Did The Flood Really Happen?

Before the account proper we learn that Tubal-Cain ‘forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron (Genesis 4:22)’. Tubal-Cain’s particular skillset is helpful because it places Noah’s flood after the dawn of the Bronze Age (4000 BCE). The Sumerian King List[1] is even more specific, placing its flood in the Jemdet Nasr Period (2900 BCE).

If this geologically recent flood was also global in dimension then at the very least we should expect to find 1) a convergence of genetic bottlenecks across the biosphere and 2) uncharacteristic amounts of terrestrial detritus and a shift of oxygen isotope in five thousand year old layers of ice and sea cores taken from around the globe. The lack of converging genetic bottlenecks post Neolithic coupled with the lack of tell-tale markers in both ice and soil cores from around the globe stands as an insurmountable problem to the recent and global thesis.

Further, from a historical perspective the Yangshao culture, supported by pottery finds and artefacts, flourished through the Bango phase (4800-4200 BCE), the Miaodigou phase (4000-3000 BCE) and the Majianyao phase (3300-2000 BCE). The recent global thesis should have produced a definite boundary marking the collapse of this indigenous culture and the resettlement of the Yellow River region by Noah’s descendants. The continuity of the Yellow River culture across the past six thousand years stands against such catastrophe.

Equally Egyptian history progressed through the Iron Age (4,000 BCE), the pre dynasty period (before 3100 BCE), proto dynastic period (3100-3000 BCE), early dynastic period (3000-2686 BCE) and the old kingdom (2686-2134BCE). No cultural, religious or technological boundary consistent with the obliteration of the indigenous culture and resettlement of the area by Noah’s descendants has been noticed in this history. In short, there is no non-trivial evidence that supports both a recent and global flood.   

Nevertheless ’an epochally important flood in far antiquity has come down in tradition shared by both early Mesopotamia culture and Genesis 6-9, but which found clearly separate and distinct expressions in the written forms left by the two cultures…as to definition, myth or proto-history, it should be noted that the Sumerians and Babylonians had no doubts on that score. They included it squarely in the middle of their earliest historical tradition [Sumerian King List], with kings before it and kings after it, the flood acting as a dividing point in that tradition[2].’ 

Why then does Genesis describe Noah’s epochally important flood in global terms when the weight of objective data stands against the very possibility?
The style of the narrative offers us a starting point. Historical accounts usually render the Hebrew word erets as land[3] (Genesis 5:18) while the prophets and poets most often adopt a local rendering if referring to people or places and a global rendering if adopting more exalted tones. In the case of the flood account the use of wayyiqtol verbs assures us the narrative was intended to be historical; not allegorical; and as such erets should be rendered land unless context demands otherwise.
Globalist argue context does demand otherwise for according to Genesis 7:20 ‘the waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.’ Are we to believe a local flood covered all the high mountains?

The Young’s Literal Translation renders the same text; ‘fifteen cubits upwards have the waters become mighty, and the mountains are covered’.

Fifteen cubits upwards most likely refers to the water rising above the draft of the ark[4] and so does not give detail to the depth of the flood itself (other than it was more that 7 meters deep) but what do we do with the phrase ‘the mountains are covered?’

The Hebrew word har here rendered mountain (see also Genesis 8:4) is elsewhere rendered ‘hill' (Genesis 7:19). So which is the more textually appropriate? Was the author describing mountains of foothills?

Globalists argue the ark coming ‘to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:4)’ gives sufficient context; the Hebrew word hare cannot possibly mean foothill.
But there are problems. First, modern day Ararat is not a range of mountains but a singular mountain; second, biblical Ararat was known to the Assyrians as Urartu (see 2 Kings 19:37, Isaiah 37:38) and the Persians as Arminya. The Latin vulgate for example adopts the rendering; ‘requievitque arca….super montes Armeniae’ or ‘the ark rested on the mountains of Armenia’; third, Mount Ararat in biblical times was known as Mount Massis and so it could not have been the mountain described in the Genesis account; and finally, in antiquity the far off mountains were considered to be the foundations of the solid dome (sky) and as such were excluded from topological descriptions.
The data is ambiguous, the topology unknowable. Why pick out a towering, singular mountain that went by a different name in biblical times when all the data points to a local mega-flood that covered low lying foot-hills somewhere or other in Armenia?

Globalists also argue the flood must have been global to explain the total destruction of mankind; ‘Behold even I do bring a flood of waters upon the earth (erets) to destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life from under heaven (shamayim) and everything (kol) that is in the earth (erets) shall die (Genesis 6:17).’ The Hebrew word erets rendered earth certainly gives the unequivocal impression that God destroyed humanity but if we translate erets as the more stylistically appropriate land we still get a coherent reading;

‘and behold even I do bring a flood of waters upon the earth land (erets) to destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life (chay) from under heaven the sky (shamayim) and everything (kol) that is in the earth land (erets) shall die (Genesis 6:17).’

On first pass this rendering is inconsistent with Luke-Acts which unequivocally claims the flood 'destroyed them all' (17:27, see also Matthew 24:37-39) and 2 Peter which claims ‘the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water (3:6)’.

But what did the phrases ‘all the world’ and ‘destroyed them all’ mean to antiquity? Paul wrote that ‘in the entire world this gospel is bearing fruit (Colossians 1:6)’. Given the gospel had not spread beyond the Roman Empire by the time Colossians was penned there is little doubt Paul was describing regional events with what modern readers take to be a global phrase - ‘the entire world’. It is therefore quite evident that what second temple Jews meant by the phrase 'all the world' is quite different from what modern readers take the phrase to mean.

We see this in Luke-Acts which compares God’s judgement by flood that 'destroyed them all' to God’s judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah that 'destroyed them all'. Why insist the flood be global to 'destroy them all' when the local judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah equally 'destroyed them all?'

Obviously these phrases are contextually determined and as such are made pliable by a priori presuppositions. Both internal and external data is then needed to objectively settle the matter.

Similarly 2 Peter 3:6 adopts the Greek word kosmos. In English the words earth and world have a similar meaning but in Greek kosmos, which is here translated world, means human society while ge is translated is typically rendered geographical area. This distinction is made clear whenever both words appear together - ‘we know that an idol in this world (kosmos) is nothing…..either in heaven or on earth (ge) - (1 Corinthians 8:4-5)’.
By choosing the word kosmos the author of 2 Peter was speaking to the destruction of human society or the destruction of the political order of the time rather than to the destruction of the geographical earth per se. This reference simply does not go to the issue of whether the entire earth was deluged.
There are also other aspects of the narrative to consider. For example the dove returned in the evening with ‘a freshly plucked (taraph) olive leaf in his beak (Genesis 8:11)’. The Hebrew word taraph translated fresh sprouting leaves (see Ezekiel 17:9) is inconsistent with a global rendering that submerges olive trees in sea water for the better part of a year. Instead the plainest reading of this text suggests at least some olive trees remained above the water line.
Although far from exhaustive, this summary sketches the most significant arguments in the debate; but instead of defending one side or the other I want to instead focus on the far more interesting question; 'did God use a flood to judge then destroy humanity?'
As McLaren[5] puts it – ‘I was trained to read it as a story of divine saving so I missed the small detail of divine mass destruction on a planetary scale’.
If we read the flood narrative in a too literal manner it is hard not to conclude that God set a ‘constitutional precedent’ to practice ethnic cleansing, and since God cannot do evil, then apparently there are times when genocide is justified.
But how can we worship a deity who is so uncreative, so over-reactive, and so utterly capricious? Have we not simply unearthed an unmovable theological roadblock that betrays the biblical story as fanciful superstition?
Of some help in the theological discussion is the Gilgamesh Epic, which has its roots in an oral tradition that reaches beyond 700 BCE. In the Gilgamesh account genocide is mandated (by the capricious gods) because humans were too noisy and were stopping the gods from getting a good night sleep.

But during their mandated flood the gods became frightened by the magnitude of the flood, and after the flood they had to get Utnapishtim to make animal sacrifices because they were getting hungry (since the flood killed all the animals)[6].    
However you view the biblical account, it is at least more satisfying than its Gilgamesh proto-type. This is what we see elsewhere in the biblical library. New accounts seek to replace less mature theological paradigms. But still the reason the author of Genesis gives for the flood was to destroy the wickedness of mankind. Yet in only a short time, Noah gets drunk, his sons disappoint and soon the world is right back to its antediluvian level of wickedness. Didn’t God see that coming? What did all that suffering achieve?

But our concerns are unwarranted - for they originate in a misunderstanding of how the text was understood by its intended audience. We moderns understand causes in terms of natural laws, free agency and perhaps divine intervention. In the ancient world small causes were attributed to free agents or to the gods; while the big stuff was almost always attributed to the gods; there were no other options. Therefore to the author of Genesis the flood must have been caused by God. So it is only natural that he should ask why? To judge the wickedness of mankind is the only satisfactory answer.   

We see this type of ancient joining of the dots also in Job where Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and later Elihu the Buzite deny that Job was unfairly treated by God and so urge him to repent of his wrong doing; for God would not have treated Job so poorly if he had not done something wrong. Yet by the end of the story we hear from God, who confirms Job’s friends were speaking nonsense - for suffering was not directly related to divine judgment. 

The flood narrative then represents an early theological proto-type in which the author attributed the suffering experienced by proto-historic Israel to God's judgment of mankind because of their wickedness. 

 So if we move past a constitutional reading of the flood account we can begin to see how an emerging theology that found its origin in these early proto types matured through the sacraments, the prophets, and finally in Jesus who asked an entirely different question - ‘or of those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you! (Luke 13:4)’.

[1] Ancient tablets found at Nippur describe the saga, ‘mighty winds blew violently…and the ship moved along over the face of the great waters driven by the wind’ while the Gilgamesh Epic describes how ‘just as dawn began to glow there arose from the horizon a black cloud Adad (lightening) rumbled inside it setting the land ablaze with their flare. The heavens turned to blackness…..water overwhelming people like an attack no one could see his fellow. They could not recognize each other in the torrent.’
[2] On the reliability of the Old Testament Kitchen pp425-26
[3] This is because historical accounts are primarily concerned with real people in real geographical places. The exception occurs when the authors describe the entire earth which belongs to God (see Gen 14:19, Deut 4:39).
[4] The height of the ark was 45 feet high; 20 feet (15 cubits) would be approximately its draft.
[5] A New Kind of Christianity McLaren B 2010 Hodder &Stoughton
[6] ibid

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