Hump retrospective 6: worldwide flood

In my “quest” to sort out origins questions, this “old chestnut” problem was really a question of filling in details, rather than finding entirely new solutions, because I was already aware of work by exegetes arguing that Scripture allows for a regional Flood.

Nevertheless I did eventually stumble on some important new truths. But before I get to all that, I must mention that, back in the 80s, I had been briefly impressed by the plausibility of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood, which was a culturally important book in the sense that it set off the whole field of “Creation Science” in the second half of the twentieth century.

But pretty soon, apart from some of the already-refuted (and abandoned) errors it contained, like the Paluxy River giant footprints and the “vapour canopy,” I discovered just how impossible, in planetary terms, was a global flood rising above the highest mountains. It would have necessitated, like the alleged fall of the natural creation, a whole series of major re-creative miracles not even hinted at in Scripture. My subsequent reading of a book that sought to explain continental drift in terms of this global flood, which clearly lacked even an elementary knowledge of physics, finished me with Creation Science for life.

However, various works were around which pointed out how the interpretation of key words in the vocabulary of the Genesis account govern how one reads the whole story. Eretz, for example, can be taken to mean the whole earth, based on its use in the Genesis 1 merism, “the heavens and the earth.” But its basic meaning is “land”, as in “ground,” from which it comes also to mean territorial “land,” as in “land of Nod.” The context determines the meaning.

Similarly, the word translated “mountains,” har, can mean a hill of any size, so that if, for example, Genesis was referring to a flood on the Mesopotamian plain, the minor elevations there would be quite sufficient to warrant the term. Additionally, “fifteen cubits” could refer to the total height of the flood (around 45 feet), which would be sufficient to cover such relatively high ground.

The insistence on a “global flood” is, of course, partly due to the destruction of all mankind (cf 2 Pet. 2:5). But ten generations from Adam, with or without the Genealogical Adam hypothesis, his descendants would have numbered at most a few thousand, and no mention is made of their migration over the earth until after the Flood.

Indeed, when people mentioned a “global” flood, I had often replied that this was in any case anachronistic, because when Genesis was written, nobody in the world had conceived of the earth as a globe. But I came to realise that the anachronism is not only even greater than this, but crucial to understanding what the writer meant.

For it wasn’t only the idea of the earth as sphere that was a later Greek discovery, but the very concept of the world as a circumscribed entity of any shape. As you’ll find in many old Hump pieces if you search, and in both my books, it’s not that the ancients thought of the world as flat rather than round, but that they didn’t bother to think of its shape, as a whole, any more than we have a clear concept of the shape of the universe once we’re disabused of the idea that it’s a hollow ball bounded by the outer shell of stars.

As one writer on assyriology put it (reviewing a book on Babylonian science):

The Babylonians’ understanding of the heavens—including astronomical predictions—did not derive from any physical framework. They employed no classification of the Moon and planets as natural phenomena and conceived no physical laws of nature governing those bodies’ cyclical appearances. Neither had they any concept of a geometrical geocentric cosmos.

I can remember my own cosmological wonder that there might be potential boundaries to the world when first I heard in my bedtime story that there was a place called “Lands End” (so much so that I badgered the family into holidaying there the following year). As to a terrestrial boundary beneath my feet, I can also remember the novelty of being told that I’d emerge in an upside-down Australia if I dug down far enough, which obviously became my quest with every seashore bucket-and-spade excavation thereafter.

That Babylonians, and not just small children, retained such an open-ended and agnostic view of the cosmos emerged when I considered the so-called “Babylonian world map” in a post in 2015. I gather that William Lane Craig has reached some similar conclusions on it since – you read it here first! The key thing is to see how what seems a geographically limited “Babylonian world” was not held in ignorance of a populated world beyond, because at the time of this map’s origins its makers themselves ruled an empire extending far beyond its limits.

This gives us insight into how the ANE traditions parallel to the Noachic narrative, such as the Eridu Genesis, could speak of the total destruction of mankind, even though they were probably first committed to writing within just a few centuries of the events they describe:

By our hand a flood will sweep over
the cities of the half-bushel baskets, and the country;
the decision, that mankind is to be destroyed, has been made.
A verdict, a command of the assembly, can not be revoked,
no order of An and Enlil is known to have been countermanded,
their kingship, their term, has been uprooted…

Even now, the meaning of the word “world” is determined by its context, from “the world of cuneiform specialists,” which consists of a few dozen people, to philosophical “possible worlds” which denote a potentially infinite number of entire universes. Using the Babylonian map as a key to ancient literature shows the kind of now-forgotten contexts in which the word was used by the writer of Genesis, too. In his case, the controlling context was not only ancient cosmological convention, but the focus of his book on “the world of Adam.”

None of this precludes the theological subtleties of the flood event, such as the clear theme of “de-creation” (reversal of Genesis 1). Genesis 1, just like the flood account, was written phenomenologically and, as I have dealt with in a previous post, as a temple-building account, without any reference to anachronistic Greek ideas such as “the entire physical globe.” And so this does not affect its literal truth in describing a real but (in our terms) regional event. Neither does it detract from the use made of it elsewhere in the Bible, such as the passage in 2 Pet. 2, though in all probability Peter himself, influenced by several centuries of hellenistic culture, conceived of the world as an entire “thing,” and possibly even as a sphere, if he’d heard educated folk talk about cosmology.

Putting all these pieces together, the existence of Mesopotamian flood traditions becomes corroborative evidence for the biblical account, rather than an embarrassment. If archaeologist Ken Kitchen is correct in his assertion that the Noah tradition arises in the same chronological time-frame as these other accounts (early 2nd millennium BCE), then they become simply competing traditions of probably historical events. Deciding whether we should accept the Bible’s version is on a par with deciding whether to prefer the canonical gospels over the apocryphal or Islamic versions.

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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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1 Response to Hump retrospective 6: worldwide flood

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Its not Gods word that is wrong about the great flood but mankinds later corrupted memory of it. A point i would make is that there was no mountains in Noahs day. All mountains we have now were created from colliding land masses during the flood year and later events. so the water rising need only be a wee bit. it was a perfect world, even after the fall, and probably was symmetrically beautiful. no ugly mountains about.
    likewise the seas would be even in depth and not much. the flood year led to the great carving out of present ocean basins which also was where the runoff of the flood ended up.

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