Why Study the Chronology of the Flood?

by Steven Boyd on May 27, 2010

For over a year now a team of Hebraists has been engaged in a crucial research project conducting an exhaustive linguistic and literary study of the Hebrew narrative of the Genesis Flood.

For over a year now a team of Hebraists, the Cataclysm Chronology Research Group (CCRG), has been engaged in a crucial research project under the auspices of Answers in Genesis, with assistance and input from AiG’s geologist and director of research, Dr. Andrew Snelling. The team is conducting an exhaustive linguistic and literary study of the Hebrew narrative of the Genesis Flood in order to determine its chronology and thereby provide the only solid foundation for research on the geological record of the Flood. Why is this research so vital?

To answer this question we must go back almost five hundred years to Wittenberg, Germany. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of that city’s cathedral, the standard procedure in that day to invite other scholars to a debate. He had only wanted to purify the Roman Catholic Church, being convinced that his arguments against the abuses of the Church were compelling and would provoke reform. However, because of his stand—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Sola Fide (faith alone) along with Solus Christus (Christ alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone)—and the intransigence of the Pope, Luther finally broke with the Roman Catholic Church, launching the Protestant Reformation.

The Solas were the five pillars of the Reformation, of which Sola Scriptura...was arguably the source of the rest.
The Solas were the five pillars of the Reformation, of which Sola Scriptura—our Faith must be based on Scripture only—was arguably the source of the rest. Sola Scriptura was the watchword of all the Reformers. For example, to Luther Scripture was “through itself most certain, most easily accessible, comprehensible, interpreting itself, proving, judging all the words of all men.”1 It remained so with their successors for several generations. Scripture, not the traditions of men, was believed to be authoritative, because “all Scripture is Theopneustos ‘God-breathed’” (2 Timothy 3: (16a) ). Scripture was believed to be truthful and accurate in all things whereof it speaks—including the content of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. In the sixteenth century it was believed that Creation, the Fall, the decline of man into depravity, and the Flood along with the dispersion of mankind and origin of the language families of the world at the Tower of Babel happened as Scripture describes. This situation remained even at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

But then something happened that challenged Scripture’s authority—at first in matters of history, but eventually in general—until truthfully, albeit astonishingly, it can be stated that the Scripture was dethroned as an authority. 2 How was this possible only one hundred years after the inauguration of the Reformation? Moreover, what happened that by the eighteenth century (the 1700s) the beloved Word of God was subjected to scathing vitriol, such as the following by Thomas Paine?

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind and, for my part I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel . . . 3

What was the origin, focus, and strategy of the attack on Scripture—for that is what it was and remains to this day—to bring it into such disrepute? 4 Who was this enemy, who vehemently, viciously, and viscerally attacked? What were his tactics? What did he concentrate on? And who carried out his biddings?

The enemy who has sworn to destroy Scripture is the Old Foe, whose mission was (and still is) to defeat the purposes and plan of God, the people of God, and God Himself. His strategy was and remains simple but brilliant: penetrate the defense lines of orthodoxy and then attack them from the rear, attacking what he perceived to be a point of weakness in the enemy’s (i.e., the people of God’s) lines. Consequently, he focused on the early chapters of Genesis. 5 And he did not focus immediately upon the carefully guarded miracles of Jesus and the reality of the Resurrection—although, that too would come in time. And his minions were the philosophers and fledgling scientists of that day, who, as it were, forged a list of counterfeit Solas: Sola Natura (nature alone), Solum Indicium (empirical evidence alone), Sola Ratio Hominis (human reason alone), Solus Labor (effort alone), and Soli Homini Gloria (glory to man alone). His tactics were to feint charge after charge, probing for a soft spot he could exploit. Sadly, he found one: the wobbly defense of the historicity, feasibility, and manner and means of the Flood (including its chronology), which was offered in the Renaissance. 6

The blame for an incorrect analysis of the chronology of the Flood cannot be laid at the feet of any one person; rather, it can be traced to linguistic naïveté (quite understandable, centuries before the rise of modern linguistics!). It was assumed—and still is in many quarters—that the sequence of verbs of a particular form (namely, the sequence of וַיִּקְתֹּל wayyiqtols, which makes up the “backbone” of a biblical Hebrew narrative) mirrors the order of the events depicted in the text, so that the sequence of events can be read off of the sequence of verbs.7 But now we know that temporal sequence is not marked in the form of a verb; the assumption, therefore, can lead to incoherent chronology. And that is what happened with the understanding of the chronology of the Flood: the guardians of Scripture were left defending an incoherent chronology, a battle they could not win. They fought valiantly, but inevitably were forced to give ground to the enemy. At first it was an orderly retreat, but then it turned into a rout.

A text that could not be trusted opened the door to destructive biblical criticism.
That battle was lost. The enemy took the hill. And how costly was the defeat. The historicity of the text was questioned from then on, and its integrity impugned. Previously, truth had been determined at the bar of Scripture, but from that point on, Scripture had to stand before the bar of human reason. 8 Furthermore, a text that could not be trusted opened the door to destructive biblical criticism. And finally, a Flood whose chronology could not be cogently explained led to Lyellian slow-and-gradual, millions-of-years geology (1830-33) and Darwinian evolution (1859).

But now we have the opportunity to turn back the clock. We can revisit the battlefield, join the battle again, and take back the hill that was lost. How? Further armed with the findings of modern linguistics and literary theory, the CCRG is attempting to develop a coherent Flood chronology. Even as we study the Biblical Hebrew text, it is imperative that we document what others have understood about the chronology of the Flood; and to that end, one of our team members is conducting a thorough study of the history of interpretation of the Flood from the Patristic period to the present. The team as a whole is looking at the Biblical Hebrew text of the Flood narrative from a micro perspective, individual verbs, up to a mega perspective, the structure of the whole narrative, and everything in between. That is, we must both ascertain the order of the events described in the Flood narrative, which are depicted by the verbs, and segment the overall narrative into its hierarchy of episodes, scenes, and paragraphs. 9 We now turn to explain these two extremes.

Let us start with the verbs. The verbs are in sequence, but were the events they represent? We must ask this question, because it is no longer linguistically tenable to assume that verbal sequence determines event sequence. Instead, event sequence is determined by the lexical semantics of individual verbs and the logical semantics between verbs.

Lexical semantics focuses on the types of actions represented by individual verbs. Consequently, we are studying the types of actions represented by the individual verbs in the Flood narrative. Linguists recognize that there are four basic types: states (“John was tired”), activities (“John ran”), achievements (“John won the race”), and accomplishments (“John built a house”). The first and second of these have no natural endpoint (the technical term for this property is atelic); and, therefore, for verbs of these types, time does not necessarily advance in a narrative. That is, the event depicted by the next verb may have occurred at the same time as the event depicted by the verb in question, or the two events may have occurred in a different order (called dischronologization). On the other hand, the third and fourth types do have an endpoint (called telic). So, time must advance.

Logical semantics, however, is concerned with the interactions between verbs. The most germane for us are compatibility and rhetorical relations. As for the first, compatibility, time must advance if actions are incompatible; there is no advance if they are compatible. For example, in the sentence, “John ran and sat down,” John must stop running before he can sit down. The two verbal actions are incompatible. They cannot occur at the same time. But with the sentence, “John ran and whistled,” John does not have to stop running before he can whistle. Since these verbal actions are compatible they can occur at the same time.

As for the second interaction, rhetorical relations are the ways the events depicted by sequential verbs can relate temporally. Seven have been suggested. Here are five of them. The most common we have coined serialation. This obtains when the events depicted by the verbs are in the same order as the verbs and are not related causally. An example would be “John went to the store and bought some milk.” Another way is explanation. In this case, the second verbal action explains the first, and may be its cause, for example: “John fell. Bill pushed him.” A third way is elaboration, such as “John wrote an email to his friend. He booted up his computer, opened his browser, went to the college webpage, moused down to email, entered his password, clicked on new, and typed out the message.” In this sequence of verbs, “wrote an email” is an introductory encapsulation, elaborated by the verbs following it. 10 That is, all the events depicted by the verbs after “wrote an email” are parts of the overall event of emailing. Result is a fourth way events represented by verbs can relate temporally, which may be illustrated by “John turned off the light. It was pitch black.” This is in contrast to a fifth way, background, as in the following: “The basement was dark. John cautiously descended the stairs.”

Now let us turn to the issue of the structure of the narrative. We must divide the narrative into its constituent parts, because temporal discontinuities are not uncommon between episodes, scenes, and even paragraphs, with the degree of temporal dislocation corresponding to the level in the narrative hierarchy. To that end the CCRG is employing information theory involving activation levels, topic and focus, and theme analysis. Also, we are investigating the syntactic and discourse function of a particular Biblical Hebrew verbal form, וַיְהִי wayə, which occurs at critical points of the narrative and may mark discontinuities. 11

We of the CCRG are confident that with the Lord’s help and by approaching the Hebrew text in the multifaceted way delineated above, we can resolve the chronology of the Genesis Flood.

In conclusion, we turn to a Lutherian-like quote. Its words give us our marching orders:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.12

It is clear what we must do: retake the hill. But to repeat, CCRG can only do this with the Lord’s help.

And when we do retake the hill, the godless –isms of most biblical scholarship of yesterday and today and of most of science will have lost their foothold. As a result, down they will come and their counterfeit solas will be replaced by the genuine. Only then, with the chronology of the Flood firmly established, and a better understanding of the Hebrew description of the Flood and its processes, will geologists committed to the authority of Scripture be able to reclaim geology, returning it to its original Biblical foundations. Thus, they will be able to better construct and constrain their comprehensive model of the Flood event, and the strata and structures it produced. In so doing the millions-of-years geologic timescale will be defeated, and the foundation of Darwinian evolution destroyed.

Please pray for the research team. As Moses’ arms were held up towards heaven in prayer while Joshua’s army fought the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13), so too is this research team engaged in a spiritual battle that needs to be fought with the spiritual weapons available to us (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Pray that the team will have wisdom and guidance from the Lord, with insights that will “crack the code” of the Flood chronology in the Hebrew text placed there by the Divine Author Himself. Pray also that the funds needed to conduct this research effort, and publish the results in books and articles, will be provided.

* Dr. Boyd (M.S., Physics, Drexel University; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Hebraic and Cognate Studies, Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion) is Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, The Master’s College, Santa Clarita, CA, and is the Director of the Cataclysm Chronology Research Group (CCRG).


  1. Quoted in H. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), 19.
  2. K. Scholder, Ursprünge und Probleme der Bibelkritik im 17. Jahrhundert (1966) quoted in H. Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, translated by J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 3.
  3. Excerpt from the Age of Reason quoted in J. Hayes, “History of the Study of Israelite and Judean History,” in Israelite and Judean History, ed. J. Hayes and J. Miller (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 50.
  4. The perspective of liberal biblical interpretation, of course, is that this was a rebellion against heavy handed orthodoxy: “The preeminence of a literal and historical reading of the most important biblical stories was never wholly lost in western Christendom. It actually received new impetus in the era of the Renaissance and the Reformation when it became the regnant mode of biblical reading. From it modern biblical interpretation began its quest in continuity as well as rebellion. Most important were three elements in the traditional realistic interpretation of the biblical stories, which also served as the foci for the rebellion against it,” (Frei, 1, emphasis mine).
  5. “The earlier parts of the Pentateuch, especially what scholars were pleased to call the biblical cosmogony, together with the original literary shape of the gospels, were topics of particular critical concern” (Frei, 17).
  6. These are documented by J. Allen, The Legend of Noah: Renaissance Rationalism in Art, Science, and Letters (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1963), 66–91, who’s liberal perspective is evinced as he explains why he studied the history of the interpretation of the Flood narrative: “I have selected the Noah story, however, because its vicissitudes at the hands of commentators are less known, and because the attempt to provide it with a reasonable explanation led to other investigations that did much to stimulate other sciences of great modern value. The progress of mankind often depends more on glorious failures than brilliant successes, and the attempt to provide a rational explanation of the Noah story is one of the glorious failures” (ibid., 66). Also see Allen for a discussion of the specific chronological issues swirling around at that time (ibid., 74, 82–84).
  7. The study of the event sequence represented by the וַיִּקְתֹּל wayyiqtols in sequence in the text is crucial to determining the chronology of the Flood, because there are seven וַיִּקְתֹּל wayyiqtols in a row in Genesis 7:17-18 (the first being וַיְהִי wayə) and twelve in a row in 7:23—8:4.
  8. Kant said of the eighteenth century, “Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But if they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination” (Quoted in J. Hayes and F. Prussner, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985], 53). Hayes and Prussner call Kant’s statements “the most clear-cut descriptions of the entire century to be found anywhere” (ibid.).
  9. The largest sub-units of narratives are episodes. These in turn may contain one or more scenes. Finally, scenes are composed of the smallest sub-units, paragraphs.
  10. The CCRG suspects that Genesis 7:17a, “The Flood was on the earth for forty days,” is such an introductory encapsulation, with the subsequent verses elaborating the particulars.
  11. Of the ten וַיְהִי wayəhîs in Genesis 5:28-9:29, the most important for resolving the chronology of the Flood are four through eight, found in 7:10, 12, 17; 8:6, 13, respectively.
  12. From a 19th Century novel about the Reformation, The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family, by Elizabeth Rundle Charles. Although these exact words were not stated by Luther all on one occasion, it appears that it accurately represents a compilation of his thoughts and sensibilities.

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.