Darren Aronofsky's new movie Noah hits theaters on March 28, 2014. Early screenings question Aronofsky's decisions to create a nemesis for Noah, to throw in 6-arm angelic beasts, and to heighten Noah's environmentalist concerns. These script elements that go off-Scripture may lose traditional religious audiences.

I, for one, have found the epic feel of the trailers released so far to be intriguing. Turning a Sunday School story often geared toward children into a CGI-enhanced epic with the tumultuous emotions and decisions of each character embodied by world-class actors is quite a feat.

As I watched the trailers and spoke with a media company representative about the film location in Oyster Bay New York and Iceland, I had no concerns about a cheesy religious film. I'm pumped to see Aronofsky create narrative elements for his portrayal of Noah the environmentalist gladiator. My concern is the historical context. That is my speciality as a biblical historian. So I thought I'd write a few blogs on the historical context of Genesis 6-11 to share what Hebrew and Sumerian scholars have learned about the ancient flood and Tower of Babel stories. No surprise, much of what is still taught in churches and children's Bibles has been updated through recent research.

No surprise, much of what is still taught in churches and children's Bibles has been updated through recent research.
New York and Iceland Don't Look Like Mesopotamia

The early stories of Genesis 1-12 take place in ancient Mesopotamia. This land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers attracted people with its ample water supply and annually flooded plains full of fertile silted farmlands. Seasonal rains up to 10 inches, annual run-off from northern mountains and a warm climate typically ranging between 60-85 degrees birthed one of the first great human civilizations. Back in 3,000 B.C. the Persian Gulf extended further inland than it does today regulating temps and providing a beach. Life was pretty good if you liked living on flat plains. If you happen to be a mountain person or didn't like the constant threat of floods saturating the entire land, it wasn't the best place.

If Noah built a boat in that context, the lush green forested shores of Oyster Bay and the hills and mountains in Iceland don't capture this geographical context very well. So should Aronofsky be critiqued for filming in Iceland and New York instead of Iraq?

Picking the right "land" does matter

To answer the question about geographic location, we must first strip all the references to "earth" (Hebrew eretz) in Genesis 6-9 of their universal meaning. The predominant meaning of the Hebrew word eretz is land all throughout Genesis (read more here). In the verses before and after the flood story in Genesis 2:10-13:15, every reference to eretz refers to a limited geographic region, except generic references to land as opposed to sea or sky in Gen 10:32 and 12:3: for example, the "land of Cush" (Gen 2:13), the "land of Nod" (Gen 4:16), "separated into their lands" (Gen 10:5), and "the land of Shinar" (Gen 10:10). Therefore, we must pay close attention to the perspective of the author and not the misleading translation of eretz as "earth" to determine the scope of the flood in Genesis 6-9. The Hebrew language actually has a clear term for the entire inhabited earth, tebel, which is found 37 times in the Old Testament. But not in Genesis 6-9. 

So where is Noah's land that got flooded?

One geographical marker for the flood story is found by looking backwards from the next narrative in Genesis. Genesis 11:2 begins the Tower of Babel story by saying, "It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there." This indicates the flood might have occurred to the west of ancient Shinar, (i.e., ancient Sumeria) in Mesopotamia. We do know from archaeological evidence that a migration occurred southeast beginning around 5,000 B.C. down into Mesopotamia. 

Where did the people come from? Now that has a more interesting answer than most ancient migration questions I've asked.
Ancient Flooding of Land North of Mesopotamia

The period before the migration into Mesopotamia, generally from 15,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C., witnessed dynamic weather conditions and water level changes. The last major ice age was ending. Glaciers, like the one across western Russia, were melting. Sea levels were rising. Torrential rainstorms were fueled by warmer temps picking up more evaporating water in rain clouds. The face of the planet was changing.

The land north and west of Mesopotamia experienced extreme geographic changes. Geological and fossil evidence indicates the Caspian Sea swelled to over three times its size during different climate and flood periods. Similarly, flat land good for farming next to the Black Sea turned into the bottom of the sea as the shore expanded 24 miles. Ancient inhabitants were flooded off farms all over the place as shorelines expanded.

Did Noah Live By the Black Sea?

Two scholars from Columbia University dug up evidence of a major flood right before the migration into Mesopotamia mentioned in Genesis 11:2. Based on geological and fossil evidence, Walter Pitman and William Ryan reconstructed a time when the Black Sea changed from a smaller freshwater lake to a flooded Sea full of swelling ocean water. The speed of the flood is uncertain, but the water rose about 500 feet some time between 5600-5100 B.C.

PBS, ABC, FOX and National Geographic have all explored the theory of Noah's flood story recalling the Black Sea flood. Pitman and Ryan published it in a 1998 book Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History. Underwater archaeologist Bob Ballard attempted to test the theory and discovered an ancient shoreline in the Black Sea dating to around 5500-5000 B.C. His finding supports the theory that over 150,000 kilometers of land flooded around that time. How? The rising Mediterranean Sea breached a sill and rushed over land creating the Bosporus Strait, in a relatively sudden and permanent event. Storms, lightning, earthquakes and other geophysical disturbances accompanied the catastrophe. Such an event would have created the type of devastation witnessed in Southeast Asian coastal communities during the 2004 Tsunami.

If Genesis 11:2 tells us we should look west of ancient Mesopotamia for a major flood around 5,000 B.C., then the Black Sea deluge around 5,500 B.C. is a good candidate for the historical events behind Noah's flood story. In this scenario, Noah may have been familiar with boat-building since he lived in a coastal village. 

This theory does require localizing one's interpretation of the flood. It would mean "all the land" in Noah's experienced world was flooded, and he preserved the types of animals living in that region--a sensible move since they could provide his livelihood. It also requires reading the story through the storyteller's perspective. The language about "covering all the land" would be a localized hyperbole better translated as "tons of land was flooded as far as I could see."

This theory has been challenged by other geologists and archaeologists (not to mention young earth creationists who don't like changing the classic children's story), and I am in no position to make an expert judgment about geological observations. International geologists don't even agree on the timing, severity, size or direction of the Black Sea flood. A massive volume of papers were published in a 2006 book The Black Sea Flood Question to facilitate an international assimilation of data. The data revealed periods where water flowed into the Black Sea and out of the Black Sea and even between the Caspian and Black Seas. No singular linear progression in one direction occurred throughout the last 20,000 years. However, the Black Sea rise around 5600-5100 B.C. remains likely. 

If this theory holds water (ha ha, I couldn't resist!) and reflects the historical event behind Noah's flood story, the Oyster Bay shore in New York with its lush green forested ecosystem and the hills and mountains of Iceland are a good backdrop for the film. There are reasonable similarities to the ancient fertile forested lands surrounded by mountains in the Black Sea region (see photo of farm lands around the mountains of Ararat below just east of the Black Sea). If the evidence did support the Black Sea flood as Noah's flood, I'd congratulate Aronofsky for well-chosen film locations.

Ancient Mesopotamian flood stories

Biologos points out, "Conflicts with the Black Sea explanation do exist, however. For example, 5500 B.C. is too early for Noah to have used metal tools to create the ark, and the location of the Black Sea does not fit the Sumerian and Babylonian accounts of the flood, which strongly suggest that it took place in Mesopotamia." The striking similarities among the Hebrew, Babylonian and Sumerian accounts of the flood do suggest the other stories can add helpful details about the location of the historical flood.

The Sumerian King List orients all Sumerian history in relation to the great flood. According to the ancient list, the Sumerian King Ziusudra (translated "Noah") reigned during the great flood and escaped on a boat. He lived in the Mesopotamian city of Shuruppak and roughly dates to c. 2850 B.C. Should we trust this alternate historical record?

Archaeologists have dug up deposits in three locations (Shuruppak, Uruk, and Kish) of a significant Mesopotamian flood around this time. These ancient Sumerian cities are all located in the low-lying basin between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Excessive rains, run-off from the northern mountains, tidal waves, or a combination of these events could all create the hazardous flood conditions of the Hebrew, Babylonian and Sumerian flood accounts. But is that enough evidence to locate the flood in Mesopotamia?
The Details Matter: Ararat, olives and cubits

One significant difference between the facts of the flood story in the Sumerian record and Genesis is the boat landing site. The Sumerian story has Noah landing on top of an ancient Sumerian temple, a ziggurat, to offer a sacrifice in the middle of the river flood. The Babylonian story lands the boat on Mount Nimush (Nisir) in a mountain range north of Mesopotamia. Genesis vaguely puts the boat landing in the "mountains of Ararat." 

The plural Hebrew phrase refers to the range of mountains extending from the Black Sea all the way down the northern boundary of Mesopotamia into Iran. It's an imprecise location. Those who mistakenly associate the mountain range with the singular "mountain of Ararat" in present-day Armenia tend to favor a Black/Caspian Sea theory for Noah's flood or require a Tidal wave to push the boat northwest out of Mesopotamia. If, however, the plural Hebrew phrase is interpreted correctly as a long mountain range, the flood still could have occurred in the present-day Persian Gulf region with the boat landing in the mountains of present-day Iran. Still, neither technical interpretation of the "mountains of Ararat" is advisable. Since the "mountains of Ararat" were generally known as the highest mountains in the known world at that point, the story is simply trying to emphasize the height and extent of the flood. It need imply nothing more than the boat came to rest on the higher ground on the northern side of the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

Don't believe me? Think about the olive branch in Noah's flood story. Olives do not grow above 5,000 feet of elevation. However, all the traditional mountain sites for the ark's landing in the ancient Ararat range stand thousands of feet higher than that (mount Ararat itself, mount Cudi, and mount Nisir). So Noah could not land on a high mountain and send out birds for an olive branch. If there is any veracity to this element of the story found in both the Hebrew and Babylonian stories, the boat must land at a lower elevation in a sub-tropical climate where Olive trees thrive. Who knew that is exactly what we had in Mesopotamia where olives were grown in antiquity.

Changing one's perception from a global flood to a local flood in a low-lying basin between two rivers in present-day Iraq can seem irresponsible. What do you do with Genesis 7:20, "The water prevailed fifteen cubits 
higher, and the mountains were covered"? Good question. Easy answer. The Hebrew word ma‛al, often translated "higher" simply means "upward." So the text is saying the flood increased water levels at least 15 cubits (~22 feet) deep. This doesn't mean the waters rose no higher, but rather this is likely the greatest depth measurable using the ancient practice of a navigation pole. Who knows how much higher the actual depths were measured at different locations.

And what about covering all the mountains? The Hebrew word har, typically translated mountain in Genesis 6-9, refers most often to hills rather than mountains in the Bible. With the limited elevation change in the Mesopotamian basin, all the "hills" in the vicinity could be covered with a flood not much higher than 15 cubits. With a proper understanding of the Hebrew language, Genesis 7:20 should more clearly read, "The waters rose up at least 22 feet and covered the hills." Measuring depth with a stick was a normal practice of boat navigation on rivers. Just like sending out birds to collect items from land is a common and ancient navigation practice.

He Should Have Filmed in a Flood Plain

All this to say, sorry Aronofsky. You chose the wrong film location. The land should be flat. Lush rolling hills forested with trees doesn't fit. I haven't seen the film yet, but I can see in the trailer a giant mountain located directly behind the location the ark is built. Of course, since you based the film on your graphic novel rather than a historical portrait of Noah, I'll still go see the film.

With that question answered, I will move on to blog #2: Does the message of Aronofsky's Noah move match the meaning of the Genesis 6-9 flood story?



12/19/2013 4:24pm

But a 22ft flood would kill next to no one, certainly not the billions of people estimated to populate the Earth pre-Flood. Even people living in the valley wouldn't need a boat to survive it. And Noah wouldn't send out a bird to check water levels. He could just look across the valley to the mountain range that would be still uncovered. It took Noah more than 50 years to build the darn thing. Why wouldn't God just tell him to move on up the mountains? Your answer leaves a lot of questions remaining... thoughts?

12/23/2013 9:07pm

The only estimate I've seen in the Atlas of World Population History puts the number of people on the planet in 3000 B.C. around 14 million. But that number isn't relevant to Noah's story since it is told about his perceived world in the land of Mesopotamia. Remember this major flood in Mesopotamia left such a gigantic impression on its inhabitants that they divided all of time up into the pre-flood era and post-flood era in the extant Sumerian king list. The comments in Genesis 6-9 about hills and tall hills being covered up as far as Noah could see reflect the perspective of the storyteller focused on his immediate surroundings submerging completely. Distant northern mountains that my or may not have been visible possibly 50 miles away in rugged, stormy weather takes the perspective off of the fertile basin between the Tigris and Euphrates. Such hyperbole that actually represents the limited worldview of the narrator can be seen throughout the Bible. Acts 2:5 claims that "Jews from every nation under heaven" gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Were there Jews living among the Aztecs or Chinese at the time? Of course not. The all-encompassing statements should not be read as emotionless statements of scientific fact but rather general impressions of the narrator or orator of the story. The same with Noah. He navigated the biggest flood in Mesopotamian history that left countless dead. He navigated it with an utterless boat using ancient techniques like long sticks for navigation and use of birds for finding dry land.

As to your last question about "why wouldn't God do it differently," I don't think we can get anywhere on that question even though you could ask it of any event in the Bible, or in life for that matter. Isaiah 55:10 might be a good reference point when we start asking that question. I myself focus not on why didn't God do things differently but rather what do we learn when we actually understand what happened. More on that for Noah's story in the next blog.

12/20/2013 1:18pm

So it took from the seventeenth day of the second month until the first day of the tenth month for a localized flood to subside sufficiently for the tops of the "hills" to become visible? The description of the destruction involved in the Genesis account would be horribly over dramatic for a flood they could have fled from on foot given a hundred years to do it.

12/23/2013 10:28pm

I love questions about the precise dates mentioned in the flood story. But first lets get the timeline clear. The waters rose steadily for the first 150 days from the 17th day of the 2nd month to the 17th day of the 7th month (30 days in each month of this lunar calendar system). That's when the ark reportedly ran into higher ground associated with the northern mountain range (Genesis 8:3b-4). The waters then receded thereafter until Noah could see the tops of hills in his Mesopotamian homeland to the south. So even if the timeline is intended to contain scientific accuracy, the scenario is more plausible than you first suspected (though we must be careful with reading too much into the actual amount of time in the story since one of our earliest versions of Genesis in the Septuagint has different dates making the whole story occur in one year's span without the additional 57 days recorded in the older Hebrew texts we more commonly use for translating this story).

The specific dates in the story should be analyzed for their theological significance more so than their chronological insight. For example, the 17th day of the 2nd month is when The Book of Jubilees has Adam entering the garden God created for him (Jubilees 3:9). What is the significance? The flood is a direct reversal of the good world God created for Adam. It is a total restart for creation. Human beings, animals of all types, and the land with all its vegetation separated by God from the great seas are being undone, destroyed and disordered. Of course, Genesis 6-9 doesn't actually mean the destruction of all people (think Noah and his family in this region) or all animals (think the inhabitants of the ark here) or all the earth's dry ground (think about all the indicators for a local flood here). But it does signify a new creation. In fact, our best analysis of these ancient Jewish dates suggest the announcement and initiation of the flood happen on Sunday, the same day God started his first creation in Genesis 1.

As to the latter part of your question, when you wonder if the language of Genesis 6-9 is "over dramatic" for a local flood, it is good to remember the ultimate significance of the flood in Genesis is not its size (though it was big enough to split all of Sumerian history into pre-flood and post-flood eras in the ancient Sumerian king list) but its restart of creation. Noah's story was passed down with dates connecting it to the first creation story. In fact. The entire sequence of restoration after the flood in Genesis 8 parallels key elements in the creation pattern of Genesis 1. Rebooting God's dream for humanity is a very dramatic act, even for a local flood that changed the known world of Mesopotamia.

12/24/2013 9:22am

The waters prevailed, overwhelmed or even swelled for 150 days, (depending upon translation). The swelling does not have to be a continual rising but the wave activity of a worldwide flood would create incredible swelling of the water. Without additional rain and the fountains of the deep closed up it would be hard to explain 110 days of increasing water even if this was a collecting area in a local flood. IIPeter 2:5 says this flood destroyed the old Cosmos numbering only 8 survivors. A local flood would have a hard time achieving the depth we are talking about but if it could it would be very difficult to maintain that depth for even an additional 40 days to remain so high as to cover the hills. It's a good point you bring up about the theological significance of the dates, "The flood is a direct reversal of the good world God created for Adam. It is a total restart for creation. Human beings, animals of all types, and the land with all its vegetation separated by God from the great seas are being undone, destroyed and disordered. "" You go on to say, although this is the theological significance it is not really what it means but simply a small scale display. I think your first explanation is sufficient and accurately describes the situation consistently from both Old and New Testament accounts.
The flood stories in so many if not all the ancient cultures of the world are more easily understood if we believe a universal flood account because every culture would have its origin from that point. To spread these accounts all over the world's cultures from a singular Sumerian flood would mean every remote culture (The Americas for example) would have somehow had to have heard the Sumerian account. Not as likely if there were as you say 14 million inhabitants on earth scattered in regions separated without means of communication. Universal flood geology does a good job of accounting for the massive animal fossil graveyards the production of coal and oil the massive chalk beds and water laid rock at every elevation on the earth and it is consistent with what the Bible says and implies. II Peter 3 implies men can disregard a future judgment by fire because they have forgotten that the cosmos was once destroyed by water.
I have not heard what the fountains of the deep are in the Sumerian plain. I've never looked into it. Mainly because there seems to be no need to conclude Noah's flood had to be local.

12/25/2013 6:10am

Water runs to the lowest place. If water was increasing for 150 days in Sumeria it means there was deeper water somewhere else flowing to that region or the origins of all the water was Sumeria. That means the fountains of the deep should be located in that region. Even if they are it is untenable that the water would have remained above the "hills" for 40 more days after the 150 days of increase from the fountains. If this was just local the water would run off quickly because water runs to the lowest place, both physically and spiritually. May we learn of Him Who is meek and lowly of heart. Merry Christmas!!!!

12/27/2013 2:15pm

I don't see much progress made in any discussion of the flood by focusing on where the water came from and where it went since so many explanations are plausible. A local flood in Mesopotamia is no different. The slow decrease in the waters after the flood reached its highest point could easily be explained by the continuing run off from the northern mountains that drained into the basin and the silt build up that narrowed the path between Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. To see how the southern drainage path shrunk around this time, check out the "pinch effect" described by the Arch Atlas http://www.archatlas.org/EnvironmentalChange/EnvironmentalChange.php.

Of course, meteorological and geographical plausibility does not make or break the case. Proper historical interpretation must always account for more of the data than any other explanation to win the day. Hence all the details in my blog above about the Ararat mountain range, olive tree growth elevation, Sumerian king lists, Babylonian flood stories, Hebrew words like eretz and har, the use of eretz instead of rebel, ancient navigation techniques, etc. And this is an abbreviated set of data with many elements left out to keep the blog length somewhat reasonable.

In your last 2 comments, you referred to the location and opened/closed state of the "fountains of the deep." It is important to remember the expression "fountains of the deep" reflects an ancient cosmology found throughout the Bible. For a full description of how ancient near Eastern folks viewed the land, the subterranean abyss, waters and heavens, go to http://www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/gre13.htm. Biblical writers (see Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Genesis, etc.) believed the land was a disc sitting on top of a primeval ocean that could breakthrough from below. Likewise, they imagined a barrier in the sky propped up by God with windows where the rain could fall through. When Genesis 7-8 speaks of the "fountains of the deep," we should not attempt to locate specific holes in the earth from which water shot up. (FYI, Aronofsky actually portrays such ancient cosmology in his global flood in the movie.) In actuality, the "fountains of the great deep" and the "floodgates of the sky" in Genesis 7:11 simply reflect an ancient understanding of where the water resided that originally covered a void and formless world depicted in Genesis 1:2. They reflect a belief that God made order where chaos existed before and maintains that order to preserve life. But the deep fountains and heavenly floodgates of ancient Hebrew cosmology don't help identify a location. Using those expressions is an ancient way of saying the rivers and the oceans swelled or the rain was heavy.

12/28/2013 8:54am

While eretz can surely mean land, as it is used commonly today by Jews who return to Israel, it is also used in Genesis 1:1 with the strong implication it means world, earth (not just He made the heavens and one geographical area.) N.T. references by Peter using Cosmos could easily be interpreted world.
The bird let out that brought back the olive branch had wings. If it was a lizard I would say the elevation would be significant. The bird came back in the evening implying a long day.
The Sumerian kings list could be seen as even a little bit "hokie" with the names of animals after the deluge and little or no archaeological evidence for their existence. The reign of ante-deluvian kings in the 28,000 year range?
A present day rainstorm given the atmosphere we now have would be hard pressed to come up with a mountaintopping local flood. It seems the atmosphere was much different. Why not a firmament like the Bible says. The BIble doesn't say what it was just that it kept waters above. "Subterranean waters" does not have to be imaginary we have many today, very limited, but if the flood was a massive relocation from under the earth to upon the earth it would account for the radical flood conditions. If there was a worldwide flood many conditions would have changed. Immediately in the scriptures one of the changes is life span. Of course I have a feeling that you will tell me the ages were just ways of saying something other than years lived. But if there was a change in the firmament, that could have radically changed earth conditions from those of the "world that was" before the flood making a harder environment to live in.
The problem we are running into is that what you see as credible are only those things that line up with your extra-biblical studies, but even in that, you changed the interpretation of the theological significance of the flood to mean just a local version of the restart of creation. There are many other flood accounts worldwide. And the rainbow is simply a nice story unrelated to a promise of God if the flood was local because our town has been flooded twice in the last 6 years.
Why shouldn't we try to locate places where the water came up from beneath, because you have concluded it is simply allegorical. There are some pretty good explanations on that topic if we have a worldwide flood. I understand terms in the Bible such as all, like in Nebuchadnezzar's rule of the all nations or every nation just going by memory right now, at times does not mean every or all everywhere, but the language must be interpreted in context and if all can fit then it is still a possibility that it really means all or every. Because there are exceptions does not mean every use must be interpreted that way. Well I know it can effect ones intellectual reputation to believe some of these Biblical accounts, but I don't think we have to immediately go with the alternative explanations to save face. The Sumerian king's list seems to be reliable to some just because its not in the Bible. If it were in the Bible its veracity would be severely questioned. Happy New Year!!!

12/26/2013 8:01am

I gotta say, my scriptural and scientific understanding of the Flood account has been a lot more in line with Ed's arguments than with the idea of a local event. One other inconsistency if the flood were local is God's promise never to do it again, punctuated by the rainbow. Regardless of your beliefs surrounding the creation of rainbows, did God promise never to flood the whole Earth again? If so and if the event were local, God breaks that promise every year, several times a year. Clearly God doesn't break his promises, so what did he promise?

12/29/2013 12:43pm

Etienne - See my comments below leading up to the final paragraphs that answer your very important question about God's faithfulness to his promise to Noah's descendants in Mesopotamia recorded in Genesis 9

12/29/2013 5:31pm

Ed -

Our conversation maxed out the permitted length for a single comment string so I will add one new and final response here. You can have the last word if you choose, but I must return to further writing and teaching preparations.

The Hebrew word eretz can mean a conglomerate of many lands and not just one geo-political entity just as it can be isolated to one specific geographic region (examples provided above). So we both know mentioning one use in Genesis that has a larger or smaller referent doesn’t help us understand the meaning in the flood story. We must look at the use of eretz before and after Genesis 6-9 and indicators of which possible meaning is the correct one in Genesis 6-9. In Genesis 2:5-13:15, 35 of 37 uses of eretz refer to a limited geographic region. In Genesis 2-11, both the setting of the garden story in Genesis 2 (note the Tigris and Euphrates river running into the garden in Genesis 2:14) and the tower story of Genesis 11 (“land of Shinar” in Genesis 11:2) take place in lower Mesopotamia. If you take into account Cain farming the land (Gensis 4:2) and his descendant Enoch building a city (Genesis 4:17), then the time frame has moved up to at least the 4th millennium BC when cities and agriculture started in Mesopotamia. The “Professions list” of Gen. 4:19–22 (Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain) brings the stories into the time frame of about 3300–3100 BC. All these contextual markers make the land of lower Mesopotamia around the year 3000 BC the place and time to locate the flood story. That’s where and when we find the major flood of Mesopotamia in the archaeological and geological evidence.

If you look at the oldest map of “the world” produced in Mesopotamia, it matches the same type of world described in Genesis 10. So it is instructive for understanding the view of “the world” reflected in Genesis 6-9. That map basically puts mesopotamia at the center of the disc of land surrounded by oceans. Ancient inhabitants of this land did not conceive of a globe with other continents. The “entire world” in ancient Mesopotamia was not much more than Mesopotamia itself. So although it is different than our 21st century global perspective, the normal interpretation of a story from Mesopotamia in the 3rd Millennium BC would be associating all encompassing language about events on the land to refer to land of Mesopotamia itself.

The reason the Sumerian King List and the Atrahasis Epic and Epic of Gilgamesh are instructive for the biblical flood story are the parallels. The Epic of Gilgamesh has 17 detailed parallels to the biblical flood story. A couple hundred flood stories found in cultures around the world may talk about big floods and various vessels built to withstand them, but only the Mesopotamian flood stories have a multiplicity of detailed parallels providing evidence of a common referent. The other flood stories point to nothing more than the prevalence of flooding throughout the historical period.

Your critique of the Sumerian King List (“SKL”) for its long reigns and “hokie" names suggests it would be valuable to say a few words about the content and creation of that document. The SKL has multiple versions depicting different lengths of time for each king’s reign. Source-critical scholars have determined the oldest version of the SKL and the way in which the long reigns should be understood historically. First, pre-flood (or ante-diluvian) kings represent kingships located at different Mesopotamian cities overlapping in time. So it is a mistake to think of a successive generations of kings all at the same location. Numerical parallels have also been demonstrated between the 8 antediluvian kings in the SKL and the 8 patriarchs listed between Adam and Noah in Genesis 5 (see John Walton’s argument for a common tradition). These parallels provide one more reason beyond the references to a Mesopotamian flood that the SKL should inform our understanding of this section of Genesis.

The oldest SKL version does have reigns as long as 36,000 and 28,800 years. These reigns have been exaggerated through the use of ancient Mesopotamian sexigesimal math. Sumerians and then Babylonians used a 60-base numerical system (“sexigesimal” systems favor 6, 60, 600, etc.) rather than our decimal numerical system with a 10-base (10, 100, 1000, etc.). The sexigesimal system is responsible for our 60-second minutes and 60-minute hours. To get to the point, the reigns of the antediluvian kings in the SKL are all multiplied by 60 squared. So if you divide each reign by 3600, you get back to a more accurate historical reign—a calculation method the Greek historian Berossus still knew a couple thousand years later when he recorded their reigns. (to be continued)

12/29/2013 5:33pm

The 6, 60, 600, and 60 squared numbers held the same sense of completeness and perfection as 7 and its multiples held for Israel. The creator of SKL was making a statement about the grandeur and status of these pre-flood kings when he multiplied their reigns by 60 squared. It is the same symbolic message in the biblical flood story when Noah is said to be 600 years old at the beginning of the flood (Genesis 7:6). 600 years old is an ancient numerological way of saying he was a great and righteous man, just as Genesis 6:9 explains explicitly. Much more can be said on this topic, but I’ll leave it there and let anyone interested continue reading elsewhere about ancient Mesopotamian numerical systems and significance.

As you can see from these comments, I do not pursue an allegorical interpretation nor do I dismiss biblical data for extra-biblical data. My goal as an interpreter is to account for all the data. It is to interpret the language of the Bible within the cultural context of those who passed it down to us. It requires gathering data from all available sources and working hard to interpret each data point in its proper context and with its proper intended meaning. Regardless of what it does to one’s reputation, the best explanation to pursue is where the most evidence leads. It is not a matter of “believing” or not “believing” the biblical accounts as you imply. It is not a matter of “saving face” with certain intellectual societies. It is a matter of getting to the truth, of testing claims against the evidence and rigorously doing the work of an historian to handle data properly.

Effective communication requires the reader/hearer to share knowledge of the same assumed context as the writer/speaker. Understanding ancient cosmology where deep oceans were a scary mystery and heavy rains fell mysteriously from an unexplored sky above helps us interpret the intended meaning of ancient stories. A tidal surge from changing ocean levels and/or tsunamis combined with a monsoon season following a long drought would plausibly account for a hill-topping flood across the Tigris-Euphrates plain now preserved in geological layers excavated at 3 cities in Mesopotamia. Such a flood that destroyed the entire world as Noah knew it around 2900 BC was an earth-shattering, world-ending event that would have struck fear about future annihilations. The world as Noah knew it in the geographic location where God orchestrated all the events in Genesis 1-11 did restart the created order in Mesopotamia (FYI, I will dive deeper into that message in a future blog post). Understanding the historical time and location of this great flood does not change the theological significance of the flood, unless one insists on anachronistically reading a global, modern and ethnocentric perspective back into the flood story. God did promise never to wipe out Noah and his descendants in that land again (Genesis 9:9-11). And he faithfully fulfilled that promise. There is no biblical or extrabiblical evidence of another great Mesopotamian flood that destroyed all the people and animals there. God protected the Tigris-Euphrates basin from another flood, and Shem’s line continued until Abram met God in Ur of ancient Sumeria and left for the promised land in Canaan. God was faithful to his covenant promise.

When you understand God was speaking directly to Noah and not to us, that he was addressing the fear in Mesopotamia of great floods, and that he remained faithful to that promise to Noah’s descendants in ancient Sumeria, then comments about local floods in your town or in India become irrelevant (anachronistic and ethnocentric as stated above). The covenant was made with Noah’s descendants who inhabited that land. It is difficult to embrace this interpretation, I know. It requires humility and a mindset shift. God engaged uniquely with people in times long ago. God said and did many things to reveal himself to people like Noah that are not meant for us to read as direct statements or promises to those of us living outside the ancient world of Mesopotamia. Reading our situation into the ancient period when Noah’s descendants leading up to Abram lived in Sumeria is misinterpretation. It is an understandable mistake, but nonetheless over-extends God’s promise with an unbiblical meaning. If we can respect and honor God’s unique interaction with people throughout ancient history and take ourselves out of the ethnocentric position of having every word meant directly for our ears and temporal location, then we can embrace the overwhelming data for this interpretation of the historical events and theological significance of the flood in Genesis 6-9. The flood was local. God was faithful. And the latter message reveals God’s faithful character to readers of all time.

12/30/2013 9:20am

Since Noah was 600 years old and is described as a righteous man it is only logical that 600 would take on that significance in the ancient world the significance of such numbers is usually not born in a vacuum, but adopted from a historical reality. Its the chicken or the egg argument, I guess.Noah's life could have very well been the benchmark for giving that number such significance. The Bible then records he lived another 350 years totaling 950.
After the flood the numbers definitely seem to be in accordance with present day understanding did the understanding regarding the use of numbers change after the flood or was there a significant decline in life expectancy. There is not a clear separation since Noah went on to live 350 years but the new life expectancy dropped to 120. The numbers overlap. Are some of the numbers than allegorical but the ones that pertain to 120 years literal?
It's been 35 years since I've looked at the various flood accounts but from what I remember out of the ones I read, the Hebrew account was the only one that had the vessel landing outside of its homeland, the mountains of Ararat. The others somehow had the boat landing in their home region. It seems the majority of these if not all probably adapted the original account to fit their cultural setting and explain why they are located in their homeland. It seems very unlikely that cultures in the Americas or other distant lands would find it necessary to adopt a version of the local Sumerian flood and put it in their history. Are you saying the world's people groups did originate from the migration of Sumerians after the flood episode? Or distant pre-existent cultures adopted the flood account into their olcal history?
There is evidence of flood geology, not only in Mesopotamia, but worldwide so flood geology in Mesopotamia in itself does not necessitate that we conclude there was a local flood. It could have been part of a larger event. Tsunamis and events like that could certainly explain a collection of water in a region, but still could not explain a collection of water remaining above the mountain tops for a month.
I noticed a sensitivity on your part to defend the veracity of the Sumerian account even with its variant readings. I feel the same way about the Biblical account even with its variant manuscripts.
You are right. It would take humility to change my belief on the flood account. I hope that I would have it. I have changed a number of my Biblical interpretations over the past 40 years. I just don't see sufficient reason to do so with the flood account.
In your view who was on the boat. Was it Noah? Or is the Biblical account just an adaptation of the more geographically reliable Sumerian account.
I really don't have to read my situation into the text of Genesis 6-9 to conclude the flood was greater than local. I went back to read the text and in teh simple reading of the text the descriptions are so all-inclusive, it would be hard to imagine we needed to conclude it was a local flood, especially in view of the extensive genealogies that follow, explaining the migration and civilization of the various post flood people groups.
It seems God took the significance of the flood event out of just Noah's individual situation by bringing in the significance of the rainbow. Although I do not deny God can be extravagant in His display of honor and affection. The rainbow's significance seems to be a bigger message.
You have declared the flood was local. Peter declares it destroyed the world that was. Is the coming judgment of the present heaavens and "earth", that Peter describes, also a local judgment upon the land (Mesopotamia, Israel)?
Thanks for giving me your time. Have a happy New Year! I do pray for God's blessing on you and your family!!!


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