This article is from
Journal of Creation 32(3):36–39, December 2018

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The Flood was historically global, not hyperbolically global

A review of The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, theology, and the deluge debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, with a contribution by Stephen O. Moshier InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2018

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It was bound to happen eventually. The account of Noah’s Flood has now been subjected to John Walton’s interpretive method, which was previously set forth in other books from his influential ‘Lost World’ series. This latest installment by Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, was co-authored with Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College.

In the same way that Walton previously insisted that Genesis tells us nothing about the material origins of the universe or the biological origins of humanity,1,2 Longman and Walton now claim that, although the Flood was a historical event, the biblical text does not provide a description of the actual event. Instead, Scripture only tells us about the Flood’s theological meaning using figurative language. Longman and Walton maintain that the Flood is depicted literarily as a global event, but this is intentionally hyperbolic language employed only to highlight the Flood’s great significance. As a historical event, they say, the Flood cannot have been global, because this is precluded by the geologic record.

But, as will be shown, this revisionist understanding of Noah’s Flood is ultimately unfaithful to the inspired text. The Bible does not merely depict the Flood as hyperbolically global, but historically global.

Tangential topics

Longman and Walton address a variety of other subjects associated with the Flood as well, such as Cain and Abel, the Genesis genealogies, the Nephilim, Babel, geological evidence, and widespread cultural flood legends. For sake of space, this review will focus on their primary case for a hyperbolic Flood, and leave these supplemental concerns to be addressed by others.3

Useful concessions

Though Longman’s and Walton’s understanding of the Flood account is generally at odds with the church’s historic view of the Flood as a real, global, catastrophic disaster, it does align at various points. This is helpful to creationists, because we can allow our critics to make our case for us! For example, Longman and Walton say that the toledot structure of Genesis shows that it was intended to record a “sequence of past events” (p. 17). Likewise, the authors insist that the Genesis Flood story was not borrowed from Babylonian myth (p. 80).

Regarding the extent of the Flood, they affirm many arguments creationists have long used to show that the text describes a global Flood. Longman and Walton think that the narrative as a whole is hyperbolic, but they argue strongly that the Flood is depicted as worldwide, not local. They insist that the following points prove the worldwide nature of the Flood (pp. 45–49):

  • All of humanity was destroyed, which could not be accomplished by a regional flood.
  • Noah needed to take animals, including birds, on board.
  • God told Noah to build an enormous Ark rather than instruct him to move.
  • The sources for the water (all the springs of the great deep, floodgates of the heavens) indicate universality.
  • The water was deep enough to cover the mountains (including the region of Ararat) by 15 cubits.

Furthermore, Longman and Walton offer multiple reasons why, according to the account’s portrayal, the Flood must have killed all of humanity except for the Ark’s eight passengers:

  • Human sin was universal (pp. 45, 48).
  • The Flood was the solution to God’s regret over creating mankind (pp. 45, 48).
  • The judgment was a reversal of creation—a ‘do-over’ (pp. 46, 48–49).
  • The text describes a worldwide Flood, which would leave no survivors (p. 45).
  • The text uses “universalistic rhetoric” to portray all people and animals as destroyed by the Flood (p. 70).4

Bait-and-switch propositions

Unfortunately, many of the book’s 17 chapter titles, called “propositions”, are misleading. What is argued in the text of the chapter often goes well beyond the stated thesis. For example, here is Proposition 1: “Genesis is an Ancient Document”. How banal. Who disagrees? But this chapter actually discusses the Bible as a whole, not just Genesis. Also, it leaps from the reasonable claim that we must understand the Bible according to its historical context to assert these non sequiturs: (1) the Bible does not intend to teach any science, (2) its authority does not extend to science, and (3) it contains scientific falsehoods. Thus, a more accurate title for this chapter would have been: “The Bible’s divine authority does not ensure that it accurately describes the world”. But methinks that would have given away the game.

Proposition 2 is: “Genesis 1–11 Makes Claims About Real Events in a Real Past.” Again, no disagreement there. But a more accurate title would have been: “Genesis 1–11 makes reference to real events, but it emphasizes their spiritual meaning over historically correct descriptions.”

Proposition 3 is: “Genesis 1–11 Uses Rhetorical Devices.” What they meant was: “The figurative language in Genesis 1–11 is so pervasive that it prevents us from reconstructing any past events mentioned therein.”

Limiting biblical authority

Despite Davis Young’s blurb on p. ii, which praises the authors for their “evangelical high view of Scripture”, Longman and Walton don’t have one. Sure, they profess to believe in inerrancy, and they rightly say that inerrancy applies to all that the Bible “intends to teach” (p. 167). But, for them, these are weasel words, because these authors severely constrict what they’ll allow the Bible to intend to teach. They say the Bible’s “affirmations are not of a scientific nature” (pp. 10–11). Ironically, Longman and Walton are the ones imposing a modern secular/sacred dichotomy on the text, so that even though the Bible is replete with factual descriptions of nature and historical events, only the ‘spiritual meaning’ carries the authority. In the author’s minds, then, the Bible can wrongly say that the earth is flat (p. 153), that the sky is solid (p. 11), and that our hearts help us to think (p. 9), yet somehow without affirming such things. However, this is not the way Jesus and the New Testament authors viewed Scripture, as demonstrated by the fact that they treated historical and scientific details in Old Testament narratives as reliable revelation.5

Longman and Walton also approvingly cite the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, when it suits them, to rightly defend the Bible’s use of hyperbole (pp. 34–35). But, they seem to have skipped Article XII, which says:

“WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood [emphasis added].”6

A statement made repeatedly throughout the book, so often that it becomes a mantra, is, “The events are not inspired but rather their presentation and interpretation in the biblical text are” (p. 92, cf. 12, 18, 93, 95, 177). One wonders who Longman and Walton are attempting to argue against here. Creationists do not say that the Flood event itself is the object of inspiration. This would be a category error. God breathes out authoritative words (2 Timothy 3:16), but events are not words. Nevertheless, when Longman and Walton apply this notion to the Flood account, they say, “There was a real, cataclysmic event, but the Bible does not describe that event authoritatively”, while it “does interpret that event authoritatively [emphasis in original]” (p. 11). So, then, they see the description given in the text as some combination of two possibilities. First, it may be that the description of the Flood is factually wrong, though not authoritative (fitting in their category of ‘culturally conditioned’). Second, it may be that the description of the Flood is not intended as a literal description (fitting in their category of ‘rhetorically shaped’). However, the driving assumption behind these false alternatives is that Scripture cannot authoritatively communicate anything that may be subjected to scientific analysis. But what if God wanted to? He doesn’t have to reveal the quadratic equation in order to say something that would qualify as science. He could simply state that water once covered the mountains by 15 cubits, which is exactly what He did.

Hyperbole hypothesis is a stretch

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Figure 1. God’s covenant to never flood the world again was made not only with Noah, but “all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). This implies that the worldwide Flood occurred in the real past and was not merely a literary device.

Though Longman and Walton maintain that “Only the most gullible” would deny the hyperbolic nature of the Flood (p. 39), let me risk their contempt. I do not deny that there are some hyperbolic elements in the Flood narrative, like their example from Genesis 6:5, which describes the wickedness of mankind by saying that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (p. 38). As Longman and Walton point out, surely not every motive for every thought was wicked, including those of righteous Noah (Genesis 6:9). Still, the claim that the extent of the Flood was exaggerated for effect is utterly unconvincing.

Poor parallels

One problem is that the authors’ examples of hyperbole are disanalogous to the Flood account. On p. 49, they say the language in the Flood narrative is like describing the Holocaust as the “total annihilation of European Jewry”. But, as is typical with hyperbole, this is a simple exaggeration of size/scope within a single, short statement. The Flood, by contrast, is a complex narrative carried through several chapters, with multiple, varied indications that the event was actually worldwide and wiped out all of humanity.

Or, take the authors’ example of the Israelite conquest in Joshua 1–12. In several summary statements in Joshua 10 and 11, it says that “Joshua took the entire land” and “left no survivors”. But in Joshua 13 and Judges 1, much territory still remained to be conquered. Longman and Walton say:

“The author is intentionally using universalistic language and intends to convey, rhetorically, that the conquest was complete, but that did not correspond to the actual geographical scope of the conquest, only to the significance of the conquest” (p. 32).

I grant that some of the phrasings are hyperbolic because the author of Joshua is focusing on the victories, but that is not to say that the specifics of the account are ahistorical. The text describes in accurate detail which areas were conquered and which kings were defeated. So, what we have here are islands of hyperbole in a larger non-hyperbolic narrative.

But note that this is not what Longman and Walton are claiming about the Flood account. They say that the real (local) flood event is so obscured by the hyperbole that “we cannot reconstruct the event” (p. 146). They say that all of the elaborate detail in the Flood narrative is not meant as a historical description. It’s all just part of the rhetorical shaping of the story. Really?

Let’s consider some of these details. Longman and Walton dismissively say that many of the specifics in the Flood account, like the duration of the Flood and the precise size of the Ark, “are incidental and don’t matter” (p. 63). But how do they know this? Dismissing the details is a convenient way of not having to account for their presence. But it makes far more sense if the following were recorded due to the fact that they are historical realities.

  • The Ark was 300 × 50 × 30 cubits, was made of gopher wood, had 3 decks, one door, a roof, a window, and was covered inside and out with pitch.7
  • Animals went on in pairs (unclean) and sevens (clean).
  • The mountains were covered by 15 cubits.
  • The Ark landed specifically in the region of Ararat, which Longman and Walton acknowledge is a location uniquely given in the biblical account (p. 80).
  • An elaborate chronology for the Flood year is given with precision down to particular days in specific months in a specific year of Noah’s life.
  • Noah released particular birds in a particular order.

If these kinds of details do not correspond to reality and serve no particular purpose, the account is filled with extraneous twaddle. Longman and Walton say you can tell that a passage is figurative when you “have to work hard to take it any other way” (p. 25) but, here, they are the ones having to dance around the plain sense of the text.

Truncated Noahic covenant

Another problem for Longman and Walton is that God’s dealings with Noah after the Flood indicate that it was worldwide. The authors do offer an interpretation of the Noahic covenant, which is true as far as it goes. They say it highlights God’s continued grace toward sinful creatures (p. 103). It represents God’s commitment “to the continuance of the world and its inhabitants” (p. 104). It indicates “a re-establishment of” and “greater permanence to the cosmos’s order” (p. 120). Okay. Fine. Good. But there’s more.

God’s promise was not merely that He would now preserve the world, it was that He would not repeat such a Flood (figure 1). He said, “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11; cf. 8:21; 9:15; Isaiah 54:9). But what was God promising not to repeat in Longman and Walton’s view? Although they don’t say, I suspect they would agree that God was promising not to send another worldwide Flood. But this means, in their view, that even this promise must be part of the hyperbole. In other words, it’s not part of the inspired meaning we can derive from the account; it’s just part of the furniture of the literary device meant to emphasize God’s gracious commitment to preserve the world. On the contrary, the text explicitly says that God was making this covenant not only with the characters in the narrative—Noah, his family, and the animals—but also with their future “offspring” (Genesis 9:9) and “for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). God promised us that He would never flood the entire world again, which means He once did so in real history.

Survivors outside the Ark?

As mentioned earlier, Longman and Walton admit that the Flood narrative describes the reduction of the world’s population down to eight. But they do not believe this really happened in history. They say it is only “one reading of the story” which understands Noah and sons “to be the ancestors of everyone who is alive today” (p. 162). Plus, given their acceptance of the conventional millions-of-years age of the earth, “there was no time when all humans were concentrated in a specific area so that even an extensive, regional flood could wipe them all out” (p. 46). Therefore, in their view, many others besides those on the Ark survived the actual, historical flood.

But this is contrary to the text. The Bible emphasizes in a variety of ways that only Noah and his family remained after the Flood. These simply cannot all be chalked up to the aggrandizing of the Flood’s significance. For example, Noah and sons were commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1; cf. 9:7)—the same command God gave to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28) because Noah was likewise beginning from scratch. Also, Noah’s sons gave rise to the “nations” (goyim), which spread around the “whole earth” following the Flood (Genesis 9:19; 10:32). Finally, the New Testament treats it as a given that God “did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah … with seven others” (2 Peter 2:5; cf. 1 Peter 3:20). So, the notion that the Flood destroyed everyone extends well beyond the immediate context of the Flood account. It is treated as a factual, historical truth in all that follows.

Peter’s perspective

Longman and Walton say that the New Testament references to the Flood treat it as merely “an illustration of the truth that our God is a God who judges sin” (p. 98). Supposedly, they are not making any claims about the historical extent of the Flood. But this is dubious, especially when it comes to the Apostle Peter’s second epistle. In chapter 2, Peter discusses a chronological series of God’s judgments: the pre- Flood angels, the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:4–8). Here, Peter treats the Flood as an event of history, just like these others. All three serve as examples for people today precisely because God really did execute these judgments in history. So, when Peter says that God “did not spare the ancient world” (2 Peter 2:5), he is not implicitly thinking, “as the story goes”. He means to say that God actually destroyed the ancient world.

But was he thinking of the ‘world’ in a restricted sense—referring to only part of the earth? No. In the very next chapter, Peter brings up the Flood again. There, he sets up a contrast between the pre-Flood “world that then existed” which was destroyed by water, and “the heavens and earth that now exist” which will be judged by fire (2 Peter 3:6–7). Clearly, the present heavens and earth is universal. But then the comparison indicates that the extent of the pre-Flood world, which “was deluged with water and perished”, is also universal. Peter plainly thought the Flood engulfed the entire world, not just a part of it. Sadly, however, Longman and Walton never even mention this passage, let alone offer a response.

Conclusion

Walton’s ‘Lost World’ books offer such a radical rethink of the biblical text that one wonders how the church could have gotten it so wrong for so long. But, when the arguments are evaluated and considered in light of Scripture, it turns out it is not the church that is wrong. Longman and Walton may be clever scholars who offer some helpful insights but, in the end, their reinterpretation of Noah’s Flood doesn’t hold water.

References and notes

  1. Statham, D., Dubious and dangerous exposition: a review of The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton, J. Creation 24(3):24–26, 2010. Return to text.
  2. Halley, K., John Walton reimagines Adam and Eve: a review of The Lost World of Adam and Eve by John H. Walton, J. Creation 29(2):47–51, 2015; creation.com/walton. Return to text.
  3. I will say, though, that in Moshier’s chapter on the geological evidence, his straw men don’t inspire confidence. He wrongly assumes the Flood water had to cover Mt Ararat at its present height, and that Noah landed in the same place he lived before the Flood (p. 153). Return to text.
  4. Confusingly, Longman and Walton seem to contradict themselves when they say the biblical text is “vague about human survivors” (p. 71). I take them to mean that the text is vague about the reality, though clear in the hyperbolic presentation that none survived. Return to text.
  5. Sarfati, J., Genesis: Bible authors believed it to be history, Creation 28(2):21–23, March 2006. Return to text.
  6. bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html Return to text.
  7. Longman and Walton say the Ark’s “dimensions are impractical” (p. 75) and are given to emphasize its importance, not its “actual size” (p. 76). They claim that seaworthy wooden boats have never been and cannot be built so large (pp. 39–40). However, they have not done their homework on wooden ships of antiquity. See Pierce, L., The large ships of antiquity, Creation 22(3):46–48, June 2000, and Nunn, W., Amazing ancient Chinese treasure ships, Creation 37(1):12–13, January 2015. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

How Noah's Flood Shaped Our Earth
by Michael J Oard, John K Reed
From
US $17.00
The Creation Answers Book
by Various
From
US $15.00
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
From
US $39.00

Readers’ comments

Bill P.
One day very soon (I believe) there are going to be millions of souls who will be witnesses against those today, who consider themselves to be wise. These souls belong to the people who were destroyed in "The Flood of Noah's Day".
I just watched a program in which scientist where explaining how the ice at the poles formed over hundreds of millions of yrs. They traveled to several spots around the earth to find and show evidence for their beliefs. Everything they held in their hands I clearly saw as evidence for "The World Wide Flood" that The Creator of heaven and earth used to judge this earth for the evil in men's hearts. They willingly ignored the truth they held in their hand.
The people of Noah's time had 120 yrs. to repent and scripture points out that Noah warned mankind of what was coming. No doubt as they were enjoying themselves they mocked Noah. At times I try to imagine how they were living, which is not hard to do today because we have examples everywhere in the world. The hard part is trying to imagine "The Horror" that overwhelmed them when the earth was suddenly being torn apart under their feet and the waters from under the earth and from the heavens above carried them away.
If it is possible for "them" today to see what is going on in this world today they must be shaking their heads and saying, "the people of the world today are bigger fools than we were, the entire earth is covered w/the evidence of what happened to us and they refuse to see it, and they've had 2000 yrs. to repent and escape the coming judgment".
I've probably exceeded the number of comments I'm allowed per yr. I'm sorry but when I see people claiming that scripture does not mean what it clearly states I want to say loudly "Let God always be truthful and every man a liar".
Howard P.
"Longman and Walton may be clever scholars who offer some helpful insights but, in the end, their reinterpretation of Noah’s Flood doesn’t hold water."

This is far to generous a statement. A "professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College" should know better. In my assessment, what Longman and Walton are doing is working against the very God they claim to follow. This kind of drivel only serves to undermine the authority of God's Word in all matters. With so much of the Bible turned into fairy tales by such eminent "scholars", is it any wonder that the lost have a hard time finding any part of the Bible believable?

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of heaven from people. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in. Matthew 23:13, HCSB
Karole F.
Sounds like the series would have been more accurately titled, "The Lost Word."
Ben S.
Thank you for meeting a scholarly from an otherwise persuasive source with an equally scholarly and persuasive-on-its-own-merits rebuttal. This was a helpful read.
Kathy K.
After reading this, I can’t help but say, people are going to believe what they want. I believe God’s word, and opinions like these chaps have just sound silly to me. It’s sad that some will pick up a book like this and be easily swayed but can’t see the truth in God’s word.

I can see that opinions of mankind are more readily believed because that’s how satan presents his lies. As a child I was told the events of the Bible as stories. I never questioned them. I didn’t attend church or read the Bible in my young adult life. But as time went on, my God-spot needed filled in my heart.

Satan is happy when we don’t pursue God as our Creator/Savior/Lord. But I was asked to play piano for a small church and thought I was helping when indeed God was drawing me to his beautiful truths of life!

I would only pray that people pick up the Bible and read and when they don’t understand they should just go ask questions and find sites like this to get explanations. This site is so thoroughly equipped to answer any tough questions. But also they need to go to church and hear the sermons, converse with other Christians who believe as one another in Christ Jesus.

When one has God’s truth, they can easily see the difference between who is writing about God’s truth from those who are influenced by the enemy’s stories.

There are so many false prophets these days and new false beliefs that I can see satan, knowing his time is short, is baiting the hook with any and all kinds of lies to keep people away from God’s truth!

I know that the Creation account is the foundation to all God presents in his Word. God sent his Son to save us and the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. It’s all about trusting our Creator who knows the beginning to the end of all things.
Charles T.
What would Walton, et. al. make of these?

"I do not deny that there are some hyperbolic elements in the Flood narrative, like their example from Genesis 6:5, which describes the wickedness of mankind by saying that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (p. 38). As Longman and Walton point out, surely not every motive for every thought was wicked, including those of righteous Noah (Genesis 6:9)";. " I grant that some of the phrasings are hyperbolic because the author of Joshua is focusing on the victories, but that is not to say that the specifics of the account are ahistorical. The text describes in accurate detail which areas were conquered and which kings were defeated. So, what we have here are islands of hyperbole in a larger non-hyperbolic narrative."

Can you please explain why you're not playing the same game, by the same rules, as Walton et. al. Here?

"Hyperbolic", "rhetorical", "spiritual", "religious", or the fantastic "mytho-history" of William L. Craig: All special pleading of a particularly pernicious nature. Clarity please;
Keaton Halley
Waton and Longman deny that we can know anything about the actual historical Flood except that some kind of flood happened. By contrast, I'm merely acknowledging that Scripture uses literary devices, including hyperbole. In John 4:39, for example, the Samaritan woman said of Jesus that “He told me all that I ever did.” Obviously, this is a figure of speech to emphasize how much Jesus knew. Nobody takes it literally to mean that Jesus went through all the events of her life moment by moment, because there wasn't time for that kind of conversation. I think the same thing is going on when Genesis 6:5 says that everybody had evil intentions in every thought. It means they were exceedingly wicked, not that even righteous Noah never had a praiseworthy thought.
Dan M.
They say the Bible’s “affirmations are not of a scientific nature”. I would ask them. How do you use empirical science to test a historical record? The only thing one can do is dig up and observe the crime scene and then try to figure out what happened and the scriptures have been an invaluable map for archeologists. But if you have an eyewitness, why ignore Him, (God). And at the time of Moses writing Genesis, the flood would have still been fresh in the minds of men. Sounds to me like they are applying the Chicago statement of inerrancy to science rather than scripture? Fact is science has changed constantly throughout history while the scriptures have remained unchanged. Also if your crime scene investigative methods and biases are faulty, (radiometric dating for just one) you'll never get a clear picture of what happened. These guys are playing a shell game with the scriptures. It reminds me of a statue with two faces; one on the front and one on the back. The one on the front tells you one thing and then the head spins and the one formerly on the back tells you another? Make up your mind! Are the scriptures true or arent they? They can't be inerrant and allegorical at the same time! Jesus warned us about these types of so-called experts, (Mat 7:15). Do they, in fact, value their Ph.D.'s and their own opinions more than God's word? We are truly living in the last days as it was in the days of Noah. We have to try and reach those who will listen while there is still time.
Keaton Halley
I would not set inerrancy and allegory at odds. I agree that Scripture is not all allegory, but it does contain allegory in places like Jotham's story about the trees in Judges 9, yet it is still inerrant. The contrast is between inerrancy and false affirmations, not inerrancy and allegory per se.
Jim M.
Only eternity will tell the damage done by well intended books like this. I'm sure they have good intentions, but unwittingly, they are contributing to the problem by continuing to undermine the Word of God. It's an illustration of how, if we are not careful, Satan can use any of us to further his purposes. What a shame!
Norman P.
As the saying goes, 'truth will out'. I have found that believers who are true to God's word, whilst such books may cause them to stumble, never cause them to fall. Thank God for apologetics ministries such as CMI, raised up in these deceiving days to help us stay the cause of Truth.
Donald M.
First, you guys are doing a great job!
In John 6:66, the kind-of turning point in Jesus' gospel ministry, they made their foolish choice. Jesus never ran after them, shouting, "Hey! C'mon back! You must have misunderstood me!"
We've been watching Walton & co for years, and he's an unrepentant part of that crowd who love the praise of men rather than the praise of God. Jesus said it plainly, If you don't believe Moses (including accusing Moses of presenting historical eyewitness records as figures of speech / hyperbole), how will you believe (or not allegorize) Me?
I pray for these rebels, but want to redeem more of my remaining time by not pursuing them. Jesus is the Truth, and the cynics will face Him soon enough - He had strong words for those who disbelieve Him, who choose to not take Him - the Truth - seriously.
Keep teaching the Truth!

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