The context establishes limits on the scope of a passage.What's left is to look at how this principle is applied to a number of Scripture passages, including the flood account. In fact, let's begin with the flood account, to remind us how the all-encompassing verbiage can tempt a modern, globally-oriented person to wrongly attribute to the passage a planet-wide scope.
The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (Gen. 7:17-23)It's pretty easy to see that the language in this passage can--when read superficially--lead to understanding the flood as global. But no ancient would have understood it that way, and to read it aright we must allow the context--all humanity--to establish limits on the scope. We do this very naturally with a host of other Scripture passages that have similar all-encompassing language. Here are a few examples.
Right after greeting the Christians at Rome, Paul writes (in Rom. 1:8),
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.No scholar or commentator interprets Paul here as including far-flung people groups such as the Maoris of New Zealand or the Inuits of North America. Instead, they (and we) unconciously recognize the context of Paul's letter as constraining the scope to the known world of Paul and his readers, the Roman Empire. As another example, here's what we read in I Kings 10:24,
And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.In reading this, do you envision pilgrims coming from Machu Pichu to check out Solomon's kingdom and question him? Of course not. You recognize that the context establishes the scope to be the region surrounding the Israel of Solomon's day.
How about an example from the same book of the Bible in which the flood account is recorded? In Genesis 41:57, we find,
Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.Note that this is the exact same language that in Genesis 7 causes modern readers to see the flood as global. But no one that I know would spend any time trying to defend the interpretation that the famine of Joseph's day was planet-wide. What's the difference? With regard to the famine, we rightly allow the context to establish the scope. And we must do the same with the flood if we are to avoid the absurdities that arise out of a global flood view.
Many of us, of course, bring to the flood account other issues. We retain in our mind visual images of the ark containing pairs of animals of all kinds, including kangaroos and penguins, elephants and aardvarks, animals that most certainly would not have been a part of Noah's scope. Moreover, the people who taught us the story of Noah's ark when we were children were probably some of the nicest, most well-meaning Christians we have known. None of this changes the fact that if we are to take the Bible seriously we must give up childish ways and apply to it the common sense and well-established interpretive principles that will prevent us from coming to inaccurate conclusions.
If you're still struggling with understanding the flood as encompassing all humanity but nonetheless inundating only the Mesopotamian Plain, here're a few tips...
1) Where the word 'earth' appears (in the Gen. 7 passage at the start of the post), substitute the word 'land' or 'ground.' Each is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew word erets. Part of the problem is that when we today read the word 'earth,' we tend to think of the 'third planet in our solar system' whereas that picture of a planet would never have occurred to any ancient hearers/readers. Erets is interchangeably translated as 'ground,' 'land,' or 'earth' (and can also be used to refer to a plot of ground or even to the soil), but translating it here as 'earth' unnecessarily conjures up (for us) images of a planet.
2) In reading the passage, keep in mind not God's (omnipresent) perspective but that of Noah and all of the humanity experiencing the deluge. For them--as the passage very graphically portrays--there was water everywhere, with no ground in sight (not even the highest mountains of that inhabited region), and no creature remaining alive in all the affected region. In this context, so sudden and widespread was that flood judgment that there was no escape for man nor beast.
One more Scripture passage may suffice to drive the point home, as it comes from the flood account itself. In Genesis 8, we read the same descriptive words, but now applying not to water but to lack of water:
So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth... In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. ...and behold, the face of the earth was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. (Gen. 8:11-14)It is illegitimate to insist upon a global interpretation of the flood waters in chapter 7 and then not to apply the same hermeneutic to the lack of water in chapter 8. Yet is it not obvious that the 'the earth had dried out' cannot intend to convey that the entire planet was now dry? The correct understanding, and the one that covers both the flood and the subsequent subsiding of the waters, is that a particular area is in view, the area inhabited by humanity at the time of the flood judgment.
The flood of Noah's day was universal--applying to all humanity. But understanding it as also being global involves logical absurdities and bad hermeneutics. Insisting upon a global flood interpretation is to place artificial barriers between educated people and the actual claims of true, historic Christianity.