For many people, the notion that the Bible teaches a global flood is as axiomatic as the notion that it affirms the existence of God. That the deluge of Noah covered the entire planet is, as some sincere and godly friends put it to me, the “obvious meaning of the text,” so that any other interpretation is circumventing “what Moses really meant.”
I can sympathize with how people view it this way. After all, if you start reading through Genesis 6-8, you stumble upon verses like these:
- “I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die” (Genesis 6:17, all translations ESV).
- “Take with you seven pairs of all [clean and unclean animals and birds] to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth” (Genesis 7:2-3).
- “And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered” (Genesis 7:19).
- “All flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind” (Genesis 7:21).
All flesh … all the earth … all the mountains under heaven. Sounds pretty clear, right?
But sometimes what seems initially obvious can actually become more and more implausible upon closer inspection. I believe that is the case with the notion of a global flood. In fact, here I want to suggest that both (1) the language of the biblical account and (2) the difficulties involved positing a global flood actually favor the idea that Noah’s flood was local (though bear in mind that “local” does not mean “small”). My interest here is not so much to convert people to a local flood view as much as to create some space for both views as interpretative options within the church, and to try to soften and nuance our rhetoric in our dialogue with those outside the church. Even more important than getting it right, in my opinion, is that we deal with the issue in a way that does not detract from our unity and mission.
What does “all the earth” mean?
We read the Bible in English translation, and with a modern understanding of planet Earth as a round globe orbiting the sun between Venus and Mars. So it is only understandable for a modern reader to interpret “all the earth” as “all of Planet Earth.” The Hebrew word erets, however, often means land, ground, or country; and when paired with kol (all, every), it almost always refers to a local territory through the Old Testament. Sometimes you know that because of a qualifier, as in verses like Genesis 2:11: “the name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole [kol] land [erets] of Havilah, where there is gold.” But even without a qualifier, this is the usual meaning. Rich Deem lists 56 examples of kol erets having a local referent in the Hebrew Bible. I here list the first 10, in canonical order—check out footnote 5 of his article for the other 46:
- Is not the whole [kol] land [erets] before you? Please separate from me: if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9) (The “whole land” was only the land of Canaan)
- And the people of all [kol] the earth [erets] came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth. (Genesis 41:57) (The people from the Americas did not go to Egypt)
- Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all [kol] the earth [erets], nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you. (Exodus 34:10) (There would be no need to add “nor among any of the nations” if “all the earth” referred to the entire planet.)
- ‘You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all [kol] through your land [erets]. (Leviticus 25:9) (The Hebrews were not required to sound a horn throughout the entire earth)
- ‘Thus for every [kol] piece [erets] of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25:24) (The law does not apply only to those who own the entire earth)
- Behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all [kol] the ground [erets], then I will know that Thou wilt deliver Israel through me, as Thou hast spoken.” (Judges 6:37, see also 6:39-40) (kol erets could not refer to the entire earth, since it would not be possible for Gideon to check the entire earth)
- And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout [kol] the land [erets], saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” (1 Samuel 13:3) (Obviously, Saul could not have blown a trumpet loud enough to be heard throughout the entire earth)
- For the battle there was spread over the whole [kol] countryside [erets], and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured. (2 Samuel 18:8) (No, the battle did not take place over the entire earth.)
- So when they had gone about through the whole [kol] land [erets], they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. (2 Samuel 24:8) (No they didn’t go through the entire earth, just the lands of Palestine.)
- And all [kol] the earth [erets] was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart. (1 Kings 10:24) (It is unlikely that the Native Americans went to see Solomon.)
If you read through Genesis 6-8 and substitute the word “land” or “territory” for “earth,” already the feel of the whole story changes. “Everything that is in the land shall die” (Genesis 6:17) gives a much different impression to the English-speaking reader than “everything that is on the earth shall die”—but the former is the more consistent rendering of the Hebrew throughout the Old Testament. And the same thing can be said about other language in Genesis 6-8: however comprehensive it seems in translation, it is frequently used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to local phenomena (for instance, cf. the phrase “under the whole heaven” in Deuteronomy 2:25 and elsewhere throughout Deuteronomy). (We won’t belabor the point, but we should also note in passing that Genesis 7:20 should be rendered “the water rose twenty feet, and all the hills/mountains were covered” rather than “the water rose to twenty feet higher than the hills/mountains.”)
When you think about it, it makes sense that a writer in the ancient Near East would refer to all of their own region with more comprehensive language “all the earth/land/territory,” especially if all of humanity was limited to that region prior to the scattering of Babel, and if that is all the author knew about. The biblical authors used the idiom and language of their day. They probably didn’t know about the South Pole, and we shouldn’t expect them to have used language as if they did.
Thus when we read in Genesis 41:57, “all the earth (kol erets) came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth,” it is not necessary to conclude that Eskimos from the fringes of Northern Siberia traveled to the Middle East, and the ancient Mayans beat Columbus to the punch in sailing across the Atlantic, and aboriginal Australians made their way across India or the Indian Ocean. In fact, even writers in the New Testament use comprehensive language to refer to local phenomena. For example, Acts 2:5 says, “now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven;” and in Colossians 1:6 Paul claims that the gospel is bearing fruit “in the whole world.” This language refers to the whole known world; that is, the Mediterranean world.
Furthermore, there are a couple clues within the story that indicate kol erets probably does not mean the entire globe here. For instance, in Genesis 8:4 the ark comes to rest in the hills/mountains of Ararat, and then Genesis 8:5 tells us that “the tops of the mountains were seen” (although “hills” is a better translation). Then Noah sends out his scouting dove, and we read that “the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth” (8:9). How can the waters still be over the entire globe if the hills are visible (8:5) and the Ark has already rested (8:4)? “The face of the whole earth” clearly means a particular area here, or “land” or “territory.” Furthermore, as others have pointed out, if erets means the entire globe in Genesis 6-8, then consistent literalism would demand a global desert after the flood, since Genesis 8:7 and 8:14 claim that the “earth” became completely dry after it was flooded.
Envisioning a Global Flood
Let’s assume the flood was global. Water six miles deep covered the Rockies and Everest with unbroken waves and torrent. (We don’t know where all this water came from, and where it went, but let’s not trouble with that now.) Every single species on planet Earth, both male and female, got on the ark and lived there for approximately a year. Arctic wolves travelled the 8000 miles from Northern Canada, Kangaroos hopped over from Australia, and all the various species indigenous to Madagascar journeyed up the coast of Africa (all somehow traversing the ocean and surviving the alternate weather conditions). Subsequently, 8 people within 7 days load all these millions of animals into the ark (there are approximately 7-9 million different animal species on earth, so two of each animal, even with a generous definition of how the Bible defines “kind,” yields a lot of animals). Then, for the next 370 days or so, these 8 people not only survived themselves aboard the ark, but provided ventilation, sanitation, and fresh food and water for all these millions of animals. And then they opened up the ark, and all the animals traveled back to where they were from over the globe and repopulated their regions.
Now God can do anything. But we need to realize what we are asking people to believe if we insist this is the only way to interpret this story. We are asking people to believe in miracle after miracle after miracle, beyond what is actually described in the Genesis story. David Snoke provides a helpful list of all that a global flood entails (I condense some of these for space, and omit his last two):
- The miracle of transportation of millions of animals to the Ark from Australia, the Americas, Antarctica, and the islands.
- The miracle of the compression of the animals in the Ark. The described volume of the Ark is not large enough for all the millions of animal species plus the food and fresh water they would need for 370 days aboard the ark.
- The miracle of the feeding of the carnivorous animals on the Ark. If carnivorous animals came along, then many extra animals of other types had to come for food, unless meat was miraculously refrigerated.
- The miracle of the caretaking of millions of animals by just eight people, including tons of dung production per day.
- The miracle of the survival of the occupants of the Ark despite the huge heat production in a closed space.
- The miracle of the survival of special-climate animals (e.g. polar bears and penguins) on the Ark.
- The miracle of the feeding of special diet animals (e.g. the koala) on the Ark.
- The miracle of the creation of water out of nowhere and the destruction of that water afterwards. In a local flood, water moves from one place to another, but in a global flood, new water would have to be created.
- The miracle of the non-sinking of the continents under the weight of that water.
- The miracle of the survival of trees and plants under that water.
- The miracle of the survival of fresh water fish in salt water (or, salt water fish in fresh water).
- The miracle of the survival of amphibious and tidal pool creatures on the ark. Certain species need particular conditions of water environment. In addition to bringing food and water to drink for the regular animals, Noah would have had to set up special aquariums that changed the type of water at different times of day.
- The miracles of the survival of worms, insects, etc. underwater (or, the miracle of the transportation of all insects, worms, etc. to the Ark, including all the necessary ingredients for termite hills, ant colonies, etc).
Does the biblical account require us to believe all these miracles? Or is it possible that “all the earth” in Genesis 6-8 actually means “in the land,” as in Genesis 41:57 and the other 55 verses Deem references?
The transportation and survival of the animals from only some part of the Mesopotamian region (as envisioned in a “local” flood) would still, of course, have required God’s miraculous care and provision. But in my opinion, it accords better with the size of the ark, the number of people involved, the amount of time, and the actual language of the narrative.
At the very least, allowing for the possibility of a local flood should not be written off as circumventing the “obvious meaning” of the text. For me, as far as I am aware, it is an effort to take seriously the meaning of the text, which involves what the original author meant the original readers to take from it in its original context. In fact, what inclines me to imagine a huge but non-global event here in Genesis 6-8 is the text itself (the meaning of the Hebrew terms and phrases as they occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, for instance; or the sequence of Genesis 8:4-9).
And when I try the envision the alternative to a local flood—imagining Noah somehow getting those poison dart frogs to and from Brazil, or those giant salamanders to and from Japan—what initially seemed obvious at the start of this post starts to look more and more implausible.