The Lost World of the Flood (Walton)

As in all of his Lost World books, we see all of the strengths and weaknesses of John Walton.  We might not like many of his conclusions.  Some of his argumentation is rather specious, but he has a knack for getting to the heart of the matter.  The way he presents his argument–by means of a series of propositions–is about as good as one could possibly find.  

I’ll go ahead and answer the main question.  Walton and Longman believe a) the text implies a universal flood.  However, b) they reject that a universal flood actually happened.  They do not seem themselves in rebellion to Scripture, as they understand–and argue that the audience would have understood–Scripture to use hyperbole to teach theological truths.  I’ll come back to this in the conclusion.

Part I: Method: Perspectives on Interpretation

Proposition 1: Genesis Is an Ancient Document

Proposition 2: Genesis 1–11 Makes Claims About Real Events

Proposition 3: Genesis Uses Rhetorical Devices

Proposition 4: The Bible Uses Hyperbole to Describe Historical Events

Proposition 5: Genesis Appropriately Presents a Hyperbolic Account of the Flood

Proposition 6: Genesis Depicts the Flood as a Global Event

The first series of propositions remind us that the Bible is written for us, but not to us.  Did God intend to teach the science that there is a cosmic ocean above the sky?  Our standard response is that such language is poetic.  That’s true to an extent.  Here is the problem: do we have any reason to believe a pre-Copernican reader would have thought such language was poetic?

Or take another example:  do you really think with your intestines?  Again, literary metaphors could save us, but I think the language is a bit stronger than mere poetry.  We still get “gut feelings” today and we don’t dismiss it as literary theory.

Walton deals with this problem by means of speech-act theory. There is a difference between “locution” and “illocution.”  Locution is the meaning.  Illocution is the saying of the meaning.  God’s truth, the interpretation of the facts given in Genesis 1-11, is the locution.  The three-tiered universe is the illocutionary manner.

On one level this is fine.  The danger is that we can then apply Occam’s razor to any supernatural stuff we don’t like.  Walton’s later language on “mythology” doesn’t help, either. He says ancient man didn’t make a hard and fast distinction between myth and history.  I’m not so sure.  The NT warns us against following clever fables. And protestations notwithstanding, you cannot rescue “myth” from the connotations of Greekk mythology today.  He is on better ground when he refers to such language as “supernatural” or “the invisible realm.”

I give this section a B-.  He makes numerous good points about ancient literature, but he hamstrings his project with sloppy epistemology.

Part II: Background: Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Proposition 7: Ancient Mesopotamia Also Has Stories of a Worldwide Flood

Proposition 8: The Biblical Flood Story Shares Similarities and Differences with Ancient Near Eastern Flood Accounts

These two propositions shouldn’t be that controversial.  No, Walton does not say that Genesis borrowed from Babylon.  Genesis is not indebted to Babylon.  Rather, both Genesis and Baylon are embedded in the same cultural river.  In any case, to prove x borrowed from y, we should have one dominant ur-text to show the borrowing.  We do not have that.  Walton and Longman score huge points in this section.

Part III: Text: Understanding the Biblical Text Literarily and Theologically

Proposition 9: A Local Cataclysmic Flood Is Intentionally Described as a Global Flood for Rhetorical Purposes

Proposition 10: The Flood Account Is Part of a Sequence of Sin and Judgment Serving as Backstory for the Covenant

Proposition 11: The Theological History Is Focused on the Issue of Divine Presence, the Establishment of Order, and How Order Is Undermined

Walton and Longman argue that the goal is order against nonorder/disorder.  I suppose those elements are there, and it certainly echoes the Gen. 1 account, but I don’t think that is actually the main idea here.

Proposition 12: The “Sons of God” Episode Is Not Only a Prelude to the Flood; It Is the Narrative Sequel to Cain and Abel

He goes through the option of who the Sons of God are.  He dismisses the Sethite thesis since there is no evidence for it.  Another option identifies them as super-kings who took many women in marriage.  While that was true of Gilgamesh, the Bible doesn’t say that, either.

Proposition 13: The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) Is an Appropriate Conclusion to the Primeval Narrative

Part IV: The World: Thinking About Evidence for the Flood

Proposition 14: The Flood Story Has a Real Event Behind It

Proposition 15: Geology Does Not Support a Worldwide Flood (Steve Moshier)

Proposition 16: Flood Stories from Around the World Do Not Prove a Worldwide Flood

Proposition 17: “Science Can Purify Our Religion; Religion Can Purify Science from Idolatry and False Absolutes”

These are the most controversial propositions.  I’ll be honest, the geological section was a bit too sciency for me.  I was familiar with Walton’s claim that if a universal flood happened, where would the water drain off to?  He writes,

If the sea level rose for 150 days until it covered the tops of the mountains, and the sea level rose 16, 946 ft to the top of Ararat, then it was logically 16, 946ft across the earth.  This requires about 630 million cubic miles of additional water weighing 3,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons.  Here is the problem:  the oceans had to triple in volume in 150 days and then shrink quickly back to normal.  Where did the 630 million cubic miles of water go? There is no ocean to drain to because the oceans are already filled.

If you hold a worldwide flood, there is a way to salvage it.  The main problem is where did the water go in so short a time?  The solution is cosmic geography.  The ancient world understood (as in Genesis 1) that were the Great Deeps (tahom).  It’s real but you can’t dig there to find it.  God probably opened the Great Deep at the end of the flood.  Granted, that’s speculation but it makes the best sense of the problem. If you don’t hold to this kind of cosmic geography where the tahom supervenes on our material world, then you have a real problem with the flood waters.


I think they make numerous good points on the difficulties in a universal flood.  These cannot simply be dismissed. Ultimately, I do not find their arguments conclusive.  I think their epistemology is fatally flawed. Let’s grant both (a) and (b) mentioned in the introduction to this review.  If we reject a global flood and the audience understood that to be the case, then it’s hard to see how they can maintain that the Bible is teaching a global flood.  God (and/or the human prophets) spoke in a way to be understood.  If the audience would have understood, for all practical purposes, that the flood was local, then Walton and Longman cannot seriously claim the text teaches it was global.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s