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.
Of course such a conclusion depends upon belief that the Bible has preserved the trueversion 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 is a minister in the United Reformed Church and serves at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. This article appeared in The Reformed Reader.