The early chapters of Genesis exhibit some features of historicized
writing. The flood story specifically provides dates, measurements for the ark, duration of rain, and the age of Noah. These details could suggest an account of an actual event. However, these details do not counteract the numerous marks of story-telling and mythologizing in Genesis.
For almost all moderns, the mythologizing at the heart of ancient polytheistic flood stories is obvious. Gigamesh and Atrahasis, flood stories written in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization and the context of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, do not seem historical to even the most belief-based readers. Mesopotamian polytheism smacks of myth.
When college students encounter the Mesopotamian flood stories, they tend to come to one of two conclusions: (1) the Genesis story is as mythological as its polytheistic counterparts; or (2) the wide attestation of floods in the acient world proves that an ancient flood actually occurred.
In point of fact, these are both reasonable conclusions that involve reason and deduction. Hence, for many, the question of whether an ancient global Deluge flooded the whole earth remains a live one.
Christopher B. Hays, in his forthcoming book on comparing the Bible with ancient Near Eastern literature, provides a helpful discussion that tackles this precise question: was there an ancient global flood?
The Flood in World Literature and in Archaeology (Hays)
Before focusing on the questions of these [ancient Near Eastern] stories’ meanings in their contexts, one should note how far back into human history flood stories reach, and how widely they are distributed. There are more than 300 known accounts of a great flood, and they come from every continent except Antarctica. However, many of these stories recorded by anthropologists since the 19th century did not develop independently, but rather were the result of missionary influence in the preceding centuries. Still others, especially those from Europe, Asia Minor, Africa, and Asia, may have resulted from cultural diffusion from the ancient Near East—and later from Greece and Rome as those cultures adapted older myths.
Still, not all the versions of the story can be accounted for by means of diffusion, which has left some scholars to see them as indications of an actual global cataclysm or the “common structure of the human mind” across civilizations. Neither conclusion is likely; the problems with universalizing theories of comparison are addressed in the general introduction to this volume. And the idea of an historical global flood is not only contrary to scientific data, it renders the story internally illogical. A global flood such that “all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered” (Gen 7:19) would require water at a depth of almost 30,000 feet. For this amount of rain to fall in 40 days and 40 nights would require rainfall of about 30 feet per hour. The hardest rainfall ever recorded was one foot in an hour; more to the point, 30 feet per hour would sink any ship. Such a storm is not only impossible, it is unimaginable.
As for modified historical theories that attempt to connect the Mesopotamian or biblical flood stories to more localized flood events, these must be sharply qualified. No flood covered any great percentage of the earth in ancient times, and there is no archaeological indication of mass deaths caused by flooding in early antiquity. Regional flooding afflicted certain coastal settlements in the Neolithic period (ca. 8000-5000 BCE), probably in the area of the Black Sea and possibly on the Levantine coast as well. For some reason these Stone Age settlements were abandoned, and they are now submerged, but the exact causes are still debated. However, connecting the Stone Age flooding with those events requires an oral tradition spanning almost two thousand years, since writing did not appear until the end of the fourth millennium BCE. In other words, even the Sumerian flood stories would be relatively “late” literary versions of an oral tradition that could have been only a bare mythologoumenon—i.e., a mythological fragment susceptible to various interpretations by story-tellers. Finally, a theory of origins in local flooding may be entertained. There is mixed evidence of local flooding in Mesopotamia (including at Shuruppak) in the early third millennium BCE. But lest the reader miss the point: These floods do not seem to have devastated life in the sense of killing people and other living things. There was a solution to such local and regional floods: simply move to a slightly higher elevation! In sum, as Nahum Sarna has written:
The widespread popularity of flood stories, their prevalence among such a large variety of peoples living at different times as well as different places, argues against literary interdependence, a common source, or reference to a single historic event. Whatever historical foundations may possibly underlie such traditions, it is clear that popular imagination has been at work magnifying local disastrous floods into catastrophies of universal proportions. (Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis:38).
Excerpted from Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East by Christopher B. Hays. Forthcoming in fall of 2014 from Westminster John Knox Press.
There are more than 300 known accounts of a great flood
30 feet per hour would sink any ship. Such a storm is not only impossible, it is unimaginable
Popular imagination has been at work magnifying local disastrous floods into catastrophies of universal proportions
A memorable epic storm
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