The author used an event in the past that made enough of an impression that it had been passed down in oral tradition to make his theological point. The intent wasn’t to record history.
My take on Genesis 1-11 is:
Adam and Eve is a retelling of existing creation beliefs of the surrounding cultures.
Noah is a retelling of an actual event in distant past.
The Tower of Babel is a retelling of an actual event in the near past.
In each case the author used something that would be well known to the audience. It is the meaning given to each story that gets so entrenched.
What is the general event this is believed to describe and is it mentioned anywhere else? A giant building/temple fell somewhere? More importantly, did God scatter people and supernaturally give distinct languages (there being only one at the time?). What is the message of the Babel story? Stay in our lane?
The story of a flood and salvation from it is not unique to the Bible. But the Bible will always put a theological comment on everything it reports. It is theocentric. Everything pertains to or is controlled by God (Whether it is in reality or not)
How to interpret scripture is not just about what is written.
There are remains of ziggurats in this region so there is something physical to look at. Are any of these the “actual” tower? Probably not. Some point to Etemenanki as a possible source for the story. See wikipedia. I had to smile at the “Although Etemenanki has sometimes erroneously been identified with the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11 in the Bible, the archaeological record is incompatible with the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, …” since the author didn’t intend to record history and it is not surprising that the account doesn’t match history.
Given languages existed before this story it is obvious that God didn’t create languages at this point.
Simplest is it is the origin story for languages. Although I don’t know why that was important enough to include. Although you could say Genesis 1-11 are all origin stories to provide the backstory to the origin of the Israelites.
It helps to know that the Hebrew words and be translated:
earth or land
mountains or hills
And it helps to know the Hebrew says the water rose 15 cubits (22.5 feet) and covered the high hills.
And it helps to know the Hebrew says the ark landed on the hills (plural) of Ugarit.
Review the NET Bible notes online for details.
So a valid interpretation was this was a local flood in a relatively flat land.
It is possible the story is there to supplant the earlier flood story.
When Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating Ur, he found a 12-foot thick sediment layer and considered it a result of Noah’s flood.
From the Wikipedia article on Woolley:
Woolley was one of the first archaeologists to propose that the flood described in the Book of Genesis was local after identifying a flood-stratum at Ur “400 miles long and 100 miles wide; but for the occupants of the valley that was the whole world”.
Those two data points don’t agree. Even in the relatively flat desert any “hill” is going to be over 15 cubits high.
Edit: On a second reading I think you mean 15 cubits above the high hills which does make sense.
Except the other details in the story don’t support this interpretation. The core of the story is a flood that caused great, and memorable, loss of life. Obviously it was a local flood but there is no way to determine exactly which flood was the role model for the story.
This is fairly close to what I think too – it was just a local flood, but became a story about salvation which later foreshadowed baptism as was mentioned in the book of James. It felt universal to the people who wrote it down because they had a very different understanding of “the world” than we do now.
It can be used for that purpose – but it doesn’t have to be that way. I think this is also part of why I landed at BioLogos and keep wrestling with all this, because it almost did destroy my faith and I feel like I need to really thoroughly debunk my old beliefs. But sometimes it’s really more a case of me having to go through and re-wire my own thinking on what “foundational” even means – I don’t necessarily have to change my approach to the story all that much, just what was added to it by certain modern apologists.
Are you referring to the Nephilim? (And where are they referred to in the New Testament?) I find that story interesting, but it’s so vague that I don’t think there’s any way to really know anything for sure. Is it possible for fallen angels to have children with humans? I don’t see how that could be verified one way or another. As you said, hyperbole is a possibility – people encountered strong, powerful, psychopathic bullies and viewed them as demigods to help make sense of what they were encountering. It’s not unlike other encounters between different cultures where a power/technology imbalance causes one side to view the other as divine. But all we can really do is guess.
My linkage to the NT here is obscure and really comes from Michael Heiser. He relates the discussion of sinning angels in 2 Peter and Jude to the beings who created the Nephilim. Angels who left their normal dwelling place. Could be a stretch.
What do you think about the Moses, plaques, Exodus….similar to Noah?
Interesting… it sounds like a lot of ideas that might be interconnected or might not be. Either way, it’s hard to know what to think of them. Probably I’ve just done a lot more thinking about the flood because of the way it was used by YEC apologists, but Nephilim and sinning angels don’t tend to play into YEC as much.
As for Moses, I am okay with believing most of that story – I acknowledge numbers may have been inflated or incorrectly guessed, and the events were viewed through a more “universal” lens than we would see it as now, same as the flood, but otherwise I try to view it as a story about who God is, less a story about the Israelites and the Egyptians.
Genesis 6 When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
It is just an explanation of who the sons of Adam married – not this incestuous idea of creationists that they married their own sisters but that they married the daughters of all those other people in the world (also spoken of in Genesis 4).
The only problem is when you try to force the creationist worldview on the text. That forces you to invent all kinds of weird fantasies. But then they want to keep it all magical and disconnected from reality so that they can be the sole authority on this made up magical history.
The Bible never speaks of or describes the earth as a globe but frankly what can only makes sense as a very small portion of that globe. Thus there is no basis whatsoever for understanding a flood described in the Bible as happening over the whole earth as a global flood.
Compared to most here I take a rather historical (but not literal) view of the text in Genesis. All real people and real events but since even the Bible treats some of these things as symbolic then I see no reason to believe in golems animated by magic, magic fruit, or talking animals. Chapters 2-6 tell the story of how self-destructive habits began among a chosen people to whom God had spoken and how they quickly expanded until “all the thoughts of mankind were only evil continually.” But there is nothing to suggest this had expanded to something global and the context of the whole story as it continues suggests this about a first human civilization which was destroyed. In chapter 11 we see an effort of people after the flood seeking to rally mankind in a united civilization and God objects to this causing them to spread out over the earth and to divide into many nations, cultures, and languages.
Others here see the Bible as religious text of made up stories written after the Babylonian captivity to teach and preserve the religious ideas of the Jewish people. It is a safe approach with regards to scientific discovery giving science free reign for discovery of what happened. I am not hostile to this way of thinking, but I don’t see how we gain anything by simply dismissing the stories in this way. If we would learn what these stories have to teach then I think we do better to take them more seriously. And more importantly I would rather defend the fact that science does not preclude the historicity of these stories even if we must not take them as a purely literal account of events. My policy is to maximize the meaning we get from the Bible and I don’t see either of the extremes as doing this very well. We lose meaning when the story becomes magical and contrary to reality and science. And we lose meaning when they become nothing more than vague metaphor. Besides, we can adjust our understanding of the stories as science discovers more. I have done so before and will do so again as needed.
When I say god of the gaps here I simply mean that God was blamed for a catastrophic event when it was just a natural event. Maybe I used it out of context but thanks for moving me towards the top of the list.
But it is not a god of the gaps. Believers attribute things to God even when they have no idea of gaps in the scientific explanation for them. This is not even inconsistent with science because science never gives explanations for everything. It explains how things happen only in the most general terms and not so much reasons why particular things happen. Science perceives the patterns and describes them with mathematical equations and natural laws. It does not seek meaning in the shapes of clouds or coincidental events.
Although Woolley may well have been one of the first archaeologists to propose that the flood described in Genesis was local, that would be a matter of being one of the first archaeologists to work in Mesopotamia; regional floods had been suggested based on the biblical account for centuries and geology ruled out a global flood by about 1840. By the mid-1700’s, it was clear that most geologic layers were not the product of a single brief flood. Mischaracterization of historical views is commonplace. The “catastrophist” geologists of the late 1700’s and first half of the 1800’s did not attribute many geologic layers to the flood, but until the glacial origin of Ice Age features was demonstrated, many thought that the account of Noah reflected the most recent of many catastrophes that punctuated the otherwise relatively gradual accumulation of sedimentary layers. Likewise, Neptunism of the 1700’s thought that the earth started out covered by water, with various layers precipitating out of the water in turn. That’s not the same as Noah’s flood.
Four regions that have been proposed for Noah’s flood:
The Mediterranean basin. The initial deep sea drilling project showed that extensive evaporite deposits underlie the Mediterranean. Northwards movement of Africa led to closing off the basin at both ends, and the sea largely dried up. Eventually, the Atlantic broke through at Gibraltar. However, this flooding was at the Miocene-Pliocene boundary; the only hominids we know of were on the south side of the Sahara region and had brains no bigger than those of chimps. 5 million is also a rather long time to stretch the genealogies, and this assumes that the technologies mentioned in Gen. 4 were lost and rediscovered.
Black Sea: During glacial low sea level, the Bosporus is shallow enough to become land and the Black Sea becomes an enclosed lake like the Caspian. As sea level rises again, the Black Sea region eventually gets reflooded. However, there is no evidence that the flooding was be any more rapid than “hmm, maybe we need to move the tent inland sometime”. It’s also not particularly associated with the geographic features mentioned in Genesis 2.
Persian Gulf: Potentially subject to similar drying and flooding as the Black Sea. There are ancient Mesopotamian traditions associating this region with the flood. Data on the regional geological evidence is a bit sketchy, however. The regional political tensions make geological exploration challenging in some areas. Also, rather than bothering to investigate the potentially academically interesting Quaternary sequence of sea level, those who do investigate regional geology are most likely to be investigating the oil-rich deeper layers and selling the data to an energy company, not publicly releasing it.
Mesopotamia: The general Tigris-Euphrates floodplain region is extremely flat and largely surrounded by mountains. An extreme weather event where a stalled front trapped moist air off the Indian Ocean could produce major flooding, with winds blowing from the south and landing any boat along the northern side of the region.