The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate
by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton
Part 4- Proposition 14
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 4- The World: Thinking About Evidence for the Flood, Proposition 14- The Flood Story Has a Real Event Behind It. Walton and Longman believe that the bible is talking about real events in the past and not pure myth, even though it is theological history, it is still history. We have already discussed that they believe the bible uses rhetorical devices such as figurative language and hyperbole, and that the event itself is not inspired; the theological interpretation of the event is what is inspired.
In the comment section of Proposition 8, frequent commenter Stephen dissents from Walton and Longman’s assertion by noting:
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.
Stephen makes a very good point and the fact of the matter is there is no way of knowing for sure what the ancient Hebrew authors had in mind when they put the final edits on the Genesis 6-9 story. So it is mostly a matter of opinion whether you think there is a real event behind the Noachian flood story or not.
That being said, I personally think there is something to be said for oral accounts, especially “divine” warnings, being passed down from generation to generation. There is some evidence that indigenous islanders, during the 2004 Banda Aceh earthquake and subsequent tsunami, had an awareness of the ocean, earth, and the movement of animals that was accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the islands. Oral history teachings and their hunter-gatherer lifestyle might have prepared them to move deeper into the forests after they felt the first trembles of the earthquake. Walton and Longman say:
What kind of event would stand behind the flood of Genesis 6-9 (and also other ANE accounts)? We cannot be sure, but we have evidence of more than one flood that would be potential candidates for the inspiration of the story. Again, we are not saying that one of these events is definitely the historical source of the flood stories of the Bible and the ANE. But we are saying there were devastating floods in human pre-history, one of which may well have rooted itself in human memory passed down through the centuries, even millennia that could have been used as a vehicle by the author of Genesis to present a story that would talk about God’s judgment and his restoring order when it had degenerated… we must be careful not to be dogmatic about evidence for any one flood being the inspiration for the biblical story.
I am going to classify the floods into three main categories:
- Post Ice Age Flooding. Massive flooding that took place at the end of, or not long after, the last Ice Age as the huge melt-off of the continental glaciers took place and the attendant relatively rapid rise of sea levels.
- Unusually large, statistically rare, but nevertheless possible, flood event(s) in Mesopotamia. Think two Category 5 hurricanes converging on the Tigris-Euphrates river basins and stalling—dropping massive amounts of rain.
- Large, but regularly occurring, floods of the 100-year recurrence interval type that nevertheless would have huge impact on ancient local Mesopotamian populations and generate the “remember the great flood of…” stories. These would be rare enough to stick out prominently in the memories of those who experience them, but occur often enough that the oral tradition would be self-sustaining.
Let’s take them in reverse order. If you lived in the Midwest, you probably remember the Great Flood of 1993. The Great Flood of 1993 was a major flood that occurred in the Midwest, along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and their tributaries, from April to October of 1993. The flood was among the most costly, and devastating to have occurred in the United States, with $15 billion in damages.
Or, if you are older and lived in the Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky area, you might remember the Great Flood of 1937. The Ohio River flood of 1937 took place in late January and February 1937. With damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, one million people were left homeless, 385 were dead and property losses reached $500 million ($8.7 billion when adjusted for inflation as of 2015). Federal and state resources were strained to aid recovery as the disaster occurred during the depths of the Great Depression and a few years after the Dust Bowl.
Or Katrina 2005, or Houston 2017, my point is that modern people who experience these large, but regularly occurring, floods still talk about them around the dinner table. Imagine the effect on ancient people less able to cope with natural disasters and how those memories would be passed down around the campfire, and even embellished.
The second category is really the scaled-up version of the third. As mentioned previously, geologist Carol Hill gives a pretty comprehensive description of how this might have occurred. A truly devastating event like that would undoubtedly remain in human memory for a long time, and attempts to explain why it occurred would also naturally be discussed and re-discussed especially in the oral cultures of the ancient near east. Not much of a stretch imagining the Hebrew scribes incorporating and re-interpreting the story as Noah’s account.
The first category is mentioned by Walton and Longman as they reference the William Ryan and Walter Pittman (both scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) 1997 book, “Noah’s Ark: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History”. Here is the Wikipedia entry and another account from Science Daily. Ryan and Pitman say that a flood “burst through Bosporus in 5600 BC so violently (that it) cleaved Europe from Anatolia”. The breakthrough occurred because post-glacial sea level rise finally overcame the Bosporus isthmus, and, like a dam breach, the waters of the Aegean Sea poured into what is now the Black Sea. There is some controversy about how fast the water levels in the Black Sea rose and whether it can be called “catastrophic”. Survivors of the flooding would have been displaced into the Mesopotamia valley and carried the story with them.
There is also a new (2010) theory that the remains of ancient settlements from a 100,000-year stretch of human history were submerged by the rapidly rising waters of the Persian Gulf around 6,000 BC — the result, in all likelihood, of a catastrophic, planet-wide flood triggered in Canada caused by the collapse of a miles-high glacial dam at the end of the last ice age. That caused a massive outflow of meltwater into the Arctic or North Atlantic Ocean near Hudson Bay, generating a sharp rise in sea levels around the world.
Then there are the theories of Alice C. Linsley that Noah was African and occupied the Lake Chad region in the late Holocene wet period. She says:
Satellite photographs reveal that Lake Mega-Chad was once a huge body of water, five times the surface area of Lake Superior and with a depth ranging from 200 to 600 feet. This part of Africa was much wetter than it is today due to climate cycles and the African rifts that created great watersheds or troughs… In Noah’s time, there was a prolonged wet period due to monsoons circulating from the Indian Ocean. During this wet period, the major water systems from the Benue Trough to the Tigris-Euphrates overflowed, creating a vast watery world. This was the world that Noah knew, so from his perspective the whole world was flooded.
Personally, I like the romantic and sentimental notion of ancient stories from the dim beginnings of civilization passed down around the campfires. Sure, they have become legends, but legends are the preservation of a people’s story handed down orally from one generation to the next so that they will be preserved and retold for the benefit of those who come after. It’s a very human trait. And there could be conflation and amalgamation of the flood stories so that one apocryphal event emerges that becomes THE EVENT that is focus of the theological history. As Walton and Longman conclude:
Whatever the precise historical event, the story was told from generation to generation, eventually forming the basis for the toledot (or account) [see proposition two]) coming down to the Israelite narrators and the later redactors of the final form of the Pentateuch who used the story of Noah and the flood for their important theological message (see proposition eleven).