Another question from Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Was Noah’s flood local or global?

Q. Another question I have after reading your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage is what to do with the story of Noah’s flood. Creationists claim that many cultures across the world in isolated regions have “flood legends” in which one of their ancient ancestors is said to have survived a world-wide flood. This ancestor was named something similar to “Noah” like “Nehu.” I don’t know how to interpret such claims if Noah’s flood was just a small scale or local flood. I also don’t know what to do with the Bible’s claims that God essentially wiped out all life except sea life if it wasn’t a global flood. Of course, the section in your book in which Dr. Godfrey discusses trace fossils is pretty much the scientific nail in the coffin of there having been a global flood, but I don’t know how to reconcile these other details with the Bible’s description of the flood.

I think the most important thing to realize when considering your question is this: whether Genesis is envisioning a local flood or a global flood, it’s not picturing it happening in the world as we know it today.  Rather, it’s describing the flood within an observational ancient cosmology, so that the very word “global” is misleading.

Genesis doesn’t envision the earth as a globe, but rather as a flat stretch of land surrounded by heaped-up waters on all sides.  As I say in response to a comment on the previous post (which was also written in response to one of your questions about our book), any attempt to “establish a one-to-one correspondence between details in the biblical text and events in natural history” is doomed, precisely because of this difference in cosmology.  “You can’t get there from here.”

In the flood episode, God is basically wiping out the wicked human race by destroying the place of its abode.  In the creation account, God makes “a place for everything” and then puts “everything in its place”:  birds in the sky, fish in the sea, humans and animals on the land.  The flood is an un-creation scene:  the dry land disappears beneath the waters, just as it originally appeared from under them, and the whole race of wicked people disappear with it.

That’s the theological message of the account from within its ancient cosmology. We really can’t extrapolate from that to try to determine what actually happened in natural history.  Comparative anthropology, as you note, may shed some light, and geology can as well, but we’re not getting natural historical details about the world as we know it today from the flood story in the Bible, precisely because of its ancient observational cosmology.  This is a case like the many others we discuss in the book in which the Bible answers questions of “who” and “why,” but not (at least to our satisfaction) questions of “what,” “how,” or “when.”

(I earlier shared some additional thoughts about the question of a local versus worldwide flow in this 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.

2 thoughts on “Another question from Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Was Noah’s flood local or global?”

  1. Besides the above insights, I think the following ideas are helpful in reading the flood story better:

    1) As far as I know, the flood narrative comprises the largest chiasm in the Bible, this is a fun exercise to work out once one knows it is there. But this means the overall structure of the story mirrors the rise and fall of the flood waters. But actual historical events do not usually follow such a precise pattern as a chiasm, especially such a long one. To me, this suggests at least the possibility of the story being read as something other than straightforward historical narrative.

    2) It also seems that there are two interleaved flood stories that make up the whole flood story, this is again a fun exercise to work out once one knows it is possibly there. But anytime there are 2 or more stories about something, one immediate question is how much do they align or not? When one discovers areas of possible differences in the 2 stories, one then can try to find ways to harmonize them but if this is not possible, then recognize that the differences are a clue as to the type of genre the stories are intended to be read.

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