Unlike the subjective hermeneutic principle of John MacArthur ("If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other"), the two interpretive principles I want to discuss today are well-accepted by Bible scholars and fundamental to understanding any passage of Scripture. We will apply them to the flood account of Genesis 6-8, specifically with regard to the scope of the flood. These principles apply not only to understanding the Bible, but should be used with any written document (the Constitution of the United States, Moby Dick, or whatever). These two principles are closely related, so closely, in fact, that I will state them as one:
At the outset, establish the intent and the context of the passage in question.So, arguably the first thing one should ask about Genesis 6-8 is a series of questions like, "What's it there for? Why did the ancient author include this account? (How does it fit with the author's larger project and purpose?) What is it about?" These are questions of intent, and if we ignore or miss the author's intent, we are much more likely to miss his meaning, which is what we ought to be after.
The intent of the flood account is to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity. I won't spend time supporting this claim, since it is so well-recognized by such a broad spectrum of serious Bible scholars. That is, if there is a more central purpose (intent) to this passage, the burden of proof would seem to lie with the proponent of that other purpose. What I will take the time to point out is what the intent of this passage is not.
It is not a hydrological treatise. Though it mentions water a great deal, and says some things about where the flood waters came from and departed to, its intent is to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity.
It is not a geological or paleontological explanation. Finding in Genesis 6-8 (as Ellen G. White, Henry Morris, John Whitcomb, and others have found) a way of explaining away the record from creation itself (the fossil and geological records) is completely ad hoc and foreign to the purposes of the ancient author.
It is not a biological treatise. It was not meant to explain the diversity of life on Earth as seen at present. Nor was its intent to offer instructions on captive breeding, animal husbandry, or other aspects of conservation biology. Its purpose was to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity.
The second thing that needs to be established is the context. The context, in a very real sense, flows out of the intent, and in this case (as in many others) the context and scope will be seen to be very similar.
The flood account claims to deal with God's judgment of sinful humanity, and the scope and context of that judgment is made very clear. The context is all humanity. All humans living at the time of Noah (with the exception of the 8 members of his immediate family) were judged by God to be exceedingly wicked, and were destroyed in the flood described here.
Given the context of all humanity, the question of scope then becomes,
Does the passage necessarily describe a global flood--one that somehow covered the entire planet--as modern readers are tempted to assume, or does it describe a more localized flood, but one which encompassed all humanity of that time?There is a good deal to be said on behalf a local flood. Considering the larger context (including the passages of the Bible that precede and follow the flood account) reveals the following:
1) The exceeding wickedness of the humanity of that day included murder and the failure to obey the dominion mandate (to multiply and fill the earth).
2) Humanity had not spread far from its place of origin. (There are no place names given in the run-up to the flood account that refer to locations outside of Mesopotamia.) Indeed, humanity's spread to other parts of the planet is described by Scripture as taking place only after the Tower of Babel incident, which follows the flood. (The latest archeological and genetic evidence fit very nicely with the Bible's, so long as one does not impose an unsupportable, recent date on them. According to those evidences, the spread of humans to Europe and Asia did not occur until a mere 30-40 thousand years ago, with the spread of people into the Americas happening about 11-13 thousand years ago.)
In addition, a local flood (but one that was nonetheless universal to all humanity) fits all of the available evidence (both from Scripture and from the creation itself) very well. A global flood, on the other hand, runs into all sorts of evidential problems, so much so that proponents of a global flood (young-earth creationists) end up promalgating a host of bizarre doctrines, each of which is ad hoc and not found in Scripture. These include the idea that the Earth was almost entirely flat prior to the flood and that all of the plate tectonics evident to geologists and paleogeologists occurred during the flood.
They include the doctrine that there were far fewer species at that time and that what we see today is the result of extremely rapid adaptation that occurred after the ark came to rest. Meant to account for the obvious lack of space on the ark for the millions of terrestrial species that have inhabited the Earth, this young-earth doctrine involves a rate of evolution that exceeds by orders of magnitude that in which the staunchest evolutionist would believe.
Similarly, the young-earth and global flood view seems to depend upon the ideas that there were only representative "kinds" of dinosaurs on the ark, that these were probably "teenage" or young dinosaurs (not fully grown Brachiosaurus), which subsequently evolved at extremely rapid rates to account for the much greater number of dinosaur species found in the fossil record.
Another, related bizarre doctrine used to defend the global flood position is the idea that all animals were created as vegetarians. I'm not making this stuff up. Ken Ham and other "creation scientists" insist that lions and eagles were originally plant-eaters, though everything about the physiology and anatomy of these creatures is perfectly designed for capturing, consuming, and digesting other animals.
Now, as a Christian you may choose to believe such nonsense, but it is not "plainly taught" by Scripture, even though the most important reason offered for holding this view is that it is the plain sense of the flood account. In the next post, we'll look at the parts of the passage that make modern readers overlook the context and jump to the conclusion that the entire planet was involved. We'll look at other Bible passages that have similar all-inclusive language but for which we all recognize the context as limiting or narrowing the scope.
In the meantime, I urge you not to promote a global flood as a part of Christian belief. It is not, and never has been. Indeed, it is belief that the Bible teaches such silliness that keeps many unbelievers from considering Christianity's true claims and leads many young people raised in the church to abandon Christian belief when they finally come to reason through this issue and to become aware of the overwhelming contrary evidence.