Is Genesis 7 Inerrant?

The question of the inerrancy of Scripture has been freshly addressed in Anglican circles lately. It is such a terribly abstract question, with far too much hanging on semantics. Let us get into the same question from a more practical angle: the battle-scarred territory of Genesis 1-11.

Though I didn’t know it by this name, for many years I tried to inhabit the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) model of Stephen Jay Gould when it came to relating the creation account of Genesis to the universal agreement of scientists when it comes to assessing the age of the earth and the visible cosmos. The idea is simply this: The Bible gives us one kind of information about creation. Scientific consensus gives us another. They do not contradict, because they are in many ways different species of knowledge. One can therefore simultaneously say, “I am a Christian who believes the bible” and, “the planet earth is around 4 billion years old, pangaea began to break apart 175 millions years ago, homo sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago, expressing behavioral modernity around 100,000 years ago, there is no evidence for a global flood in the Cenozoic era (the last 66 million years), and there has certainly never been a global flood in the Holocene epoch (the last 12,000 years)” I think that the NOMA model is at play for most Christians with college degrees, certainly the vast majority of evangelicals and Anglicans that I have met and talked with over the last 15 years.

The problem is, NOMA doesn’t work. The Bible patently asks its readers to believe things as literal facts that do contradict the claims of the magisterium of Science. Here I am not so much thinking about the very difficult exegetical details presented in Genesis 1 (much pondered by the Fathers), but rather the much simpler details presented in Genesis 4-10. Contrary to conventions of modern biblical scholarship, there is good reason to believe that Genesis 1-11, at a literary level, is asking to be read as simple history. The chief indicator of this is the chrono-genealogies throughout, that locate and link all the events in real human history, and place them somewhere between 5000 BC and 2300 BC. [1] This is the frank assessment of world renowned Old Testament scholar James Barr (who himself believed in an old earth),

This powerful and durable tradition, under which the biblical figures were understood to be chronologically precise and to furnish a basis for calculation from creation down to later events, was quite correct. It interpreted the Bible’s intention rightly. This is what these biblical figures were intended to do, or some of them at any rate. From the genealogies of Genesis the reader could reckon the time down to the flood; from the flood he could reckon on to the exodus, and from there to the building of Solomon’s temple. The figures were meant to be exact and to be taken literally. They do not mean anything at all unless they mean actual numbers of years. Thus to say that Abraham was 75 years old when he migrated from Haran into Canaan (Gen. 12.4) means exactly that, namely that he was 75 years old at that point, and to say that Israel’s stay in Egypt lasted 430 years (Exodus 12.40) means exactly that, that there were 430 years from the time they went in until the time when they came out again.[2]

Genesis 1-11 probably — and Genesis 4-11 certainly — was meant to be read as a history that indexed on to real years, known and connected to the first hearers of Torah as composed by Moses (around 1500 BC).[3] The great critical Biblical scholars of the previous generation recognized this, and when this fact conflicted with scientific consensus, they punted the Scriptures and trusted Science. Evangelical scholars of today are trying to wed what their mentors knew were incompatible.

And there are things presented as newspaper-headline-like facts in this history that are instantly contradictory to scientific consensus.

To my mind the most glaring is the global flood in the time of Noah. Read Genesis 7:18-24 (ESV) again:

The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.

The author is clearly taking pains to specify: every mountain, under the whole heaven, was covered with water. In fact, let me tell you the depth the highest mountain was covered by: fifteen cubits. And everything, every last living thing, every animal, every creeping thing, everything was blotted out.

Lest a subtle Marcionism suggests that somehow an Old Testament account is less reliable than a New Testament account, this narrative fact is repeated by St. Peter:

the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:20b)

St. Peter even forecloses on “a few” being stretched to mean “those in the ark, and those who were not impacted by the flood, which was merely local” by specifying that by “a few” he means exactly “eight persons.”

Genesis 7 is asserting the total destruction of all living things as a fact. And there is not a tenured geologist, physicist, paleo-anthropologist, paleo-biologist, or paleo-geneticist who would receive it as such. This flies baldly in the face of all scientific consensus. According to them, there is no evidence of a genetic common-ancestor for each species that dates to the 4th millenium BC, no evidence of a global flood at all, let alone one that covered all the mountains.

These magisteria clearly cannot co-exist. They clearly overlap. And not just here, but with a host of other elements within Genesis 4-11: Humans living up to 700, 800 and 900 years of age. And lest we dismiss this as literary device, Genesis 7:11 marks the Deluge exceedingly precisely within Noah’s life, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth,” This is not just an off-handed, “Noah is so epic, look how old he lived!” epitaph, this is a diary entry.

The question then becomes very acute: Is Genesis 7 telling the truth? Whether the language we use to describe that answer is “inerrant” or “veracious” or what have you, the question stands: Was there a man named Noah, whom chrono-genealogy places somewhere between 2300 and 2600, who in the six-hundredeth year of his life, witnessed a flood that covered the mountain-tops. This either happened or it didn’t happen. The Bible says it did. Scientific consensus says it didn’t. However much our BioLogos friends try and wriggle around it [4] — you can’t have both. If you side with science, than you are automatically saying that Genesis 7 isn’t veracious/inerrant. It is, in fact, in error, as an account.

But if you believe the Bible does tell the truth — and Genesis 7 is a truthful accounting of a real event, then you are a fool in the eyes of all scientists. And so be it! Christians should already be happy being fools: We believe in a God-man who was raised from the dead into an immortal embodied state! Having thus conceded to folly, it is then quite easy to acquiesce to the presentation that Adam was created somewhere between 5000 and 4000 BC.

These teachings — that Adam was a real man, who was created some several millenia before the coming of Christ, and that there really was a global deluge several long lifetimes after him — have always been understood as de fide in the Church, prior to the influx of German critical scholarship in the 18th century.[5]

Lastly, let the old chestnut about “the Fathers read Genesis as allegory” be put to rest forever. They did read Genesis as allegory, but this was in addition to their receiving it as literal history, not in contra-distinction, as so many who throw the datum around presume.

Not only the more “literal” readers like Jerome [6] and Chrysostom [7], but even the most allegorical readers readily concede the young-ness of the earth, and as a matter of faith, the young-ness of Adam. Instance Origen,

After these statements, Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated.[8]

Let God be true, and every man a liar. If the Bible says there was a flood that covered every mountain under heaven 15 cubits deep in water — in the 600th year of the life of a man who lived a few centuries before Abraham of Ur — then that is what I believe happened.

The magisteria do overlap — and we must pick which one we submit to. I assure you that between the two, it is the Bible that is telling us the truth. Geology may someday have its own Copernican revolution that will vindicate it, but until that day, I am happy to be called a fool by Geologists.

While some Christians, such as the Answers in Genesis organization, seek to show how they can still engage in hard science and hold their young earth beliefs, many, such as myself, are simply happy to be fools in the eyes of the world. And we are not alone. Our Baptist brothers, and our Lutheran Church Missori Synod brothers are whole-heartedly committed to a young Earth position, and this is no small witness to encourage we Anglicans toward boldness on this front.

Whatever squabbles we may get into over what word best describes this statement of trust in the Bible’s claims — inerrant, etc — let us not forget its substance, nor distance ourselves too much from our Christian brothers who have put a lot of sweat into defending it.

  1. The LXX and MT famously have different year-counts for the patriarchal lives, and the resulting tabulation places the creation of Adam at 4004 BC (per the MT, following Ussher) or around 5000 BC (per the LXX as tabulated in patristic chronica and commentaries). All agree that Abraham lived somewhere near to the 21st century BC.
  2. Barr, James “Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science” Ethel M Wood Lecture: University of London,1987.
  3. Yes, against most all critical OT scholarship, I believe Moses wrote the Torah. Because Jesus refers to Moses writing the Torah.
  4. Trying to paint the Deluge as local flood, etc. is merely legerdemain in the face of the clear meaning of the text as it sits.
  5. It is an open question — to the Fathers, and to us — whether the matter of the cosmos and the creation of the angels significantly pre-date the creation of man. Some fathers, like St. Jerome, believed that there were eons of angelic life, and possibly of some un-shapen, non-living matter, prior to “Day 1” of the creation account. This may be the case. Christian conscience is at liberty to think of the elements and the Angels as significantly older than the biome we inhabit. There is not this liberty when it comes to the origin of man — the rough dating of the creation of Adam. The Fathers never conceived of him as being made anterior to the 6th millenium B.C.
  6. “And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and knew Eve his wife, and she bare him a son in his image and after his likeness, and called his name Seth.” And again, in the tenth generation, two thousand two hundred and forty-two years afterwards, God, to vindicate His own image and to show that the grace which He had given to men still continued in them, gives the following commandment: “Flesh … with the blood thereof shall ye not eat.” — Jerome Letter 51.6
  7. “But the world, though subsisting now five thousand years, and many more, hath sufferednothing of the kind.” — John Chrysostom Homily 10 on the Statues
  8. Contra Celsus book 1 ch. 19

 



The Rev. Ben Jefferies

The Rev. Ben Jefferies is a sinner, grateful to the Lord for his mercy. He grew up in England, and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He went to Wheaton College, and several years later discerned a call to ministry and went to seminary at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Duncan in 2014. He currently serves The Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Liturgy Task Force of the ACNA from 2015-2019, and was the lead designer for the production of the printed prayer book. He continues as the Assistant to the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer (2019), and serves on the board of directors of Anglican House Media Ministries. He is married with three daughters.


'Is Genesis 7 Inerrant?' have 5 comments

  1. March 24, 2021 @ 5:51 pm Drew

    While the scientific problems currently associated with Young Earth Creationism are a problem that need to be faced with honesty, I find the thousands of flood traditions distributed throughout the world, many with striking similarities in their details to the biblical account, to be very strong evidence for a historical understanding of Genesis 7. That sort of thing does not happen by chance; it happens when all humans are descendants of Noah.

    Reply

  2. March 25, 2021 @ 2:13 pm John W

    Thank you for this article, Fr. Jeffries. I share your concern that we not metaphorize portions of Scripture that are not meant to be metaphors, even and especially those parts that seem strange or impossible. As you say, we believe in a God-Man who died, rose from the dead, and sits bodily at the right hand of God. To this article, I would offer a critique, and a question.

    First, the question: are some of these contradictions between the factual claims made by Scripture and those made by science real contradictions, or only apparent? Could some of them come down to the Scriptural accounts being factual, but not technical? For example, many years ago I read some Christian scientists (meaning, of course, scientists who are Christian, not members of the Christian Scientist sect) who believed in an old earth. Their position on the Flood narrative was that it should be taken as being written in the context of the human population at the time, which had not yet expanded beyond the Mediterranean region. Thus, a flood could be truly said to be worldwide without requiring that it also include Antarctica and North America, since the “world,” in that sense, is defined by the human population. And it could truly be said to have covered every mountain up to fifteen cubits deep, without requiring that “every” include Mt. Everest. Such an understanding would seem to fit theologically, since it is Man’s sinful twisting of his position as ruler of creation which requires the earth to be cleansed. Is that still at odds with the statement that everything “under the whole heavens” died? I don’t know, but I would be willing to say that the factual claims made by ancient peoples need not be worded in the same way as the kind of technical language perhaps expected by modern historians.

    As for my critique, I don’t think we have to make belief in the factual nature of Genesis 1-7 an all-or-nothing affair. Certain claims have greater importance tied to their being factual, rather than metaphorical (though both still true). To believe in the existence of a single individual named Adam who was the first man, and a single individual named Eve who was the first woman, does not also require that one believe the earth was created six thousand years ago. The former is, I think, necessary to believe, based on the theological implications drawn from it by Paul, and even by Jesus Himself. The latter is, I think, not required by the biblical narrative. And, relating to my above question, it may not even require jettisoning a “literal” interpretation, as I seem to recall that the word “day” can denote simply a long period of time without requiring it to be made figurative (again, it has been many years since I last studied this, and I am no Hebrew scholar, so I might be entirely off-base).

    Reply

    • April 7, 2021 @ 11:45 am Ben Jefferies

      Dear John W —

      The trouble is: scientific consensus would place “Adam” around 100,000 BC. They usually place him in Africa, not the Mediterranean. But even so, if we try on your hypothesis as a mediating solution between the Bible and Science — what we have is a human race: 10 generations following Adam, that lived ~100,000 years ago. If a local flood killed all them, that would mean that “all human beings” were killed, and thus it would harmonize with the Biblical text, but it would not account for the fact that the Bible also says all wildlife — including all birds — everything “on the whole face of the earth” was also killed. Also, it would mean that we have roughly 96,000 years of missing links in the genealogical chain that Genesis, Chronicles, and Luke are so careful to narrate as linking-history. So alas, positing a local flood for a small human population circa 100,000 bc doesn’t resolved the difficulties, to my mind.

      Reply

  3. March 25, 2021 @ 8:04 pm Charles F Sutton, Jr

    I took OT survey from Dr Meredith Kline, Sr, at Gordon-Conwell in 1974. He said that, in his understanding of the text, it was a very large but not universal flood, which destroyed all human life save Noah and his family, before humanity had spread beyond the Middle East. He was an old-earth creationist. It is now nearly fifty years since I took the course, so I am foggy on the details of what he said, but he certainly knew his Hebrew (and Ugaritic, etc).

    Reply

    • April 7, 2021 @ 11:46 am Ben Jefferies

      Dear Charles —

      As I just commented above to John:

      The trouble is: scientific consensus would place “Adam” around 100,000 BC. They usually place him in Africa, not the Mediterranean. But even so, if we try on your hypothesis as a mediating solution between the Bible and Science — what we have is a human race: 10 generations following Adam, that lived ~100,000 years ago. If a local flood killed all them, that would mean that “all human beings” were killed, and thus it would harmonize with the Biblical text, but it would not account for the fact that the Bible also says all wildlife — including all birds — everything “on the whole face of the earth” was also killed. Also, it would mean that we have roughly 96,000 years of missing links in the genealogical chain that Genesis, Chronicles, and Luke are so careful to narrate as linking-history. So alas, positing a local flood for a small human population circa 100,000 bc doesn’t resolved the difficulties, to my mind.

      Reply


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