Reflecting on the Flood

In a previous post I commented on the two flood stories, so instead of covering each and every point of the flood story again here, I’d like to reflect just a bit on the story of the flood. I’ll resume my verse by verse commentary toward the end of Genesis 8.

The flood story is a very troubling story to many people. Those who regard it as a historical account have to deal with the complete absence of evidence that any such event ever happened though see below on just what the flood involved. I comment on the various views on the meaning of Genesis 1-11 here.

But it’s not merely as a historical event that the flood story troubles many people. If one is to take the story seriously in any sense, it presents us with the picture of God deciding to wipe out everyone alive. God is sorry that he created humanity, and so will wipe them all out at once. Noah and his family will be the sole survivors. This one is almost more troubling as a myth than as history.

A myth can exist without a historical event behind it, but something historical can exist as both a story and as the myth that grows out of it. I’ve said this about the book of Job. As history it would reflect a single incident, perhaps something God did once to provide an example. It it’s myth, then more likely it reflects the way God behaves on a regular basis, and that is quite frightening to contemplate.

With the flood, if this was a singular incident as Genesis 8:21-22 might suggest, then we can see it as an example, a lesson written large, but at least we don’t need to expect it regularly. As myth, it would reflect something of the structure of God’s kingdom and the way God works with people.

I would not propose this as a thesis–it’s just an observation–but it seems to me that the two flood stories reflect a story version (J), with perhaps a basis in historical events, while the second (P) reflects a more mythical telling (see The Two Flood Stories). In neither case do we have a purely historical telling, but in J we have a version that could easily represent an event that covered only a particular civilization while in P we have a universe shattering event, when the universe is viewed in the context of ancient near eastern cosmology.

The most seriously troubling part of the story of the flood comes in two parts. First, God displays a willingness to kill that is quite disturbing. Is there no easier way to save them, perhaps a way that would involve more than a single family being rescued? Second, how is it that God can declare humanking “good” and then so quickly lose control. (For more serious discussion of these issues I recommend the book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? by Alden Thompson.

So how do we deal with these issues? Starting with the destructiveness of the flood combined with the absence of evidence for it in the geological record, both old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists have long claimed that the flood, if it points to a historical event at all, must point to a localized event, perhaps spanning a single civilization. Considering that an entire civilization at the presumed time of the flood could exist in a few towns along a river, the idea of the entire population of a small town being wiped out in such an event is not so impossible. This solves one of the historical problems, and I personally believe that the flood was localized, but it still leaves God in the business of mass destruction.

The Bible itself displays no sign of being troubled by this problem. I do not maintain, however, that we therefore must simplly accept this same thing at face value. Our understanding of God should progress. The question becomes this: How can we reconcile the meaning of the flood with the central principle of love? For some the answer is simple–either just accept what it says or on the other hand, immediately accept that God is love. But at a minimum we need to ask why God would allow himself to be portrayed as he is in this story.

I borrow my lead in answering this question from the book I refernenced earlier, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Compare the story of David’s census of Israel as told in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In the first case, we are told that YHWH tempted (or tested) David. God takes responsibility for the whole event. in 1 Chronicles 21, the adversary (the satan) is responsible. For centuries, the version in 2 Samuel was probably the only version of the story available, with God taking full responsibility for all events.

I would suggest we consider that God is willing to take responsibility for everything in his universe. It is possible that the flood itself was a natural disaster from which God saved one family–a natural disaster allowed by God to deal with the problems of that civilization. It is possible that people brought destruction on themselves. We don’t know. But I would suggest that when we read such a story through the lens of Jesus, we must look for a way in which it fits the picture.

3 comments to Reflecting on the Flood

  • With your link to the two interweaved accounts of the flood, there is an unanswered question which lingers. Assuming (and I think rightly) that the redactor/editor was also inspired, what pedagogical reason did the redactor have for weaving these two accounts in the way he did? Why were they both included? What lesson do we get from the work of the redactor?

  • I do indeed regard the work of the redactor as inspired. A key element of my view of inspiration is that I believe it must be operative throughout the process, from receiving the message, disseminating it, collecting, copying, and finally reading, interpreting and applying. And of course your question is valid from that point.

    Even apart from inspiration, however, if a redactor produces a document, it seems reasonable to assume that he meant something by the redaction. For example, in observing two creation stories in Genesis 1 & 2, one hasn’t truly explained the situation by commenting that they came from two different sources. Somehow a redactor thought the worked together. (I comment on this in an essay on the creation stories.)

    In this case I would start from the mundane, which is that the redactor presumably had two traditions in front of him to work with, traditions that could be regarded as contradictory. His first and most mundane consideration is that he needs one story, acceptable to both traditions. I reject the normal dating for Pentateuch sources and believe that the Pentateuch was completed prior to the exile. One possibility for this redaction would be the Josianic reform of the late 7th century BCE, though that isn’t an essential. At that point each tradition would have had a constituency,and Josiah was attempting to unite them. It’s easy to forget when we talk about “sources” and “traditions” that we are talking about real people who treasured these stories and thus preserved them.

    So the first consideration has to be to respect both traditions. I may hold a slightly loose view of inspiration according to some, but I balk at suggesting that the respect for the traditions is the sole consideration. In this case I would suggest that each element that has been woven together has a valid meaning–the first is closer to a “normal” story of salvation from a physical flood, while the second overlays that with a story of universal “uncreation.” The ‘P’ element in this case places an eschatological piece into the puzzle, something that will then resonate through the remainder of scripture, another element of divine inspiration in my view.

    I think that focusing excessively on the chronology takes us away from the intentions of the author and thus from the message. The key elements here are not when the flood happened and how long it lasted, but rather why the flood happened, what it meant for the people involved, and how it provides a type for both God’s salvific and penal activities.

  • kurt ehrsam

    Wonderful site! I am grateful to Ed Brayton for providing a link.

    On the question of dating