The Genesis Flood Through Ancient Eyes: An Interview with John Walton and Tremper Longman
Readers of Walton and Longman's new book are challenged to radically re-examine their presuppositions around what the Flood is really about.
For thousands of years, the Genesis story of Noah, the Ark, and the Flood has captivated readers. With the advent of modern science—which has amassed a huge body of evidence against a recent worldwide deluge—this story has become a central battleground of the origins debate. The modern young-earth creationist movement was founded on a book-length scientific defense of a global flood. And in recent years, a full-size “replica” of Noah’s Ark, built by the Answers in Genesis ministry, has made national headlines and attracted millions of visitors.
Those committed to both the authority of Scripture and the validity of mainstream consensus science often feel caught in an impossible situation with the biblical Flood story. Is it possible to affirm both at the same time? In their new book The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate, biblical scholars John Walton and Tremper Longman answer this question with a resounding “yes!” John Walton’s “Lost World” book series has already made an enormous impact on how many Evangelicals think about Genesis and science, and this new volume is a worthy addition. Readers are challenged to radically re-examine their presuppositions about what the story of the Flood is really about. Walton and Longman argue persuasively that most modern readings of the Flood story under-appreciate the ancient perspective of the text, and thus make the wrong conclusions about the events it portrays.
Walton and Longman graciously agreed to share their thoughts on how their book contributes to the origins conversation, and how they deal with the thorniest issues raised by the Flood story.
BIOLOGOS: You talk a lot in the book about the problems with applying modern standards of history to Genesis. What are the biggest differences between the modern notions of “history,” and those of the ancient Near East context in which the Bible was written? Why are these differences important to understand, as we approach the story of the Flood as modern readers?
JOHN WALTON: In our modern ideas about history, we value empiricism and eyewitness testimony very highly. They are among the most important ways that we seek to unravel “what really happened.” We thereby determine the nature of historical reality. In this view, there is no room for God taking a role in events—that would not be considered “real history.” In contrast, the ancient world, including the Old Testament, put much more stock in what God (or the gods) is doing. Their approach is less empirical; more theological. They are not as interested in reconstructing the event as they are in interpreting the significance of the event theologically.
BIOLOGOS: In the first chapter, you use the example of a Chicago traffic report to demonstrate that any type of communication—including the Bible itself—is more or less “clear” depending on your distance from time and culture in which that communication happened. However, you allege that the Bible’s main messages are clear to any reader, despite their level of knowledge about the ancient context. But as your entire book demonstrates, the Flood story is very easy for modern readers to misunderstand (and that’s putting it lightly), because it is so full of “traffic report” references to ancient cosmology, literature, and culture that no longer make sense to an average modern reader. So what exactly is “clear” about the Flood story, to any reader in any culture? How can we talk about the Bible’s “clarity” in a way that respects the huge cultural distance between ourselves and the original audience?
JOHN WALTON: The clarity that pervades the entire Bible is found in its testimony to God’s sovereign execution of his plans and purposes. God is at work in the world and we witness that work as his story is shared. That story involves God ordering the world to function as a home for both himself and people, who he plans to work alongside of him to continue bringing order to the world. This story of the work of God in the world and with us helps us understand that he has plans and purposes, and that he has made them sufficiently manifest that we can know how to participate in them. This is what the Protestant Reformers were referring to when they talked about the clarity of Scripture. They did not mean that any reader could easily understand the depths and technicalities of any passage, or they would not have written hundreds of volumes of commentary and theology.
BIOLOGOS: “The Bible describes a worldwide flood, yet absolutely no geological evidence supports a worldwide flood” (49). You admit in the book that, for many readers, this conclusion will strike them as either a contradiction or a refutation of the Bible’s authority. How is it possible for Genesis 6-9—which you insist is intended to be read as historical—to describe something that didn’t happen, and yet still be true?
TREMPER LONGMAN: A flood did happen, and that event became the vehicle for the biblical story. Genesis 1-11 as a whole is “theological history” that recounts actual events (the creation of the cosmos and humanity by God, human rebellion, the flood, etc.) but depicts these events in figurative language in order to make important, true theological statements. In the case of the Flood, it appears that a particularly devastating, regional flood was described hyperbolically (i.e. using purposeful exaggeration) in order to make important observations on sin, judgment, and grace as well as order, disorder, and divine re-ordering. Genesis 1-11 that talks about the far distant past is similar to say the book of Revelation that uses figurative language (e.g., Jesus appearing on a white horse with a sword coming out of his mouth in Revelation 19) to describe real events in the far distant future.
BIOLOGOS: In your view, “the biblical account describes the flood rhetorically as a worldwide deluge” (92). Do you think the biblical writers knew that the flood they were describing was not a worldwide event? Is the answer to this question important—especially for those who believe in the authority of the Bible?
JOHN WALTON: The authority of the Bible is always relative to the literary form in which the message is delivered. When we read the Bible the way the author intended his audience to read it, we can say that we are reading the Bible “literally.” If he used hyperbole (as we suggest he did), he expected his audience to recognize it as hyperbole (which we believe they would have done). That means that the literal reading requires us to read it as hyperbole, and any other reading would not respect the authority of Scripture. Hyperbole is an appropriate literary device for the flood narrative because the Flood had an impact and a significance as a disruption of order in the cosmos. The exile was another event that was perceived as a cosmic catastrophe (because the temple, the place from which God maintained order, had been destroyed).
BIOLOGOS: “The reality of the event is not found in its reconstruction but in the literary and theological place the author gives it” (177). This perspective on biblical authority will strike some as a slippery slope. If you’re right about the Flood, then can we trust that anything in the Bible really happened? How do we know which passages are accurately describing real events, and which are not?
TREMPER LONGMAN: The flood story is describing a real event, but using hyperbole to depict that real event in order to forward the writer’s theological message. This is not unique to the flood story. We might think of the depiction of the conquest in Joshua 1-12, particularly in the light of the summary statement in chapter 12. The impression one gets is that Joshua and the Israelites conquered the entirety of Canaan. But if we simply turn the page to chapter 13 and start reading or turn to Judges 1, we know that there were vast tracts of land as well as many Canaanites still living in the land. The account in Joshua 1-12 wasn’t trying to fool anyone, but it was putting all the emphasis on the positives in order to celebrate the beginning of the fulfillment of the ancient promise of land that was given to Abraham. There is historical basis to the account of the conquest, but we have to read the account in the cultural context in which it was written, a context in which hyperbole was standard in battle reports. And we have to read the Flood story in likewise fashion.
BIOLOGOS: If the biblical Flood is a hyperbolic retelling of an actual flood event, then is the Ark a hyperbolic version of an actual wooden boat? Is Noah an actual historical figure?
JOHN WALTON: The Flood is a hyperbolic report and the Ark is likewise a hyperbolic report. That does not mean that there is no flood or that there is no boat. A person cannot be hyperbolic (I don’t think, though they can be idealized, as Job is). If there is a flood (of some sort) and a boat (of some sort), then there is cause to believe that there was a Noah.
BIOLOGOS: I strongly suspect that some critics of this book will allege that you are re-interpreting the Bible on the basis on human-made scientific ideas, rather than judging science by God’s Word. How would you respond to this criticism?
TREMPER LONGMAN: I would suggest that sometimes science can help us read the Bible better. The classic Reformed Belgic Confession, Article 2 tells us that God speaks to us through two books, the Bible and nature:
We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
Thus, when both are interpreted correctly, they will never conflict. Apart from science, we should recognize the figurative depiction of past events that Genesis 1-11 provides us (evenings and mornings before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars; God who is a spiritual being blowing on dust to create the first human). When it comes to the flood, God’s book of nature is clear: there was no world-wide flood. So that should help us see that the Bible is using a hyperbolic description of a regional flood to present its theological message.
BIOLOGOS: “Humanity well deserves to suffer extinction after its repeated and deep rebellion against the one who created it” (106). This line from your book, explaining the theological rationale for the total destruction of humankind in the Flood, invites some familiar questions from skeptics. Did the babies who died in the Flood also deserve to die? How about the countless animals who had nothing to do with the wickedness of humanity? Why didn’t God just zap the worst offenders and leave the innocent unscatched? It seems like the theological equivalent of dealing with a insect problem by using a high explosive. What is your approach to questions like these? Can the God of the Flood be reconciled with the God of Love revealed supremely in Christ?
TREMPER LONGMAN: This question is deeply disturbing to those of us living today, particularly in the relatively calm Western world. I can’t fully address it here, but do in my next book Wrestling with the Old Testament: Confronting the Challenge of Evolution, Divine Violence, Historicity, and Sexuality (Baker) that is due out at the end of 2019. Let me briefly suggest that this question would not be one that disturbed the ancient readers who lived in a culture that was beset with violence. And that is true of modern people, too, who have witnessed or experienced wickedness in their lives. Take the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, and witnessed extreme brutality leveled at his community. This experience led him to reconsider the nature of God’s love, as he reports in his excellent book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace:
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. (138-39)
The description of those who died in the flood is that their wickedness was great and “that every inclination of the(ir) thoughts…was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). While this statement is another example of the hyperbolic depiction of the flood (which also includes the extent of the waters and the devastation), it does communicate the depth and breadth of human sin that led to God’s judgment. Truth be told, the Bible knows no category of “innocent” persons who died in the flood. Even babies have a propensity to self-seeking that is out of keeping with God’s creative intention for his human creatures—and no child (other than Christ) ever grew up to be sinless.
BIOLOGOS: Don’t the New Testament references to the Flood prove that it’s a real event? Did the NT writers know that the historical “reference point” of the Flood was a regional catastrophe rather than a worldwide event? How can the New Testament authors be inspired if they are referencing events that didn’t happen?
JOHN WALTON: Of course the NT presents the Flood as a real event, and we are not denying that it was a real event. The question that we often want to ask concerns the scope of the event. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are interested in the cosmic and theological significance of the event. It is not uncommon for the OT and NT to each offer their own interpretation of events—and that is perfectly fine since both are inspired. An event may be able to be interpreted from different perspectives. So, for example, Kings and Chronicles interpret the events of the monarchy differently, but we consider both of them to be true. Whatever the scope of the flood, it was a real event with cosmic and theological significance that is developed in both OT and NT contexts.
If you enjoyed this conversation, our live conversation on Facebook with both Walton and Longman about their book.
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