On the Flood Narratives

From: Howard J. Van Till (hvantill@novagate.com)
Date: Tue Nov 07 2000 - 11:29:17 EST

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    For what it's worth, here's one more attempt toward a better understanding
    of our differences, which are, I believe, representative of the concerns of
    many other Christians.

    Let's focus first on our views regarding the Flood narratives. If that
    proves useful to the members of the list, we could go on to some of the
    other issues included in the original exchange.

    OK. We agreed that an actual flood, Mesopotamiam, worldwide or otherwise,
    would have left geological evidence of its occurrence.

    Glenn then said:

    >> > This then became a point of verification for the validity of
    >> > the early scripture.

    To which I replied:

    >> No, I think it would be a point only for the verification of one
    >> particular
    >> reading of Genesis 6-9 (through the filter of modern Western culture).


    > I disagree. Regardless of what kind of flood it was, be it Mesopotamian,
    > Caspian, etc, there would still be geological evidence left.


    But you have already greatly narrowed the hermeneutical field of options and
    have chosen just one category of interpretations for Genesis 6-9: that it is
    about a particular "geo-hydraulic event" that would, therefore, leave
    recognizable empirical evidence.

    But I (and many OT scholars) would suggest, primarily on the basis of
    Ancient Near Eastern cultural considerations, that the common employment of
    flood narratives in the religious literature of that time and place is
    indicative, not that some particular physical flood event is the subject
    matter of the narrative, but that flood narratives (filled with high drama,
    forces beyond human control, threat to human security, survival, etc) had
    become the conventional _literary vehicle_ for reflecting on the character
    of both divine judgement and divine benevolence/grace.

    The geological evidence (no such flood in modern human history that fits the
    particulars of the narrative taken as a chronicle of one specific
    geo-hydraulic event) is relevant, but only because it affirms the need for a
    religious interpretation and because it directs our attention toward the
    theological content of the Genesis 6-9 and away from endless quibbles about
    the location, extent, and time of some terrestrial flooding event.

    [skip G's extended material on particular geological evidence.]

    > All these events left evidence of themselves, but the Mesopotamian flood
    > left no evidence yet we want to say it is true. Why? So that we can have a
    > kernal of truth in the flood story. But the lack of such evidence leaves us
    > with nothing.
    > So is the proper response then to say that the story is true anyway? or is
    > the proper response to look elsewhere for a site? Or is the proper response
    > to simply conclude that the story is false? The first option seems
    > illogical to me and that is what I think many people are doing. The story is
    > true regardless of how falsifying the data is.

    No, but one very reasonable conclusion would be that Genesis 6-9 must be
    read as an example of the typical religious literature of its day, and that
    our focus ought to be on its _theological_ content, not on judging its
    details by modern geological standards. And if the intended focus is
    entirely theological, then we have no business subjecting its details
    (exactly what happened, where, when) to modern geological criteria for
    "truth" in the narrow sense of empirically verifiable statements about
    physical phenomena.

    The story is not geologically false because it's not even about a geological
    phenomenon. It could be geologically true or false only if it were about
    some geological phenomenon. It's not. It's about human accountability, about
    divine judgment, and about divine grace. On those fundamental issues,
    geology has nothing substantive to contribute.

    Before you can say any narrative is either "true" or "false" you have to
    know what the subject matter is. I am suggesting that the truth or falsity
    of the flood narratives will have to be evaluated on the basis of their
    theology, not on their correspondence with modern geology.


    > And of course, after taking this illogical leap, we then turn around and
    > tell the YEC and anti-evolutionist that he must pay attention to the data
    > that falsifies his position. To me that is a big piece of--well I won't use
    > the word because I did once and got severely pounded for it. And it isnt a
    > four-letter word.


    For cultural and historical considerations similar to those I cited earlier
    re Genesis 6-9, I believe that there is essentially no substantive
    hermeneutical basis for reading Genesis 1-3 as if it were a chronicle of the
    Creation's formational history. As in the case of the flood narratives, I
    see the empirical evidence as relevant only in the limited sense of
    affirming that the "creation" narratives are not chronicles that could
    answer modern scientific questions about exactly what happened, when, etc.

    So, I see complete consistency here. Modern scientific considerations affirm
    a hermeneutical stance based first and foremost on the evaluation of
    relevant cultural and religious factors. Neither Genesis 6-9 nor Genesis 1-3
    should be treated as if they were chronicles that are directly relevant to
    modern questions about physical/chemical/astronomical/biological phenomena.

    Let's stop here for now and proceed to the "types of truth" discussion
    later, if it looks like it could be helpful.


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