The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 3- Propositions 9

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The description of the flood is hyperbolic in order to make a point about the pervasive disorder that was the reason for the flood.
  6. 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.

Glenn Morton

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.

25 thoughts on “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 3- Propositions 9

  1. Enjoyed what you wrote. Enoch is a weird book. The discussion of head coverings for the ladies in 1st Cor 11 could possibly be explained by the “Sons of God” with human women backstory. Somewhere I read an interpretation that the head covering was for the purpose of keeping the Sons of God from looking down on them and getting excited.


  2. ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’

    Wow, Mike-The-Geologist, you must have heard that ‘that blog’s administrator got in trouble and ‘resigned’ . . . . . i don’t think he as a bad person at all, but lately that blog had a group of very negative folk and I fear they influenced something he shared that maligned some other people.

    He apologized and seems repentance. But those people are still on ‘his’ blog and they are extremely negative in how they comment to those they don’t agree with . . . . very harsh and uncivil.

    Did they influence him? I hope not. I don’t think at heart he really is like them, and I think among them some may be ‘unwell’ (?) No way of knowing other than their writing seems so dark. . . . . Of course they are only a handful of commentators . . . there are some lovely people on that blog, yes.

    Thanks for your compliment. I loved Michael Spencer and I am so grateful that Chaplain Mike has kept this blog going in his honor. Thanks for your contributions to Imonk 🙂


  3. We don’t need to look through the OT to find evidence of multiple massacres in the name of God: look at the Crusades, the religious wars in Europe, westerners “civilising the savages”, you name it.
    It is impossible to conceive that (whatever the details, and whatever the undoubted hyperbole) the ancient kingdom of Israel was not created and sustained in massacre and blood. Every kingdom of the time was and if Israel were any different it would have been remarkable and remarked on and remembered and recorded in their history as being unique. Given Israel’s theology and theocratic nature, of course each act of ethnic cleansing would be justified in YHWH’s name, just as every other nation dedicated murder to their particular patron deity. The issue is what the Bible says reading about Israel’s undoubedtly real bloody history is supposed to tell us about God.
    I have been thinking about this a lot recently, and my thoughts don’t fit into a comment box, but one thing I have been meditating upon is I think we can completely miss the key point of these stories, which is that they were written after the kingdom had been lost. Those who had lived by the sword had died by it, and the whole OT is all about the question “Where did it all go wrong?”


  4. For an Orthodox treatment of the Flood, see Fr Ted Bobosh’s blog:

    At the end of that post is a link to a very good series of posts he did, “God Questions His Creation”. I saved the series on my computer.

    Fr Ted writes a very good “daily meditation” sort of blog. He has had some health issues and his posts now are shorter than those of the Noah series. He’s one of my daily reads – also has a great photographic eye.



  5. But, eventually, the negative folk were not comfortable and complained. ? I don’t think they could handle the contrasting offerings which I was told were ‘off topic’ . . .

    Let me guess…
    The only things “on-topic” were SCRIPTURE, Witnessing, and Culture War Without End?

    All else was Forbidden, and what was not Forbidden was Absolutely Compulsory?


  6. When my children were in elementary school, every week I went to each of their classes and did music appreciation for 30 minutes. For a few years, until a band program finally got started, that was the only music education they had. My favorite thing to do was put on some program music that had very obvious transitions and contained at least some ideas with which they would be familiar, (Peter and the Wolf, Carnival of the Animals, The Moldau), and pass out paper and let them draw while the music was playing. We all had fun!

    A couple of years ago, one young woman my son’s age saw me downtown and said to the friend accompanying her, “That’s Mrs. Ames! She taught me how to sing!” Worth every minute.



  7. Happy to be part of the conversation.

    There is another interpretation of the Flood story. The problem is that to our modern ears it seems weird and bizarre. But it partakes of the ANE milieu in a way that the others don’t because they tend to be sophisticated. If that makes any sense.

    Behind the Flood story and much of the Hebrew Bible and then by extension even the New Testament hovers the story of the Giants engendered by the forbidden congress between the “Sons of God” and human women. This myth culminated in the more or less familiar story of the Fallen Angels. It’s clear the writers of the NT had the apocalyptic Book of Enoch as a reference. The B of E is a midrash on the Flood myth and was enormously influential although being denied the status of scripture. The point was that life on the earth was destroyed not simply because of sin and evil but because of a grotesque boundary violation where the categories fixed by the Divine Council of the Elohim, and subsequently Yahweh, were disrupted. The earth was purged of the misshapen progeny of the gods. See Genesis 6:1-4.

    If anybody is interested in this stuff let me recommend –

    The Myth of Rebellious Angels: Studies in Second Temple Judaism and New Testament Texts by Loren T Stuckenbruck.

    This is not New Age woo but a heavy hitting (and heavy going) scholarship by a expert in the field.

    A bit more user friendly (and a bit less pricey) is

    The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions by Angela Kim Harkins

    If a anyone is interested in the rest of the ANE flood tradition see Prof Irving Finkel’s wonderful The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood.

    I would start with the Finkel. His book is very readable and he has a wonderful sense of humor. But this is not Dan Brown crap. Finkel is the head Reader of Cuneiform at the British museum.


  8. Christiane- you are a treasure, I’m so glad you frequent this blog. As for the Southern Baptist blog– mene mene tekel upharsin… y’all


  9. Rick, when I taught I brought in music, art, videos, puppets, costumes, poems, etc., etc., as nurturing to the presentation because there is some research out there that creativity CAN be stimulated by appealing to aesthetics,
    ESPECIALLY when you are working with young people. So for example, I would teach the structure of a poem format (yes, I taught them the structure of a Haiku poem also), and THEN as they tried it out, I would put on some music and set up some nature posters on the chalk board. . . . . . for ‘inspiration’ 🙂

    I recently went over to a Southern Baptist blog that was pretty ‘dark’ in how some of the comments were abusive to other commentators (very abusive) and I tried to ‘brighten’ the tone up a bit. I got banned. It took a while, so I was able to get in some music, some poetry, some photographic art, and even some thoughtful comments that didn’t get slammed immediately (one on a post about transgender folks). But, eventually, the negative folk were not comfortable and complained. 🙂 I don’t think they could handle the contrasting offerings which I was told were ‘off topic’ . . . guilty, but well-meaning, as the darkness was very heavy there indeed. So it goes.

    Yes, ‘aesthetics’ CAN be a positive in the classroom as inspiration to creativity . . . and music played during a poetry writing class brings some lovely work out of the children 🙂 (and these were kids from the inner-city projects that I was caring for and they could be VERY creative! )


  10. Agreed as well. As long as we see these stories as mythical and allegorical, they are most useful in providing insights into larger theological and cosmological realms. However, at some point in the OT panorama, we are also confronted with the associated violence and smiting. Can we allow this aspect of the story to simply remain an allegorical myth? Or are we talking about real people? With real suffering and real death? All sanctioned by God? This proves much more problematic.


  11. LOL. Well, I know THAT of course, but to put the cart before the horse was an interesting spin on the story (i.e. asking why the rainbow exists, then coming up with the story)


  12. Hi Rick Ro.

    that ‘rainbow’ thing isn’t original to me, it really CAN be found in the OT Scriptures:

    “The Covenant of the Rainbow
    …12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14″It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud”
    (Genesis, chapter 9)


  13. A woman came to my local library to talk about fiction writing. She said that something happens in kids as they move through elementary school that by the time they reach middle school they have no creativity left in them. She thinks that’s a crime (and I agree with her). Somehow we need to keep nourishing creativity as kids mature.


  14. I got a LOT of good writing from children by giving them choices in prompts to write about . . . . ‘origin’ stories are among the best for that age group 🙂

    we teachers had a motto about getting good writing out of children:
    “Magic occurs if allowed”

    for some students, all you had to do was point them in the right direction and say ‘give it a try’ and they were off and running . . . . . . yes we did the whole revision/editing thing later as a ‘process’, but the initial creative writing was ENCOURAGED . . . . . too many teachers approach writing as a ‘subject’ rather than a creative adventure, and that intimidates children’s first efforts at that first draft . . . . but encourage them, and then tell them to take out their yellow highlighters and highlight their golden lines, and wow . . . (gosh, I miss that more than I realized) 🙂


  15. I think you’re exactly right, Iain. What matters is not whether the text refers to a historical rather than completely legendary event, but how the relation of that event or legend reflects on the character of God. That’s the theological importance of this subject, and many others, starting with the Garden and the Fall.


  16. –> “When I taught sixth grade reading and writing, the children wrote ‘origin stories’ (myths) about things in nature. I got some really great stuff from them. ”

    What a cool exercise for kids!!! And I’m always looking for writing prompts for myself, too; I might use this one!

    –> “Maybe, looking at the rainbow and wondering about it, some ancient Hebrews thought about ‘how did rainbows come about?’ and voila: the Ark ends up safe on dry land and a rainbow comes to show God’s promise never to destroy the Earth again by a flood . . . ”

    I like that!


  17. When I taught sixth grade reading and writing, the children wrote ‘origin stories’ (myths) about things in nature. I got some really great stuff from them.

    Maybe, looking at the rainbow and wondering about it, some ancient Hebrews thought about ‘how did rainbows come about?’ and voila: the Ark ends up safe on dry land and a rainbow comes to show God’s promise never to destroy the Earth again by a flood . . .

    Ancient peoples were curious about phenomena in nature and bringing together stories orally handed down, and adding their own bits to the mix, some fairly good stuff shows up in native American stories, in Icelandic sagas, and in the classic Greek and Roman mythology . . . .

    How much of the OT IS a product of ‘wonder’ and ‘curiosity’ and how much of it is also a mixture of wisdom and longing? And how much of it has the power to touch our souls because it resonates in us from a place beyond the boundaries of this natural Earth? 🙂


  18. If the flood had not been included, would other cultures have looked at their history and wondered why it was missing or unaccounted for? If the narrative was so pervasive throughout the ANE.


  19. I would say whether or not the author(s) of the Genesis stories considered that the flood was a historical event is important for the theological understanding of it. If the author is keen to assert that the event happened, where it might otherwise be denied (such as Ken Ham is with his awful theme park) our understanding of what is said would be different to if they see it as an event that everyone knows happened, and which can’t be denied, but which is (in the prevailing understanding of it) difficult to reconcile with a monotheistic loving and uncapricious God.
    Whether it actually was historical, and, if so, precisely what really happened, is probably less so.


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