Noah’s Flood: A (Mercifully) Short Word about a Big Problem
The waters first began to churn over the Bahamas as tropical forces combined to produce one of the most devastating tropical storms in recent history. Katrina made landfall as a tropical three hurricane on August 29th, 2005 in Southeast Louisiana. Poorly maintained levees failed and the storm surge punched its way 6-12 miles inland, destroying property and claiming the lives of 1,245 people. Water, so necessary to life and well-being, can sometimes become an obstacle to human flourishing.
Like the destructive churn of Katrina, the first time that “water” is mentioned in the Bible it is an obstacle that must be removed in order for humanity to flourish. The land is covered and uninhabitable, so God gathers the waters into seas and lakes and prepares a good place for people to live in (Gen. 1:2, 10). The land is good. The proud waves, now hemmed in, are good. In fact, everything is “very good” (1:31), but generations later the land is corrupted by sin and a grieving God sends rain upon the earth, unleashing catastrophic judgment in the frothy waters of the Flood:
Then the flood came upon the earth for forty days, and the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth. The water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. The water prevailed more and more upon the earth so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered….all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died….and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark. The water prevailed upon the earth one hundred and fifty days (Gen. 7:17-24).
A Story Flooded with the Problem of Preunderstanding
I don’t know how long Christians have debated the extent of the Flood. Was it a local flood, perhaps confined to the Mediterranean basin, or was it a global event? Part of the challenge in interpretation lies in the fact that we are separated by thousands of years from the actual event. More than that, we are also separated from the original readers by worldview differences. For instance, the face-value reading suggests, at least to my mind, that the Flood was a planetary event, “The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered” (Gen. 7:19). I read “planetary” into the text because when I see the word earth I think of a globe floating in space. Then, thanks to high school geography, I remember that Mt. Everest is the highest mountain range on the earth and thanks to Google, I also know that Everest reaches 8,848 meters into the heavens. So, when I read, “…all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered,” I imagine the waters punching up into places where the air is too thin to breathe.
So far so good, but do you see how much preunderstanding I have brought with me into the passage? A great deal of my mental images of the Flood are shaped by stuff that the first readers of Genesis would not have had access to, things like:
- Modern geography
- The internet and Google
- Satellite photos of the Blue Planet
All of us bring preunderstanding with us when we open the Bible. In their excellent book on interpreting Scripture, Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays define preunderstanding as “all our preconceived notions and understanding that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail” (Grasping God’s Word, 139.). While we cannot erase our preunderstanding, we can be honest about it and hold onto it with an open hand, allowing the text to add or subtract to our understanding.
My mental image of a planet-wide Flood might very well be the best interpretation of Gen. 7:19, but I should be honest about how much preunderstanding I’m bringing into the text with me. Here’s another example. When I read the word earth in Genesis I bring mental stock photos of our planet with me, but when the first readers saw the word earth/land they probably had a more localized and covenant-driven understanding of the Hebrew word eretz (i.e. land). If so, then it’s possible that the land (eretz) described in the Flood account is less than global in its scope. It could be a universal judgment (in the sense that there were no survivors other than Noah and his family), but local in that waters covered a large but limited geographic area. See what I mean?
A (Mercifully) Short Reading Exercise
After spending some time in prayer, and perhaps with a good cup of coffee or tea at hand, read through the Flood story and try to identify all the preunderstanding that you’re bringing with you into the text. I gave you an example of the kinds of things that I tend to bring with me into the text. Next, as an exercise in the hermeneutics of humility (i.e. approaching the task of interpretation with a humble heart), try reading the story of the Flood from both global and local perspectives. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each position? Put yourself in the shoes of the other reader while assuming the best of the them (i.e. that they have a high view of God’s Word).
Next Time: What’s the point of the Flood story?