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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finding Noah, then and now: Part 1—"Where is Noah today?"

In the beginning

The story of Noah and his ark is one that will never lose its ability to captivate young minds. When I was a child, I regularly reenacted the scene in our bathtub with plastic figures (unbeknownst to my parents, who were paying the water bill!). Not surprisingly, it is one of the first stories taught to young children in Sunday school. Illustrations of a large, wooden boat, filled with all sorts of exotic animals from various continents around the world, are common to our Sunday-school lessons. The ark is pictured floating on an open, boundless sea that covered the whole planet, for at least half a year, until it came to rest on a high mountain peak in the new world. The animals exited peacefully to find new homes, Noah's family set up camp, offerings were made, and the world was replenished and made fruitful once again.

But then something unfortunate happened: we all grew up. Some simply drifted away from the congregation, consigning the fanciful tale to the naïveté of their youth. For those of us that remained in the church, we may have heard the narrative in passing, but rarely as the focus of any single sermon. More than 200 years of historical critical studies and scientific advances incited the world to mock our beloved Noah, and many a preacher would dare not risk controversy by recounting the narrative as historical—or worse, as ahistorical.

The capsizing of Noah's ark?

With adulthood came the responsibility of finishing school and finding jobs in the 'real' world. Most of us, and our colleagues from Sunday school, would end up in a field that cared less about whether Noah really sailed on an ark. But others, like myself, studied geology, biology, archaeology, history, and/or ancient literature. We were told early on that the Earth was never completely flooded, let alone in the course of human history. Moreover, the story of Noah was hardly the first about a man saved by an ark from impending flood waters. Was the Bible guilty of plagiarism? Unless modern scholarship was sorely mistaken about history, we could not maintain publicly our childhood belief in Noah and his ark without facing ridicule. Had the flood of intellectualism finally overcome Noah's ark, more than 4,000 years after the waters receded?

Christians have responded to this dilemma in various manners. Some, through cognizant dissonance, whereby the historical question became irrelevant. Others, through scientific dereliction, whereby the historical question would determine the facts of nature. In the latter case, Christians with scientific degrees formulated the principles of 'Flood geology' and simply reinterpreted geological and archaeological facts to concord with a multifaceted, but rigid axiom: 1) the geologic column and associated structures are the result of a catastrophic flood, ~4,500 years ago, that reshaped the face of the planet; and 2) all terrestrial life, including humans, can be traced to the ark-born survivors of that event.

The failure of Flood geology to explain geological facts has been well documented, not least by geologists in the Christian community. Despite their good intentions, promoters of Flood geology have removed the story of Noah's ark further and further from reality, and thus relevance to the modern Christian. But a high percentage of the Western population is still convinced of its validity, and the movement will, no doubt, continue to grow. While these trends are mutually exclusive, I believe they teach us that most Christians are not satisfied with consigning the Flood narrative to irrelevance. Young-Earth Creationists and Flood Geologists are right about one thing: we should not continue to call ourselves Christians if we believe the story of Noah's ark doesn't matter.

Restoring relevance to the modern Christian

If modern Christians are limited only to the two options above, then we may find ourselves in trouble. How do we approach the text of Genesis 6–9, for example, if we can't teach that it really happened? Moreover, how do we read a text that is more than 3,000 years old, and what kind of relevance could it have today? Are the New Testament analogues of Noah's flood meaningful if the historical referent never existed? These are all valid questions that must be answered by any faithful Christian that wants to remain consistent. But before I attempt to answer them in full, I want to put your minds at ease (in case you had doubts about my own intentions) with the short version.

I will propose that the events of Genesis 6–9 did, in fact, happen. I believe the characters were real people living in a real time and place on our familiar planet. Not only is the story relevant to us today, but we can bridge the cultural gap with some effort. The most difficult challenge of reading a foreign or ancient text does not lie within the text, but within the reader. Since we did not live in the ancient Near East (when the story was originally told), we must prevent our own, modern worldview from being imposed back onto the text—a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Few Christians read the Old Testament with any regularity or depth as it is, let alone the first 11 chapters, and I am willing to bet that most could not distinguish between details from scripture and details from illustrations in Sunday school. The reason is that believers and unbelievers alike have carried with them a Sunday-school version of Noah's ark, and few have reevaluated the text in light of what they know about the world as adults. We need a fresh perspective—a new look at Noah's ark that seeks to do more than stir our imaginations, and keep our attention until lunchtime.

Granted, I am not the first to offer such a perspective, and few of my thoughts here are entirely original. Nonetheless, I find it pertinent to share my perspective as a geologist commenting on faith and science issues. Hopefully, if nothing else, it will guide your thoughts in trying to answer the same questions for yourself.

The appropriateness of using science in understanding the biblical text

Young-Earth creationists will commonly object to the use of modern science in elucidating the biblical text—at least when it means 'capitulating' the face-value meaning. By way of preface, my own conviction is that science is without foundation outside of the God who reveals himself in scripture. I do not pretend that science is a means by which we may critique God, or rationalize the impact of his word. Nonetheless, I am fully aware that science—as a method of knowing the world—must play a part in our reading of his word.

For example, even to answer questions like: How long is a cubit? What are the greater and lesser lights of Genesis 1? How did the author of Genesis measure a year, and how do we convert that to our own calendar? What are the floodgates of heaven? Not to mention, we are dependent on a translation of the Hebrew text, even if we can read Hebrew ourselves. Whether in our use of an archaeological find, or simply a lexicon to look up the Hebrew word, we are dependent on at least some part of science to read and understand God's word.

I begin with these seemingly trivial examples because they are organically related to young-Earth proofs of the flood as a global catastrophe: "How did the flood cover all the mountain peaks? How did the ark land on Mt. Ararat if the flood were not global?"

Assumed in these questions is that Sunday-school image of a large wooden boat, floating on deep, epicontinental seas, which regressed across the globe, eventually to reveal the high peaks of Mt. Ararat. Now, assumptions are not bad (in fact, they are necessary), and I understand how one reasons to this picture. Nonetheless, these challenges use scientific reasoning (namely, the laws of physics and the modern geography of Turkey/Middle East) to make their case. I believe this is no different, qualitatively, from citing geological evidence that a global flood never occurred in recent Earth history.

Literary aspects of Genesis 6–9

Is Genesis myth or history? This question was a chapter title in Peter Enns' book Inspiration and Incarnation. A few friends and I recently finished the book as part of our ongoing book club, and this chapter drew a lot of discussion. It wasn't so much that we disagreed with what Dr. Enns had said—it was how he said it. Are Christians allowed even to use the word 'myth' and 'Genesis' in the same sentence?

Ongoing discussion over what genre characterizes Genesis can be misleading, and stir emotions rather quickly. The reason is that we commonly use the term 'myth' to mean: "an unfounded or false notion." But the primary meaning of 'myth' (especially in literary criticism) is:

"a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." (emphasis added)

The latter definition fits Genesis rather well, and thusly Dr. Enns argued. But, understandably, most Christians would not be comfortable with saying "Genesis is myth". Dr. Enns' comments aside, I am willing to say that Genesis falls under the literary category of myth, but also that myth is not mutually exclusive to history. Rather, it is complementary thereto, so the answer to my opening question (myth or history?) is: yes.

When I say "Genesis is myth", I mean that the primary function of the text is not to recall historical events but to unfold the worldview of God's covenant people. We should not read Genesis 6–9 the same way we read Antiquities or Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, as God's word, the text is infallible in all it intends to teach us. Thus I believe those historical events were real and did happen. The challenge then, as 21st-century American Christians surrounded by a post-Enlightenment mentality, is to apply proper form criticism both to the text and the reader, that we might unravel the historical particulars and determine what exactly Genesis 'intended' to teach us about history.

In conclusion, and in passing, I do not pretend that I can do this accurately or infallibly. That is why I open my thoughts to discussion. Nonetheless, I will propose now that the 'literal' meaning of the Genesis narrative is far more elusive than others have suggested. Moreover, I am convinced that our modern understanding of the world has been written back onto the text over the centuries, removing us further from the original meaning. I hope to recover at least part of it here.

Genesis 6–9: Why was it written?

The first thing I notice about the flood narrative is its canonical relationship to Genesis 1–3. The passage begins with a rather grim description of the land (6:5): "the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and...every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually". Man's commission from God was to uphold His image to all of creation, and have dominion over it. But in failing to uphold that image, man has essentially 'undone' the pinnacle of God's creation, thereby completing the first step in a return to the chaos of Genesis 1:2. And so God commits to a process of uncreation (6:7): "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky."

God's judgment here is justified, in that it follows directly from His curse to Adam (3:17): "Cursed is the ground because of you...". God's covenant people, through Adam, abandoned reconciliation to their God, and brought a plague upon the land by filling it with wicked people (among other things). The curse is lifted at the end of the flood (8:21), when God says, "I will never again curse the ground on account of man...". Eventually, in God's full covenant with Noah after the flood (9:1–17), He restates the commissions given to Adam before the Fall. I argue, therefore, that the end goal of Genesis 6–9 is to return the land to a state of darkness and chaos through judgment, and then bring forth light and life to the land through Noah—God's new Adam.

Both the creation and flood narratives are quite old (primitive, if you will), and may have been around for centuries (in oral or written form) before being penned down as we find them in the received text. But we must keep in mind that each story was told as part of a much larger narrative—the Pentateuch—that was given to ancient Israel. Why, then, were these stories put into scripture? Was it to provide Israel with a divine history book, or remind them what happened long ago? Yes, they are historical narratives, but stories are not told simply to recount history. They are told to place the reader into the story.

Lessons from The Alamo and Animal Farm

My grandfather's family is from Texas, and so naturally, I spent some time reading about the events that led up to the siege of the Alamo. About this time, John Lee Hancock produced his own film portrayal of the battle. I love films about history; I loved studying about the Alamo. I watched the movie, and saw that it was good.

But Hancock's film was not the first about the unlikely birth of Texas. Neither is the Alamo an uncommon tale. In fact, I can simply say "the Alamo" and trust that you know I am referring to a battle, more than a place, and that you already know the outcome. But if we already know what happened, what's the point in making another movie? I suppose there is profit and entertainment, but these motivations are secondary to the storyteller, I believe.

In Hancock's film, we don't just see a reenactment of events. Neither do we see an effort simply to be more 'historically accurate' than others. The characters are given personalities and dialogues—words that may never have been said. Sam Houston likens Santa Anna to Napoleon, and predicts a similar downfall. Jim Bowie's slaves argue the pros and cons of running away, before Bowie sets them free temporarily. Moreover, the film depicts events before and after the main battle, but not necessarily in chronological order and without an explicit sense of the time gap. In other words, Hancock has not retold the story merely as an objectified historiography, but to unfold a particular worldview about freedom, patriotism, family, friendship, race, and empathy with the enemy at our gates.

Hancock's The Alamo is myth. And it places us directly in the story, that we might be inspired to battle our own tyrants and defend freedom at all costs. That is why it can be retold in varied forms to cultures across time and space, with great success.

So what does Animal Farm have in common with The Alamo? Not much really, but there is a common lesson. For the sake of the argument, let's call Animal Farm an allegorical tale, written to critique (negatively) Stalin's communist regime. Since it was first published in 1945 in English, the book has been translated several times into Russian. My wife's senior thesis entailed a literary comparison of three Russian translations of exactly the same English text: one published during Stalin's regime; one in the latest Soviet era; and one less than 10 years ago.

In short, the differences were astounding, despite the fact that each translator was reading the same English text. As you might imagine, the culture and worldview of each translator was evident from the specific words they chose to reflect the English. The earliest Russian translation of Animal Farm, for example, was an allegorical tale, written to critique the tyrannical capitalist policies of the West.

When the Soviet regime was on its death bed, a newer translation told a story about some animals...on a farm. The symbols had been deconstructed entirely. The latest translation, however, was an allegorical tale, written to critique the tyrannical, communist policies of Stalin.

Three lessons, I believe, can be taken from these cases in point. First, we tell stories about the past to comment on the present and prepare for the future. If we want to understand precisely stories that others have told, and particularly if we intend to deconstruct the historical referents of those stories, we must place ourselves in their shoes and ask why the story is being told. Second, the 'meaning' of a single text (or story) is as fluid over history as the worldview of the reader. We will always be inclined to read an ancient story as though it were written specifically to us and for our time. In doing so, we might benefit from the message of the text, but will be blind to its full intentions.

I understand that scripture is unique, in that God is the ultimate author and when we read the 2,000+ year old stories, He is speaking (present tense) to us. Nevertheless, we must concede that just as Christ—the living Word—was fully human and fully divine, so is the written Word (cf. Warfield, 1948, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible; Enns, 2005, Inspiration and Incarnation). The word of our God is alive, and intimately a part of His creation. We confess that God gave his word through real people, in real cultures throughout history, and the words of each author reflected his/her own culture. But we also recognize that this only magnifies our God, who brought himself down to us in such a manner that He could speak and we could listen—despite the fact that His thoughts "are higher than our thoughts."

Lastly, we should recognize that historiography is highly biased and selective. How do you tell the story of the Alamo in under two hours without cutting out 99% of the events? When we come to the biblical text, it seems more like 99.9%. What are we missing, and why were these parts preserved?

Where's Noah?

I believe that Israel, through Abrahaam, was God's answer to the theodicic problem of Adam. God's covenant people deserved judgment, even uncreation, yet He allowed His people to live and renewed His covenant through Noah, to Abrahaam—through whom all the nations would be blessed—and to Israel, Abrahaam's 'seed'. But one major dilemma remained: how could Israel be a solution to the problem if, in fact, they are part of the problem through their own wickedness? Scripture is thoroughly eschatological in this sense (cf. Wright, 1992, New Testament and the People of God).

Reading the Bible, we can find Genesis 1–3 retold again, and again, and again. As such, it is the metanarrative to all of scripture. I already mentioned the canonical relationship of the flood narrative to Gen. 1–3, so consider also how God brings light and life (Abrahaam) out of darkness (the pagan land of Ur) to raise up Jacob (who himself is exiled to darkness but returns with wealth), or to restore Israel from Egypt back to the land of Canaan (the new Eden). At the beginning of the Pentatech, Adam and Eve are exiled from a garden, to which an angel with a flaming sword guards the entrance. Yet when Israel, under Joshua, first crosses the Jordan river, they find an angel with a sword there to greet them, and lead them back to the garden.

Moreover, the promise that the seed of the serpent would always strive against the seed of the woman is fulfilled repeatedly, and God's seed always wins out by crushing the head of the serpent. After the promise is made, we find the first fulfillment in Cain and Abel. God vindicates Abel by cursing Cain and raising up Seth. Immediately after the flood, the seed of the serpent strikes at Noah, but God vindicates Noah by cursing Canaan and raising up Shem's descendants to subdue him. When Joshua leads the conquest of Canaan, he fulfills the promise by crushing the heads, quite literally, of the five kings.

Peter reminds us (2 Pet. 3:5-6) that "by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." As sinners ourselves, we are fallen in Adam (Rom. 5) and reserved for God's judgement. Thus when we read the flood narrative today, our primary question should be:

"Where is Noah today? And how do I get on the ark?"

Common to every 'battle of the seeds' from Cain (Gen. 4) to Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37) is that the Lord provides the means of escape, as well as the atonement (cf. Gen. 17). Peter tells us (1 Pet. 3) that Jesus is our Noah, and that by baptism in his name, we might be joined to him and survive the coming flood. Moreover, in every instance of redemption, there is an "already, but not yet" aspect of fulfillment. In other words, God has saved us, but things are not yet put to right, so we still await a future deliverance. Such was the case with Noah; so it is with us.

The Gospel writers present Jesus, I believe, as the climax to Israel's redemptive history. Jesus, the Messiah, is the new Israel. He came to accomplish what Israel failed to do: 1) uphold the image of God to all of creation so that through him the nations might be blessed, and 2) bring it under the dominion of righteousness. "He is the image of the invisible God," Paul reminds us (Col. 1). As such, he is also the new Adam—the true humanity of God—who although tempted with "equality with God" did not grasp as though toward the fruit (Phil. 2:5–7). In Daniel's apocalyptic vision, that one "like a Son of Man" subdues the other nations like beasts. In John's apocalypse, the imagery is no different, and Jesus conquers "the Beast". "All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given" to Christ, our King, Matthew tells us. Thus Paul, a citizen of Rome, can set Christ up against Caesar (called Lord and Savior), and say "our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20).

Jesus is the divine solution to the problem in Adam, above all because He was never part of the problem. We cannot, as Christians today, read the flood narrative without seeing this conclusion. We find our Noah today in Jesus the Messiah, and His church is the ark. In him alone can we find shelter and escape God's judgment and survive the flood, that we might return to "Eden"—that is, God's new creation.


Perhaps you are frustrated that I have yet to add anything new to the discussion. So far, I have only preached about redemptive themes in the Bible, and how to relate Noah's tale of survival to our own. Well, that is true, and I hope that if nothing else, my words have served satisfactorily as a devotional to you. The reason I took so much time to expound the flood narrative christologically, however, was to demonstrate how I—as one who accepts the antiquity of the Earth and limited geographic extent of the flood—read Genesis 6–9.

So this is the part where I must ask you, how different is my reading from yours? Granted, I could have elucidated more of the details, but I think my overview sufficiently reveals my hermeneutic, and what I believe is the take-away message of Noah and his ark.

At this point, however, I can almost hear you typing, "What about the details of the flood's extent? The mountains? The animals? All flesh upon the Earth?" Well yes, I have yet to expound what I believe is the 'literal reading' of the flood narrative. That is next. But until then, I wanted to demonstrate why I think those questions are inconsequential to God's message. Was the flood global or local? I don't think it matters. God's final judgment applies to all sinners that hear his message. As one of those sinners, I'm going to find an ark!

None of my theological conclusions are contingent on the exact depth/velocity of the water, sedimentation rate, identification of the pre-Flood/Flood boundary, or the exact length of a cubit. Neither does it matter whether a vapor canopy existed before the floodgates of heaven were opened. Christ's church is my ark.

Should we date the flood using the Masoretic text or the Septuagint? Was it 4,500 years ago or 9,000? Either way, the Lord is my salvation and I will run to the ark. Was Noah's ark nothing but a metaphor, plagiarized from an old, Sumerian myth to keep the Israelites in line? Regardless, I will call upon the Lord, and find rest in His Messiah. There will always be unanswered questions in scripture, but God's message has never been obscure. He alone is our help; our salvation.


Next time, part 2 of 2:

Israel retells the story of Noah: polemical historiography in the heart of Canaan


  1. Thus I liked the term "Alethemythopoeia" in describing Genesis 1 - 11: It was "True myth" making. As to your examples, I think the early parts of The Silmarillion, as Tolkien's answer to a Creation myth for Middle Earth, actually helped me a lot in coming to terms with True Myth and what it means in relation to Genesis and origins.

    I guess in part 2 you might touch on the geological side of things (Black Sea flooding, Persian Gulf flooding, draining Lake Aggasiz etc).

  2. It may be inconsequential in your hermeneutic ;-), but the ark is not described as landing on Mt. Ararat, but in the mountains of Ararat.

    As I think about extending your hermeneutic, I wonder if it is even necessary that Adam, Cain, Noah, etc. are actual people who actually lived on the earth or if your definition of myth makes that necessary? The historicity of Adam et al. seems to be among the hot topics among evangelicals today. I trust that will be answered in part 2 along with the other topics you heard me typing in my mind.

    I would also be interested in a clarification to the claim that "God's final judgment applies to all sinners that hear his message. As one of those sinners, I'm going to find an ark!" Is it only those who hear the message who will be judged? If Noah's judgment was not global, then why would the final judgment be? It seems inconsistent, but I might have missed something.

    PS-thanks for the kind words regarding my Easter articles.

  3. Scylding,

    I like the term, too. It's a nice alternative to those that can't shake the modern connotation of myth when discussing biblical literary genres, and it conveys more honestly the uniqueness of Genesis in the Mesopotamian world (not to mention the doctrine of inspiration!).


    Nice catch. :) I will discuss Mt. Ararat in part 2, and the meaning of 'mountains of Ararat'. I said 'Mt. Ararat' because it reflects the common perception of the western world today regarding the ark story.

    Personally, I do not reject the historicity of Adam (or the others, for that matter). I see no reason to, either within my hermeneutic or from extrabiblical data. As you rightly pointed out, my use of the term 'myth' would actually assume their historicity—at least on some basic level. On the other hand, I do not feel that the gospel would be undermined if, for example, Adam was a term applied more abstractly to a people (i.e. used symbolically to say 'as long as man has been around...'). Paul links us to Adam in that we are both in dereliction of God's just law, and his basis is exegetical. It is from the text, rather than the historical referent. So the argument remains, regardless of whether the historical referent (Adam) was who we think he was (or who Paul thinks he was). Compare this form of argument to that concerning the resurrection. Paul's argument for the resurrection was not only exegetical, but also empirical. That is the qualitative distinction, I think, but that's another discussion. :)

    Lastly, I would defer you to Romans 1 with regard to who hears the message of God. :) The judgment surrounding Noah was 'global' in the purview of the narrative, just like the judgment of Sodom/Gomorrah. The latter example is also used in the NT as a type for the final judgment, but nobody would argue for a global extent of the raining fire. That's how I see it, but yes, I will expand on this in part 2 (already written, just editing).

    P.S. You're welcome!