The Flood: Not Global, Barely Local, Mostly Theological, Pt 3

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February 5, 2010 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

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

The Flood: Not Global, Barely Local, Mostly Theological, Pt 3

Part Three: Mostly Theological

In Part Two we reached the conclusion that the Flood account is bigger than real life and could be properly categorized as Legend. Since there is profound divine revelation in Genesis 6-9, however, I think “Legend” is an inadequate categorization. Unfortunately, there is no single word to my knowledge that could accurately categorize the account. Parabolic Legend is the best I can do because although the genre is Legend not Parable, like a parable it sets forth a story as history with the purpose of teaching spiritual truth.

Although the human author probably did not make a sharp distinction between Legend and History, the account was factual to him. But because of the light we have received from modern science, we must think of it as parabolic. Some, however, still raise the question, How can we believe the moral-theological lessons in the account if we reject its historicity since the lessons are based on the assumption that the account is historical fact?

The answer is that we are reading the account over the shoulders of the ancient Israelites to whom it was addressed. They believed it was factual. This was a naïve belief, but they had no reason to question the account’s historicity. We must remember that their understanding of the natural world was that of little children. As the conservative nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge said, they believed the sky was solid, the earth was flat, and the sun literally moved.1 As for an anthropologically universal Flood, second millennial Mesopotamians believed it was an important historical fact, and this tradition may well have been passed down to the Israelites through the Mesopotamian patriarchs beginning with Abraham.

Given these inherited naïve “scientific” and traditional beliefs, it was pedagogically wise for God to speak to them in terms of those beliefs.2 We can thus appropriate the moral-theological lessons which are still valid for us while ignoring the accommodated ancient Near Eastern “science” and traditions upon which they are based. These now outmoded concepts are in the text only because the account was not written to us but to the ancient Israelites.

Indeed, we have the moral responsibility to accept the light God has given us through science. As committed Christians we have no right to either suppress light or refuse to grow up intellectually (Ps 51:6; 1 John 1:5, 7;1 Cor 13:11; 14:20). Empirical fact (not to be confused with philosophical naturalism) is the divinely appointed canon for accepting or rejecting alleged divine revelation about empirical data (Deut 18:22; 1 Thess 5:21); and empirical facts show clearly that the alleged science and history in Genesis 6-9 is an accommodation to ancient beliefs, not a revelation.3

What Divine Revelation is in the Flood Account?

There are a number of divine revelations in the Flood account. One can see a nice list and discussion of them in both Wenham and Sarna.4 There are several that particularly stand out because of their contrast with the Mesopotamian theology which is in the Mesopotamian flood accounts. Most obvious perhaps is the revelation that there is one God, not a pantheon of them. Consequently, there is no possibility of one god’s actions being opposed or even thwarted by the actions of other gods as occurs in the Mesopotamian account. The God of Genesis 6-9 is sovereign over his entire creation. He is in control.

Secondly, God is just. He sends the Flood in just judgment on a creation that has rebelled against him. This reason for the Flood contrasts with the Babylonian view that the Flood was sent because humans were making so much noise on earth, the top god could not sleep.

Thirdly, God loves humans. In spite of having to judge their sin, God is sorry he had to send the Flood; and instructs Noah and his sons to multiply and fill the earth with humans. This contrasts with the Babylonian theology in which the chief god is angry that any humans escaped destruction in the Flood, and he repeatedly tries to limit human population both before and after the flood.

Fourthly, God graciously saves some.

These revelations are confirmed as truth in the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. On the basis of these revelations of the character of God, we can pray with expectation, trust Him in times of testing, receive his help as needed, and expect deliverance at the last judgment. These basic revelations in Genesis 6-9 can thus be the basis of a walk with God which is pleasing to him and by its fullness gives us more assurance of the truth of Christianity than any number of merely philosophical reasons. As it is written, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God…” (John 7:17).


1. Charles Hodge, “Inspiration,” reprinted in The Princeton Theology, ed. Mark Noll (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 137.

2. Since inspired Scripture accommodates such moral evils as divorce for any reason and slavery, certainly God could accommodate mistaken Israelite views of history and science. And he did.

3. Regarding the various proof-texts thought to show that divine inspiration guarantees inerrancy in matters of science and history, see my book, Inerrant Wisdom (Portland, OR: Evangelical Reform, 1989).

4. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987) 165-66; Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1966) 48-59.

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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Kathryn - #3992

February 5th 2010

Thanks for pointing out what IS unique about the Genesis Flood narrative.  Those differences point to the consistency between God’s character in the OT and NT - He is forever just and gracious.

On a different note, this was excellently put:
“Empirical fact (not to be confused with philosophical naturalism) is the divinely appointed canon for accepting or rejecting alleged divine revelation about empirical data (Deut 18:22; 1 Thess 5:21)”

Kyle Leaman - #3995

February 5th 2010

I would add to the list of Divine Revelation in the Flood Account that obedience is key to pleasing God. After the long lists of requirements for the Ark (why include more lines about how to build the ark, than on the entire purpose of the flood?), Noah follows every command. Those who are faithful to God, will recieve the blessings and salvation of God.

I agree fully with the line of thought here, but one question does remain for me. While I agree it is pedagogically wise for God to speak to the Israelites through their limited worldviews, does it impune God’s nature for him to ‘hijack’ a seemingly known fact (the flood) that really didn’t happen, just for theological points?

Glen Davidson - #3996

February 5th 2010

Wouldn’t it be fair to think that implicit in the story is that “natural disasters” are sent by God, as explicitly stated for The Deluge and for several other OT disasters?  I’m thinking with respect to:

Secondly, God is just. He sends the Flood in just judgment on a creation that has rebelled against him.

I bring this up because I suspect many Christians would not find this truly just.

However, as a kind of explanation for natural disasters (divine judgment), The Flood is a type for other disasters which seem senseless to their victims.

Glen Davidson

MF - #3997

February 5th 2010

I am sympathetic to the view presented in this article, but I wonder how the principle of accommodation applies to the rest of the Bible, beyond the primeval history in Gen 1-11.

For instance, was Abraham’s alleged communication and covenant making with God accommodation or historical fact? Was Sodom destroyed by fire from heaven? Were the Plagues historical fact? Were Elijah’s miracles accurately reported, including the chariot of fire? Was the virgin birth an accommodation? Were the NT resurrections (Jairus’s daughter, Lazarus, the dead of Jerusalem in Mat. 27, Jesus himself) merely accommodations? Was the ascension an historical fact?

Surely modern science gives us similar pause on all of these issues as it does with the creation narrative and the flood—e.g., where did Enoch, Jesus, and Elijah’s bodies go, now that we know (to a greater degree, anyway) what is beyond the clouds?

How does this view avoid what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery?

John VanZwieten - #4003

February 5th 2010

@ MF - #3997

Two things occur to me.  First, it seems a beginning line could be drawn with respect to events the author was there to see, as opposed to those he is reporting out of the distant past.

Second, you could go back to the original post to the idea that: “Empirical fact (not to be confused with philosophical naturalism) is the divinely appointed canon for accepting or rejecting alleged divine revelation about empirical data.”  One can imagine empirical facts that would confirm Sodom’s destruction and the plagues of Egypt, but it is harder to imagine empirical facts that would rule them out.

Gregory Arago - #4004

February 5th 2010

I agree with MF’s reservations and questions about ‘historicity’ and ‘accommodation.’

The Dutch reformed legal scholar Herman Dooyeweerd offers some interesting views on ‘historicity’ in terms of cosmic time. The human heart, he claims, is supratemporal. And it doesn’t matter an ounce if any ‘science’ or ‘historical art’ can ever ‘prove’ this with their disciplinary methods.

“we have the moral responsibility to accept the light God has given us through science.” - P. Seely

What makes this responsibiity particularly a ‘moral’ one?

Does science, do scientists have an inherent ‘moral mission’ or is science just something that people do, and which is delivered to humanity to use as an instrument for living together on Earth? In perhaps the most scientific society in the world, there is a danger of over-elevating the power of science, and in so doing, of undermining the power of philosophy and/or theology.

If we ask people to ‘love wisdom’ and to ‘seek light,’ then we should look more often beyond science to philosophy, indeed to Sophia, rather than to Scientia. That would surely help us to ‘grow up’ as well.

Kyle Leaman - #4006

February 5th 2010

@John VanZwieten
“First, it seems a beginning line could be drawn with respect to events the author was there to see, as opposed to those he is reporting out of the distant past.”

That was extremely helpful for me.

I don’t think it would fit into Lewis’ idea of chronological snobbery. To me, the author is claiming the ancients were unwise, but moreso just unaware of the data. In this case, God actually avoids chonological snobbery by relating to the ancients based upon their limits (in this case extent of knowledge and not ability). I would consider this to be another aspect or dimension of God’s great grace, which we are still beneficiaries of to this day

Kyle Leaman - #4007

February 5th 2010

**The second reply should have read”...the author is NOT claiming the ancients were unwise”. Sorry for the confusion

Paul Seely - #4010

February 5th 2010

All of these comments are excellent.  Let me take them one by one.

Kathryn, Thank you.

Kyle 3995
The process of including the Flood in the History of Humankind (Gen 1-11) was organic. The Flood was an integral part of the history of mankind as undderstood by Mesopotamians. It is a historical dividing point, e.g. in the Sumerian King List. As inheritors of that tradition, it would have been well nigh impossible for the human author not to include it in his History of Mankind. It would be like thinking an American could write a history of WW2 and not mention Pearl Harbor. As I set forth in Part 2, there really was a Flood, and it seems to have become partly legendary even in the Sumerian account.  As a theologian Preacher, our human author, as inspired by God,  took advantage of the story being included in the history to teach various theological lessons, but he did not need to “hijack” the account; he could scarcely have avoided dealing with it.

Paul Seely - #4011

February 5th 2010

Glen 3996,
The Flood is set forth as a just judgment on virtually an entire creation that has rebelled against God. It is so catastrophic it is described as a cosmic event, i.e, a partial reversal of the 2nd and 3rd days of Creation. It makes a good type of the final judgment, but I would not make it a type of most natural disasters. Some disasters may be particularly sent by Gdo, but if people build their homes on earthquake faults, it is only God as the source of all natural energy that is responsible for the destrruction.

MF 3997
In addition to John VanZwieten - #4003’s excellent answer, not only is our human author not an eyewitness or have access to eyewitnesses, the material in Gen 1-11 goes back long before him. The Flood, as I mentioned, probably goes back to c. 3000 BC. Also, Gen 1-11 is the only section in the Bible that has parallel Mesopotamian traditions and motifs, which are probably the original sources. So, we can see them being accommodated in Gen 1-11. Also, the “facts” set forth at least in Gen 1, Gen 6-9, and Gen 11:1-9 are often directly disproven by empirical data. The only thing see accomodated in the rest of the Bible is the science: it is, I believe, always the science of the times.

Paul Seely - #4012

February 5th 2010

Gregory 4004,
We have a moral responsibility to accept the light sciencegives us because all truth is God’s truth, and as children of light and truth, we must accept all light. It would be contrary to our calling not to accept light. In addiition the refusal to accept light has spiritual implications. To the extent that the light is clear, refusal to accept it moves us toward the kingdom of darkness. Holding down any light is not something any Christian should be involved in.

At the same time, I like your final remark about the need for wisdom. When I wrote my book on biblical inerrancy, I called it Inerrant Wisdom. I interpreted 2Tim 3:16 as a Wisdom passage.

Kyle Leaman - #4013

February 5th 2010

@Paul Seely,

Thanks so much for your reply. Your choice of wording is particularly helpful for me, as this is such an important issue to be clear about. While it certainly helps me harmonize my understanding of the flood account, I struggle to see it’s use in other instances.

I wonder how something like the Tower of Babel would fit in with this perspective. While the flood story has its roots in history, I don’t remember reading of any other cultures having a ‘babel’ like story. Using your perspective, would it be right to say that under the inspiration of God, the human writer took advantage of a story (most likely an oral story about Babel) like Babel that had become commonplace and ‘believed’ amongst the people, to convey a theological point about God?

beaglelady - #4017

February 6th 2010


Maybe I can help answer your question about Babel,  In his book Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution, Denis Lamoureux explains that “a similar motif of a god changing languages appears in the Mesopotamian account of Enmerka and the Lord Aratta’.

Lamoureux gives many additional reasons for not taking the Tower of Babel story literally. For example, he explains that linguistic analysis of the ancient Semitic languages (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic)  show that they have similarities, and evolved in a similar fashion to other language groups (such as Romance languages).  If God really wanted to confuse languages, why would He make them so similar? 

I highly recommend Lamoureux’s excellent book!

Paul Seely - #4019

February 6th 2010

The Flood account is unusual in that we can track it back to a historical kernal event. The parallels in Gen 1-3 are more typical. The parallels are bits and pieces and motifs from ANE “science.” Gen one begins (1:2) with a primeval ocean. This was true of the major ANE creation accounts. This ocean (tehom, meaning “sea” but not the usual Hebrew word for “sea”) is split in two on the second day of creation; and this parallel is only in the Babylonian creation account, where the goddess Tiamat (meaning “sea”) is split into two halves. One can see the accommodation of the Babylonian ideas, but there is no actual historical primeval ocean or its being split in two. There really was a creation of heaven and earth, but where we explain it as beginning with a big bang and an earth too hot to have an ocean for the first millions of years, the Mesopotamians explained it as beginning with a big ocean, and the earth made subsequent to the ocean being split in two. Gen 1 is a Who account, not a How account. The How is the “science” of the times.

Paul Seely - #4020

February 6th 2010

In Gen 2 and 3, there is no parallel story from Mesopotamia, but there are parallel bits and pieces: man made from clay, an original Paradise, a lost opportunity to gain immortality. These bits and pieces, like bricks from a demolished building), are reused to tell a story configured to confer theological truth. 
The story of the Tower of Babel, has bits and pieces in Mesopotamian thought: a story of a time when all humans spoke the same language BUT in the Mesopotamian account, this is related to the Paradise of creation, not a ziggurat. Also, there were, temple-towers with names that spoke of “high as heaven.” The biblical story is woven into the history: if a flood destroyed all mankind except those on the ark, then the first few generations thereafter would all be speaking the same language. To answer the question, Where did all the languages come from? the story invents a judgment on the Babylonians, but this is not so much etiological as it is theological: “Babel” which at least in popular Babylonian thought meant “gate of God” is interpreted as “confusion.”  There may also be an actual historical event in the background when Sumerian was displaced by another Language.

Kyle Leaman - #4024

February 6th 2010

Thanks everyone for the replies. There is a natural tension between trying to maintain inspiration of the scriptures while allowing for what we know to be accurate or not (no physical evidence for a global flood & tower of babel like event). Both replies have been helpful in walking that tight rope.

MF - #4171

February 9th 2010

Thanks to those who interacted with me on this, including Paul Seely himself. I appreciate your taking time to talk through these matters.

I guess I’m still not persuaded. Considering that much of the Bible was not written by eye-witnesses (e.g., Moses [or whoever wrote Genesis] didn’t witness anything in that book first hand from Adam to Abraham to Joseph; Luke implies that he was not an eye-witness in his Gospel [1:1-4]; etc. etc.), I don’t see that as a valid bright line for determining what we can declare accommodation.

Nor does the existence of ANE parallels obviously justify accepting or rejecting the truthfulness of some passage. It may well be that we don’t have the right archeological evidence/understanding to compare and put some things in their proper context. This certainly doesn’t mean that we should give up on archeology, comparative studies, or trying to illuminate the Bible’s hard-to-understand passages. Rather, I think it means that we must be careful not to be too dogmatic, particularly in obscure passages, because we are far separated from the authors’ primary audience and our ancient cultural artifacts are limited and not necessarily the most important and characteristic ones.


MF - #4172

February 9th 2010


On one of the key statements from this article referenced more than once above —“Empirical fact (not to be confused with philosophical naturalism) is the divinely appointed canon for accepting or rejecting alleged divine revelation about empirical data.”—I of course agree we need to use our senses and reason in reading the Bible and applying it. It just seems like the way it’s being applied here is a slippery slope. I don’t see why the same sort of reasoning employed above would not equally call the ascension in to question, to repeat my example above.

Nate - #4608

February 16th 2010

I’m late to the game on my comment, but I first wanted to say, great series on the Flood - very enlightening and enjoyable. Thank you.

Second, I have questions about the following passage:

“Empirical fact (not to be confused with philosophical naturalism) is the divinely appointed canon for accepting or rejecting alleged divine revelation about empirical data (Deut 18:22; 1 Thess 5:21);”

Could you expound on how those verses provide divine backing for empirical fact? Just using the logic of the Flood series, how could the Bible be describing a scientific framework developed much later (Empiricism)? I’m not sure we should have so much faith in empirical “fact.” These “facts” tend to change as much as our understanding of the Bible.

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