As part of a series “Embarrassing Bible Texts?” in Christianity magazine, David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House, Cambridge, asks, Did Noah’s Ark actually happen? Were six million land species really rescued in one boat? He concludes that there was a real flood, and a real ark in which “the precious animal stock – specially bred by generations of farmers” was rescued, but that this flood was not worldwide. Neither is he is quite saying that it was a local flood. Rather he links this with a flood attested by proper scientific observation:
Archaeologists in the 1930s found evidence of an amazingly widespread flood (or floods) which covered the whole plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – an area of 140,000 square miles – before 3000 BC. This wasn’t just a shallow flood; even the silt they found deposited by this water was eight feet deep! The whole country is flat, with just a few small hills, so this flood would have been utterly devastating; there is simply no high ground to run to for hundreds of miles. The area was the homeland of the ancient Middle Eastern world and the whole population living there must have been wiped out by this flood. It was a disaster on a scale never seen anywhere in the modern world.
So how can we reconcile this with the Bible passages which appear to teach a worldwide flood:
The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.
Genesis 7:18-20 (NIV 2011)
Instone-Brewer is certainly correct to point out that the Hebrew word eretz, here translated “earth”, can also mean “land”, as in eretz Yisrael which is the normal Hebrew for “the land of Israel”.
More problematic is the phrase “all the high mountains under the entire heavens”. Yes, the Hebrew for “mountain”, har, can also refer to quite a small hill, as in 1 Samuel 26:13. And perhaps “under heaven” can mean within the visible horizon, as Instone-Brewer suggests from Deuteronomy 2:25. But it seems unlikely that “all the high mountains” and “the entire heavens” can be understood in this way.
So how should we understand passages like this? Instone-Brewer seems to treat the Genesis story as a literal account of historical events, and then tries to argue that those historical events did not happen as commonly understood. I don’t think that quite works. It seems to me that if the account is literal, it is about a worldwide flood – one which scientists tell us could never have happened.
However, we need to consider what the authors’ intentions were in writing the accounts in the early part of Genesis, about the creation and the fall as well as the flood. They were not writing scientific papers but stories. And these stories are intended not so much to tell the past as to teach God’s ways – in the case of the flood story, as Instone-Brewer writes,
the message that God hates evil and is willing to take drastic steps to deal with it.
Didactic stories the world over use figures of speech such as hyperbole for dramatic effect. So it would hardly be surprising to find hyperbole in an account like that of the flood. A clear candidate for this kind of hyperbole is Genesis 7:19 quoted above, which turns a flood covering small hills in a local area into a worldwide one reaching above Himalayan peaks.
One might ask, how can one tell which statements in the Bible are hyperbolic, and so can be ignored as unhistorical? But that is the wrong question. If the story is not intended to teach history, one cannot expect to get any reliable historical information from it. That may be frustrating for modern scholars, but it is true. If one wants to know what happened in the past, didactic stories from the Bible or elsewhere may give useful indications, but they can never give the kind of reliable details one might obtain from inscriptions or archives intended as records of events.
In my recent post Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic I suggested that that infamous preacher of the Rapture might have been led astray by his engineering background into
taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.
I also suggested that this approach might be typical of creationists. This is seen also in the reading of the Noah’s Ark story as an engineer’s literal report of the height of the water. I suggested in a Facebook comment on the Camping post that
engineers, and physical scientists like myself, tend to be rather literal minded and so to prefer a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible, whereas those trained in the humanities tend to be more liberal theologically.
Well, in this case “those trained in the humanities” (and I am also that) are likely to be better qualified than engineers to understand the implications of the literary genre of the text. If their conclusions seem liberal rather fundamentalist, that doesn’t make them less valid.