This is the eighth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9). For the first seven posts, click for a discussion on:
1) The Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) The New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) The Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8
4) God repenting and the animals being wiped out
5) The Mesopotamian Flood and Genesis’ reliance on it
6) The JEPD/Documentary hypothesis and why it’s a weak theory for the Flood narrative
7) The meaning, appearance, and scientific nature of the Ark
This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings. For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month – on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst open and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And the rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
13 On that very day Noah entered the ark, accompanied by his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, along with his wife and his sons’ three wives. 14 They entered, along with every living creature after its kind, every animal after its kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life came into the ark to Noah. 16 Those that entered were male and female, just as God commanded him. Then the
17 The flood engulfed the earth for forty days. As the waters increased, they lifted the ark and raised it above the earth. 18 The waters completely overwhelmed the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the waters. 19 The waters completely inundated the earth so that even all the high mountains under the entire sky were covered. 20 The waters rose more than twenty feet above the mountains. 21 And all living things that moved on the earth died, including the birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all humankind.22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 So the
Understanding the difference between Biblical and scientific world views
The Flood is intimately intertwined with the Biblical conception of Creation. As discussed in previous posts in this series, the Flood is about the ‘un-Creation’ of ‘Creation’. As such, we need to understand the Biblical worldview of Creation, as opposed to the modern conception. In doing so, we’ll match the majority (but not all) modern commentators and theologians in viewing an impenetrable divide between the two world views, that can’t be melded together. In case this makes you feel uncomfortable (if you are a Christian who is being exposed to this concept first on this site), we need to first understand the difference between the Biblical worldview and Biblical theological truths, so that it becomes understandable that we can reject the Biblical worldview without rejecting the Bible itself.
Examples of Biblical worldview that not even modern Christians accept:
The organ of intelligence and thought is the heart. The Bible says this countless times, and not ‘metaphorically’. Just like it’s surrounding cultures, the Bible has no knowledge that the brain is the organ of intelligence and thought. This was not known until only several hundred years ago, so it is not just the Bible that holds this view, but all ancient, pre-scientific cultures. To apply the same reasoning to all of the hundreds of passages that speak of the heart as the organ of intelligence, as some do to Gen 1 and it’s view of Creation, is to inevitably tie yourself into rejecting the function of the brain. This is of course impossible. We have to reject the Biblical worldview of the heart as the organ of thinking–but this has no effect on the Bible’s infallibility.
Slavery and living a Godly life within it. Both the OT and the NT are full of passages that accept slavery as a given, without any knowledge of the possibility of creating a world without this institution. The Biblical worldview is saturated with the institution of slavery. In order to apply all of it’s statutes, slavery must exist. Since slavery is now eradicated in some parts of the world, we now know that this Biblical worldview can be rejected, without throwing out the Bible itself.
A solid dome separating waters below from waters above. One of the many crippling things that makes modern Creationism an impossible concept to uphold, is the clear Biblical worldview that there is a solid dome or firmament in the sky, separating waters above this dome from the waters below earth. Attempts to pretend this ‘firmament’ is not solid by modern Creationist apologists fall flat, since the word used for ‘dome’ is directly related to solid substance, and more importantly since every use of this word in context in the Bible is of a solid dome holding back the waters above. As we all know, we now travel to the room and satellites we make have even now travelled outside our solar system. There is simply no solid dome. This is a false and incorrect worldview. It is not just a Biblical worldview, however, but one held by all pre-scientific cultures. With a couple exceptions, everyone thought this was the state of the universe until about 500 years ago when Copernicus gave us the concept that we live on a planet, and that we are not at the centre of the universe. Attempts to meld this worldview with a scientific one are doomed to failure, which means any attempts at Creationism are too.
Let’s quickly cover the ancient (i.e. Biblical) worldview of the universe, and then relate how it matters to our conception of the Flood, and why the Bible is incapable–since it lacks the vocabulary, the idioms, and the worldview, of claiming there was a ‘global Flood’. And just to clarify, this view is not some ‘liberal Christian theory’, but a mainstay of modern evangelical scholarship. It’s failure to be communicated to the ‘pop Christianity’ that rules the media side of Christianity is upsetting, but most (by no means all) translators, scholars, and commentators agree with the below description.
The Bible’s view of the earth/cosmos
Ancient near east and Biblical cosmic geography
(1) The observation of the world by ancient observers
To understand why the Ancient Near East (ANE) saw the universe the way they did, we must start with their method of observation. While different scholars use different words for the concept, the one I’m most familiar and comfortable with is ‘phenomenological observation’, which in this context means ‘what you see is what you get’. For example, while we know today that the planet Earth spins and makes a full rotation in about 24 hours, and that this spin causes us to see the sun pass across our sky for roughly half the day, and disappear for the other half, if you strip away our knowledge gained from both technology and some brilliant thinkers, ‘what you see is what you get’ leads instead to a conclusion that the sun rises out of the ground in the east, and sets into the ground in the west. This is, given the perspective of a human on the ground, as opposed to a telescope in space, one can build various models of the universe off of our observations.
For example, what happens to the sun when it goes underground? We know it goes underground, because we observe it as factual every day and night. We also know that in it’s place a different kind of light rises and sets, but that it changes shape over the course of roughly 28 days, following a roughly 28-day cycle, from absent to crescent to full, and back down to crescent, and back again as absent.
Another phenomenological observation is that there are waters below us. This can be observed if we live or travel along the coast, as it can if we live near a river or lake. We can also observe that over the course of a year, especially in certain terrains, the water rises and falls, so that it is at different levels. We can even observe that over a solar year of roughly 365 days, the water level rises and falls in patterns. We can then time both the planting of our crops and the harvesting of them off of these cycles. Phenomenologically, therefore, we know that water comes from below us, and that it can rise very high at different times in the year.
Likewise, we can observe that water also comes from above us, falling down on us in varying degrees of intensity. Since we can also observe that in pouring water into cups and drawing it out of wells, that water always falls down and comes from a source, without exception. Therefore, it is only logical for us to extrapolate that there are waters above us that fall down on us at some points, but are stopped from falling down on us at other points in time.
For the ancients, therefore, we mixed phenomenological observation with simple extrapolation. It does not take long, as such, before certain world views and theologies are employed to explain the natural phenomena we observe, and so we find that regardless of culture, the ANE, from Egypt through Canaan and Israel and into Mesopotamia and beyond, shared a common understanding of cosmic geography, or the shape of the universe around us. Nor, in a need to explain this universe, is it surprising that the origin of these cosmos could come to be explained in similar cosmogonies or ‘Creation stories’.
It should finally be mentioned that this concept of phenomenological observation with simple extrapolation is, in fact, the main ingredient in science. All that remains for a full scientific methodology is the positing of falsifiable hypotheses, and discarding faulty theories when they are shown to be false. This last part, though, wouldn’t come until recently in human history. One final ingredient is technological improvements. Part of the reason for the wide gulf in our view of the cosmos versus the Biblical view of the cosmos is that we have lenses that let us see farther, closer, smaller, and bigger. Still observation, but done through tricks that move us beyond mere human perception.
Structuralism vs. functionalism
Today, we live in a mindset where the structure of an object is it’s meaning and explanation. When we dissect a car, a computer, or a corpse, it is the structure of its parts that gives us the feeling of having answered our question of ‘what do you do, what are you hear for?’
In the ANE, however, a different mode of thinking prevailed, known by scholars by the term ‘functionalism’. In functionalism, the structure of an object lends no great meaning to it. Knowing the parts of a car or computer tells us nothing about what it does. Instead, the function of an object carries this explanatory power. More specifically, a ‘thing’ exists because it has a function–not because it has a structure. This is completely different from our modern mindset, where we view something as existing because it has a structure. Consider the view by atheist scientists of the soul and for some even the mind. Simply because it has no structure that can be described, it is considered by some materialists to not exist at all. For the ancients, soul and/or mind was more real than ‘the brain’ because it had a function, whereas the brain, unknown to exist outside crushed skulls in accidents and wars, had no known function.
As Walton puts it: “The neglect of curiosity about the physical structure of the cosmos is therefore not simply a consequence of their inability to investigate their physical world. The physical aspects of the cosmos did not define its existence or its importance; they were merely the tools the gods used for carrying out their purposes.” 1
To give some examples from the Creation account, for us we answer the question ‘what is the moon?’ by dealing with it’s structure. It is an inert oversized asteroid (or part of our planet) caught in our orbit, and when the sun is on the opposite side of our continent, the sun lights the moon to varying degrees, the reflection illuminating our night depending on how much of the sunlight hit it.
This has no meaning for an ANE person. Instead, to answer the same question of ‘why?’ that we ask, an ANE phenomenologically observes that the moon is gone in the day (disappearing into the netherworld and arising the next morning), but at night it is a source of light, functionally lighting the night to varying degrees, but as a lesser light relative to the sun.
For the ANE person, an object’s function is it’s explanation and key to meaning. For a modern person, an object’s structure is its explanation and key to meaning.
For a modern person, rain comes from clouds through a water cycle, and that is it’s meaning. For an ANE person, water falls from the sky and provides life, good crops, and water to drink, and that is it’s meaning.
Understanding that function is ‘king’ for ANE thinking goes a long way to reading the Bible the way the original writers envisioned it. For the ancients, the physical structure of the cosmos was second to the function of the gods operating within it. For example, the sun’s moving through the sky as a god, and it’s movement into the ‘chaos’ of the netherworld at night, was far more important than any structural components of the material world. Even though structurally Egyptians viewed the stars as fixed to the dome or firmament of the sky, what was important to them was that this body they were fixed to was the sky goddess (Nut), who in turn was held up by the god of air (Shu), resting on the god of the ground (Geb). Over the sky goddess, the sun god (various different names) sailed in his ‘sun barge’ over the sky during the day, and through the netherworld under the earth at night.
One example of functionalism in the Bible is the use of different words for the waters above. If the Bible used modern thinking, than it would view rain as water coming from above, and not discriminate between what the function of the rain was doing in a situation. That is, there is not a different word for rain that successfully waters crops, distinct from rain that lands in the ocean.
However, since the Bible uses a pre-scientific mode of thinking in functionalism, it discriminates between different types of ‘waters above’, depending on what function they play. Ps 29:10 calls these waters the מבול, the same word used in Gen 7:10 to describe the ‘floodwaters’ of Noah’s Flood–a word distinct in Hebrew from its other words for rain. These are found in Ps 104:13 and Ps 148:4, which refer to ‘waters above’ but not with the word for the waters that caused the Genesis Flood, but instead a different word (שׁקה). This is because in functional terms Noah’s Flood brought down rain that caused chaos and the reversal of Creation, whereas in the Psalms the function of the rain is different–and so therefore is their word and meaning).
(2) The geography of the earth/universe in Ancient Near Eastern thinking
The resulting perception of the cosmic geography had variations in each culture (of course), but we can very legitimately speak of a near-universal ANE cosmic geography template, that nearly all cultures agreed upon, and that includes the following.
The universe was tiered into three major divisions. In the middle is the land, called earth, including valleys and mountains. Below is the netherworld, including Sheol, the realm of the dead, the deep abyss, and the waters below. Above is the sky, called the heaven(s), over which rests the ‘waters above’, from which rain comes.
(a) The heavens
The heavens refer flexibly to the night sky, the sky, and the home of the gods above the sky. That is, depending on context, the same word can be used for these quite different regions (structurally speaking). While there are variations in the details (the Mesopotamians especially viewed the heavens in 1, 3, or 7 levels, depending on the source), the following can be considered near-universals of the ANE concept of the heavens, listed in ascending order of height:
Above the earth was the air or sky/heavens, where birds flew and where the mountain peaks existed. Hebrew uses one word that English renders ‘sky’ or ‘heaven(s)’ depending on context (שׁמים). This confuses the point that Hebrew did not discriminate between the two, leading to false impressions by English-readers of a heavier prominence of ‘heaven’ as the place-we-go-when-we-die than the OT actually contains. While Hebrew lacks a word for ‘air’ distinct from ‘heavens’, it uses the idiom ‘between heaven and earth’ to describe just such a function/concept (i.e. 2 Sam 18:9). Greek does distinguish between the ‘heavens’ and ‘air’ (1 Cor 9:26; 14:9, Eph 2:2, etc.). Egypt also discriminated between the two, viewing Nut (the sky goddess) being held up by Shu (the air god). While this might be attributed to Hebrew not ‘discriminating between the domain of birds and the higher domain of the clouds/firmament’, it is just as easily theorized that the OT never has occasion for such a discrimination–and that if it did, a distinct word that existed would have been used.
Moving on from the distinction between the ‘space where winged creatures fly’ to a higher part of the sky/heavens, the Hebrew uses another term for what is described as a solid substance spanning the heavens–often translated ‘firmament’ or ‘dome’, but also recently as ‘expanse’–a word that failed to communicate the solid nature of this substance (Gen 1:6, Ezk 1:25-26). This structure is described as a ‘pavement’ of blue, usually described as lapis lazuli–a blue mineral–but in Ex 24:10, described instead as sapphire (also a sky blue colour). The Hebrew word for this solid substance (רקיע), more specifically the ‘firmament’ or ‘dome’ of Gen 1:6, is described in Ezk 1:25-26 as a solid substance–a view entirely divorced from our modern scientific understanding of the sky (after all, we hit no such dome when we send satellites up to space). If you’ve flown in an airplane, or better yet, been to space, your lack of hitting this רקיע and crashing is a bit of a problem for the pseudo-scientific theory of Creationism. The Egyptians even thought it was made of meteoric iron, since this is how they explained meteors that came crashing to earth from the sky. See also Job 37:15-18 and Prov 8:27-28 for a description of the sky as solid. The word used here is שׁחק, meaning ‘clouds’ with the verb form of רקיע, but the description of the sky as a solid dome is consistent. Even the clouds were viewed in Job and Proverbs as solid substances fixed to the firmament/dome).
This dome/firmament, or sky, was viewed in most ANE sources as resting on and in fact being supported by the mountain peaks of mountains situated at the ends of the disk that was the land/earth.
Fixed to the bottom of this firmament/dome were the ‘little lights’ or ‘heavenly bodies’ (Gen 1:14-15)–the stars–which moved along preordained and fixed tracks. The Shamash plaque pictured below shows this concept. The stars were conceived entirely differently from their modern perception, since their function was for omens, predicting fate (Biblical ‘signs’ (Gen 1:14), and determining and ‘fixing’ the time for festivals (harvest festival, etc.).
Above this dome were the primordial waters, or ‘waters above’. During rain and storms, so-called ‘windows’ or ‘floodgates’ (ארבה) in the firmament permitted these cosmic waters to fall through and down upon the earth. In Mesopotamia, the god Marduk assigned guards to keep the waters above from flooding the earth. In Egypt, the chaotic waters are the remains of Tiamat’s body, a chaos goddess portrayed in other sources as a serpent (like Leviathan. Her body was split into two to form the waters above and waters below in the Egyptian creation story–clearly reminiscent of Gen 1:6 and moreso of Job 7:11-12, Job 26:12-14, Ps 68:22-23, Ps 74:12-17, and Ps 89:6-11. Likewise in Egyptian mythology, it was on these waters that the sun god sailed his barge (boat) across the sky, which Egyptians on earth saw as the sun moving across the sky in the day. In the Bible, Ps 29:10 calls these waters the mabbul, the same word used in Gen 7:10 to describe the ‘floodwaters’ of Noah’s Flood.
Similar descriptions of the ‘floodgates/windows of the sky’ are found in Ps 78:15, Amos 7:4, Isa 24:18, and Mal 3:10. The Flood is a return to the ‘nonfunctional watery state’ of pre-Creation. Scholars begin to diverge from each other on the ANE perception of these ‘floodgates’, to the point of contradicting the reporting of the facts. There is ‘no precedent’ for the ‘floodgates’ in the ANE, according to Ill BBC (Ill BC, Gen 7:11), though WBC points out that in Babylonian mythology, Adad controls both the rain and the waters from the deep abyss (primordial waters) (WBC, Com Gen 7:11), and IVP BBC in Gen 7:11 points out that the ‘only other occurrence’ of the concept of a ‘window in the heavens’ is found in the Canaanite myth of Baal building his house, which is in a ‘rift in the clouds’.
Even here, though, it is not associated with rain or access to the ‘waters above’. Likewise, Mesopotamia uses similar language to describe openings or gates where the sun rises and sets in the east/west, and where clouds and winds enter from as well, so there is precedent for ‘holes’ where sun, wind, and clouds move, but so far only in Hebrew do we find a description where water comes through such ‘holes’ (IVP BBC Gen 7:11). Essentially all commentators agree that in releasing the waters above and below, God is returning the world to where the waters (of chaos) were not separated, and thus undoing Creation all the way back to Gen 1:9. To call it simply the ‘Flood’ misses the point that the waters above and below were mixing and becoming unseparated.
Finally, moving to the highest point of the highest tier of the ‘heavens/sky’, above the cosmic waters was the domain of the gods, of which the temples on earth were merely models or types. This is what most modern people conceive of as ‘heaven’, or the ‘home of God’ and of ‘dead people who were good/believers’–though no such belief exists in the OT.
All of this view of the top tier of the universe, the ‘heavens’ or ‘sky’, can be seen in the following picture. At the bottom (right above the writing), there is a single line (the firmament), to which are fixed stars (the circles with internal star designs). Above this are wavy lines (the cosmic ‘waters above’). Finally, above this is the domain of the gods, in this case Shamash, a Mesopotamian god, seated on a heavenly throne.
As a final note, a study of Gen 1:6-8 reveals that the ‘waters above and waters below’ were separated by the ‘firmament’, which in Gen 1:8 is given a new name other than firmament–‘sky/heavens’. This last word is actually built off of ‘waters’, adding only a single letter in front (מַ֫יִם becomes שׁמים). That is, the relation between ‘waters’ and ‘sky’ is palpable in Hebrew (in Assyrian, ‘sky/heavens’ likewise means ‘place of the waters’).
It is important to note that not only Hebrew but also other cultures are flexible in their use of terms to describe the components of the heavens. ‘Sky’ in Hebrew can be connoted by both the ‘firmament’, which is blue and solid, and also by ‘heavens’, the ‘place of the waters’. It’s multi-layered notion is not a theory of modern scholars, as is sometimes levelled against this nearly universally-accepted ancient cosmology, but rather depicted in ancient images such as the Shamash plaque above, and scores of Egyptian images. Depending on the function needing to be expressed, Hebrew could use the word for the solid firmament expanse that held back the ‘waters above’, the Hebrew idiom ‘between heaven and earth’ to express the domain where birds flew (air), or the word literally meaning ‘place of the waters’, which referred to all tiers of heaven (air, dome, stars fixed to the dome, waters above the dome, and home of God).
(b) The land/earth
The tier humans live on, the land or earth (same word in Hebrew), was pictured by all ANE cultures as existing between the netherworld and the heavens. Almost all ANE cultures viewed the earth as a single continent that was shaped like a disc. On the edges of this disc were mountains that held up the dome or firmament (sky).
In fact, most cultures viewed the cosmic waters as flowing all around the disc-shaped earth, so that the earth floated on them but was also protected from them above by the dome of the sky. Many, but not all ANE cultures viewed the earth as supported by pillars, that went into the ‘deep abyss’ (תִּהוֹם, i.e. Gen 1:2) to hold up the earth.
The cosmic sea encircled the disc of earth/land. Indeed, the waters below, waters around, and waters above, were not considered distinct from each other but were all cosmic, primordial, chaotic waters. That is indeed the point, since their separation in both Egyptian and Biblical creation is an act of ordering, or creation. The sea was ‘kept under guard’ from overwhelming the land/cosmos by a number of different symbolisms, including locks, bolts, bars, and nets, all maintained by gods.
The earth itself was viewed as resting on pillars, which were sometimes characterized as the roots of mountains which had peaks that held up the firmament/sky. While some ANE cultures viewed a ‘world tree’ in the center of the earth/cosmos, this view is absent from the Biblical worldview.
(c) The netherworld
The netherworld contained two chief elements. First was the belief that the earth or land was a disc that floated on the ‘waters below’, a phrase found in many ANE cultures. The ‘waters below’ were observed not only from the deep oceans and lake bodies, but also from the inundation or flooding of crop lands every year from water that came straight out of the ground, especially near rivers like the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. The deepest part of the waters below, from which came large beasts (whales, seen then as giant fish), was the ‘deep abyss’.
The second major part of the netherworld was called the ‘pit’ or ‘grave’, known as ‘Sheol’ in Hebrew. This was underneath the ground, and was a dusty, dark place in the earth. Since bodies were buried in holes in the ground, it did not take much for all ANE cultures to view graves as ‘doorways’ to Sheol or the netherworld, and the domain of the spirits of the dead. While Egypt early on developed an elaborate system of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people being rewarded or punished for their actions in life after they died, the majority of ANE cultures viewed the domain of the dead as one which did not discriminate between ‘good and bad’ deceased people. It was simply where everyone went when they died. The OT uniformly holds to this, though the NT absolutely differs.
Universally, the ANE viewed ‘life’ as a combination of two things–a body, made of clay or dirt, and wind or breath, also called spirit, which animated that body. In Israelite psychology, the two added together became life. Hebrew uses one word that English sometimes translates as ‘life’, and other times as ‘soul’–but the theology of a ‘soul’ distinct from life is absent from Israelite thinking and the OT. When a person died, their wind/spirit/breath left their body, which was buried in the pit, and passed into the netherworld. However, as observed by the ancients, you needed food and drink to survive, and so all ANE cultures universally developed rituals in which they fed and gave drink to their dead ancestors, usually by pouring the drink onto the ground itself, and likewise leaving food near a grave or in a ritualized setting. The dead were then believed to consume these goods in the netherworld, and stay active. The OT is full of references to this practice, largely including passages in which prophets criticize the Israelites for participating in this nearly-universal practice.
Based also on the observation of the sun disappearing into the ground for half of the day, most ANE cultures developed explanations of this observed phenomena by developing belief systems where the sun, a deity, moved into the netherworld at night. Many ANE cultures viewed this trip into the netherworld as a constant nightly war between the forces of order and light, and the forces of chaos and darkness. Every day the sun rose in the sky was a victory for order.
The ‘lowest abyss’ or ‘deep’ of Gen 7:11 is the same as that of Gen 1:2. It is a technical description of the ‘cosmic ocean’, on which the earth floats and which surrounds the land as well (Gen 1:6-7, Ps 24:1-2). ‘Springs’ are the ‘windows’ for the watery depths to inundate the world.
The ‘waters below’ or ‘great abyss’ (תְּהֹום רַבָּה) are described in Ps 36:6, Ps 78:15, Isa 51:10, and Amos 7:4, all of which tend to be ‘poetically paraphrased’ in English translations so that English readers likely won’t know that the same ‘great abyss’ of Creation (Gen 1:6-7) and the Flood (Gen 7:11) are being referenced in the four passages. The meaning is clear, and has been referenced many times so far: The Flood is an undoing of Creation. Just as God separated the waters above and the waters below in Creation, now he takes down the ‘walls’ that held them back in the Flood, letting them pour out.
Ps 74:13-17 directly mirrors the words used for the ‘splitting of the great abyss’ in Gen 7:11. Ps 74 refers to the splitting of the ‘cosmic ocean’, not the Red Sea of the Exodus as might be accidentally guessed. We also see in God’s control over the splitting of the great abyss his control over chaos. The parallel in the Mesopotamian Flood myths (Enuma elish), is one where the gods split Tiamat (the cosmic primordial waters or ‘Chaos’ personified) in two in order to create order. Moses flips this on its head by seeing the splitting of the cosmic chaotic ocean not as a means to defeat chaos and create order, but rather as God’s dominion over all of chaos itself.
For further Biblical passages on this view of the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld, see Job 9:6-7; 22:14; 26:7; 26:10; 36:27; 38:4-6; 38:19; 38:22, Ex 24:10, Deut 32:22, Ps 8:3; 24:2; 104:3; Prov 3:19-20; 8:27, Isa 40:22, Ez 1:22.
This view of the geography of the cosmos persisted after the period of the ANE all the way through the medieval ages–at least in popular perception (in scholarly circles, different views were given). It was not until the Copernican revolution only 500 years ago that this view shifted, and the beginnings of our modern understanding of the earth as a planetary body that is a sphere, emerged. See the image below for just some of the Scriptural verses that speak to each of the areas discussed above. There are far to many verses to cite. These are just a sample.
(3) Controversies of this view of the ancient universe
There are some nuances on this view to discuss. There is not consensus of the view just mentioned, and a number–though not by my perception a significant number–of scholars view this as a ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ mistaken view. Let’s deal with criticisms of this model in distinct points, very briefly.
(1) Criticism: This model comes from Enns or Walton or some other scholar, and is not taken seriously by other/most Hebrew scholars. I believe, based on my readings, that this is simply a mistaken statement. This model is not ‘Enns or Walton’s’, though they are the more high profile names writing about it specifically, instead of just referencing it as most scholars do. Rather, it is supported, by my understanding, by most of the following conservative evangelical commentaries: WBC, NICOT, NIVAC, UBS Translation Handbooks, Ill BBC, IVP BBC, and more. Included in this are three of the five highest rated commentaries currently available (the other two, NAC and Waltke’s commentary, are unread by me). The criticism that this a fringe theory not taken seriously by the conservative scholarly community is as near as I can tell simply false–though to be sure it is controversial. The TWOT, a major theological dictionary of Biblical words, is quite adamantly against this view (somewhat emotionally). The UBS’s translation guide reproduces just such a graphic as those above, and the UBS are both the guardians of the critical editions of the OT and NT (along with the German Bible Society), and the major missionary force for translating the Bible into all languages on the earth. Their guide for translating includes this view, and the UBS can hardly be viewed as a secular or liberal Christian entity. This hardly seems to me to be a fringe theory. Nevertheless, there are significant and major opponents to it, so these should be taken seriously. Let’s look closer.
(2) Criticism: This is a creation of modern scholarship. This statement is simply demonstrably false. As shown in the Shamash plaque above, and all of the Egyptian images surrounding this text, there are ancient depictions of just such a view in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as in Canaan. Furthermore, modern scholarship is not ‘creating this view’ based on a ‘too literal reading’. This view is not ‘Biblical’ only–it is the view of the ANE but also of the Church Fathers, the Roman era, the medieval era, and all the way up to the Copernicus revolution. The modern view of a spherical globe, etc. is actually only 500 years old. Most of world history viewed it this way–it is not some ‘Bible-only’ or even ANE-only view.
(3) Criticism: This reflects too literal an understanding of the OT. I am very sympathetic to this view. My Hebrew professor commonly pointed out that leftist Biblical scholars and secular scholars were often guilty of the same fundamentalism or literalism they accused conservatives of–when it suits their needs. This view of Biblical cosmic geography is absolutely susceptible to this criticism.
However, it seems to me that in the case of ancient cosmic geography, this criticism is not entirely valid–if we are careful to discriminate functionalist ancient views from structuralist modern ones. In my readings, the many conservative evangelical sources that accept the ANE view (and as we have showed merely with ancient drawings in this post, it is ancient, not a modern theory) do show this careful approach. However, secularists have produced many summaries and websites, including Wikipedia, that do indeed drop this concept and present the ancient cosmology as too structured an image. But we are not defending here the misappropriation of Biblical scholarship by atheists (of which I would agree with most conservative scholars in their attacks on these views). We are discussing the nuanced use of it by Biblical scholars who hold to the infallibility of Scripture.
As such, this criticism that this presentation reads the text too literally and presents it as ‘too structured’ is quite invalid because it misses the point of this model in the first place–which is that it is functional. That is, we actually have even more ‘maps’ of the ANE or Biblical cosmic geography than these critics claim, because the only thing that mattered to Biblical-era people was the function. Take all four Egyptian maps of the universe found in this post, for example, which couldn’t care less about the structure, except that it reflects the function of the gods behind the structure.
As such, it is important to clarify that no ANE person, including any Biblical writer or figure, would have viewed the maps included in this post that are drawn by modern scholars. Nevertheless, if you brought up ‘the deep abyss’, or ‘the firmament’, or ‘the pillars of the earth’, etc. to an ancient Israelite, they would have known what you were talking about, and would have pictured the function of each of these, even if they didn’t imagine the maps we draw of their conception today. That is, the ‘modern drawings’ of the ANE and Biblical maps of the cosmos in this post are too structuralist, because it helps us conceive of what, for the Biblical/ANE people, was a more functionally conceived geography. However, as the images from the ancient world–not from modern drawings–shows in this post, the maps could and were portrayed functionally, namely by portraying ‘sky, air, ground, sea, sun, etc.’ as gods–or functions.
In other words, the Biblical map wouldn’t be pictorial, but rather functional. Below is my ham-handed and clumsy attempt to communicate this, in an idealistic Biblical form. That is, I’m ignoring all the Israelites who practiced syncretism, thus bringing the prophets against Israel, and creating a pretend Israelite who knew all the OT Scriptures and was a strict monotheistic worshipper of YHWH.
Taking it seriously, therefore, I agree that the graphic representation is possibly foreign to the ancient near east’s understanding as we now use it. That is, I am sympathetic to the view that few ancient people or scholars ‘pictured’ the universe in this way. However, I think this noble criticism misses the point that while they didn’t picture it this way, they did use language that describes just such a view, including internal contradictions (as is pointed out sometimes, the ‘sky/heavens’ is sometimes described as a solid firmament, and sometimes as ‘air’ that birds fly through, just as the waters below are sometimes described with the word for ‘waters’, and sometimes with the word for ‘abyss’, when they refer to the same thing, and as a third example, the earth is both described as resting on pillars and in one passage, being suspended on nothing).
The point requires more refinement than I have room to spend here, but to attempt to put it into words, I believe the Scriptural quotations referenced in this article and the many more referenced in articles that write on this subject, testify to the Biblical world’s belief in distinct images of this cosmic geography independently (i.e. ‘just the pillars of the earth’, or ‘just the abyss’, but not the two together). But few if any ever ‘drew the entire geographical picture in their minds’. That is, just as the Bible itself rarely ever puts these pieces together (though notice both Gen 1 and Ps 104 might actually do just that), so it is reasonable to assume few ‘Biblical people’ ever did. However, they did isolate aspects of this geography and write about it very commonly. Not included in this post are dozens of verses from the Psalms that testify to this cosmic geography.
To sum up the criticisms of this view:
1) My understanding is that the majority of conservative scholars accept this view, though a strong minority do oppose it–perhaps a little over-emotionally.
2) The misuse of this view by secularists/atheists who fail to understand the functional psychology of the ancient worldview, is irrelevant to the ‘proper’ understanding of this worldview, as depicted on ancient drawings themselves.
3) Importantly, while there are a handful of contradictions and exceptions, there is a vast array, hundreds in fact, of verses in the Bible that uphold the above view of ancient functional cosmic geography. Those verses that contradict it are verses that are contradictions anyway (that is, any model of how the ancients viewed the world would still deal with the same contradictory verses–it is the verses that contradict each other–not so much verses that contradict this model). See for example Ps 104:5 vs. Job 26:7.
4) Also importantly, the Biblical verses mentioned in this post in no way come anywhere close to our modern scientific understanding of the Earth.
5) I know of no scholar who rejects this ‘ancient map of the universe’, who has proposed any alternative model accounting for all of the Biblical verses that support it (to say nothing of the non-Biblical sources). That is, I’m aware of theories and people who disagree with this theory–but I know of no alternative theory to take seriously. The scholars stop with their criticism, but have no alternative explanations for the mystifying descriptions of the world described in the Bible.
There are clumsy attempts at small parts of the theory, such as TWOT’s awkward denial that the ‘expanse’ is physical, but is instead just ‘air pressure’ holding the waters up. All of these attempts appeal to a modern scientific view of the earth as a globe moving around the Sun, and try to make the Biblical view a modern scientific one. Such approaches not only fail to convince, but I should also point out that most (all?) of the commentaries I’ve read don’t even mention them. The integration of ‘earth as a globe’ and the Biblical worldview appears to be so impossible that most commentators don’t even give the notion the time of day in their detailed explanations of the Biblical text.
The Bible’s view of the Flood as local or global
The irrelevancy of the question
There are numerous points we can make that tell us that the Flood was not global according to the Bible (for example, that Ps 104:7-9, which clearly (and universally) refers to Creation–not the Flood–states that the primordial waters never again covered the earth), but all of these are to me beside the point, and so I won’t bring them up for discussion here. If I did that, I’d just be building up a case against a global Flood using every tool in the toolbox, and I’m not interested in doing that. I’m just interested in whether it was or wasn’t. More than anything else, therefore, the ‘impossibility’ of the statement that the ‘Bible claims the flood was global’ is that ‘global’ is not a concept the Bible even conceives of. That is, this is simply stated by the boundaries of the Bible’s world itself. With ‘domes’ separating waters above, for example, there is no way to combine this worldview with the Earth as a globe whose ‘sky’ is a gradually tapering-off atmosphere into, eventually, the vacuum of space. In addition to the above characterization of the cosmic geography of the world, utterly incompatible with what we know to be true about the world today, we can add several points.
1) The term ‘earth’ in Greek especially, but to a less clear degree also in Hebrew, refers to ‘cosmos’. That is, in Biblical language, ‘earth/land’ and ‘universe’ are synonymous. The Biblical worldview, like all pre-scientific world views, viewed the stars as ‘lights in the sky’. In modern scientific language, the earth is a planetary body, within a solar system (our ‘nine planets’ moving around our sun, which is in turn one of billions of stars in our galaxy, which is in turn one of billions of galaxies in the universe. The stars are not ‘lights’ for signs (as Gen 1 calls them), but giant balls of gas, all of them larger than the planet Earth. Nor are the sun and moon ‘two great lights’ (the moon is not a source of light at all, it just reflects the light from the sun). In other words, ‘earth’ means ‘universe’ in the Bible, an earth-centric view that is impossible to maintain today.
2) The term translated ‘earth’ is also translated ‘land’ in other passages. The Bible does not use ‘earth’ in the sense we use it as, as a planetary body (Earth), spherical, floating in space around the sun. Rather, it uses it as in the diagrams above, with a netherworld below and heavens above. In other words, earth does not equal Earth. The term means ‘land’, as in ‘holy land’, not ‘holy Earth’. The interpretation of ‘earth/land’ as meaning the globe that the Bible does not know of in Gen 6-9 is entirely unjustified. Indeed, several passages in the Flood narrative describe the waters overrunning the ‘ground’ (adamah), compelling us to view, in context, the Hebrew word in the light of ‘land’ (eretz), not ‘cosmos’.
3) The extent of the Bible’s knowledge of the ‘world’, if we are to pretend that the term doesn’t also mean ‘universe’, is akin, give or take a couple thousand kilometres at most, to the extent of Alexander the Great’s empire, seen here.
4) In the context of the globe, this area takes up a small portion of the globe, seen here.
5) The phrase ‘all the earth’ and variations on it is a flexible phrase that is largely context-dependent. In numerous passages the phrase ‘all the earth’ refers to smaller regions, and in many other passages it refers to people, not places. To apply it to a globe that the Bible shows no knowledge of is bad exegesis. In include here only Scriptural verses that use ‘all the earth’ to apply to local regions only up to the arbitrary cut of Gen 20. There are hundreds of such examples2. Gen 2:11; 2:13; 13:15; 17:8; 19:28.
Most importantly, to make the case that the Flood of Gen 6-9 was global, you would have to establish based on the Scriptural verses cited in this post that the Bible was capable of discriminating between ‘global’ and ‘local’, and that it makes it ‘global’. This entails conceiving of a world without ‘pillars of the earth’, a ‘dome in the sky’ (that somehow our satellites and spaceships don’t hit), ‘waters above’ (that somehow our spaceships don’t ‘dive into’ when they leave our planet, our solar system, and our galaxy, and on and on. It is simply impossible to take the Biblical view of the geography of the ‘land’ and gel it with what we now know to be true about our planet Earth. As such, to state that the Bible claims a global Flood in Gen 6-9 is not false, so much as it is impossible and irrelevant. It’s only ‘wrong’ in that it’s impossible for it to be right. The claim itself is nonsense, and has no potential for being made or proved, because the universe it is made in is not the universe it claims to be in.
The Bible not only makes clear statements about the ‘universe/earth’ that are impossible to maintain with our current knowledge, but it also clearly shows no knowledge of the Earth outside the boundaries of the Near East. A ‘global Flood’ is an impossible claim to state that the Bible makes. Even if you reject the view of the Biblical universe as described here, as in most scholarly resources (conservative evangelical ones included), you still have to replace it with another model that accounts for all of the Scriptural verses dealt with here–and no one has done such a thing. Certainly no one has done such a thing, linking it with our modern understanding of planet Earth.
A ‘Global Flood’ can’t be debated, because it can’t even be entertained. It’s a ‘ghost claim’.
With that being said, however, let’s close this post with a summary of what conservative Evangelical scholarly sources–which hold to an infallible, high view of Scripture (2 Tim 3:15), actually say about ‘Global Flood’ claims–which, it should be noted, are part of a massive money-making industry.
‘Pop’ or ‘media’ Christianity has introduced the concept–utterly foreign to evangelical scholarly understanding of the Bible–that the Bible is internally consistent and unchanging (thus confusing the Bible for God). As has been pointed out multiple times by multiple conservative scholars who view the Bible as infallible, this notion is nonsense. The examples are innumerable, but here are just a few:
The very concept of an ‘Old’ Covenant and a ‘New’ Covenant testifies to the Biblical rejection and modification of earlier theologies for newer ones.
‘Sheol’, the OT understanding of the afterlife, is replaced by ‘heaven and hell’ in the NT.
Jesus speaks directly to reasons why Moses’ law is being modified, especially when he says that ‘Moses gave you this law because your hearts were hard’ (Mt 19:8)
The tabernacle, and the Temple, being replaced or fulfilled by Jesus, is the entire point of the sermon in the letter to the Hebrews in the NT.
The addition of the Word into the Creation account in Jn 1
As one of the more famous modern theologians, N.T. Wright puts it:
“Some Christians seem to regard the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as equally authoritative and valid— even though Jesus himself, according to the gospels themselves, seems to have set aside the food laws and posed severe questions about the observance of the sabbath; even though Paul is shrill in his insistence that the ancient command to circumcise male children is no longer relevant for followers of Jesus; and even though the Letter to the Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that the detailed regulations about the Temple and the sacrificial system have been made redundant by the single sacrifice of Christ, the great High Priest.” (Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, preface).
The rejection of the pre-Copernican worldview puts the infallibility of the Bible at no more risk than the Letter to the Hebrews does. The Bible lives in a different worldview than our modern understanding of a globe. It doesn’t make the claim that the Flood was global, because it can’t. This is a simple misunderstanding of the text, and one which is not present in the majority of evangelical scholarship.
The science of the Biblical Flood
Even the hyper-conservative ‘Archaeological Study Bible Notes’ states that “for various reasons, many conservative scholars defend a local flood”, as opposed to a global flood. Despite a huge amount of conservative Christian websites claiming decisive scientific evidence for a global flood, as well as high profile institutes like the ‘Answers in Genesis’ museum, the evangelical literature, which holds to a high view of Scripture (Scripture is infallible) is nearly unanimous that the case for a global flood is essentially absent, if not fundamentally disproven.
Indeed, the phrase ‘If the Bible says there was a Flood over all the earth, than that means there was a global Flood’, breaks down on itself, because Hebrew has no word for Earth, or globe. It only has one for land and cosmos (universe). Neither planet Earth nor a globe are possible views of reality with the Biblical verses mentioned here, so the question is moot before you even need to address any questions about it.
Christians have every right to be confused on this matter, as the movement for seeing scientific credibility behind Noah’s Flood has a strong media presence, which exploits Christians’ need to find the Bible an infallible source of truth, but twists that into Biblical inerrancy, which needs every word to have truth beyond science, ignoring both the nuances lost in translation and the heavily contextual nature of Scripture.
I am not saying there is anything sinister or vindictive in their process–they have evangelization in their heart, which is a good thing, I’m just saying–and so too, is almost every translator of every English Bible in the last several decades, almost every exegetical commentator, and almost every overview of the Bible’s history–that positing a global flood is a fundamental and sizeable misunderstanding of the evangelical church’s understanding of Scripture. If you hold to a vital truth that if the ‘Bible says there was a Flood over all the earth, than that means there was a global Flood’–you are almost certainly at odds with the men and women who have translated the Bible into the English version you have. That’s probably not a good thing.
I want to close with a reminder that next post we’ll write about why this incompatibility with a Biblical worldview and a scientific worldview is irrelevant to the legitimacy of Scripture and validity of the Christian faith, but for now let’s just clarify that not only is this ‘true’, but that evangelical scholarship conceives it as such, and is not losing any sleep over it. You don’t need a smarmy atheist to knock down the ‘global Flood’ concept. Just open up a commentary on God’s Word, and you’ll read it there.
Appendix: Quotes against a global flood from conservative evangelical sources
Of the following commentaries I’ve read in preparing my posts on Noah’s ark, the ASB and IVP BBC are by far the most conservative. I’m including only there views, since all other commentaries listed here (see the footnote)3 are not so stringently conservative.
“Today, for various reasons, many conservative scholars defend a local flood. The crux of their arguments centers in the covenant relationship of God to people. Noah was not a preacher of righteousness (2Pe 2:5) to peoples of other areas but was concerned with the culture from which Abraham would eventually come. In addition, physical arguments have been raised against a universal flood:origin and disposal of the amount of water necessary to form a layer six miles (ten km) thick over the whole world; the effect on plant life of being covered for a year; the effect on fresh water life of a sea that contained salt from the ocean; and the fact that many topographical features of the earth (such as cinder cones) show no evidence of erosion by a flood and are thought to be much more ancient than the flood could possibly have been” (ASB, Gen 7:19 note).
“There is presently no convincing archaeological evidence of the biblical flood. The examination of silt levels at the Sumerian cities of Ur, Kish, Shuruppak, Lagash and Uruk (all of which have occupation levels at least as early as 2800 b. c.) are from different periods and do not reflect a single massive flood that inundated them all at the same time. Similarly, the city of Jericho, which has been continuously occupied since 7000 b. c., has no flood deposits whatsoever. Climatological studies have indicated that the period from 4500 to 3500 b. c. was significantly wetter in this region, but that offers little to go on. The search for the remains of Noah’s ark have centered on the Turkish peak of Agri Dagh (17,000 feet) near Lake Van. However, no one mountain within the Ararat range is mentioned in the biblical account, and fragments of wood that have been carbon- 14 dated from this mountain have proven to come from no earlier than the fifth century.” (IVP BBC, Gen 6:17 comment).