Exegesis of Noah's Flood from a Biologos perspective

Hey everyone.

First of all I love this site. I think many things espoused by the biologos community, especially regarding Gen 1-3 are spot on.

However I’m a bit hung up on Noah’s flood. I’m aware of the lack of scientific knowledge (or even biblical necessity) for a global flood. I get the science behind it, and the overall theological themes. That’s not my concern.

My concern is more along the lines of how would a localized Noah square with the Tower of Babel, or Table of Nations, which seem to rely on the idea that at this point, all of human civilization is centered in this one location and had to be rebuilt from this one family.

I’d like for someone to share with me how they would exegete, verse by verse, the Noah flood account. If anyone has wisdom to share on other seemingly problematic scripture, like Genesis 5 ages or the Nephilim or the Table of Nations (which seems very problematic to me if Noah isn’t the last person left within at least thousands of miles of Babylon), that kind of insight would be helpful as well.

I’m more interested in biblical exegesis than I am with scientific evidence on these matters. I know science doesn’t allow for 900 year old people, and I know science doesn’t allow all to be descended from one family. What I want is how to read the bible, when for so long it has at least SEEMED that these are things the bible taught, especially with how they relate to implications with other biblical stories.

John Walton and Tremper Longman are working on a “Lost World of the Flood and Babel” book as we speak - not sure when it will come out.

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That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear! I have Walton’s Lost World of Genesis 1 and Adam and Eve and those were fantastic reads.

While I’m anticipating that release, anyone else care to take a stab at the topic?

Join the club. We should start selling t-shirts. :shirt: (It is a new hobby of mine to see how many of these goofy emojis I can use in a warranted way in a year. Welcome to BioLogos forum, by the way.)

I’m going to read that Walton/Longman book and probably take their word for it. Meanwhile, if you are interested in OT numerology around the crazy ages, here is a Jim Stump post I liked from a while back:

Also, I really liked how Timothy Tennent (of Asbury Seminary) deals with Babel in Invitation to World Missions, and you could read the relevant chapter here, if you are interested: He basically saw is as a foil to the Abrahamic covenant.

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You could start with the fact that Genesis 10 comes before Genesis 11, and in Genesis 10 we find people have already scattered abroad and have their own languages. In Genesis 11 we don’t find the creation of new languages, we find people’s language turned into confusion; this is incomprehensible gibberish, not new comprehensible languages.

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Christy, those are excellent resources! Thank you so much.

I think the biggest hurdles most people face with the ages (as with the universality of the flood and the literalism of the days in genesis) is that they appear at first glance to be the most natural reading of scripture. It’s almost a sort of Occam’s Razor test. The challenge then is to present the issues with that “surface” reading and highlight patterns that heavily suggest that there is more at work there. That’s exactly what that Jim Stump post did for me. And it’s what altered my view of the days in Genesis when I first read of the framework structure, the three kingdoms/three kings pattern. The “formless and void/forming and filling” pattern. And the reading of the seventh day as seemingly having no end.

In Adam and Eve’s story, there are things like the meaning of the words Adam and Eve, and God’s use of those double meanings that He incorporates into the respective ‘punishments’ (Adam - “man” and having earthly connotations, has to toil in the earth. Eve - named because she would be mother of all living, now sees pain in bringing life to new people). And of course the two trees being present, and the priestly role of Adam as well as the temple role of the garden when compared with later readings about the temple and the priesthood, all of these things suggest that more is going on here than simply a story to highlight the first man/first woman. The narrative is serving a purpose of backdrop to the coming Abrahamic Covenant, the Exodus, and the Law as a whole. And that’s Moses’ interest in including the story, not to teach formal history (though also not necessarily to use stories that never happened), but to teach law.

So that’s the problem I was bumping into with the numbers, and it seems we still don’t know what the PARTICULAR numbers are doing, but the patterns suggests that the purpose is not simply to show extreme ages, if that’s even a part of the purpose at all. So that was an excellent read. I hope we live to discover more about numerological uses. Like WHY was seven such a venerated number? We know that it WAS, but do we really know WHY or HOW numbers came to get their meanings?

As for the reading on the Tower of Babel, it was excellent for showing the theological purpose for including the story. It gave me a renewed vision of Genesis 1-11’s purpose as a backdrop to the Abrahamic Covenant, which was a key component I was missing. I think I have a better grasp of the entire purpose of this section of scripture:

Basically Moses establishes God as good and sovereign over creation, with a created order. When that order is being kept, things are peaceful, but when it is corrupted, there is death. Adam is chosen by God with a priestly role, and in some way a representative role. Taken from outside and brought into a land of God’s blessing, and told that as long as he keeps God’s commandment, he will have life eternally. Adam disobeys and is cast out. (the parallels between the message of the mosaic law and familiarity of such motifs with Israel are amazing to see in this narrative) But lest we are tempted to think that God overreacted by casting him out for such a “minor” disobedience, we are showed how sin lives on, as even Adam’s firstborn takes the life of his brother. Sin was not a one time thing. He then founds a city, and generations on, the sinful nature of mankind has filled to a point where the best way for God to show how drastic the problem of sin is, that he ordains an enormous flood, symbolic as an act of uncreation, showing grace to Noah from Seth’s line because who better to grasp the blessing of God’s sovereign grace? But we see with Noah, that even as God has grace on him, after the flood, sin persists still, even with Noah. And once again we see how it has filled the whole earth generation by generation, as man continues to build monuments to himself, to make a name for himself and set himself above God. Enter Abraham and the covenant.

Of course, I still have questions. Some of the flood language, especially from God’s voice, seem to suggest a desire to wipe out “the human race that I have created.” And again “I am going to put an end to all people…destroy all life under the heavens.” One has to ask why God wouldn’t ask Noah to leave the region, or why it was necessary to gather animals from the region, if the flood wasn’t intended to be global.

Of course God asked other prophets to do weird things that don’t seem necessary, and serve only to make a broader point. Like whichever one was told to march around the city with iron in front of his face, and take his hair and burn 1/3 of it and cut 1/3 of it and all those random things (which prophet it was escapes me). But the problem I have is that even if Moses had a limited view of the earth, and he himself believed it was global, does it present a problem for us that Moses either seems to embellish a story or re-purpose a pagan myth/record a Hebrew oral tradition that wasn’t true?

Finally, to come back around to the Table of Nations, as I have said I think I get all the theological purposes for including these stories and using them the way Moses does (this whole time I am assuming traditional authorship and have no reason not to). But in addition to Moses appearing to think the flood wiped out all mankind, he builds the genealogies of Noah’s sons and the Table of Nations in such a way that it makes it appear that he is espousing the view that ALL nations and peoples came from Noah’s sons.I actually think the Bible seems to leave more room to believe that Adam wasn’t the FIRST human being (perhaps the first priest, the first means of God reaching out to man, but not necessarily the first man) than it does to think that the writer of Noah’s story thinks the flood didn’t leave an empty earth bereft of nations for Noah’s sons to repopulate.

Sorry this was so long, I was mainly thinking out loud haha, the brunt of my question comes in that last paragraph.

@Mark_Elsasser, Genesis 1-11 makes a lot more sense when you understand it was written during the Babylonian exile, rather than being written by Moses. This explains why it spends so much time addressing pagan Babylonian myths which were unknown to Moses and the Hebrews of his era (and irrelevant to them).

That’s ok because all that language can be found elsewhere (especially in the prophets), speaking of local judgments (such as judgments on Israel and Edom).

Remember that the flood was a type of baptism; “walking away” isn’t a good type of baptism. Additionally, Noah is commanded to uphold the divine injunction of caring for the earth as God’s regent, which was given to Adam and Eve back in Genesis 1. This requires him to look after the local wildlife, and restore the local ecology after the flood (Noah would have ended up in an ecologically impoverished environment which required restoration).

He doesn’t embellish or re-purpose it, he tells it from God’s perspective. Though I think Daniel is a better candidate than Moses for the authorship of the flood narrative.

The Bible actually contains explicit reference to the fact that not all humans were killed in the flood, which is why some early Jewish exegetes (including Philo and Josephus), and some early Christian commentators, understood the flood to be local.

I had heard something like this before, but I always sort of dismissed it on the idea that they had to be reading SOMETHING before the exile. I had kind of assumed that perhaps they had taken their “final” forms of editing during the exile. Was the entire Torah written during the exile or just Genesis? And how can we know for sure/do we have any idea what the Jews were reading before the exile? Does Jesus assume Mosaic authorship of Genesis? I’m not asking any of these things defensively, I was under these impressions, and if they are false I’d love to have them corrected. You guys are giving great info and insight…

And to your last point, I know about Philo and Josephus and early church fathers, but where in scripture can one find that explicit reference to flood survivors, other than “the nephilim were on those days and thereafter” also if anyone wants to go a little off topic, we could discuss the nephilim. That’s another little blurb in the story that I can’t settle on which interpretation does it the most justice.

And what do you say to the idea that the Bible seems to suggest that all of the nations of the known world at the time came from Noah’s sons? Does that not seem like a far-fetched claim? Or does the Bible actually NOT suggest it on closer inspection, and I simply have the wrong idea about it?

They were definitely reading something before the exile, and we have clear evidence that they had the Law before the exile, and quite a lot of the history. In fact Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings are pre-exilic.

Most of the Torah is pre-exilic. This may help.

Internal evidence (comparing passages of Scripture with each other), and external evidence (such as the pre-exilic Ketef Hinnim scrolls of the sixth century, and the Elephantine papyri which show the Law of Moses was being followed at least as early as the eighth century BCE).

No. He never mentions Mosaic authorship of Genesis at all.

The Nephilim are the clearest evidence from the text. But there’s also the fact that the Ark ran aground somewhere in Ararat, while the tops of the mountains were still underwater. Mt Everest is a couple of kilometres higher than Ararat, so it would not have been possible for the Ark to run aground if Everest was still underwater.

The Bible doesn’t actually say this. It’s like Cain’s wife; people know there’s a problem there but just gloss over it because it’s too hard to imagine that their interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is wrong.

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That chart is very helpful. Are Adam/Eve or the flood mentioned in any of the pre-exilic works? The nephilim I believe are mentioned again in Joshua. Do you think the stories themselves, though not yet penned down, were known in the post-exodus crowd.

Where does the tradition of Mosaic authorship of the whole Torah come from?

And finally, what do you think the table of nations is saying when, for example, it says that Ham was the father of Egypt? What is the whole table claiming if not that these nations descended from Noah’s three sons?

You’re welcome. As for your question, this brief list of facts should help.

  1. Virtually all the specific events and people of Genesis 1-11 are not found anywhere from Genesis 12 to the end of 2 Kings. There’s no evidence that anyone before the Babylonian exile knew about Adam, Eve, the serpent, the trees, the fall, the flood, or the tower of Babel.

  2. The genealogies found from Genesis 12 to the end of 2 Kings don’t go back any further than the family of Abraham; there’s no evidence that anyone before the Babylonian captivity knew the genealogies of people who lived earlier than Abraham’s family.

  3. Historical and geographical references in Genesis 1-11 which could not have been written before the reign of Solomon at earliest, and some which are clearly exilic.

  4. Citations in Genesis 1-11 of content in specific Sumerian and Akkadian texts which would not have been available to pre-exilic Hebrews. They were available to Daniel, and we know he was taught “the language and literature of the Babylonians”, which included these texts.

  5. Vocabulary and grammar in Genesis 1-11 which belongs to the era of the monarchy or exile.

I can supply details of each point if you wish.

There’s no evidence for them before the exile. If they were known, there’s no evidence that they were known.

Ham isn’t identified as the father of Egypt; Mizraim in Genesis 10 doesn’t refer to Egypt.

I think I understand the facts you listed. All very interesting. But of course specifics are always useful if you’ve got the time.

I’m very interested in your last point, are you saying that English translations are making a mistake(s) in the Table of Nations? And do you have a better source for understanding the original language in context?


You miss at least one important exception Exodus 20:8

Here’s a brief overview.

Now for specifics. Nowhere in the entire Law of Moses are Adam and Eve or the events of Eden ever referred to, despite the significant emphasis on sin, death, and sacrifice. Since the Law deals in considerable detail with the consequences of sin, the complete absence from Exodus to Deuteronomy of any reference to these people and events is extraordinary. Although genealogies in Genesis 4-5 start with Adam, all the genealogies from Genesis 12 through to the end of 2 Kings only extend as far back as Abraham.

Outside Genesis 1-11, Adam is first referred to in 1 Chronicles 1:1. The genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1 (written after the Babylonian exile), is the first genealogy after Genesis 5 to refer to Adam. In the Chronicles genealogy Adam is introduced without explanation, and the reader is expected to be familiar with him and his immediate descendants, suggesting they had already read a document introducing and explaining Adam and his family.

After Genesis 6-8, the flood is not referred to again until Isaiah 54:9. The first use of the word Eden outside Genesis 1-11 is in Isaiah 51:3. The next is in an exilic document (Ezekiel 28:12-19), taking the audience’s familiarity with Eden for granted; the reference to Eden in Joel 2:3 dates either to the exile or shortly after. This chapter also contains attacks on Babylonian theology, and explicit use of the Genesis cosmogony and the fall. The term ‘garden of the Lord’ is only used in two passages in the Old Testament; Genesis 13:10 and Isaiah 51:3, supporting the idea that the garden of the Lord was only known as ‘Eden’ during or after the exile.

The break between Genesis 11 and 12 is extreme. In Genesis 11:31 we are told Terah set out with his family (including Abram and Sarai), to travel from Ur to Canaan, but we are given no explanation for this whatsoever. In contrast, Genesis 12:1 opens with the divine call issued to Abram, providing details of the promises and the trip to Canaan; Genesis 11:31 presupposes the reader’s knowledge of why Abram is travelling to Canaan, indicating it was written after Genesis 12. Joshua is aware of the Mesopotamian origin of Abraham, but it is just as clear he knew of nothing earlier.
If these chapters did exist as early as Abraham (or at least Moses), then we must explain why they are ignored by most of the books of the Bible, and only suddenly referred to by the post-exilic books. From Genesis 12 to the end of 2 Kings, book after book after book shows no awareness of these chapters at all.

Certain vocabulary in Genesis 1-3 is used elsewhere only in books written during the monarchy or later, such as ʾēd (source of water, Genesis 2:6), neḥmād (pleasant, Genesis 2:9; 3:6), tāpar (sew, Genesis 3:7), ʾēbāh (enmity, Genesis 3:15), šûp (bruise/wound, Genesis 3:15) ʿeṣeb (labor, Genesis 3:16), tĕšûqāh (longing, Genesis 3:16). The word Shinar (Genesis 10:10; 11:2), was used by nations outside Mesopotamia “to designate the Kassite kingdom of Babylon (ca. 1595-1160 B.C.E)”; consequently its use here indicates Genesis 11 was written no earlier than the date of that kingdom. The Hebrew phrase for “breath of life” used in Genesis 2:7; 6:17; 7:15, 22, is not found anywhere else in Scripture. However, it is found in the Eridu Genesis, a Sumerian text which was copied and read by the Babylonians.

Certain names appear only in Genesis 1-11 and books written during or after the Babylonian exile; typically they appear later in 1 Chronicles 5 or later books as personal names, and in Isaiah and Ezekiel as place names. Some names appear as personal names before the exile, but as place names only during or after the exile. A few names appear only in Genesis 10.

  1. Gomer (Genesis 10:2-3, 1 Chronicles 1:5-6, Ezekiel 38:6, Hosea 1:3).
  2. Magog (Genesis 10:2, 1 Chronicles 1:5, Ezekiel 38:2; 39:6).
  3. Madai (Genesis 10:2, 1 Chronicles 1:5).
  4. Javan (Genesis 10:2, 4, 1 Chronicles 1:5, 7, Isaiah 66:19, Ezekiel 27:13).
  5. Tubal (Genesis 4;22; 10:2, 1 Chronicles 1:5, Isaiah 66:19, Ezekiel 27:13; 32:26; 38:2-3; 39:1).
  6. Meshech (Genesis 10:2, 1 Chronicles 1:5, Psalm 120:5, Ezekiel 27:13; 32:26; 38:2-3; 39:1).
  7. Tiras (Genesis 10:2, 1 Chronicles 1:5).
  8. Togarmah (Genesis 10:3, 1 Chronicles 1:6, Ezekiel 27:14; 38:6).
  9. Dodanim (Genesis 10:4).
  10. Dedan (Genesis 10:7; 25:3, 1 Chronicles 1:9, 32, Jeremiah 25:23; 49:8, Ezekiel 25:13; 27:20; 38:13).
  11. Akkad (Genesis 10:10).
  12. Erech (Genesis 10:10).
  13. Calah (Genesis 10:11-12).
  14. Resen Genesis 10:12).

Some verses in Genesis 1-11 use place names which help date the text. In particular, several verses in Genesis 10 indicate the chapter could not have been written until after the reign of Solomon.

  1. Genesis 2:14; 10:11. These verses refers to Assyria, which did not exist until the reign of Assuruballit I (1363-1328 BCE). The city of Assur was built earlier (around 2,500 BCE), but was ruled over by Akkadians, Amorites, and Babylonians in succession. Assyria did not become an independent state with Assur as its capital reign of Assuruballit I.

  2. Genesis 10:11. This verse refers to Nineveh as part of Assyria, but it was not until the reign of Assuruballit I (1363-1328 BCE), that Nineveh became part of Assyrian territory. Note that Nineveh is mentioned in Genesis 10:11-12, but not mentioned again until 2 Kings, written during the exile; this supports the conclusion that Genesis 11 was not written before the exile.

  3. Genesis 10:11-12. This refers to the city of Calah as “that great city”. Calah did not exist until 1750 BCE, and was a mere village until the ninth century BCE, when it became “that great city” during the reign of Assurnasirpal II, who made it the capital of Assyria. It could not have been called “that great city” until after the reign of Solomon.

  4. Genesis 10:19. The boundaries of Canaan described here did not exist until 1280 BCE by a peace treaty between Ramses II and Hattusilis III in 1280 BCE; it is therefore unsurprising that the borders of Canaan described here do not match the description of Canaan in Genesis 15:18 or Numbers 34:2-12, or any text of Moses’ time. This verse could not have been written earlier than 1280 BCE.

  5. Genesis 10:19. This verse refers to Gaza, but this location was first called “Gaza” during the reign of Thutmose III (1481-1425 BCE); it was not called “Gaza” before this time. It would have been known as “Gaza” by the time of Moses, but not in the time of Abraham.

  6. Genesis 11:28, 31. These verses refers to “Ur of the Chaldeans”. The Chaldeans did not occupy Ur until around the tenth century (1000 BCE). The only pre-exilic use of the phrase “Ur of the Chaldeans” in the Old Testament is in Genesis 15:7, which was clearly written at least as early as the eleventh century (possibly by Samuel), by which time the term “Ur of the Chaldeans” was already the common term for the area. The only other use of “Ur of the Chaldeans” is in Nehemiah 9:7, a post-exilic book.

Actually there are modern English translations such as New English Translation, NCV, NIV84, and NLT, which renders the word “Mizraim” rather than “Egypt”. This is pretty well recognized in scholarship. Some of these translations still believe that Mizraim here is another word for Egypt, but they recognize the ambiguity of the word so they render it without identifying it explicitly as Egypt.

Here’s one source which may be useful.

“Some scholars think that in a few passages referring to horses (1 K. 10:28; 2 K. 7:6; 2 Ch. 1:16f.; 9:28) the word should be emended to Muṣri or Muṣur, a land in Asia Minor (cf. Moff Muzri).”

John Alexander Thompson, “Mizraim,” ed. Geoffrey W Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 388.

Here’s another.

Scholars debate whether Mizraim refers not to Egypt, but to Musri, an Anatolian site known from Akkadian sources. Both 1 Kgs 10:28 (//2 Chr 1:16) and 2 Kgs 7:6 feature horses, for which Anatolia was more famed than Egypt. Furthermore, the pairing of Mizraim/Musri and Kue (1 Kgs 10:28 //2 Chr 1:16) resembles the monolith inscription of the 9th cent.BCE Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, which reports the inclusion of soldiers from Que and Musri in an anti-Assyrian coalition assembled in Syria.

Carolyn Higginbotham, “Mizraim,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 117.

No I didn’t. It’s not an exception; this verse was added to Exodus by an exilic or post-exilic redactor. The evidence for this is that no one from Genesis 12 to the end of 2 Kings ever says the purpose of the Sabbath was to memorialize the six days of creation. On the contrary, when Moses explains the purpose of the Sabbath in Deuteronomy, he explicitly tells Israel that the purpose of the Sabbath was to memorialize the exodus from Egypt. He says absolutely nothing about it memorializing creation.

It might be worth looking into the concept of “orality” as it applies to the creation, transmission, and authority of Scripture. It has been all the rage in my field (Bible translation and Scripture engagement) for some time, but I have recently seen it popping up in biblical studies discussions. Walton/Sandy explore the concept (from a more conservative/Evangelical position than Jonathan) in The Lost World of Scripture. (Here is a book review that has fairly detailed summary, though the reviewer is coming from a very conservative background and isn’t all that comfortable with the book.)

Michael Bird deals with orality as it applies to the NT in The Gospel of the Lord. (Chapter 3)

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That is a superb book and definitely one of Walton’s best contributions. I learned much from it. It’s worth noting however that Walton is comfortable with multiple sources and redaction for the Pentateuch, and that although he is inclined towards Mosaic authorship of Genesis he acknowledges “it is difficult to produce much evidence to connect Moses to the writing of the book”.

I ask just about to ask if that’s what’s considered less conservative/evangelical about Jonathan’s points, the late and non-mosaic authorship of Genesis.

If so, it’s certainly an interesting perspective and one I don’t hear a lot of. He seems to defend it very well. Christy, which parts would you tend to disagree with?

And I wonder, Jonathan, what’s your take on “the fall” if such a seemingly crucial doctrine doesn’t show up in Jewish tradition until late? You’ve already mentioned that there is plenty of reference to sin without a fall in pre-exilic literature, but I’d like to hear it expounded upon if you’ve got time. Always nice to hear multiple perspectives. I recognize that the Jews didn’t really see it as a fall in the way that Paul uses, but still it seems like a late addition to become such a crucial part of the Christian worldview. Hope this doesn’t carry things too far off topic at this point haha.

You will typically not hear of it in very conservative theological circles, but it is totally mainstream and it’s non-controversial even in many confessional seminaries. You’ll find quite a few high level mainstream commentaries making at least some concession to a form of multiple authorship or redaction.

Isn’t it interesting that the Law of Moses can spend chapter after chapter and thousands of words on the issue of temptation, sin, and punishment, without once citing the fall? The fact is that the fall is not a “crucial” doctrine in the sense of “something you must know in order to be saved”. Abraham certainly never heard of it, and nor did anyone before Moses, even if you take the most conservative view that Moses wrote Genesis 3.

It is however theologically important, and a lot more is made of it in the New Testament than is even made of it in the Old Testament. It’s a doctrine which Christians should definitely know, and unlike other people I believe it takes a high place in Paul’s theology. And I think that Paul did actually see it the way the Jews saw it; his own exposition is completely in line with typical Second Temple Period commentary on the fall.

So would you say then that sin is just something innate, something that need not be tied to a decisive point in History where a single, representative man in the role of a priest is offered communion with God if he keeps his commands, but chooses not to do so? And I guess that leads to the question, did God make us incapable of being Holy without Christ on purpose? Since we cannot keep the law, and we do not keep the law, and there is none righteous, and there was not a time when we weren’t, as it were, dead to sin? Or am I assuming too much haha, don’t let me get carried away. Just thinking out loud (in text) again.

Yes. If the urges which lead to sin weren’t in Adam from the start, he wouldn’t have sinned in the first place. But they very obviously were, and the description of Eve’s sin demonstrates this clearly; she saw, she coveted, and she took.

I wouldn’t word it quite like that but I know what you mean. Yes God deliberately made us mortal and prone to sin, and that shows us our dependence on Him. Similarly, God gave Israel a law which they could never keep, one which Moses told them they could never keep, which the prophets told them they could never keep, which Paul tells us was impossible for anyone to keep, for the same reason; to teach us law cannot save, we need grace.