Evolution, Eden, and the Flood: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 2)

Previously, we discussed the problem of Young Earth Creationists who mistake the creation story of Genesis 1 as historical instead of what it really is. I concluded that Genesis 1 is, in part, an Israelite reflection and modification to the much older Mesopotamian creation epic.

A similar case is true for the Genesis story of the flood. The two Genesis creation stories (chapter 1 and chapters 2-3) are the foundation of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), but the Genesis flood story provides them with a perceived mechanism to explain away evidence that scientists find in geology for evolution and an old earth. Scientific observations in geology leading to an old earth are attributed by Young Earth Creationists to effects of the flood. So the historicity of the Genesis flood story is also essential to Young Earth Creationists.

However, just as the creation story in Genesis 1 seems to reflect the older Mesopotamian creation epic, the Genesis story of the flood seems to reflect the older Mesopotamian flood story. The two flood stories follow the same pattern.

The Flood Story of Utnapishtim

Flood tablet from Gilgamesh - British Museum

Flood tablet from Gilgamesh – British Museum

The story of the flood is told as part of the Gilgamesh Epic. Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim who tells him of his experience in the flood. The full text is available in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969, beginning with page 93. You can also Google Utnapishtim for additional information and analysis if you like. But here is a summary showing a number of similarities with the Genesis flood story:

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Utnapishtim tells how the gods decide to send a flood to destroy humanity. The god Ea, however, warns Utnapishtim and tells him to build a ship and take aboard the ‘seed of all living things’, and Ea gives precise dimensions for the ship. Utnapishtim recruits a labor force for the project, which they complete in seven days. He then brings aboard his family, the animals, and the workmen who built the ship. And the flood ensues.

Utnapishtim tells how, when the rain stops, all of mankind had returned to clay and the landscape was level as a flat roof. The ship finally came to rest on Mount Nisir, and after seven days Utnapishtim sent out a dove; but it came back because there was no resting place. Later he sent out a swallow, which also returned. But when he sent out a raven the waters had diminished and it did not return.

Utnapishtim released everyone from the ship and offered a sacrifice. When the god, Enlil, arrived and saw the ship he was angry. ‘Has some living soul escaped? No man was to survive the destruction.’

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After hearing the story one might ask, ‘So what?’ Well, when my sister and I were very young she was singing a song and I remarked on it. She said she had made up the song, to which I replied that actually someone else had written it. ‘Can’t two people make up the same song?’ she asked. The same words and the same tune?–not likely.

The same is true of the Genesis flood story. It is unlikely that it originated separately from the Mesopotamian flood story. Both stories tell a fictional narrative and neither is historical. The Genesis story seems to be a reflection of the earlier Mesopotamian one.

What about Adam and Eve? Aren’t They Historical?

YEC assumes the Genesis 1 creation story is historical and that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 is historical as well. But this is only an assumption (based on their view of inerrancy) no matter how fiercely Young Earth Creationists insist that it is true. But if it isn’t historical then what is it about?

There are good ideas about this. For example many understand the story of Eden, rather than being an historical narrative about a couple named Adam and Eve, to be about how we all develop from dependence and innocence to maturity and responsibility. I agree. I think it is about the human condition; I can easily imagine a child asking their father as they grow:

Father, why don’t snakes have legs?

Father, why do we have to wear clothes?

Father, why are there so many weeds and thorns when we plant?

Father, why do we work so hard to grow food?

Father, why do people have to leave home when they get married?

Father, why do women have such pain when they have babies?

Father, why can’t everything just be perfect for us?

Father…why do we die?

The story of Eden addresses all these questions. But if a person did not already assume Eden was historical, would they believe a story where a woman is made from a rib, a fruit has magical qualities, God takes evening walks, snakes talk, and cherubs guard the garden with a flaming sword?

Or would they think it was a fable?

Yet inerrantist insist that the Eden story is historical; and not only did it really happen but all the details are inerrantly accurate. I am far from alone in thinking they are mistaken.

What Does It Matter If Adam and Eve are not Historical?

For a literalist-inerrantist creationist it matters a LOT that Adam and Eve are historical. Not only does their inerrancy demand it but without the story’s historicity another foundational plank in their theology is in great jeopardy. We will talk about that next time.

Articles in this series: Evolution and Fundamentalism

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15 Responses to Evolution, Eden, and the Flood: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 2)

  1. ANTHONY PAUL says:

    Thank you, Tim, for another great article on this very interesting subject dealing with the literal nature of The Bible. Strangely enough, my daughter passed on a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh and suggested that I read it, which I am doing right now — she recently taught it to her pre-college students at her high school last semester.

    Like you, I too have come from a somewhat conservative background regarding the nature of Scripture; also like you, I have been steadily moving away from a position which has become difficult to support on any intellectual level. It is my contention that those who choose to see the story of The Garden of Eden as a literal account of creation, unfortunately, fail to see the forest for the trees. A great deal is being revealed to us in this story and, IMHO, the story is true… but not literal or historical in nature.

    My ideas about stories like this one have evolved over a period of years due in no small part to the work of the gifted psychologist, Carl Gustave Jung. He believed that stories such as this one tell us a great deal about who we are AND WHERE WE CAME FROM!!! They are not literally or historically true but they are factual and real in the sense that they are archetypes or original models from which other similar things are patterned. To quote one definition: “Archetypes are the images, patterns, and symbols that rise out of the collective unconscious and appear in dreams, mythology, and fairy tales.” Only a child (a very young one at that) would believe that fairy tales are literally true as events that actually happened at some point in time and space. But, as Jung points out, these fairy tales offer useful insights into the nature of who we are and of our place in a world which can be at times both beautiful and serene or hostile and threatening.

    The bottom line for me is that The Father is telling us, His children, a story… only instead of trying to put us to sleep He is actually awakening us to some very beautiful (although sometimes painful) realities of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anthony, you stated: “Jung…believed that stories such as this one tell us a great deal about who we are AND WHERE WE CAME FROM!!! They are not literally or historically true but they are factual and real in the sense that they are archetypes or original models from which other similar things are patterned.”

      I must agree with this, though other factors are involved as well. These are very useful and powerful stories, and it is true that most people other than very young children recognize them as fairy tales. However, as you know, there are far too many Christians who do not–and that messes up their theology, which then bleeds over into their perspective of the world.

      Like

      • ANTHONY PAUL says:

        ” These are very useful and powerful stories… However, as you know, there are far too many Christians who do not–and that messes up their theology, which then bleeds over into their perspective of the world.”

        Absolutely!! I couldn’t agree with you more. Too many of these same christians are under the false impression that to doubt what the masses have been taught to be literally true amounts to a lack of faith. They can’t seem to grasp the idea that true faith must go through the fire of doubt before it actually becomes a part of our inner being.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          “True faith must go through the fire of doubt before it actually becomes a part of our inner being.” Yes! Otherwise it is not our own faith but someone else’s faith we have adopted.

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  2. Pingback: Evolution and Inerrancy: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 1) | Jesus Without Baggage

  3. I would add that Genesis also sets humanity as an Imager of God, as well forming a correction of the Mesopotamian myth. You see this starkly in several places where YHWH is called the Rider of the Clouds – a title hitherto reserved for Ba’al.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Malcolm, I think this is an important distinction as well. Man created in the image of God is quite a contrast to the Mesopotamian thought that man was created as a labor force so the gods don’t have to do the work. I will be writing on Evolution and the Image of God in a couple weeks; what do you think the image of God means in the creation story?

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  4. recommend you reading Mike Heisers “Unseen Realm” as the manor miles stones through the history involve us being imagers of God and how God pressers on with the plan through Babel etc. I will look up some of his papers. Drop me a private message with your email and I can send them over later today.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Evolution and Original Sin: How Calvin’s ‘Original Sin’ Falls Apart | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Pingback: Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God? | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. Pingback: Evolution and Homophobia: How We Are ‘Created’ LGBT and Straight | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. hi Tim, re Genesis and image – I agree with Heiser who says its better to say “imager” ie one who projects the image of God. For us, per Genesis we are here on earth to be earthly imagers of God in contract to the heavenly host who are the “heavenly” imagers of God in the unseen realm.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Evolution and Young Earth Creationism (YEC): 4 Invalid YEC Claims Against Evolutionary Science | Jesus Without Baggage

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