Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scope of the Flood (Part 3)

We've seen that the hermeneutic principle used by some today to conclude that the flood described in Genesis 6-8 must be understood as covering the entire planet is too subjective to be useful. We have further seen that a number of absurd ideas are offered as necessary support for such a belief. We have traced the history of the global flood idea to its recent source, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism in the late 1800's. Finally, we have discussed more foundational and well-accepted interpretive principles, including the one that says that
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.


Jordan said...

Couple questions for you Rick:

1) It looks like you are suggesting that all of humanity was located in the Mesopotamian plain at the time of the flood. Is there evidence for that? My understanding of the common thinking was that humans first came from Africa and that culture, not humanity itself originated in Mesopotamia.

2) Do you think the ark was really as big as described in the Bible? I can understand your argument about "earth" not necessarily being the entire planet but some of the details (size of ark, 40 days of floating around, etc.) don't necessarily seem to make sense to me from a local flood perspective.

Mark said...


My 2 cents,
If you look at the basin area in the fertile crescent region that the flood most likely covered it is rather large.Roughly speaking,maybe like the distance from the North border of California up to the border of BC Canada.Then eastward out towards Idaho,Nevada and Utah. Plenty of room to float around for quite awhile.


Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Jordan:

Your question number 1 is a good one, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to answer it.

First, there's the Biblical evidence. As I mentioned in the post, the Bible doesn't mention any spreading away from the region known variously as the fertile crescent, the cradle of civilization, or the Middle East until after the Tower of Babel (and after, therefore, the flood).

As for archaeological evidence, it fits nicely as well. All of the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens sapiens comes from this same region, with artifacts, art, and other evidences in other parts of the world always dating more recently than the oldest in the Middle East.

The theory that humans came originally from Africa (the "Out-of-Africa Hypothesis") comes from the disciplines of anthropology and genetics. The genetic evidence (which now overwhelmingly favors this hypothesis against its competitor, the multiregional model), does not allow us to distinguish whether the single female from which all extant females are descended and the single male from which all living males are descended lived in Africa or the Middle East. That is, the genetic data fits perfectly with the Bible's account of 2 original humans, a universal flood, and a subsequent dispersal, and does not indicate Africa any more than the fertile crescent.

This leaves only the anthropological evidence to consider. Again, the actual anthropological evidence for Homo sapiens sapiens fits the model one woulld arrive at by reading the Bible. But most anthroplogists assume (without substantive evidence) an evolutionary link between humans and other bipedal primates (usually confusingly called hominids), and most of the anthropological evidence for these other species is from Africa.

In short, the actual evidence supports a Middle Eastern origin for human beings, and the African link is based on assumptions made apart from the evidence. The most comprehensive treatment I know of this issue is Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross. If you're at all interested in these issues, I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading!

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Mark:

Yes, I think you're right about the size of the region in question. I'm anxious to talk to one of our soldiers who has served in Iraq, as they should be able to put into perspective for us the flatness of that region, and the unlikelihood of being able to see anything but water once the region was inundated.

By the way, it is quite likely that the seas were somewhat lower at the time (though pinpointing the date of the flood is problematic), such that the land basin in question would have been even larger than the portion of that region that is dry land today.

Jordan, I'm not sure exactly what about these details seems implausible to you. As Mark has mentioned, the term 'local' is misleading, because the area in question would have been huge. And such a large, flat area would have taken quite a long time to drain of so much water.

In this regard, the Bible indicates that God sent a wind to expedite the draining of the land. This is another point in favor of understanding the flood not as global but as pertaining to the Mesopotamian Plain. Were there water covering the entire planet, what good would wind be in helping to remove it? But a wind would have been useful in helping water leave a large, flat plain and enter the nearby sea.

As for the size of the ark, I have no reason to doubt the Bible's description. I believe the large size of the ark is still more in keeping with housing all of the region's terrestrial animals than all of the planet's. What's more, the ark served other purposes, like standing as a testimony (for 120 years of its building) to the coming judgment of God on a sinful people. So, if it was a little larger than absolutely necessary (for housing the animals involved), that hardly argues for a global flood.

Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

Jordan said...

OK, so I could imagine a flood of that size could take a while to subside.

The question about the size of the ark comes from the common "word on the street" I've seen from such intellectual giants as the Discovery Channel :-) I commonly hear, "well, all these people were building was tiny reed boats, how could they possibly have built such a large boat?"

Mark said...

I think people have a hard time understanding that the flood was an entirely freshwater event.

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Mark:

Yes, you make a good point about the event being a freshwater one. This is another issue that requires mental gymnastics on the part of defenders of a global flood.

Hi Jordan:

I don't really know how you should respond to such an argument from incredulity. I would suggest that each time skeptics have claimed that civilizations or nations 'could not have been as advanced' as the Bible states, subsequent research has proved such skeptics wrong. So as it stands, the evidence routinely has shown the Bible reliable, and the burden of proof ought to remain with the skeptic (Discovery Channel or whomever).