Genesis 6-9 and Ancient Near Eastern Flood Stories: Is the Noah Account Just One Myth Among Many?

Early in 2014, the news headlines were all abuzz with the “ground-breaking” discovery of a Mesopotamian flood account that featured a round ark. “Ahhhh, yes,” arm-chair critics beamed, “we always knew that the biblical story couldn’t be true. Here is proof that Genesis 6-9 is just one myth among many.”

Besides the fact that ancient flood accounts have been known and studied for long before January 2014 (e.g., the Atrahasis epic which was first studied and translated in the late 1800’s!), does the existence of ancient flood stories with the names of characters changed to reflect local custom and religion pose any challenge to the claim of historicity to Genesis 6-9?

In his An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God (2nd edition; P&R 2007), Cornelius Van Til answers, “No.”

The tradition of the creation story and of man’s residence in Paradise was, no doubt, handed down in the generation of Cain as well as the generations of Seth. Moreover, the revelation of God’s redemptive purpose came to Cain just as well as to Abel. With respect to the generations immediately following Cain, when Adam and Even were still alive to tell the story to their grandchildren, even if Cain studiously avoided telling it to them, we may hold that they “knew” the truth intellectually as fully as did the children of God. All this was carried forth to the nations. At the time of the flood the whole human race was once more brought into immediate contact with God’s redemptive revelation. The tradition of the flood, no less than the tradition of creation, no doubt lived on and on. This tradition was distorted, however, as time passed by. The creation myths and flood myths that have been discovered among the nations prove that the original story was greatly distorted. The result has been that those who came many generations after the time of Noah, and who lived far away from the pale of redemptive revelation as it appeared in Israel, did not have as clear a tradition as the earlier generations had had. This brought further complexity into the situation for them.

Pgs., 141-42.

Of course such a conclusion depends upon belief that the Bible has preserved the true version of the flood, and for those who by “faith” reject the Bible’s meta-narrative in favor of another (the consequences of which Van Til discusses throughout his writings), this way of explaining the various traditions that exist in the world will not seem very appealing. But for those of us who accept the Bible’s story as true (and reap the accompanying epistemological benefits of the Christian worldview), Van Til’s explanation is a reminder of why news headlines about circular arks need not make us worry.

___________________
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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9 comments on “Genesis 6-9 and Ancient Near Eastern Flood Stories: Is the Noah Account Just One Myth Among Many?

  1. Andrew…just thinking – is this our first Van Til post on here?

  2. […] is a minister in the United Reformed Church and serves at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. This article appeared in The Reformed Reader and is used with […]

  3. John W says:

    How does mulitple attestation demonstrate that an event did not occur?

    It is rather like the police investigating a report of a crime during which they interview a dozen witnesses. Each witness, even allowing for human error, exaggeration etc confirms that they did indeed see the crime take place & provides credible information concerning the details. The police then end their investigation due to the lack of evidence!

    Hope these guys stick to what they do now cos they’d make lousy coppers

    • Yeah, it’s a pretty serious non sequiter. I think that they’re using the assumption that the other accounts are false, and imputing that even to the true account because of its clear supernatural elements. – Andrew

  4. D Wallace says:

    Thanks, Andrew.

    Calvin, in his Genesis commentary, appears to think there was only oral tradition, accurately & reliably passed on in from various eyewitnesses in the godly line (Adam, Seth, Noah) up through the time of Moses. Is that his view? Obviously Genesis 1 & 2 (until Adam) would have had to been divinely revealed to Adam or others since there were no human eyewitnesses to that.

    So then Moses, well-prepared and infallibly guided by the Spirit, in God’s providential timing and for overarching reasons known only to Him, compiled in written Scripture those oral traditions and his own eyewitness to the remarkable events of his time.

    The other similar but myth infected accounts show how providentially preserved pure, reliable oral tradition among certain individuals became corrupted the further removed in space, time, understanding, and providence.

    Any possibility of any reliable but lost Written tradition prior to Moses or is that a moot point?

    Or that Moses could have been guided in his writing by by purely divine revelation absent any human means in transmission?

    Just a few thoughts / questions on this …

    Doug

    pilgrimsontheway.com

    • Hi Doug,

      Thanks for the comment!

      I’m inclined to think that whether there was a written tradition Moses used is actually moot. Oral cultures are incredibly good at passing along their stories with accuracy and I’m inclined to think that this is how much of the Genesis material came down to Moses. Even though Deuteronomy 31 lauds the importance of writing for the preservation of God’s covenant words as the best way to prevent the people from distorting them, that doesn’t downplay the ability of the covenant community to preserve the accounts accurately in their pre-textual (oral) form. I can imagine that texts could have been preserved of the Genesis accounts, although I struggle to understand some of the nuts and bolts of how that would have looked (writing system & media used, storage/preservation location, etc.). It’s possible, but I’m just not sure how much data we could muster to support it.

      I would not want to go the route of Moses being guided by purely divine revelation though, only because it sounds a bit too much like a dictation approach to inspiration. And while there are times when God’s words are dictated to the writers (“Thus saith the Lord…”), I don’t think that was the normal mode. Here too, however, it’s certainly possible, but I wouldn’t want to hang too much on it since I can’t think of a good data set that would commend it.

      -Andrew

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