Thursday, September 15, 2016

The rainbow sign

When unbelievers attack Noah's flood, they typically target flood geology and the global flood interpretation. As a result, the local flood interpretation has been neglected. In the past I've discussed how I think both the local and global flood interpretations are broadly defensible on scientific and exegetical grounds. In this post I'd like to revisit a few objections to the local flood interpretation. 

There are some objections to the local flood interpretation that I won't cover in this post because I've discussed them before, and I having nothing new to say in that regard. For instance:

I. A local flood makes Noah's ark a pointless waste of time. 

The underlying assumption here is that Noah's ark had a utilitarian purpose. However, let's consider a comparison. Take the Mosaic cultus. You had the tabernacle and its furnishings. Later you had the Solomonic temple. An entire tribe was reserved for the priesthood. You had a system of offerings and animal sacrifice. That represents a tremendous outlay of human and material resources. Just consider the sheer number of sacrificial animals that were slaughtered over the centuries. Not to mention the construction of Solomon's temple. 

Yet all that was strictly unnecessary. God never forgave a single Jew on the basis of animal sacrifice. The death of an animal cannot atone for human sin.

So the whole Mosaic cultus is a humongous object lesson. Its value is symbolic or pedagogical rather than utilitarian. Teaching by showing. In graphic, picturesque terms, it depicted God's holiness, human sin, guilt, remission, and vicarious atonement. 

By the same token, the value of Noah's ark could be symbolic or pedagogical rather than utilitarian. It illustrates the principle of a godly remnant. Divine judgment and deliverance. The ark is a microcosm of the cosmic temple. It represents sacred space. It foreshadows the tabernacle: 

The ark was a temple structure. It was designed to be a copy of the cosmic temple made by the Creator. Its three stories correspond to the cosmos conceptualized as divided into the three levels of the heavens, earth, and the sphere under the earth. Its window corresponded to the window of heaven and its door to the door of the deep (cf. Gen. 7:11).26 The ark's temple identity is corroborated by the reflection of its architecture in the Mosaic tabernacle and the Solomonic temple. Their structure too reproduced the three story pattern of the cosmos both in their horizontal floor plan and in their vertical sectioning.27 Note also the three-storied side chambers of the temple. In addition, the temple had the features of the door and upper window, and it shared the ark's vertical dimension of thirty cubits.

That's no more or less a wasteful than the Mosaic cultus. I'd say the outlay for the Mosaic cultus, including the Solmonic temple, is at least comparable to Noah's ark.

II. The rainbow sign makes no sense if the flood was local.

2. If an old-earther subscribes to an anthropologically universal flood, then he can easily account for the rainbow sign. It's a promise that God will never again destroy the entire human race in a flood. 

3. In addition, what's the scope of the rainbow? Does Gen 9:12-17 mean that's the first time a rainbow ever appeared on earth? A problem with that interpretation is the fact that the rainbow in Gen 9 hearkens back to the rainless state in Gen 2:

5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and streams came up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground (Gen 2:5-6). 
13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (Gen 9:13-15).

So we'd expect the scope of the rainbow to be roughly conterminous with the scope of the rainless state. That, in turn, raises the question of how extensive the rainless state was in Gen 2:5-6. There are different proposals.

i) John Collins thinks it's a seasonal reference. It refers to the dry season, in contrast to the rainy season. Cf. Genesis 1-4 (P&R, 2006), 111.

ii) On another interpretation, the scope is limited in space rather than time. On this view, Gen 2 is referring, not to the condition of the earth in general, but to the condition of Eden in particular. The land of Eden was rainless. That interpretation has two things going for it:

a) It's a simple way to harmonize the chronology of Gen 1 with the chronology of Gen 2. 

b) The dry climate of Eden stands in contrast to a terrestrial source of irrigation: river water. Eden is arid in reference to rain, but moist in reference to fluvial irrigation or flooding. 

Although scholars don't know what ed means in 2:6, I think the river system in vv10-14 supplies a broad contextual clue. Eden lies in a river basin. It is watered by a tributary of that river system. Possibly a subterranean river that surfaces in the garden. 

In that event the novelty of the rainbow is not a general phenomenon, but geographically localized.

III. An anthropologically universal flood creates a chronological problem by pushing the date of the flood back to an unrealistically distant point in the past. For instance, according to conventional dating techniques, Aborigines have inhabited Australia for 40,000 years. 

There are two possible ways an old-earther might respond:

1. He could borrow a page from young-earthers and challenge conventional dating techniques. Although that might seem ironic, old-earth and young-earth positions are sets of independent tenets with independent supporting arguments. There's nothing inherently incongruous about taking these apart and recombining them. 

2. Consider what might be a more controversial move: suppose he denies an anthropologically universal flood? 

i) Perhaps a young-earther will object that denying an anthropologically universal flood does violence to the "all flesh" quantifier:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

However, young-earthers drastically restrict the scope of "all flesh" to birds, bats, and land animals. They exclude aquatic animals, which is hardly a measly exception. They exclude insects, which is hardly a measly exception. Technically, it might be said that insects don't have "flesh," but that's a bit of modern scientific precisionism. 

Even in Gen 6:12-13, "all flesh" has a different scope in v13 than it has in v12. In v12 it refers to humans, but in v13, to organisms in general. And the scope is specified in v7:

So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 

So "all flesh" is something of a cipher. What it denotes or refers is variable. The phrase itself doesn't indicate how much that includes or covers. 

ii) More to the point, what was the purpose of the flood? What did it accomplish? In one respect, Gen 6:5-13 tells the reader why God sent the flood. Yet the flood didn't solve the underlying problem. Indeed, in Gen 8:21, the cycle repeats itself (cf. Gen 6:5).

iii) Here's a suggestion: what if the flood has the same purpose of holy war? In the Pentateuch, God commands the Israelites to evict the Canaanites when they take possession of the Promised Land. The purpose is to give God's people some breathing room. His people can't survive and thrive in a world that's completely overrun by the godless. There's no room for God's people in places like Ur, Sodom, and Gomorrah. 

By the same token, evil had become so pervasive by the eve of the flood that it would strangle the godly remnant, strangle the seed of promise, strangle the messianic line. So the flood resets the chess board. Although the cycle of evil reboots after the flood, it will take a while to reach the peak of depravity before the flood. Even though the aftermath of the flood gives evildoers a fresh start, it also gives the remnant a fresh start. It buys the remnant some time. 

iv) On that interpretation, the flood needn't be anthropologically universal to achieve its aim. It wouldn't matter if there were Australian Aborigines untouched by the flood, because they were too far away to pose an existential threat to the God's people in the Fertile Crescent. 

v) As a bonus point, if the flood wasn't anthropologically universal, then that disarms objections to the flood based on a population bottleneck in the event that all postdiluvian humans descend from the eight passengers on the ark. 


  1. Very good. I tend towards a local flood that was anthropologically universal. I especially like your point about the Mosaic system.

  2. Steve what do you think is the relevance of the nephilim? Genesis 6:4 says the nephilim were in the earth in those days and also afterward. Then they get mentioned again in Numbers 13:33

  3. The connection to kherem is especially interesting, but only if you cry uncle and concede that the Nephilim were diabolical half-breed abominations :) Because then there's a clear connection between the purpose of the flood, and the purpose of Joshua's kherem in the areas where the descendents of the Nephilim still held power. Every time we see kherem in Canaan, it's connected to giant clans. So this would draw a clear thread through from the flood, which is also connected to giant clans.

    (Kenneth, to answer your question, you'll find Steve and my back-and-forth on this interesting; here's where my side starts:

    Of course, your comment on "all flesh" would need to hold water for this interpretation to work—unless the kherem is anthropologically universal in this case. Either could be true, I think. Joel, for example, talks of how God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, yet this is contextually delimited; I'm not sure why you couldn't say the same about Genesis 6. On the other hand, Genesis 6 seems to imply anthropological universality in its description of who is doing the evil in the first place. Moreover, we have extra-biblical information that sways me toward an anthropologically universal flood. You mentioned the aborigines, for example—but the aborigines, like so many people-groups, have a flood legend!

    1. "Every time we see kherem in Canaan, it's connected to giant clans."

      This is an interesting claim to me. Who did the leg work on this? Do you have a source, or is this something you have studied yourself?

      A quick flip through Deut, Josh, and Judges in BHS makes me doubtful of this.

    2. "The connection to kherem is especially interesting, but only if you cry uncle and concede that the Nephilim were diabolical half-breed abominations :) Because then there's a clear connection between the purpose of the flood, and the purpose of Joshua's kherem in the areas where the descendents of the Nephilim still held power. Every time we see kherem in Canaan, it's connected to giant clans."

      Plain old human beings are quite capable of extreme depravity, not just as individuals, but societies. In that capacity, they pose a threat to the godly. We see this in Bible history and church history alike.

      "You mentioned the aborigines, for example—but the aborigines, like so many people-groups, have a flood legend!"

      Yes, many people-groups have flood legends. For instance, it's hardly surprising if people who live in raver basins have flood legends. And they'd take that tribal lore with them when they move. So we need to sift through flood legends. In many cases we're dealing with oral cultures where it's impossible to date the origin of the legend.

  4. Are anthropological universalism and a localized flood mutually exclusive? It does not seem that the entire globe would yet have been populated. It may well be possible that "all flesh" was geographically limited, making a geographically universal flood unnecessary.

    1. That's what I tentatively hold to. Hugh Ross posits that they were rebelling against God by not spreading out like they were ordered to.