Thursday, March 05, 2009

Catching Up: Carol Hill on the Genesis Flood

Nice thing about having access to the ASA backfiles: you can find real gems that you might have missed a few years back. Carol Hill wrote an article called "A Third Alternative to Concordism and Divine Accommodation: The Worldview Approach" in 2007 that is available as a pdf file from their site.

As nearly as I can tell, this view most closely mirrors my own and it is nice to find another person who has struggled with these issues and resolved them in this way. One thing that my wife and I have argued about for some time now is the historicity of the Primeval History. Her perspective is that if you don't take Adam literally, then there is no reason to accept the Lordship of Christ and his death meant nothing in an "original sin" sense. Given what I know of human evolution and the age of the earth, I have resisted accepting the literal existence of Adam. While I don't buy all of Dr. Hill's arguments in this article, she may be onto something. She writes:

I would like to offer a third alternative to “concordism” (Ross’s position) and “divine accommodation” (Seely’s position). I call it the “worldview approach.” The basic premise of the worldview approach is that the Bible in its original text accurately records historical events if considered from the worldview of the biblical authors. By “historical” I mean not only history and pre-history in a traditional sense, but also the historical, time-related, scientific disciplines such as archeology, geology, and astronomy. If the Bible is to be trusted for its theology, then it must also be trusted for its historical accuracy.

She correctly pours water on the concordist approach by pointing out something that scientists have know for years: that the march of evolution does not match the Genesis 1 account very well. Put simply, in the Genesis account, things are out of order. This, however is not important:

It means that our concepts of modern science are not contained in Genesis, and that we should not read our twenty-first century scientific worldview into the text.

Contrast this with the mission statement of Answers in Genesis, which reads, in part:

The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life, mankind, the Earth and the universe.

As far as Adam is concerned, she writes:

The “divine accommodation” position of Seely would say that Adam was not a real person and that this story is just a myth that God accommodates into his Bible. The “concordist” position of Ross would say that Adam was a real person and the biological father of the whole human race, so to be in concord with science Adam had to live 50,000 years or so ago (or almost 200,000 years ago if one is talking about the first Homo Sapiens found in the fossil record). The worldview approach does not ascribe to either position. It would say that Adam lived in the Neolithic (because the Bible puts him there in real time) and that he was not a mythical person, but a real historical person whom God made the spiritual father of the whole human race.

Of course, the drawback of this viewpoint is, what does one do with the anatomically modern humans that have been walking around since 160 kya? There is no evidence that their intellect was any less than that of you and I. If we ask the question "then why did they use primitive stone tools for thousands of years?" we might as well ask "why didn't people in the seventeenth century have computers?" Where populations are small, people use what works. When there are many people in an area, they bounce ideas off each other and compete with other. That is what drives technology. So, given that they were as intelligent as we are, did the people that lived during this time period simply not have souls? That is a little difficult to square with what is known of the personality of God. If they did, what was the final disposition of their souls? This was a question addressed by Davis Young in his article The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race. In it, he writes:

Ironically, it would seem that trying to preserve the traditional confessional idea of the biological descent of the entire human race from Adam and Eve forces us to adopt positions which require abandonment of aspects of literal historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. Either we need to interpret the text so that Adam is not the father of Cain or we need to explain why the culture of Genesis 4 really does not include the elements therein mentioned. On the other hand, adherence to more literal exegesis of the text puts us in the position of redefining the traditional position on original sin.

He then suggests, as Carol Hill does in this article, that the solutions to these problems will require a closer look at the literary nature of the creation texts—an idea that is not new but seems to be lost of your average young earth creationist.

Then she tackles the flood, which she interprets to be local in origin:

The duration of rain (up until 150 days; Gen. 8:2) could have been caused by the stalling of a Mediterranean cyclonic front over the Mesopotamian area in combination with maritime air masses moving up from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. This stalled storm would have been associated with southerly winds (the sharqi and/or suhaili), not with the northwesterly shamal wind, and these could have been very intense winds both in strength and duration.

In this perspective, Noah and his family are real people that survived a real flood in the Mesopotamian basin. There is one initial problem in this interpretation. The Gilgamesh epic involving Utnapisthim predates the biblical story of Noah and the flood and there are considerable parallels between the two. It is suggestive that there was a common story from which the two accounts worked that is shrouded in antiquity. This is essentially the argument put forth by Ryan and Pitman in their book Noah's Flood. The other problem with this interpretation is the "memory hole" problem. No one seems to remember Noah and his sons. This problem is especially acute (perhaps inexplicable) for promoters of a global flood. If, as she suggests, that Noah, Atrahasis and Ziusudra are the same person, that takes care of some of the issues but not the vastly different lives these people led. Ziusudra was the king of Shuruppak, while Noah led a humble life before the flood. People would have listened to a king. Nobody listened to Noah. They thought him to be a kook. Those issues need to be addressed.

She closes with a nod to Conrad Hyers:

To faithfully interpret Genesis is to be faithful to what it really means as it was originally written, not to what people living in a later time assume or desire it to be.

True words. There is more to be expounded on about this issue. I just need to sit down and do so.


  1. Hi Jim. I enjoy your blog a lot.

    I haven't read the article, just your post, but I don't have time this morning. Nevertheless, I offer these comments as a Christian:

    What if the father of our Lord Jesus, in inspiring His Word, didn't provide special historical detail to his human authors?

    What if Luke just researched and did the best he could, the editor of Daniel took old, legit stories about Daniel and weaved them together for publication, King's editors took old, legit records and weaved them into a religious-political history, and Genesis' authors, perhaps using written or spoken sources passed down from Moses, just did the best the could with the stories they had?

    I think the Biblical authors were top-flight historians for their time, but not perfect in the way we demand them to be. That doesn't stop the bible from being theologically perfect as God's written word, even including the doctrine of original sin.

    We often get caught in a Modernist fallacy: that the true meaning of history is found in an objective record of the events. We think that if we could just nail down exactly what really happened in an unbiased form, then we will know what the true meaning of the events are.

    Everyone before our culture, and many cultures still today, would reject that. The meaning must be explained, fleshed out, synthesized, by an author who uses a record of events as a starting point. God inspired the meaning of the events, not the record of events.

    It's not that Biblical authors didn't care about what really happened, or that that didn't matter (that would be a Post-Modern fallacy--thinking that the only thing that matters is my internal experience). Indeed, the Gospel authors, for example, cared very much that Jesus could truly eat, drink, and be touched after his resurrection.

    However, I think the fear that admitting the Bible just has stuff wrong historically comes from believing that the meaning is inherent in the historical events alone. If we determine historically that one of the Gospel writers just plain got the order of stuff wrong, that eliminates their ability to speak meaningfully about who Jesus was. It doesn't.

    The Bible's explanation of the events, its interpretation of their meanings, is infallible and perfect, as the Word of God delivered by the Holy Spirit through human authors.

    But the authors of Genesis? They had no idea how the world began (either do we, really) and used myths and ideas that were around. They were wrong as it went down, as we are, I'm sure, in many ways.

    Original sin? God creating the perfect world that went wrong? I will never compromise those beliefs. They're virtually from God's lips.

  2. Glad I'm not the only one that wrestles with these issues! I'm still trying to determine the point of Genesis 1-11. Having a very basic understanding of the ANE culture makes me think that I am probably missing the point of the stories as I read it from the Greek-influenced, 21st Western culture.

    I have been listening to Ray Vander Laan lately. He delves deeply into the Jewish mindset and eastern thought. The more I learn about both of those, the more I realize that approaching the text from our current perspective is completely wrong. However, if you presuppose that the Bible is dictated by God, it can be very unsettling to learn that the Bible is culturally conditioned. A person's presuppositions about the Bible seem to determine how he or she interprets it.

  3. Anonymous12:38 PM

    Thanks, Jim, this is helpful stuff.
    Regarding original sin: If Adam is not literal, how does that invalidate original sin? Also, why is original sin as a technical doctrine so important if every human knows their own brokenness? I haven't studied the theology but suspect that it's parsed and analyzed and all these unnecessary things are built on top of it (like the damnation of children, and hence the need to baptize infants and even the stillborn).

  4. Wow. I thought that Carol Hill post would get people thinking. And how! Okay, Jon, I'll bite. If Adam is not necessary for original sin, then when was it "original?"

  5. Daniel, I think we are all missing the point of these stories. I still struggle with other sections of the PH also, like the table of nations and the Tower of Babel, which seems, quite literally, fantastic. The whole thing has a strange veneer to it that is different from the rest of the Bible. Quite simply, it reads like mythology! Does it read that way because that is what other people were reading at the time and it had to "fit in?" or does it read that way because, well, much of it is.

  6. A bit back George Murphy wrote a piece on Original Sin for the ASA. Here is my take on it.

  7. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Maybe "original" is unnecessary?

  8. That still needs a bit of explication, Jon. When did sin enter the lives of people and why did Christ die for this sin?

  9. Anonymous10:19 PM

    Those are two very different questions, Jim. I rather like the George Murphy bit you linked just above.

  10. I think "sin" was always present as developing hominids killed, stole, lied, displayed jealousy, greed, etc. These traits we find in the animal kingdom today. (Just read about an interesting fly that wraps a small bug as a present for a future mate, and upon delivering it to her, mates with her as she opens it and eats it. BUT, some of them "lie" about it, wrapping up nothing and attempting to finish copulation before the female realizes.)

    I think these things become sin upon God entering human history and declaring them so, whether vocally or through consciousness, I don't know.

    Personally, I have no doubt the first 11 chapters are myth, and that a good deal of the next 20 books or so or not exactly history as we might understand it today. And no, I have yet to become comfortable with either of these facts, or have a good theological justification for them (with some fancy sounding term like concordance, or accommodation, etc). There is just no point denying what I feel is clearly reality now, despite how it might make me feel.

  11. I also have a tendency to think that there is more myth than not, but it raises the question of why it is there in the first place. If Carol Hill is correct about the fact that these stories are correct, just from a particular perspective, then one wonders just how far they have been warped out of recognition.

  12. "I also have a tendency to think that there is more myth than not, but it raises the question of why it is there in the first place."

    I have struggled with this too. And yet, several people including Joe Ellis above have been telling me that the idea that it only has meaning if it were historical is a modern mindset. Maybe the ancients thought of it exactly opposite. Maybe they would have been just as disappointed to find out it really happened, something like "You mean that is a real historical event? Well then how can it teach us something if it wasn't specifically crafted for that purpose? If it were historical, why would God put it there in the first place?"

  13. Pete, good comments. This is the position of many Biblical historians, virtually none of whom are YECs. The stories teach us who we are and how we are to be rather than the nuts and bolts of how the created order came to be. As William Jennings Bryan said: "The Rock of Ages is more important than the age of rocks." Joe, yours are very insightful. We ask more of those writers than the Spirit-filled writers of today. After all, we know that the Pentateuch was edited heavily by someone other than Moses and that there are discrepancies between the different texts. As Carol Hill points out in her brilliant article Making sense of the numbers in Genesis, "The antediluvial ages before the birth of the first son from Adam to Noah is 1,656 years in the Masoretic text, 1,307 in the Samaritan text, and 2,262 years in the Septuagint text. The postdiluvian ages before the birth of the first son in the interval between the Flood and Abraham is 292 years in the Masoretic text, 942 years in the Samaritan text, and 1,072 years in the Septuagint text."

    A problem, no?