This description of a worldwide flood, in which the highest of mountains was submerged and which led to the deaths of all living creatures except Noah, his immediate family, and the animals taken into the ark, seems to stretch credulity well beyond its breaking point. The water would have been more than five miles above normal sea level: where did all that water come from, and where, when the flood subsided, did it go to?
Comparative Ancient Near East Literature
Noah’s flood has many parallels in the literature of the ANE. The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, the Babylonian story of Atrahasis, and Sumerian text known as the Eridu Genesis have a number of similarities with the Genesis account. Each of these records a flood sent by the gods to destroy the world, except for a Noah-like figure and his family, who survived in an ark.
These multiple accounts suggest a single catastrophe that was independently remembered in different cultures.
1. A global flood?
Richard Davidson (EDBT) writes,
‘Many lines of biblical evidence converge in affirming the universal extent of the flood and also reveal the theological significance of this conclusion:
1. the trajectory of major themes in Genesis 1-11-creation, fall, plan of redemption, spread of sin-is universal in scope and calls for a matching universal judgment;
2. the genealogical lines from both Adam (Gen 4:17-26; 5:1-31 ) and Noah (Gen 10:1-32 11:1-9 ) are exclusive in nature, indicating that as Adam was father of all preflood humanity, so Noah was father of all postflood humanity;
3. the same inclusive divine blessing to be fruitful and multiply is given to both Adam and Noah; (Gen 1:28; 9:1 )
4. the covenant (Gen 9:9-10 ) and its rainbow sign (Gen 9:12-17 ) are clearly linked with the extent of the flood; (Gne 9:16,18 ) if there was only a local flood, then the covenant would be only a limited covenant;
5. the viability of God’s promise (Gen 9:15; cf. Isa 54:9) is wrapped up in the universality of the flood; if only a local flood occurred, then God has broken his promise every time another local flood has happened;
6. the universality of the flood is underscored by the enormous size of the ark (Gen 6:14-15 ) and the stated necessity for saving all the species of animals and plants in the ark; (Gen 6:16-21; 7:2-3 ) a massive ark filled with representatives of all nonaquatic animal/plant species would be unnecessary if this were only a local flood;
7. the covering of “all the high mountains” by at least twenty feet of water (Gen 7:19-20 ) could not involve simply a local flood, since water seeks its own level across the surface of the globe;
8. the duration of the flood (Noah in the ark over a year, Gen 7:11-8:14) makes sense only with a universal flood;
9. the New Testament passages concerning the flood all employ universal language (“took them all away”; (Mt 24:39 ) “destroyed them all”; (Lk 17:27 ) Noah “condemned the world”; (Heb 11:7 ).
10. the New Testament flood typology assumes and depends upon the universality of the flood to theologically argue for an imminent worldwide judgment by fire.’ (2 Pet 3:6-7 )
2. A local flood?
On the other hand,
1. The word for ‘earth’ (the narrative doesn’t use the word for ‘world’ at all) can mean simply ‘land’ or ‘country’. So, by itself, it does not imply a worldwide flood. The ‘global’ language of Gen 41:57, for example, is clearly not to be taken literally. (See also Col 1:23).
2. We do not know how widely the human race had spread across the globe by the time of the Flood. It is possible, then, that even a fairly localised flood could have wiped out the entire human population of the world apart from those saved on the ark.
3. 2 Pet 3:3-7 draws a clear parallel between the Genesis Flood and the fiery final judgment. If the latter is to be worldwide, as it certainly will be, it might be argued that the former must have been worldwide also, or else the parallel would break down.
4. If the flood was local, it is difficult to account for the ark coming to rest somewhere on the slopes of Mount Ararat, and even more difficult to account for the need to save all those animals on the ark.
According to the relevant entry in Hard Sayings of the Bible, the jury is still out on the question of whether the Flood was a local or a worldwide phenomenon. Either way, it was a terrible judgment of God on human wickedness.
3. This Biologos article argues for an interpretation that takes the characteristics of ancient literature and cosmology seriously. ‘The scientific and historical evidence is now clear: there has never been a global flood that covered the entire earth, nor do all modern animals and humans descend from the passengers of a single vessel.’ So,
It is necessary to ask what a biblical narrative would have meant to its original readers, and also to re-visit our own interpretation in the light of scientific knowledge.
Many ancient texts (including the Gilgamesh Epic) have a story about a catastrophic flood. The account given in Genesis 6-9 may well draw on a common cultural memory of such an event.
The point of the biblical story is not to give precise facts about what happened, but rather to use the story to convey a message about God and humankind.
The story itself contains many clues that indicate that it is not meant to be understood literally. The descriptions of the extent and duration of the flood, the size of the ark, and the number of animals carried in it all suggest that the literary device of hyperbole is being used. Moreover, the instruction to treat ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals differently is anachronistic, since such a distinction was not made until the time of Moses.
We should also consider the general nature of the first eleven chapters of Genesis: these cover a huge swathe of history and serve as ‘a grand and poetic “introduction” to the story of God’s people’ which begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.
The Flood story not only draws on ancient styles of literature but also on ancient ideas about cosmology. ‘Ancient Near Eastern people thought that rain comes from an ocean above the sky (which explains why the sky is blue), and that this ocean wraps all the way around the earth (which explains why deep wells always hit water). They also thought of the “whole Earth” as simply the edges of their current maps, which mostly consisted of today’s Middle East.’ The Flood narrative relies on the same assumptions: as the ‘firmament’ above the earth collapses and the ‘fountains of the deep’ explode, the earth returns cataclysmically to the chaos of Gen 1:2, and a new start must be made. And all of this is due to the chaos of sin.
It follows that notions about a ‘global’ flood are beyond the point (the ancients did not know that the earth was a ‘globe’), as are speculations about water sources, ark buoyancy, geological effects, post-Flood animal migrations, and so on.
The view just outlined should not be taken as undermining the biblical doctrine of inspiration. ‘God chose to communicate his message through ordinary people, accommodating himself to their limited knowledge in order to draw themselves to him.’
In conclusion: ‘The story of Noah, the Ark, and Flood speaks an inspired and powerful message about judgment and grace, that has instructed God’s people throughout the ages about God’s hatred of sin and his love for his creation. Most importantly, we see God’s promise never to destroy the Earth again fully realized in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where God takes the judgment for sin upon himself rather than humanity. Thus, through the lens of Christ, the biblical Flood story proclaims the marvelous news of God’s grace and love for his people.’
Gen 7:1 The LORD then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.
Gen 7:2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate,
“Clean … unclean” – Scripture does not indicate how this distinction arose, but the Mosaic law would reinforce and clarify it.
There is widely supposed to be a contradiction between Gen 6:19-20, in which the animals were to enter the ark in twos, and the present passage, where the clean animals were to be taken in sevens. The discrepancy is due, it is said, to the use of two different sources (Gen 6:19-20 from a priestly source around 450 B.C. and Gen 7:2-3 came from an earlier Yahwistic source around 850 B.C.). Later editors must then had allowed the contradiction to stand. There is no contradiction, however, and no need to postulate separate sources, if we simply suppose that Gen 6:19-20 gives the basic instruction (two of each kind) and 7:2f) adds further detail (two of each kind and 7 of all clean animals). Gen 7:8,9 does not speak of the numbers of animals going in, but the manner. Seven of each clean animal (three pairs, with another animal to be used for sacrifice) marched into the ark by twos, and the other animals also went in by pairs.
Gen 7:3 and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.
Gen 7:4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”
Gen 7:5 And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.
Gen 7:6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth.
Gen 7:7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.
Gen 7:8 Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground,
Gen 7:9 male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah.
Gen 7:10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.
Gen 7:11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
Gen 7:12 And rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.
Gen 7:13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark.
Gen 7:14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings.
Gen 7:15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.
Gen 7:16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the LORD shut him in.
Gen 7:17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth.
Gen 7:18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water.
Gen 7:19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.
All the high mountains…were covered – This does not necessarily mean that the water reached to their tops. John Walton explains: ‘This verb is used for a wide variety of ‘covering’ possibilities. A people or weeds can be so vast that it covers the land (Num. 22:11; Prov. 24:31); a blanket or clothing covers someone (Ex. 28:42; 1 Kings 1:1). Something can be covered in the sense of being overshadowed (cherubim wings covering the ark, 2 Chron. 5:8; clouds covering the sky, Ps. 147:8)… Even today when someone walks in from a downpour we might say, ‘You’re covered with water!’ If Genesis 7:19 is taken the same way, it suggests that the mountains were drenched with water or coursing with flash floods, but it does not demand that they were totally submerged under water.’
More ambitiously, David Rohl has argued that ‘all the high mountains’ uses the word ‘har’, which can refer to ‘hill’ and ‘city mound’ as well as to a mountain.
Gen 7:20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet.
Gen 7:21 Every living thing that moved on the earth perished— birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.
Gen 7:22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.
Gen 7:23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
Only Noah was left – ‘Very likely some of them, when the rains descended and the floods came, as they were sinking in the waters, could say, “I helped to caulk her and to tar her. I helped, when the beats were coming in, to take fodder into the ark, and now I am lost myself.” You subscribed to the building of a house of prayer and never pray. You help to support the ministry, yet have no share in the good truth.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 228)
Gen 7:24 The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.