Thursday, April 05, 2018

Mixed nuts

I recently read The Lost World of the Flood (IVP 2018) by Tremper Longman & John Walton. It's like a can of mixed nuts. 

It's noteworthy that the two main collaborators, as well as one contributor, are all affiliated with the BioLogos Foundation, which is the flagship of theistic evolution.

1. This is part of an ongoing series: The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, The Lost World of Scripture. 

Although it's not entirely fair to judge a book by its title, since a title is simpler than the content of a book, it is, nevertheless, misleading to frame the issue in terms of a "lost world" of Scripture, as if the Bible was a complete cipher until the advent of biblical archeology. 

2. Chap. 1 reviews hermeneutics and their theory of inspiration. They distinguish between what Bible writers allegedly believe and what the text affirms. Among other things, they say:

First, there is a real world, but the Bible does not describe that world authoritatively. It's description is both culturally conditioned (solid sky, waters above, etc.) and rhetorically shaped…There was a real, cataclysmic event [Noah's flood], but the Bible does not describe that event authoritatively…Nevertheless, the Bible does interpret that event authoritatively (11). 

In chap 3 they say:

…the writing, while referential, is not particularly interested in reporting the event in a way that allows us to reconstruct the event, but rather focuses on the interpretation of the vent. In other words, the author depicts the event in a way that furthers his theological message (21).

There's a problem with affirming the historicity of reported Biblical events while driving a wedge between the report and what really happened. For one thing, surely ancient readers were interested in what really happened. 

Although photographic realism shouldn't be the standard for assessing the accuracy of ancient historical writing, yet unless there's a discernible correspondence between the narrative description and the actual event, affirming the historicity of the event is a pretty empty exercise. 

For instance, there are scholars who affirm that the Exodus has a kernel of fact, buried in layers of legendary embellishment. Likewise, there are scholars who affirm that the  Gospels have a factual core, heavily garnished by pious imagination. But that's a very Pickwickian definition of historicity. 

Even though Bible history–and historical writing generally–isn't audiotape and videotape, yet if you step into the time machine and go back to the reported event, you should be able to recognize the event on the basis of the report. Sure, you can make allowance for literary conventions. But if the report isn't comparable to what actually happened, then it's not a faithful record. Jews and Christians are supposed to believe in the event behind the record and not a theological interpretation that's independent of what happened. The two are supposed to go together. If the description bears little identifiable resemblance to the underlying event, then we are at best in the realm of historical fiction. 

Assuming the Gospels are faithful to events, when I step out of the time machine and follow Jesus around with my Bible in hand, I'll notice differences, where Gospel writers simplified what happened, grouped some teachings by topic, sometimes gave the gist of what was said, and so forth, but if I can't recognize where I am in the story, then the affirmation that the record goes back to a real event is hollow, if the underlying event is too dissimilar to the report. Same thing with OT history. If, say, you "affirm" the Exodus, but strip away all the miracles, the "historical" Exodus is not the Exodus of Scripture. Not even close. What are you obligated to believe? A theological gloss that doesn't correspond to what happened? Or an underlying event that doesn't correspond to the theological gloss? It's an untenable dichotomy either way. 

They say:

The accounts in Gen 1-11 can be affirmed as having real events as their referents, but the events themselves (yes, they happened) find their significance in the interpretation they are given in the biblical text. That significance is not founded on their historicity but in their theology; not what happened (or even that something did happen) but in why it happened (17).

But once you pry the interpretation away from the original event, you're in no position to affirm the event since, according to Walton/Longman, the accounts don't give you access to the event. 

"Yes, they happened"? What happened? We're told that Scripture doesn't describe events "authoritatively" or enable us to reconstruct the underlying event. Of course, it's unnecessary to reconstruct the event if the description is faithful to the event. But they erect a false dichotomy, as if the significance is an artificial coating. There's the event, and there's the theological veneer, and these are separable. 

They say:

…biblical texts are written from the author's "cognitive environment". The Bible was written for us, but not two us. We have no reason to believe that God gave ancient authors special knowledge of perspectives on geology, cosmology, astronomy, or any other scientific information beyond that known at the time (47).

But in that case, the creation accounts regarding the origin of the world, life on earth, and man in particular, cannot be true. They're no different than ancient creation stories in general, which combine imagination with prescientific understanding. 

Longman and Walton deny revelation outright. Do they think the biblical narrator shared their viewpoint? Do they think OT prophets were self-deluded in believing that God revealed himself to them? Was the audible voice a hallucination? Were their dreams and visions hallucinatory? Did God show them nothing in reality? 

3. They base their position on the claim that ancient people–Bible writers included–believed we think with our hearts and entrails (8,10). But how to they verify that claim? Do they simply think that because Bible writers use that imagery, they meant it literally? Yet scripture is full of anatomical metaphors. Moreover, writers have been using anatomical imagery, not just in ancient times, but all the way up to the present. Did ancient people never notice that a blow to the head impairs cognition? 

4. In chap. 3, the authors say Gen 1-11 employs "rhetorical devices". 

i) It is, of course, undeniable that Scripture uses rhetorical devices. However, that can be misleading. For instance, a prosaic report may contain figures of speech, but that doesn't make the whole report figurative. A history of the Civil War may be sprinkled with figures of speech, but that doesn't make the historical account an extended metaphor. To the contrary, the account is literal.

ii) In addition, many of their examples are tendentious:

We should say that there are a number of items that almost everyone would agree are figurative. A partial list would include the description of animals coming forth from the ground (Gen 2:19)… (25).

a) To begin with, that's a misleading summary of Gen 2:19. It doesn't merely say animals sprang from the ground but that God formed animals from the ground. Quite a difference!

b) In addition, what "almost everyone would agree are figurative" is exegetically irrelevant. That's not the hermeneutical frame of reference. The question is whether the original audience would agree that it's figurative? Walton/Longman are theistic evolutionists, but the original audience was not.

Indeed, the rhetorical shaping helps us see that the creation account is not presenting an account of material origins but rather equating the seven days of temple inauguration (25).

That's Walton's hobbyhorse, but  many scholars who aren't young-earth creationists nevertheless reject his false dichotomy between material and functional origins. 

They then quote Origen on the Fourth Day (26). I agree with them that the Fourth Day poses a challenge to a strictly chronological reading of Gen 1. But I'm not sure how that qualifies as a "rhetorical device". 

On the next page they once again quote Origen:

And who will be found simple enough to believe that like some farmer "God planted trees in the garden of Eden, in the east" and that he planted "the tree of life" in it, that is a visible tree that can be touched, so that someone could eat of this tree with corporeal teeth and gain life, and further, could eat of another tree and receive the knowledge of "good and evil"? Moreover, we find that God is said to stroll in the garden in the afternoon and Adam to hide under a tree. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a figure by which they point to certain mysterious (27).

i) Why do Walton/Longman think Origen's allegorical, Platonizing gloss is any kind of model for exegeting Gen 2-3? How does that reflect the original intent of the narrator, whose outlook was undoubtedly far different? 

ii) Origen acts as though it would be unseemly for God to plant a physical garden with physical trees. But that says a lot more about Origen than Genesis.

iii) A river valley is a very practical location for the first humans. Indeed, Gen 2 indicates that Eden was situated in Mesopotamia, which is a logical location, since rivers make life much more hospitable.

iv) Perhaps Origen is reacting, in part, to the superstitious notion that natural objects have magical properties. To that extent he's correct. But how does he interpret an account, like say, 1 Sam 5? It's not that the ark of the covenant has magical properties. Rather, God causes certain things to happen in association with the ark for symbolic reasons. Same principle applies to the trees in Gen 2-3. 

Commenting on Gen 2:7, Walton/Longman say:

Such a description of the creation of the first man is patently figurative once we realize that God is a spiritual being and does not have lungs (27-28).

i) But this occurs in a book that's full of angelophanies, including the angel of the Lord. Indeed, the Pentateuch generally is sprinkled with angelophanies, including the angel of the Lord. 

ii) In addition, as Walton has written elsewhere:

The Israelite worldview certainly accepted intercommunication between the divine and human realms, so that the realms are not isolated from one another…There are no statements that differentiate between the material substance of humans and angels. In fact Genesis 18-19 and 32 give every indication of corporeality. "Sons of God, Daughters of Men," T. D. Alexander & D. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (IVP 2003), 795. 

If the divine figure in Gen 2-3 is an allusion to the Angel of the Lord, foreshadowing the theophanic angel, then it's consistent with the narrator's viewpoint that Yahweh can assume or simulate physical or corporeal form. 

The authors say:

The early chapters of Genesis contain a number of obvious anachronisms to everyone but those who refuse to pay attention to the evidence we have from the ancient world:

• the care of domesticated animals occurring in the second generation of humanity (Gen 4:2-5)

• the construction of the first city in the second generation of humanity (Gen 4:17)

• musical instruments in the eighth generation (Gen 4:21)

• Bronze and iron making in the eighth generation (Gen 4:22).

i) Given the longevity of the prediluvians, combined with the fact that these may well be open genealogies with gaps between named descendants, is there a presumption that they wouldn't domesticate animals, make musical instruments, or settle down in a village? To a modern reader, "city" has very different connotations. Many primitive people have musical instruments. 

As one commentator points out, the reference may be to meteoric iron and surface deposits of copper rather than metallurgy (Hamilton, 1:239). Walton/Longman deceive the reader by presenting one-sided interpretations. Most readers don't have access to good commentaries and reference works, so they can't double check the claims. They rely on Walton/Longman for their information, which is treacherous.

In chap. 5 they say it is helpful to compare the discussion of primordial cosmic cataclysm in the flood narrative to what we find in apocalyptic literature, which often portrays future cosmic cataclysm…The genre of apocalyptic show us that a portrait of sociopolitical cataclysm can be rhetorically shaped with cosmic proportions (37). 

In the final chapter they say:

The rhetoric we recognize from the ancient Near East depicts the scope and effect in cosmic proportions. We can classify the flood narrative as a "cataclysm account" and then identify cataclysm accounts in the ANE and the Bible being characterized in cosmic proportions. This same characterization was noted as also another genre, apocalyptic. As such it uses hyperbole as part of a universalistic rhetoric shown to be part of the repertoire of biblical authors in other places in Scripture (178).

i) It's true that Scripture can use end-of-the-world imagery for historical judgments.

ii) It is, however, prejudicial to assume they always have a local referent. After all, if there are worldwide judgments, how is that to be described if not in universal language?

iii) The term "cosmic" is inapt in reference to the flood account. The earth is not the universe, even by ancient standards.

iv) Likewise, the flood is not a "primordial" event but one occurring well into the ongoing history of the world. 

5. In chap. 4, the authors say the Bible uses hyperbole to describe historical events. To some extent that's undoubtedly true, and it may well be germane to interpreting the flood account. 

It's odd, though, that their showcase example comes from Joshua rather than the Pentateuch. In chap. 5 they cite Lam 2:22 and Zeph 1. Although that illustrates hyperbole, it's a bit far afield in relation to Genesis. And there are genre differences. 

In chap. 8 they cite examples of hyperbole from the Pentateuch (Gen 41:57; Exod 9:6,19; Deut 2:25). That's more pertinent to the flood account. In chap 5 they cite Gen 6:5 as an example of hyperbole. 

In chap. 5, they deploy the principle of hyperbole to say the dimensions of the ark are hyperbolic. In reality, the ark was however much smaller.

A stock objection to the historicity of Noah's flood is that a wooden ship that size would lack structural integrity. If, however, the description is hyperbolic, that neatly disposes of that objection. 

This is one of the better arguments in the book. I think readers should take that explanation into consideration. 

In the same chapter they attack Ken Ham's reconstruction of the ark. They point out that it's even larger than the conventional understanding of a cubit. It was built using modern equipment with a large crew of skilled workers. It was never tested for seaworthiness. Those are legitimate criticisms. 

Other criticisms are less secure. They pour scorn the notion that Noah's family had any assistance. But Noah's was not a shipwright. So, apart from divine revelation, how would he and his sons have the know-how to built it? And why is it unreasonable to suppose that Noah retained hired help? 

They say:

Only the most gullible can possibly believe all of the exceptional conditions that are needed to understand the description of the flood story as anything but hyperbolic (39). 

But the flood account has supernatural elements. The audible voice of God speaking to Noah. God sending the animals to Noah (7:8-9), and God closes the hatch from the outside (7:16). Keep in mind, two, that all these narratives are sketchy, omitting many details. While we need to resist ad hoc appeals to the miraculous, we need to resist the opposite tendency of explaining the entire event naturalistically. Do Walton/Longman explain the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah or the signs and wonders of the Exodus and wilderness wandering naturalistically? 

They say Gen 7:11 reflects

an ancient cosmology where under the flat earth were the subterranean waters… (40).

Yet that contradicts chap 15, where a contributor summarizes Carol Hill's evidence. It's worth quoting her in full: 

The Bible mentions the “fountains of the deep” (springs) twice in its narrative—once when the springs start (Gen. 7:11) and once when they stop (Gen. 8:2). Springs are a prime factor that could have caused prolonged flooding. When it rains or when snow melts, water does not only flow over the ground as stream runoff. It can also travel underground as “groundwater,” finally exiting at springs. Genesis 7:11 says that the fountains of the great deep (subterranean water or groundwater) were “broken up.” “Broken up” comes from the Hebrew “bâqa,” which means to “break forth,” or be “ready to burst,” and so the literal meaning of Gen. 7:11 is that these springs began gushing water.40 The connotation of Gen. 7:11 is that a surging mass of water burst forth from a deep subterranean water supply. Springs exist all over Mesopotamia and surrounding highlands, and most of these are limestone (karst) springs. Ras-el-ain (ain means “spring”), near the border of Syria and Turkey, is one of the largest limestone karst springs in the world and is the effective head of the Khabr River, a major tributary of the Euphrates.41 Water from this spring (actually a complex of thirteen springs) comes from maximum winter infiltration (snow melt and rain in the Taurus Mountains) in January–February, but this water does not actually discharge at Ras-el-ain until the following July or August. This type of delay is typical of many karst springs, where recharge may be distant or convoluted from the spring discharge point. Some springs flow all the time, some springs flow only when it floods, and some springs have a delayed reaction between recharge and discharge. In the case of a delayed reaction, a continuous supply of water may be supplied for many months after a heavy rainstorm (or storms). The Bible seems to indicate that at least some springs began gushing water immediately as the Flood started (Gen. 7:11), but that others continued for up to five months (Gen. 8:2). Specific springs (among many) that could have contributed water to the Mesopotamian hydrologic basin during Noah’s Flood are those located near ancient Sippar, Babylon, and Kish;42 those in the vicinity of Hit;43 and those in the Jezira desert region between Baghdad and Mosul.44 Tributaries to the Tigris also emerge from karst springs (large caves) along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. When severe rains occur in the Zagros, these springs respond with a strong outflow, causing the rivers to swell and overflow onto the plains.45 In antiquity, one of the most important of these springs emerged from Shalmaneser’s Cave, which was thought to be the “source” of the Tigris when Shalmaneser III visited the cave in 852 BC. 46 It is also recorded that Sargon II had learned the secret of tapping water from subterranean strata during his campaign against Ulhu and Urartu (the land of Ararat).47 Numerous springs also exist in the deep canyons of the Cudi Dag (Jabel Judi), Cizre region of southeastern Turkey. Various karst features such as springs, sinks, and caves have developed in the Jurassic-Cretaceous Cudi Limestone of these mountains. The best known of these springs is located west of Beytiebab; other smaller ones occur further south.48 Runoff from these springs can prolong flooding in the upper Tigris River Valley-Cizre Plain area—just where Noah’s ark may have landed (Fig. 1).

Far from reflecting an obsolete, three-story universe, the description fits the specific hydrology of the region. 

6. It's hard to classify their position. On the one hand, they think Noah's flood was a regional flood. Based on that, you think they'd classify their own position as a defense of the local flood interpretation. 

Yet in chap. 6 they attack the local flood interpretation. They quote universalistic passages. And they raise stock objections to the local flood interpretation that are usually adduced by proponents of a global flood. 

Their position is that Genesis depicts a local flood in global terms. It uses hyperbolic language to represent a regional flood as if that's a worldwide catastrophe. Yet that's consistent with the local flood interpretation. The local flood interpretation doesn't mean the descriptive language is specifically or intentionally localized. Rather, it means the language is neutral or noncommittal. Sometimes universal expresses are universal, and sometimes universal expressions are hyperbolic. The language in itself doesn't specify the scope one way or the other. Rather, that's context-dependent. 

They say:

Can we imagine all man beings at this time were in one specific place that could be covered by a large, local flood? Of course, it is difficult to answer this question because the Bible does not tell us when the flood took place. Nor does it provide information about the distribution of humans from the moment of their creation. For that matter, the location of Noah's family isn't named either. The only geographical reference in the story is to the mountains of Ararat (Gen 8:4). While not a specific reference to a particular mountain, the region is found in eastern Turkey near Lake Van.

From what we know through scientific inquiry, humanity's history began in Africa and eventually spread to the Middle East and Europe and beyond. Thus, unless we are talking about an early local flood in Africa (which would make little sense of the Ararat landing), 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 (45-46). 

But that objection is deeply confused from a hermeneutical standpoint. It's not an exegetical objection but a "scientific" objection, predicated on assumptions alien to the viewpoint of an ancient Near Eastern reader. In Genesis, the origin of man is out of Mesopotamia, not out of Africa. 

Likewise, the original audience might well think a regional flood could wipe out humanity if for them the extent of the known world was coextensive with the Middle East (or thereabouts). Walton/Longman are interpreting the account by appeal to modern geography and evolutionary biology, but of course, the original audience didn't have that frame of reference. It's really strange that they constantly chide modern readers for failing to construe the text according to the historical horizon of an ancient Near Eastern reader, when they themselves do an about-face. 

The narrator is depicting a deluge on a scale that engulfs the known world. Yet that doesn't speak to the actual scope of the event one way or another, since, in the nature of the case, an event beyond the outer limits of what the original audience was acquainted with falls outside their purview. From their provincial outlook, a local flood of sufficient magnitude might appear to be a worldwide phenomenon. Even Walton/Longman say 

That doesn't impugn the inerrancy of the account because the account doesn't contain identifiable geographical markers beyond Uratu, Mesopotamian river system, and the karst terrain. In that respect the viewpoint is local. 

To take a comparison, when we say the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we're not speaking in absolute terms but relative to the horizon, which varies depending on where you live. Likewise, if I say I live in the South or I live in the North, or Southwest or Northwest or Southeast or Northeast, those are relative compass points. "North" for someone in Canada is different from "north" for someone in Biloxi Mississippi, which is different from "north" for someone in Argentina.  

7. Chap 8 is one of the better chapters in the book:

i) Walton/Longman note the formulaic intervals in the flood account (71). 

ii) An interesting discussion of "academic arithmetic" in relation to the temple in Babylon (75).

iii) Noting the reliefs in Karmac, where Pharaoh is larger-than-life compared to his enemies. Observers would understand that wasn't to scale, but visual hyperbole. 

iv) An interesting analysis of Gen 6:14, where obscure Hebrew words are compared to Akkadian cognates. Thus, "rooms" might mean "reeds", used as caulking material (77-78).

v) They say:

There is no evidence to suggest that the ark in Genesis recapitulates sacred space. The rectangular dimensions suggest instead that it recapitulates the standard shape of boats (77).

That's an odd oversight inasmuch as the tabernacle and the temple both had rectangular dimensions, so that's entirely consistent with emblematic sacred space.

In sum, their book has a few tasty cashews mixed in with lots of stale chestnuts.  


  1. I haven’t read the book, but I was wondering how far Longman goes in it. The last time I heard him speak, at a small doctoral colloquium, he said the same stuff about an event underlying the flood narrative, but not described literally in any fashion. But he went as far as saying the underlying event needn’t even be a flood. He threw out the suggestion of devastation from an invading army.

    So it sounds like in the book he is potentially trying to downplay just how deconstructive his view really is.

  2. I note your difficulty figuring out what they are actually affirming. Classifying their view and pinning it down. That is standard for Walton. He's almost postmodern in his ability to write a whole book while being radically unclear. For example, what exactly does he mean by God's giving "functions" to the animals, etc., while strenuously denying that that has any material meaning? In the end I was forced to conclude that it means that God made utterly invisible decrees that have no bearing upon what actually happens in the physical world: "I hereby decree that it is the function of plants to grow," and so forth, after the plants have already actually been growing, biologically, for a long time, with no involvement by God whatsoever and that will go on doing so just the same after his declaration of "function." This is an absurd view. It makes God out to be a being who is almost suffering from a megalomaniac self-image. But because Walton never spells it out that clearly and instead writes in an obscure, pseudo-scholarly way about "function" in the ANE, it's hard to recognize its absurdity.

    Similarly here, it sounds like they almost take delight in hiding what they are really saying happened at the flood.

    It's incredibly poor scholarship.

  3. Are they so blind as to their blatant anachronistic hermeneutic? Surely, they have to know that they are trying to destroy the Word of God at this point.

    1. It's pretty much standard now in biblical studies for a scholar to be blatantly anachronistic while preemptively accusing anyone who would disagree with him of being anachronistic. I see it all the time in (relatively) liberal biblical criticism.

      The formula goes approximately like this:

      1) Make a bunch of extremely sweeping (and frankly ridiculous) statements about "how the ancients thought." Make these statements with enormous confidence, as though no reasonable and informed person disagrees with them. The more outrageous, the more emphatic you should be. (E.g. Walton has claimed that "the ancients" had no concept of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural and that they didn't care about authorship. Richard Burridge has said with similar confidence that "ancient people" didn't care much about factual truth.)

      2) Imply that anyone who disagrees with these historical statements and anyone who thinks that the thing you are trying to dismiss (e.g., factual truth, clarity about miracles, etc.) is "imposing modern views" upon ancient documents. A reference to the 19th century is very useful here, as in, "We must not impose upon ancient documents a concept of history that did not become widespread until the 19th century."

      3) To the extent that you spell out your position at all, strongly imply that the ancients thought *exactly like a modern biblical critic*. Therefore, the only way to recover the true ancient worldview is for your audience, as well, to think like you, a modern biblical critic, think about the passage in question.

      It's amazing how many people will fall for this, and how many scholars pick it up as a standard set of moves.

  4. "The Lost World of John Walton" is a good title and summation of his works