The Reformer Martin Luther once claimed that the chronological details of the Genesis Flood “do not matter.”1 In his day, most of the Christianized West accepted the Bible’s history as true, and few Christian scholars quibbled about what seemed to be insignificant details.
So why would details about the sequence of the Flood’s events matter today? Isn’t it enough to accept that “they happened”?
Biblical scholar Harold Hoehner once stated, “The backbone of history is chronology.”2 Understanding the sequence of events is key to understanding the history itself. To disregard the chronology of Genesis is to undermine its historicity.
Liberal Attacks on the Flood Chronology
Attacks on the historical reality of the Genesis Flood began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Early in the century, geologists launched a major attack based on supposed evidence that slow processes deposited rock layers over millions of years. Another major attack focused on the Bible itself—the supposed confusion of the Flood account’s chronology. On the surface, some verses give the impression that the Flood peaked at the end of 40 days, while other verses appear to indicate the waters peaked after 150 days.
Based on such seeming conflicts, some theologians assumed that Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, which Scripture attributes to Moses in Matthew 19:8, etc.).3 They argued it was made up of multiple sources written centuries after Moses died, and a redactor (editor) pieced together multiple strands. To them, that explained why the Flood account supposedly has conflicting details. Accordingly, one source allegedly asserted a peak on the 40th day, while another source supposedly asserted a peak on the 150th day.4
The ultimate reason for this errant view stemmed in part from rejecting the Word of God as unified, inerrant, and authoritative. Yet this view was also encouraged by a common misunderstanding of a fundamental element of Hebrew grammar, the wayyiqtol (VIE-yik-tohl) verb form. Whenever this verb form appears, scholars typically assumed (and many interpreters still do today) that the sequence of events as they happened in history conforms to the precise order of the sequence of verbs.5
The Initial Conservative Reaction
In hindsight, it seems likely that conservative theologians could have blunted the force of the liberals’ arguments had they more carefully considered the history and chronology in the passage. Some valiantly refused to yield ground on the unity, inerrancy, and authority of the Genesis record; even so, virtually all of them adopted the same flawed theories being advanced by many scholars about the grammar of the Flood account. Most conservatives went along with the assumption that a chain of wayyiqtol verbs generally represents a strict sequence of events. This assumption, sadly, led to the adoption of a somewhat incoherent chronology.6
If the strict sequentiality of the verbs is taken for granted, then certain difficulties in interpretation begin to appear. For instance, Noah must have entered the Ark several different times (Genesis 7:7, 7:13; cf. 7:5, 7:16). Even more seriously, the Ark must not have begun to float on the floodwaters until after the 40 days of rain (Genesis 7:17), and no creatures died until after the 40th day (Genesis 7:17, 7:21). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, there is a seeming contradiction as to the time when the Flood mechanisms—the torrential rains, the “fountains of the deep,” and the “floodgates of heaven”—finally stopped (Genesis 7:4, 7:12, 7:17, 7:24, 8:2–3). Was it 40 days or 150 days?
All of these issues lead to problems in mapping out the sequence of events over the course of the Flood. In short, the supporters of Scripture were forced to try to defend an inherently indefensible chronology, and so they were not in a position to stop the liberal onslaught. Rather than countering the liberal attack, conservatives commonly ignored the chronological issues.
Considering the Chronology as Originally Understood
Although it is impossible to go back in time to correct past mistakes, it is possible in the present to correct the mistaken assumptions about the sequential nature of the wayyiqtol verb form. And it is possible to move beyond the mistaken arguments of conservatives who dismissed these issues as minor details. We need to examine the biblical text carefully to understand what the author is actually saying. The question may be asked, “Does the passage demand that we read every verb as the next action in a strictly chronological order? Or do the verbs sometimes serve another purpose in this historical account?”
Consider the use of verbs in the following example from Genesis 37:5–6, which describes how the young Joseph presented his dream to his brothers. The translation is intentionally wooden for the sake of making it clear where the verbs are present. The wayyiqtol verbs appear in bold.
5And Joseph dreamed a dream. And he told it to his brothers. And they hated him even more. 6And he [Joseph] said to them, “Listen to this dream which I have dreamed . . . .”
Here is an obvious example where the verbs describe some historical events out of chronological order, and yet we don’t have any problem understanding the meaning. Verse 5 describes how Joseph’s brothers hated him when he told them about his dream. Verse 6 then records the actual words that Joseph spoke in telling them his dream. The second and fourth lines refer to the same event. The fourth line does not move the narrative forward; it expands on a previous statement and gives more details.
Another example occurs in 1 Kings 21:8–9, wherein the evil Jezebel cunningly plotted to have Naboth executed.
8So she wrote letters in the name of Ahab. And she sealed them with his seal. And she sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who lived in the city with Naboth. 9And she wrote in the letters saying . . . .
The passage twice says she wrote letters, first to put the event into the larger context and then to elaborate on the details. One person who has written at length on the subject, Thomas Stroup, notes, “Unless one supposes that she chased down, reopened, and rewrote the letters, a strictly sequential reading of the wayyiqtol is irreconcilable with the narrative.”7
So the presence of wayyiqtol verb chains does not mean that the Flood narrative is strictly sequential. Additionally, there is good evidence that the Flood account—though its history is correct in every detail—was arranged thematically to emphasize key theological truths. Prior to Genesis 8:1, the thrust of the Flood narrative highlights God’s acts of judgment that brought destruction upon the earth. After Genesis 8:1, the text focuses on God’s acts of compassion and providence to restore life on earth. Genesis 8:1 itself conveys a point of central theological significance: “God remembered Noah.”
Also, certain indicators strongly suggest that in some instances events are presented out of order. In other words, the author of Genesis 6–9 knew that his Hebrew-speaking hearers would recognize when he was stepping outside the straightforward sequence of events. Furthermore, they would likely not have been confused about the order in which the events actually occurred. The author’s reasons are apparently varied, though one obvious reason was to convey the theological message of God’s faithfulness in remembering Noah.
This perspective on the verbs may help to solve many of the major issues that have puzzled scholars about the Flood chronology.
First, if the events described in the account are not all in strict chronological order, then the verses that speak of Noah entering the Ark do not conflict. The author is simply reiterating this event; it is not as if Noah went in and out of the Ark multiple times.
Second, the Ark could have begun its voyage long before the 40 days and nights of rain were completed. Since Genesis 7:17a appears to serve as an introduction to the Flood as a whole, then 7:17b looks back to an early event in the Flood when the floodwaters lifted up the Ark.
Third, there is no difficulty in supposing that many animals and people died as a direct result of the rising floodwaters, long before the 40th day. Again, since Genesis 7:17 appears to function as an introductory statement, Genesis 7:21 describes events that occurred simultaneously with the rising floodwaters.
Finally, if the account is not always strictly chronological, there is no discrepancy about the time that the Flood mechanisms ceased. Genesis 8:2 would then appear to function much like a flashback, describing events that occurred not on the 150th day but on the 40th day of the cataclysm.8
With this understanding, which would have been clear to the original Hebrew hearers, it becomes evident that many of the chronological difficulties ascribed to the biblical text are only apparent, not real. In any case, we already know that God’s Word is true, and that includes every detail—no matter how insignificant it may seem (Matthew 5:18). When anything appears incorrect or contradictory, we should devote ourselves to increased study to overcome deficiencies in our own understanding. However, we can rest assured that the inspired text itself is without error.