A Literal Worldwide Flood?

[Created 5/7/11 7:14 PM]

recently recounted, my daughter started college last week. Today, I came across an article that claims many college educations are a waste of money. Of course, I had to e-mail the link to my family, especially daughter. During the course of our e-mail exchange, she noted that she had just been to her history/ideas class in which she was told “how fossils were formed only by a worldwide flood.”

Paying, as it is, an outrageous amount of money for Rachel’s tuition, I felt obligated to tell her to make sure her teacher knows that “your dad says that there wasn't a worldwide flood and that he's full of nonsense.” I also requested that she ask him how old the earth is. We’ll see if she wants to buck the establishment. It’s not necessarily easy when your air cover is 422 miles away. In defense of the professor, he could have been presenting an idea, while not necessarily agreeing with it. I wish I had been there.

Nevertheless, to ensure that Rachel has the hope of a more rounded education, some thoughts on the Genesis account of the flood. Two main ideas will be presented. First, that Christians from the West read the text according to western forms of interpretation, while the Bible was written with an eastern mindset. To impose a western interpretation on an eastern text is to employ a faulty hermeneutic. Second, the role of Egyptian cosmology plays a much larger part in the meaning of the Pentateuch than we typically give credit.

Concerning the first point, our poets have said:

It's like a tear in the hands of a western man
Tell you about salt, carbon and water
But a tear to an oriental man
He’ll tell you about sadness and sorrow or the love of a man and a woman.
    -- Jefferson Starship, “Ride The Tiger”, from the album “Dragon Fly”

If St. Paul can use Greek poets to make a point on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28) and can cite Cretan prophets (Titus 1:12) then I’m certainly justified in using these song lyrics.

Biblical Hermenutics says:

Most figurative language finds its origin in the life and culture of the writer who uses it. Middle Eastern prose was far more figurative than western people realize. Poetry, poetic expressions, symbolism, mysticism, and emotional feelings were far more a part of the biblical cultures and literature than the typical American may understand since our culture is so much the heir of Greece and Rome--with our critical, analytical approach to life and our scientific, technological mindset.

The video series “
That The World May Know”, hosted by Ray Vander Laan, makes the same point:

The world of the Bible is distant for most of us. Not only in miles, but in culture and in time and in place. It’s a very different world than the world in which many of us live.... One of the first things that students of this land and culture discover is that there are two different ways of thinking, or of describing truth. A Westerner, like me, learns in the Greek way, in the Greek tradition. Truth is presented in words, and in careful definitions, and explanations. We love bullet lists and points. An Easterner, however, is much more likely to describe truth in pictures and in metaphors -- in the meaning of places and structures. For example, a Westerner might describe God as powerful, or loving, or all-knowing. An Easterner would be much more likely to say God is “my shepherd,” or “a rock,” or “living water.” A helpful thing to do then is to better understand the world where the Bible was placed, because it’s in this world, these places, these hills, the culture of this land, that provide the pictures, the metaphors, the images that make the Bible such a rich book.
    -- “That The World May Know”, Volume 1, Introductory Message.

In “
Understanding the Revelation,” James W. Fleming, PhD expands on the differences between East and West.

The modern western mind always looks at structure and form--what something looks like and what it is made of. With this kind of perspective, we will miss the meaning of apocalyptic literature. The Biblical mind looks at function. What does something do and what is it for. The description by a man of his true love in the Song of Solomon is a weird description from the western perspective of structure and form. Song of Songs 4:1-5, 'How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from washing, all of which bear twins, and not one of them is bereaved. Your lips are like crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.

You should feel very sorry for both the lover and the lovee [sic], if this is a western literal, structure and form description. What is the meaning of the poem when you know the function of these things and what they do? In apocalyptic literature, what is the function of a robe? It is authority. What is the function of a sword? It is to pierce or to cut. That is what the word of God does. In the above poem, what is the function of a dove? A dove is innocent and appropriate for sacrifice. She has innocent eyes. In rabbinic thought, you could call someone a pomegranate head and you would be saying they were full of new ideas and liked to talk about these new ideas. Goats scatter whereas sheep follow in a row. We don't really know which tower in Jerusalem is the tower of David. It might be a very short fat tower. Thus, the above might mean she could haul water easily. The tower of David could have been a very tall tower and the above would be speaking about her grace and poise. The western mind will have a tendency to focus too much on the details of visual images in the Apocalypse rather than what the images stand for. The Judeo-Christian perspective stresses function. People look on the outside and God looks on the inside. What one is within is what matters. The Greco-Roman perspective stresses the beautiful body and the beautiful architecture, how things look on the outside. We are products of a combination of these two perspectives. When we look at the visions in the Apocalypse, sometimes we stress the Greco-Roman perspective too much as to how things look outside. The ancient mind would not look at them that way, but would look for the deeper meaning of what they do and what they are for. The Greco-Roman mind will think chronologically and externally. The Greco-Roman mind will have problems with understanding creation. The Greco-Roman mind will ask, “Was creation done in sequence in seven twenty-four hour days?” The ancient mind will ask, “What is each thing for and what does it do?” The greater light was to rule the day; the lesser light was to rule the night. What were the heavenly bodies for? They were the times for seasons. It is what these things are in relation to you. This is what the writer is concerned with. The ancient writer would not think in terms of sequence. One of the common forms of poetry in the Hebrew Bible is called step parallelism. It was a device used in oral traditions to make something easy to remember. Day one was light. Day two was the firmament above and below, the clouds and the sea. Day three was dry land. Days one through three were general. Days five though six were specific. Day four is parallel to day one; day five is parallel to day two; and day six is parallel to day three. Day four was the sun, moon and stars. Day five was birds and fish. Day six was animals and humans. The ancient mind did not think in terms of chronology or sequence. The western mind thinks that way. It is very difficult for someone from western culture to avoid reading the Apocalypse too literally.

How does this tie in with Genesis and the flood? In Volume 8 of the series “That The World May Know”, in the introduction to the lesson “How Big is Our God”, Vander Laan says:

When you stand on the plateau of Giza, as the ancient Egyptians called it, and come within sight of the pyramids, it’s unbelievable. It raises the question, I guess, “How did they do it?” Well, actually, that’s a Western question. It’s a good one, scholars debate it, and you’d be interested to look at the various theories. But I think a more Eastern question would be, “Why did they do it?” Because, you see, in the East, things like this aren’t simply functional. Oh, it had a function. It’s the tomb of a Pharaoh who called himself “God on earth.” It’s his tomb. But in the East, story is always put in concrete language, in picture and metaphor. So, really, what we have here is a story. I’d like to invite you to join us, to join us in looking at “the God story” as it’s rooted and set in Egypt. ... I think it helps to remember that God had a story. It went like this. There was a watery chaos; it’s called formless and empty in Genesis. But hovering over it was the presence of the creator God. He spoke, and out of that watery chaos came order, beauty, harmony. It was amazing. And God said it was good. Then sin entered the picture and God’s beautiful order began its slow but sure descent back into chaos. Chaos first affected individuals and Cain killed Abel and his blood cried out and God heard it, as only God can do. But then the chaos, caused by sin, became a kingdom and the whole world is affected. And then they build a tower because they want to be like God themselves and we get what you might call the anti-kingdom. That is, evil that has become a system; really, a whole civilization in a way. So when God brought Israel here, there were really two stories that were being told. One is the Egyptian story, in stone. The other, is the story that God gave His people, in the Book. And I think we’ll see that part of the reason God brought Israel here was so they could see more clearly both stories. ... Let’s read (the Egyptian) story as we begin our study of (Israel’s) story. ... Now what I’d like to do is have us imagine. In our world we have our Scripture in a book like this. We read it, we study it, we teach it. In their world, they’re Eastern. They prefer their scripture in pictures. They prefer to see it, to smell it, to watch it, to experience it. That’s how an Easterner thinks. So what I’d like to do is to ask ourselves this morning, if we had lived here with the Israelites, way back before the Exodus, what was the scripture of the Egyptian people we live among? What did their scripture say?

´┐╝Imagine a mile of a road like this. Beautifully paved. I mean, we’re talking 1,500 B.C here. A walkway like this, all the way from the Nile up to this temple (at Thebes). And lining both sides, these rams. Now notice the ram. That’s a very unusual sheep that lived in this part of Egypt. It became the symbol, the ram’s head at least, on a figure, of the creator god Ammon-Ra, one form of the sun god. So you can see that strong ram with the lion’s body and the ram’s head, those curled horns. So, in a way, what these statues say is: as we come to the temple, this is the presence, the place of Ammon-Ra. It’s protected by Ammon-Ra. Here’s where we come to learn and to know Ammon-Ra. Notice Pharaoh. He’s tucked nicely under the chin of the ram. Now there’s all kinds of discussion about exactly what that means. But I know this much, clearly this guy has a very unique relationship with the gods. You don’t put Pharaoh a thousand times, maybe ten thousand times, under Ammon-Ra’s chin without making some kind of a point. So it’s probable that we’re also saying: you know who is responsible for Ammon-Ra’s presence here? To make sure it’s here? To make sure his power works the way it’s supposed to? Pharaoh.

Ok. Now, if you turn your eyes this way, all Egyptian temples have a very unique structure by way of entrance. We call them “pylons.” You would just say, “gates,” because that’s basically what the Greek word means. Every temple has these gigantic pylons. But the pylon also talks. Originally, this pylon, called “the first one,” originally this stood about 140 feet high. So double the height. Always in the center is a square, like this, opening between the two sides. There would have been a top across the gate, but up at the top is a square opening. That represents the horizon. So as the sun rises and sets it would rise and set in those slots as if to say, somehow, what goes on in this temple is responsible for the sun rising every morning and setting every night. Now, this pylon here said, “inside of here is order.” There’s shalom. It’s a little heaven on earth. Out here, is chaos. Here (outside the temple) things don’t work right. So whose job is it, to take the order from (inside the temple) and to transfer it so that it’s also true (outside the temple)? And the answer is, of course, Pharaoh.

Pharaoh’s job is to keep order. Here’s a word you need to know. We’ll use it often. It’s called “maat.” ... Maat means “order.” So who makes the sun come up? Well, the gods do if Pharaoh does his job. Who makes the Nile flood? Well, the gods do if Pharaoh does his job. Who makes sure your wife’s baby, or your baby, is healthy? Pharaoh does. The gods do if Pharaoh does his job. So there’s a whole theology here of who brings order and chaos in the world we live in. Does that make sense? Let’s find out what will have to happen and how that shalom can become... how that maat they would have called it, can become part of my chaos, or can push away my chaos. Ok? Come...

We’re now in what’s called the “first court” and in this temple that’s the only court before you get to the inner court. Some have two, three, and four. This is where the public would come, so if you were an ordinary Egyptian or a Hebrew here back at the time of Exodus, you could come this far. Now just look around you a moment. Around the outside here is a colonnade and what I’d like to have you become sensitive to is how many different column styles there are. This is called the open papyrus or the open lotus. Look at it. Over here, one of those large statues, a “colossi” they call it, or “colossa” plural. This, again, happens to be Ramses and Ramses stands here in his position like this (arms crossed over chest, palms inward) which claims deity and authority and in his hand notice the two sticks -- the shepherd’s crook and a flail. It’s always part of Pharaoh’s equipment that he comes with. Now, in a sense, what he’s saying here, “All right, here you came, out of the chaos out there. In here is what brings order, “maat”, meaning, purpose to life. It’s my job to bring it off.” There’s no question that his standing by the entrance is a dramatic statement about his role. Now, from here, we begin to move into the more sacred courts. At this point we ordinary people, Hebrews, Egyptians, we can come and it probably would be too full to get in most of the time but we could come here. Once we move this way, now it’s going to be the domain of the priests. Come.

We are in what’s called the “Hypostyle Hall.” Now let me tell you a little bit more from the Egyptian scripture. Way back at the beginning was this watery swamp. Just chaos. Rising out of it was a small mound. And the creator god stood on the mound -- in this temple I think you would say Ammon Ra -- and he spoke out of the chaos and he created a space in the cosmic ocean. Imagine a cosmic ocean and in the center of it an air bubble. It’s shaped like this (a fat ellipse). Above, he made the waters above. The sky. They become a god, too. Below is the earth. That becomes a god, too. Geb, they called it. And in between, the space,where all life is. Now, for the ancient Egyptian, one of the most significant things order chaos is the daily journey of the sun. Now, everything that the Egyptians knew was by boat. So the sun makes a daily journey by boat from east to west and back again. So the gods are often shown in a boat called a barque. The sun circles that space on that ocean, back in the ocean under the earth, and back again in its barque. The sun god Ra, obviously. What we do here reenacts the journey of the sun across the sky. Now, you say, “ok so they were doing the god thing.” Listen, it’s much deeper than that because the idea is: the ritual that’s done here is necessary or the thing that it ritualizes doesn’t happen. So what brings the sun across the sky every day? What we do here. Now, notice the columns. A hundred thirty four of them in here. The big ones are seventy feet high. The smaller ones, just over fifty. Hundred and thirty four of them. If the ceiling were still here, you would notice -- and some of the paint is still on here, all of these columns would be painted -- that ceiling represents the ocean above. The sky. We’re standing on the earth beneath. And in a sense, these columns keep that ocean up there. What would happen if that ocean came down? Well, you’d have a pretty big flood and the space would fill up and everything would turn back to chaos. So, fortunately, the gods, mediated by Pharaoh, keep that up there. It’s all designed to say, there’s a system. What keeps the system running? Who’s system is it? What’s order? What’s chaos? It’s all defined here. And you imagine, and it moves my heart so deeply, you stand with millions of Egyptians and Hebrews who came here, travelled sometimes hundreds of miles to get here at great expense, just to stand longingly outside the door seeking just a little bit of relief from the chaos of their lives. Come. Just wander a bit.

Remember that bubble? Remember the sun makes a journey of this shape. If I want to say I’m responsible for keeping that bubble working, and I’m responsible for keeping the sun on that daily journey, I might might choose to put my name in something shaped like this: the bubble. So guess what? Pharaoh’s name ends up in a cartouche. “Usr-Maat-Ra” -- the name of one of the Pharaohs. That says, “I maintain the space. I’m the one who keeps the system going.” Pharaoh was the one who did all religious ritual in Egypt. His job was to keep the gods happy. Now, there’s no way he could have done that because there’s literally thousands of temples -- maybe as many as three thousand. So, even if he did five a day he couldn’t do them all in a year. But you’ll often find in places like this, the ritual that went on twice a day, well talk about that a little farther on on, twice a day; it’s always carved in stone as if it’s Pharaoh doing it. And when the priests did it they would stand before the gods and say things like, “We’re here doing this because Pharaoh sent us.” In other words, Pharaoh saw himself as the highest religious authority in his world. And he was the one who kept the maat going by carrying out all the necessary rituals to keep the gods happy. Here’s Pharaoh, in ritual, making an offering. And if you look closely, in his hand he’s got a miniature maat statue. What that stone says is that in the ritual here, Pharaoh presented to Horus order. “I’ve made an offering. I’ve maintained order in your world. I’ve made Horus happy. So the system is working.” Pharaoh is an integral part of the function of the universe. That’s so essential to see in Egypt. Now, from here, this is a Hypostyle Hall, where various rituals began, but we still need to move where the god himself is. Come.

We’ve come in to what’s called the sanctuary. And, actually, this surprised me a bit. I expected the sanctuary to be the most beautiful impressive spot, but it isn’t. There’s a couple of things you’d find about these temples. One, the closer you get to the public, the bigger and the grander everything is. I think there’s a picture in that. As we move toward the god, it becomes more and more mysterious, darker and darker, and smaller and smaller. And it almost always rises. Probably standing on here (a stone platform in the sanctuary), and my guess would be from what I’ve learned, in a barq -- in a boat -- is the statue of the god. Amon Ra. They’re usually fairly small, you had to carry them around after all, and often made of solid gold. Or, sometimes, like you saw Tutankhamun’s mask, covered with gold leaf or gold foil. Gold is called the skin of the gods in the Egyptian world. And that’s god. Now please know, they did not think that statue was a god. That statue is a marker. It tells you where the god’s presence is. Imagine a god who says, “Cherubim, I live between them. So where you see the cherubim, that’s where I am.” They would have understood such a concept really, really well, because here the statue is the marker and, boy, you’re sure praying every day that Ammon Ra comes and dwells in that statue. Because if he doesn’t, maybe the Nile doesn’t flood next year. Maybe my wife gives birth to a child that doesn’t... you know what I’m saying. So every day there’s an extensive ritual here twice a day and that, remember, is Pharaoh’s responsibility. Sometimes he actually did it, in his own temple, for example. Sometimes the priests did it for him. So this isn’t, “let’s go through worship today.” This is huge. Because if this doesn’t work, the universe doesn’t work. So different than we feel. None of you think, “If I don’t go to church this week, maybe the sun won’t come up tomorrow.” You don’t think that. Hey, if the God you go to church to worship decides the sun won’t come up tomorrow, don’t kid yourself. But, fortunately for us, it isn’t dependent on what I do in church as to whether God is faithful to what He created. But, here, Pharaoh plays a role in all that. Now, a question comes up, “are these just stones and myths? Or is there more to it?” Now, if you read your bible carefully, it tends to go both ways. In some places it says the idols of the pagans are just rocks. But in some places it addresses the gods of the nations as real powers. And in the Exodus, that’s exactly what it says. God says, “I will execute judgement on the Egyptian gods.” So I need you to feel, however we deal with it, however you think: there was power here, don’t kid yourself. This is not an empty room with a bunch of pre-civilized people creating myths. That’s true, there was myth, but there was power here. And the book of Deuteronomy says the sacrifices you offered to idols were offered to demons. Paul will pick that up and address it to Corinth in the New Testament. Don’t forget, there is demonic power behind this whole thing. Whether it lived in this statue or this room or not, this is real. There is a story here.

If all it was is an alternative story, now the issue would be, simply, “do you have this god (we would say the right one), or this god (we would say the wrong one)?” That’s a big issue. Don’t kid yourself. But the story has a price tag. And so does God’s story. Come.

So the Egyptian story has a price tag. Think about it this way. If their story was the right story, the little bit we just walked through, then nature -- the sun, the sky, the Earth, the Nile -- is god. And in nature we all know the strong eat the weak. So if I’m the weak in this system, I’m nervous. This system glorifies, and eventually deifies, the human. And, you know what? Morality is going to be what the human says it is. Whether it’s the biggest human, the majority of the humans, or each individual human, will decide what’s right and what’s wrong. Some are going to pay a high price for the order of this system. The slave. The baby thrown into the Nile. The poor. The old. This system is not going to be very nice for them. And you know what I find interesting? If you think about it that way, it’s exactly the opposite of God’s story. God’s story is about brining shalom to chaos. And it’s about the weak, and the nobody, and the hurting; whether it’s each one of us in our alienation from the God of the Bible, or whether it’s the homeless, or the single mom, or the orphan, or the AIDS victim, or the unborn. So I would say, if you see a culture where life is cheap, and where it’s ok to sacrifice some -- the elderly, the unborn -- you’ve got a culture that’s buying into the wrong story. If you’ve got a culture that’s obsessed with human pleasure and success and power and everything your heart could possibly desire, we ought to ask the question, “has the culture bought the wrong story?” [31:40]


Noah took no art or artists, no books or writers, no wise rulers or craftsmen into the ark. There was nothing of value to save.
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