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.