Monday, June 14, 2010

Pete Enns and Noah's Flood

Pete Enns over at BioLogos has an intriguing set of posts on the Noachian flood and its relationship to the flood of Gilgamesh and that of Atrahasis. Part one is here. In the first post, he reminds us of some things about the three flood stories that make many Christians uncomfortable:
The following summarizes the similarities:

* 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).

These similarities suggest that the three stories are related in some way. As mentioned above, Gilgamesh seems to have a direct literary tie to Atrahasis. Some scholars also feel that the episode of the birds in Genesis 8:6-12 is dependent on Gilgamesh.
For many Christians in the evangelical community, addressing the flood story in this manner dilutes the true word of God and borders on heresy. Creationists such as Larry Vardimann, the late Henry Morris, Todd Wood and many others view this story as having happened exactly as written. Of course, exactly as written means some embellishing in the process. For example, in their Noah's Ark FAQ, Answers in Genesis has this to say:
Noah’s Flood was much more destructive than any 40-day rainstorm ever could be. Scripture says that the “fountains of the great deep” broke open. In other words, earthquakes, volcanoes, and geysers of molten lava and scalding water were squeezed out of the earth’s crust in a violent, explosive upheaval. These fountains were not stopped until 150 days into the Flood—so the earth was literally churning underneath the waters for about five months! The duration of the Flood was extensive, and Noah and his family were aboard the Ark for over a year.
That such an account is clearly contradicted by all of the available evidence is no matter to those that hold it dear. Such a reading has always been a curious thing to me. As is clear, the theological importance of the flood story is paramount in that, as the belief goes, if God didn't want us to obey his every word, he would not have written it down this way. Never mind that the account was written down over 2500 years ago and had specific meaning for the people in the region. As It is as if the story is being interpreted in a cultural and historic vacuum, and that the words themselves, rather than their meaning is of the greatest importance. Here there is a confusion between theological meaning and literal meaning. Both are viewed as the same thing. As Daniel Harlow wrote:
Genesis must not be made to say anything that would have been unintelligible or irrelevant to the ancient author and his audience. Modern concerns and concepts must not be foisted anachronistically onto the biblical text. Genesis is God’s word to us, but it was not written to us.
Such a lurid account as that described by AIG views the Genesis 6-8 story in clearly a different way than most Biblical scholars do. As Enns alludes to in his second post, such a reading is one-dimensional and robs the story of its meaning. Just what is its meaning, though? To elucidate this, he reminds us of the "world" before the flood:
Divine and human creatures occupy different space in the created order; they are different types of beings with different realms. Cohabitation between them obliterates the boundaries established at creation. In other words, cohabitation was an act of rebellion, but not against slave labor as we see in Atrahasis. It was an “anti-creation” move. It willfully injected dis-order/chaos, into the created order. God responds in kind by bringing the full force of chaos back to the created order: the waters of chaos collapse back onto the inhabited world.
This is an idea also floated some years back by Ronald Hendel1 in his paper "When the sons of God cavorted with the daughters of men," an excellent extrapolation on the passage in Deuteronomy 32:8, which has in recent centuries been rendered thus:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,

he set up boundaries for the peoples

according to the number of the sons of Israel
In the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, the last phrase is rendered "Sons of God," and, according to Hendel, this appears to have been the historic reading. In Hendel's paper, the existence of the Nephilim was problematic and led to a confusing order from God to human. Thus, He decided to reestablish the cosmic order by wiping them out. This, then becomes the whole point of the story. Whether or not there was a world-wide flood becomes almost irrelevant. Enns continues:
The Israelites adapted the well-known ancient Near Eastern flood motif. The similarities are clear and universally accepted by biblical scholars. But Israel did not just copy a story—instead it made it its own. The old story—with its ancient ways of thinking about the cosmos—became a new vehicle for talking about their God and what made him different.
It also clearly delineated the place of humanity. Not only were we not gods, but our very existence was indebted to the one God: YHWH and it is only through his Son that we have salvation. It further separates the one God that is just and fair and holy from the petty, selfish, capricious gods of the Near Eastern religions. When understood in this context, the flood story makes perfect sense. When interpreted as a literal deluge with all of its myriad unanswered questions, it simply causes confusion and doubt for those that look beneath the surface.

1Hendell, R (1993) When the sons of God cavorted with the daughters of men. In Shanks, H. Understanding the Dead Sea scrolls: a reader from the Biblical archaeology review, Vintage. pp. 167-180

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  1. Ah, you bring up a key Divine Council passage. Are you familiar with Michael Heiser? He's written extensively on the topic and yet comes from a solidly evangelical background. A rare combination indeed. Interestingly enough, only the NRSV and the ESV have chosen to translate the key passages appropriately (in my humble opinion), acknowledging the elohim language for what it is. I'll have to look into that Hendell quote. Sounds promising.

    I think we as evangelical Christians who also take modern science seriously need to find a way to integrate a fully supernaturalist (a term I'm not totally satisfied with) understanding of reality with an equally high regard for the scientific enterprise. I think the next major work in evangelical theology is going to be in how to best understand God's transcendence and immanence with regard to the miraculous in its relationship with the natural realm.

  2. No, I am not familiar with him. Thanks for the heads up. I was disappointed that the NIV went with the newer reading but at least they have a note at the bottom that indicates the "alternate" reading. They may have just wanted to be conservative about it.

    Interestingly, despite the fact that most evangelicals that I know use the NIV, the NIV Study Bible, while being distinctly anti-evolutionary (in passages for which such a position is relevant), leans toward a non-literal interpretation of the creation passages and provides a good bit of extra-biblical historical information. I wonder what my YEC friends who own the Study Bible think about those notes.

  3. I've come to utterly disdain the NIV translation. It willfully mistranslates passages that present difficulties to inerrantists and creationists.

  4. Oh my, disdain. I sometimes dislike it for different reasons but, Beispiel, bitte.

  5. I don't know if I'd go as far as disdaining the NIV. It definitely has its weaknesses and too many passages are more interpretive than translational (as noted above). No translation will ever get it completely right of course, but having a variety of them helps me tremendously in getting a better grip on what the original author was trying to say. It's also very important to have some knowledge of the original languages involved. I have that with the Greek, but unfortunately not with the Hebrew/Aramaic. Hope to fix that soon.

  6. Its funny how you get used to using a particular translation and you don't think much about it unless you are really paying attention. I have been using the Nearly Infallible Version for quite some time and had become comfortable with it but grew up with the Reversed Standard Version and was quite comfortable with it.

    One of my great failing in the process of becoming a well-rounded palaeontologist was my lack of a second language (beyond Japanese, anyway) and I wish I had picked up either Hebrew or Greek so I would have a better handle on the Biblical texts.

  7. Just a quick note of correction: it's Ronald Hendel, not Robert Hendel.

  8. Thanks, Christopher. I will change it now.