The Flood

Articles about the Holy Bible

Does the Church teach that the flood was a global event?

Church leaders typically treat the flood as global

Church leaders typically treat the flood as global. The challenge comes when Genesis is read as a scientific account. This reading is then contrasted with modern scientific data showing the diversity of plant and animal life, and the complete lack of evidence for a global flood in the geological or archaeological record.

The concept of a spherical earth did not appear in Jewish thought until the fourteenth or fifteenth century

The concept of a spherical earth "did not appear in Jewish thought until the fourteenth or fifteenth century." [1]:30 The word "earth," as used in the Bible, simply refers to solid ground or land, as opposed to water (see Genesis 1:10—"God called the dry land Earth; and...the waters called he Seas...."). It is, of course, possible that earlier prophets had a more advanced view of the nature of the earth—this perspective could, however, have been lost to later centuries and scribes.

Some read these scriptures as describing the point of view of ancient prophets to whom the flood appeared global.

Genesis 7꞉19-23 reads:

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

For those who approach the matter in this way, the primary reason for seeing the flood as global comes from the word "earth." When modern readers see the word "earth," they envision the entire planetary sphere. Dr. Duane E. Jeffery elaborates:

A critical issue in the Flood story in the King James Bible has to do with translations of the Hebrew words eretz and adamah as meaning the entire "earth." What do these terms actually mean? It is widely recognized that Hebrew is a wonderful language for poets, since virtually every word has multiple meanings. But that same characteristic makes it a horrible language for precision. As it turns out, eretz and adamah can indeed be a geographical reference akin to what we usually mean by "the earth." But it is not at all clear that the ancients had the concept of a spherical planet that you and I do. Many scholars argue that the Bible writers thought in terms of a flat earth that was covered by a bowl-shaped firmament into which the windows of heaven were literally cut[1]:31-32

Jeffrey goes on to note that ideas of a global flood may have resulted from a widespread local problem. A current hypothesis that has been gaining ground since 1998 is that a significant flooding event occurred in the area now occupied by the Black Sea. Evidence has been discovered which has led a number of researchers to believe that the Black Sea area was once occupied by a completely isolated freshwater lake at a much lower level than the ocean. The theory is that the sea level rose and eventually broke through the Bosporus shelf, resulting in a rapid flooding event which would have wiped out all life living along the shores of the lake (see p. 34). Whether this is the source for the Genesis flood remains conjecture.

Thus, with this reading the prophets said and meant "the enitre world" but they had a quite different view of what the whole world entailed than we would.

What is genre?

The difficulty with the above, however, is that it reads ancient scripture to address questions that the scripture was probably never meant to address.

Those who study biblical and other texts often talk about the genre of a piece of writing. Genre describes the type of writing that is being studied.

One genre is history; another genre is fiction; another genre is poetry. Readers usually know what genre they are reading, and they adjust their expectations and their way of reading accordingly.

For example, if someone thought that the Lord of the Rings was in the history genre, they might consider it a terribly deceptive work. It describes events and powers for which we have no other evidence. If, however, the reader understands that its genre is fantasy fiction, then the reader expects different things.

Walter Moberly said:

You cannot put good questions and expect fruitful answers from a text apart from a grasp of the kind of material it is in the first place; misjudge the genre, and you may skew many of the things you try to do with the text.[2]

(The 1999 movie Galaxy Quest plays on this idea of mistaken genre—a group of aliens mistake the genre of a Star Trek-like television show. They refer to the show as "historical documents," and believe that the actors really are spacefarers on a spaceship.[3] This is an error of genre, and much of the movie's humor and plot is driven by the contrasts between the expectations of adventure fiction versus historical reality.)

What is "concordism"?

Modern Church leaders and members have sometimes read the flood story in the genre of what we might call "scientific history"—that is, they read it as a technical description of physical realities in a scientific context. This assumption is called concordism: "assumption that scripture is speaking in scientific terms, and therefore to be true and inspired, it has to match what science says."[4]

This assumption could be true—but it is an assumption, not an obvious truth as some treat it. (And, we must ask—since science in any form didn't really exist until the 1600s, and our modern science didn't really get going until the 1800s, why did God speak to ancient peoples in a form completely foreign to them? "[T]hese things were not in the mind of the authors of Genesis. That was not the audience, or the genre, or the spiritual needs they were speaking to."[4])

As John Walton, an evangelical bible scholar put it:

When we approach a text, we must be able to set our presuppositions off to the side as much as possible so that we do not impose them onto the text. It is not wrong to have presuppositions, but it is important to have a realistic grasp of what our presuppositions are so that we can assess their impact on our interpretation. Some of the traditions we carry as baggage are blind presuppositions…. We don’t even realize that they are imported into the text, and we must evaluate their relevance and truth rather than assume them to be accurate.[5]

What is the genre of the flood story?

So maybe we have the genre wrong. What if we are like the aliens who think Star Trek is science fact, not science fiction?

If ... you compare Genesis to other ancient Near Eastern creation and flood stories on the left side, Genesis looks very, very different. It makes a lot more sense and there’s much less conflict. This essentially establishes that comparing Genesis with science is comparing apples and oranges. It’s not a legitimate comparison to begin with, because it’s based on unjustified and anachronistic concordist assumptions.[4]

As it happens, "flood story" is a genre all of its own. The people who wrote and the people who heard the Old Testament had friends and neighbors with flood stories.

Every serious student of the Bible knows that there are other flood stories from the ancient Near East, particularly from ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria.l What is disputed is not the existence and relevance of these ancient flood accounts but rather their significance and relationship to the biblical story. ...

The general contours of the flood story as we hear it in the Eridu Genesis, Atrahasis, and the Gilgamesh Epic are very similar. Due to displeasure with humans, the divine realm decides to bring a flood against them to destroy them. In each case, the divine realm chooses one individual (Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Uta-napishti, Noah) to save by warning them of the coming flood and instructing them to build an ark. While the shape of the arks in the various stories differs, remarkably the floor space of the arks is nearly identical.1 After building the ark, the flood hero and others (family and in some cases even more people) as well as animals enter the ark. The flood waters rise and finally ebb to the point that the ark comes to rest. ...

As we begin, the reader should not jump to the conclusion that the identification of similarities suggests that the biblical author has borrowed information directly from the Mesopotamian accounts. Everyone in the ancient world knows there was a flood (just like everyone today knows there was a Holocaust). It is in the cultural river. The question is, what was God up to? Why did he send it? On this point, different texts may offer vastly different interpretations.[6]:53, 61-62

How does the message of the biblical flood story differ from that of the pagan cultures that surrounded it?

Walton continues:

The gods in the [Ancient Near East] were motivated by what can be called the "Great Symbiosis." ... [that is,] the gods created people because they were tired of the work involved to meet their own needs. Gods needed food, housing, clothing, and so on, but they did not want to work for it. Once people were created to serve in this way, it becomes necessary for the gods to provide for people (if there is no rain, crops cannot grow and the gods cannot be fed) and protect them (if they are being harried by invaders who steal their food or burn their crops, the gods cannot be cared for). Throughout the literature of the ancient world, we learn it is the mandate to provide for the gods that stands as the principal feature of their religious practice. Performance equals piety. Offense is failure to meet the needs of the gods. The result is codependence.

Not surprisingly, the Mesopotamian interpretation of the flood is based on the premise of this Great Symbiosis. The gods have not created people for relationship (as Yahweh [Jehovah] had done). The gods live among the people (in temples) so that the people can meet their needs, but they don't really like people—they need people. Yahweh, in contrast, has no needs and actually desires relationship. ...

The Great Symbiosis is consistently refuted in the Old Testament and has no role in the interpretation of the flood. In the Mesopotamian flood account the Great Symbiosis explains the actions of the gods at every turn. For them, the operation of the Great Symbiosis is the basis for order in the world. In the interpretation offered in Genesis, disruption of order is the driving idea, but order from the biblical standpoint has nothing to do with the Great Symbiosis. ... [6]:65-66

Instead of being about meeting the gods' needs, in the bible the flood occurs because of human violence and wickedness. Human behavior is preventing the covenant relationship that Yahweh/Jehovah wants to have with them.

This demonstrates how culture and genre should influence how we read scriptural texts:

Another way to think about the similarities and differences is to acknowledge that the Israelites are embedded in an ancient Near Eastern culture and that God speaks to them there. God gives them revelation that transcends the culture, but he speaks to them within the culture. This is not a matter of imposing the ancient Near East on the Bible (the Bible is an ANE literary document); rather, it involves the acknowledgment that they are within the ancient Near East. It's our responsibility to understand the flood story within its original context ...[6]:87-88

This idea should be a comfortable one for Latter-day Saints, since modern revelation insists that God speaks in the language and thought forms of his people. In the introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants (a book of modern revelation) the Lord says:

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time (D&C 1꞉24-28 (emphasis added)).

In a sense, we might say that God always has to "dumb things down" for us! He speaks in our own language and way so we can understand, just as he spoke to ancient Israelites or ancient Nephites in their culture and language so they would understand.

Our mistake comes when we try to read texts written for them through our culture and language, rather than theirs.

What else can ancient near eastern culture teach us about the flood story?

In the Ancient Near East the world was understood to have been organized by God (or the gods) out of chaos. And chaos was represented by great roiling waters:

This particular judgment [the Flood] is so devastating that it has even been described as an act of uncreation. Going back to the very opening of Genesis, we read: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty [tohu wabohu], darkness was over the surface of the deep" (1:1-2). Before God brought the earth into functional order, it was "formless and empty." It is likely, if not certain, the author intends for us to think of the earth as undifferentiated water. From this formless and empty watery mass God creates a functional and livable earth. The flood, then, is a reversion to the watery mass, a tohu wabohu state. The pattern we have identified also explains the abundance of intertextual allusions in Genesis 9꞉1 and Genesis 1–2 as well as Genesis 9꞉18-29. We observe, then, that one way of reading Genesis 1–9 is along the lines of creation—uncreation—re-creation.[6]:103

For an ancient Israelite, then, the Flood story describes the destruction of God's ordered, created world because of human sin. The world can no longer fulfill its purpose as things stand. ("This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man," [Moses 1꞉39].) A world everywhere full of sin, violence, and rebellion cannot fulfill God's purposes to exalt his children through a covenant relationship.

The Flood is a demonstration of God reestablishing the purpose and order of the world:

Genesis 1–11 is interested in tracking the issue of nonorder, order, and disorder. In this View, the flood account focuses more on how God is reestablishing a modicum of order in the world as he uses nonorder (the cosmic waters) to obliterate disorder (evil and violence). Of course, the flood does not totally obliterate disorder, as God acknowledges in Genesis 8꞉21. But it resets the ordering process, and God indicates that the established order will not again be reset by a flood (Genesis 8꞉21). This view focuses attention on God's continuing plan to establish order (present and future oriented) beyond the act of judging sin (past oriented), though both are legitimate perspectives. ...

When we interpret events like the flood, we should treat the event as we do with a character. What the narrator does with the flood is more important than what the flood does, and what God does through the flood is most important of all. If this is so, then we need to articulate persuasively what the narrator and God are doing through the flood.[6]:94-95

Does the New Testament tell us anything that can help?

Jesus uses the Flood account to give a similar sort of message. He is probably not particularly worried that his audience understand that the entire globe was submerged by water. That is not what they would have thought about. Instead, Jesus uses the Flood as an example of God's purposes for his children again being fulfilled—through him:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 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. (Matthew 24꞉37-39)

The New Testament thus adopts the flood story as an illustration of the truth that our God is a God who judges sin. He does not tolerate disobedience, since he understands our propensity to promote ourselves above himself does not lead to our flourishing but to our detriment. In this it is used as an archetypal narrative for future eschatological judgment.[6]:98

Just as the Flood was God's way of reestablishing his purposes for the earth and his children, so Jesus' return in glory will likewise sweep away the things in the world that prevent the full blessing and exaltation of God's children.

What does the Flood story show us happening after the Flood?

If we agree that the Flood is about reestablishing God's purposes, then it is not surprising to see that the Flood is immediately followed by covenants:

The term covenant (berit) appears for the first time in connection with Noah. A covenant, as the English translation rightly implies, is a formal agreement between two parties. In this covenant, God commits himself to the continuance of the world and its inhabitants. Though the words are directed to Noah and his sons, that commitment is given not only to them but to all the creation and its creatures. They don't have to live in fear that God will periodically bring the creation to an end. ... Because this covenant is the first one explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the rainbow is the first sign of a covenant. Later we will see that circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17꞉9-14), the sabbath is the sign of the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 31꞉12-18), and the Lord's Supper is the sign of the new covenant (Luke 22꞉20). These signs are like brands. They serve as a reminder to the covenant partners of the relationship established between them.[6]:104-105

Doesn't the Bible say that the continents were divided immediately after the Flood?

At least a few leaders of the Church have been of this view that the continents were divided during or after the Flood

Prominently, prior to becoming president of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that

in the beginning all of the land surface was in one place as it was in the days of Peleg, (Genesis 10:25.) that the earth was divided. Some Bible commentators have concluded that this division was one concerning the migrations of the inhabitants of the earth between them, but this is not the case. While this is but a very brief statement, yet it speaks of a most important event. The dividing of the earth was not an act of division by the inhabitants of the earth by tribes and peoples, but a breaking asunder of the continents, thus dividing the land surface and creating the Eastern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere.[7]

John Taylor also expressed similar views, albeit more briefly.[8] It is perhaps important to note that then-Elder Smith wrote that "By looking at a wall map of the world, you will discover how the land surface along the northern and southern coast of the American Hemisphere and Europe and Africa has the appearance of having been together at one time." [9] Elder Smith was writing between 1953 and 1966; modern continental drift theory was only beginning to gain acceptance during this period (even by 1977, a geology textbook would note that "a poll of geologists now would probably show a substantial majority who favor the idea of drift," while also providing a substantial critique of the theory.[10]

Here again, however, we are at risk of mistaking genre. Elder Smith was reading with modern concerns and preoccupations.

What if we again tried to read as someone in the ancient near east might read?

Scriptures that refer to the earth being "divided" refer to groups of people being separated

A few scriptures, then, refer to the earth being divided:

Genesis 10:25 and 1 Chronicles 1:19: And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg; because in his days the earth was divided: and his brother’s name was Joktan.
D&C 133꞉24: And the land of Jerusalem and the land of Zion shall be turned back into their own place, and the earth shall be like as it was in the days before it was divided.

What do these extensive genealogies at this point in the story tell us?

In perhaps the most important study of Old Testament genealogies in the light of ANE analogues, Robert R. Wilson concluded that

genealogies are not normally created for historical purposes. They are not intended to be strictly historical records. Rather in the Bible, as well as in the ancient Near Eastern literature and in the anthropological material, genealogies seem to have been created for domestic, political- jural, and religious purposes, and historical information is preserved in the genealogies only incidentally.

They are designed to give people an understanding of their identity. ... [G]enealogies, while including lists of real people in a real past, are first and foremost making theological statements ... .

After the flood, humans continue to sin (Genesis 11꞉21-29). People unite to build a city and a tower that offends God ...

God thus initiates a new strategy of carrying out his plans and purposes beginning with this one man and his wife, Sarah; through their descendants he will reach the world in order to restore blessing on his human creatures.

Notice the dramatic change in the narrative at this point. Whereas the primeval narrative covers the whole world over what must be an incredibly long period of time, now the focus in the second part, the patriarchal narratives, focuses on one individual— Abraham, then Jacob, then Joseph—and devotes considerable narrative space to a relatively short period of time. We observe that such a shift signals a more intense interest in the details of the events associated with the patriarchs as founding figures of the people of God.[6]:104-105, 110

There is no serious biblical scholarship that reads these verses as implying a rapid drift of the continents

The verses in Genesis and 1 Chronicles are describing the descendants of Shem. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley viewed Genesis 10꞉25 (which says that in the days of Peleg "the earth was divided") as meaning "the earth was divided among the children of Noah."[11] There is no serious biblical scholarship that reads these verses as implying a rapid drift of the continents—partly because such an idea would have been utterly foreign to writers in that time period.


Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Duane E. Jeffery, "Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone no. (Issue #134) (October 2004). off-site
  2. Walter Moberly, "How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis" in Reading Genesis after Darwin (Oxford Press, 2009), 5; cited by Ben Spackman, "'Through a Glass, Less Darkly: The 20th Century History of Genesis and Evolution'," Proceedings of the 2021 FAIR Conference (August 2021). link
  3. David Howard and Robert Gordon, Galaxy Quest (DreamWorks Pictures, 1999)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Ben Spackman, "'Through a Glass, Less Darkly: The 20th Century History of Genesis and Evolution'," Proceedings of the 2021 FAIR Conference (August 2021). link
  5. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, (Zondervan, 2001): 318; cited by Ben Spackman, "'Truth, Scripture, and Interpretation: Some Precursors to Reading Genesis'," Proceedings of the 2017 FAIR Conference (August 2017). link
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate (IVP Academic, 2018).
  7. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1957–1966), 5:73. ISBN 1573454400. GospeLink
  8. John Taylor, Government of God (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1852), 110.off-site
  9. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1957–1966), 5:73. ISBN 1573454400. GospeLink For essentially the same argument, see also 4:22; Church History and Modern Revelation (1947), 2:35; and Man: His Origin and Destiny (1954), 385, 421–422. Note that these sources are all even earlier, and likewise predate modern continental drift data and theory. President David O. McKay was clear on multiple occasions that the latter volume represented only President Smith's personal opinions, and were not Church doctrine (see here and here).
  10. Richard A. Davis, Principles of Oceanography, 2nd edition, (Addison-Wesley, 1977), ISBN 0201014645. For more on continental drift theory's history and development, see wikipedia.org off-site.
  11. [citation needed]