Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Flood

Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton.  The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton are scholars of the Hebrew Bible.  The Lost World of the Flood is about the biblical Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9.  Here are some thoughts about the book.

A.  At times, the book seemed to imply that the Bible is inerrant, so the author of the biblical Flood story must have understood the Flood as something other than a literal worldwide event, since we know, on the basis of science, that such an event did not happen.  That comes across as wishful thinking.  At other times, to its credit, the book actually made an attempt to argue that the biblical author did not regard the Flood story as literally and historically true, in every detail.  For instance, it argued that the Ark was unlike ancient boats.

B.  The book still maintains that there was a historical Flood, albeit it was a local catastrophe.  At the same time, it argues that the biblical story employs hyperbole to make the Flood look like a universal event, for divinely-inspired theological purposes.  According to Walton and Longman, the biblical Flood story fits within a larger theological narrative about God dwelling with humanity and bringing about order.  The Flood is about God correcting disorder and essentially resetting creation.  In my opinion, the book was slightly unclear about whether the biblical author deemed the Flood to be a worldwide event, or instead was consciously exaggerating for rhetorical effect an event that he believed was local.  It seemed that, overall, the book was arguing the latter, and yet the book placed the biblical Flood story within the context of what it conceived as ancient cosmology, in which mountains form the boundaries of the world.  That would arguably imply that the biblical author considered the Flood to be worldwide, in terms of his limited understanding of the extent of the world.

C.  Related to (B.), I am rather ambivalent about the book’s argument.  Can the biblical author portray the Flood as an event of global significance, while believing that the Flood was not actually a global event?  Undoing and resetting creation: that sounds universal!  The book refers to the Conquest: it is an event of placing order in the land of Israel, yet it is obviously exaggerated, as the biblical Conquest narrative alternates between presenting the Conquest as thorough and acknowledging that it was incomplete.  Could the biblical Flood story reflect the same sort of approach?  Again, I am ambivalent.

D.  The book argues that showing that the Flood actually happened would not prove the truth of the Bible.  That makes a degree of sense: why would it prove Christianity, and not the other religions that have a flood story?  At the same time, Walton and Longman appear to be arguing that the Flood itself does not have an inherent theological meaning, that what is divinely-inspired is the biblical interpretation of the Flood event.  That is a bit nebulous, though.  Why not say that God sent the Flood for the theological reasons that the Bible mentions?

E.  The book is informative about ancient Near Eastern concepts that overlap with the Book of Genesis, including flood stories, genealogies, and divine-human beings.  The book even offers the interesting suggestion that the Noah story was originally Akkadian.  The book explained some of the ancient Near Eastern Flood stories better than other secondary literature that I have read.  For instance, I have wondered how the Atrahasis story could portray the gods as dependent on humans for food, when the gods existed prior to human beings; how did they survive before humans came on the scene?  Well, the gods had to grow their own food, and that is why they created humans: to grow it for them.  The book was rather unclear, though, on what the toledoth in Genesis were.  It seemed to be implying that they were ancient sources, some of them going back as far as Adam.  Many critical scholars will disagree with that.

F.  Surprisingly, the book effectively explained how the Bible can be perspicuous while not being clear in every detail.  It argues that the Bible is perspicuous on salvation.  Before, I have tended to dismiss this idea.  Perspicuous about salvation?  Then why do Jews, Protestants, and Catholics have different ideas about how to be saved?  But Walton and Longman offer a bare-bones summary of the Christian message: Christ died and rose to save us from sin, and we should place our faith in Christ.  The Christian canon of Scripture does teach that clearly, I believe.  I should also add that Walton and Longman effectively tie in their theological understanding of the biblical Flood story with themes in the New Testament.

G.  In one case, the book surveyed scholarly views effectively.  In another case, not so much.  On where it did so effectively, it referred to different scholarly views about the noisiness of humans keeping the gods awake in the Atrahasis story.  Some conservative scholars and apologists like to make the Atrahasis story into a foil for the biblical Flood story: God is justly punishing violence and sin in the biblical Flood story, whereas the gods in the Atrahasis story are merely annoyed because the humans are keeping them awake.  But some have argued that the humans in the Atrahasis story, by keeping the gods awake, were challenging the sovereignty of the gods and fomenting disorder.  To their credit, Walton and Longman refer to that view.  On where they could have referred to more scholarly debate, they could have discussed the debate over the view of William Ryan and Walter Pitman that there was a massive flood around the Black Sea.  Walton and Longman agree with this view, while distancing themselves from saying that this was the flood that inspired the flood stories in the ancient Near East.  But this view has been subject to critique since the Ryan and Pitman book was published in 1998, though a 2016 study has affirmed it.  Walton and Longman perhaps should have conveyed awareness of this.

H.  Stephen O. Moshier contributes a chapter that presents scientific arguments against a global flood.  It requires concentration, and maybe even notetaking, if you are not a scientifically-inclined person and want to follow Moshier’s arguments.  The book has another chapter that critiques the view that Flood stories throughout the world were inspired by a global flood.  It does so lucidly and effectively.

My questions and critiques notwithstanding, I am still giving this book five stars.  In many respects, it is an informative and lucid treatment of the biblical Flood story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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