Genesis and the Flood: Understanding Ancient History

| By (guest author) on The Evolving Evangelical

“Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat” by Simon de Myle. Public Domain.

Our previous posts 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.

In the next post, I am going to give a clearer statement of how I read the Flood story, but before I do so, I need to address the elephant in the room.

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 Christian 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 more recent 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.

In the next and final post, I will summarize our findings and lay out my own interpretation of the message of the Flood story.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Longman, Tremper. "Genesis and the Flood: Understanding Ancient History"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 6 Jul. 2016. Web. 11 December 2018.

APA

Longman, T. (2016, July 6). Genesis and the Flood: Understanding Ancient History
Retrieved December 11, 2018, from /blogs/brad-kramer-the-evolving-evangelical/genesis-and-the-flood-understanding-ancient-history

About the Author

Tremper Longman

Tremper Longman is Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, as well as annual Visiting Professor of Old Testament at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Seminary at Ambrose University College (Calgary). He is the author of over thirty books, including Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins with physicist Richard F. Carlson. He is an editor and contributor to the Zondervan Dictionary of Christianity and Science. John Walton and he are the authors of The Lost World of the Flood. He is married to Alice and they live in Alexandria, VA. They have three adult sons and four granddaughters. For fun and exercise, he plays squash.

More posts by Tremper Longman

Comments