An account which appears to post-date several other similar mythological narratives and was written thousands of years after the events it purports to narrate with no known lines of transmission has no historical value. If a person does not grant the Bible special privileges, why would they accept the details Genesis narrates over, for example, the older Babylonian version that the biblical account shares many features with? A historian approaching all texts equally would not. To state the obvious, historians require historical evidence. There is no ancient corroboration for the flood story in close proximity to when it actually might have occurred. Though to be perfectly honest, even if it did occur as Genesis narrates, we should not expect any "contemporary-primary data" to actually survive (was writing even a thing then?). So in this case the absense of evidence is not evidence of absence. Historians do not blindly trust sources written shortly after the events they narrate, let alone thousands of years later by an unknown author. Compare a knowledge of the historical Jesus to the flood account. The gospels were all written 30-70 years after Jesus died. There are at least plausible lines of transmission and avenues for potential eyewitness testimony in the tradition, events and sayings receive multiple independent attestation and there is clearly some material which is embarrassing or against the grain (not at all likely to be created). The flood account appears as a late mythological narrative that rewrites other well known stories in the ANE. It is hard to imagine the Biblical version being accurately transmitted orally for thousands of years and actually predating other versions that at least in the extant record, appear many centuries before it. We know oral stories change over time and we know the Biblical account already consists of two separate narratives to begin with! At best the abundance of flood myths with a wide geographical spread in antiquity could be used to support the notion of a great deluge (or several) in the past. But even geologic evidence of a major flood 6,000-50,000 years ago does not validate a single detail in the Biblical narrative. So I am going to address this from a Christian perspective, one that does treat the Bible as sacred scripture. It is more a question of Biblical interpretation as opposed to historical investigation.
First we must decide what we mean by the question. Are we asking if a Global flood happened, a localized version or if there is only a historical kernel in the account? Given there are two flood accounts in Genesis edited together with conflicting details, the law of non-contradiction dictates all the details of the Biblical version cannot be literality true. But Jesus and many parts of the Bible reference Noah and the account is narrated plainly in scripture. There is no real reason to suppose later authors and Jesus treat Noah any different than Abraham, Moses, David or any other figure of renown from Jewish tradition. So for many Christians this settles the issue. Since Jesus and so many other parts of the Bible treat the account as if it really happened, Bible-based Christians are not in a position to believe otherwise. I am not convinced Jesus's reference to Noah and the flood requires a literal interpretation for several reasons but that issue is so important it is given its own separate treatment. Here I will focus on Genesis on its own terms.
I think all the details as presented in the Bible, especially for a global interpretation, are impossible for many reasons. We can ask all sorts of questions such as how did penguins get on the ark, why didn't t-rex eat everyone onboard and what did the animals eat after getting off the ark? This list could be exponentially multiplied and I have outlined many difficulties with a global flood here and there is no need to repeat that unedifying information. I am convinced the Bible considers the flood universal (see here) with respect to humans but people were spread out around the globe at the time so a localized flood could not wipe out the entire human population either. Both local and global interpretations of the flood that try to salvage all of the details are problematic to me. It is important to note just how similar the Genesis flood is with several other ANE myths that actually pre-date it in written form by a very long time. That information is summarized below:
18:23-33 Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" 26 And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." 27 Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." 29 Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." 30 Then he said, "Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." 31 He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." 32 Then he said, "Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.Did Noah and company only reach 8? Is ten the magic number? Do children not count? Does God truly murder the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the Lord of the earth do what is right? The Bible does declare everyone in society to be wicked and evil but one thing I find a bit curious is how proponents of a localized flood take this part extremely literally, but not all the other universal language in the account. What happened to hyperbole? And how are the children, babies and those in the womb guilty? Why did God not lead some children to the ark so Noah and company could take care of them? With all the miracles we usually have to multiply to believe the flood narrative to begin with, why is this one not on the top of the list? In the end, mass impartial murder is mass impartial murder. If you can justify one genocide, even by God, you can also justify those by human rulers, the ones He allegedly puts into power! The next time I see a cartoon depiction of the flood I hope the landscape is portrayed as desolate and destroyed--and along with the ark, the beautiful rainbow and all the colorful animals--I hope the background is littered with bloating bodies--the water-logged corpses of children, infants, men, women and unborn children drowned in their mother's wombs. As a Christian--a follower of Christ--I believe he is the image of God on earth and the Jesus who died on a Roman cross and said "Let the little children come to me" does not appear synonymous with a God who intentionally drowns millions of children.
Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humans, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.Was God really flattered that much by the smell of roasting animal flesh that he decided not to ever drown the world again? Right before God pronounces the wickedness of the human population we see demi-gods marrying the daughters of men:
Genesis 6:4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.There have been many attempts to soften this but Bill Arnold writes:
Interpreters have made every effort to explain this text in some way other than the plain and obvious meaning of the words before us. Such interpretive efforts have included theories on human marriages between the faithful Sethites and wicked Cainites, or dynastic rulers and their polygamous marriages and ruthless offspring, or otherwise demonic and/or angelic interpretations. However, the clear sense of the text is simply that of preternatural beings (i.e., not entirely supernatural creatures but certainly not wholly natural either) fathering semi-human offspring of great exceptional military strength, and perhaps of great stature. Such divine– human unions are attested in other cultures of the ancient world, including Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Greek. . . .So part of the reason for the flood is attributed to herculean type demi-gods roaming the earth and having sex and making babies with human women. Coupling that with sin, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and Cain killed Abel, its clear creation has descended into chaos. God also arbitrarily reduces human life spans to 120 so he doesn't have to put up with us for too long. If that is so, I suspect an eternity in heaven with us is going to be really rough for him! For me, there are clearly mythological and primitive portrayals of God in the primeval history in Genesis. Add in talking snakes, magical fruits and punishments that vastly outweigh the crime and it seems undeniable we are reading fictional stories meant to teach us theological truths. What do the flood accounts teach us? If the flood account theological, what purpose does it serve in scripture. What does it teach us about God?
. . . Clearly this little pericope has its origins in the traditional mythology of the ancient Near East. However, it has been adapted by the Israelite authors to explain more than simply where the Nephilim came from and why humans have a restricted lifespan of 120 years (v. 3). Yahweh is not counted among these “sons of God.” In fact, Yahweh stands aside from them and condemns the unions they initiate with the humans. It has been somewhat demythologized by its placement in the primeval "history," tying the era of the Israelite authors to that distant past but also explaining the many drastic differences between the author's day and that ancient age. By placing vv. 1-4 immediately prior to the traditional Israelite explanation for the flood (vv. 5-6) the editor has transformed it and used it to show further why the flood was necessary. Illicit relations between celestial beings and human daughters belong to a far distant era different from that of the author, in antediluvian days, and illustrates the lawlessness and disorder of that time.[Genesis, Baker Exegetical pg 89-90]
“It is important to observe that right at the beginning there is a clear-cut moral motivation behind sending the Flood. The Gilgamesh Epic (an Akkadian story about a flood), which does have clear parallels with Gen. 6-9, lacks such a parallel here. The closest it comes is: “when their heart led the great gods to produce the flood” (Tablet XI, line 14). That vague statement is left unamplified. Later in that same tablet (line 179) the god Ea speaks to Enlil (the one who sent the flood): “How could you, unreasoning, bring on the deluge?” According to a related flood story, the Atrahasis Epic, twelve hundred years after man’s creation his noise and commotion has become so loud that Enlil starts to suffer from insomnia. Enlil sends a plague to eradicate boisterous humanity, only to have his plan thwarted. Next he tries drought and famine, which are also unsuccessful. Finally a flood is sent, which Atrahasis survives by building a boat. To call this noise moral turbulence or to understand the clamor of mankind as man’s chronic depravity reads into the text far too much. The problem is simply that there are too many people, with the result that there is too much noise. There is a limit on Enlil’s auditory capacities. It really should not surprise us that in a system of thought where the gods are not necessarily morally superior to human beings, and where the line between good and evil is blurred, there is no recording of the fact that man is to be drowned because he is a rebel and a sinner." [New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Genesis 1-17]God is portrayed very differently in Genesis. Humans aren't too noisy or destroyed for arbitrary reasons. Every inclination of their heart is towards evil. God laments and regrets creating us for what He now feels compelled to do. God deeply loves his creation to the point that our sin and wickedness has wounded him. The Genesis narrative attempts to portray God as just and heartbroken. The story tries to say humans brought on their own utter destruction but God who is faithful, steps in and saves the righteous Noah and his family. Enlil is portrayed as incompetent. His plans are continually foiled and thwarted. Here God chooses to save Noah. In the Atrahasis epic the flood is so severe the gods are portrayed as being scared (cowering like dogs). The gods are famished during the flood due to a lack of human sacrifices and they later swarm like flies. After the flood, Enlil is upset some humans have survived and in order to control the population, women will now be barren, demons will cause miscarriages and steal babies and some women will remain lifelong virgins, consecrated to the gods. The Genesis deluge has some primitive elements but it does not depict God as being afraid of flood waters, famished due to a lack of sacrifices and he wants his creation to be fruitful and multiply afterwards.