This entry is part 5 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
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?
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.’