Before Reading the Flood

For Genesis to be the story of how Israel and its world came to be, there must be a Flood. The Flood was a part of a person's general knowledge, one of the stories which formed the background for life. At the time Genesis was written, Israel had effectively spent two or three generations, seventy or so years, in Babylon. A story of the world not only had to include the Flood, it had to deal with the horror that the gods, or in Israel's case, God, had caused the Flood. For us reading today, it is imperative to read with this understanding. Genesis is not a story of a brutal God; Genesis, in its situation, is the story of a stunningly just and merciful God.

We arrogantly think the ancients were primitive and violent, which is to underestimate their humanity and vastly exaggerate our own abilities to be humane. It discounts the pain and fear with which people likely lived their lives in a dangerous and apparently hostile world. Genesis is not the story of people who projected themselves onto the notion of a primitive and violent god. It is the story of a people gradually discovering a just, faithful, merciful God in a world where the gods were known for being gratuitous and capricious, faithless, and merciless.

And finally, the Genesis Flood is not the literal truth. Fundamentalism and its insistence on six day creation is a category mistake par excellence. It is an attempt to preserve an earlier understanding of God and humanity which human advances in understanding geology, biology and literature all show to be deficient. It shouts the old story louder as though that will make it true, and deliberately perverts our best assessment of the historical and scientific facts, rather than trust the older story of Genesis itself to yield still more truth in a world of new understandings. It is a response of fear.

Perhaps in olden times there were those who said to the author of Genesis that he had it wrong! The true story of the Flood was in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or one of the other stories! The refusal to reinterpret the traditional story, which is the constant action and God given calling of religion, would have been, in essence, a decision to stay in Babylon as Israel returned home to a new freedom. Such a person would be the Young Earth Creationist of their day and, like those of today, would be insulating themselves from some of the insights of God's love and mercy toward us by refusing to engage with the new story of their world. The so-called Creation Science is a profound failure of Christian faith in God.

Andrew Prior 2016

For an extensive overview of the origins of the Genesis text, I have found Genesis as Dialogue by Thomas Brodie not only informative, but also eminently readable.


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