Is Genesis real history? (new Common Questions page)

(Edward Miller) #41

If one believes that Genesis 1-11 is an allegory teaching truths but not literal history, this soul would say “no.” If one is a literalist that accepts Genesis 1-11 as actual history ,e.g., Billy Graham who could also believe in theistic evolution, then the anwer would be “yes.”

(Mervin Bitikofer) #42

… “speaking to us” … agreed on that. “clearly”? well, I do agree that we should study what Jesus says and that what we need to know is available to us in his teachings when we study them and read them, not just to ourselves, but in community with other believers and especially believing scholars who have devoted significant study to them. (Even non-believing scholars will have valuable insights we should not neglect.) But when it comes to apocalyptic literature, very little (especially of detail) is just merely “clear” to our surface readings.

Hyperbole in the mouth of a little boy who frequently cries “wolf!” is one thing. Hyperbole from the living God to help drive a desperately important point home to us is quite another. You disparage hyperbole as something that is automatically false and to be dismissed. Sometimes it is that. But when a father warns his child not to play in the road because he will be killed, it is not an idle warning. Is it guaranteed that the child will die the moment he transgresses? Hardly. And yet the father’s warning is very real, and the child neglects it to his extreme (and yes, perhaps even fatal) peril. Now some will jump on this as a concession to your point, saying “see? …now it is suggested that God’s command is no more than a prudent suggestion like not playing in the street!” But you will err if you think this. I am not comparing God’s commands to parental imperatives. I am only making the point that hyperbole is not (as you suggest) an indicator of falsehood. It may be a warning that something merits its use for very good reasons! If someone is told it is better that to cut off their hands than use them to commit sin, then this is a teaching about how desperate we should be in our struggle against sin; it is not a reprimand to all of us still-two-handed individuals for seeing that this imperative is given to us by means of hyperbole.

(Antoine Suarez) #43

You seem to agree with @Mervin_Bitikofer and me in that according to the teaching of Jesus Christ the End Times and General resurrection will be an “unprecedented cataclysm event” of “terrible magnitude”.

Also in agreement with @Mervin_Bitikofer I endorse the idea that to impress upon us what the event will be like Jesus reaches for “the most dramatic cultural references we have available”. The reference to the Flood has to be understood in this context.

If now the quality of information we have about the Flood is that it is “purposeful exaggeration” (“fake news” after all), then Jesus should have known that comparing the End times to the Flood would not impress us at all but rather provoke hilarity, and had avoided the comparison.

So I think my argument is not fallacious and the option “Flood=Miracle” deserves a study that till now has not been done.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #44

Jesus didn’t seem much bothered by what might or might not provoke “hilarity”. Turning the other cheek probably sounded pretty funny to Roman soldier types (and still sounds beyond the pale to many Christians today). Mockery was [is] part of the world’s natural reaction to him. But all that is beside the point here.

I think you still fail to take on board my point that hyperbole does not always equal “not serious” or “false”. No sane parent is laughing at the dad who tells his kid that playing in the street will get him killed – even though such a risk assessment is obviously hyperbole. But even this comparison is unnecessary. You seem to want to take modern reporting culture and impute it back onto them, pretending that their take-away from certain styles of teaching and certain phrases and expectations attached to those phrases ought to match ours. In some cases perhaps that is fair, but across the board … it just ain’t so. When the almighty Creator God puts something in stark and dire terms and decides to use hyperbole to make sure you get the point, then that is God’s prerogative and your very salvation may be contingent on the warning; you mock at your own peril. Part of the whole notion of the Word becoming incarnate is that He reaches into our culture and makes use of our languages and norms – complete with sarcasm, cajoling, pining, and yes … even hyperbole. God could deliver a dry, more clinically accurate depiction of any given situation, but we tend to need to be shouted at. The prophets, it seems, will try everything. But we can manage to be deaf in many different languages and genres.

[edits happened]

(George Brooks) #45

I understand the references to the Flood in the same manner I understand Job’s references to snow and hail warehouses: they are colorful figurative narratives that really don’t affect the metaphysics of the Cosmos in any real way.

(Antoine Suarez) #46

I take on board your point with pleasure but I think your arguments in the context of the Flood are not convincing.

It seems to me we both agree in that the basis for any coherent explanation is Jesus’ teaching:

Now, the crucial Jesus’ teachings in this respect are in Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37.

As a matter of fact the scholars responsible for the article at the basis of this thread have not even referred these verses. Neither have these verses been discussed in detail in the Interview by Brad Kramer with John Walton @JohnWalton and Tremper Longman @tremperlongman.

It seems beyond doubt that Jesus in Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37 is clearly speaking for Christian of all times to convey His crucial teaching about the End Times as a real event to come, making clear, as you yourself claim:

If Jesus were comparing this event to a past event (the Flood) that never took place but was only the result of “purposely exaggeration”, it seems plain that He would actually and “purposely” be proposing to Christians today to interpret His teaching about the End Times and Final Judgement as “purposely exaggeration” as well.

For this reason I think that in the light of Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37 “hyperbole” cannot be considered a sound explanation for the Flood, even if one accepts (as I do) that:

You yourself provide an excellent argument in favor of my conclusion:

By teaching “it is better to cut off their hands than use them to commit sin” Jesus uses an expression that I understand today exactly in the same sense as anyone who was listening to Him 2000 years ago understood: “it is better to cut off my hands than…”.

Accordingly when Jesus uses the “Flood” (in Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37) he wants us to understand the comparison in the same sense as those listening him understood it, i.e.: as real history.

In summary, Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37 clearly suggest that “hyperbole” is not a good explanation for the Flood and therefore, if we want to keep to science, we should take seriously the option Flood=miracle.

In any case I am very thankful to you for your comments: They are allowing us to discuss openly Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37.


Except this is a hypothetical event which everyone knew doesn’t actually take place. So it is not an extraordinary event.

So when Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 He likewise wants us to understand the the 6 days of creation are real history?

Nothing in Jesus’ use of the Flood requires it to be real history. What is required is the listeners had to believe it referred to an extraordinary event.

(Antoine Suarez) #48

Bill, I thank you very much for your comments:

As far as I know (thanks in advance for correcting me, if I am wrong), it is the first time in this Blog that the passages where Jesus explicitly refers to Noah’s Flood are being object of detailed discussion.

Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (in Matthew 19:3-6 and Mark 10:2-9) to explain His teaching about the sanctity of Marriage and astonishingly He makes plain that this teaching:

  • Was contained in God’s primeval commandment to humans;

  • Is related to the concept of “Imago Dei” in Genesis 1:27 (an idea that both Karl Barth and Pope Johannes Paul II have developed).

In Matthew 19:3-6 and Mark 10:2-9 Jesus does not refer at all to the “6 days of creation”.

Regarding “creation times” the only thing you could derive from these verses is that actually Creation happens at the very moment God makes mankind in His Image, that is, capable of making free choices. Such an interpretation would fit perfectly well to what quantum physics is telling to us: No physically reality, without free choices on the part of human experimenters, all starts with our observations, or in John Wheeler’s wording: “The Big Bang is here”.

We also are “listeners” in the sense that we also are taught by Jesus when He speaks about the End Times and Final Judgement.

So, if I understand well, you are claiming that both, those who were listening when Jesus spoke and we ourselves have to believe the Flood referred to an extraordinary event.

This is exactly the idea I am proposing: Noah’s Flood as miracle.

Once again: it would useful if the scholars responsible for the article at the origin of this thread would agree in discussing this idea more in depth.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #49

Sorry for the delay in responding to this. You wrote:

I’m not trying to use hyperbole as any kind of catch-all explanation to force [what I would call unnatural] concord between ancient understandings and modern sensibilities. Though to be fair, I do see hyperbole in some parts; I just don’t have the seeming knee-jerk reaction against hyperbole that you do.

If we were to read passages clearly commanding us to gouge out eyes and cut off fingers the same way that YECs want us to read Genesis, then it would be easy to identify the truly faithful around us. So – no – I don’t agree that we, or they then, took this as a teaching to actually follow literally.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #50

I do agree that what Jesus teaches by his life and words is central to any Christian understanding. One does start treading in tricky waters, however, when one lifts out one or two passages as you have above, and identifies these as the crucial teachings … which you do go on to qualify as crucial “in this respect” which mitigates this concern somewhat.

But still, I would not call those passages “clear” in what all we can conclude from them (especially the Luke passage, but the sheep and the goats would seem to be a pretty clear teaching). Those who proclaim end times passages to be clearest are usually the same people who have made themselves most beholden to a dogmatic narrowness in how all such things are to be understood, which does not engender confidence that they are adequately engaged with the depths of scriptural wisdom as much as they could be.

Thank you for continued civil discussion.


It isn’t the first time. This is a fairly standard YEC argument.

And by so doing He indicates that Genesis has accurately recorded God’s words. If these words were accurately recorded why doesn’t this extend to all of Genesis 1-2 and thus 6 literal days of creation?

Those listening to Jesus believed the Flood was an extraordinary TRUE HISTORY event. Those listening to Jesus now believe the Flood was an extraordinary event. Note the difference.

So the miracle has to include erasing all traces of the miracle?

(Antoine Suarez) #52


It seems my formulations have provoked some misunderstanding of my position. I apologize for this and try to express better what I mean:

I am not at all proposing to read Matthew 5:27-30 in the sense that I have really to gouge out my right eye or cut off my right hand to avoid committing adultery.

My point is as follows:

You have proposed to compare the Teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37 to the teaching in Matthew 5:27-30, to the sake of justifying Hyperbole as an explanation of the Flood.

To this your proposal I object that your comparison does not support such a justification:

By reading Matthew 5:27-30 today I understand that committing adultery is so bad that it would be better to lose one part of my body than to go into hell because of such a sin.

If I had been listening to Jesus 2000 years ago I would have understood His teaching exactly the same way as I understand it today.

Thus applying this to Matthew 24; 25: 31-46, and Luke 17: 20-37 I am led to conclude:

I have to understand today Jesus’ teaching in these verses exactly the same way as I would have understood if I were listening to Jesus 2000 years ago.

Accordingly your comparison implies that we have to understand today Jesus’ teaching in the sense that the End Times and the Final Judgement will be as terrible real history as Noah’s Flood was.


The End Times and Final Judgement are not presented as history but prophecy. Since they haven’t happened yet people have no conception of what it is that is coming. In order to communicate some sense, and it isn’t presented in exacting detail, of what is going to happen Jesus has to use something for which people do have a conception. This may well be an event or story which was recorded using hyperbole. The important point is the communication of the enormity of the future event.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #54

You raise some good points, and I will agree that hyperbole, to the extent that taking it as such is meant to diminish the events described, is not a good spiritual place to be. But that is why I want to avoid another danger too – the danger of dismissing the prophecy altogether just because (without allowance for and acknowledgment of hyperbole) it is pushed into absurd falsehoods.

Let me ask you this: when prophecies speak of stars falling out of the sky to earth, how do you interpret this? Because I’m fairly sure how early hearers (in their literal modes of thinking) would have imagined this … they would have seen … stars falling out of the sky. So do you, as with the flood scenario, wish to maintain continuity with how they would have interpreted such a phenomenon? If not, then by what justification do you depart from the way they would have taken it?

(Jay Johnson) #55

Hmmm. We do have a direct comparison in Acts 2, where Peter interprets the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as an “end times” event:

"These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved."

None of the signs and wonders in Joel’s prophecy of the “last days” literally occurred at Pentecost. Nevertheless, Peter interprets the prophecy as fulfilled, and the audience doesn’t object despite the lack of obvious signs in the heavens.

(Jon Garvey) #56

I may have mentioned it on this thread already, but there is good scholarly argument that such “cosmic” imagery, even from its start in books like Joel, was intended to demonstrate that God’s actions in history and in nature were akin to his power in creation. In other words, when God acts, the cosmos shakes.

Even before the NT eschatological fulfilment of Joel, the “day of the Lord” in Joel (accompanied with all the cosmic trimmings) was fulfilled in (according to a majority) historical judgements like warfare (yet the stars didn’t fall) or (according to some cutting edge theology) in the locust disaster itself that constitutes the framework of the book (yet the stars didn’t fall).

If there’s a significance to this (and there is) it’s that God acts in both history and nature as purposefully and specifically as he acted in creation. Biblical scholars in the past tended to see OT religion as God’s acts in human history rather than in nature - and that seems often to rub off in the dichotomy sometimes made between daily Christian life and nature. But actually, the Bible doesn’t recognise the distinction at all as far as God’s activity goes.

For these reasons, the eschatological “cosmic signs” should certainly be understood as decisive acts of God, but not as the destruction of the world, still less of the imaginative application of “ancient science”.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #57

Thanks, Jon, and Jay, for some good reasons and examples of why 1st century folks might not have taken this imagery literally in the sense I suggested. I do have a tendency to lapse back into caricature regarding literalism in its better lights.

My general question to @AntoineSuarez still stands, apocalyptic imagery in mind with everything else. If we really are holding ancient understandings up as the gold standard for contemporary theology, then are we okay discarding all subsequent science that has informed us about the earth’s relative size to the stars, or our motion through the solar system, etc?

On the surface of things, I’ll concede that the ancients were smart enough to understand these literary things quite apart from how some wish to take them scientifically today – in which case they have no problem with any alleged discord that we like to impute back on them today. If so, there seems to be little reason they wouldn’t also be savvy enough to read flood passages in like manner.

(Jay Johnson) #58

Interesting, but connecting the “cosmic imagery” to creation is tenuous, in my opinion. Off the top of my head, it seems such symbolism is typically associated with theophany, as exemplified by God’s appearance at Sinai. The signs of theophany naturally are used in apocalyptic passages because they describe the Lord coming to Earth in judgment. See, for example, Is. 64:1-2

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!

Anyway, I concur that we shouldn’t try to draw fine distinctions between God’s action in nature or history and his action in daily life. But if God is active daily in all of those areas, as he surely is, then we cannot really say that when God acts, the cosmos shakes, else it should never cease shaking!

Interesting question, but the goal of modern hermeneutics is to recover, as much as possible, the original author’s intended meaning and how his audience would have understood it. That is the grammatical-historical method in a nutshell, as practiced by Walton, Middleton, Wright, etc. Today, it pretty much is the gold standard of contemporary theology.

The problem is, Jesus and the apostles didn’t practice the modern method, which is what you see with Peter in Acts. He adds the phrase “In the last days” to Joel to emphasize the inauguration of the kingdom in the outpouring of the Spirit, and “the Lord” whose name saves is Jesus, not YHWH. The ancients, including Jesus and his disciples, not only understood literary devices, they interpreted the OT much more flexibly than we do today.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #59

Why, this sounds genuinely “Ennsian” of you, Jay! (…and I mean that as a compliment, though it certainly wouldn’t be taken that way by a lot of folks.)

But I do agree with what I infer from you write. I take at least as much interest in what Jesus and the apostles did and where they went with their existing situation as I do trying to nail down what their existing situation was.

Bottom line here for many: So-called “conservatives” tend to be interested in their [the early church] positions. So called “liberals” tend to be interested in their trajectories. First group wants to know “what all did they believe” with an eye then to emulating that. Latter group want to know “where did they go with their existing traditions and beliefs” – with interest taken in that. …And much messy crossover too as any generalizations are obliged to allow for.

(Jay Johnson) #60

I will take it as intended, and I like your bottom line. (Please take that as intended, too. haha)