Meeting creationists on their own terms: understanding the Genesis flood

In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science doesn’t have to conflict with their religion, then you have a chance of actually having a rational conversation about the scientific evidence. So, if you want to effectively talk to creationists, you need to spend some time learning theology, even if you aren’t religious yourself. So, to the creationists reading this, I hope you that will rationally consider the possibility that evolution and the Bible can be compatible, and to the atheists, agnostics, theistic evolutionists, etc. I hope that you will learn some useful talking points for having fruitful discussions with creationists.

The flood that is described in Genesis (a.k.a. Noah’s flood) is one of the cornerstones of young earth creationism. A literal, world-wide flood that occurred roughly 4,500 years ago is absolutely essential for their position because they use it as the “alternative explanation” for the evidence that the earth is old. Whether it’s the extensive fossil record, sediment layers, ice cores, or varves, they consistently fall back on the flood as their answer. Therefore, if you want to be able to convince creationists that the earth is billions of years old and evolution is true, you are first going to have to be able to give them an alternative interpretation of the Genesis flood, and this will require you to know some theology. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you try to convince them that the Bible is wrong, that will almost certainly result in them ignoring anything else that you say. Nor am I trying to say that you personally have to accept the Bible. Rather, I am proposing that for the sake of debate, you should give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e., proceed as if the Bible is true), and direct them to the alternative interpretations of Genesis. To that end, the rest of this post will be written as if the Bible is true, and I suggest that you use similar language when talking to creationists (regardless of your personal beliefs).

Note: To be clear, I am not personally endorsing any of these views or making any statements about my personal religious or philosophical views. I am simply trying to explain the best way to talk to creationists.

The most parsimonious interpretation is simply that the flood account is a parable. I have previously explained this idea in more detail, so I will be brief here. There are lots of parts of the Bible that are figurative or are written as parables rather than as literal, historical accounts (even hard core creationists agree with that), and there are many sections of the Bible that were interpreted literally until science showed that they could not be literal (the passage of Joshua that says that the sun moves around the earth is a great example of this). Therefore, given the fact that there are numerous passages of the Bible which are clearly not literal, and given the fact that some of those were interpreted literally until the advent of science, there is no reason why the flood account cannot also be interpreted as a parable, and interpreting it in light of modern science is completely consistent with the way that creationists interpret other passages of the Bible (again, see my previous post for more details and examples).

The second option is less parsimonious, but I often find that creationists are more willing to accept it. This interpretation says that Noah was a literal person, and there was a literal flood, but the flood was regional, not world-wide. At a first glance, most creationists find this argument laughably absurd because Genesis repeatedly describes the flood as covering the whole earth. Nevertheless, it is vital to remember that one of the key principles of Biblical interpretation (as set forth by creationists) is to interpret the Bible in light of its original audience, and, to the original readers, it would have seemed that the entire earth was under water. To them, the flood would have been world-wide.

Importantly, this use of the phrase “world-wide” is not at all unprecedented. For example, Daniel 6:25 says, “then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth” (my emphasis). To the original readers, that literally meant all people, all nations, and all languages anywhere in the earth, but today, thanks to the science of archeology, we realize that this statement couldn’t have actually meant the entire earth because there is no way that Darius contacted the Aborigines in Australia, the Native Americans in North America, etc. Similar verses can be found throughout the Bible. For example, I Chronicles 14:17 says that all nations feared David. Similarly, Deuteronomy 2:25 says that God put the fear of the Hebrews in “the peoples who are under the whole heaven.” Importantly, the phrase “under the whole heaven” is the exact same Hebrew phrase that is used to describe the flood in Genesis 7:19 when the Bible says, “and the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.” Perhaps most famously, Luke 2:1 says, “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (my emphasis), but no one interprets that as literally meaning all the world.

At this point, the most common, knee-jerk response that I get is simply to claim that if my argument was correct, then the Bible would not be true, but that is not what I am actually arguing. Rather, I am simply pointing out that we have to read the Bible from the point of view of its original readers, and to the original readers, these statements would have been true, even though today we know that they are not strictly speaking accurate.  Further, consistency of interpretive judgments is another hermeneutical principle that creationists often stress, and this interpretation is actually extremely consistent. As I pointed out, the exact same phrase is used in both Deuteronomy and Genesis, yet most creationists interpret it as figurative in Deuteronomy and literal in Genesis, which is extremely inconsistent. Let me use two parallel syllogisms to illustrate this inconsistency:

  1. The Bible clearly says that King Darius contacted all nations: Daniel 6:25 “Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth.”
  2. Modern archeology tells us that he could not possibly have contacted all nations but was actually only in contact with all nations of the “known world” at the time that Daniel was written.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not in error, but this verse was simply written from the viewpoint of its original readers.

There are very few creationists who would challenge that syllogism. Now consider the parallel:

  1. The Bible clearly says that the flood covered the whole earth.
  2. Modern science tells us that it could not possibly have covered the whole earth.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not in error, but this story was simply written from the viewpoint of the original readers.

The two syllogisms are perfectly analogous. Therefore, according to the laws of consistent reasoning, if you accept one of them you must accept both of them.

In addition to the fact that interpreting the flood as a regional event is internally consistent, there is actually evidence in the account itself which suggests that it should not be interpreted as world-wide. First, the Hebrew word for “earth” that is used throughout the passage is “eh’-rets” which can also mean “region” or “country.” So all of those verses that say, “the whole earth” in your English translation may actually have been read as “the whole region” by the original Hebrews. Also, this interpretation is in no way ad hoc, because eh’-rets is translated as “region” or “land” elsewhere in the Bible.

Another clue comes from the fact that Noah was told to use “pitch” on the ark. Answers in Genesis claims that pitch was from tree sap, but getting enough tree sap to cover the ark seems like a truly impossible task. Alternatively, some translations use “bitumen” instead of “pitch.” Bitumen is a petroleum-based product which was historically used by ship builders and is readily available in the Middle East. Thus, it seems more likely that Noah would have used bitumen. This is important because bitumen comes from sedimentary rock, and creationists think that sedimentary rock all formed during the flood. So, the world-wide flood model must be wrong if Noah built the ark by using something that supposedly formed during the flood.

The final piece of evidence comes from an apparent contradiction between Genesis 8:5 and 8:9. Genesis 8:5 says “And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen” (my emphasis), and Genesis 8:9 says, “But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth” (my emphasis). If you want to claim that the flood literally covered the whole earth, then these two verses are extremely problematic, because 8:5 clearly establishes that by this time, there was land that was not underwater, but 8:9 uses the exact same “whole earth” phrase that creationists take literally in every other part of the passage. In this verse, the phrase “whole earth” unequivocally refers to a region, rather than the entire planet, and it is extremely inconsistent to insist that the references to the “whole earth” must be literal everywhere except this one verse. That interpretation violates creationists’ own rules of Biblical interpretation. If, however, you consistently interpret “the whole earth” to mean, “the whole region,” then there is no contradiction.

In summary, there is no reason why the Christian faith and the science of evolution have to conflict with one another. It is entirely possible to interpret the flood account as either a parable or a regional flood, and doing so is completely consistent with how other parts of the Bible are interpreted. Therefore, if you are a creationist who is resistant to evolution because you think that it contradicts your faith, I encourage you accept the possibility that the contradiction is only between science and one interpretation of the Bible, rather than between science and the Bible itself. Similarly, if you are an atheist, agnostic, theistic evolutionist, etc. I encourage you to really familiarize yourself with theological arguments, and when you are talking to creationists, make every effort to avoid attacking their faith (even if you personally strongly disagree with it). Based on my personal experience, you will be far, far more effective if you begin by convincing them that science and their faith can be compatible, rather than assaulting their faith or demeaning their intelligence.

 

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18 Responses to Meeting creationists on their own terms: understanding the Genesis flood

  1. Reblogged this on Primate's Progress and commented:
    Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.

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  2. I reblogged with the comment: Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.

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  3. You’re full of shit: get current, the ancient blither has minimal context

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      You will notice that I have written quite a few posts on the modern science of evolution, and my primary goal is to teach people about science, but sometimes that can’t be done directly. Sometimes you have to talk to people in a way that respects their beliefs, even if you don’t personally agree with them.

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  4. Cleon W. ross says:

    I tend to agree with ron belin. To hell with the tentative agreement that the bible is true. Let’s stick to the truth and let the uninformed believe whatever they wish.

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  5. Science documents without recasting for maybe a day…the chronicled biblical story is shallower than even that

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  6. Forcing minds that will need to process your blither and then theirs on top of that is cruel

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  7. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Flood narrative can be saved from science. The scriptures state that the waters went over the high mountains, that they took birds on board, etc., etc. Reading it like it was meant to those in the audience (only 5 – 15% literate – it was oral to the masses) really strains credibility to make it local. And we know from geology, biogeography, etc. that a global flood is out of the question. On top of that, new DNA genomics findings prove that humans came out of East Africa about 60,000 years ago and not off an ark in the Middle East. The human race had to have AT LEAST 2,500 persons to give rise to our present 7 billion by DNA analysis and not 8 – or a pair. Biola just had a conference about this recently; creationists are really in a tough spot as this DNA data is not going away. Trying to accommodate science and religion just won’t work. At some point the fundamentalist must be left behind as the progress of society continues. What about the more liberal religious? When they are done converting all the OT narratives (talking snakes, talking donkeys, Flood, Adam/Eve, Tower of Babel, etc.) that were meant to explain our world into metaphors and myth they are left with literature, to join Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. Scriptures dissolve into a fog of story telling only. People want theism, not deism. IMO, there is no compatibility with science and religion no matter how we try. And even religion’s epistemology can’t match the record and falsifiable of science.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      As I said, the more parsimonious position is simply to take it as a parable, rather than an actual event. Also, several of your comments seem to be confusing the notion of a regional flood. For example, the fact that the human population has always had at least 2,500 people is irrelevant, because if you consistently read the passage as a regional event, then all of the verses that say “all people” are read as “all people in the region.” So the regional flood argument (as I typically see theistic evolutionists put it forth) does not say that all people descended from Noah’s family. Again, I’m not personally endorsing that view, but I don’t have any real problems with other people believing that, especially if it gets them to accept evolution.

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      • No, the 2,500 minimum number needed to found the present human race comes from DNA genomics data. It’s the minimum number needed to produce the DNA findings we have now so it rules out starting from a pair, or 8 off an ark. This of course strikes out YEC interpretations of origins but not a local flood interpretation as you point out. My arguments against a regional flood from scriptures involves reading Genesis and pointing out that that the YEC interpretation seems the best fit to me – that’s what the authors meant. The problem with TE/CE is that not only does it do poor justice to the original text IMO but it paints God as using evolution to create and that means He was either incompetent (evolution is terribly inefficient and deadly – 99.9+% of all species wasted), indifferent (uses evolution and doesn’t care about all the waste and death, and refuses to intervene – five major extinctions besides all the death and destruction on a daily basis), or malevolent (looks down and enjoys the carnage). TE fails from within by not being consistent with the theology and without via critical thinking and science. I wish there were a way to bring theists into a rational accommodation with science, but I don’t see one. There are of course scientists who are theists (Collins) but they survive what should be significant cognitive dissonance by compartmentalizing and really the twain do not mix despite their claims. I wish there really was a way to accommodate religion and science.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          You’re misunderstanding what I mean about the 2,500 people. I am well aware of the genetic data and agree with it fully. My point is that if the flood actually happened and was regional, then all of the “all the X” verses should be read as “all the region” then the flood would not have killed all people (only all people in that region). So the genetic data is irrelevant because a regional flood would not limit the human gene pool to only 8 individuals (only a world-wide flood would do that).

          Personally, I completely disagree with the notion that a God that uses evolution would be incompetent, etc. In fact, I would argue that if the earth was specially created, a creation that used evolution would be far far better than one without it. A static creation would be immensely boring and inherently unsustainable because species would not be able to adapt. Let me put it this way, which would be more impressive, a normal computer program that only does exactly what it was originally programed to do, or a program that is capable of writing new programs that do countless things that the original program was incapable of? Even so, I would argue that a creation that is capable of evolving into new life forms would be much better than a creation that does not evolve.

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          • Death and suffering appears to be an integral part of evolution. For example, the number of offspring produced that never reach reproductive age. Male lions that take over a pride and then kill all the offspring. Malaria, Ebola? From an evolutionary view, having all the variation for natural selection to work on at the expense of incredible death and suffering is rational. But a loving, designer engineer? The collateral damage to generate one new species is amazing in that context. One might argue for a deistic designer who really does not care about the individual creatures, but just likes His work. But a theistic one? A personal, loving, all knowing and wise God uses this method to create? And theism is what people are interested in, not deism.

            And then this God puts us in a shooting gallery of asteroids and other rocks from space that can wipe us out in an instant. Would a wise, loving God let His children play in the street?

            IMO, theistic evolution does not make sense philosophically or biologically. And if the flood was local, why take birds on board and why the verses that said the waters went over the high mountains? If it’s just a myth, what else is a myth in the bible? Just how I look at the issue. Can a YEC accept the narrative as myth? Hyperbole?

            How long would a program last if it self destructed occasionally, had 90% of it’s output defective or DOA, or produced great products at the expense of producing viruses that attacked everything including itself?

            Great exchanging some thoughts with you. 🙂

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            • Fallacy Man says:

              You certainly make some valid points, and there are plenty of people who agree with you, but I still think that I would personally prefer a world with natural selection in place than a static one that had no death, but also had no change. I see death as simply a means to a greater end. For example, some of the most fantastic features of plants and animals only exist because of natural selection. The octopus changes colors to avoid predators and hunt its prey, which would be unnecessary without death. Conversely, the chameleon changes color to attract a mate or ward of rivals, and both of those tasks would be unnecessary in a static world. So I think that a world without death or selection would be tremendously boring. Granted, that is my opinion and I can’t back it up with any quantitative data (which is why conversations like this are interesting, but ultimately futile), and I am approaching this as a biologist who is utterly enamored with natural selection, so my opinion is clearly biased.

              Regarding your comment about mountains, a regional flood model would again state that it was all the mountains in the region (though you could validly ask how regional could it possibly be if it is covering mountains, although, some translations say “hills” not “mountains”). The birds are a more interesting problem, but I can think of a few potential explanations. One is simply that the notion of a regional flood accepts as a fundamental premise that everything was written to accommodate the knowledge of the people of that time. Thus, verses sound global when they were actually global from the point of view of the original readers. Given that fundamental premise, it would be highly confusing to the people at that time if the birds had simply flown off to some unknown part of the world, but I think that explanation may be bordering on ad hoc. My other guess of how those who think the flood was regional deal with this, would be to state that although it was an actual event, it was still symbolic. Even young earth creationists who take it as word for word literal still argue that it also symbolizes God’s mercy and preservation of his creation even when he would be in his rights to destroy it (or something along those lines). As such, saving all types of animals would complete the symbolism even if it wasn’t strictly necessary. On that note, you can actually expand your question to simply, “why build an ark?” According to the account, it took many years, surely Noah could simply have walked to a region that wouldn’t have been effected by the flood. I know that the symbolism response is a common answer to that question, so I guess it would be internally consistent to also apply that to the birds.

              I will point out that I know plenty of theistic evolutionists who aren’t really troubled with how much of the Bible is literal and how much of it is allegorical. For them, the spiritual concepts are what is important, not the stories themselves, and as long as people don’t hold views that conflict with the science, I’m not really terribly concerned by what they believe.

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  8. Carol says:

    You are rather overlooking the fact that Noah was Unapishtim ie it is highly probable the Jews picked up the myth while in captivity in Babylon…of course creationists will not believe that the Epic of Gilgamesh is older than the BIble as they hold that no civilisation can predate Abraham.
    Pointless arguing with people who can argue with radioactive dating by having god “change the velocity of light to test our faith”

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    • I don’t think Fallacy Man would disagree, but it is, alas, beside the point when discussing things with people who think the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses many centuries before the Babylonian exile.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Paul basically answered this for me, but yes, you are certainly correct that the Jews likely adopted the flood account from other cultures (as is also true of the creation account), but creationists don’t accept that. So I’m not trying to convince anyone that the flood actually occurred, rather I am suggesting that if you are dealing with someone who is convinced that the flood actually occurred, you will have more success convincing them that it was regional (and, therefore, does not conflict with the evidence for evolution) than you will convincing them that it didn’t occur at all.

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  9. Clearly this addresses the nature of the materials sent home, and the possibility of groups such as the Challenger buses who tour schools selling Creationist materials direct to pupils. We are extremely pleased that South Lanarkshire has taken extensive and comprehensive steps to address our concerns and those of the parents in the authority.

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