The Flood and the Bible: How Not to Reconcile Science and Religion

The Flood and the Bible: How Not to Reconcile Science and Religion October 26, 2016

“Le Lâcher de la colombe,” engraving by Gustave Doré. Source: WikiMedia Commons


Recently, in a few different articles,¹ I’ve drawn attention to a few uncritical arguments that’ve been used to bolster the idea of the harmony between religion and science, a.k.a. “accommodationism.”²

Now, before saying anything else—and as I reiterated in my most recent article on the issue—I agree that a world in which, say, the majority of Christians affirm scientific consensuses is far preferable to one in which they don’t.³ Further, it’s not the idea of the harmony between religion and science in general that’s my object of critique here; it’s simply the subpar ways in which this is argued.

One such argument that’s been made recently has to do with the story of Noah’s flood from the Biblical book of Genesis (chapters 6-9). For the most part, Christian accommodationists reject a more traditional type of flood geology, which attempts to use pseudoscientific arguments in support of a truly global flood that killed all life on earth except for that present on the ark. As an alternative to this, many Christians who accept at least some core of historicity to the flood story believe that it was inspired by some other flooding in the broader region in which the story was formulated—sometimes connected, for example, with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.

Now, even here, there are some serious problems with the idea that the Genesis flood narrative offers independent evidence for some kind of significant flooding, no matter how much more modest in scope than an actual global flood. But here in this post, I want to critically tackle just one way that this has been argued: that the Genesis flood story itself only meant to suggest a regional flood.

No shortage of arguments to effect that the Genesis flood narrative portrays only a local flood can be found on the internet and elsewhere.⁴ᵃ

The particular form of it that I most recently came across, however, runs as follows:

evidence from the text alone suggests that the flood was regional, and not global. It flooded the whole erets — land — not tebel — planet. Consider that Joab went throughout the entire erets to do David’s census. We know this with a high degree of confidence because the Tower of Babel was specifically constructed with brick-and-mortar to withstand another such flood, which means the flood needed to be small enough that an ancient brick-and-mortar tower on a high hill would be able to withstand it:

Genesis 11:3

  • “They said to each other, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.”

[The Jewish historian Josephus‘] Antiquities of the Jews

  • “[Nimrod] also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers! Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work… It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water.”

“29 feet above the har” — with har as regional hills rather than Mt. Everest — accords with this.

There are several things to unpack here.

Now, while protecting the anonymity of the person who wrote this, I’m pretty familiar with them; and they’re certainly an intellectually-engaged Christian. I’m almost certain that they reject all aspects of pseudoscientific flood geology. That being said, in light of their comment, it’s unclear how this person really understands the historicity of the wider Genesis flood narrative here. 

If this was a regional flood, how exactly does the presence of the massive ark fit into things here, in terms of its construction and its seaworthiness (which has been questioned)—or, more importantly, the extent of the fauna on the vessel itself: “of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” (6:19), and “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate (7:2)”?

In any case, though: most significantly, this person suggests that there’s a difference between the Hebrew word erets, which they suggest denotes “land”—thus having a smaller, more regional connotation—and the Hebrew word tebel, which they claim suggests the wider earth itself. In support of this, they refer to the census that King David took of the erets, as recounted in 2 Samuel 24, and how this surely didn’t refer to the whole earth, but simply to the region of Israel.

The idea, then, is that since the Genesis flood story only refers to the flooding of the erets—as it indeed does, repeatedly, throughout Genesis 6-9—then this, too, was only a local event. At the end, they also offer a similar explanation for the Hebrew word har: not so much “mountain,” as it’s typically translated,⁴ᵇ but as “regional hill.”  

Now, virtually everything they said in their post was highly misleading. But I think it’s precisely the last thing here that may be the most problematic. They contrast Hebrew har in its more local denotation as “hill” with, say, a mountain like Mount Everest—the tallest mountain on earth, with a peak nearly 30,000 feet above sea level.

So the author of the flood story didn’t intend to refer to things like Mount Everest. That being said, though, prominently featured in the Genesis flood story is Mount Ararat—whose peak is nearly 17,000 feet. Now, the Hebrew of Genesis 8:4 doesn’t necessarily mean that the ark came to rest on the tallest peak of Ararat (despite the fact that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to which the Genesis flood story clearly bears relation, Utnapishtim‘s vessel comes to rest on the peak of Mount Nimush⁵). Consider that it has plural har here, “mountains,” it’s certainly possible if not likely that it only intended to say that the ark came to rest in the general mountainous terrain of broader Ararat.

But one thing to note is that, in conjunction with the ark coming to rest on Ararat, in the next verse here (Gen. 8:5) we find an explicit mention of the “peaks” of mountains coming into view as the floodwaters abate. And this leads into another thing that was mentioned: by “29 feet above the har,” this person refers to Genesis 7:20, which gives the height to which the waters swelled (fifteen cubits, as more commonly translated). Thus, all together, they’d have it that the floodwaters only came some 30 feet above some hills in Israel or elsewhere in the general region.

Yet when we read Genesis 7:19-20 together, the most intuitive image/interpretation that comes into our minds definitely isn’t one of a local flood: 

The waters swelled so mightily on the erets that all the high mountains under the whole heaven⁶ were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep (NRSV translation)

Instead, this suggests a much more universal picture.

As for the idea of a distinction between tebel and erets, with the former suggested to mean “planet” and the latter”land”: first off, to be sure, there’s an absence of the word tebel in the Genesis flood narrative. Of course, though, here it’s important to note that the word tebel itself appears only some 36 times in the entire Hebrew Bible—in contrast to erets, used in the Hebrew Bible with various meanings around 2,500 times (!).

Further, anyone with a familiarity with Biblical Hebrew is aware that erets can certainly be used in a more narrow sense, to denote local regions (most famously erets Israel, “the land of Israel”). Yet anyone familiar with how erets is used in the Hebrew Bible is also aware that it’s absolutely used—and used frequently—with a much broader denotation as “world” or “earth,” too. This is no clearer than in the merism “heaven and earth,” frequently appearing in the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature as the two components which comprise the broader universe.

For that matter, in a large number of the (again comparatively few) uses of tebel in the Hebrew Bible, it’s in fact used directly in conjunction with erets—where the two terms aren’t meant to function differently, but are used synonymously in a common type of poetic parallelism: see, for example, 

The heavens belong to you, as does the earth [erets]. You made the world [tebel] and all it contains. (Psalm 89:11)

The foundations of the earth [erets] belong to the LORD, and he has placed the world [tebel] on them. (1 Samuel 2:8)

I look for you during the night, my spirit within me seeks you at dawn, for when your judgments come upon the earth [erets], those who live in the world [tebel] learn about justice. (Isaiah 26:9)

(A CTRL+F search for “earth” here will show all the uses of erets in parallelism with tebel—again, most of them in poetic material.)

The explanation for the locality of the Genesis flood here also offered the suggestion that 

We know this with a high degree of confidence because the Tower of Babel was specifically constructed with brick-and-mortar to withstand another such flood, which means the flood needed to be small enough that an ancient brick-and-mortar tower on a high hill would be able to withstand it

Again, this language comes perilously close to affirming the plain historicity of theses episode, in contrast to most scholars who interpret all this as ahistorical etiology. For that matter, here the person appeals to a detail which appears centuries after the composition of Genesis, as related by the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus; but there’s no indication in Genesis itself that this was the purposes of the construction of the tower.

Instead, the Genesis flood story is more easily and integrally connected with another narrative in Genesis—the one in the chapter immediately following it, and preceding the story of the Tower of Babel.⁷ This offers an account of the family of Noah who joined him in the ark: “the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; children were born to them after the flood” (Gen. 10:1).

In what follows this, commonly known as the Table of Nations, we have an origin story for the (re-)creation of the ethnicities and nations in the broader ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world: truly the repopulation of the known world, stemming from Noah’s three sons “from [whom] the whole earth was peopled” (Gen. 9:19). The various regions and nations referred to in the Table of Nations are universally held to include North Africa and the Caucasus; Cyprus and Ionia (and who knows how far west) and Elam and Persia, etc.—far beyond what could reasonably be construed as local.

The entry for the Genesis flood in The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible offers a summary of the evidence (or lack thereof) for a global flood:

the predominance of qualified Christian scholarship appears to favor a local flood interpretation because of the lack of evidence for and the problems attendant on a universal flood. There is, and has been no lack of writers who propose a catastrophic universal flood. However, they present little that is new, and no data that is convincing. The serious Bible student will not seek to support the physical aspects of Bible history with pseudo-science. In the final analysis the true interpretation of the Biblical flood account will fully accord with true science

While it rightfully notes the lack of a scientific basis for the idea of global flood, perhaps its comment “the true interpretation of the Biblical flood account will fully accord with true science” leaves the door open (if only inadvertently) for reading the Genesis flood narrative in light of physical evidence at all costs: that the scope of the flood that the Genesis narrative is understood to have intended will broaden and diminish in accordance with what’s scientifically possible/hypothesized.

But seeking any relationship with scientific data or hypotheses here misses the point. As I’ve often mentioned in discussion of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, in contrast to the idea that the six “days” of creation can be interpreted as longer epochs that can be more easily harmonized with the time-scale of scientific cosmology, geology and evolution—an argument that’s made on very similar grounds as the flood arguments discussed throughout this post are—this involves a dubious reinterpretation of the Hebrew word for “day”⁸; and in light of this, John Walton (perhaps the leading academic authority alive on the interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives) reiterates that 

These are seven twenty-four-hour days. This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text. Those who have tried to alleviate the tension for the age of the earth commonly suggested that the days should be understood as long eras (the day-age view). This has has never been convincing. (The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 91)

Similarly, as a descendant of early Mesopotamian narratives,⁹ the Genesis flood narrative really is the story of a global flood—or at least “globally” as its authors understood it.

Of course, finding no historical basis for the flood whatsoever, whether global or local, forces one to rethink exactly what the original contextual function and significance of the flood narrative is.

But searching for a historical flood at any cost, no matter how small of a flood we end up finding—and then reading the Genesis flood narrative as an affirmation of this—is clearly misguided; and to me, it perhaps illustrates how certain accommodationist approaches can be used as a way for traditional religious doctrines/interpretations to avoid legitimate criticism, if not actually take the upper hand in asserting its superiority over science, demanding that the only “true science” is the one that will find a flood, somehow, somewhere, that’s not out of step with the Biblical narrative.¹⁰

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] As I detail in the opening paragraphs, it’s this harmony that really motivates the interpretations that I respond to in my post here. For some considerations re: what’s being suggested by the idea of the harmony of science and religion in the first place (and how this can be abused by defenders of religion), see my post here. For a preliminary critique of this idea when applied to Christianity, see my post here.

[2] To be clear, there’s no pejorative aspect to this term itself.

[3] The only argument otherwise that I can imagine is something like an accelerationist one that’d only provisionally support the disharmony of religion and science—in hopes that, say, those who sympathize more with the latter would be strengthened and/or radicalized against the former, and eventually be in a better position to triumph over it. But there are all sorts of problems with that.

[4a] See extensive discussion of this in John Walton’s commentary on Genesis in The NIV Application Commentary series.

[4b] In the King James Version, har is translated as “mountain” 261 times, “mount” 224 times, and “hill” 59 times.

[5] In Gilgamesh XI 158, Utnapishtim, upon exiting the boat, “strewed incense on the peak [ziqqurrat] of the mountain,” which smelled of “sweet savour” to the gods—in the same way that after exiting the ark, Noah offers a sacrifice to God who “smelled the pleasing odor” (Genesis 8:20). Now, perhaps it can be suggested that although Utnapishtim’s boat comes to rest on Mount Nimush, this doesn’t necessarily mean it came to rest specifically on its peak (perhaps he ascended to the peak to offer sacrifice). But there’s no indication in Gilgamesh at all that this didn’t take place in the same place he landed.

[6] The line is bold here reads, in the Hebrew, כל ההרים הגבהים אשר תחת כל השמים.

[7] Whether the Tower of Babel story bears any integral relationship to the flood narrative is unclear. It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to think that it represents an etiology originally independent from the one presented in the Genesis 10—perhaps somewhat similar to the relationship between the differing creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2.

I suppose one could offer an harmonization by suggesting that Genesis 11 is actually chronologically prior to ch. 10. But whatever the case may be here, this still doesn’t change the fact that the narrative in Genesis 10 truly does function as an etiology for the postdiluvian repopulation of the entire known world of the time—one that, again, was truly global in the ancient mind (and certainly not “regional” in the way portrayed, with “regional hills,” etc.).

[8] See my discussion of the issue in my post here.

[9] Cf. Chen, The Primeval Flood Catastrophe: Origins and Early Development in Mesopotamian Traditions.

[10] In regard to these last two paragraphs, in a recent post I’ve outlined in great detail some of the theological problems posed by the lack of any historical flood—considering, for example, that it’s employed later in the Bible (including by Jesus himself) as an example of the kind of punishment awaiting the unrighteous in the future.

More generally speaking though, there’s a persistent problem where allegiance to traditional religious doctrine (seemingly) arbitrarily appropriates scientific insights or methodologies—e.g. where a historical Adam and Eve are located wherever there’s scientific room for them, no matter how distant in the past we have to go (or even more disturbingly, when, say, ideas about the cognitive or moral development or decline associated with Adam and Eve in Christian theology are brought into the conversation, assumed to genuinely correspond to contemporaneous anthropological developments in whatever time period they’ve managed to be squeezed into).

"OT I really wish the bible would have1. Written in Latin rather than Greek. The ..."

Gay Rights / LGBT Affirmation Doesn’t ..."
""Ancient texts deserve the same respect and benefit of the doubt and willingness to trust ..."

The Resurrection of Jesus and His ..."
"I've only just started reading this article, but so far it seems Shawn Bolz has ..."

Shawn Bolz: Exposing a Fraudulent Charismatic ..."
"Regardless of your thesis about Scripture, most traditional Christians and the Catholic Church today maintain ..."

Neglected Factors in the Historical Adam ..."

Browse Our Archives