When we place the biblical flood story and the other versions side-by-side, the polemical nature of the biblical flood story is clear. But we shouldn’t conclude too much from this.
Yes, the biblical story is a distinct piece of theology. It offers a very different view of God and the role of humanity. But that does not mean that the biblical story is of a “higher order” than the extra-biblical stories from a historical or scientific point of view.
It is virtually certain that one or more local floods in Mesopotamia—perhaps around 3000 B.C. according to some scholars—provide the historical basis for all the flood stories that come from that area. But the geological record, at least as interpreted by mainstream scientists, discounts any notion of a “worldwide” flood that killed every single creature on earth, save a few (Genesis 6:7; 7:21-23), a few thousand years ago.
Of course, for the ancient writer of Genesis, the world was a much smaller, flatter place. Perhaps what he and other ancient writers wrote reflects how they perceived the world. The “earth” was what they saw when they walked outside—a vast stretch of flat land with mountains off in the distance. When a devastating flood came and swept away everything in its path, it seemed like “the whole earth” to the ancient writer. If you think about it, one should actually expect ancient writers to use “worldwide” language given their state of knowledge.
To interpret the Genesis flood as a complete global catastrophe is a modern imposition onto an ancient story. Ancients simply did not think of the earth in that way. This is where “Flood Geology” gets off on the wrong foot. Apart from the well-documented scientific problems with this approach, it expects a worldview that Genesis is not prepared to deliver.
But what about the dozens of flood stories found throughout the ancient world, not only in Mesopotamia? Might that support the notion of a “global” flood, not merely a local one?
The presence of flood stories from various time periods in other parts of the ancient world (e.g., Asian, European, Mayan) does not support a global flood, as some Christian apologists try to argue. These stories simply reflect the ubiquity of floods in antiquity and the devastation that massive ones would bring. The fact that the world flood stories are so different from each other reflects how each culture told the story of their local floods in their own way.
That fact that the biblical version is strikingly similar to the Mesopotamian versions, as we have seen, reflects the cultural connections between these peoples. The differences between them reflect their different theologies. The Israelite version is a statement of theological independence from the older stories of the superpower nations around them. The common medium of a well-known flood story was used by the Israelites for its own purpose.
For both contextual and scientific reasons, the biblical flood story is clearly not a statement of vital historical information. It is a powerful expression of theological identity among the other peoples of the world.
I understand this does not satisfy everyone. Some feel that for the flood story to have any theological value for readers today, it must be historical in nature. I hope this is not the case. If the flood story’s theological value depends on all of the earth’s population being wiped out a few thousand years ago, we have a problem. We will have erected an impassable obstruction between the present state of knowledge, scientific and biblical, and any hope of a viable Christian faith that is connected to the Bible.
A position that claims the necessity of historicity throughout Genesis is not the default position of faith. It is an hypothesis, as much as any other, only without much explanatory force given the current state of knowledge.
That hypothesis is based on certain assumption. (1) A truth–speaking God would be concerned with history primarily throughout every portion of the Bible. (2) A revealing God would not lean on older Mesopotamian stories but provide Israel with fresh information. (3) The fact that subsequent biblical writers assume the historical nature of the flood as presented in Genesis should settle the matter for us, too.
These assumptions are unwarranted, and I think entirely indefensible. (1) God seems to like stories as much as history. (2) God speaks in ways that are necessarily rooted in the cultural moment. (3) Later biblical writers, even in the New Testament, were also ancient peoples, and so we should expect them to speak in those terms.
To nip in the bud a predictable objection: the slippery slope argument does not hold here. To say that the flood story is fundamentally more story than history does not mean that the crucifixion and resurrection are also unhistorical. Genesis and the Gospels are different types of literature written at very different times for very different reasons. Failing to make such basic genre distinction is perhaps at the root of some of the conflict over Genesis.