My discussion with Unitarian George at BioLogos led to too much to and fro about the old chestnut of the “solid raqia and flat earth” supposedly espoused in Genesis. My “side” (on which I’ve written before here and here, for example) is that Genesis is pretty indifferent to material or scientific descriptions of creation, but is primarily describing the cosmos as God’s temple, and that dictates its whole content.
In delving around the web, though, I find that even the material aspects of what the writer had in mind, especially the raqia (firmament or expanse?) are by no means as settled as is claimed. As always, received wisdom should be checked for its presuppositions, and at least one Assyriologist, for example, has shown that there is no good evidence whatsoever for a flat earth with a hard dome in Mesopotamian cosmology. As in the case of the Bible texts, disparate references from every kind of literature have been gathered by academics who already have the “ANE cosmology” mindset, mainly following Victorian writers who invented it for their own reasons. “Evidence follows theory” – how often do we find that?
But the jury’s still out on all that – I have found at least one scholar dedicating his career to re-examining the primary evidence, and some interesting articles on ANE matters which led me to another topic altogether. For in one e-book I found a survey of “the oldest world map”, a Babylonian tablet of 600BC reproducing a world map of a couple of centuries earlier than that. Here’s the tablet:
And here’s a reconstruction of what it probably looked like originally, only the captions weren’t in English of course!
The remarkable thing is what happens when one matches the named features to a modern map. Distant islands and mythic oceans excepted, the whole Babylonian world was this big:
I don’t want to comment on whether this represents a flat earth, or how geographically inaccurate it is. What impresses me is that it’s the whole world, as far as the Babylonian scribe was concerned. The tablet also contains matching astronomical information, which would make this a map not just of the world, but the universe. So it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that one of the titles of both the kings of Assyria like Ashurbanipal and those of Babylon like Nabonidus was the term “king of the universe”.
Our first instinct is to marvel at what a restricted circle of experience primitive man must have had. But that would be to miss something obvious. In 800BC, the supposed date of the original map, the Neo-Assyrian Empire possessed not only the marked area on the modern map, but one three times as big. This was the time when Assyria was building up to destroy Israel, and to occupy Egypt. Mesopotamia’s empires had been in contact with surrounding civilizations literally for millennia – Abraham had gone to Egypt from there a thousand years earlier, and he wasn’t the only one.
The map clearly chooses to ignore all that as “them out there” – the only world that matters is the heartland of Mesopotamia itself. One can argue that the surrounding ocean (“Bitter River”) was, like the mediaeval world ocean, a cosmological assumption based on the best information that travellers’ tales could bring back. But even if that were so, they must have known well that it didn’t begin just beyond their borders.
We have, then, another example of how the ancient mindset is not so much ignorant, as blessed with a set of priorities alien to ours. Actual topography was not high on their list. In this case, there is clearly some idea that the whole world = Babylon’s world, even though a whole lot more was known to them.
This has a bearing, I think, on the question of Noah’s Flood, and the serious debate amongst Bible-believing Christians about whether it was worldwide or geographical – or mythical because scientifically impossible. Jesus, though, compared his future coming to the Flood. Peter too placed the Flood into real history, talking about it destroying “the world of Noah’s time”. But what was that world?
The Mesopotamian tradition of the great flood is well known. It was regarded as a watershed in their history, like our BC-AD divide. And although myths were told about it, it was never regarded as mythical in itself. King Ashurbanipal spoke mundanely about having pre-flood texts in his library – and how boring they were. There seems every likelihood that the Great Flood in question – the one forming the basis of parallels to the Genesis flood text such as the Gilgamesh Epic, the Eridu Genesis, the Adapa myth and Atrahasis – occurred around 2,900BC (just 500 years older than Archbishop Ussher’s estimate), was centred on the city of Shuruppak, and caused huge destruction.
If we had no other axes to grind, Noah’s Flood would evidently refer to the same real event, being not only literarily and thematically related to all these accounts, but also like the whole of of Genesis 1-11 specifically set in Mesopotamia, and datable to the same broad timeframe by its genealogies and its cultural markers.
For those who believe Genesis reports some real event, the problem has been to account for a flood that not only destroys all men, but “all life under the heavens” (Gen 6.17), given both the lack of evidence for recent worldwide flooding (including the failure of Morris and Whitcomb’s flood geology), and its physical impossibility. Now as many commentators have shown, a local flood would fit the text with few problems, if one does not assume it’s describing a global flood (after all, whatever else ANE cosmology believed, it almost certainly wasn’t a terrestrial globe).
The word translated “earth” is also the word for “land”, and that for “mountains” is a very flexible word for topological elevations of any size. Waters rising 15 cubits above the Euphrates floodplain is catastrophic, but does not require a series of miraculous events to import millions of cubic miles of water from space, protect the earth from the seismic effects of its vast mass and drain it into space or dematerialise it again.
Assuming the Noah story arose in ancient Mesopotamia (I prefer the probability of its being a patriarchal narrative to a stitched-up reworking of Gilgamesh from the Babylonian exile), then the world it describes is bound to be similar to that on the world map tablet, and even more so as Noah would have lived 2 millennia earlier, before Mesopotamians entered the era of foreign empire-building. The word for “land” and the word for “world” would then be synonyms because the area designated is the same. Here’s another interpretation of the tablet, with the astronomical information included:
One might argue that whatever the ancient author thought about the limited extent of the world, the divine author knew the reality and would have meant us to envisage a global flood. That’s demonstrably untrue from a New Testament example, when Luke describes how Augustus issued a decree that the whole world should be enrolled. Luke, of course, means “the whole Roman Empire”, but he was by no means unaware of a big, unenrolled, non-Roman world beyond.
As always, Scripture was written within a culture, whose lingusitic conventions must be understood in interpreting the text. The Noah Flood matches the details of an historic, regional, flood well-known in Mesopotamia, its frame of reference for “the world” and “under heaven” matches the Babylonian frame of reference, and for the most part the text can be read “historically” in relation to such an event.
The problem left over is the theological one. The Mesopotamian flood tales include the gods’ destruction of man to reduce their noise (though “noise” might actually have a moral connotation – cf Gen 18.20 – “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great”), but it is not seen as the total purge on human corruption that appears not only in Genesis, but in the Scriptural comment upon it.
The more “liberal” approach is to say that the Hebrews purloined the story and bigged it up to make a paradigmatic tale of God’s total rejection of evil. The problem with that is that, like so many of Scripture’s big themes, removing their historical basis makes all warnings and promises empty. Peter criticises those who think God will leave the world alone, saying they forget the Flood. If the “liberals” are right it’s Peter who looks the fool, and the careless sinners wise. Likewise exiled Israel pinned its hopes on God bringing about a new Exodus – but it would hope in vain if the first Exodus was a fiction.
But I hope I’ve shown that a credible historical setting for the Flood, as decribed in Genesis, is possible. The question is, how does such a Flood bear the theological load placed on it? I suggest that unravelling that is not a hopeless task by any means, if the presupposition that Adam was the first biological human is not assumed from the start, but the text approached as what Gordon Wenham calls “proto-history”, meaning roughly “historical truth told mythically“.
Adam is the archetypal man – hence his name – and is portrayed both as the first man to be in covenant relationship to God, and the first to sin and so stall God’s purposes for the world. But he’s also portrayed, in the setting of Israel’s foundation documents, as the first in an historical dynasty of priestly mediators between God and man: Adam, Noah, Abraham and the Patriarchs, Moses, Israel the nation, and later David the king and, finally Jesus the Messiah – the new Adam who completes Israel’s role and brings salvation to what, by then, was a much bigger world.
Adam, like Noah, fits comfortably into an ancient but identifiable cultural setting, and as many have pointed out, features of his story actually presuppose other humans being on the scene, even though they’re not mentioned. The garden is in the land of Eden (a geopolitical entity) and his son Cain is exiled to another such land, Nod, and builds a city, Enoch, a very particular large settlement type invented in Mesopotamia (Eridu being, probably, the first). The origin of his wife is a perennial discussion point, of course – but so also ought to be the specialisation of Adam’s two sons as farmer and herdsman – a nuclear family would scarcely require more than a couple of sheep and a back yard plot.
If Adam’s world, and Adam’s line, was seen by God as the one that matters to early salvation history, rather than the globe, then by Noah’s generation, the tenth from Adam according to the genealogy, that world would still be significantly smaller, if anything, than the world of Babylon in the eighth century, and occupied by a few thousand “Adamites” within a larger population.
What would matter for a “worldwide flood” would be one that would destroy Adam’s corrupt line apart from the “faithful remnant” in the ark. It would be analogous to the way the devastating exile of Israel/Judah would later purge God’s “nation and priesthood”, but in so doing jeopardise the whole salvation plan of the world, had it not been for the remnant that God preserved.
The overarching history of the Bible is then consistent: how can true man – defined as humanity in covenant fellowship with the Lord – come to govern the world as he was created to do? Through a kingly and priestly mediator, a proto-Israel, Adam (“The Man Himself”), the failure of whom, and the failure of whose descendants, leads after many a dark episode to the king and priest who comes down from God himself, so that “Yahweh’s own hand will work salvation for him” – and yet still through that first priestly line that God called, back in Mesopotamia. God’s original plan is vindicated, despite all that Satan and Sin can do.
I think that’s neat, and though it calls for adjustment of some post-biblical assumptions, begins to make sense of the evidence in Scripture and outside.