The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate
by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton
Part 3- Proposition 9
We are blogging through the book: The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton. Today we will look at Part 3 Text: Understanding the Biblical Text Literarily and Theologically, Proposition 9- A Local Cataclysmic Flood is Intentionally Described as a Global Flood for Rhetorical Purposes and Theological Reasons.
Walton and Longman say the previous propositions have reached the following conclusions:
- The genre of Genesis is theological history. All history is selective and interpreted according to the intention of the author. The focus of the author(s) of Genesis is theological in that he is interested in describing God and his relationship with his human creatures.
- Genesis 1-11, and specifically Genesis 6-9, is theological history and is in continuity with Genesis 12-50. However, these early chapters concern the deep past with a focus on the whole world and a long period of time, rather than a single family. They are more metanarrative than straight forward historical narrative.
- The biblical account describes the flood rhetorically as a worldwide deluge. Attempts to interpret the account as if it were describing only a local flood fail to persuade on close analysis.
- We accept the overwhelming scientific evidence there was no actual planet-wide flood event. To acknowledge that reality is not to “cave into godless science”, but to exhibit proper exegesis.
- The description of the flood is hyperbolic in order to make a point about the pervasive disorder that was the reason for the flood.
- Similarities with other Mesopotamian flood stories are the result of Israel being in the same cultural “river” or milieu as the surrounding people groups.
They say they are now ready to unfold the theological purposes that led to the rhetorical shaping of the narrative. In the next propositions they will present the case for two different (though not mutually exclusive) literary-theological readings of Genesis 1-11. The first is the traditional interpretation that the flood is an act of judgment by God in response to the moral degradation that humanity at that point had reached. That view can be supported from the immediate text, but also stands as the earliest known interpretation from the 2nd Temple Period, and also the interpretation given by the New Testament.
The second is the suggestion that Genesis 1-11 is interested in tracking the issue of non-order, order, and disorder. This theological reading focuses more on how God is reestablishing order in the world as he uses non-order (the cosmic waters) to obliterate disorder (evil and violence). This view focuses attention on God’s continuing plan to establish order (present and future oriented) beyond the act of judging sin (past oriented), though both are legitimate perspectives. Walton and Longman say:
Neither view rules out the other, and we have no need to choose one or the other. The important point we are making is that the literary-theological interpretation of the passage (whichever way we go) takes precedence over the compulsion many feel to reconstruct the event itself. We contend, instead, the interpretation of the event by the biblical author takes pride of place and demands our intention as interpreters… When we interpret events like the flood, we should treat the event as we do a character. What the narrator does with the flood is more important than what the flood does, and what God does through the flood is most important of all.
Walton and Longman are saying, by treating the event of the flood like a character, there is no way to get behind the literary curtain to ascertain the character as they “really were”. There is no Myers-Briggs or Enneagram personality profiling possible. Likewise, we cannot get behind the literary curtain to reconstruct the scientific reality of the flood. Furthermore, the New Testament has that same literary curtain to work with. The New Testament writers had no independent access to the event. Their inspiration does not grant them insider information, only authoritative interpretation of the meaning of the flood and its application. And if New Testament authors repurpose an Old Testament account, we don’t have to pit such interpretation against the other—we can accept them both as legitimate interpretations of the same event. The New Testament adopts the flood story as an illustration of God’s judgement of sin, and anticipates the greatest judgment of all—the one coming at the end of history.
Of course, it is typical of those who advocate a literalistic reading of Genesis 6-9 and insist on a historical global flood, to say the New Testament authors and Jesus himself believed the flood was historical and global, and if they believed the global flood was historical, who are we to say different, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence. Walton and Longman say:
But this argument is faulty. The New Testament authors (and Jesus himself) are referring to the story in Genesis 6-9, which we have readily admitted, describes the flood in worldwide terms. We argue that the New Testament authors (and Jesus himself) were sophisticated enough to understand that (even if some modern readers are not).
I have two things to say about the arguments made in this proposition. The first is that I find their arguments persuasive and reasonable because I am already persuaded by the geological arguments. Their arguments prevent me from having to cast a dichotomy between “God’s infallible word” and “man’s fallible and fallen word”. I am able to maintain my faith that God has spoken to us through scripture without subsequently denying manifest reality.
However, if I were in a situation where my geological knowledge was limited and all my friends, family, church, pastor, etc. were committed YECs, and I had been imbibing a steady diet of AIG and other YEC literature, then I can totally sympathize with the resistance to what essentially would be a world-shattering paradigm change. Such a change is undertaken not just at an intellectual level, but an emotional and even spiritual level as well. One would do well to read and ponder the Glenn Morton story .
Secondly, frequent commenter Stephen made his usual cogent notation last week:
Having thoroughly imbibed historical critical scholarship I just think it’s a mistake to try to link these common ANE myths back to some prehistoric event. This is sophisticated literature here. I think making this a historical issue diminishes what was a truly remarkable accomplishment. The sophisticated thinkers and composers of Genesis took common ANE mythological repertoire and shaped it, in many ways demythologizing it, and created a cosmic account revealing their view of humanity’s place in creation. The Flood is not some exaggerated account of some dimly remembered historical event but an act of the imagination, an account of the uncreating of the cosmos. Astonishing, meaningful literature. Literature, not history.
He makes a very good point, and I am not sure Walton and Longman would really put up a strong disagreement. Given both their employment situations, they may believe that a quasi-historical event is required to be stated by them. I know Walton caught hell for his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve and even the suggestion that Adam and Eve weren’t in some way historical. Let’s be clear I’m not accusing either Walton or Longman of intellectual dishonesty or kowtowing to gatekeepers. I’m deeply sympathetic to the romantic notion of a dimly remembered event passed down around the campfire from the dawn of civilization. Maybe like Alice C. Linsley says: an ancient ruler who was renowned for his shipbuilding capabilities gets a notion a big flood is coming and has his servants build the biggest ship they’ve ever built, load up his royal menagerie, and join him on the ship or sail with him in a fleet. They survive and pass the story down through the ages until it becomes legend. A Hebrew author repurposes the story for his own rhetorical and theological purposes. Why not? It’s such a good story, if it didn’t happen, it should have.