Genesis and the Flood: Understanding the Biblical Story
We need to remember that the Bible, while written for us, was not written to us. Understanding the biblical story in this light, makes more sense.
“Noah’s Ark” (1846), a painting by the American folk painter Edward Hicks. Public Domain.
This piece was originally published in 2016, and reflects on the Ark Encounter that was opening around that time.
This week, Noah’s ark will set sail again.
The Ark Encounter, the brainchild of young-earth creationist figurehead Ken Ham, is scheduled to open on July 7, 2016 in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the new attraction is a “full-size” wooden reconstruction of the ark described in Genesis 6-9. Though the ark will not actually be put in water, Ham believes that the attraction will help convince people that a literal reading of the Flood story in Genesis is not only possible but necessary for Christians to affirm.
In this series of posts, I want to use this occasion to raise questions about the proper interpretation of the story of the Flood. As an evangelical Protestant, I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and as God’s Word it is true in all that it teaches. As many of you know, that is the accepted definition of inerrancy. So we begin our study with a look at what Genesis 6-9 intends to teach.
My particular interest in the Flood story arose from my earlier thinking about Genesis 1-3. In the past couple decades, Evangelicals have returned to the question of human origins, as depicted in these opening chapters of the Bible, because of the powerful evidence in support of evolution provided by the mapping of the human genome. To be honest, I never had any problem with evolution because I felt confident that while the Bible tells us that God created everything (including humanity), it did not intend to tell us how he did so.
Since the time of the early church, many theologians have recognized that Genesis 1-3 presents a largely figurative depiction of creation. Augustine and Origen both understood, for instance, that the Bible did not describe literal twenty-four hour days. As Origen put it, “who would be so foolish as to believe that the days of creation are literal days when there is not even sun, moon, and stars until the fourth day”! Now, of course, these early church fathers were not defending a long creation process. Quite the contrary! They thought the actual creation only took a millisecond. After all, why would God need a whole week to create the creation?
My point is that they knew from reading the text itself with all of its figurative elements (does God have lungs?, Gen. 2:7) that we were not getting a literal description of how God created the cosmos or human beings. These blog posts are not the place for me to fully exegete Genesis 1-3 (for which see my Genesis [Story of God Commentary Series; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016], 27-84). But it is appropriate for me here to more fully talk about what type of literature we have in Genesis 1-11, because biblical scholars universally recognize these chapters as a literary unit. The technical term for type of literature is genre. What is the genre of Genesis 1-11? This question is critical to our question of the teaching of a passage because, as I tell my students, “genre triggers reading strategy.”
In a text, whether in the Bible or not, the author writes a text to communicate a message to the reader. In the text, the author sends signals to his readers as to “how to take” his words. One’s understanding of the genre affects how the reader interprets the words of a written text. To misunderstand the genre leads to a distortion of the message.
Take the opening words of the Song of Songs:
What is the message of this passage? Most of us would recognize in these words an expression of the passionate desire of a woman for physical intimacy with a man. In other words, these words open a collection of love poems. But such an interpretation was rare at best during the Middle Ages. Why? Because, during this time, the Song was read as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people. Indeed, the Targum (a Jewish paraphrase of the Song written in Aramaic in the 9th century AD) read these verses as a reference to the Exodus from Egypt! The woman, Israel, begs the man, God, to take her into his bedroom (the Promised Land). Getting the genre right is pivotal to getting the message right. Most people today, myself included, believe that the Targum got it wrong.
What then is the genre of Genesis 1-11? To answer this question, we need to look for those signals that the author sends his readers. But before describing those signals, let me make two more introductory comments.
First, the question of genre of Genesis 1-11 is often presented as a choice between two alternatives. Is it history (giving a literal depiction of events) or is it myth (having no real connection with actual events)? There is no reason to think there are only these two possibilities. People on both sides of the question want us to think so. Those who think that this part of the Bible gives us a literal depiction of events also want us to think that anyone who doesn’t agree has sold out and no longer holds to “biblical truth.” On the other side, those who take a mythical view of the text often characterize those who take a literal approach as crass fundamentalists who just stick their heads in the sand. Again, we need to avoid this unfortunate and unnecessary characterization of the question of genre.
Second, as we address the question of genre, we need to remember that the Bible, while written for us, was not written to us. The authors of the books of the Bible had an original audience in mind when they wrote, and that audience is not us. As I like to tell my students, they don’t call the book of Romans “Romans” for nothing! It was written to the church in Rome and when we read it, we need first to put ourselves in the place of the church of Rome before applying it to ourselves.
Thus, to understand the Old Testament books, we have to put ourselves in the “cognitive environment” (to use the phrase made memorable by my friend John Walton of the time) in which the book was written.
Just the fact that the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew illustrates this important point. Modern 21st century readers need to first translate the text from ancient Hebrew into a modern language (in my case, English). Of course not everyone can do this, so God encouraged some of us to go to graduate school to study ancient Hebrew (as well as related languages like Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, etc.), thus placing ourselves linguistically in that ancient cognitive environment to be able to translate Hebrew into English (you’re welcome! It wasn’t easy!). And as we will see, we put ourselves in that ancient cognitive environment by also studying ancient Near Eastern literature, including ancient stories about floods.
Previously, I talked about the importance of genre. Whenever we read anything, we identify (either consciously or not) the genre of what we are reading. Sometimes it is natural and easy because we are so used to certain types of writing (whether a novel or a textbook or a newspaper editorial), but sometimes we need to be self-conscious about identifying the genre. When it comes to the Old Testament, don’t be fooled by the excellent readable English translations that we have at our disposal. These books are ancient Near Eastern literature and we need to study them in their “cognitive environment.”
To do so is particularly important as we consider the truth claims of the Bible. As I also claimed in the previous post, God’s Word is completely true in everything it intends to teach. Genre triggers reading strategy and helps us see what message the author wants us to learn from his words.
So, what is the genre of the Flood story? To answer that question we will focus on Genesis 6-9, of course, but we should note first that Genesis 1-11 is a unit within the book of Genesis as a whole, so the question of the genre of the Flood story is connected to the broader question of the genre of the so-called “Primeval Narrative”.
The book of Genesis may be divided up in different ways (I’ll be referring to toledot in a minute), but one obvious division is:
- The Primeval Narrative (Genesis 1-11)
- The Patriarchal Narrative (Genesis 12-36)
- The Joseph Narrative (Genesis 37-50)
There are continuities that unite these three sections and we will take those seriously, but there are also significant stylistic differences that signal different levels of interest in reporting historical details. These continuities and differences will come out in my following comments. My focus will be on how Genesis 1-11 relates to Genesis 12-50.
For starters, let’s talk about two points of continuity.
First, those toledot I mentioned a moment ago. Toledot is a Hebrew word that is translated something like “account” in our English translations. The word occurs in a formula that can be translated something like “This is the account of X,” where X is, with the exception of the first occurrence, a personal name. These formulae are best understood as referencing written and/or oral documents that the author of Genesis used to write the book. After all, even granting that Moses is the author of Genesis, he would have used earlier sources to talk about the distant past. We should further note that the “toledot of X,” is about the offspring of X. So the toledot of Terah (Gen. 11:27) introduces the story of Abraham, Terah’s son (Gen. 11:27-25:11).
The first toledot occurs in Genesis 2:4 and then occurs eleven more times, four times in the rest of Genesis 1-11 (5:1; 6:9 [the toledot of Noah], 10:1; 11:10) and six times in the rest of the book (11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). In other words, the toledot formula does, in my opinion, show a continuity of genre between Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50.
Further, I would say that the toledot formula indicates a consistent interest in history, recounting past events. This is true of Genesis 1-11 as much as Genesis 12-50.
The author’s choice of verbal form supports this interest in the past, though perhaps not as strongly. In short, the narrative employs the Hebrew waw-consecutive verbal form that is typical to narrate past events. The caveat, of course, is that the waw-consecutive can also be used in a non-historical narrative like a parable. I think the continuity with the rest of Genesis (and indeed with the redemptive history that follows) established by the toledot formula renders it much more likely that the use of the waw-consecutive intends to tell us about past events.
Many would point to the genealogies in Genesis as compelling evidence of the literal historicity of the whole book. After all, the stories in Genesis 1-11 are connected by various genealogies (for instance, Gen. 4:17-5:32; 10; 11:210-26). My only hesitation comes from my recognition that ancient Near Eastern genealogies aren’t constructed on purely genetic/historical purposes. As R. R. Wilson concluded as he studied biblical genealogies in relationship to other ancient Near Eastern genealogies, “genealogies are not normally created for historical purposes. They are not intended to be historical records. Rather, in the Bible, as well as in ancient near Eastern literature and in the anthropological material, genealogies seems to have been created for domestic, political-jural, and religious purposes, and historically information is preserved only incidentally” (Genealogy and History in the Biblical World [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977], 199). Remember we need to read these genealogies in their “cognitive environment” and not with modern expectations. That said, while not strictly historical, I think they are partly historical.
So, as I read Genesis 1-11, including the Flood Story, I believe the “genre signals” are telling us that these stories (creation, Fall, Flood, Tower of Babel) refer in some way to real events that happened in the past.
That important point made, we also need to acknowledge “genre signals” that show the author does not intend for us to take these descriptions as literal, precise depictions of these real events.
First, Genesis 1-11 contains many obviously figurative descriptions of real events. We have already mentioned two in previous posts. As the early church fathers and many others up to the present day have said, you cannot have a literal twenty-four hour day without a sun, moon, and stars. Thus, in Genesis 1, though these celestial bodies are not created until the fourth day, the first three days are called days with “evenings and mornings.” It is particularly this phrase that is the kicker, since though (as some have tried to argue) God could certainly have found another light source to turn on and off for a twenty-four hour cycle, it still would not have been a literal evening and morning.
In Genesis 2, God creates the first man from the dust of the ground and his breath. But, since God is a spiritual being and does not have lungs, this description is clearly figurative. We could go on with other examples (and in our next post we will give examples from the Flood story), but a fair reading of Genesis 1-11 will recognize that it uses figurative language much more extensively than in the chapters that follow.
Second, Genesis 1-11 has an intense interplay with ancient Near Eastern texts, particularly creation and flood stories. We have the benefit of studying Genesis 1-2 in the light of ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation, in particular compositions like Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and the Baal myth.
There are similarities, yes, but there are also intentional differences. We will illustrate with the creation of the first man in Genesis 2:7. In the Bible, the first man is created from the dust of the ground (creation element) and the breath of God (divine element). The Enuma Elish and Atrahasis both picture the gods creating humans from the ground (clay) and divine elements (the blood of a demon god and the spit of the gods). This connection is more than a coincidence. Thus, rather than being a literal depiction of how God created the first human (which makes no sense as a literal description anyway), it makes more sense to see Genesis 2:7 a figurative depiction that claims it was Israel’s God (not Marduk or some other deity) who created humans, and that humans themselves are not originally corrupt but have a dignified origin.
Third, we raise the issue of what I call sequence concord. If Genesis 1-11 were interested in giving us a precise, literal description of “what happened” it would demonstrate more interest in the sequence of events.
That lack of interest is seen most dramatically by comparing the two creation accounts (Gen. 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-25). For example, it has long been recognized that in the first account you have the creation of humans after vegetation and in the second, God makes humans and then plants the Garden. If Genesis were so interested in giving us a literal depiction of the process of creation, we need to ask: why there is conflict in the sequence?
Fourth, notice that Genesis 1-11 begins with creation and takes us all the way to Abraham. That is an incredibly long period of time. I know that with this point, I am only speaking to old-earth creationists, because-young earth creationists don’t think this period of time is as long, but for those of you who do understand that the genealogies of Genesis don’t intend to give us the information we need to date creation, you will agree with me on this point. Genesis 1-11 presents the deep, deep past and covers vast amounts of time quickly. The narrative skids to a halt in Genesis 12 and shows much more interest in historical detail when we come to Abraham.
But for those of us who are not strict literalists when it comes to the far distant future in the Bible, we might also see that there is a similarity between the largely figurative depiction of real events in the far, far distant past (Genesis 1-11) and the far, far distant future (Revelation).
The signals that the author of Genesis 1-11 sends to us lead to the following conclusion. Genesis 1-11 talks about the past: real space-and-time events. God did create everything and everyone. There was a Fall from innocence. And there was a flood (see next two posts). However, Genesis 1-11 does not give us a literal, detailed, precise depiction of these events. Rather the author uses figurative language and interplay with ancient Near Eastern texts to describe these events in order to communicate its important message to its readers.
We have laid the groundwork for how we should read the account of Noah in Genesis 6-9. Based on the genre of Genesis 1-11, we should view the Flood as a historical event, but one depicted using figurative language in order to communicate its important message.
Hyperbole is a form of figurative language. Hyperbole exaggerates in order to produce an effect or to make a point. When my wife picks up my luggage and says “it weighs a ton” (yes, I tend to pack heavy—it’s the books), she and I both know it does not literally weigh a ton, but she has made her point as I remind her I do not expect her to carry my luggage. She is not lying or misleading me, but I might think she is if I believe she is being literal. Indeed, I would show myself quite obtuse if I responded, “It does not. It weighs 70 pounds, well under a ton!”
In spite of Ken Ham’s best efforts to show otherwise, by building the ark he demonstrates the hyperbole in the Flood story. Yes, he has succeeded (or is about to at the time of writing) in building an ark the dimensions of Noah’s ark (510 feet long). As I look at the online video of the construction, though, I notice all of the cranes, the metal scaffolding that keeps the structure from collapsing, the power tools, and last but not least the many, many skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who are building this large boat.
I end up asking myself, could Noah and his family have built an ark of this dimension by themselves using only primitive tools? Let’s remember too that the time of Noah is well before the manufacture of iron, bronze, or cooper tools. I think the answer to our question is a decided “no”. Furthermore, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Noah hired large groups of workers, had special technology, employed the Fallen Angels (did you see the Noah movie?), or were the benefactors of a miracle.
And let’s face it, whether the ark is hypothetically seaworthy or not, there has never, ever been a wooden boat nearly as large as the ark (at least, until now). The closest was built in the nineteenth century, a 449-foot boat (and this includes the jib and the boom; actually it is 329 feet). This is yet another indication that the original readers would have realized we are dealing with a figurative description of a boat.
We could go on, of course, detailing the hyperbolic language of the flood story. The sin of the people is described hyperbolically “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5). Every type of animal, clean and unclean (which are anachronistic categories not established until the time of Moses), will come on board. And—Ken Ham got this right (though he does not understand this as hyperbole)—the story clearly describes a global flood where the waters covered the mountains. The waters come from “the springs of the great deep” and flow from “the floodgates of the heavens” (7:11), reflecting an ancient cosmology where under the flat earth were the subterranean waters and above the firmament were waters (note the blue sky) that could be released by opening the gates of heaven.
The flood story is filled with hyperbole that would have been recognized by its ancient audience as a figurative description of an event in order to produce an effect and make a point (for which see next post). That the Bible uses hyperbole in this way elsewhere can be illustrated by many examples, but let’s look closely at the account of the conquest in Joshua 1-12.
The picture we get of the Conquest in these chapters is summed up by Joshua 11:23: “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.” Now read Joshua 13-24 (or for that matter Judges 1) that mentions all the land that the Canaanites still control! We should not conclude that Joshua 1-12 gives us a misleading picture of the conquest. We should recognize that the author used hyperbole as a way of celebrating the beginning of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of land.
Not only do we have obvious figurative language in the Flood story, but we also have (as we have seen with the description of the creation), interplay with ancient Near Eastern flood stories. Space does not permit me to give a detailed account of all of them, but let me just mention the Gilgamesh Epic.
This flood story predates the biblical account and describes the gods bringing a massive flood on humanity. One man and his family survive by building an ark on which he brings animals. At the end of the flood he sends out three birds to check and see if the floodwaters have receded. As soon as he steps out of the ark, he offers a sacrifice.
As familiar as this story sounds to those of us who know the biblical account, we also note the differences. The gods send the flood not because of human sin, but because humans make too much noise. One god out of the many gods of Babylon decides to tell his devotee to build an ark. The ark is a big cube! And we could go on.
What are we to make of the similarities and differences? The explanation that I think makes most sense is that in the aftermath of an actual devastating flood (in the ancient Near East), the biblical author was inspired (ultimately by God) to write an account modeled on the ancient Near Eastern flood legend in order to make some very important theological points.
So far I have focused my attention on the biblical text itself, both Genesis 1-11 generally and the flood story specifically. But now I want to bring in an outside element that I believe should and must be taken into account—the findings of modern science, especially geology.
Let me readily admit that I am not a scientist, but I have a number of trusted Christians who are scientists on whom I depend for my information on science. And in a word, you don’t have to know that much about science to understand that there is not a shred of evidence that supports the idea of a global flood. I don’t have the space to present the scientific studies that lead to this conclusion, but I can point you to many sources. You might start with the recent posts here about the Grand Canyon. Or look at Davis A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) or The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, edited by C. Hill, et.al., which asks the question “Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” and answers with a decided “No.” Also be on the lookout for article “The Genesis Flood and Geology,” in the Zondervan Dictionary of Christianity and Science, edited by P. Copan, T. Longman, C. Reese, and M. Strauss, due out in Spring 2017. Here, by the way, the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”; it is significant, even telling. If there were a global flood, there would be indisputable evidence.
We have taken a close look at the Flood story in the context of Genesis 1-11. I read the Bible believing it is absolutely true. It’s God’s Word after all.
The account of the Flood does not teach errors in what it intends to tell us. We need to determine what type of literature we are reading, in order to understand what the author wants us to learn from it. My conclusion is that Genesis 6-9 is telling us about a past event, but not giving us a literal, precise account of the event. Rather, the story uses figurative language (primarily, in the case of the Flood, hyperbole) and interacts with other ancient Near Eastern accounts as it tells the story of Noah and the ark.
We are often told we must read the Flood story as literal history, giving us a detailed straightforward description of the Flood. Ken Ham insists on this and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of having betrayed the Bible, and even the Gospel. According to Ham, If you don’t believe that there was a global flood with waters that even covered the highest mountains and that Noah and his family survived in a 510 foot wooden boat with pairs of all the animals of the world on board, then you don’t really think that the Bible is true. To support his view, he marshals “scientific evidence” that no research geologist, even Christians, would support, since that evidence has been long discredited. The irony is that Ken Ham has not only misrepresented the science but misreads the Bible. Even so, I would never question his Christian commitment or his belief, misplaced in my opinion, that he is furthering the cause of Christ.
But even among those who acknowledge the evidence against a global flood, there are some who think the biblical story can still be read literally. This is often called the “local flood” interpretation: that Scripture really claims that the flood happened in the ancient Near East, rather than the whole world. This interpretation is achieved in one of two ways. Some want to translate the Hebrew word ‘eretz as “land”, not “earth.” Thus the literal interpretation would be that floodwaters cover the land (local area of the writer), not the whole earth. My problem with this view is that the narrator says that the waters covered the mountains. It would be hard to understand that to mean the water literally covered mountains but also only affected a local area. Then there are also those who say the “whole earth” only means what people then thought the whole earth to be, namely their local area. I also have difficulty accepting the view because I can’t imagine a time period or a scenario when people thought their local area was all that existed.
I believe the view that I have presented in this series—that there was a devastating local flood but it is described by figurative language as a global flood in order to communicate an important theological message—makes sense of God’s Word as well as God’s World. God’s Word tells the story as a global, not a regional, flood. God’s World (as geologists have discovered) gives no evidence of a global flood. God’s Word and God’s World are true and the former imparts an important message.
Due to the focus of these posts, I, unfortunately, can only summarize the incredibly important main theological message of the Flood story. I can, happily, refer you to my published Genesis commentary (T. Longman III, Genesis [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016]) where I discuss this at length.
The Flood story must be read in the context of Genesis 1-11, which provides the preamble for what is the apex of the book of Genesis, which is the call of Abraham (12:1-3). In short, the purpose of Genesis 1-11 is to provide the background for Abraham.
Genesis 1-11 begins with an account of creation. God created everything and everyone. While Genesis 1-2 does not tell us how God created humans (we should not read these chapters as straightforward history), they do proclaim that God created humans, and at their origin, humans are morally innocent and capable of choice. God blesses them (they have a harmonious relationship with God, with each other, and with the world). Genesis 3 tells us that humanity rebelled against God (there is a historical Fall, though again the account of the rebellion is figuratively described). The result is that God’s blessing is removed. Now there is alienation between God and humans, between humans, and between humans and the world.
The story of the Fall has four parts to it. There is an account of human sin (3:6), followed by a judgment speech (3:14-19). The story ends with the narration of the execution of the judgment (3:22-24). Very significantly, however, between the judgment speech and the execution of the judgment, God extends Adam and Eve a token of grace (3:21).
This same pattern is repeated in the Cain and Abel story (sin [4:8], judgment speech [4:11-12], token of grace [4:15], judgment [4:16]), the Flood story (sin [6:5, 11], judgment speech [6:7, 13-21], token of grace [6:8, 18-19], and judgment [7:6-24]. It will also be repeated, though with a slight variation in terms of the placement of the token of grace in the story of the Tower of Babel (sin [11:4], judgment speech [11:6-6-7], token of grace [Genesis 10], and judgment [11:8].
These four stories (Genesis 3-11) teach that humans have a persistent sin problem. They tell us that God will always judge sin. And then finally, and most importantly, they inform us that God will never give up on his people, but will pursue reconciliation with them with passionate intensity.
With this background, we read of God’s new strategy of reconciliation as we hear him say to Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the place God will show him. There God promises to make him a great nation. God will bless this nation and through them will bring blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3).
The Flood story is a preamble to the story of Abraham, and ultimately to the story of Christ. We are sinners and deserve God’s judgment (the New Testament cites the Flood story in this way), but Jesus came to die on our behalf. He is the ultimate act of God’s grace. Through Christ, God brings blessing to those who, from the many nations, come to him. That is the true message of the story of the Flood.
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