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The Flood: Not Global, Barely Local, Mostly Theological, Pt 2

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January 31, 2010 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time
The Flood: Not Global, Barely Local, Mostly Theological, Pt 2

Today's entry was written by Paul Seely. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Part Two: Noah’s Flood was Barely Local

There are so many close similarities between the biblical Flood account and the Mesopotamian accounts that conservative scholars like Alexander Heidel, Merril Unger, Donald Wiseman, John Walton and others have concluded that the biblical and Mesopotamian flood accounts go back to a common tradition about the same flood.1 This means if we can locate the flood mentioned in the Mesopotamian accounts, we will have located the biblical flood.

Working from inscriptions and the Sumerian King List, the Sumerian Noah, Ziusudra, who lived in the city of Shuruppak, can be roughly dated to c. 2850 B.C. This agrees quite closely with the date of the only Mesopotamian flood that left simultaneous deposits in three locations (Shuruppak, Uruk, and Kish). A number of ancient Near Eastern scholars have, therefore, concluded that this flood is probably the one mentioned in the Mesopotamian and biblical accounts.2

Historian Jack Finegan writes,

Since in Sumerian tradition Shuruppak was the last ruling city before the flood and Kish was the first thereafter, it was presumably the inundation attested at Shuruppak between the Jemdet Nasr and Early Dynastic periods (and at Uruk and Kish at about the same time) that was the historic flood so long remembered. The date was about 2900.3

It is plausible that the Mesopotamian flood of c. 2900 B.C. was the historical basis of the biblical account. A Mesopotamian flood theory is the only flood theory that explains the fact that no other flood stories are anywhere near as close to the biblical account as the Mesopotamian accounts.4 It is also the only flood theory that agrees with the biblical description of the sources of the Flood’s water as all being fresh water sources.5

So, there is an objective basis for an actual biblical Flood. Why then do I title this post “Barely Local?” The answer is that neither the flood of 2900 B.C. nor any other actual local flood, such as the Black Sea flood, nor the melting of ice caps at various historical points closely fits the biblical description. Local flood theories do not fit the biblical account with regard to secondary issues such as lasting one year and destroying all the birds (even in a local area). More importantly, no local flood theory agrees with the biblical account at the most critical points: landing the ark in the Ararat mountains, covering the entire Near East (Genesis 9:19, “all the earth” = Genesis 10), establishing Noah as a new Adam, i.e., as a new beginning of the human race6, and dismantling the universe by reversing creation days two and three.7

We can say then that the biblical account may well be based upon an actual Mesopotamian flood and therefore is not properly designated a myth. At the same time, it is evident from geology, anthropology and archaeology that the above mentioned four critical points in the biblical description, which go well beyond the scope of a local flood, cannot be regarded as actual, factual history. The biblical account would, therefore, be properly described as Legend (or better, Parabolic Legend, as I will describe in my third post).

A fact often missing from the discussion of whether the Flood is global or local is the fact that Genesis 1-11 is accommodated to the limited scientific knowledge of the Israelites. We see this in the Flood account’s definition of “the whole earth.” Genesis 9:19, “These three were the sons of Noah: and of these was the whole earth overspread,” leads us to the author’s definition of “the whole earth.” It is the area overspread by the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Contextually, this area is set forth in Genesis 10. The “whole earth” according to the (final) author of Genesis 6-10 is thus the greater Near East.

This contextual definition of “the whole earth” excludes the usual ideas of a limited local flood as well as the idea that the Flood is described in Scripture as covering our modern globe. The biblical account is not written from the perspective of God’s knowledge of geography but is accommodated to the Israelites’ limited knowledge, wherein “the whole earth” both extends to and is limited to the greater Near East.

In addition, the sources of the Flood’s waters in Scripture depend upon an ocean above the sky and beneath the earth. The account is thus divinely accommodated to the ancient Israelites’ view of the universe.8 Since it involves ancient Near Eastern “science,” which has since been superseded, the biblical description is not all actual-factual. The biblical account is, in fact, much grander than the actual event, a point that we will look at in my third and final post.


1. Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946, 1949) 260. See a list of similarities in Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987) 163–64; Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954) 68; Donald J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology (London: Tyndale, 1958) 8; John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 40.

2. William W. Hallo and William Kelly Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) 35–36; Mallowan, "Noah's Flood Reconsidered," 81; Samuel Noah Kramer, "Reflections on the Mesopotamian Flood: The Cuneiform Data New and Old," Expedition 9:4 (Summer, 1967) 18; H. W. F. Saggs, Babylonians (Berkeley: University of California Press, c2000) 39.

3. Jack Finegan, Archaeological History of the Ancient Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979) 26.

4. John Bright, “Has Archaeology Found Evidence of the Flood?” The Biblical Archaeologist 5 (1942) 56; Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity, 1967) 96; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 132.

5. Rain is obviously fresh water, and see Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Fountains of the Great Deep,” Origins 1 (1974): 67-72.

6. Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26 (Nashville: Broadmans, 1996) 351, 398. The fact that Noah is taking the place of Adam as a new beginning for mankind has been widely recognized for centuries, e.g., “Noah was the beginning of our race” (Justin Martyr, Dial 19, ANF 1:204); “Noah, the second father of mankind” (Charles John Ellicott, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [c. 1863; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], 1:44); “the second origin of the human race” (Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Idea of Revelation,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible [Philadephia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948], 78); “Adam the father of all humanity and Noah its father in the post-diluvian world” (Bruce Waltke, Genesis [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 127); “Noah is a second Adam,” Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1–17 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], 313).

7. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 291; Mathews, Genesis, 351, see 376; Walter Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 54, cited in John H. Walton, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 331; Waltke, Genesis, 139; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1987) 181.

8. For more details on the accommodation of the Flood account, see my paper, “Noah’s Flood: Its Date, Extent, and Divine Accommodation,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004) 291-311.

Paul Seely is likely well known to serious students of the intersection of the OT and the ANE. He has written numerous pieces in several venues, including Westminster Theological Journal and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (formerly Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation). He has also delivered numerous papers at the annual meetings of the American Scientific Affiliation. His lifelong area of focus is Genesis 1-11. The book Inerrant Wisdom was published in 1989 through the non-profit organization he founded, Evangelical Reform, Inc.

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Nancy Janisch - #3723

January 31st 2010

Thanks for this series of posts. Your last sentance is the key to all this, I think. The Biblical stories are too rich, too grand, to be reduced to mere facts.

Charlie - #3745

February 1st 2010

What does it matter if there was an actual flood?  The Bible is filled with history, symbolism for moral lessons, and supernatural explanations for questions that humanity still doesn’t understand.  How can anyone determine which one of these categories something belongs to?  Why ask the question: Was there an actual flood or was it merely a story to get a point across?  If it was a symbol, Christians wouldn’t stop following the Bible and if it were factual history (although a great exaggeration of that history), Christians, again, wouldn’t stop following the Bible.

curtis klope - #3755

February 1st 2010

@ Charlie:

“if it was a symbol, Christians wouldn’t stop following the Bible…”

That’s not necessarily true.  Biblical Literalists’ belief framework requires that everything in the Bible be factually, literally, scientifically, true.  So if it was somehow proven to NOT be, that could be very problematic for their faith.

Which is exactly why I think this kind of discussion is SO necessary.

The more that Christians can move toward a literARY reading of the Bible, and away from a literAL reading, the more in line it seems we will be with the original authors’ context and intent.  And thus the more inline we will be with the Message that God actually wants us to hear from the Bible.

John VanZwieten - #3821

February 2nd 2010

@ Curtis

The problem is more that the use of the word “literal” has changed in common use to be what might be called “literalistic.” 

Consider the use of “literal” in the Catholic Catechism:
The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

So a proper “literal” understanding of scripture must involve use of sound principles of interpretation, which are dependent on the “literary” form of the passage being studied (i.e. you interpret a psalm, a proverb, and an epistle differently). 

Determining the literary genre of some texts can be challenging, for sure, and sometimes requires a fresh look.

Pete Enns - #3842

February 2nd 2010

John, good point. Re: the flood a “literal” reading means a non-literalistic reading.

curtis klope - #3945

February 4th 2010

@ John / Pete-

GREAT points.  that helps a lot

Jon Hunny - #70022

May 20th 2012

Does not Peter speak of Noah as a man of flesh bone and spirit? Let us not be so quick to dismiss the Scripture based on the observations of other primates!

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