The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 4- Propositions 14

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.

Two Great Andamanese men, in an 1875 photograph

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Ohio River Flood of 1937

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).

24 thoughts on “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 4- Propositions 14

  1. “In the new convent God sent Jesus , the final and absolute ark that gives eternal salvation if we enter into him.”

    The Incarnation, J.B.

    He took our humanity to Himself, He assumed it;
    so He would be able to heal it.


  2. a ‘genetic’ memory, deep in the DNA of a people . . . . . I have wondered about this for a long time


  3. Noah was saved by the ark, sent by God. After that Noah and mankind could not live up to the sinless life required by God to enter into his presence. In the new convent God sent Jesus , the final and absolute ark that gives eternal salvation if we enter into him. To me, it is another hidden fore shadowing of Jesus in the OT. Man cannot do it on his own merit.

    My formal religious training happened mostly in my 9 to 12 year old age under Mrs. Bullard, Mrs. Hayes and Miss Evans. Mrs. Bullard told us she was teaching us Bible stories, stories found in the Bible, Duh. She taught that the Bible was were we would find Jesus. Jesus was true and the word of the Bible was true in meaning, Of course we liked Samson and all the action stories. Mrs. Bullard summed up Noah by saying God would save his people if they believed in him. It was simple and we just accepted it as it made sense to us.

    Mrs. Hayes and Miss Evans just said because the Bible said so and that worked too for us. However they always seemed to tell us the OT was not what we lived by but Jesus.

    A T Williams/Burro, excellent points. The Hebrews were not even able to make iron only bronze.


  4. Eeyore, speaking as a Southerner, huh? And here I’ve always known large Cathloic churches in my area.

    HUG, no one down here calls ourselves that. We’re Southerners and Americans, and surprise, surprise, we live in the 21st century.


  5. Both the Catholic-Anglican split and the Anglican-American Episcopal split were primarily due to nationalist politics, not doctrine or theology.

    “That serial wife-killer King Henry” wanted a church that would let him divorce and remarry, so he split off the C of E.

    The Episcopals split off from the C of E effectively on July 4, 1776.

    All remain Western Rite Liturgical churches.


  6. my family has a copy of a letter from my great-great-grandfather’s brother, McGilbray (Gib) Ausbon, (a private, 17th NC troops) which is so humbly written, it touches the heart to read it . . . . he was sending a woolen blanket home and was asking if a suit of clothes could be made from it for him

    I’m not sure we modern types have come such a long way when I read from something that:
    that man’s utter humility came through that letter so clearly . . . . we speak of the ‘greatest generation’ with pride in our fathers and grandfathers;
    but our great-grandfathers and their people must have been truly something special


  7. true, this

    I am a great Anglophile, and that includes an admiration for the C of E and the utter beauty of its choral tradition

    and those Anglican patriotic hymns . . . .

    ‘and was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen . . . ‘



  8. In his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, Steven King has half a chapter devoted to “Southern Gothic”.

    The Former Confederate States always did have their own way of doing things.


  9. High-Church Anglican is one step removed from Catholic, courtesy of a certain Henry VIII.


  10. From Walker Percy:

    “What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.”

    It must do something to you, being Catholic in the Southern US.


  11. technically, Lewis became C of E, not Catholic

    but we can recognize some influence of the Catholic Tolkien on converting Lewis to Christianity

    Flannery O’Connor is Catholic to the core . . . . one of our great American authors whom we lost too soon, but even so, what a legacy she left behind . . . . her Irish DNA is visible in her work for sure . . . layers of meaning, unflinching honesty . . . I didn’t ‘read’ O’Connor, her writing impacted me like a freight train knocking me out of my shoes 🙂

    I don’t know much about that website other than a reference useful for info on Tolkien


  12. What an interesting website that CatholicAuthors is. So many writers I have never heard of, yet no listing for Walker Percy, Francois Mauriac, or Flannery O’Connor.

    There seems to be a lot of priests represented.


  13. In the Genesis story, I think the point is that we are back where we started, or at least that the story continues at all. The author doesn’t just describe mankind as sinning, but as actually in the process o destroying the Earth (he uses the same verb for what mankind was doing to the Earth as he does for what God proposed to do with the flood. If God had not acted, the author asserts, we would have got worse and worse until we wiped ourselves out and the earth with us. Back where we started is good.
    I agree about Hebrew mythology and go further: I would say that “all our heroes turned out to be blockheads and failed” may actually be the intended central message of the OT. It’s certainly for me the only way I can look at some of the horrible stuff in it and still see Jesus there: all the glorious, total, spectacular, and genocidal, victories over their enemies almost immediately go sour; no matter how viciously, bloodily, and hypocritically, they obsessively try and enforce the minutia of purity it does no good. Only if God writes the law of love on people’s hearts will the kingdom be restored and endure for ever.


  14. Good analogy|metaphor.

    I once went on a reading bender about the origins of the Hebrew nationality . . . related to your point it is very difficult for a modern western human to imagine the material – and technological – poverty of people in that age.

    One reads about some powerful ancient city, essential to that eras commerce, then one looks it up in archaeological texts, to discover that my little working class neighborhood would put it to shame – that it was a few pens for animals, a bare handful of permanent buildings having the girth of a mid-century bathroom, a crude militarily comical wall, surrounded by a couple dozen tents. Behold the mighty capital!!! But, no doubt a desperately appreciated refuge for the people of the time [if I was one of them I would have exaggerated that defensive wall everywhere I went, of course, then maybe people would be discouraged from coming to kill my family: “But you heard about that wall, right? Formidable!”]

    Given the vast stretch of time and our equally vast technological distance I feel we should be very careful about how much we ask for from these texts.


  15. Reading Genesis, especially the first eleven chapters, provokes in me the same sort of feelings that I experience when browsing through my parents’ photo albums and looking at pictures taken during my very earliest infancy. Yes, I remember that table; yes, I remember that lawn. Looking at the picture of their first dog doesn’t evoke so much of a memory as it does a sensation of a cold nose pressing against my infant face, and bristly hairs scratching my chin.

    In the same way, the Genesis material seems to be drawn from the very childhood of the race, when sensation preceded memory and reflection.


  16. I am not sure what a “historical memory” is if it isn’t the innumerable versions of the flood story circulating and recirculating throughout the ANE for millennia. The idea that the Hebrew versions would be hermetically sealed from all the others and not just a particular interacting strand amongst the others does seem rather unlikely. I wonder though if seeing the Genesis author sitting down with a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh (or some other specific written version) and making notes for producing his own is not a bit anachronistic: it sort of assumes there was a concept of an “authorised version” or that the written texts had any more authority than oral traditions in a largely illiterate society.


  17. 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.

    That has the vibe of “Atlantis Really in Antarctica”.


  18. > possibly unintended consequence of treating this story as a historical

    +1 Historical or not [and I lean “not” in any meaningful sense] the emphasis on The Flood as an event continuously distracts from the point: restoration of order. On the other hand, the more I think about The Flood account, the more I struggle with even what the point is.

    Without a tribal affiliation with the character Noah it is hard not to look at the whole Flood account and think: huh, all of that did not accomplish anything, in short order we are right back where we started . . . I am increasingly uncertain what the take-away is.

    There is one aspect of Hebrew mythology I always appreciate: ultimately all of their heroes turn out to be blockheads. Noah included. That aspect of their stories is certainly true! [never meet one’s own heros, it will be sad].


  19. You quoted me fairly so I’ll just add a couple points. First even if the Flood was some kind of dim historical memory it couldn’t be the Hebrew’s historical memory because the Flood story had already been committed to literature a thousand years before Genesis was composed. And the parallels between the version in Genesis and the version in the Epic of Gilgamesh are so close that it would be really hard to claim there wasn’t a direct influence. Once again, I think the Hebrews are committing literature here not history.

    Second, a possibly unintended consequence of treating this story as a historical memory is that it takes the focus off what the story really means and places it on an ultimately futile quest for what “really” happened. I’m not against historical study by any means but until we invent a time machine I am more interested in what the author(s) is trying to get across. Why is he telling me this story?

    And again, thanks for being given the opportunity to be part of the conversation.


  20. across the mists of ancient places, over millenia, the oral traditions of many peoples witness to their existence by use of ‘story’, ‘myth’, ‘saga’, and ‘legend’ . . . . . . a way of saying ‘we were here; we existed’ . . . . language was their medium
    . . . . unlike the silence of ‘La Cueva de Los Manos’ (The Cave of the Hands) in Patagonia Argentina wherein only the handprints witness to the existence of an ancient people who once lived and also made their mark, not orally, but silently, on the walls of the cave in hope that it would be known that they, too, once lived

    “. . . . Tolkien’s encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the “magic” of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
    Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
    “No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way – sometimes the only way – of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor . . . ”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: