by Steve Sarigianis
Ms. Johnson smiles and settles her class for the week’s lesson. She opens the Bible on her lap and begins to read the story of Noah's flood. Her first-graders sit cross-legged on the floor, wiggling a little but listening quietly. When she comes to Gen. 8:9, some children lean forward to hear her softened voice: "The dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to [Noah] . . . for the water was on the surface of all the earth."
"The whole Earth?" big-eyed Bobby squeaks.
"Yes," Miss Johnson replies, "The whole Earth." Thus, a Sunday school teacher often settles the question of whether the Genesis Flood was global or regional.
But the question persists. In fact, it continues to arouse great passions within the Christian community. Both biblical inerrancy and scientific credibility are at stake. A quick reading of the English text of Genesis 6-9 gives readers—at least since the time of world exploration—the impression of a global event. However, scientific evidence to the contrary seems clear and compelling. This evidence includes the lack of sufficient quantities of water and the ark’s inadequacy to hold every land-dwelling species on Earth. This dilemma produces a painful tension for those who take both Scripture and science seriously.
Following rigorous rules of biblical exegesis (discovering the original intent of text), a thoughtful reader finds that a global flood interpretation is neither as obvious nor as consistent as a superficial reading may suggest. Given a commitment to the veracity of both the Genesis text and the scientific record, a plausible scenario begins to emerge. The case for a regional flood can be divided into four general categories: theological, textual, anthropological, and geological.
A Theological Perspective
Given that Genesis 6-9 tells the story of God’s act of judgment against wholesale reprobation and spiritual ruin, scriptural integrity hinges primarily on whether the Flood killed all humanity except for the family of the one man who feared God. In other words, the key theological point is whether or not the Flood was universal in its effect, regardless of its physical extent. The original Hebrew text supports a universal flood impact and allows for a regional locus when viewed in context.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s judgment against sin is shown to be limited by the impact and extent of human wickedness. Usually it falls upon the sinners themselves, their children for several generations, birds and mammals used in their agricultural pursuits, their material possessions, and in extreme cases, their agricultural lands. If human life had not yet spread beyond Mesopotamia, God would have no reason to destroy those distant regions and the animal life there.
Genesis 8:9 records that the dove sent out by Noah could find no place to set her feet “because there was water over all the surface of the earth.” Yet four verses prior, in Genesis 8:5, the text says that the flood waters had receded enough so that for Noah the “tops of the mountains became visible.” Correct interpretation here depends on establishing the dove’s frame of reference. Likewise, the phrase “under the entire heavens” in Genesis 7:19 must be interpreted from Noah’s perspective in Mesopotamia, not from a modern global perspective.
Several examples from other passages of Scripture demonstrate this need for careful interpretation. In 1 Kings 10:24, the reader learns that "the whole world [emphasis added] sought audience with Solomon." Did every tribe from the Americas and the Far East send representatives? Few, if any, would make such an assumption. The most distant visitor mentioned in the biblical text is the queen of Sheba, a region near current Ethiopia (1 Kings 10:1-13). Romans 1:8 describes the faith of the Romans being reported "all over the world," but most readers understand Paul to mean Rome’s world—“throughout the Roman Empire”—not every region of the planet.
Further help in interpreting the Flood text comes from Psalm 104. Verses 5-9 describe the recently formed Earth, a period before creation of advanced life, when oceans completely covered the globe. As the continents arose, the water collected in the ocean basins. The events described in these verses perfectly align with known geologic facts and the formation of the first land masses on creation day three (Genesis 1:9-10). The Psalm then goes on to clearly state that water would never again completely cover the planet.
An Anthropological Perspective
Treacherous mountains to the north and east, and inhospitable deserts to the south and west made the well-watered Mesopotamian Plain a difficult place for early humans to leave. Virtually all world history texts designate this area as the “cradle of civilization.”
The most repeated command of God to humanity in Genesis 1-9 is to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28; 9:1; and 9:7). God’s repeated insistence is indicative of man’s consistent rebellion. People apparently resisted God’s command to fill the earth so strongly that God directly intervened at Babel (Genesis 11:9) to scatter them. As further evidence for man’s failure to expand beyond the Mesopotamian region, all people mentioned in Genesis 1-9 lived in that locale. And it is a large area. Today more than 20 million people live in the modern country of Iraq, which encompasses most of the Mesopotamian Plain.
A Geophysical Perspective
A regional flood interpretation fits the scientific facts about the quantity of water available in Earth’s crust and atmosphere. Genesis 7:11-12 indicates that the floodwaters came from Earth’s aquifers and atmosphere and eventually (according to Gen. 8:1-5), returned to those places. Physical scientists can calculate that Earth contains only 22% of the water required to cover every mountain on the planet.
Some interpreters have postulated radical geologic changes over the entire Earth during the Genesis flood year as a way to reduce the required quantity of water. However, such monumental rates of plate tectonics and erosion defy all geologic evidence collected over the last 200 years. Additionally, the ark could never have withstood the catastrophic forces generated.
The geologic history of Earth is well understood based upon observable tectonic processes, constantly improving radiometric dating techniques, and thousands of deep core samples taken over the entire globe. Geology research findings do not support a global flood interpretation. On the other hand, a regional flood interpretation can be tested and verified.
Even a localized flood of the magnitude demanded by the text and by theological considerations depends on God’s direct action. Atmospheric and geologic processes sufficient to bring about the convergence of vast quantities of water at one place, at one time, defy explanation as “coincidental” random occurrences. Although God’s intervention is difficult to prove scientifically, certain factors can be tested to show the plausibility of such an interpretation.
One factor is the geography of the Mesopotamian region. More specifically, the region’s topography combined with the Flood’s extreme meteorological conditions could support the containment of the floodwaters for several months. These floodwaters would have been deep enough to destroy all humanity and associated animals except those on the ark.
Topographers can use digital elevation data to make a shaded relief map (figure 1). Although subjectively appealing, this type of map offers limited help in analysis and measurement.
A more effective way to analyze topography is to create an elevation layer tint to depict bands of elevation. Using a computer and geographic information system (GIS) software, the band/elevation combinations can be adjusted to make the desired information stand out visually. The widths of the bands also provide a general indication of slope. Elevation layer tints of the Middle East region have been made in the past, but typically from data with elevation posts at only one-kilometer intervals. Although general topography can be seen with one-kilometer data, subtle details in the terrain cannot be discerned (figure 2).
An elevation layer tint of the Mesopotamian region from 100-meter data (figure 3) created from digital elevation data with an elevation post every 3 arc seconds (~100 meters) yields significant detail. The preparation of the layer tint presented here required importing 204 one-degree cells of data into ArcView GIS software. The next step was to merge the cells into one huge gridded data set covering 892,000 square miles. The data in each cell were then normalized into seven colored bands for ease of viewing and interpretation. Modern political boundaries and vectors representing the two major rivers in the area were added for reference. Finally, modern country names and map annotations were added for clarity. Because of the resolution of the elevation data, intricate topographic details can be seen at 200-, 300-, and 400-meter elevations corresponding to the probable extent of the Genesis Flood.
Figure 3 Elevation Layer Tint of the Mesopotamian Region from 100-Meter Data
Several important deductions can be made from the higher-resolution elevation layer tint (figure 3):
1. The topography of the Mesopotamian region forms a huge U-shaped bowl that stretches 600 miles from the Persian Gulf to the northwest. Steep escarpments that rise quickly from less than 200 meters to 1,000 meters set boundaries for the Mesopotamian Plain on the north and the east. Terrain that rises gradually, but consistently, to heights above 400 meters forms the southern and western boundaries. Elevations above 400 meters fully contain the Mesopotamian Plain except where it meets the sea.
2. The biblical flood account refers to extraordinary geophysical events. Huge underground aquifers (“the springs of the great deep” in Genesis 7:11) suddenly "burst forth." In addition, Genesis 7:12 states that “the floodgates of the heavens” opened, and rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights. In other words, hard rain fell in the region continuously for 40 days. Meteorologically, these factors constitute an unprecedented rain event in a region that averages only 10-20 inches of rainfall per year. No natural explanation exists for a storm so large, intense, or persistent in this region.
A super-storm of this unprecedented magnitude would have produced an enormous surge in the Persian Gulf. During a storm surge, the force of the winds circulating around the storm’s low-pressure center pushes water ashore. A large hurricane can cause storm surges 50 miles wide and 25 feet deep. Shallow coastal waters like those in the Persian Gulf only amplify a storm surge (see Figure 1). And, greater storm surges are observed with slow-moving storms. The Genesis super-storm remained stationary for at least five weeks; so the height of the storm surge must have been larger (by some incalculable amount) than any Earth has experienced since that time. A storm surge that reached 200 meters deep certainly would have been sufficient to sustain the destructive flood levels for the length of time Genesis records.
Assuming the Earth’s entire human population lived on the Mesopotamian Plain at that time, a flood that reached 200 to 300 meters deep would have destroyed all humanity on the land. The geographical extent of such a flood would have included areas that today belong to Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Syria (see figure 3).
3. The account of the ark’s resting place also seems geographically and historically plausible. Genesis 8:4 describes that place as the “mountains of Ararat,” well below the highest probable flood elevation (~400 meters) in what is now north central Iraq. Figure 4 provides a view of the raw elevation data in the layer-tint project prior to normalization. The rugged and steeply ascending mountains of Ararat are clearly visible. On a side note, one may logically assume that no post-Flood society would have left the ark’s precut lumber unexploited; searching for the ark most likely represents a fruitless exercise.
Figure 4 Elevation Data in the Mountains of Ararat Region
Although the exact geographical extent of the Genesis Flood may never be known, geologists can say with some assurance that the event described in Scripture makes sense as a localized, but universal—with respect to humans and their animals—catastrophe. This interpretation of the Genesis Flood text fits the facts in evidence. A worldview that carefully and respectfully integrates biblical data with scientific data provides coherent and testable answers to big questions of life—including questions about origins, meaning, morality, and destiny. A regional flood interpretation of Genesis 6-9 provides one of the cornerstones of the truth about human history that ought to be taught in Sunday school.
Steve Sarigianis is a research engineer and retired U.S. Army officer with a master of science degree in Geography from Penn State. He has extensive experience in the field of military mapping and has taught geography and astronomy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Sidebar: Water-level Math (by Hugh Ross)
The Genesis text does not specify the exact depth of the floodwaters. It states only that the ark floated up on the waters and that the nearby hills were so inundated that from Noah’s perspective the whole face of Earth was covered with water. That is, from one horizon to the other, all Noah could see was water.
An ark 450 feet long by 75 feet wide by 45 feet high, loaded with animals and supplies, probably needed a draft of at least 20 feet. If Noah stood on top of the ark, his eye level would have been approximately 30 feet above the waters (refraction corrections included). The water level horizon for him would have been about 8 miles away. Any hill more distant than about 15 miles, sticking up even a hundred feet or more above the water, would have been invisible. Hills higher than 500 feet and 1,000 feet above water level would have been beyond the possible view of Noah if they were more than 28 and 38 miles distant, respectively.
Are there any regions in Mesopotamia where, if the Tigris and/or Euphrates Rivers overflowed their banks by a depth of 20 feet or so, water would extend to 28 or 38 miles on either side? Yes. Such regions exist in both southern and middle Mesopotamia. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to imagine how so little water could wipe out all humans and all the birds and mammals associated with them. Fifty feet, a hundred feet, or a few hundred feet depth of water would provide a more realistic scenario.
The rate at which a 50-foot, 100-foot, or higher surge of water above the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would flow out to the Persian Gulf depends upon the slope of the land. From 400 miles northwest of Ur to Ur (the location of the Persian shore at the time of Noah), the Euphrates and Tigris rivers drop just 300 feet in elevation. This drop provides a grade of only about 0.01 percent. With that gentle a slope, the Flood waters would have moved very slowly out to the Persian Gulf. Moreover, for several months after the rain stopped, any water that exited to the Gulf would have been replaced with runoff from springs and melting snow on the distant mountains that surround the Mesopotamian Plain.
Genesis 8:1 states that God removed the floodwaters by sending a wind. Given the gentle slope of the land, evaporation plays a more significant role than gravity in removing the water. Such a scenario is consistent with the worst floods that have struck the Mississippi Valley, for example. The water rose 50 feet above the banks in those Mississippi floods and then it seemed to stand still.1 Residents of the region noticed little discernable movement. They had to wait for the waters to dry up.
Just how effective is evaporation for removing flood waters? During a typical Southern California summer the swimming pools lose an average of one inch of water per day to evaporation. Lower humidity, higher heat, and a strong wind can triple or quadruple that rate. Over the 335 days during which Noah’s Flood receded, that would add up to 84-112 feet of evaporation. If gravity had removed about half that much water, the total water depth removed would have been 126-168 feet. That is easily enough water to account for Noah’s seeing nothing but water for as far as his eyes could see. That is easily enough water to destroy all of Noah’s contemporaries and their animals outside the ark. And, that is easily enough water to carry the ark to the foothills of Ararat.
- See “The Mississippi River Flood of 1993,” at www.weather.com/encyclopedia/flood/miss93.html, accessed on 14 March 2002.
- W. M. Smart, Textbook on Spherical Astronomy, 5th ed. (London, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 317-20.
World Maps, topographic color and shaded relief from GLOBE Elevations with bathymetry from Smith and Sandwell, available from ftp://ftp.ngdc.noaa.gov/GLOBE_DEM/pictures/ GLOBALeb3colshade.jpg; Internet;accessed 24 January 2002.