Literalism and the Biblical Flood Story


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A phrase one often reads from conservative Adventists is that “the Bible is its own interpreter”, sometimes with an accompanying complaint that so-called liberals, in contrast, exegete irresponsibly. For example, recently one conservative commenter on this website stated: “Both evangelical and liberal theology refuse to let Scripture interpret itself, instead imposing upon Scripture various interpretive constructs which cannot be derived from Scripture itself.”

I find this phrase “the Bible is its own interpreter” somewhat disingenuous. How is this supposed to work? Do I sit down in front of a Bible and ask it to tell me what it is saying? The Bible is inanimate. If you try this and get an answer, please let me know.

I’m being facetious, of course. The point is we humans do the interpretations. And when someone declares that they are just letting the Bible be its own interpreter what they are really saying is that, for a given topic, they have correctly gathered the full range of Bible information which then produces the meaning God intends. But phrasing it as if you were just expressing the Bible’s own interpretation of itself – as if that was even a coherent idea – provides more authority.

The approach of appropriating apparently just descriptive language to label something which, in actuality, is more subjective, happens a lot. And it is not just the province of conservatives. In the abortion controversy we have ‘Pro Life’ and ‘Pro Choice’. While the positions represented are opposite, the words life and choice are not antonyms. Each has been chosen to subtly and strategically shine a favorable light on their respective positions, while giving the appearance of being purely descriptive. I suggest that the same applies to ‘the Bible is its own interpreter’. The actual interpreter, a human, still sufferers from limitations – differences in language, culture, politics, etc. – between our world and the Biblical author’s.

Nonetheless, interpret we must. And we do not want to distort the source. So, after acknowledging the possible Teflon coating to the phrase, its descriptive intent is not controversial. We should seek for what some have termed a ‘plain reading’ of the text. This is literalism, but intelligently applied. One expression of this idea is:

“Literal interpretation, therefore, means first understanding Scripture in its plain normal sense. The interpreter then proceeds to apply the literal meaning to the contemporary situation of the interpreter. Those who reject literal interpretation have no objective control for wild imaginations, no safeguard against fanciful spiritualizing, allegorizing, and relativizing biblical truth.”[1]

This is, in general, good common sense. The exegetical analog to Ockham’s Razor.[2] So, can we use it as a guiding principle? I think so. But does that also mean it is a rule that can be counted on to keep us out of all exegetical difficulty? I don’t think so.

To explain why, let’s consider Noah’s flood, found in Genesis 6-8. Here we have a narrative that is straightforward and literal. But can it be accepted at face value?

If you can, please read those chapters in their entirety. However, listed here are some relevant descriptive passages (NIV translation) from the story:

· “The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.”

· “destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.”

· “two of all living creatures” … “take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

· “seven of every kind of clean animal” … “two of every kind of unclean animal” … “seven of every kind of bird”

· “I will wipe from the Earth every living creature I have made”

· “flood waters came on the earth”

· “springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.”

· “as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains were covered” … “to a depth of more than twenty feet.”

· “ Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth.”

· “water receded steadily” … “At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down”

First notice how relatively non-violent the picture we are given here is. The most intense words are “burst” and “floodgates”. A literal reconstruction could easily resemble:

· Continuous rain much like an Indian monsoon

· Many low-grade geysers in various places causing a quick water level increase that soon floats the ark causing it to rise, relatively in place. This could resemble the sort of flooding seen when a river overflows – except for the radically greater scope and depth.

The emphasis in the Genesis account is on water rising then later falling. There is nothing whatsoever in the text to suggest: earthquakes, volcanoes, back and forth tsunamis or massive plate tectonic shifts.

But, in contrast, here is a flood description as depicted by some Young Earth Creationists:

“Visualize, then, a great hydraulic cataclysm bursting upon the present world, with currents of waters pouring perpetually from the skies and erupting continuously from the earth’s crust, all over the world, for weeks on end, until the entire globe was submerged, accompanied by outpourings of magma from the mantle, gigantic earth movements, landslides, tsunamis, and explosions. … Soils would soon erode away and trees and plants be uprooted and carried down toward the sea in great mats on flooding streams. Eventually the hills and mountains themselves would disintegrate and flow downstream in great landslides and turbidity currents. Slabs of rock would crack and bounce and gradually be rounded into boulders and gravel and sand. Vast seas of mud and rock would flow downriver, trapping many animals and rafting great masses of plants with them. … Finally the sediments would settle out as the waters slowed down, dissolved chemicals would precipitate … and great beds of sediment, soon to be cemented into rock, would be formed all over the world.”[3]

All this extra violence has been added to the flood account by Young Earth Creationist groups like Answers in Genesis(AIG) or Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and largely agreed with by Adventists. This dramatic increase is postulated because of some very important theological needs.

Young Earth Creationism contends that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. There was a literal seven day creation at the beginning of that time. Creaturely death did not occur until after Eden. The vast majority of the geologic column (the Phanerazoic eon) contains fossils, which of course are derived from dead animals and plants. Thus the entire fossil record had to be deposited within the past 10,000 years. So, if you assume maximum deposition – for presumed theological necessity – and also take the literal sense of a phrase like “everything on Earth will perish”, then the flood event has a massive amount of work to do. And the initial response, I think, of many Bible-believing Christians would be: “So, what’s the problem? God is doing a miracle here. Nothing is too hard for God.”

Yet some have problems with that view, and not just atheists. If a purported miracle gives an indication of the mechanism – as is the case with the flood story – then one might expect the evidence left behind to be consistent with that mechanism. But when narrative and evidence is closely examined there is much that does not seem to add up.

Consider now three articles[4] – available on the internet – that strongly criticize the flood story as interpreted by AIG/ICR. The following bullets are my words but the ideas are redacted from those articles. They represent only a small subset of the objections concerning the veracity of the YEC interpretation. I would encourage you to read the articles in their entirety, to get a clearer sense of the arguments employed.

Critics’ objections to the flood story as understood by YEC apologists:

· “all living creatures” into the ark means:

o species now extinct must be included.

o insects, arachnids, worms, bacteria, amphibians etc., that we usually don’t think of, must also go into the ark.

o all aquatic creatures including whales, jellyfish, fresh-water fish, mollusks, coral, etc. must be preserved in the ark as most water-resident life could not survive the sediment-filled waters of a YEC-style flood event.

· Gathering the animals probably must be attributed to miracle, otherwise:

o Some land animals would have to swim oceans.

o How would they bring their various special diets with them during the long journey?

· Ark space issues:

o YEC estimates on the number of animals vary, trying to get the total down as much as possible. But the various totals either ignore large categories (like extinct or marine animals) or they think a representative sample (a “kind”) can, post-flood, produce the genetic variety we see today. But to get present diversity from a single “kind” pair would constitute massive post-flood evolution, far exceeding anything we observe.

o Non-animal space: food for about a year, water for at least part of that time (after the rain stopped), flooring, compartments, human living quarters – would consume a significant percentage of the Ark’s capacity.

o storage for all kinds of plants/seeds because almost nothing would regenerate on its own post-flood from outside the ark after the amount of postulated violence, then sediment deposited.

o The ark had 1,518,750 cubic feet maximum (assuming a rectangle), perhaps half consumed for non-animal purposes. Even a very low example figure of 50,000 animals (at 2 or 7 per “kind” this doesn’t represent many species), would give an average of 15 cubic feet per animal. However, one critic states the number of species that would have to have been alive (to provide the fossil diversity found) would be more like 1.87 million species – of which at least a pair of each would be required.

· Loading the ark: 7 days and, even if we assume a low figure of 50,000 animals, then 1 animal must be loaded every 12 seconds – from gangplank to cage.

· Boat limitations: A 450 ft long boat exceeds the physical limit of wooden boat design. 300 feet is an upper limit before structural deformation and instability is inevitable. The longest known wooden ship ever built (19th century) was 329 feet and was found to be an untenable design. Thus 450 feet challenges the laws of physics.

· Caring for the animals:

o How would special food be obtained by Noah for some animals – e.g. eucalyptus leaves for koalas, bamboo shoots for pandas, plankton for whales, etc.

o The amount of turbulence during the voyage (given the presumed catastrophic external activity) would have been very harmful to the animals’ health (let alone structural integrity of the boat).

o Even considering a low figure of 50,000 animals, if all eight of the crew worked every day, 16 hrs/day, then each individual animal would wind up with about 1 hour of attention during the entire year. This would not have kept them fed/watered and their waste removed.

· Sediment depth post-flood averages 1 mile, some is essentially 100% fossil (e.g. chalk). If even only .1% of that sediment was considered to be from animals, the living equivalents would cover the entire earth to a depth of 1 ½ feet.

· To deposit as much sediment as YEC estimates the ratio of water to sediment would be 2:1. That much thick muddy water would kill virtually all marine life.

· The Karoo Supergroup (southern Africa) has an estimated (from fossil count) 800 billion animals. All would have to have been alive at the flood, per YEC assumptions. This would amount to 21 per acre on average for the entire planet. But they wound up in one location so the density would likely have been greater. And that’s just one fossiliferous geologic formation.

· Repopulation:

o If the entire Phanerozoic portion of the geologic column was deposited during the flood year, very little plant life or seeds would have survived for re-growth so post-flood Noah would have to replant across virtually the entire planet.

o The world’s food chain would have collapsed. The animals, e.g. carnivores, would have nothing to eat except each other or year-old rotting carcasses.

o How will the pairs stay together to mate and with sufficient success to repopulate? You would expect them to run away randomly upon disembarking.

o Some animals need special circumstances to mate – environment, presence of others of the species, etc.

o How would animals cross oceans to get to their present locations?

There may be plausible answers to some of these objections. And miracle obviously comes into play for some of the actions beyond just the flood water itself. But not all miracles are equally plausible. And some consequences of literal thinking here seem very problematic.

I see a variety of reactions readers might have at this point:

1. Some might think that, because I would revisit traditional orthodoxy, then I am ‘bad’ and not ‘Bible believing’. Ditto for this website. Such a move is essentially ad hominem –shooting the messenger – and does not speak to the issue itself. I did not think up these objections.

2. Some would deny that evidence matters. A literal reading of scripture is equated with truth and thus must be correct. Literalism gets to trump any counter-evidence.

3. Some would try to construct a plausible scenario for each objection – one that retains literalism and is consistent with the evidence.

4. Some would conclude the evidence and story have no apparent full reconciliation but believe there may still be some resolution because we were not there and a literal view of scripture must be maintained.

5. Some would reinterpret the story to describe a local flood, which then resolves the evidence easily. But it doesn’t deal with the theological problems resulting from finding fossils in the geologic column.

6. Some would use the evidence as a reason to declare the flood story pure myth, and perhaps continue to reject much of the Biblical narrative as uninspired.

In my view reactions 3-5 are the most responsible. A preference toward a literal reading of the Bible is quite appropriate but can only go so far. And, if an adherent of literalism gets to ‘baptize’ their view as the Bible simply interpreting itself, then no other options are permitted. However, once past that, we might consider its limitations. If literalness results in an interpretation that not only has to be propped up with miracle but the quantity and plausibility of the miraculous is extreme, then a less literal alternative ought to be considered. Interpretations ultimately need to accommodate the importance of personal honesty and a belief in God’s reasonableness.

[1] Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the Word (Berean Books, 1996), p. 168.

[2] Ockham’s Razor: “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”. In other words, if possible, select among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor

[3] Henry Morris ed., Scientific Creationism (Creation-Life Publishers, 1974), pp. 117-118.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3999