The Flood, a Local Event?
by Andre Reis
The acceptance of a worldwide flood has been the linchpin of Young Earth Creationism because it lies at the heart of the reliability of biblical historiography. But critics of the flood story, even within the Adventist ranks, regard it as a fruit of primitive ignorance about how the world functions. Interpretations of the biblical text have been put forth which question whether it deals with a universal or a local flood.
It has been frequently suggested that in order to align the ancient wisdom of Genesis with current scientific knowledge, we need to free the text from its original moorings, i.e., authorial intent. In other words, Genesis needs to be seen as a draft to be completed with modern scientific knowledge. Modern geological theory has been juxtaposed onto the biblical account to prove that a universal flood is highly implausible. Critics would have us abandon authorial intent in order to create our own story of the flood, a modern day Epic of Gilgamesh so to speak. But once the text and its intricacies are rendered irrelevant, the exegete is free to come to any conclusions he wants, the author’s words are second guessed, details in the account are dismissed, key information not taken seriously.
Below we analyze some of the literary devices used by the author of Genesis which militate against the notion of a local flood.(1) Despite our own personal opinions of what occurred in the misty past, this article will demonstrate that the biblical author intended to describe nothing but a flood of global proportions. A reading of the text in context with an eye to the features of the original language will guide us in this process.
Mabbûl, a global cataclysm
The Hebrew language has a very clear marker for narratives, which involve historical account of sequential events; those are the wayyiqtol verbs. A cursory check of the flood narrative reveals several wayyiqtol verbs: Gen 7 starts with wayyomer yhwh, “and the Lord spoke”; 7:12 reads wayehi haggeshem, “the rains fell”; 7:18: wayyigberu hammayim “and the waters increased greatly”.
This important verbal marker poses a problem for the theory that Noah’s flood was not meant by the author to be a real event. Critics usually accept that some flood did occur. But the wayyiqtol verbs also imply that everything in his account is to be taken seriously as a sequential historical account, including the flood’s universality. This the critics do not accept.
Several other important Hebrew terms are present in the biblical account to express the extent of the flood:
“Mabbûl”, a Hebrew terminus technicus for Noah’s flood which appears twelve times in Genesis and only once in Ps 29:10, also a clear allusion to Noah’s flood. Regular, local floods are described in Hebrew using mostly mayim, “waters” (cf. Ex 15:8), sipeah-mayim, “mass of waters” (Job 22:11; 38:34), tehomôt, nahar and naharôt, “rivers” (e.g., Ps 93:3; 98:8).
This distinction between the mayim “waters, or inundations” and a “mabbûl of water”, a cataclysmic, global flood, which “kills all flesh” on the planet is unmistakable in Gen 9:15 where God says that “the waters [mayim] shall never again become a flood [mabbûl] to destroy all flesh.”
Let’s also take a closer look at Psalm 29. This Psalm deals with God’s power over all nature and v. 10 says: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood [mabbûl]”. It parallels Isa 40:22: “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth [ha-aretz].” Compare this with Ex 19:5 where God says, “the whole earth [kol ha-aretz] is mine”. Just as God is seated over the whole earth, he was also seated over the mabbûl in Noah’s time, a unique event which covered the whole earth. “Noah’s flood” then becomes a misnomer, the flood was actually “God’s flood” or “Yahweh’s mabbûl”.
“Mankind” ('adam). The wicked 'adam in Gen 6 are the same 'adam that God created in his image in Gen 1:26. They are inseparable from the 'adam “people” in Gen 5 where the genealogies of all mankind, from Adam to Noah are laid out. This leads into the flood account proper of Gen 7 where kol ha-adam, “all human beings” perish (v. 21).
Conversely, the promise in Gen 8:20 is made to ha-adam, “all mankind” even as the rainbow is a sign for the whole earth “eretz” (9:13) “and all flesh that is on the earth” (kol basar asher al-ha-aretz, 9:17).
But if “mankind” in Gen 6 refers to a local tribe as local flood advocates imply, it follows that 'adam in the creation account in Gen 1 and 2 also refers to a local tribe since there’s no indication that the terms apply to a different entity. And if these chapters do not deal with “all mankind”, one wonders how much of the “whole earth” was engulfed in “wickedness” (Gen 6:5). Just parts of it? Which ones? Were there pockets of idyllic peace and civility on earth, maybe even sinless perfection?
This is hardly the case. Genesis 1, 2, 5 and 6, 7, 8 and 9 all deal with the same 'adam, “all mankind”.
“Earth” (eretz). This term can mean “earth” or “land”, depending on the context. The word eretz is often used as a synonym of tebel “world” as in 1 Sam 2:8: “For the pillars of the earth [eretz] are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world [tebel]” (e.g., Job 34:13; Ps 19:4; Isa 14:21; 1 Chron 16:29). Compare this with Ex 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth [eretz]”. It is also often found in apposition to “heaven” as the place where God resides (cf. 2 King 19:15; Isa 37:16; Jer 23:24; Hab 2:20) and to God as the Lord of kol ha-aretz “all the earth” (Zech 4:14; 6:5).
The Hebrew expression kol ha-aretz, “the whole earth” occurs three times in the story of Noah (Gen 7:3; 8:9; 9:19). It also occurs in other passages in the Old Testament not referring to the whole earth but these usually carry a marker of delimitation such as Deut 11:25: “the Lord your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land [kol ha-aretz] on which you set foot.” These "kol/kal" expressions need to be interpreted according to the context (cf. Ex 10:15; 1 Sam 30:16; 2 Sam 18:7; Zech 14:10).
Some argue that eretz in the flood account could mean the local land of Noah only. But this would require a genitive such as “the land of Nod” (Gen 4:16) or other syntactical device to help the reader to understand which land is in view. The “land of Noah” would be an undeniable proof of a local flood, but this is nowhere to be found. The forty-six occurrences of eretz in the flood account do not delimit this eretz to a specific locale. In the absence of a delimiting feature and considering other universalistic expressions in the narrative, it follows that the whole earth, the entire world, is in view in the flood account.
“All, every”(kal/kol). The term kal/kol occurs eight times in the passage describing the extent and the effect of Noah’s flood in Gen 7:3, 19-23. Gen 7:19-20 states that “The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.” Because of this, “all flesh died”, “all human beings” and “every living thing”, “everything on dry land” was wiped out (Gen 7:21-23). Scholars agree that the narrative reaches a climax in this passage to contrast the absolute universality of the devastation with the fact that “only Noah was left”. (2)
Other important Hebrew terms in the mabbûl account are:
meod meod, “mightily” (7:19); denotes utmost intensity, an exceeding great number and even universality (Gen 17:2, 6).
kol-heharim, “all the mountains” (7:19-20);
kol-hashamayim, “the whole heaven/sky” (7:19);
kol-basar, “all flesh” (Gen 6:13, 17; 7:21; 9:17);
kol asher nishmat-ruah, “all that has breath” (7:22);
kol ha-adam, “all human beings” (7:21);
kol-hayequm, “every living thing” (7:23)
kal-hahay, “all living things” (6:19);
peney-ha-adamah, “the face of the ground” (Gen 7:4, 22; 8:8, 13; cf. Ex 32:12), which is synonymous with al-peney kol ha-aretz, “on the face of the whole earth” (Gen 7:3; 8:9; cf . Gen 1:29; 2:6 al-peney kol ha-aretz; kol-peney ha adama).
What is clear from these passages is that the Hebrew word kal (kol), “all, every, entire, everything” is the choice term to describe the extent of the flood. Together with the technical term mabbûl, these kol expressions contain the most forceful statement that the flood was a unique, indisputable, universal event.
We also need to acknowledge that, while the biblical author had many literary devices at his disposal to describe a local flood, our author did not do so. We look in vain for evidence of a localized event. Conversely, he did not have any other way to express the flood’s universal extent in Hebrew other than the way he did.
But despite the above evidence, opponents of the universal flood want us to read “all and every” as “not all, not the entire, not everything”. This reading has been made false by the Hebrew: there’s no question for the biblical author that the flood was a universal, planetary cataclysm.
It has also been suggested that because the ancient writer could not know the earth was a globe, the flood could not be global. But how can one be so certain he didn’t know this? Moreover, this argument is a non sequitur, an anachronism, which attempts to impose limits on ancient knowledge based on today’s understanding of the world. The fact is that the biblical author did not necessarily need to know that the earth was a globe to understand that the flood engulfed the whole planet, were it flat or round. The implications of knowing that the earth is globe have little or no impact in the description of a universal event.
The curious case of Noah’s dove
Close to the end of the flood, Noah “sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth” (Gen 8:8-9).
It has been suggested that because the dove could not possibly fly all over the earth, “the whole earth” can only mean a “local land”. But nowhere does the text say that the dove flew “all over the earth”; this is an incorrect inference. That the dove did not find a place to rest is used by the author simply to highlight the fact that the waters were still “on the face of the whole earth" [kol ha-aretz]. It does not necessarily mean that the dove flew “on the face of the whole earth”. In fact implying that the dove flew “all over the earth” would not make any sense for the author since he already clearly stated, using the force of the Hebrew that the “whole earth” means the entire planet.
But let’s entertain the argument that because the dove could not fly all over the earth, “under the sky” means as far as the dove could fly, or as far as one could see, the horizon. The problem for this theory is that according to simple calculations (3) the horizon for a 6ft person is only about 5 miles away. Any observer’s sky area is a mere 25 square miles!
Now let’s assume Noah let out a mourning dove which flies at the top speed of 55 mph. Assuming Noah let it out at sunrise, the dove probably flew around the ark a couple of times to adjust its internal GPS and then darted off in a straight line as migratory often birds do, looking for its home back in Mesopotamia, 500 miles away. It would have flown approximately 330 miles one way (6 hours), and having found no dry ground, it flew back to Noah, probably in the evening as the other dove did. If this is a likely scenario, the total area of this “local flood” could have easily reached 360,000 square miles.
This is simply too large an area to be considered “Noah’s land” or what Noah could see under his sky. On the other hand, a flood lasting one whole year covering all the high mountains in 360,000 square miles could well have all the hallmarks of a universal event! And these calculations hinge on the flight of a mourning dove; if our primitive species of pigeon flew faster and at a much higher altitude (some birds reach 29,000 feet during migration), the area of this “local flood” could increase to over 1,000,000 square miles! This is well over the 168,000 square miles of the local, “Black Sea flood” theory proposed by Ballard. (4)
Noah’s dove poses absolutely no problem for the idea of a universal flood. In fact, rather than weakening the universality of the flood, the dove’s flight may be strong evidence in its favor.
The local flood theory is further weakened if we consider the possibility that the tallest mountains in the world at that time could be in the region where the Ark was floating, the mountains of Ararat. If that entire region was submerged, it obviously follows that the whole world was also under water.
Opponents of the universal flood insist that while the flood story could be true, it shows signs of implausibility because according to them, God gave a limited revelation. While we can agree that God’s revelation about the natural world has not been exhaustive or scientifically minded, it is not unreasonable to assume that what is revealed can be understood by the human mind. The burden of proof is with those who argue that a global flood would be incomprehensible for those primitive minds. But this is not what we find in the many primitive, universal flood legends found around the world.
Finally, many details in the story simply do not add up to a localized flood; if this mabbûl covered only Noah’s horizon (25 square miles), why build a huge boat and gather animals if most of the earth outside “Noah’s land” was dry and cozy? Even in a major local flood of thousands of square miles, couldn’t Noah simply get out of the way of the waters? He certainly could have migrated to the Caribbean or the Americas in the 120 years it took him to build a boat!
It is hard to imagine that a straightforward reading of the account would lead one to conclude that a local flood is in view, unless one is being coaxed by strong philosophical presuppositions. Our author’s intent is quite clear that this was a global event.
A further step from this essay would be to explore some of the global features in earth’s crust which seem to point to a global catastrophe, such as the uniform layer of fossils suddenly buried by water and observable in all continents of the globe. (5)
Our study has demonstrated that the biblical author used the Hebrew language to describe nothing but a cataclysm of universal proportions, Yahweh’s mabbûl.
Critics of Genesis are free to question the historicity of the Flood from the standpoint of naturalist philosophy, uniformism and mainstream geological theory. But what they cannot do is continue to give lip service to the ancient text of Genesis while undercutting it by questioning the clear intentions of the biblical author.
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1. For a complete analysis of the flood account from the perspective of the Hebrew, see Gerhard Hasel’s “The Extent of the Biblical Flood”, available here https://www.grisda.org/origins/02077.pdf
2. See for example, Mathews, K. A., The New American Commentary. Vol. 1A, Genesis 1-11:26. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996).
3. See formula here: https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/01/15/how-far-away-is-the-horizon/#.UVgx_6vwJOw].
5. For further study, I have pointed out elsewhere the inadequacies and fallacies of attempting to make the Bible’s catastrophism adapt to mainstream geological theory. “Ice Cores and the Flood” https://spectrummagazine.org/node/4832 and “Drilling a little deeper: how long has snow fallen on Greenland? https://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2012/11/20/drilling-little-deeper-how-long-has-snow-fallen-greenland?quicktabs_2=0 ].