8

The most common debate about Noah's flood is whether the flood was global or local. I want to put this particular debate aside for a moment, and ask a different question: Did the flood happen at all?

Reading the views of many (often atheists, sometimes local-flood proponents), there seems to be a pretty strong scientific case against a global flood. However, as I read about this view, I have to wonder: Wouldn't (at least according to the skeptics) a flood of sufficient scope to threaten the existence of any given animal species also suffer from most of the scientific problems associated with a global flood?

And if there were a flood of limited enough scope that some species' existence were not threatened, why not just send Noah and his family across some mountain to escape the local flood?

So this makes me wonder if there is a Christian theological model in which the flood, or at least the ark, is non-literal.

I realize there might me more than one competing model, so I'm just asking for one. Does such a model exist? If so, please point me to whomever has proposed it.

I imagine that such a model would include either or both of the following tenets, but please don't limit answers to these if there is some other approach to the theory that I have not considered:

  • Noah and his family escaped the flood by some means less drastic or miraculous than a boat, and the boat and animal rescue was added by later generations or authors as an embellishment to the story.

  • Noah and his family never existed, the world was never flooded as God's judgement, and the story is a non-real myth, meant to make a point about something other than history.

  • 1
    I would suggest checking out my answer to another user here on the site. Although the question is somewhat different, it still provides a general overview of a certain denomination's (Catholicism specifically) own approach to interpretation of Scripture. The subject, like this question, is about the flood. christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/44006/… – Jecko Oct 4 '15 at 21:39
  • so, out of curiousity, what are the "scientific problems associated with a global flood"? For example the question on where the water may have went can well be answered by the answers and comments to this question. – x457812 May 31 '17 at 22:23
4

Yes, there is a Christian theological model for a non-literal ark. Such a model is provided and developed in great detail by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) in his massive work Secrets of Heaven, originally published in eight Latin volumes in London, 1749-1756.

In Secrets of Heaven #554-1059 Swedenborg offers a verse-by-verse spiritual exegesis of the Flood story in Genesis 6:1-9:17.

The symbolic nature of the early chapters of Genesis

Swedenborg interprets the characters and events of the first ten or eleven chapters of Genesis as referring, not to literal events of actual historical human beings, but rather as symbolic or "correspondential" accounts of whole races and generations of early humans. In his interpretation, Adam and Eve, for example, do not refer to two human individuals named "Adam" and "Eve," but rather to an early culture of human beings. They represent the first beings on earth who were both physically human and had a developed spiritual awareness of God and heaven.

The undivided mind of the first truly human culture on earth

These early humans, according to Swedenborg, had an undivided mind, such that whatever they wanted in their hearts, their minds and their hands immediately followed. They were in a state similar to human infants, who have no ability to filter their thoughts and desires, but every thought and desire flows immediately into outward expression.

This state was both their beauty and their downfall when their desires began to become selfish, worldly, and evil rather than good, innocent, and focused on God and spirit.

The spiritual meaning of the Fall of Humankind

Swedenborg interprets the Fall of Humankind in Genesis 3, not as a literal eating from a forbidden tree, but rather as these early humans' decision to follow their own ideas based on sensory information and pleasure rather than following the voice of God teaching and guiding them from within.

The decline of humanity recounted in Genesis 4:1-6:8 was especially rapid and disastrous precisely because these early humans had no ability to filter their thoughts and desires, but immediately expressed everything they felt, whether good or evil. So when their desires became evil, they rapidly became utterly corrupt from the inside out.

This set the stage for the spiritual events narrated symbolically in the story of the Great Flood. Swedenborg summarizes the spiritual state of this corrupted early human culture in this way:

In specific regard to the people of the church before the Flood, they conceived appalling delusions as time passed. The goodness and truth that belong to faith they merged so thoroughly with their foul desires that almost no trace of either was left to them. When they reached this point, they virtually suffocated themselves. A person lacking any remnant [of goodness or truth], after all, cannot survive. (Secrets of Heaven #560)

The Flood, then, was not a physical event, but rather a spiritual event in which a flood of rampant, unchecked evil desires and false thoughts spiritually suffocated the people of these early corrupted human cultures—which Swedenborg believed led to their physical extinction as well.

Noah represents a new phase of the human mind and spirit

The story of Noah and the ark, in Swedenborg's interpretation, is the story of a remnant of that early race of humans that was not so corrupted, and that survived and continued forward through a fundamental change in the nature of the human mind and spirit.

That change, to put it in modern terms, was the ability to compartmentalize their desires and thoughts, so that they could want to do something, but through the exercise of a distinct and separate reasoning capacity, prevent themselves from acting on that desire, but do something else instead.

In the life of an individual human being, this change of spiritual state corresponds to the psychological change that takes place when we make the transition from our infant and toddler stage to the stage of early childhood, usually somewhere in the age range of 3-5 years old. Before that transition, we immediately express everything we feel and think. After that change, we are able to mask our true desires, and present to the world a different face, and engage in different actions, than the ones our heart desires in the moment. We can now dissemble and lie about our true thoughts and feelings. We can now also stop ourselves from acting upon desires that we know are wrong or will get us into trouble.

In Swedenborg's interpretation of the Flood story, this new divided mind is represented by the ark itself, with its three floors and its rooms. His exegesis of the rooms in the ark is too lengthy to quote here. This excerpt provides a taste of his interpretation:

Since the Lord foresaw, then, that if the human race continued in this tendency they would succumb to eternal ruin, he provided that the will should be split off from the intellect. . . . The people of this church had to reform. The side of a person called the intellect had to reform first, before it was possible for the other side, referred to as the will, to do the same. So the present passage tells how the contents of the will were separated from those of the intellect and how they were concealed and stored away, so to speak, in order to block off any stimulus to the will. (Secrets of Heaven #640-641)

In short, Swedenborg interprets the "rooms" in the ark (Genesis 6:14) as a separation of the human will, or heart, from the human intellect, or thinking mind. The purpose of this was to make it possible for fallen humans, whose hearts had been corrupted, to be reformed through the exercise of their thinking mind.

In plain terms, humans could now learn intellectually what is right and wrong, and impose order upon their corrupted heart by stopping themselves from acting upon their evil impulses, and obliging themselves instead to act according to what is good and right. This happens, of course, by learning the truth as taught by God in the Bible, and by acting from God's power rather than from our own power.

Summary

In Swedenborg's interpretation, the story of the Great Flood and the ark of Noah is the story of a major transition both in the early psychological and spiritual life of an individual human being (the transition from infancy to childhood) and in the early life of humanity as a whole.

Ever since that critical transition, we humans have not been in a state of spiritual oneness (or "flow," to use a modern psychological term), but in a state of separation of heart and mind. This state is necessary for our spiritual regeneration, or rebirth, to take place in fallen and corrupted ("sinful," to use the Biblical term) human beings.

For a fuller account of the deeper meaning of the story of Noah, the Flood, and the ark, addressed to a popular audience, please see my article, "Noah's Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind."

  • Did Swedenborg say that the flood never happened, or is it your interpretation of his writings that that is what he believed? If he said that the flood never happened could you please quote those precise words, with reference. – Constantthin May 31 '17 at 22:48
  • @Constantthin This is not just my interpretation. Swedenborg spent most of his time on the Flood story explaining its spiritual meaning. But he did also say explicitly that there was no flood. For example: "No flood of any kind is meant here therefore, let alone a flooding of the whole world" (Arcana Coelestia #662). Swedenborg stated that the first 10+ chapters of Genesis are written in a purely symbolic ("correspondential") style, and that nothing in them happened literally as written. – Lee Woofenden May 31 '17 at 23:12
5

I don't know of a detailed exposition that focuses specifically on the story of the ark, but in the Medieval ages it was common to say that each piece of scripture possessed the following levels of meaning:

  • Literal sense
  • Spiritual sense
  • Fuller sense

From the link above regarding the "literal sense":

The literal sense is not to be confused with the "literalist" sense to which fundamentalists are attached. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to obtain its literal sense. One must understand the text according to the literary conventions of the time. When a text is metaphorical, its literal sense is not that which flows immediately from a word-to-word translation (e.g. "Let your loins be girt": Lk. 12:35), but that which corresponds to the metaphorical use of these terms ("Be ready for action"). When it is a question of a story, the literal sense does not necessarily imply belief that the facts recounted actually took place, for a story need not belong to the genre of history but be instead a work of imaginative fiction.

When one looks at the genre of the flood story, it (arguably, anyway) does not follow many patterns for a historical story - for example, it does not make clear when the event happened in relation to other well-known events as many history-genre stories do, ("In the Year X of the reign of Y", often referring to multiple rulers to make it clear), and it does not cite witnesses that can be cross-referenced (as, eg, the Gospels do).

The above link goes on to say

One of the possible aspects of the spiritual sense is the typological. This is usually said to belong not to Scripture itself but to the realities expressed by Scripture: Adam as the figure of Christ (cf Rom. 5: 14), the flood as the figure of baptism (1 Pt. 3:20-21), etc.

So, in this way of interpreting the Bible, the flood story is one example of something that prefigures baptism, and one example of something from the Hebrew Scripture pre-figuring something in the new.

It is an interesting example in terms of apologetics because this way of interpreting the Bible was formalized in the Medieval period (and can be seen as early as Origin of Alexandria), and shows then that non-literal ways of reading the Bible predate the emergence of modern science and the scientific method at least by centuries, and therefore refutes many naive ideas non-Christians have about Christianity.

  • Re: the final statement of your last sentence: This statement does not apply only to non-Christians, as implied by the sentence as it currently reads. Your point also refutes many naive ideas that Christians--especially conservative and literalist Christians--have about the Bible. Biblical literalism is itself a relatively recent phenomenon that postdates the emergence of modern science, and is out of step with the way the Bible was read throughout most of the history of Christianity. – Lee Woofenden Oct 7 '15 at 4:53
3

Biologos ("leading the way in setting the tone for thoughtful and productive dialogue on the topic of harmony between science and faith") provides a theological model in 'How should we interpret the Genesis flood account'. It says that as early as the first half of the 19th century, geologists and theologians Edward Hitchcock, Hugh Miller and the Rev. John Pye Smith viewed the emerging scientific evidence not as a threat to faith, but as an occasion to reach a better understanding of Genesis.

Biologos says the language used in Genesis 6-9 does not insist that the flood was global. First of all, the Hebrew kol erets, meaning whole Earth, can also be translated whole land in reference to local, not global, geography. Moreover, in this period of history, people understood the whole Earth as a smaller geographical area. There is no evidence to suggest that people of this time had explored the far reaches of the globe or had any understanding of its scope. Assuming that the Flood was local, its location has not yet been precisely determined. Though excavation of flood deposits in Mesopotamia provides evidence of ancient flooding, there is no evidence that it is unambiguously the biblical flood.

Biologos says that in the 1990s Columbia University geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman concluded that a massive local flood took place in the area we now know as the Black Sea. They theorised that when the Ice Age ended and glaciers melted, a wall of seawater surged from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. This flood, which may have occurred around 5500 B.C., would fit into the Old Testament timeline of Noah’s Flood. Robert Ballard, famous for finding the Titanic, led a 1999 expedition with the hope of finding more evidence for this theory. The expedition revealed an ancient shoreline for the Black Sea, and after radiocarbon dating, the findings supported their hypothesis that a freshwater lake and surrounding manmade structures were in place before the flood. 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.

Ian Wilson supports the Black Sea hypothesis in Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization, covering detailed archaeological, historical and literary research. He resolves the Mesopotamian anomaly by explaining that the Black Sea inundation necessitated migration from the flooded region, with some of the survivors reaching the Near East. Wilson says that those who escaped this catastrophe would have fled on foot, not by boat. On page 134 he describes the impact it would have had on people:

Those living closest to the Bosporus would have become immediately affected by, and perhaps swept away by, the devastating in-rush of water. For those further along the shores towards to the east the first sign was most likely a distant roar, accompanied by an ominous vibration. The roar would have become louder and more incessant, as unusual amounts of flotsam began to appear in the lake-water – probably including whole trees and animal, human carcasses. As the lake level rose inexorably, concern must quickly have escalated to alarm. With a lake-level rise that Ryan and Pitman estimate to have been at least 15 centimetres a day, whole settlements would all too swiftly have become inundated, with even the most orderly evacuation turned into rout.

We now have a plausible explanation, consistent with the biblical account, of a local flood, one potentially supported by science, but with no opportunity to construct an ark before being overwhelmed by the floodwaters.

Even in the context of the Black Sea inundation, it is a hypothetical possibility that a survivor named Noah escaped on a boat (or ark) that must have already existed. For this to be a plausible case, the name of Noah should be linked in some way to the very earliest legends of the flood. Another famous story of the flood is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is both older than and remarkably similar to the story of Noah's Ark. Many scholars believe that the story of Noah's Ark came out of Gilgamesh, while others believe that they both evolved from a common, even earlier legend. Either way, Noah and his ark disappear as we trace the Near Eastern flood legends back in time.

  • I could be wrong, but I believe the OP was interested in a "no (literal) flood" hypothesis, not support for a local flood hypothesis. – ThaddeusB Oct 5 '15 at 3:03
  • Hi @ThaddeusB I could also be wrong, but when I saw "the flood, or at least the ark, is non-literal"; a proposed model in which "Noah and his family escaped the flood by some means less drastic/miraculous than a boat"; and "the story is a non-real myth", I felt all options were on the table, as long as they were supported by at least some theologians (past or present). This answer posits that the ark is non-literal. – Dick Harfield Oct 5 '15 at 3:14
  • 3
    This does seem like support for a local flood, which assumes (as far as I can tell) a literal ark. At the very least, it doesn't make any effort to argue that the ark was not real. Did I miss something? – Flimzy Oct 5 '15 at 9:19
  • @Flimzy I take your point, and have improved my answer. The problem is how much of my sources to cite, esp Wilson, with an entire book on the (probable) original flood behind the story of Noah's Ark. I have chosen an extract that demonstrates that there was no time to construct an ark and that the evacuations were best described as like a rout, with people fleeing any way they could. A rise of at least 15 cm a day may not seem much, but if you are up to your waist in water and still have many km/miles to go before you reach high ground, it's a lot. – Dick Harfield Oct 5 '15 at 22:21
  • 1
    This answer does address many issues raised in the body of question. However, the title of question--which is at least supposed to reflect the key question being asked--is: "Is there any Christian theological model for a non-literal ark?" It seems to me, then, that this answer should still provide more substance on the ark itself as a non-literal element in the story. The background is in place in the answer, but the ark itself gets short shrift. – Lee Woofenden Oct 7 '15 at 5:17
1

The answer to your question largely depends on how you define "non-literal". Do you use non-literal in the sense of meaning "did not actually exist or happen?" If so, then yes. There is a model for this - the Framework view of Genesis. The referenced link largely deals with Adam and Eve, but the concept is easily extensible to the flood narrative and would largely center on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atra-hasis were a similar comparison of flood narratives undertaken. This view is the belief that the first parts of Genesis present a literary framework for a corrective polemic against a background of a rich body of Mesopotamian myths and should be read in that context - not as a journalistic account of a worldwide flood. In that sense, the ark may not literally have existed. Genesis can simply be read for the obvious theological meanings and the question of weather it was a real event simply doesn't matter.

On the other hand, this view advocates for a literal reading of genesis in which the author of Genesis intended for it to be interpreted as a literal flood with a literal Ark and not as metaphor. In this sense, it does not present a model for a non-literal reading of thestory of Noah's ark.

My understanding is that this view has been around for many years, but did not become popular until the publishing of The G3N3S1S Debate by J. Ligon Duncan, David W. Hall and Lee Irons in 2001.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.