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The Primeval History of Genesis 1-11: The Crisis

Having reached the breaking point of the story of human origins, chapter seven of Genesis explains the nature of the ensuing crisis. It is my contention that both the local-flood interpreters and even the global-flood defenders have missed the compelling literary force of the chapter by debating the geography of the flood waters. The story depicts a cosmological crisis, bigger than scientific models can imagine.

Every Living Thing

The flood is the destruction of creation, not just the judgment of humanity. Though humanity’s violence provoked the episode, the text has consistently connected humanity to the remainder of creation when it comes to the moral consequence of sin. Adam’s sin resulted in a curse of the earth (Gn 3:17-19). Humanity’s sin had corrupted the earth (6:12). Now God’s judgment includes the earth.

…¬†every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground. (7:4)

He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (7:23)

Likewise, the survival of humanity and of the creation are tied together, as Noah takes creatures onto the ark “to keep their offspring alive”¬†(7:3).

It is at this point that interpreting the flood as a localized event does disservice to the text (like this one). The crisis is being told as an existential threat to life itself.

Windows of the Heavens

In describing the flood, the text reaches even further and depicts not so much a flood but the collapse of creation itself. Ancient people did not view the world through a modern scientific lens, nor should they have. God is not speaking scientifically, and attempts to interpret this passage scientifically miss the point (including water canopy theories like this one). God is speaking in the language that ancient Hebrew people would have used to understand their world, and interpretations of the text must reflect this.

In ancient Hebrew thought, God had made a sort of dome separating the world above from the world beneath. This dome he called Sky (Gn 1:6-8). This region was the space of creation, a place for humanity to dwell. It is a perfectly reasonable phenomenological description of the world as they knew it and as such should not be submitted to modern ridicule.

In describing the flood, God employs the same type of language. The watery world beneath and the watery world above exploded as the protective space enforced by God collapses: “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (7:11). The text is not offering a scientific model, but rather a literary description of the experience.

It felt like the end of the universe.

The dry land created for man to inhabit (1:9-13) is swallowed up by watery chaos (7:17-18). Even the great pillars, the mountains that seemed to hold up the sky, now sank beneath the waves (7:19-20). It is not the end of a civilization or a tribe. It is the end of life (7:21-24).

The Point

Elsewhere in Scripture, God uses the same type of language to describe his judgment.

Terror and the pit and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth! He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit, and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble. The earth is utterly broken, the earth is split apart, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth. They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished. Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders. (Isaiah 24:17-23)

These passages remind us that only God separates us from the pit of Sheol, from the realm of death, from the collapse of order into chaos. Only his mercy keeps our world afloat. The power of this passage is not in a scientific debate about the historicity of the flood, but in the cosmological assertion that the creation continues but by the grace of God.

The open question at the end of chapter seven is a common question for the Old Testament reader. Once God has judged, who shall remain? Is there any hope when God turns his face away from his creation? Will he turn again?

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