Impressions of “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate,” by Trempor Longman III and John H. Walton

I have previously read two books in the “Lost World” series and greatly admired them both. The Lost World of Genesis One (by John H Walton) and The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (by John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton) are outstanding works of Biblical commentary in the historical-critical method. In both books, two specific events without seeming physical evidence (The Creation of the world in six days and the destruction of Canaanite society in weeks) are re-interpreted as literal events. That is, Walton argues God created the world in six, 24-hour periods that match up precisely to our everyday understanding of “day.” But “creation” is in the sense of incorporation, God declaring the legal existence of the universe, rescuing from a meaningless existence without form or virtue. Likewise, the placing of all of Canaan “under the ban” actually happened – Joshua annulled all legal reality of the previous cities and cultures – meaning the Israelite occupation of Canaan owed nothing to the old gods of the land.

Creation and destruction being literal but legal is a fascinating perspective – it lines up well with Heiser’s supernatural and Peterson’s phenomenological understanding as to what is “real,” combined with the focus on operations of Law in the ancient near east, found in the ancient near east and other cultures.

In search, the literal, legal reading of Genesis and Joshua was eye-opening, a perspective so complete and evident in retrospect that I was embarrassed I had never thought of it before.

The Lost World of the Flood, unfortunately, is an entirely different work.

The book’s subject isn’t Noah’s Flood so much as the Primeval History, which the authors call the Theological History – the Creation of the World through the Tower of Babel. By the first couple centuries after Christ, Christians broadly believed in four senses of Scripture: literal (specific events), moral (what today we call “psychological”), allegorical (in which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are told indirectly), and anagogic (dealing with the last things in salvation history). For Christian traditions that are in the most profound contact with the early church – especially the Catholic and Orthodox professions – interpreting events literally is only one possible option. Indeed, this is why Walton’s earlier insistence that Genesis 1 is literal (but legalistic) was so surprising.

However, The Lost World of the Flood appears to be written within the context of an intra-Calvinist feud. Multiple times in Flood the authors note the Reformation-era belief of Protestants that the Scripture is “clear,” which the authors interpret to mean that there exists a “Clear” sense of Scripture. For unclear reasons, the authors do not consider extending their previous method (that the interpretation of events is literal but legalistic) as a valid “clear” scripture, but instead take the default (and obvious) assumption the work is “mythological”, by which the authors mean the story if a hyperbolic exaggeration of an actual event for dramatic effect, as opposed to (say) a literal description, a moral/psychological description, or so on.

In their conclusion, the authors entirely retreat from their position that the flood story is “clear” with the appropriate context, into a different but dangerous soteriology: the Scriptures are “clear” about what is necessary for salvation, which the authors present as an enumerated list. A book that was sold as a novel view of the Flood story along the lines of Walton’s earlier work, and spent much of its length being a mythopoetic analysis of the Primeval History, instead became applied Gnosticism: there are specific secrets necessary to get into heaven, but if you know the passcodes, you’re in!

The book concludes with an astonishingly poorly written attack on biblical literalism. The motivation is clear – given the author’s concern of “the plain sense of scripture,” it makes sense that some might interpret it to mean that Scripture is written plainly, and the plain meaning of each passage must be the “real” meaning. But if so, the attack is incoherent: one can’t simultaneously attack Biblical literalists for insisting on the realities of miracles and that natural causes could explain a literal Flood. I believe that Biblical literalism is incorrect, that the demands for the “plain meaning of the Scripture” are fundamentally misplaced. Still, I doubt the authors’ attacks would convince anyone of that. As an example, here is a snippet from a review by a Biblical literalist:

Also the fact that the authors questioned the size of the ark since no other ships have been made this large with wood. The thing that the authors seemed to miss or ignore was the fact that this wasn’t a vessel intended to navigate the waters or sail on the seas, they didn’t need to navigate it was intended to be a floating house/zoo so of course it wouldn’t be made like any other ship because it’s function was totally different.
“Disappointed- Less Biblical Focus More Secular,” AD 2020

That rejoined makes sense to me! And this book came out nearly 1,700 years after St. Augustine’s works, which (as the authors accurately point out) also criticized literalism:

for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”
St Augustine, Confessions, circa AD 300

So, unlike the excellent works The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, I cannot recommend “The Lost World of the Flood.” Unlike The Qur’an, or The End of the Beginning, or other words I disagreed with, there’s not enough substance in this work to engage. This book is a repetition of the most obvious interpretation of the Flood – that it’s a myth with a theological point – combined with curt and unconvincing appeals to Gnosticism and against fundamentalism. Reading The Lost of the Flood felt like listening to a meeting of Buddhists declaring Hindus anathema.

I read The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate in the Audible edition.

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