October 20, 2020

The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 1- Proposition 2

The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 1- Proposition 2

We are blogging through the book: The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton.  Today we will look at Proposition 2- Genesis 1-11 Makes Claims About Real Events in a Real Past.  The purpose of the book, according to its authors, is to come to an understanding of the proper interpretation of the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9.  Although that includes whether it is describing a worldwide flood or a local one, or something else, the larger issue is whether the author(s) intended his readers to take them as referring to events that happened in space-time.  This investigation is going to necessarily involve the identification of genre or literary type of Genesis 1-11 in the context of the whole book.  Did the biblical author intend or not intend to tell us about past events; and what reasons do we have to come to any conclusion.

One piece of evidence is the toledot formula that is continuous throughout Genesis.  Toledot is a Hebrew word that is variously translated as “generations” (KJV & ESV), “account” (NIV & NLT), and “descendants” (RSV).  The authors think the word occurs in phrases that can best be translated as, “This is the account of X” where X is, with the first exception, a personal name.  They point out that “the account of X” is therefore, about the offspring of X.

The first toledot occurs in Genesis 2:4, four times again in Genesis 1-11 and six times in Genesis 12-50.  So in the author’s opinion, the toledot formula does show a literary continuity between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of the book, as well as a consistent interest in a carefully selected sequence of past events.  The authors say:

Discussion about the early chapters of Genesis often focus on whether the accounts are mythology or history.  It is an important question, but framing it this way may not be the best approach.  Today, we often consider the label mythology to imply that what is reported is “not real”.  But in the ancient world, they did not consider what we call their mythology to be not real.  To the contrary, they believed their mythology to represent the most important reality—deep reality, which transcends what could be reported in terms of events that have transpired in the strictly human realm.  Indeed, they further considered that even the events in the human realm, which we might label history, found their greatest significance in aspects of the event that human eyewitnesses could not see—the involvement of the divine hand.

The modern dichotomy of history = real and mythology = not real is too overburdened with our modern categories to do justice to ancient literature, biblical or otherwise.  The events in Genesis 1-11 have reference to real events, but the significance of those events is in the interpretation given them in the biblical text.  In other words, that significance is not found in their historicity, but in their theology.  It is not about what happened, but why did it happen.  What was God doing, that is what was significant.

The problem with us moderns is we have come to believe only the empirical is real.  This is the underlying reason for groups like Answers in Genesis.  They are so desperate to have their interpretation of the Bible validated by science that they will make up the science.  You see this all the time with the popular “science-confirms-the-Bible-was-right-all-along” type articles. “Noah’s ark finally found on Mt. Ararat”, or “this archeological find confirms the Bible’s account”, or “some cosmological or astronomical phenomenon (like quantum physics) found to have been described in the Bible all along”.  This mindset is also the reason for the enduring popularity of “God-of the-gaps” type arguments.  If science can’t explain some phenomenon, then God must be directly responsible for it in a miraculous way.  There is a strong and powerful emotional riptide pulling at Christians to empirically demonstrate God’s existence and the faith.  I know I have felt the tug of this current at times.

The authors propose that the ancients simply did not think about events the same way we moderns do.  They viewed reality as metaphysical (spiritual) and not just empirical.  Consequently, the role of the eyewitness was not as highly valued.  Seeing events through a lens that included the spiritual world, and not just the human world, meant that categories we might label mystical or mythical overlapped in indiscernible and inseparable ways with what we call the real world.  Events in their view, therefore, consist of more than what we refer to as history.

When talking about events—and more importantly, event reports—it will be helpful to imagine a spectrum or sliding scale between metaphysical and empirical.  Event reports are on a sliding scale.  In our modern cultural river, history is considered entirely empirical, and, in fact, only the empirical is considered to be real.  However, in the ancient cultural river, the metaphysical aspects were considered just as important, and sometimes, even more important.  Frequent commenter, Headless Unicorn Guy, often expresses this as the difference between Poem Truth and Math Truth.  The authors assert that event reports from Genesis 1-11 fall closer to the metaphysical aspect than the empirical.  They say the events reported in Genesis 1-11, while retaining some empirical aspects, fall further to the metaphysical side of the spectrum.  The authors further assert that even the use of the spectrum for communicating these ideas is misleading because in the ancient world they would not have distinguished them as opposite poles.  They would be fully integrated into one another.  The spectrum way of representation is simply for purposes of explaining the issue to us moderns.

Consequently, even though Walton and Longman affirm the Bible authors envisioned these accounts as real events in the real past, they recognize the Bible authors viewed events and reality different from us moderns and therefore they provided testimony that is different from how we would do it today.  Their testimony was predominantly interested in the metaphysical or spiritual aspect.  The authors say this needs to be kept in mind as we decide what should be the most appropriate focus of our textual analysis.

Comments

  1. I think this is taking the debate in the right direction. Here are a few thoughts:

    – saying ‘is myth true?’ is like saying ‘are numbers true?’ (I owe this to Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD8Pg8i9dTE)
    – the ‘God of the gaps’ is a notion that deserves scrutiny (see http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2015/12/07/god-of-the-gaps-an-accusation-from-ignorance/)
    – arguably, the ancients were more ‘integrated’ than we are, with their ‘overlap’. We bathe in a culture which has a bi-cephalic world of ‘facts’ on one side, and ‘values’ on the other. And in the empirical/objective/fact world, we can’t even explain our own experience of being. (c.f. Lesslie Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”. No, hang that, just see *everything* by Lesslie Newbigin!)

    That’s lots of links to other sources, but shoulders of giants and all that…

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Good comment, Ben. I love me some Jon Garvey. It disheartens me that BioLogos won’t take his critiques seriously, with the possible exception of Ted Davis. But I’m using God of the gaps as referring to what Jon said was, “If one resorts to a miraculous explanation when a perfectly reasonable scientific one is readily attainable, then the accusation sticks.” And I think the problem is that people think if you can bring a scientific explanation to the question then you have eliminated God. I don’t agree with that, I do think you can see God’s intentionality in even the most mundane natural phenomena. Jon’s critique of BioLogos is that they wont’ discuss that intenionality with respect to biologic evolution, they just hand-wave it. Hence the “Richard Dawkings in a cassock” quip. Nevertheless, it is, at heart, a metaphysical issue not a naturalistic one.

      • Thanks Mike, I love these discussions, they go to the heart of matter. I’m re-reading Lesslie Newbigin right now to see if I understand him better 20 years later 🙂

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        An additional problem that I have with the whole “God of the gaps” thing is that it looks like God doing what builders call “snagging”: going back after a job is substantially completed and fixing all the bits and pieces they missed, forgot or messed up when they did the initial work. It makes God look like a fumbling amateur who can’t put in place a fully-functioning, complete and coherent universe from the off.
        To my mind, if you are looking for God’s ongoing interaction with the world, you shouldn’t be looking for him tinkering with bits of it to make work what he should have made work in the first place, but rather God acting as part of an ongoing personal relationship with its developing inhabitants.
        Scientific enquiry, I would say, has been so spectacularly productive precisely because of a conscious decision not to involve itself with God’s personal ongoing relationship with his creation but to concentrate purely on his one first miracle of creation of the universe from the beginning as an ordered, self- consistent and self-contained systematic whole.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > ‘God of the gaps’ is a notion that deserves scrutiny

      Yep, it begs the question: whose gaps? Many of these arguments are rooted in “gaps” in 40 – 50 year old textbooks [and if you know anything about text books you know that means 60+ year old information].

      The Gaps defenses I have encountered personally derail long before the train reaches Fallacy Station; it is usually somewhere on the approach to You Know What You Are Talking About junction. Invariably the guy listening quietly at the other end of the bar turns out to have a Phd in XYZ. That’s not pretty. Pub pontification in a university town is a perilous business.

  2. Iain Lovejoy says

    I think another problem with reading the stories in Genesis, particularly the flood, is that we tend to assume the principle purpose of the narrative is to tell the story itself. The story of the flood in particular massively predates the Bible, and when it was written it was a story that everybody already knew, in some version or other. The point of the Genesis narrative (which I think the above touches on) is not to tell everyone that God sent this great big flood (they already knew this) but to say “This flood thing that you all think you know about, here’s what it really means.”
    For a monotheistic author believing on an all-powerful and loving God, the “fact” of the flood is a problem requiring explanation, which the author tries to do.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      “The point of the Genesis narrative (which I think the above touches on) is not to tell everyone that God sent this great big flood (they already knew this) but to say ‘This flood thing that you all think you know about, here’s what it really means.'” Yes, exactly so.

    • a monotheistic author believing on an all-powerful and loving God

      Worth asking, but do we know the author of Genesis at that present time in that particular faith tradition actually believed that (exegesis)? Or are we reading that into the text (esisgesis)?

  3. Excellent post. The chief mistake we moderns make in interpreting the past is the tendency to anachronism; reading our concerns and concepts onto the ancients. Our capacity to distinguish between a figurative and literal reading separates us from the ancients in many ways. For them reality was a story. The only thing I would add is that this is just as true of the Gospels as it is of Genesis.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Excellent post. The chief mistake we moderns make in interpreting the past is the tendency to anachronism; reading our concerns and concepts onto the ancients.

      Type Example from my experience: Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, circa 1970s.

      • Yeah but it sure was exciting as a kid in the 70s thinking that it was real! It was kind of disillusioning to find out later that it was all made up in the 19th century.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It was kind of disillusioning to find out later that it was all made up in the 19th century.

          But when you’re in-country, you hear nothing else — it’s SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE!

          I know I didn’t hear ANYTHING else until I’d gotten out — total immersion in Inerrant TRVTH!!!! “DO YOU DOUBT GOD’S WORD?????”

          I lost over 10 years of my life to The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay (and its corollary, Christians For Nuclear War), and the damage is still there.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Frequent commenter, Headless Unicorn Guy, often expresses this as the difference between Poem Truth and Math Truth.

    The terms “Poem Truth” and/vs “Math Truth” didn’t originate with me.
    I copped them off the blog of Rob Bell (presumably the Rob Bell who got piled on by Team Hell for heresy some years ago).

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      And i am pretty sure he copped them from somewhere else, as I am confident I heard those terms – or something dastardly similar – prior to the rise of that particular heretic.

      On the other hand, as you imported them into IM you get a portion of all royalties generated by their use in this context!

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    This is the underlying reason for groups like Answers in Genesis. They are so desperate to have their interpretation of the Bible validated by science that they will make up the science. You see this all the time with the popular “science-confirms-the-Bible-was-right-all-along” type articles. “Noah’s ark finally found on Mt. Ararat”, or “this archeological find confirms the Bible’s account”, or “some cosmological or astronomical phenomenon (like quantum physics) found to have been described in the Bible all along”.

    Another example of Poem Truth read as Math Truth.

    Motivated by something that was pointed out to me years ago (my clarifications in brackets):
    “They’re looking everywhere for some airtight PROOF that everything in the [Utterly Inerrant] Bible is Absolutely True [Math Truth] just so they can KNOW they’re Right all along and rub it in the faces of all those Heathens.”
    [“SEE? SEE? I’M RIGHT! YOU’RE WRONG! HAVE FUN IN HELL! HAW! HAW! HAW!”]

    • Christiane says

      Emily Dickinson? John Keats?

      ” I died for beauty but was scarce
      Adjusted in the tomb,
      When one who died for truth was lain
      In an adjoining room.
      He questioned softly why I failed?
      “For beauty,” I replied.
      “And I for truth, — the two are one;
      We brethren are,” he said.
      And so, as kinsmen met at night,
      We talked between the rooms,
      Until the moss had reached our lips,
      And covered up our names.”

      https://www.iasj.net/iasj?func=fulltext&aId=84370

    • Poem truth vs Math truth?

      A useful distinction I suppose as long as we remember that the distinction is purely modern. Of course you also have to provide the criteria by which you are making the distinction.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        “All human knowledge is divided into that which is best expressed in algebra and that which is best expressed in Latin”

        A computer science prof of mine in the late 80s

  6. Dana Ames says

    “The events in Genesis 1-11 have reference to real events, but the significance of those events is in the interpretation given them in the biblical text. In other words, that significance is not found in their historicity, but in their theology.”

    That’s exactly how the great Eastern theologians, through the 4th century particularly, viewed the matter. It’s how EO still views the matter. Some Orthodox, notably but not limited to former Protestants, want to be literalists about the text. That is not the interpretation we hear expressed in our worship.

    Christ is risen!
    Dana

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Walton and Longman expressly convey their debt to Orthodox interpretation a number of times in this book, particulary for the 4th century. Christ is risen–Indeed!

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Some Orthodox, notably but not limited to former Protestants, want to be literalists about the text.

    In which case, they’re just transferring their bibliolatrous baggage across the Adriatic.

    Fundamentalists who convert to EO are still Fundy, they just attach the state of mind to different trappings (bells upon bells, smells upon smells, icons upon icons, Great Lent fast upon Great Lent fast, Pascha upon Pascha…) The underlying attitude remains the same, only the expression has changed.

    • Christiane says

      I am thinking that fundies (hard-core) likely lose their faith rather than convert to EO or C

      It’s something about the ‘all or nothing’ quality of fundamentalism, you see

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  9. “… but given the final form of Genesis was put together post-exile; the author(s) probably believed in the monotheistic God. As for earlier forms of the story, maybe they were henotheistic.”
    Mike the Geologist

    The final form of Genesis may also have been written by Joshua. If you’re referring to the Documentary Hypothesis, or the Redaction Theory, Sarfati refutes that in his book The Genesis Account (Sarfati J., The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary of Genesis 1-11, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, USA, 2015 p.22-32)

    In the days of the post-exile, the Jews had the advantage of knowing from Isaiah that God definitely said that apart from Him, there are no gods (Isa 43:11, 44:6, 45:5,18,21). To those prior to Moses and to Moses himself, the concept of “gods” came possibly from two sources.

    After the Flood, Ham’s son Cush and his son Nimrod rebelled against God and revived the line of Cain ( see the book Athena and Cain by Robert Bowie Johnson, Solving Light Books, Annapolis, Md, 2003) Since man was created in the image of God, he was built with a compulsion to worship a higher power, so those descending from Ham, Cush, and Nimrod fomented false gods whom they worshiped instead of the true God. Moses grew up in a society that worshiped false gods; although he came to know and serve the true God, false gods could have been real to him. God, however, proved His dominance over them when he sent the plagues over Egypt.

    We also know that Satan is real, and Paul tells us that there are Powers and Principalities (the Devil and his angles) in heavenly places over which Jesus has asserted his dominance with the Resurrection. These entities may also have been the source of “gods”, since, if one doesn’t worship God, and if one isn’t saved in Christ, then, by default, one falls claim to Satan.

  10. Excuse me. The final form of Genesis was written by Moses. The last chapters in Deuteronomy was written by Joshua.