The Flood in the Ancient Near East

The next two propositions in The Lost World of the Flood by Tremper Longman and John Walton compare the flood story in Mesopotamian literature with the story found in Genesis 6-9. Outside of Genesis, there are several known versions of a flood story – Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian versions. The flood is also referred to in the Sumerian King List where the succession is split into pre-flood and post-flood periods.

There are similarities and differences among and between all of the versions. Walton and Longman suggest that none of the accounts, including the biblical account, are interested in the specific details of the flood. They are all interested in the interpretation of the event … why the flood happened and its impact on the world. The Genesis account is both similar and different in significant ways. Several are discussed in the book, I’ll only highlight a couple here.

Genesis depicts one God, YHWH, in control. He decrees the flood in response to moral corruption on the part of humankind. YHWH provides the warning that saves Noah and his family. In the Mesopotamian accounts the flood is decreed by one god while complete destruction is thwarted by another. Humanity was to be destroyed because they were a noisy nuisance but the action was regretted because the gods needed humans for food and care – otherwise they’d have to work themselves. YHWH doesn’t need humanity, but does establish a covenant with Noah and his descendants. God desires relationship with humans created in his image.

The flood is depicted as having cosmic proportions and the telling uses universalistic rhetoric. Genesis is stronger in this regard than the Mesopotamian accounts. Tremper and John conclude: “The widespread nature of the destruction is indicated by the use of univeralistic rhetoric well-known for cataclysmic events, especially of a cosmic nature, in the ancient world.” (p. 71) The flood is longer in the biblical account than in the Mesopotamian accounts (forty days compared with seven days) but in all cases the numbers have rhetorical significance. They are not intended to convey specific details of an actual event.

All of these are identifiably formulaic numbers that consistently carry rhetorical value. … the fact remains that the evidence from the ancient world and biblical usage indicates that we are not to read these time frames as specific or precise designations of actual time spans. We cannot reconstruct how long the rain lasted or the length of the aftermath of the flood from the information given; instead it is designed to convey the massive scope of the cataclysm. (p. 71)

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The Word of God is Not a Book

There is a song that I grew up with – along with many others of my generation, as well those before and after.

The B-I-B-L-E,
Yes, that’s the book for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God,
The B-I-B-L-E.

The implication is that the Bible, the collection of books comprising the Old and New Testaments, is the very Word of God. Certainly the Bible as the Word of God is the focus of much of conservative Protestant Christianity. This, we are told, is the foundation on which we stand – inspired by God, inerrant in the original manuscripts. Verbal plenary inspiration (or better for some, verbal dictation) guarantees the authority of the Word and the authenticity of our faith.

The Bible is the very important. It is through the study of the Bible that we learn about God and his interaction with his people. It has been preserved for us through the Spirit and the Church. We don’t read it or hear it to separate truth from error but to find God. But the Bible isn’t the word of God.

This is a statement that needs more discussion.

John Walton and D. Brent Sandy in The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority emphasize that the ancient Near East was an oral rather than a literary culture. The same was true of first century Galilee and Judea. While literature and literacy were more common than in the ancient Near East, the culture was still based primarily in oral communication rather than books and documents. Oral communication carried real authority – authority that was in no way deficient to the authority of the written word. Propositions 8 to 10 dig into this more deeply: 8) Jesus world was predominantly non-literate and oral, 9) Logos/word referred to oral communication not written texts, and 10) Jesus proclaimed truth in oral forms and commissioned his followers to do the same.

When we limit “the word of God” to the written text of the Bible we diminish the meaning of this phrase. John and Brent emphasize that logos or word in the New Testament refers to oral communication – and the meaning of this communication – the divine truth of this communication. When Jesus says his word will not fail or perish and that he has given the disciples “your word” (Jn 17:14) he is referring to spoken word and the divine truth of these words. The word of God is communication of divine truth. Logos does move beyond oral proclamation of course. In John 1 we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (v. 1-2)

While Scripture as inspiration gives access to the mind of God – even though it was communicated through human instruments – Jesus as revelation provides unprecedented access to God’s thoughts, not in the form of oral text or written text, but living text. Jesus was the performance, the manifestation, the embodiment of divine reason and wisdom. God spoke his words into a living text, his Son. (p. 126)

Spoken word, living word … the communication of God’s truth to his people. The Bible serves to communicate God’s word to us yet today. But God’s word is not a book. The Bible illuminates God for us, but it is not our foundation or rock. Continue reading

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It is Hyperbole.

We’ve been reading through The Lost World of the Flood by Tremper Longman III and John Walton. We now get to a couple of propositions that may take some getting used to and some careful thought. Tremper and John agree with Ken Ham (who has built The Ark Encounter) that the there a real historical event behind the flood narrative in Genesis and this event is theologically significant. But the agreement ends about there. Genesis 6-9 has roots in a real historical event, but it is describe in figurative and hyperbolic language to emphasize the theological significance.

The Bible uses hyperbole. John and Tremper pointed out the use of hyperbole in the opening chapters of Joshua (see They’re Theological Histories). There are other places where we see hyperbole as well, the prophets on occasion. Tremper and John suggest Lamentations 2:22 and Zephaniah 1 as examples.

The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah … “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea— and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble. When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (Zephaniah 1:1-3)

“As you summon to a feast day, so you summoned against me terrors on every side. In the day of the Lord’s anger no one escaped or survived; those I cared for and reared my enemy has destroyed.” (Lamentations 2:22)

John and Tremper don’t use this example, but I suggest that Jesus himself could use hyperbole for emphasis – for example Mark 13:1-2.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mk 13:1-2)

Not one stone … a few people have suggested that the area currently identified as the western wall must be something else on the strength of this passage, others that Jesus referred only to the temple proper, not the retaining wall. However, if a few stones of these magnificent buildings remain in place yet today it isn’t really a problem. The impact of the statement and its theological significance are clear. Rhetorical use of hyperbole is not a serious issue.

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They’re Theological Histories

John Walton and Tremper Longman III (The Lost World of the Flood) consider many of the stories in the old Testament, and in Genesis 1-11 in particular, to be theological histories. These stories refer to historical events in some sense, but they are not exhaustive accounts. They are structured to convey a theological message.

Biblical narrators thus speak from their worldview and select and emphasize aspects of the past that communicate their interest in God and the relationship between God and his human creatures. For this reason it is appropriate to refer to those biblical books that look to the past as theological histories.

Furthermore, historians, including biblical writers about the past, do more than simply report events (just the facts); they interpret the significance of the events. Indeed, again, biblical authors are not interested in giving us what we need to recreate the event in its pure facticity but rather in using the event to communicate their theological message. It is their theological message that carries the authority God has invested in them. (pp. 22-23)

The biblical authors use rhetorical devices and hyperbole to convey their message. They do so in a manner that was consistent with accepted practice in the ancient Near East. The presentation of the message is rhetorically shaped for impact using figurative language. John and Tremper point out that the use of figurative language is not a modern discovery forced on us to resolve conflict with ‘science.’ Origen, writing in the early 200’s noted the presence of figurative language in Genesis 1-3 (See “On First Principles”). St. Augustine also recognized the presence of figurative language in Genesis.

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Evidence for (Human) Evolution

Why do scientists – even Christian scientists – find evolution convincing?

What is the evidence for common descent, the relatedness of humans and great apes with a common ancestor millions of years ago?

Darrel Falk, professor emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University, former president of BioLogos, author of Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Gap Between Faith and Biology, has turned his efforts toward the production of a series of short videos (6 to 9 minutes) explaining much of the evidence. Six of these are now available on YouTube at the channel Coming to Peace with Science with Darrel Falk.

The first series of videos looks at the evidence in human chromosome 2. Chromosome 2 is a fascinating story – apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes while humans have 23. This is, of course, a significant difference that might seem to disprove common descent. But human chromosome 2 has clear evidence of fusion resulting from the head-to-head connection of two of the chromosomes found in chimpanzees and other apes. At some point in our evolutionary history two chromosomes became one. This fusion is marked by the presence of residual telomeres (end caps) within the fused human chromosome and by the presence of an inactive residual centromere in the exact location where it is found in the separate chromosome of the chimpanzee.

Consider two hypotheses for the apparent fusion chromosomes in humans but not in chimpanzees. This could be the result of God as an engineer, “maybe God, in his design, chose to put the information into one package for humans rather than two packages that were used for great apes.” An alternative is the God as parent hypothesis. “God in love, establishes and maintains the conditions for human creation … but God does not dictate every step along the way. … God works through evolutionary processes like a parent.” Darrel Falk digs into this evidence for fusion in human chromosome 2 and explores these two hypotheses.

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Under the Spell of the Printed Word

Western culture is, in many respects, a culture focused on the written word. Documents transmit cultural history, traditions and laws. The sagas of Harry Potter and Frodo were written before they were performed. Some of us still bristle at the ways in which the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy took liberties with Tolkien’s written word. The character of Tolkein’s Faramir in The Two Towers when he first encountered Frodo is important to the story. He stands firm and makes the right choice. The movie lost me at this point (although not completely). In the screenplay Faramir becomes something of a villain rather than a hero. In my opinion this modification to the story diminished it substantially. Tolkien’s printed word should stand! The character of Faramir and his ability to resist the ring is an important part of the tale.

Many reading this post, of course, may disagree – thinking this change in Faramir is a minor detail of no real importance. The performed work still tells the same story, and does so in a fashion better suited to the big screen. A movie doesn’t communicate in the same way a book does.

If Genesis 1-11 isn’t history then Christ wasn’t raised. We are under the spell of the printed word, living in a literate society and in a text-dominant culture. It is only in the context of a culture like ours that such a statement makes sense. In their book The Lost World of Scripture John Walton and Brent Sandy dig into the oral cultures in which the Old and New Testaments were written. These are not the same. The Old Testament was written in an ancient Near Eastern culture influenced by Mesopotamia and Egypt. Although writing existed, it was not the primary form of communication. In contrast the New Testament was written in the first century, in a culture dominated by Greece and Rome. Although written texts had a significant place in the culture, it was still an oral dominant culture – but not identical to the context of the Old Testament.

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Does Genesis Make Claims About History?

The obvious answer to this question is yes – at least when it comes to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. There is little doubt about this. The text is making intentional claims about the history of Israel in Genesis 12-50. When it comes to Genesis 1-11 however, the question requires more thought.

Tremper Longman III and John Walton, The Lost World of the Flood, agree that even in Genesis 1-11 there are some historical claims being made. While 1-11 and 12-50 have quite different form and feel, the toledot structure connects the whole. (The toledot structure is seen in the formula “this is the account of x” which occurs 10 times in the book, 4 in 1-11 and 6 in 12-50.) Various sources are pulled together by the composer of Genesis to tell a story. “The composer incorporates these sources as reports from the past to create his account of the past.” (p. 17) This leads to the conclusion (at least for Tremper and John) that Genesis 1-11 is making claims about history.

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