How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?

  
Via:  TᵢG  •  2 months ago  •  23 comments

By:   Jim Stump (BioLogos)

How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?
The scientific and historical evidence is now clear: there has never been a global flood that covered the entire earth, nor do all modern animals and humans descend from the passengers of a single vessel.

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BioLogos is a Christian group of scientists whose purpose is to help other Christians achieve a modern understanding of reality with science and to use this knowledge to more accurately interpret the Bible.


S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



The story of Noah, the ark, and the Flood in Genesis 6-9 is one of the most famous and controversial passages in the entire Bible. The story, centered around a global cataclysm and a floating wooden zoo, has captured the imagination of people for millennia. Until modern times, most Christians assumed the story referred to an actual worldwide event that happened in the relatively recent past, and this interpretation of the Flood continues to be a central feature of Young Earth Creationism. However, the discoveries of modern science, as well as an explosion of new knowledge about the ancient world of the Bible, have decisively challenged whether this interpretation is the best reading of the text. This includes the work of many Christian scholars and scientists who were (and continue to be) guided by a belief that all truth is God's truth, that Scripture is inspired, and that the testimony of God's creation should not be ignored. The scientific and historical evidence is now clear: there has never been a global flood that covered the entire earth, nor do all modern animals and humans descend from the passengers of a single vessel.

Relating science and Scripture


When discoveries in God's world conflict with interpretations of God's Word, Christians have three options:

  1. Abandon our faith in order to accept the results of science,
  2. Deny the scientific evidence to maintain our interpretations of Scripture,
  3. Reconsider our interpretations of Scripture in light of the evidence from God's creation

Christians, by definition, reject Option 1. Option 2 has a terrible historical track record, and many prominent historical theologians have urged Christians not to ignore or dismiss the findings of science. Option 3 represents the best tradition among Christians, and history provides many examples of our knowledge of the natural world helping to correct faulty interpretations of Scripture. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo (that the Earth is not the center of the universe), for instance, changed the Church's perspective on whether the Bible intends to teach us about Earth's place in the solar system.

Because we take God to be the author of the "book of nature" as well as the divine author of the book of Scripture, we believe the proper interpretation of the Flood story will not be in conflict with what we have discovered in the natural world.

The Bible in ancient context


The Bible is a record of encounters between Almighty God and ordinary humans that lived thousands of years ago. As biblical scholar John Walton puts it, the Bible was written for us all, but it was not written to us. Thus, for us to understand what Genesis means, we first need to understand what it meant to those who wrote and received it.

It was common practice in the ancient world to use an event (or memory of an event) and retell it in a figurative way to communicate a message to the hearers. There is good scriptural and historical evidence that the Flood story is an interpretation of an actual historical event retold in the rhetoric and theology of ancient Israel. The Genesis account is one of many stories of catastrophic floods in the ancient world, including the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, which bears striking similarities to the story of the Flood.

This doesn't mean that Genesis 6-9 is borrowed from the stories of other cultures, but that it is based on a common cultural memory of a watery cataclysm.

noahs-ark-genesis.jpg

The exact nature or date of this historical flood is not important to the meaning of the Genesis account, however, because the purpose of the biblical story is not to give a list of facts about that flood, but to communicate a message about God and humanity to the original hearers (and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to all God's people throughout history)

Interpreting the Flood story


The Genesis Flood story contains many literary clues that its writers (and original audience) were not intended to narrate an actual series of events. The story employs the literary device known as "hyperbole" throughout, describing a massive ark which holds representatives of "every living creature on Earth", and a flood which flows over the tops of the highest mountains in the world. These are not meant to challenge readers to figure out the practicality of such descriptions, but rather they are important clues that we are dealing with a theological story rather than ancient journalism.

There are other clues that the writers are not intending to relate a literal series of events. One is the command given to Noah to treat "clean" animals differently than "unclean" animals, even though those categories were not given to the Hebrew people until the time of Moses, much later in the biblical story. Another clue about how to interpret the Flood story comes from its place in the book of Genesis and specifically in the "primeval narratives" of Genesis 1-11.

Biblical scholars almost universally see these chapters as having a different purpose than the rest of the book of Genesis. The primeval narratives cover a huge swath of cosmic history and are highly figurative in their language. They serve as the grand and poetic "introduction" to the story of God's people which commences with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. While they speak of real events (such as the creation of the universe and the special calling of humankind), they do so in rhetorical and theological ways that have more to do with the purposes of the story than a plain narration of facts. This is completely typical of how ancient people (including the Israelites) wrote historical accounts, especially concerning "primeval" events near the beginning of history.

Ancient cosmology in the Flood story


Not only do we need to read the Flood story through the lens of ancient literature, but also ancient cosmology. Because the ancient Israelites (like all people in the ancient Near East) lacked telescopes, satellites, and other modern scientific equipment, they pictured the universe as it appeared to everyday observation. Ancient Near Eastern people thought that rain comes from an ocean above the sky (which explains why the sky is blue), and that this ocean wraps all the way around the earth (which explains why deep wells always hit water). They also thought of the "whole Earth" as simply the edges of their current maps, which mostly consisted of today's Middle East.

The Flood narrative relies on this same ancient understanding of the world. As the "firmament" (a solid dome in the sky which holds the cosmic ocean in place) collapses and the "fountains of the deep" explode upward, the Earth experiences a cataclysmic return to the watery chaos described in Genesis 1:2. To deal with the chaos of sin, God returns the Earth to chaos, and then restores order with a "restart" and renewal of creation.

Cosmas_-_firmament.jpg

Modern people read the Flood story with a completely different perspective on the shape of the Earth and universe. Those who say the story portrays a "global" flood, for instance, are imposing that term upon the text, because the original audience had no idea that the Earth was a globe. Similarly, any speculation about the water sources or ark buoyancy or geologic effects or post-Flood animal migrations or similar questions is missing the point of the story.

The meaning of the Flood


To some, the view outlined here of the Flood account denies the divine inspiration of the text and instead makes the story entirely a human invention. But it's important to remember that God chose to communicate his message through ordinary people, accommodating himself to their limited knowledge in order to draw themselves to him. God did not give the ancient Israelites scientific data, nor did he give the Israelites new genres of literature.

The story of Noah, the Ark, and Flood speaks an inspired and powerful message about judgment and grace, that has instructed God's people throughout the ages about God's hatred of sin and his love for his creation. Most importantly, we see God's promise never to destroy the Earth again fully realized in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where God takes the judgment for sin upon himself rather than humanity. Thus, through the lens of Christ, the biblical Flood story proclaims the marvelous news of God's grace and love for his people.

Last updated on: February 10, 2021


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TᵢG
Professor Principal
1  seeder  TᵢG    2 months ago

This is a rebuttal to the seed proclaiming that Noah's flood is a true story.    As editorialized by the seeder of that garbage:

The flood was a real global event as it was described. It was an earth changing event from the near perfect world of creation to the present less stable version it is now. All the earth quake and volcanic activity, the axis it’s on now and the polar ice as well as all the mixed up fossil layers are due to this event.  It was real and did happen, despite the naysaying of the atheists among us. 

The above is utter nonsense.  

This rebuttal seed is an article by BioLogos.   It is one of many articles from BioLogos which explains reality based on modern knowledge.   BioLogos is not a bunch of atheists but rather a group of Christians.   One of its founders, Dr. Francis Collins, is a distinguished scientist (and a devout Christian) who was the head of the Human Genome Project who successfully sequenced the human genome in 2003.   One of the most profound accomplishments in biology.

 
 
 
Tacos!
PhD Expert
1.1  Tacos!  replied to  TᵢG @1    2 months ago
All the earth quake and volcanic activity, the axis it’s on now and the polar ice as well as all the mixed up fossil layers are due to this event.

This is 100% invented by modern idiots, errr, people. Even if a person took all of scripture literally, there is zero support for this fantasy in scripture. 

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
1.1.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Tacos! @1.1    2 months ago

Notably Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization which spends all of its time peddling the truth of a literal interpretation of the English Standard Version and attempts to discredit all scientific findings that counter this literal interpretation.  

 
 
 
Tacos!
PhD Expert
1.1.2  Tacos!  replied to  TᵢG @1.1.1    2 months ago

They engage in a blatant hypocrisy. They insist that everything we need to know is in scripture, but then these guys just invent complicated theories about the creation of the planet or dinosaurs that have no basis whatsoever in scripture.

Then they move from that hypocrisy to the colossal hubris of insisting that the weavings of their imagination are somehow divine truth. They're insane. They have to be.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
1.1.3  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Tacos! @1.1.2    2 months ago

They have some very smart people writing counter-scientific articles in their areas of expertise.   These seem to be intelligent, knowledgeable, well-educated people who seem to be quite sane but whose religious beliefs override their critical thinking and base of real-world knowledge.

For example, consider Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson .   He actively writes articles and books trying to find ways to spin biology to support a literal read of the Bible.   I have watched his debates.   He seems quite knowledgeable in his field but he cherry-picks (omits facts that do not match his beliefs).   When countered, he quickly resorts to tactics (playing the victim, deflection, answering a question other than that asked, etc.).  

Here is one debate that I have watched which contributed to my above opinion.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
2  seeder  TᵢG    2 months ago
  1. Abandon our faith in order to accept the results of science,
  2. Deny the scientific evidence to maintain our interpretations of Scripture,
  3. Reconsider our interpretations of Scripture in light of the evidence from God's creation
Christians, by definition, reject Option 1. Option 2 has a terrible historical track record, and many prominent historical theologians have urged Christians not to ignore or dismiss the findings of science. Option 3 represents the best tradition among Christians, and history provides many examples of our knowledge of the natural world helping to correct faulty interpretations of Scripture. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo (that the Earth is not the center of the universe), for instance, changed the Church's perspective on whether the Bible intends to teach us about Earth's place in the solar system.

Denying modern knowledge, especially when it is highly corroborated, is beyond stupid.   It is burying one's head in the sand rather than bravely facing reality and dealing with it.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3  sandy-2021492    2 months ago

We should interpret it, at most, as a retelling of earlier myths (The Epic of Gilgamesh) or as an attempt by ancient men to explain locally-observed occurrences.  At worst, it is an attempt to coerce obedience by eliciting fear - "do what we tell you God wants you to do, or you'll be sorry!"

 
 
 
Perrie Halpern R.A.
Professor Principal
4  Perrie Halpern R.A.    2 months ago

There is no doubt that there was a flood at the end of the last ice age and there are many cultures that reference a flood story all from around the same period. Making it a godly event with meaning is nothing more than a tale. 

 
 
 
Nerm_L
Junior Principal
5  Nerm_L    2 months ago

The story of the flood should not be interpreted literally.  The story isn't a telling of natural history; it's a story with theological meaning wrapped around some event of sufficient magnitude to live in oral history. 

(For the science groupies, the Earth was actually covered in water that threatened to extinguish humans and much of life on the planet.  We know that as an ice age.  And the ice did cover the land, including mountains.  Humans (including all human species) really did experience the last ice age.  Only one human species exists today, all the other human species were wiped off the planet.  And events of that magnitude could well have been passed on as oral history.)

Some of the important theological points in the flood story:

1.  Humans brought the flood upon themselves through their own behavior.

2.  Noah had to build the ark; God didn't do it for Noah.

3.  Noah saved life on the planet; God didn't do that either.

An interesting aspect of the flood story is God's remorse which is a lesson in parenting or a lesson in leadership.  Acting in anger brings regrets.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
5.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Nerm_L @5    2 months ago
The story of the flood should not be interpreted literally. 

Indeed

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
6  Kathleen    2 months ago

All over the world people will interpret the flood in different ways. 

Some would rather get rid of religion all together and base it all on science. 

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
6.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Kathleen @6    2 months ago

I think we should base all of our beliefs on reality which is best understand through evidence and rational thought.

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
6.1.1  Kathleen  replied to  TᵢG @6.1    2 months ago

That is what I do for myself. 

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
6.2  sandy-2021492  replied to  Kathleen @6    2 months ago
All over the world people will interpret the flood in different ways. 

Of course.  But how should we interpret the tale?

As literal truth?  According to which religion?

Do we ignore the fact that there's not enough water (among other facts) for it to be literal truth?  Is that wise?

 
 
 
Split Personality
PhD Principal
6.2.1  Split Personality  replied to  sandy-2021492 @6.2    2 months ago
Do we ignore the fact that there's not enough water (among other facts) for it to be literal truth?

Don't you know it's at the center of the earth where the remaining dinosaurs live, lol.

/s

I've seen the movies that prove it, jrSmiley_18_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
6.2.2  Kathleen  replied to  sandy-2021492 @6.2    2 months ago

I myself would go with science and whatever evidence they find why it all happened. 

I never liked telling people what they should think, I will only tell you what I think about it. 

It does not bother me if others think differently. 

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
6.2.3  sandy-2021492  replied to  Kathleen @6.2.2    2 months ago
why it all happened

We cannot assume that it happened at all.  At least, not as told in the Bible.

 
 
 
Tacos!
PhD Expert
7  Tacos!    2 months ago

I obviously can't speak for them all, but it's my understanding that for most - if not all - serious Hebrew scholars, the Genesis creation story, flood, and other similar tales (i.e. the first 11 chapters of Genesis) are not meant to be treated as some kind of literal history. Most of the claims for a literal interpretation tend to come from fundamentalist Christians, for whom Hebrew scripture and the study of it is far outside their general experience or genuine understanding.

To be fair, much of scripture is explicitly intended as history, or at least serves as being generally historical. The book of Luke is a good example of this. The letters of Paul have good historical value. There is probably some history to be found in the many genealogies, or lists of kings, and battles in the Hebrew Bible, but I'm no archaeologist and I wouldn't want to make any sweeping claims for the entirety of any particular book.

If you're looking for a literal journal of actual events as they happened, I don't think Genesis was ever even intended for that.

Many modern Christians have a poor understanding of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) and they insist all scripture is God-breathed and 100% literal. I believe their unwillingness to consider any alternative is rooted in an insecurity of their own faith. i.e., if the Bible is perfect, then their faith is perfect.

Ironically, they have chosen to protect that faith on very fragile ground. I think it's a lot more relaxing, realistic, and flexible to look at scriptures as very often being poetic, metaphorical human composition meant to deliver a message. It's easy enough to see this in Psalms, for example. Why people can't also see it in Genesis just baffles me.

The Bible is an anthology of many writings from a variety of genres. Only a fool looks that way for a precise history of the world, or for that matter, a lesson in physics, biology, psychology, etc.

 
 
 
MonsterMash
Sophomore Participates
8  MonsterMash    2 months ago

I think the flood described in Genesis refers to the region Noah and the inhabitants or that part of the world thought was the entire Earth. The Ark didn't have to be large enough to accommodate two of every creature on Earth, only those that inhabited the region Noah was familiar with.    

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
8.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  MonsterMash @8    2 months ago

Likely the flood story was inspired by a local flood.   Or a story of a local flood that predated the Bible and was passed by oral tradition.

 
 
 
Tacos!
PhD Expert
8.2  Tacos!  replied to  MonsterMash @8    2 months ago

I have seen scholarship that claims that when scripture refers to the flood being over "all the Earth" or words to that effect, it is consistent with usage in other parts of scripture that clearly only refer to the local region. It was apparently not understood at the time to refer to the entirety of the giant globe of planet Earth. I suspect this is one of many examples of modern people looking at ancient scripture through the lens of modern experience and basically getting things very wrong.

 
 
 
JBB
PhD Principal
8.2.1  JBB  replied to  Tacos! @8.2    2 months ago

Most likely many ancient stories of cataclysmic floods in the middle east describe the ancient collapses of natural land bridges that dammed ancient seas. The ancient equivalent of the Jonestown Flood. Tsunamis also...

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
9  Kathleen    2 months ago

It’s amazing how far we have came from long ago. Seeing flooding in their area, and they thought it was all over. Now we have learned so much more since then. 

 
 
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