Genesis Series: Did it Rain Before the Flood?

Did it Rain before the Flood?
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate (lit. work) the ground. But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground” (2:4-6).

Most of the Bible is straightforward and easy to understand. The Reformer’s called it the “perspicuity of Scripture.” God desires the salvation of all men and has made the way of salvation simple and accessible. You don’t have to be a theologian or rocket scientist to believe that God saves sinners through Jesus’ sin-bearing cross work and death-defeating resurrection. Most of the Bible is easy to understand, but a few passages, like the one above, leave us scratching our heads. Did it rain before the Flood?

If you’re like me, you grew up hearing a theory about a “vapor canopy.” This view was popularized by pastors and Bible teachers who wanted to stay faithful to the text while providing a scientific model for how God watered His plants before rain. The pre-Flood climate, it was argued, was different before the Flood and the earth was wrapped in some kind of green house vapor. Today this is a theory in search of a working scientific model. You no longer have to believe in a vapor canopy to be a card-carrying Creationist.

Some point out that the text does not require us to believe that “mist” was the only water source at work in creation. The presence of the “mist” was more an indicator of God’s provision that a detailed view of the earth’s water cycle. But we’re still stuck with the phrase “…the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth” (2:5). In an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal, one writer argued that the words should be taken at face value. If so, then the text is describing the earth before the earth spouted vegetation:

Verse 5 itself describes a time when the earth was without vegetation. And the significant fact is a very simple one. It is the fact that an explanation–a perfectly natural explanation–is given for the absence of vegetation at that time: “for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth”. The Creator did not originate plant life or earth before he had prepared an environment in which he might preserve it without by-passing secondary means and without having recourse to extraordinary means such as marvelous methods of fertilization. The unargued presupposition of Gen. 2:5 is clearly that the divine providence was operating during the creation period through processes which any reader would recognize as normal in the natural world of his day (Meredith Kline’s “Because it Had Not Rained” published in the Westminster Theological Journal). (

No rain and no man to irrigate equals no vegetation. Kline’s main argument is that the text tells us that God used the natural modus operandi of providence in His work of creation. This presupposes, at least for Kline, a figurative chronological framework of the days of creation, because 2:5 insists that God used natural water cycle processes and there is no way that the newly emerged continents could have dried out within 24 hours by natural processes. Based upon his read of Genesis 2:5’s “no rain”, Kline is inclined to believe that the days of creation were never meant to be read as 24 hour days of one earth week.

Vapor canopies? Figurative frameworks? Both theories suffer from reading into the text instead of reading the text within it’s context (which is basic Bible study). Both camps want to take the text seriously, but because they read “earth science” into the passage, one group has to invent a different water cycle and the other has to read the days in a figurative way. Thankfully, there is a much simpler explanation for the “no rain upon the earth” (2:5) and it is found within the near context.

The simplest explanation for “the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth” is that the writer is alluding to the Flood. The “rain” in question here refers to the “rain” that God sent as judgment against humanity. I will highlight the phrase so that you can see it:

the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth” (Gen. 2:5)

“For after seven more days, I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen. 7:4)

Which is easier, to read the passage in its near context or to re-invent the earth’s water cycle (i.e. evaporation, cloud formation and precipitation)? I think its better Bible study to say that Moses is describing the land before the effects of the Fall and God’s judgment. If this is so, the other features of the text should bear this out. The table below shows you the connections.

Pre-Fall & Pre-Curse Allusion Post-Fall & Curse
Plant of the field (2:5) Plant of the field (3:18)
No man to work the ground (2:5) Work the ground (3:23)

Moses is not interested in telling us about the water cycle, but he is interested in telling us about what things were like before the Fall and before the Flood. The words “plant of the field”, “work the ground” and “the LORD God had not sent rain” anticipate the curse that would come from Adam’s rebellion. Reading Genesis 2:4-6 is like watching a movie with a soundtrack that alerts you that something or someone dark is coming. It’s Moses’ “Darth Vader” theme ( Noted Hebrew scholar John Sailhamer agrees:

the narrative points to the fact that before man was created (in vs. 7), the effects of man’s rebellion and the Fall had “not yet” been felt on the land. In the subsequent narratives, each of the parts of the description of the land in vv. 4-6 is specifically identified as a result of the fall of man” (Sailhamer, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 40).

Again, which is easier, to relate the exact words of chapter two with the  corresponding words of chapter three (see the table) or to re-engineer the plain meaning of the “days” in Genesis 1 so that you can build a figurative framework?

But what about the Rainbow?
I’m so glad that you asked! People who hold to the “vapor canopy” view, which is like trying to hold water (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist) find additional support for their view in the rainbow:

I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen. 9:13-15).

The most obvious thing to say is that the text does not say that this was the first rainbow. (Gn. 9:13). Instead, what we see is that God is attaching a new significance to the rainbow by means of a promise. So the next time it rains and you see a rainbow, remember to give thanks to God for keeping His promises.

Next Time: Was Noah’s Flood Local, Universal or Global?