Flood geography

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!

103Notice, incidentally, that there are no pillars to support a solid raqia in this world – just one small set of mountains at the source of the Euphrates. How come none of the OT scholars noticed?

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:

103BLooking through Mesopotamian eyes puts a different spin on “all life under heaven,” doesn’t it?

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Flood geography

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I could not help but muse on one aspect of this discussion and felt a comment may be worthwhile – it seems like a mind-set nowadays, in that if we find something from a pagan artifact, than we can talk of a historically authentic matter. If on the other hand, we find something discussed in the Bible, we must seek some type of justification from other sources, and yet pagan sources would provide details of the truth.

    I too feel that anyone living during the time of Noah would believe his immediate location was the world. Every culture and historical text, be it ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, or Rome, portray similar views (eg the Greeks felt sailing past the pillars of Hercules meant their death) on a localised world. It is reasonable to think Adam’s descendants would have arrived a their own view, and this may have similar details.

    I am more interested in the difference the Bible shows, between those who believe God, and those who chose pagan idols and myths. It is extraordinary that the Bible has faithfully preserved stories that deal with important figures and demonstrations of their faith, without succumbing to pagan myths and practices, for thousands of year. This should be celebrated by Orthodox Christians, who may also realise this fact is downright miraculous.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      Yes, there has been an unfortunate and longstanding mindset in academia to the effect that the Bible is the thing for which one needs evidence, rather than being some of the most important evidence itself.

      Therefore the zeitgeist surrounding related texts like Gilgamesh was along the lines that here was clearly the same story, and the Bible writers must have willfully (or stupidly) copied and distorted it so the Bible is “false”. Even believers tended to worry that the uniqueness of Scripture was threatened, and so ignored the other texts or said they were copied from the Bible.

      Going along with that was the nineteenth century rationalism that divided things into “truth” or “fiction” rather than truly seeking to understand ancient wordview and literature. Since Gilgamesh was obviously “fiction” (trips to heaven, global floods and so on), Noah was therefore mere secondary fiction.

      That “hermeneutic of suspicion” means that any Bible event or character is considered fictional or borrowed from others unless there is incontrovertible external proof (ie that some other source mentions it too, which is assumed to have no axe to grind and therefore be “fact”).

      But to a large extent that’s changed, at least in enlightened circles: ANE texts help show the general worldview in which the Bible was written, and so how to read it. The truth of a text must be assumed first, and the nature of its truth assessed by its genre, as with all other texts. But the most valuable result of the comparisons is to show the sharp differentiation between the Bible and other cultures theologically, which reaches down to all levels.

      The analogy would be that comparing CNN and ISIS propaganda (from a 25th century viewpoint, perhaps) would show how “news” was done in the 21st century, which would enable one to get a clearer picture of the ideological differences between them, as per your last paragraph.

      Comparative studies do mean you have to do work on just what’s going on in a story like Noah: not only does it describe what seems to be a well-known historical event, but it does so in a similar literary form to the extant pagan versions. So has a pagan tale been “Yahwised”, have the pagan tales distorted the memory of a minority (as for example Hollywood secularised and popularised an obscure missionary story in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness), or what?

      One thing that would be unlikely, in my view, is that a flood tradition known right across the middle east, whose general character was of a massive but credible and survivable national disaster, would be successfully changed by the Hebrews into something on such a greater scale as to stretch credibility (so even Mount Carmel would have been under 15 cubits of water). Such considerations help to suggest what the writer actually meant – which not surprisingly, if it is basically a true account, dissolves many of the scientific problems too.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        There is a great deal that can be said concerning ancient history and how we have come to some knowledge (and less understanding) regarding those peoples and empires. My view of such matters changed, many years ago, when I became aware of what it took to write down a large amount of text in such times, and how these were preserved and copied. The author and those who came afterwards needed an intimacy that comes from tribal and patriarchal communities, where oral means were highly valued and shared. The text could be faithfully reproduced and its meaning and intent preserved through tradition and story telling. This reached extraordinary heights with the Hebrews, and their tradition maintained a religious commitment to be faithful to belief and text.

        Nowadays such matters seem foreign, and modernity has a disdain for ancient text (especially scripture), mainly because everything has become scientific (I lament to use of science for such nonsense), and with printed words becoming a very cheap method for communication, every person becomes a pseudo-authority and is very keen to tell the world that it is so.

        I understand your point re ISIS and CNN – I however, want to emphasise the notion that religion and sacred text are now used in a deplorable way by extremists – be they secular, atheists or fundamentalists. Frankly I see little differences between any of these groups.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Yes – obviously I was not making any particular comment about the value of different worldviews by mentioning ISIS – just that seeing the similarities of cultural assumptions accentuates the differences.

          Your first para gives me the opportunity to endorse your admiration for the sophistication of Bible writers in an oral culture. I’ve just been re-reading Richard Bauckham on the Revelation of John, and his exposition of the sheer sophistication invoved in putting the text together, quite apart from handling the imagery, the constant Scriptural allusions, the (new) theology and its relevance to readers and so on.

          Bauckham points to the repetition of phrases at particular points to link ideas together (at a different level from the overall structure – reminds one of multi-level DNA control networks!); the fact that significant words more often than not occur in numerologically significant numbers of instances (7, for example), and others. Many such things are also present in the OT Scriptures – to the extent that Bauckham is certain that John was well aware he was writing something of comparable status, not only to be heeded on first receipt, but studied and discussed.

          He considers how a congregation accustomed to oral treaching would spot many of the structural markers first time, others on rehearing, and some so subtly used that only deep study would reveal them. That, of course, would have happened with the OT too, but is so alien to our slapdash approach to writing and reading that we can’t believe the prophets, say, would have been creating in depth theological expositions of the torah rather than just reacting to circumstanbces in a “primitive” way.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            It has been some time since I read through Revelations – at that time I found it so poetic that I decided to “use what I saw” as a structure for a section of my poem.

            I have recently been reading the Gospels with a very useful commentary that examines Greek words and how translators had, at times, to work hard to convey the same/similar meaning into English. The Gospel according to John is simply stupendous at times, especially the way he seems to almost disregard time and place in order to conveyer a deeper meaning to what Christ said and did.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I’m not sure what the authorial links are between Revelation, the Gospel and the Johannine epistles, but they all show a certain very Jewish kind of genius.

    1 John is the only Bible book I translated from start to finish in my elementary Greek language days. It’s easy to translate, but seems to make only intermittent sense until you realise he’s using a kind of gestalt, non-linear logic. You slowly absorb the message in its entirety, rather than following it step by step.

    It creates a different kind of understanding from, say, Paul or the writer to the Hebrews. Same author or not, something of the same seems to happen in the Gospel.

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