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:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;your name is like perfume poured out.No wonder the young women love you!Take me away with you—let us hurry!Let the king bring me into his chambers. (Song of Songs 1:2-4)
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.
In the next post, we look at those signals in the text itself that will guide us to the proper understanding of its genre. Hint: it’s neither literal history nor myth.