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
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:
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.’
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
- Evolution and Inerrancy: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 1)
- Evolution, Eden, and the Flood: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 2)
- Evolution and Original Sin: How Calvin’s TULIP Falls Apart
- Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God?