"It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later."
What if someone 2,000 years from now found an ancient writing from America that said “It rained cats and dogs yesterday” and began to argue whether it is scientifically possible or not for the sky to rain down cats and dogs? Perhaps people started to look for evidence to prove and argue that it really happened, eventually causing a cultural divide between the skeptics and the believers. Both parties would be missing the entire point of the text, and would look ridiculous debating about it. They would be failing to realize how the text functioned and what it was trying to communicate in its cultural context, i.e. it was raining a lot yesterday. That is exactly what we are doing today with certain sections of the Bible, especially the creation story and the flood story. This blog is mainly for those who have a heart for God but struggle with interpreting everything in the Bible literally and therefore find themselves feeling isolated or even ostracized as someone who “lacks faith.”
The Old Testament was certainly written for us but it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is first and foremost God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else. Therefore, in order to properly understand what it means we must first understand what it meant for Israel in her ancient cultural context. If God wanted to reveal himself to an ancient people, he would have done so in a way that they understood–not in a modern scientific or historical way. To quote Peter Enns, “It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later.” One of the ways through which people communicated certain truths in the ancient Near East was through mythic narratives.
The story of Noah’s Flood was troubling to me when I first became a Christian because so many questions and even contradictions (e.g. the “Nephilim” existing before and after the flood) came up when trying to interpret the story literally. Sadly, many conservative American Evangelicals approach the text with the theological presupposition that the story has to be literally true according to a modernist understanding of history. In doing so they place upon the Bible a burden that it was not meant to bear, and cause many Christians to adopt a weak and indefensible position. They also cause a stumbling block for rationale and skeptically minded people who are not so quick to accept something with blind faith but are told the Bible must be interpreted literally and to question the historicity of anything in it is blasphemy. The result is a silly dialogue like the hypothetical debate I presented above. It would be like judging the authenticity of The Boy Who Cried Wolf by trying to determine its historicity, which would be missing the whole point of what the story was intended to do–communicate a certain principle, not to give an actual historical account of events. When I started to look at the flood story against its cultural backdrop of the ancient Near East, where many mythic flood stories (most likely older than the Noah account) existed, it became clear that the story is also best understood as a myth story. But what is a myth?
The word “myth” in our modern understanding is usually synonymous to something being untrue, false, fabricated, etc. It carries with it a derogatory and negative connotation, which causes a knee jerk reaction by Christians when something in the Bible gets labeled as a myth. But we need to understand that myths in the ancient world weren’t a negative thing. Mircea Eliade defines myth as “true stories in a sense that they define reality for an individual or a society and provide models to live by.” Enns defines myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of adressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” The purpose of a myth story was not to give a scientific or literal historical account of events, but it was intended to communicate certain truths through the form of stories. Is it unthinkable for God to have allowed his revelation to come to the ancient Israelites according to a standard they understood? Many have a problem with this as if that degrades God’s Word. I think it makes it more remarkable in that we have a God who meets us according to where we are.
The Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics are both Akkadian flood stories that date to the second millennium BC. They both contain interesting parallels to the flood story of Noah. In both Genesis and Gilgamesh, the story ends with the main figure sending out a bird multiple times to check whether the flood had receded. Eventually, the bird doesn’t return, indicating that the flood has receded. In the Atrahasis epic, Atrahasis is warned by the god Ea of the flood that is about to be brought by the god Enlil to kill humanity. He builds a boat and saves his family and some animals. The point in bringing up these other ancient flood stories is not to insinuate that the Genesis account is a copy of older myths, but to show that they belong to the same cultural world. Israel was not influenced by that world. They were a part of that world.
What makes the Noah story unique and inspired is not its historical accuracy as opposed to the flood myths of their pagan neighbors. They all fit the genre of myth. What makes the Genesis account unique is its theological and polemical message. The Biblical writers used something well known in their world–flood myths–as a vehicle to portray their God, the God of Israel, as the One who is sovereign over creation and who caused it to flood. It was also a way of communicating a monotheistic message, which was revolutionary in its context. The flood story needs to be understood in the long Jewish tradition it’s found in, a tradition that constantly proclaims that the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true God; there are no other gods. The Israelites were the only people to have a written covenant with their God. They had a fierce loyalty to Him and a deep sense of responsibility to be the people who would bear the image of the one true God and reveal Him to the pagan world around them. The flood story was one of the many ways in this long and rich tradition by which they accomplished this. It is this tradition that finds its climax and fulfillment in the person of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs and prophets, proving the God of Israel to be the one true God. Jesus Himself is the ultimate revelation of God to mankind.
1. For a great overview of the parallels between the Old Testament and other ANE literature see Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.