to promote the harmony of science and faith. Today's sermon features Pete Shaw, who is the senior pastor of Crosswalk Community Church in Napa California. The full sermon can be downloaded here. Finally, if you know a sermon or podcast related to science and faith that has especially spoken to you, please let us know.
The early chapters of Genesis appear to pose scientific problems that challenge our literal, post-Enlightenment lens through which we often read the Word of God. (See this post for a commentary on how this situation came about.) This leads many people to believe that the descriptions in these texts are meant to reveal more than raw scientific fact. Pete Shaw of Crosswalk Community Church highlights the story of Noah and the Ark to explore the possible reasons for adopting a non-literal understanding of this ancient narrative. Shaw first summarizes the story of Upnashatim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a famous Sumerian flood story that the young and old in Abraham’s day would have known well. Upon comparison, these two accounts—the Genesis flood and the Gilgamesh flood—are incredibly similar. Furthermore, Shaw exposes the various practical problems that arise if one takes every word of the Noah story to be a precise truth. For example, he wonders how Noah could have fed and maintained every living land creature in a small boat for ten months. He also explains how a primitive understanding of the universe is heavily reflected in this text. In light of these points, he concludes that whether or not this story is portraying actual historical events, it is presenting rich truths about God, and that should be the focus of the believer.
“The first eleven chapters of Genesis are what scholars call pre-history. In other words, they can’t really date what was going on very well in those first elven chapters. After that, twelfth chapter on, it is a lot easier to date, and the stories have a different feel, a different structure… but those first eleven have caused a lot of debate over the years. In fact, the next slide is going to kind of give you the line of where I am going to take you today. You might not be aware of this, but there is a Noah controversy. You and I, when we hear the story of a great flood, the first thing that comes to our mind—when we think of the whopper of all whoppers—we think of Noah and the Ark, but if we lived in Abraham’s time or especially before, the name Noah probably would not have come up. In fact, if we grew up with Abraham, the story we would have most likely known about was the story—I am going to butcher this name—of Utnapishtim.
You are familiar with Utnapishtim aren’t you? And you are familiar with the god Enlil. I am sure you are familiar with Enlil. And you would have been very aware of a storybook that was read by children and adults alike called the Epic of Gilgamesh. And in the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have the story of Utnapishtim and the god Enlil. And just so that you would know about that story a little bit, knowing that that would have been the predominant story that you would have understood anytime you thought about a flood, this is how the story went down. So, this god Enlil was the god of thunder and rain and all that and he was not a happy camper (kind of temperamental) as thunder gods can be. And for no clear reason, except to mess around with some of the other gods in his discontent, he made the decision that he was going to wipe out the earth with a great flood. And one of the other gods, a goddess in fact, did not like that this was going to happen and thought that it was unfair, unjust, and so she sent a message to Utnapishtim that this flood was going to come at the hand and the wrath of Enlil. And so Utnapishtim got to work, and he built a vessel (a strange vessel), a cube, but he used some of the similar materials that we saw in the Ark, and he made this massive structure (if in fact you do the math, it is probably at least twice, if not much larger, than the actual Ark) this massive cube that he made hoping that it would float, and he got it done on time.
The rain didn’t come down for forty days, it came down just for seven, but it flooded everything out, and the only survivor was Utnapishtim. And when Enlil came around and saw that some human beings had survived, he was very upset because he intended to wipe out everybody to show his wrath and his anger to the world and to show that he was upset to all the gods in heaven. Well, Utnapishtim obviously saved his own life, the life of his family, the life of his personal animals because those are the animals that he saved—not the rest of the animals of the world. And he took some carpenters along because he didn’t know how to build stuff and once you are starting over you have got to build stuff, and so he brought some carpenters along. In honor of his faithfulness (in light of this word from the goddess) he was given divinity. And so, he became a god, he became one of the gods, he got to reside in heaven, if you will, because of his faithfulness…interesting story.
If you grew up in Sumer, which is present day Iraq, and you grew up with Abraham in what is present day Baghdad that would have been the story that you would have known very, very well. It is because that story exists and other cultures have their own flood stories as well that some scholars look at the story of Noah and the Ark, and they think, ‘well, gee, how should we really interpret this thing? You know, our Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment perspective says it is in black and white, and if it says that is what happened, then that is exactly what happened. There is no way around it.’ Well, what if the first people who shared this story with each other and what if the early writers of this word, what if when they approached the Bible, they didn’t approach it the way we do? What if they didn’t approach the Bible, the Word of God, as a literal, this is exactly how it happened book that our post- Enlightenment eyes are framed to do? How would that change us? And also, some of the things that some of the challengers of this story are bringing out are some of the issues with the story like ok is this really a big enough boat to handle all of the creatures of creation…can they really, really fit?
Some have really tried to make a case that there weren’t as many animals back then as there are now because they got together and hooked up, and now, we have all kinds of varieties and that kind of thing. And so that is kind of there, but you are talking ten months of time! How do you feed all the animals of the world? How do you store all the food? Did they eat fish, because the fish didn’t die? The fish lived on just fine. How do you do that? And what about—it is kind of unpleasant—but all the excrement? What are you going to do with all that ‘bleep?’ Are you going to throw it out the eighteen inch window at the top? Did they have a conveyor belt system? How did it work? And so they look at that and think, ‘I am just not sure about that.’ Would you really take that literally? Is that how we should take it? Is that how they took it around their campfires and around their dinner tables? Did they think about it that way?
And there are other issues too that academics look at, and they challenge somewhat. Like they know that forty days and forty nights is a proverbial statement in Jewish culture. It was like saying (and you see it in many accounts in the Bible), forty days and forty nights was saying a long time, but it probably was not meant to be taken literally. It is just a long time. It is how they thought about things. Then, there is the issue of the rain itself, and how it all came down. Now, the New Living Translation and most modern translations, just simply talk about it as--there is the sky and the rain came down from the sky and you are good to go. But there is another word that is used. If you go to the New King James Bible, for instance, and they talk about the firmament—that the rain came down from the firmament. And so, when we think about firmament, we think, ‘well they are talking about sky or they are talking about the starry host and all that stuff,’ but if we go back to the original word, which the New American Standard version got right (it is one of the most academic and precise versions that is out there), both in the creation story and in the Noah account, they use a different word for sky: they use the word dome.
Now, I am going to butcher this a little bit, but broad stroke version is that the way the ancient people saw the world was that we kind of lived in this bubble, you know sort of like a snow globe, and there was water--not all inside, but outside, surrounding us. There was water below and there was water above, and above us was this massive dome called the firmament or called the sky. And then when it rained it was because God was opening up the floodgates of heaven. That is how they thought back then. They didn’t know any better. And so, kind of what these questions are asking us now is how we make sense of this and do we have to believe like they did in order to believe the story. How many of you believe that the sun revolves around the earth? None! Nobody does. Do you get mad at, do any of you hold a grudge against the earliest people in the Bible, actually, all the people in the Bible, do you hold them accountable and are you angry at them that they believed with everything in them that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around?... no, of course not. Do you get angry at them because they believed we lived in a dome and that God opened up the gates of heaven and there you go? No, you don’t hold it against them because you understand that it is the best that they could do given their time.
But we live in the age of Doppler radar, right? We know within minutes, you know, when rain is going to hit Napa and when it is going to move on to Valeo, and so on and so forth. I mean it is that precise, and we know when it is coming hundreds of miles off shore and we can look thousands of miles because of satellite stuff and our ability to understand temperatures and all that. We know how the whole thing is brewing. We know that hurricanes are lining up one after the other in hurricane season because we have cameras up there that are seeing them start to form, and we can gauge temperature in the water and so forth—we do not live back then. So, it would be inappropriate for us to become primitive in the sense of looking at the world the same way they did in that kind of a literalness because we know different, you know what I mean? We know different. And so really the bottom line is that the literalness of the story really isn’t the most important thing to begin with anyway.”
A few editorial reflective thoughts by Darrel Falk: The sermon continues, of course, and you can download it at the above link. What is "the most important thing" to which Pastor Shaw refers as the audio clip draws to a close? Regardless of whether you think it is historical or not, what is the message that God wants to communicate to us through this story? Consider reading Genesis 9 right now. What are the parallels in this "recreation"account to the original creation account? What does God want us to see in making those parallels? What about the rainbow? What does it symbolize for you? Can you sense God's love for all of creation (not just humankind) as this story draws to a close? Why does the story of Noah himself, however, not have a happier ending? Have we seen the theme of nakedness and the need to cover up nakedness in an earlier scriptural passage? Why do you think the story of Noah draws us back to this point (nakedness and shame), just like the story Adam and Eve does? What brought on shame for them? What brings on shame for us? Do you see that God is wanting us to think deeply about this story and its meaning? What is another example of the need to cover up? (Hint: think Moses.) What difference does the coming of Jesus make to all of this? (Hint: see II Corinthians 3:12-18.) Do you see the rainbow?
Pete Shaw is Senior Pastor at Crosswalk Community Church.