Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to salvage the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

Update (10 July): A commenter at Quodlibeta argues that the flood geology model is not used by contemporary young-earth theorists. If so, I apologize. This post is actually based on some things I wrote about twenty years ago, so it's more than likely out of date. On one hand I could say that I know plenty of young-earth folk and they all accept the flood geology model, so it's still a relevant issue -- but on the other hand I absolutely loathe it when atheists critique the concept of God they insist is held by the average Christian rather than the official doctrines as worked out by theologians, philosophers, and logicians over the centuries. If you want to rebut a position, you address it in its strongest form.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

2 comments:

Earl Wajenberg said...

I am not expert in this and can't give sources, but I have heard that a common Middle Eastern cosmology has the world being something like a bubble in an infinite volume of water. Recall Tiamat, the primal mother-monster of Sumerian mythology, who represented the sea and was split by Marduk (?) into upper and lower halves. That might be the cosmology familiar to the first readers of Genesis 1. On the other hand, the splitting of Tiamat strikes me as just the mythologizing of the division between water in the sea and rivers and water in the clouds, bringing us full-circle.

Jim S. said...

You know, I almost included a brief tangent on that. Specifically, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Isaac Newton Vail argued something like Ellen White's canopy theory, but he based it on Babylonian mythology as opposed to the Bible. But Vail wasn't a young-earth creationist, and he had no influence (that I know of) on young-earth creationism. I first read about Vail here, and you can read two of his books online:

The Earth's Annular System: or The Waters above the Firmament: The World Record Scientifically Explained

The Misread Record: or The Deluge and Its Cause