Conversations about science and religion inevitably get around to the Genesis flood. Behind the topic of evolution, the flood depicted in Genesis is probably the most common topic in the science and religion discussion. After all, the evidence for a global flood is, quite frankly, nonexistent. Yet many read Genesis 6-8 as committing Christians to a global flood. Does Genesis 6-8 depict a global flood? If so, are Christians committed to either believing in a global flood or believing that the Bible erred? What does it mean to write in defense of the Genesis flood?
Tremper Longman III and John Walton have weighed in on this debate in their recent The Lost World of the Flood. We will first set the context of the Lost World Series. Then, we will look at the position Longman and Walton take on this issue. Finally, we will briefly summarize other aspects of the book.
The Lost World Series
John Walton has a number of books now in the Lost World Series. Previous books include The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, The Lost World of Scripture, and The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. In the introduction, the underlying concepts of the Lost World series are laid out: (1) an accessible discussion of a topic of current popular interest, (2) a structure based on central propositions that develop in a logical sequence, (3) a fresh, close reading of the Hebrew text, (4) reading with the ancient Near Eastern literature and cognitive environment in the background, and (5) a hermeneutic that emphasizes God’s authoritative message in the communication of the human source and his audience, with the principle that the Bible is written for us, but not to us.
Point (5) is especially important here. Walton, in particular, has emphasized the importance of speech act theory for understanding biblical authority. Simply put, there are three acts in speech act theory: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. A locutionary act is simply the utterance. The illocutionary act is what you are doing with the utterance (promising, commanding, and so on). The perlocutionary act is the effect the speaking is hoping to accomplish. There are a number of debates about and within speech act theory, but this overview should be sufficient. With this as the background, we will now look at how they handle the flood.
A Global Flood?
One finds this discussion important in the first proposition, “Genesis is an Ancient Document.” There the authors write, “Inspiration is tied to locutions (they have their source in God); illocutions define the necessary path to meaning that can be defined as characterized by authority.”  This is important because Longman and Walton argue that the Bible is a form of high context communication, a form of communication where the author and audience share much in common, entailing that much is left unsaid. That is why reading the text against the ancient Near Eastern background is so important: the biblical writers were in their own cultural river, which is not ours.
Combining this with the idea that the Bible is not a scientific textbook and God’s intention is not to teach about scientific aspects of events or phenomena, Longman and Walton end up arguing that there was a real, cataclysmic event that is described in global terms, but this description is not authoritative. This is because the text is written within a certain cognitive environment that culturally conditions (the flood tradition) and rhetorically shapes (global language) the description. To put it another way, the human author is not intending to teach that there really was a global flood. Instead, that is part of his culturally conditioned and rhetorically shaped environment. The author may have even believed in a global flood, but that does not entail that he is authoritatively teaching such a view.
Here an example might help: “The idea that people think with their entrails is built into the expressions that [the biblical authors] use and the beliefs of the biblical communicators, but the revelatory intention is not to make assertions about physiology or anatomy.”  So, Longman and Walton want to distinguish between what the authors believe and what the authors teach. Only what the authors teach, their illocutionary acts, are authoritative. This does not entail a denial of biblical inerrancy because inerrancy has traditionally been attached to what the Bible affirms. Under this view, since the author does not intend to affirm and teach a global flood (it is assumed), whether there was a global flood or not is immaterial. Thus, to write in defense of the Genesis flood does not mean writing in defense of a global flood.
This does not entail that therefore the text has no purpose. Instead, the interpretation of the event is authoritative. Here one might rightfully worry that Longman and Walton are working with a rather limited view of speech act theory. Paul Maxwell points out that speech act theory can be reductive. While I do not see this as a limitation of speech act theory itself, it can be a limitation of its proponents.
For instance, Longman and Walton point out that there is no flood story from Egypt.  The reasons for this can be myriad. However, given that Walton sees an Egyptian background as prominent in Genesis 1,  it seems possible that the biblical author could be combating a possible denial of a global flood in Egypt and thus authoritatively teaching a global flood. So their argument seems too quick. As stated, this objection is not solid by any means. After all, it depends on speculation about why there is no flood text in Egypt and about the author’s background and motives for writing about the flood. Nonetheless, it is certainly an issue that must be wrestled with. Where there are variations within the cultures that make up the culture at large, discerning the line between culturally conditioned and taking a stand on a debated issue can be tricky. It seems to me that more work should be devoted to this area.
Moving forward, though, Longman and Walton do believe that the author intended to refer to a real event in the real past. Thus, they do affirm that there is some event concerning a flood that is authoritatively taught. The makeup of that flood, however, is not authoritatively taught. A few points are used to weigh in this direction. First, Genesis 1-11 does use figurative language like metaphor and hyperbole. They start with examples we would all agree on: God opening the eyes of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:7), Abel’s blood crying out from the ground (Gen. 4:10), and God breathing into man’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7). The Bible also uses hyperbole to describe historical events. They mention that Joshua 1-12 seems to indicate that the Israelites conquered all of the land while Joshua 13 highlights all of the land yet to be conquered.
With these two points as background, they argue that the flood account also uses hyperbolic language. They argue that a real event was rhetorically shaped with cosmic proportions, in line with other ancient Near Eastern literature. Hyperbole permeates the flood. Genesis 6:5 emphasizes the total wickedness of every human, yet Noah was a righteous man. They also argue that the ark dimensions were hyperbolic. Since there is no boat even close in size from the ancient world, they believe that the readers would have seen the dimensions as hyperbole because of the size and the fact that the boat would not be seaworthy.
The flood itself is also hyperbolic because it is depicted as global. Here Longman and Walton argue that the biblical depiction is of a global flood. The pervasiveness of human sin, God regretting making human beings, the flood as an act of re-creation, the need to take animals, the size of the boat, the descriptions of where the water comes from, and the description of the height of the waters all point to a global flood. Thus, the Bible does depict a global, not a local, flood.
So let’s summarize the views of Longman and Walton. They believe that what is authoritative is the illocutionary act of the human author, what the author is intending to teach. The author does intend to teach about a real event in a real past. However, the description of this event is laden with the cultural milieu and rhetorical conventions of the time. Thus, the flood is portrayed as a global flood, but this is in line with the figurative language that we find throughout Genesis 1-11 and within the flood narrative. Moreover, the cognitive environment shows us that a global flood would be taken for granted and thus part of the author’s (and audience’s) background. Given this, the authoritative teaching is not about the global dimensions of the flood, but about the interpretation of this event. This takes us to a summary of the rest of the book.
Interpretation, Science, and the Flood
After surveying the other flood traditions and comparing and contrasting the biblical account with them, Longman and Walton move on to talking about how the flood is interpreted. This is important because their goal is constructive, not simply destructive. That is, they are not simply ruling out that we need to believe in a global flood, they also want to talk about what the text does authoritatively teach and mean. Along these lines, they talk about two interpretations. The first is one that is well-known and often taken: the flood is about how God remains gracious even in His judgment on human sin.
They also lay out a second view. This view focuses on the themes of order, nonorder, and disorder. The emphasis falls on divine presence. Where God’s presence is, order is increased and maintained. The overall thrust, then, would be about how God brings order through the covenant after the nonordered water wipes out the disorder caused by human sin.
Against this background, Longman and Walton provide another reading for the sons of God narrative in Genesis 6:1-4 First, they argue that this event takes place after Adam and Seth. This is for three reasons. First, genealogies often move forward in time before the narrative then goes back to where the story was. Second, the account takes place when human begins multiplying. Third, the sons of God see the daughters of men as good, the same language found in Genesis 1 and 3. Thus, the interbreeding of the sons of God and daughters of men is not the cause of the flood. Instead, the sons of God represent a quasi-presence of God that actually increases disorder.
Finally, they turn their attention to the tower of Babel. They see the offense of the builders not in disobeying the creation mandate (it is a blessing, not a command) nor in pride, but in “the indirect object (a name for themselves rather than for God).  This is because the tower is a ziggurat. Thus, it is not about ascending up to God, but about constructing sacred space that God uses to come down.  Therefore, if they are constructing sacred space, the objective should be about making a name for God, not themselves.
Along the way, Longman and Walton discuss many points in the biblical text. The book ends by thinking about the flood. They again emphasize that the flood has a real event behind it, although we might not be able to identify this event and should not be dogmatic in doing so. Therefore, writing in defense of the Genesis flood means we should affirm a real event in the past that must fit certain specifications, but it does not mean we need to be able to definitively identify that event. As an example that would qualify, they mention the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. Their point is not that this hypothesis is correct or the event that stands behind the Genesis flood, it simply serves as the type of event that would qualify. Stephen O. Moshier contributes a chapter arguing that geology does not support a worldwide flood. They further argue that flood stories from around the world do not prove a worldwide flood. Finally, they discuss how science can purify our religion and religion can purify our science.
We have seen that Longman and Walton are not denying inerrancy. They believe their view is perfectly consistent with what evangelicals have affirmed about inerrancy. After all, inerrancy is about what the Bible affirms, and they argue that the author is not intending to teach a global flood. Instead, while a global flood is depicted, this is because of the cultural conditioned and rhetorical shaped nature of the author and the text. The author does teach that there was a real flood in the real past, but the depiction of this flood as global is not authoritative. Therefore, the scientific evidence that poses a problem for a global flood does not pose a problem for biblical inerrancy. They go on to see the flood narrative in terms of two different interpretations. First, there is the common interpretation of God being gracious even though He brings judgment on sinful humanity. Second, they discuss the importance of the divine presence bringing order and how God brings about order through the covenant after the nonorder of the flood waters that wipe out the disorder of human sin. Overall, the book is well worth a read for anyone interested in this topic. It is an important contribution. If you want to write or speak in defense of the Genesis flood, this book is extremely valuable.