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.
The flood story in Genesis 6-9.
In terms of the flood story, the most pronounced rhetorical feature is clearly hyperbole.
Hyperbole is a form of figurative language. It exaggerates in order to produce an effect or make a point. …
In our opinion, hyperbole permeates the account of the flood, beginning with the pervasive nonorder. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). (pp. 37-38)
The utter perversity of all humankind … evil thoughts for every act … the size of the ark, the extent of the flood fifteen cubits over the highest mountains. Many aspects of the story point to rhetorical hyperbole. John and Tremper suggest that the ancient audience would have realized and understood this. Among other things, this means that the Genesis flood is intentionally depicted as global, covering the world to extraordinary height wiping out every animal and bird except those on the ark. The biblical text is not describing a local flood, nor is it describing a flood covering the “known” world. “Instead, it is using intentionally universalistic language to talk about the significance of the flood event.” (p. 47)
We do not need to try to reconcile the text with geological or biological history. The super-speed diversification (i.e. evolution) after the flood, proposed by young earth creationists (see Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter for example) to account for the wide variety of species present today and found in the fossil record, is unnecessary. So are all of the other ways in which the text has been twisted to produce coherence and concordance.
According to Tremper and John, the flood happened (more about this later), but the text is not providing a mundane account of facts. Attempts to ‘save the Bible’ through the claim that the author was describing a local flood will miss the significance of the story. Attempts to ‘save the Bible’ by explaining how all the kinds could be housed and fed and finally dispersed miss the significance of the story. “[T]he rhetoric related to the flood is intentionally universal but … it is actually the impact and significance that is universal rather than the range and scope.” (p. 49)
The flood account in Genesis uses hyperbole to make a point and this is completely appropriate and consistent with our view of Scripture as the word of God.
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