Was Noah’s flood a worldwide event or a local one?

Q. In your Genesis study guide you seem to take for granted that Noah’s flood was a worldwide event. You write, “God must have used some extraordinary means to cause a flood of this magnitude, since ordinary rainfall, even a downpour of forty days, wouldn’t be sufficient to cover all the mountains on earth.”  But I’ve heard some people claim instead that this flood was a local event.  How would you respond?

Floodwater

You’re right, one school of interpretation does hold that Noah’s flood was a local event in which the waters rose 15 cubits (22 feet) above their usual height, or else this far above their flood stage.  This would still be a tremendous flood, but local one.  However, the statement in Genesis that the high hills (or mountains) were all covered with water would seem to rule this out.

The statement is actually made within a poetic couplet that’s based on the repetition of meaning, whose second line provides greater focus, as is typical of Hebrew poetry.  The couplet can be translated this way:

And the waters were great, exceedingly, exceedingly, upon the earth
and they covered all the high hills that were under the skies;
Five and ten cubits upwards were the waters great
and they covered the high hills.

“All the high hills that were under the skies” are in view, and the claim is that these were covered to a height of 15 cubits, so I think the writer’s intention is to describe a worldwide event.

However, it’s important to remember that all of this is written from an observational perspective. The author of the flood account is reporting that all of the high hills out to the visible horizon (“under the skies”) were covered by the waters.  So this would conceivably still allow for a local flood, although it’s being envisioned as a worldwide event.

In either case, however, this would still be a flood of such magnitude that the problem of its mechanism remains. Some extraordinary means must have been responsible, because as I go on to say in the guide, the description of the flood in Genesis, no matter how we interpret it, “doesn’t line up with our modern cosmology.  Much of the universe is described here by analogy to things in human experience, so that there are ‘floodgates’ in the sky and ‘springs’ in the ‘great deep.'”  So it’s a real challenge to get from the way the author envisioned the created world to the way we understand it today.

I think it’s more profitable to realize that the Genesis account here is describing a wrestling match between the waters and the earth.  The waters “were great” or “prevailed” over the earth: “Prevail” in Hebrew is the root GBR, while the adjective “high” applied to the mountains or hills is GBH. Both roots convey the sense of strength and might. In other words, the greatest strength that the earth can muster—supposedly immovable mountains—cannot resist the force that God raises against it.

The flood was sent because almost the entire human race had turned away from God into violence and wickedness, but if they felt nothing could stop them from taking that path, their false sense of security has now been exposed.  The story ultimately has a moral lesson, so if the only thing we take away from it is a conclusion about how widespread the flood was, or about how it happened, we’ve missed the point.

For a further discussion of the flood in light of the way the biblical authors envisioned the created world, see this related post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Was Noah’s flood a worldwide event or a local one?”

  1. Chris, I’ve heard that the force of the recent tsunami in Japan actually shifted the earth on it’s axis. This might be a modern indication of how a catastrophic flood like that could happen scientifically.

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