It’s time to read the ancient story in its own cultural context, not ours. This post is part 4 of 5 in a series on Gen. 1-11.
Written by James Malcolm
Without the blessing of divine inspiration, modern, western Christians (usually Americans) with a scientific bent demand that the Noah story conform to science and history, in every detail. But how did Jesus and the inspired New Testament authors interpret the story? Are the moderns wiser than they were?
This is a post about how I became free from a modern scientific interpretation and stopped jumping through the skeptics’ hoops about a story that happened in prehistory with no surviving eyewitness testimony when it was written up in Genesis 6-9.
More importantly, this post is about not scaring away more intellectual unbelievers who don’t go to church or seriously consider the gospel, because of far-fetched scientific interpretations. For every person who goes to a mega-church or mid-sized or small, church, there are millions who don’t.
Let’s begin with summarizing the key passages in the New Covenant Scriptures (NCS), also known as the New Testament. Their interpretations can show us the way.
Jesus and the New Covenant Authors
Jesus uses the Noah story to illustrate that immorality will be rampant right before the Son of Man returns. “And they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matt 24:38-39 // Luke 17:26-27)
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews boils down the central message of Noah’s story, saying that an act of faith is good: “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family” (Heb. 11:7).
Peter goes a step further and teaches the waters of the flood symbolize the waters of baptism: “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Peter 3:20-21). We are now far from an historical analysis of when or how exactly the flood happened. In 2 Peter 2:5-9, finally, Peter repeats the obvious moral lesson that Jesus spoke of. Get ready, or else face judgment.
In all these interpretations of the Noah story, Jesus and the inspired NCS authors did not get bogged down in the intricate details in terms of history and science, whereas modern western Christians do.
Good Questions from Skeptics
Ironically taking the worldwide flood scientifically, skeptics laugh at actual science interpreters and pose these questions only about two animals, as examples of other questions:
How did the male and female kangaroos or slow koalas get to the ark in the first place before the flood came? By seafaring mariners?
After the flood, how did these animals get back only to Australia? Also, if it took a long time for the earth to be repopulated, when did the mariners strike out on their journeys back to Australia?
If this repopulation and journeying took centuries, why don’t we see kangaroos and koalas around Mt. Ararat, for surely they were fruitful and multiplied before the mariners set sail, weren’t they? And don’t koalas eat only Eucalyptus leaves, so how could they make the journey without these leaves?
Finally, what possible motive could the sailors have to take these animals on board their ships? Food? Why not cattle and pigs and sheep?
The whole thing is far-fetched! They could ask those questions about other species that are limited to particular locations.
Cue the skeptics’ laughter. They are right to laugh.
Replies to common objections and quesions
What if the Noah story was never intended to be taken scientifically in the details, especially since there were no eyewitness testimonies when it was written up in Genesis? What if Jesus and Peter and the author of Hebrews showed us the way?
Here are some objections to those two main claims from the demanding science interpreters.
Jesus said the name “Noah”; therefore Jesus assumed he existed. Enough said! Done deal!
Jesus simply took an authoritative, existing story in Genesis and used it for his moral purpose to warn people. We don’t need to prosecute him: “What did you believe about Noah, and when did you believe it?!”
This is mere accommodationism. You’re saying that we have to accommodate Jesus and the NCS authors because they were too stupid and uninspired to understand modern science. Accommodationism is deceptive! And it says the biblical authors were stupid. Very condescending!
No, it does not have to be deceptive. They were not stupid. They simply did not have enough information in their century. As noted, Jesus and the authors took an existing authoritative story in Genesis and boiled it down to its main purpose (or one of its main purposes), to teach their listeners and readers. If the term accommodationism makes you uncomfortable, call it Jewish midrash (purposeful and methodical reinterpretation, i.e. especially Peter’s reinterpretation that the flood symbolizes baptism).
Further proof that we have to accommodate biblical authors: The noun “noah” probably comes from the ancient Babylonian or Assyrian language and the word nukhu, which has been reshaped for biblical Hebrew, a later development in the Semitic family of languages. (Noah and nukhu both mean comfort or rest.) Hebrew (and certainly biblical Hebrew) did not exist at the time of the Exodus. But in the distant past, long ago, when the “Ark and Flood Guy” lived, he did not have this Hebrew name. However, we do not need to ask the biblical authors about historical and etymological (word origins) questions. We accommodate them, instead.
Further, we have to accommodate ideas in other verses. For example, Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Matt. 13:32 and Mark 4:31). However, we know other seeds are smaller, like the orchid seed. So we accommodate Jesus in his historical and cultural and geographical contexts. In his world and his range of knowledge of Israel’s agriculture, it was the smallest of seeds. Similarly, when Jesus interpreted an already existing, authoritative story about Noah, we do not subject him to prosecution about his knowledge of modern science (“What did he know and when did he know anything about orchids or other plants with smaller seeds?!”). That’s an arrogant, severe, modern attitude, rife in the world today.
We accommodate the ancient stories about the sun setting and rising. They spoke from the authors’ limited perspective, from what they saw with their own eyes.
Ungenerous and harsh: They were in error; therefore the Bible is too!
Generous and better: We accommodate their limited knowledge and learn about theology and morals that have ultimate meaning and truth.
A re-interpreter does not have to believe that the ancient biblical story about Noah is false, any more than the parables of Jesus are false. Rather, both the Noah story and the parables are designed to teach a moral and edifying lesson about ultimate meaning and truth.
3.. What is accomdationism?
See this post at this website, here, but a quotation follows:
Accommodationism or to accommodate means these things: To allow for their ancient culture and outlook; to adapt our interpretation of their claims of the world of nature to their own time; to make room for their limited knowledge about advanced science; to relax about imposing our modern science on their limited knowledge of science.
Accommodationism is the way forward, if one thinks about it.
The narrative about Noah does not come across as a parable or a mere story, but an historical account. Think of all the details, like the dimensions of the ark and the specific wood that made it.
Stories can be as detailed or sparse as the storyteller wants. The Parable of the Sower is detailed about seeds and crops (Matt 13:1-23); and the Parable of the Good Samaritan mentions two silver coins, when Luke did not have to (Luke 10:25-37). The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is perhaps the most detailed of all, describing heaven (or paradise) and hell and even giving a character a name (Luke 16:19-31). The goal is to draw the listeners in, so they can hear—and even get punched by—the one central message hidden behind the details.
Further, no one has to believe that the Noah narrative fits in the genre of a parable, but it can be safely and reasonably argued that it is a story, detailed to be sure, but a story nonetheless.
Parable = Story
Flood = Story
See the common term? As such, stories follow certain narratological rules, even biblical ones, though they contain miraculous elements.
Here is Gordon H. Wenham’s chiastic (Khee-AS-tic) structure of the entire Flood episode. (It is called chiastic because the letter chi (khee) in Greek looks like an X.) He published his article “Literary Coherence in the Flood Narrative” in Vetus Testamentum, (1977) vol. 28 (XXVIII) pp. 336-48.
Could the flood be local?
The one big obstacle to that option is that Gen. 7:19-20 says that the waters covered all the high mountains of the entire earth by a depth of 15 cubits or 6.8 meters.
18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.
Even if we are generous and assume “under the entire heavens” and “on the earth” meant the ancient author’s known world (which excludes the Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, etc.), how could a local flood cover the mountains in his known world by fifteen cubits and still remain local?
Gen. 7:24 says, “The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.”
Given the topograghy of the Tigris-Euphrates Flood Plain, the water would have drained away into the Persian Gulf.
And not-so-incidentally, how could Noah or the storyteller (tradition says Moses) know that the waters covered any mountain by 6.8 meters exactly? Did Noah take a sounding right above the mountains of Ararat? To argue that from Noah’s perspective the water appeared to be above the mountains by that much resembles the fallacy of “Protecting the Hypothesis” and “Special Pleading.” Not very convincing. And how did Moses hear that detail (and all the other details) directly from prehistoric Noah, centuries later?
Instead, using the narrative technique of verisimilitude in the detail of the water’s depth, the storyteller is building up to the climax or main point, which punches the listeners right between the eyes with the essential message: God’s judgment was thorough and devastating and complete.
Jesus and the NCS authors did not live in the Age of Science. They were right to draw from the story only the essence about judgment and getting ready for it. But we do live in the modern age, so we can analyze the story with science.
Noah’s storyteller did not live in the Age of Science, either. Is it fair to subject his story about ultimate truth and meaning to such a rigorous scientific analysis, when the story was set in the misty past with no living eyewitnesses when Genesis was written?
That’s the essence of the problem with a scientific analysis of ancient stories. The method is anachronistic and requires the modern, western (American), scientific Christian to jump through too many hoops and appear ridiculous and guilty of special pleading.
But all of the unresolved questions and the skeptic’s sneer get answered when we step back and look at the techniques of storytelling.
It’s a principle of Bible interpretation that any story in the Old Covenant Scriptures must be read straightforwardly in its plain details. No complications.
But that’s the point. There are all sorts of complications when it is read straightforwardly. It is clear that the story was written long after the events in question. It is not based on eyewitness testimony. But to repeat, the Noah section of Scripture is mainly an edifying, infallible, God-inspired story with a moral about ultimate meaning and truth.
Science interpreters may still insist that the Noah narrative is scientific in the details, but they cannot reasonably deny that at bottom it is an edifying, God-inspired story with a moral about ultimate meaning and truth.
Maybe all the details in the Noah narrative came directly from God by divine inspiration!
Inspiration does not require divine dictation or auto-writing. Basic Christian doctrine says the authors of Scripture were God-inspired, but also used their minds. They were not empty-headed vessels. If any section of Scripture qualifies to be a product of the divinely inspired storyteller’s art, it is a story about an event that happened in prehistory without living eyewitnesses when Genesis was written.
If the flood story does not conform to the real world in all its particulars, then it is a lie, and let’s throw the whole Bible out!
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said a priest and Levite avoided a robbed and beaten man lying on the side of the road, while a despised Samaritan helped him. What if the details of the story—the exact sequence of events, one man passing by in that order—did not happen in real life (outside the story world)? What if Jewish law permitted the priest and Levite to suspend their scruples to rescue a man left to die along the road? Surely one priest or Levite would have done so in real life (outside the story world)! And maybe a Samaritan would have avoided a Jew, if he saw that the Jew was dressed as a Pharisee!
Does all this mean the parable was false? “If that parable is false, then so are all the other parables! Let’s throw out the four Gospels!”
No, it is not false. It is true to the story world that flows from verisimilitude. Jesus had a different purpose. He used verisimilitude with historical and current data, like the road going from Jericho to Jerusalem or the inn or the two silver coins. He spoke the parable for a higher purpose: The despised Samaritan can be a neighbor to a needy man, while the deeply religious can miss his needy neighbor (or you come up with your own central interpretation).
Why can’t we say the same about Noah and the ark and the worldwide or local flood?
All of Genesis is not built on eyewitness testimony. Why demand eyewitness testimony from the Noah story?
This post is only about the Noah story. And of course all of Genesis is made up of stories. It is also possible that the stories about the patriarchs after Gen. 11 are indeed built on historical traditions.
Here’s the common term again:
Parables = Stories
Noah’s flood = Story
Genesis = Stories (with a little poetry and lists, but the arc of the book is narrative)
All of the stories in the Bible follow narratological rules, inspired by God and infallible, in an ancient biblical framework, miracles, for example.
The difference between the first eleven (eleven and a half) chapters in Genesis and the rest of the book is that when we get to Abraham, we are only about 1800 years B.C. With him we move within recorded history. Traditions handed down about him can be more secure (and if no reliable traditions or stories were handed down about the patriarchs and matriarchs, then we need to take the rest of Genesis as a divinely inspired story conceived by a human story-teller)). But the Noah story happened in the misty past in prehistory without the possibility of recorded events (everyone died except eight).
Are you saying the Noah narrative is a myth?
That word is much too controversial, jangling, and harsh. Skeptics use it to bludgeon believers. Something must have happened back then. Floods happened in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Apparently a huge one in the area happened about 3000 B.C. Others say there was a Black Sea flood about 5600 BC. Flood stories about the salvation of someone through the storm exist in other parts of the globe. In any case, the Noah story has a moral about ultimate purpose and meaning.
12.. Does the flood story have any parallels in the ancient world?
Yes, but the author of Genesis transforms the details into ethical monotheism. It was impossible for the author of the flood story to ignore a popular pagan flood story circulating in the ancient Near East. You couldn’t overlook Mark Twain’s novels about life on the Mississippi R. if you wrote a book about nineteenth-century stories about that river.
The Gilgamesh story includes a flood, which was inserted into the epic in the latter part of the second millennium and was adapted from the Epic of Atrahasis (see the post Genesis 1-11 in Its Ancient Religious Environment for the source of the table, below). The hero in the flood section of the Epic of Gilgamesh is named Utnapishtim. He is the Noah-like figure.
|Epic of Gilgasmesh||Noah’s Flood|
|A huge boat built to precise dimensions and sealed with pitch||A huge boat built to precise dimensions and sealed with pitch|
|Clean and unclean animals come on board||Clean and unclean animals come on board|
|Massive flood for six days until seventh when it subsides (seven is important in ancient Babylonian culture)||In seven days massive flood will come and last forty days and night|
|Utnapishtim and his family and others are saved.||Noah and his family are saved|
|Animals and humans were wiped out||Animals and humans were wiped out, even birds|
|Boat comes to rest on a mountain||Boat comes to rest on a mountain|
|A raven and dove and swallow are sent out||Raven and dove are sent out|
|Deities proclaim animals will fear humans||God proclaims animals will fear humans|
|Deities smell pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards||God smells pleasing aroma of sacrifices afterwards|
|Sign of an oath is gen (a lapis lazuli necklace)||Sign of an oath is given (rainbow)|
|Humankind is renewed on the earth||Humankind is renewed on earth|
Despite these numerous parallels, there are differences. The gods destroyed people because they were noisy, while God destroyed humanity for its lost morality. The gods conceal their plans, while God tells Noah to preach warnings. When the floods came, the gods panicked, while God did not. Utnaspishtim left the boat on his own accord, while God summoned Noah from the ark. Utnapishtim was promised immortality, while Noah died like the rest of humankind.
Even with these differences factored in, if the author of the flood story in Genesis 6-9 did not borrow directly from the Epic of Gilgamesh (or its sources), then as noted, he must have breathed in the extra-thick “religious and cognitive air” of the ancient Near East.
All of this sounds a lot like heresy and disrespect and “liberalism.”
This post is simply challenging a scientific interpretation of a story about pre-historical events that have no surviving eyewitness testimony–it’s too far back. The kernel of the story (sin – judgment – flood – boat – salvation) has been taken by the storyteller, who, using verisimilitude, built it into a narrative that has a moral about ultimate meaning and truth.
Other interpretations are available:
- Literary only (Comparing the biblical version and the parallel Mesopotamian flood stories qualifies as a literary analysis; or one can analyze the Noah story for narratological features; see the chiastic structure above)
- Theological (What does the text say about God? He is a judge, but he also orders Noah to preach warnings, in order to save people, so God is also a merciful savior)
- Moral (Jesus, Peter, and author of Hebrews took this one)
- Symbolic (Peter took this one)
- Scientific (Certain modern western Christians, usually Americans, take this one)
Do we need to obsess over the details and force them to conform to animal migration or seafaring mariners or animal size and dinosaur sizes in relation to the ark’s dimensions or other areas of modern science?
The point here is that I just don’t worry (or no longer worry) about explaining all the details and making them conform to a modern scientific analysis. I choose to follow Jesus and the inspired NCS authors.
Who’s wiser? The uninspired, modern, western, scientific Christian, or Jesus and the inspired NCS authors? So how can it be heretical or disrespectful when Jesus and the Spirit-inspired authors did not get bogged down in the historicity and science of the Noah story?
Is it heretical or disrespectful not to transgress the line where they stopped?
If we don’t interpret the Noah story literally, then we cannot consistently interpret the resurrection of Christ literally.
That is a strange and stretched connection. The flood story, as noted many times in this post, did not and could not have eyewitness testimony. Plus, the author was inspired by God to borrow–if only conceptually, but not copying–from flood stories circulating in his day. There is nothing wrong with that, especially when NCS authors were inspired to borrow from pagans in their day: Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; and Titus 1:12. And the Genesis author was God-inspired to proclaim monotheism, as opposed to polytheism, so there are clear differences between his story and the others.
On the other hand, the resurrection of Christ had many eyewitnesses. 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)
So, no, there is no compromise in the preaching of the resurrection literally as distinct from teaching a non-scientific and non-literal interpretation of the Noah story in all its details.
Even OCS (Old Covenant Scriptures or Testament) writers knew how to do historical research: Here is one example:
The authors of the Genesis Flood Story could not do proper historical research in the normal sense of the word, since he lived thousands of years after the event in question.
Here’s the main point. It is a basic and first principle of Bible interpretation that the New Covenant Scriptures authoritatively reinterpret or filter the Old Covenant Scriptures.
When a skeptic sneeringly asks me about Noah and the flood, I just tell him: I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how kangaroos and koalas got to the ark from Australia and were transported back only to that continent. I don’t even worry about those details.
Instead, being uninspired and unwise about prehistory that cannot have surviving eyewitness testimony when Genesis was written, I simply choose to let the New Covenant Scriptures guide me and stop where they and Jesus stopped.
I interpret the story in the same way they did: Judgment is coming! Don’t be immoral! Get ready! Be saved, and then show it in the baptismal waters.
In all my years of church attendance or watching Christian TV, I have never heard a pastor get bogged down in the scientific interpretation, but he and many others have given the essence of the story, just like Jesus and the NCS authors did. These pastors are right and wise.