An account which appears to post-date several other similar mythological narratives and was written thousands of years after the events it purports to narrate with no known lines of transmission has no historical value. If a person does not grant the Bible special privileges, why would they accept the details Genesis narrates over, for example, the older Babylonian version that the biblical account shares many features with? A historian approaching all texts equally would not. To state the obvious, historians require historical evidence. There is no ancient corroboration for the flood story in close proximity to when it actually might have occurred. Though to be perfectly honest, even if it did occur as Genesis narrates, we should not expect any "contemporary-primary data" to actually survive (was writing even a thing then?). So in this case the absense of evidence is not evidence of absence. Historians do not blindly trust sources written shortly after the events they narrate, let alone thousands of years later by an unknown author. Compare a knowledge of the historical Jesus to the flood account. The gospels were all written 30-70 years after Jesus died. There are at least plausible lines of transmission and avenues for potential eyewitness testimony in the tradition, events and sayings receive multiple independent attestation and there is clearly some material which is embarrassing or against the grain (not at all likely to be created). The flood account appears as a late mythological narrative that rewrites other well known stories in the ANE. It is hard to imagine the Biblical version being accurately transmitted orally for thousands of years and actually predating other versions that at least in the extant record, appear many centuries before it. We know oral stories change over time and we know the Biblical account already consists of two separate narratives to begin with! At best the abundance of flood myths with a wide geographical spread in antiquity could be used to support the notion of a great deluge (or several) in the past. But even geologic evidence of a major flood 6,000-50,000 years ago does not validate a single detail in the Biblical narrative. So I am going to address this from a Christian perspective, one that does treat the Bible as sacred scripture. It is more a question of Biblical interpretation as opposed to historical investigation.
First we must decide what we mean by the question. Are we asking if a Global flood happened, a localized version or if there is only a historical kernel in the account? Given there are two flood accounts in Genesis edited together with conflicting details, the law of non-contradiction dictates all the details of the Biblical version cannot be literality true. But Jesus and many parts of the Bible reference Noah and the account is narrated plainly in scripture. There is no real reason to suppose later authors and Jesus treat Noah any different than Abraham, Moses, David or any other figure of renown from Jewish tradition. So for many Christians this settles the issue. Since Jesus and so many other parts of the Bible treat the account as if it really happened, Bible-based Christians are not in a position to believe otherwise. I am not convinced Jesus's reference to Noah and the flood requires a literal interpretation for several reasons but that issue is so important it is given its own separate treatment. Here I will focus on Genesis on its own terms.
I think all the details as presented in the Bible, especially for a global interpretation, are impossible for many reasons. We can ask all sorts of questions such as how did penguins get on the ark, why didn't t-rex eat everyone onboard and what did the animals eat after getting off the ark? This list could be exponentially multiplied and I have outlined many difficulties with a global flood here and there is no need to repeat that unedifying information. I am convinced the Bible considers the flood universal (see here) with respect to humans but people were spread out around the globe at the time so a localized flood could not wipe out the entire human population either. Both local and global interpretations of the flood that try to salvage all of the details are problematic to me. It is important to note just how similar the Genesis flood is with several other ANE myths that actually pre-date it in written form by a very long time. That information is summarized below:
Parallels with other Flood Mythology
Atrahasis: is an epic written in Akkadian, the language of Babylon. An old version survives on clay tablets usually assigned to the 1600s B.C. but this ancient story likely predates this time period. The second tablet features Enlil sending famine and drought at regular intervals to deal with overpopulation and the noisy humans. Eventually he decides to destroy them with a flood. Tablet three depicts Enki warning Atrahasis, the hero of the story, to dismantle his house and build a multi-tiered boat of specific dimensions sealed with pitch. He is told to include two of each animals on board. He boards with his family and animals and the storm and flood, which lasted for seven days, was so severe even the gods were afraid. After the flood ends Atrahasis offers sacrifices to the gods.
a Babylonian epic that is older than the Atrahasis Epic but its flood account might just be dependent on it. Tablet eleven features Utnapishtim (as opposed to Atrahasis or Noah) as the principal character. Gilgamesh is seeking eternal life and Utnapishtim explains how he was granted it. He was warned by Enki to build a boat of specific dimensions and seal it with pitch and bitumen (very similar to the Genesis version). His family, all the animals of the field and his craftsmen were taken on board. After 6 days and nights the storm ended and all humans turned into clay. His boat, like the Biblical version, lodges on a mountain and he releases a dove, swallow and raven. When the raven fails to return he opens the ark and releases its inhabitants. He offers sacrifices to the gods who are pleased by the aroma (as does Noah who's roasting animal flesh was a pleasing to the Lord). Ishtar vows never to forget this time. The parallels to Genesis are extensive.
version of the Gilgamesh Epic has a similar flood story but features Ziusudra as opposed to Noah (Genesis), Atrahasis (Atrahasis) or Utnapishtim (Gilgamesh). Will the real Noah please stand up?
Peter Enns offered the following summary
(read his article!) of similarities between Genesis/Atrahasis/Gilgamesh:
- a flood and building a huge boat by divine command
- pitch seals the boat;
- the boat is built to precise dimensions (the biblical boat is much larger);
- clean and unclean animals come on board;
- a Noah figure and his family are saved (Gilgamesh includes some others);
- the boat comes to rest on a mountain;
- a raven and doves were sent out (Gilgamesh includes a swallow);
- animals will fear humans;
- the deity/deities smell the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards;
- a sign of an oath is given (lapis lazuli necklace for Gilgamesh).
The image above compares similarities between the Atrahasis and Genesis flood accounts. Pete Enns modified this list from Frank Batto’s Slaying the Dragon (pp 51-52).
Is it possible that a historical kernel to this story is correct? Great floods happened in the past and I certainly have no way of disproving the idea that God chose to save a righteous man and his family amidst a wicked society thousands of years ago from a localized flood--the details of which became embellished as it was retold over time. The widespread occurrence of flood mythology in antiquity causes some to postulate there must have been a great deluge in the past giving rise to all these traditions. A global flood is completely ruled out and the differences between the many flood narratives throughout the world seems to indicate this. But it is certainly possible a series of smaller, localized floods around 5,000 or so years ago gave rise to the stories we find in the ANE. But this is not what is actually found in the Bible.
Having an actual flood or series of floods prompt the writing of these stories in no way makes the details found in the narrative correct. Given the parallels to what appear to be more ancient near east flood myths
, my first thought is against these accounts being historically true. I tend to view the two flood narratives in Genesis as Israelite writers appropriating the ANE flood motif and making it their own. Another reason I view the account non-literally stems from moral concerns.
Moral Concerns with A Literal Flood
While I agree God is a just judge and punishes and will punish sin, my heart tells me the God who lowered and humbled himself for us, even to death on a Roman cross, did not murder 20,000,000 people in a flood, including lots of innocent children and unborn babies. This number could be lowered drastically if we limit the extent of the flood but as I've noted elsewhere, I see the destruction of humanity as universal save Noah and company since God's creative work is completely undone during the flood. But even if we lower the number, a few thousand people is still a few thousand people! One of the most powerful passages in the entire Bible to me occurs in Genesis 18 when Abraham reverentially questions God who is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah:
18:23-33 Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" 26 And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." 27 Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." 29 Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." 30 Then he said, "Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." 31 He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." 32 Then he said, "Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
Did Noah and company only reach 8? Is ten the magic number? Do children not count? Does God truly murder the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the Lord of the earth do what is right? The Bible does declare everyone in society to be wicked and evil but one thing I find a bit curious is how proponents of a localized flood take this part extremely literally
, but not all the other universal language in the account. What happened to hyperbole? And how are the children, babies and those in the womb guilty? Why did God not lead some children to the ark so Noah and company could take care of them? With all the miracles we usually have to multiply to believe the flood narrative to begin with, why is this one not on the top of the list? In the end, mass impartial murder is mass impartial murder. If you can justify one genocide, even by God, you can also justify those by human rulers, the ones He allegedly puts into power! The next time I see a cartoon depiction of the flood I hope the landscape is portrayed as desolate and destroyed--and along with the ark, the beautiful rainbow and all the colorful animals--I hope the background is littered with bloating bodies--the water-logged corpses of children, infants, men, women and unborn children drowned in their mother's wombs. As a Christian--a follower of Christ--I believe he is the image of God on earth and the Jesus who died on a Roman cross and said "Let the little children come to me" does not appear synonymous with a God who intentionally drowns millions of children.
A Primitive Conception of God
Another concern that leads me to view the Biblical deluge as mythological is the highly primitive and anthropomorphic image of God in portions of Genesis. We know the content stems from multiple authors and if we accept that there are two versions of creation and the great flood, differences emerge. Genesis 1 presents the God of classical theism. All powerful, in charge, knows what is going on and appears in control. But the God depicted in Genesis 2-3 and parts of the flood is very different. God parades all the animals before Adam only to realize a suitable partner for him is not to be found. He needs to ask where a hiding Adam is and after realizing what has happened, shows newfound concern he might eat of the tree of life and has him banished from the Garden. In the flood account, luckily enough, the omniscient and omnipotent looking deity of Genesis 1 "remembers Noah" (this is a pivotal verse!) and doesn't really seem to have fully thought things through or understand his creation. He gets upset at human wickedness and after undoing creation and destroying most of humanity with a flood, seems to regret his decision at the end as he oddly vows to never repeat such actions again. Did he do something wrong--did guilt or regret compel this promise? Or if His actions were just and proper, as the Lord of all the earth's actions should be, is he now refusing to do what is just and proper in the future because of this? Even more strange is if we look at what the text says causes God's change of heart:
Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humans, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
Was God really flattered that much by the smell of roasting animal flesh that he decided not to ever drown the world again? Right before God pronounces the wickedness of the human population we see demi-gods marrying the daughters of men:
Genesis 6:4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
There have been many attempts to soften this but Bill Arnold writes:
Interpreters have made every effort to explain this text in some way other than the plain and obvious meaning of the words before us. Such interpretive efforts have included theories on human marriages between the faithful Sethites and wicked Cainites, or dynastic rulers and their polygamous marriages and ruthless offspring, or otherwise demonic and/or angelic interpretations. However, the clear sense of the text is simply that of preternatural beings (i.e., not entirely supernatural creatures but certainly not wholly natural either) fathering semi-human offspring of great exceptional military strength, and perhaps of great stature. Such divine– human unions are attested in other cultures of the ancient world, including Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Greek. . . .
. . . Clearly this little pericope has its origins in the traditional mythology of the ancient Near East. However, it has been adapted by the Israelite authors to explain more than simply where the Nephilim came from and why humans have a restricted lifespan of 120 years (v. 3). Yahweh is not counted among these “sons of God.” In fact, Yahweh stands aside from them and condemns the unions they initiate with the humans. It has been somewhat demythologized by its placement in the primeval "history," tying the era of the Israelite authors to that distant past but also explaining the many drastic differences between the author's day and that ancient age. By placing vv. 1-4 immediately prior to the traditional Israelite explanation for the flood (vv. 5-6) the editor has transformed it and used it to show further why the flood was necessary. Illicit relations between celestial beings and human daughters belong to a far distant era different from that of the author, in antediluvian days, and illustrates the lawlessness and disorder of that time.[Genesis, Baker Exegetical pg 89-90]
So part of the reason for the flood is attributed to herculean type demi-gods roaming the earth and having sex and making babies with human women. Coupling that with sin, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and Cain killed Abel, its clear creation has descended into chaos. God also arbitrarily reduces human life spans to 120 so he doesn't have to put up with us for too long. If that is so, I suspect an eternity in heaven with us is going to be really rough for him! For me, there are clearly mythological and primitive portrayals of God in the primeval history in Genesis. Add in talking snakes, magical fruits and punishments that vastly outweigh the crime and it seems undeniable we are reading fictional stories meant to teach us theological truths.
What do the flood accounts teach us?
If the flood account theological, what purpose does it serve in scripture. What does it teach us about God?
I cannot pretend to have all the answers here but my thought process goes like this. I think stories of a global flood were conventional knowledge in the past--possibly inspired by a series of localized floods. It was just common knowledge that most people thought a global flood of divine origin occurred. What the Bible does is use this belief to teach us things about God and his character. We learn that sin and wickedness leads to our destruction but also that God is faithful and will save the righteous. This timeless truth is repeated over and over again throughout scripture. So for me, in one respect, the genesis deluge never happened, the genesis deluge always happens. I feel the same way about the garden story to a large extent. But there is more than this. The flood narrative expresses profound truths about God that become especially clear when we compare the Genesis versions to those it was meant to supplant. Victor P. Hamilton contrasts the Biblical account with the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis Epics:
“It is important to observe that right at the beginning there is a clear-cut moral motivation behind sending the Flood. The Gilgamesh Epic (an Akkadian story about a flood), which does have clear parallels with Gen. 6-9, lacks such a parallel here. The closest it comes is: “when their heart led the great gods to produce the flood” (Tablet XI, line 14). That vague statement is left unamplified. Later in that same tablet (line 179) the god Ea speaks to Enlil (the one who sent the flood): “How could you, unreasoning, bring on the deluge?”
According to a related flood story, the Atrahasis Epic, twelve hundred years after man’s creation his noise and commotion has become so loud that Enlil starts to suffer from insomnia. Enlil sends a plague to eradicate boisterous humanity, only to have his plan thwarted. Next he tries drought and famine, which are also unsuccessful. Finally a flood is sent, which Atrahasis survives by building a boat. To call this noise moral turbulence or to understand the clamor of mankind as man’s chronic depravity reads into the text far too much. The problem is simply that there are too many people, with the result that there is too much noise. There is a limit on Enlil’s auditory capacities. It really should not surprise us that in a system of thought where the gods are not necessarily morally superior to human beings, and where the line between good and evil is blurred, there is no recording of the fact that man is to be drowned because he is a rebel and a sinner." [New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Genesis 1-17]
God is portrayed very differently in Genesis. Humans aren't too noisy or destroyed for arbitrary reasons. Every inclination of their heart is towards evil. God laments and regrets creating us for what He now feels compelled to do. God deeply loves his creation to the point that our sin and wickedness has wounded him. The Genesis narrative attempts to portray God as just and heartbroken. The story tries to say humans brought on their own utter destruction but God who is faithful, steps in and saves the righteous Noah and his family. Enlil is portrayed as incompetent. His plans are continually foiled and thwarted. Here God chooses to save Noah. In the Atrahasis epic the flood is so severe the gods are portrayed as being scared (cowering like dogs). The gods are famished during the flood due to a lack of human sacrifices and they later swarm like flies. After the flood, Enlil is upset some humans have survived and in order to control the population, women will now be barren, demons will cause miscarriages and steal babies and some women will remain lifelong virgins, consecrated to the gods. The Genesis deluge has some primitive elements but it does not depict God as being afraid of flood waters, famished due to a lack of sacrifices and he wants his creation to be fruitful and multiply afterwards.
The Biblical flood needs to be judged based on its theological message gleaned from a comparison to other ANE flood accounts. It also needs to be interpreted from within its own worldview. Rather than attribute an evil action to God, I think the original Genesis version was attempting to do the exact opposite and explain the problem of evil and human suffering. The authors of Genesis 6-9 did not understand weather patterns. So naturally, if there was a very large but localized flood sometime around 5,000 years ago which probably resulted in significant loss of life, as there is geological evidence for, our ancestors would naturally explain it by an appeal to the gods who, to them, controlled the weather. In some cases, they would look for a reason and probably determined that the gods were angry at humans. The Biblical deluge is then an attempted explanation for the problem of evil. Unfortunately, the authors get the flood wrong because they don't understand the science behind natural
disasters at the time. They assume God must have specifically sent the flood as opposed to knowing that natural disasters are a necessary part of a world that is not casually closed with creatures in possesion of libertarian free will. The Biblical writer believes God caused the flood but also understands God as just and loving so the only natural conclusion is that all of humanity must have been wicked and brought this judgment upon itself. We see that Genesis is wrestling with the problem of evil in a pre-scientific culture and affirming that God is just during tragedy. The garden story doesn't know any better and does the same.