Mysteries of the Global Flood Revealed!

In a culture where writing on the Bible will always be too secular for some people and too prone to apologetics for others, published works in biblical history might seek to more carefully emulate Caesar’s wife, avoiding even the appearance of (fideistic) impropriety.

Yesterday, I called attention to an infelicitous phrase in King and Stager’s Life in Biblical Israel (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001). Writing about a Pre-Pottery Neolithic olive processing site on the sea floor off modern ʿAtlit (that’s south of Haifa, or south of Mount Carmel), King and Stager had written that the site was

…inundated in the mid-sixth millennium, probably by a world-wide flood.

The paragraph referenced Ehud Galili, “Prehistoric Site on the Sea Floor,” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 1:120-122. There, I find this ’graph (emphasis mine):

About twenty thousand years ago, the last Ice Age reached its peak. Soon afterward, the melting ice caused a rise in sea level that resulted in a significant reduction of coastal plains throughout the world. By the beginning of the Holocene, however, in about 8000 BCE, the Mediterranean was about 30 m lower than its present self.

In other words:

  1. About 20,000 years ago, the most recent glaciation event (not an “ice age,” which are longer, such that we may well still be between glaciation events in a single Ice Age) peaked, with sea levels rising between then and now (on average, that is, with relatively short term accelerations and decelerations set aside).
  2. By 10,000 years ago (around 8,000 BCE), waters had risen nearly, but not yet, to a then-coastal site settled by folks who press olives.
  3. By about 7500 years ago (ca. 5500 BCE), waters had risen enough that the increasingly-sodden coastal site was abandoned, though not necessarily precipitously (King and Stager will note that no olives are left unprocessed at the site). Today, it is under water.

In King and Stager, this 15,000+ year rising of sea levels, with coastal sites gradually shifting landward, is collapsed into a “world-wide flood” that “inundates” the site “in the mid-sixth millennium.”

This choice of words obviously, and unfortunately, evokes the biblical story of an instantaneous and cataclysmic global flood (Gen 6–8). This evocation is equally damaging for biblical studies, whether the audience is those who read Gen 1–11 as history, or those who suspect with dismay that all biblical historians will do so.

This confusion, about whether the biblical narrative is being uncritically accepted, is compounded by a habit that King and Stager share with other biblical historians, whereby biblical narrative episodes are presented in language that presupposes their historicity. For just one example, (page 109),

The terebinth…gave its name to the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath (1 Sam. 17:19).

Not, “where David is said to have slain Goliath,” but “where David slew Goliath.” It is as if a writer on ancient Greece were to say, “Troy archaeological level VIIa is topped with a destruction layer, including burn marks to the walls outside of which Achilles slew Hector.”

This writerly habit could be explored further in another post. Here, I simply offer it as the kind of thing that makes it hard to know what to do with a cursory reference to “a world wide flood” in an academic, peer-reviewed work on the history of ancient Israel.

What would you say, reader? Do I make too big a deal over nothing? Or, in the context of larger conversations about isolating the fideistic from the evidentiary in biblical studies, does every molehill deserve scrutiny?

[Mysteries of the Global Flood Revealed! was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

6 Responses

  1. […] Mysteries of the Global Flood Revealed! […]

  2. This is an excellent post. The example of Troy is a good one, as there is some historical background to the Trojan epic, although it is more complicated than just “this happened here” and “this whole thing is a myth.”

    Perhaps this olive site was the official oil merchant of Noah’s Ark (TM) and he cleaned out their supply before the waters hit.

  3. Yes, a good point I think on the whole, though I must say the first paragraph made me frown. You wrote:

    In a culture where writing on the Bible will always be too secular for some people and too prone to apologetics for others, published works in biblical history might seek to more carefully emulate Caesar’s wife, avoiding even the appearance of (fideistic) impropriety.

    So it’s only “fideistic” impropriety that’s to be avoided?

    • Hi Colin, it’s good to hear from you.

      I’m happy to admit I never got that first ’graph where I want it. I could only find really *long* ways to say what I wanted, but didn’t want to bog down at the outset. Not least, I judge that “fideistic” may not serve as the right shorthand term for what I mean to be saying.

      What I do mean to say is, that a peer-reviewed work in the discipline of history should avoid relying (or appearing to rely) on private revelation or sectarian faith-claims, and should further avoid the false “teach the controversy” rhetoric that you get (for example) in a Creation “museum.” If one is going to say that there was “probably” a world-wide flood—and if by that one means an instantaneous global catastrophe—then that “probably” cannot be argued to hang on the balance of publicly available evidence. It can only hang on private revelation (including a revelation-based privileging of a particular reading of Gen 6–8) or on an intentional or unintentional torturing of the physical evidence.

      In considering your last question, I am trying to imagine what the “other” impropriety would be. I don’t know what it would mean to rely *too heavily* on publicly available evidence over against private revelation or sectarian faith-claims. Perhaps a better “other side” would be the stance that is sometimes called biblical “minimalism,” in that they can be considered not to “give the Bible its due.” There, though, I think the real problem is *not* that they don’t give enough weight to private revelation or sectarian faith-claims, but rather that they fail in their treatment of *some* of the publicly available evidence (the biblical texts, cognate languages, pre-exilic extra-biblical data, and so forth).

      Let me know if that all sounds more like it, or if you think there is more to consider.

      Always glad to see you commenting here and elsewhere, Colin. You can see I keep a space in my blogroll available for you! :^)

  4. Brooke, thanks for the longer answer, and I did think that this is more or less what you had in mind. Two quick things…

    Yes, my comment was aimed to some degree at the minimalist camp and their ilk.

    More, though, I was trying to tease out the nature of things like public/private information, minimalist/maximalist, secular/fideistic, etc, etc. These oppositions have always rankled me, if for no other reason than that each of the epistemological presuppositions involved in these dichotomies preclude discussion of the other.

    And of course, partly you’re getting caught in the web of what I’m reading, which at the moment includes the Zizek/Milbank debate, which involves significant critiques of the philosophical project that creates some of these dichotomies that we’re talking about.

    And thanks for keeping my spot on your blogroll :). I’ll be back to blogging at some point I think, but probably not for a couple of months still. Doctoral coursework is winding down, comps and dissertation phase are coming up, and baby #2 will be here in about a month. But I’ll still be reading your stuff, just with a tiny little girl in my other hand while I type my responses with one finger ;).

    • Erk. The dissertation period was hands-down the hardest time of my life, but that last term of course work was, by far, the *busiest*! Finishing course work is a big “hang in there.” :^)

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