Our previous posts took 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 newly 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.