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The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters

Posted by NT Wrong on May 23, 2008

Terence E. Fretheim writes about ‘The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters’ in the April 2008 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal. The issue is dedicated to biblical and theological interpretations of Genesis, the subject of the 2007 conference at Calvin Theological Seminary. Fretheim begins with a provocative question:

“‘Noah and the Ark’ is often considered a classic children’s story, and it has found its way into the design of many a baby’s nursery and many a child’s toy. It is usually portrayed as a remarkably peaceful scene, as two by two the animals parade into the ark, and there is nary a cloud in the sky. A common assumption in these uses of the flood story seems to be that the child will accompany the animals onto the ark, cuddle down in their mangers, and safely ride out the storm. Rarely today are we shown images of those children who did not happen to be members of Noah’s family and who are swept away in the deluge, never to be heard from again. What if Noah, like Abraham, had argued with God on behalf of the children?”

Fretheim notes that natural disasters and risks were inherent in God’s creation even before humans “showed up” on earth:

“Indeed, such natural events as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, destructive weather patterns, cell mutations, and even potentially deadly viruses were certainly an integral part of the creation before human beings showed up. In some sense then, such potentially destructive natural events are God-designed in the very ceation of things. Then, when human beings did show up, they were told to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1.28 ) , which must mean that, for all its goodness, the world was not tranquil and perfect.”

Too true.

Fretheim also notes that some natural disasters have at least partial human causes (e.g. global warming’s possible effects on the severity of Hurricane Katrina). Fretheim uses this link to argue “it is difficult to deny an interpretation of such events at least partially in terms of God’s judgment, not least if one understands judgment as the effects of sin.” … well, it is only if one understands judgment as the effects of sin that one could make such a link.

In the remainder of the piece, Fretheim grapples with the justice of God and transcendence of God, ultimately choosing divine justice at the ‘expense’ of divine transcendence. He finds evidence of divine suffering in the story, in pursuing an implicitly Christological interpretation of Genesis 6-9. I got more out of Fretheim’s questions that from his interpretive solution.

Fretheim also provides a handy summary of the various critical interpretations of the story and the various purposes of the story which have been suggested.

5 Responses to “The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters”

  1. John Lyons said

    “What if Noah, like Abraham, had argued with God on behalf of the children?”

    I don’t see Abraham doing this over Sodom and certainly not over Isaac!

  2. The great NT Wright himself has weighed in on the topic of the evilness of the world that God created


    ‘The ancient Jewish writers saw the sea as evil. It floods and destroys the world. It stands between the Israelites and freedom. It rages horribly; monsters come out of it. There is a hint that God had to overcome the dark primal waters in order to create the world in the first place.;

  3. ntwrong said

    John Lyons:
    I don’t see Abraham doing this over Sodom and certainly not over Isaac!

    N T Wrong:
    He didn’t, and that’s not what Fretheim said.

    Abraham, of course, argued with God on behalf of the righteous in Ch 18. That is, just as Fretheim says, “like” arguing on behalf of children.

  4. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote not that long about about this story. The address is:


  5. ntwrong said

    Thanks for that, James.

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