Genesis series: Was Noah’s Flood Local or Global?
Was Noah’s Flood Local or Global?
As a kid I loved reading the newspaper. I’d thumb through the soft pages of paper until I found the comics section. Sunday was the best, not because of all the coupons, but because the comics were printed in full color. My favorite comic strip was a single-panel series called The Far Side. The series ended in 1995 when cartoonist Gary Larson retired, but you can still laugh your butt off at a local Barnes and Noble. One of my favorite panels is a picture of Noah, standing at the door of the Ark with a long line of two-by-two animals waiting to get in. Noah yells, “Now listen up! We’re going to do this alphabetically,” and one of the zebra’s let’s the word “Damn!” slip out. Okay, maybe some of us would have preferred that the zebra said “dang,” but it’s still funny!
Larson credited his older brother’s dark sense of humor as a shaping influence, but his uneasy relationship with the Divine surfaces in his many attempts to lampoon God. It’s as if he’s taken the spiritual counsel of Martin Luther, who advised, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn” and turned it against God. But jeering at God will not drive Him away, because He is so long suffering. In any event, the God that Larson so often flouts bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible, but I digress.
All joking aside, the real story of the flood is no laughing matter. The story opens with great, heart-rending grief and overwhelming violence (Gen. 6:5-6). Though long suffering and patient, God puts an end to overwhelming sin. He can only stand by and watch injustice and brutality for so long before He says, “This far, and no further!” As C.S. Lewis reminded us, “Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when” (The Problem of Pain). So, God sent the rain upon the land to destroy the wicked and out of sheer mercy saved a man named Noah and his family. All but eight people were destroyed, no one else survived. That much is clear, but questions about the scope of the flood waters remain: Did the the deluge span the entire globe or was it limited to a smaller area inhabited by humanity? Was Noah’s flood global or local?
Like many secondary issues, the extent of the flood has substance, but it is not a litmus test for being a Christian. We should guard ourselves against a stingy-orthodoxy that automatically assigns a low view of Scripture to one side and a low-brow view of science to the other. If we assume the best of each reader, global proponents want to take science and archeology seriously and local adherents want to take the Bible seriously. True, some localists have given science the seat of honor over the Scriptures, but many globalists (I can’t think of a better word) have failed to appreciate how localized the word earth/land can be in Genesis. As I see it, my task is to lay out the main arguments for both sides and let you make up your own mind.
Biblical Arguments for a Global Flood
Most globalists (that word again!) find it impossible to read the text from a localist point of view. The language, as it is glossed in our English Bibles, exerts a strong pull into the global position. Take a moment and read through the following verses taken from the New American Standard Bible:
- “…and I will blot out from the face of the land every living thing that I have made” (7:4);
- “…the flood waters came upon the earth/was upon the earth” (7:6, 10, 12, 17);
- “the water prevailed more and more so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens (lit. which were under all the heavens) were covered” (7:19);
- “All flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind; all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit life, died” (7:21-22).
- “The water decreased steadily…the tops of the mountains became visible” (8:5).
See what I mean? The surface-reading sounds so global. Moreover, if the flood was only localized, why didn’t God simply tell Noah to migrate? Even at a slow pace, you could probably hike out of the Mediterranean Basin over the span of 120 years. Abraham and his family migrated; Lot and his daughters walked out of Sodom before the judgment fell. Could it be that there was no place to migrate to because the whole earth was covered with water? One last jab at the localists, why go through the trouble of building a big boat when all Noah needed to do was slip on his big boots and walk away?
Scientific Arguments for a Global Flood
The best evidence for a global flood is the presence of fossils in unexpected places. Marine fossils can be found all over the planet miles above sea level. How did they get there? Dr. Andrew Snelling from Answers in Genesis notes:
Marine fossils are also found high in the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, reaching up to 29,029 feet (8,848 m) above sea level.3 For example, fossil ammonites (coiled marine cephalopods) are found in limestone beds in the Himalayas of Nepal. All geologists agree that ocean waters must have buried these marine fossils in these limestone beds. So how did these marine limestone beds get high up in the Himalayas?
We must remember that the rock layers in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges around the globe were deposited during the Flood, well before these mountains were formed. In fact, many of these mountain ranges were pushed up by earth movements to their present high elevations at the end of the Flood. This is recorded in Psalm 104:8, where the Flood waters are described as eroding and retreating down valleys as the mountains rose at the end of the Flood.
You can read more about the science behind a global flood by visiting the Answers in Genesis website: https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/fossil-record/high-dry-sea-creatures/.
Difficulties with the Global View
Biblical Difficulties with the Global View
The biggest roadblock to the global view is the fact that so much of the earth/land in Genesis is localized. As I argued in the chapter on pre-understanding, we tend to import our mental stock photos of planet earth into the word earth/land. There is good evidence that the word land/earth (eretz) is more local than global. Moreover, the word “earth” tends to be more people-focused than place-focused (6:5, 11-12; 11:1; 18:25). For example, after judgment falls on Cain, he complains that God has treated him unfairly, “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground” (4:14). This is the exact phrase used in 7:4’s, “I will blot out from the face of the land every living thing I have made” (emphasis mine). Cain is not banished from the planet, but instead from people and occupation. Might we not also read the flood narrative with less of a focus on place and more of a focus on people? Remember, before the flood humanity was more local than global. Within the story of Genesis, people do not spread out until after the flood (10:32; 11:8-9).
What about the migration issue? True, God could have commanded Noah to migrate out of the flood zone, but this argument misses the big-heartedness of God. Peter tells us, in agreement with earlier Jewish sources, that God sent Noah to preach a message of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:4-5). Instead of grabbing his boots, Noah grabbed his megaphone, but the people would not listen! This is why C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it” (The Great Divorce). Noah lived his life saying, “Thy will be done” to God. In the end, he and his family was saved. After 120 years of patience, with much sorrow, God let the rest of humanity go their own way.
Scientific Difficulties with the Global View
The scientific problems with a global flood are numerous. For the sake of simplicity, I will simply bullet point a few of them:
- Short of God working a water miracle, the earth does not have sufficient water volume to blanket the planet. According to Jeff Zweerink of Reasons To Believe, “Although 71 percent of the planet’s surface is covered by oceans, only about 0.1 percent of Earth’s volume is water.” He goes on to do the math with numbers provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and the earth’s radius and concludes that, “A sphere containing all of Earth’s water would be about 860 miles in diameter, approximately the distance between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Topeka, Kansas” (http://reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/tnrtb/2015/09/21/is-a-global-flood-scientifically-possible).
- In order to flood the entire planet, the oceans would have had to triple in volume in only 150 days and then quickly shrink back to normal. Where would the 630 million cubic miles of water go during the second 150 days? There is no where an ocean can drain to, because the oceans already fill the lowest places on the planet (John H. Walton’s The NIV Application Commentary, p. 322).
- In Gen. 8:11 we read about a dove that is released and returns with an olive leaf. The dove flew down into a valley to get an olive leaf (which only grows in low elevations) and then flew back up the mountain. How did it manage to fly back up to 17,000 feet to the ark? Doves are not physically equipped to fly at those altitudes (John H. Walton’s The NIV Application Commentary, p. 324).
Biblical Arguments for a Local Flood
Localists argue that a careful reading of the flood demands a localized, but universal deluge. Once again, the flood is universal in that all of humanity is blotted out (save Noah and his family), but since people had not yet spread out (Gen. 10:32), the flood was more local than global. For many localists, it’s not so much that they cannot get their head around the volume of water required to cover the high mountains, but that the word earth/land tends to be used in Genesis in a localized way:
- In the first chapter of Genesis, land/earth is used as habitable space (i.e. dry ground) and is contrasted with water and sky/expanse (1:9-10)—think dirt, not globe;
- In the rest of the Pentateuch land normally refers to the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18; Deut. 1:8)—again, not planetary;
- The boundaries of Eden described in Genesis 2 roughly match the boundaries of the Promised Land (Gen. 2:10-14; 15:18). The focus of Genesis seems to be absorbed with a specific land that God wanted to give His people—think local, not global.
Perhaps the reason the flood story sounds so global its is because it is universal in its scope (all people but Noah and family). Try re-reading the story, but every time you come across the word earth think “land” instead of “planet”. It works, doesn’t it? Beyond this exercise, several passages in Genesis only make sense if you translate the Hebrew word eretz with the word “land”:
- “The name of the first is the Pishon, it flows around the whole land of Havilah where there is gold” (Gen. 2:11);
- “Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me…” (Gen. 13:9);
- “The people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth” (Gen. 41:57).
What about the high mountains of 7:19?
“The water prevailed more and more on the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.”
The above verse is the most difficult for the localist to explain. Some of the difficulties disappear when we gloss the Hebrew word eretz with “land,” 7:19 reads, “The water prevailed more and more on the land, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.” The phrase “under all the heavens” may just be a way of talking about all the sky above the land (possibly using phenomenological language).
If the land is more local than global, then the “high mountains” may not be referring to places like the Himalayas. In addition, the Mount Ararat of Genesis may not be the same crag as the 16, 854 ft. behemoth that we know as Mount Ararat. The present day Mount Ararat was called “Masis” in the original language of the Armenians and named after a local king Amasya. In classical antiquity, the mount’s two peaks were called Abos and Nibaros. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, it was not until the 11th-12th centuries that the modern Mount Ararat became associated with the Ararat in Genesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Ararat).
Scientific Arguments for a Local Flood:
Once dismissed as myth, scientists are now beginning to uncover evidence for a massive flood that could be related to the deluge in Genesis. The story starts about 20,000 years ago during the last ice age. Thick layers of ice reached deep into North America and Europe. The conditions for the making of a massive flood were at hand:
…as time went on, the world warmed, the glaciers retreated and meltwater from the European glaciers began to flow north into the North Sea, depriving the Black Sea of its main source of replenishment. The level of the Black Sea began to drop, and most of the area around its northern boundary — the area adjacent to present-day Crimea and the Sea of Azov — became dry land. At this point, the level of the Black Sea was several hundred feet below that of the Mediterranean, and the two were separated by the barrier of the Bosporus, then dry land. This situation, with the world ocean rising while the Black Sea was falling, could not last forever. Eventually, like a bathtub overflowing, the Mediterranean had to pour through into the Black Sea basin….When the Mediterranean began to flow northward, it “popped the plug” and pushed those sediments into a “tongue” of loose sediment on the bottom of what would become the present-day Black Sea (this tongue can still be seen in cores taken from the ocean bottom in that area). As the flow of water increased, it began to cut into the bedrock itself….The incoming water eventually dug a channel more than 300 feet deep as it poured into the Black Sea basin, changing it from a freshwater lake to a saltwater ocean….The salt water poured through the deepening channel, creating a waterfall 200 times the volume of Niagara Falls (anyone who has ever traveled to the base of the falls on the Maid of the Mist will have a sense of the power involved). In a single day enough water came through the channel to cover Manhattan to a depth at least two times the height of the World Trade Center, and the roar of the cascading water would have been audible at least 100 miles away. Anyone living in the fertile farmlands on the northern rim of the sea would have had the harrowing experience of seeing the boundary of the ocean move inland at the rate of a mile a day.
Read More: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/evidence-for-a-flood-102813115/#5lZBpYeFom1dPKrD.99.
This flood may or may not be related to the deluge in Genesis. I have included because it helps us better understand the kinds of forces at God’s disposal during Noah’s flood. Science is now demonstrating the possibility of what readers of Genesis have believed for centuries.
Does the Localist View Display a Bias Against the Supernatural?
All Christians believe in a God of miracles. A miracle is a “less common kind of God’s activity in which He arouses people’s awe and wonder and break witness to Himself” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 355). If you think about it, both camps demand a belief in the miraculous. The rain doesn’t just happen. God sends it (2:5; 7:4). Even if God used natural things like the shifting of tectonic plates and the emptying of ocean basins, God is the one directing them to fulfill His purposes. The massive door to the ark does not close by human hands, instead God shuts them in (7:16). The waters need a place to run off to, but they don’t just recede, God sends a wind and the water subsides (8:1). Both globalists an localists read the story with a mixture of divine province and miraculous activity.
Putting it all Together:
The flood story points forward to the ultimate rescue that God provides through Jesus Christ. In Christ alone, God is establishing a worshipping community and will bring them to a New Heaven and a New Earth. Through the perfect righteousness of His Son, God brings rescue to every person that calls on His name. The deluge also prepares us for a future time of judgment. This present heavens and earth will be destroyed, not with a torrent of water, but instead with intense fire and heat (2 Pet. 3:5-7). In Noah’s day, God waited 120 years for people to repent, but instead they mocked the message of Noah. In an even greater display of patience, God has put off the day of judgment and destruction, not wishing that any should perish, but for all to come to repentance. May we not mistake the patience of God for tardiness or sloth.