Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Genesis Flood is its geographical extent. Part of the basis for the controversy is that Genesis addresses the geophysics, geology, and geography of the flood only secondarily. Its main message is that God was compelled to cleanse the earth of the wickedness of man. The message of God's judgment against rampant evil is very clearly stated and understood in any translation. However, in order to comprehend the geological details concerning the flood, it is helpful, perhaps in this case essential, to read the Genesis text in the original Hebrew, and even then the text is not always as specific as one might like.
A good rule of Biblical interpretation is to analyze that which is less specific in the light of that which is more specific. As I mentioned in part seven of this series, the Bible is very specific about the extent of the defilement of man's sin and about God's response. The defilement is limited to the sinners, their progeny for several generations, birds and mammals which are part of their livelihood, their material possessions, and their agricultural land. Nowhere in the Bible do we see God's meting out judgment beyond those limits. Hence, we can expect that if mankind had never visited Antarctica, God would not have struck that territory. The extent of the Genesis flood would be limited to the extent of the defilement of man's sin. This interpretation is supported by the Genesis author's choice of the Hebrew words for creatures" destroyed by the flood, namely basar and nephesh. Part seven gives further details.
In Genesis 7:4-12 we are told that the flood arose from the earth's troposphere and from underground aquifers (not from some unknown place in outer space). These water resources are considerable, to be sure, but fall short of what verse 19 seems to require. According to Genesis 7:19, the waters "rose greatly ... and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered." The English translation seems to imply that even Mt. Everest was submerged under the flood waters. The Hebrew word for "high," however, simply means elevated" and for "mountain," means anything from "a small hillock" to "a towering peak." The Hebrew verb for "covered" allows three alternatives: (1) inundated, (2) rained upon, or (3) washed over as by a rush of water. In any of these cases, 15 cubits of standing water, 15 cubits of sudden rainfall, or a 15-cubit rush of water, there would be no human or animal survivors.
Genesis 8 gives us the most significant evidence for a universal (with respect to man and his animals and lands), but not global, flood. The four different Hebrew verbs used in Genesis 8:1-8 to describe the receding of the flood waters indicate that these waters returned to their original sources. In other words, the waters of the flood are still to be found within the aquifers and troposphere and oceans of planet Earth. Since the total water content of the earth is only 22 percent of what would be needed for a global flood, it appears that the Genesis flood could not have been global.
The argument I have heard most frequently against this conclusion is that before the flood, there were no high mountains or deep oceans. The present day relief of the earth's surface is said to have been generated in a period of just a few months. I see several major problems with such a suggestion:
- it contradicts a vast body of geological data;
- it contradicts a vast body of geophysical data, at the same time requiring such cataclysmic effects as to render highly unlikely Noah's survival in an ark;
- it overlooks the geophysical difficulties of a planet with a smooth surface; and
- it contradicts our observations of the tectonics. The mechanisms that drive tectonic plate movements have extremely long time constants, so long that the effects of such a catastrophe would easily be measurable to this day. Since they are not, I conclude that the flood cannot be global.
As for the reference, "under the entire heavens," such expressions must always be understood in their context. What would constitute under the entire heavens for the people of Noah's time? The extent of their view from the entire region in which they existed or operated. Perhaps a verse from the New Testament will clarify my point. In Romans 1:8 the Apostle Paul declares that the faith of the Christians in Rome was being "reported all over the world." Since "all over the world" to the Romans meant the entire Roman Empire (and not the entire globe), we would not interpret Paul's words as an indication that the Eskimos and Incas were familiar at that time with the activities of the church at Rome.
Further support for a regional, rather than global, cataclysm comes from consideration of God's command to Noah after the flood, the same command He had given to Adam and later gave to the people who built the tower of Babel: "Fill the earth." The fact that God repeated this command to Noah (and intervened dramatically to disperse the people of Babel's day) implies that the people of Noah's generation had not filled the earth. This view is consistent with the geographical place names recorded in the first nine chapters of Genesis. They all refer to localities either in or very close to Mesopotamia.
What does the geological data tell us about massive floods in the earth's history? The evidence shows that the only place in the world where massive flooding has occurred since the advent of modem man is the region of Mesopotamia.
The Genesis account of the great flood is not an embarrassment for the Christian. We are not saddled with a contradiction between the established facts of science and the words of the Bible. Rather, we have one more set of objective evidences that the Bible is indeed inerrant, not oust in matters of faith and practice, but in all disciplines including geology and history.
Does all this evidence for a regional flood mean that the Genesis flood was not universal? Not at all. Let me reiterate: the Genesis flood certainly was universal in that it destroyed all mankind and the animals associated with his livelihood except those on board Noah's ark. Only in the twentieth century has "universal" been synonymous with "global." Global citizens, global corporations, and global wars are unique to this century.
My discussion here by no means exhausts the issues surrounding the account of the Flood. If you would like to pursue some of these further, you may order our two tape set, The Flood (editor's note: item no longer available) through our Online Store. In Part Nine of this series on objections to the Christian faith and to the reliability of the Bible I will discuss the long life-spans of the pre-flood people, and in a later issue, rain and the rainbow.