The image many people have of Noah's Flood is the one found in children's picture books showing a round-bottomed boat with giraffes and other zoo animals sticking their heads out the windows. The question I will address in this paper is how accurate this and a variety of other images people have of this historic event are, in light of what the Bible actually says about the Flood. While I will briefly touch on extra-biblical evidence, such as what light the earth sciences can throw on this subject, my primary focus will be on what can legitimately be inferred from the description of this event in Genesis and other passages of Scripture.
One's understanding of the extent and purpose of the Flood is closely tied to one's view of Creation and the age of the earth. If the Genesis 1 Creation Account is interpreted to mean God created the earth in six consecutive 24-hour days some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, then simple logic requires one to take the position of a global flood in order to explain things like water-laid sedimentary deposits thousands of meters thick. A young earth together with a non-global flood simply cannot be consistently held. The same is not necessarily true for the reverse, however, as a global flood would theoretically be possible with an old earth, but few actually hold that view. Those who interpret the Bible (and the record of nature) as teaching an ancient earth generally hold a non-global view of the Flood.
In analyzing what the Scriptures teach about these issues, I work under two premises. First, the God who created the universe is the same God who is responsible for the words of the Bible. While written by human beings in specific cultural situations, the words of the Bible are what God intended them to be in order to communicate the message he wanted to give to us through the Bible. Second, since the same God is responsible for both the words of the Bible and the record of nature, these records must be internally consistent. Thus, any apparent conflict should signal to us that our understandings of one or even both of them are in need of adjustment.
When there is an apparent conflict between our understandings of these two records, there still remains the problem of how one determines where the error lies. Theological conservatives have typically given automatic priority to their traditional understandings of the biblical text, often simply dismissing the apparent conflict with the scientific evidence as "the fallible words of evolutionary scientists versus the inerrant Word of God." On the other hand, theological liberals have typically given such great weight to the pronouncements of scientists concerning the record of nature that any adjustments deemed necessary to bring the two records into agreement usually comes from reinterpreting the Bible. Neither approach, as a knee-jerk reaction, is appropriate if one is really seeking truth — to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
What is needed is to first carefully weigh the evidence, looking for possible faulty interpretations in both realms, and then to come to tentative conclusions of how best to account for all of the evidence. While both the Word of God and the record of nature are infallible, our understandings of "God's Word" and "God's World" are not. Thus, we need to approach both records with the respect and humility they deserve. As this paper is dealing primarily with the biblical data, we will be focusing on that aspect. In order to properly interpret the Bible's teachings concerning the Flood of Noah, we must take into consideration the original languages and cultural contexts of the books of the Bible. We must examine all relevant biblical texts to see what light they can shine on the primary text — in this case, the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6 - 9.
Extent of The Flood
A straightforward reading of the Genesis Flood account in any widely-used English Bible gives the impression that the floodwaters covered the entire earth. To test this commonly held view, however, it is necessary to consider the nuances of the words used in the original Hebrew, as well as the clues about the extent of the Flood in the Genesis account and other biblical texts that refer to the Flood. Would the original Hebrew readers of the text have understood the description of the Flood to mean that the waters had stood above, for instance, Mt. Hermon, which at 2813 meters was the highest mountain of their experience? This, of course, is not a question we can answer directly, as the ancient Hebrews aren't available to ask. Thus, we can only attempt to put together a comprehensive picture of what the Bible actually says, taking into account the full range of meanings of words in the original languages, and from that infer how God, through his human authors, intended the message to be understood.
A bit of historical perspective is helpful at this point. The concept of a flood covering the entire planet is a fairly recent concept, as it is only in modern times that people have taken a truly global perspective. In biblical times, people only knew "their world" and would have understood this ancient flood to have inundated the world of their distant ancestors. Thus, whether the Flood would have been "global"— in the sense of covering the entire planet — was not an issue for them. Hundreds of flood legends that describe ancient ancestors surviving a cataclysmic flood exist in societies around the world, with many of them having remarkably similar features to the Genesis Flood, albeit in much more mythological language. This fact certainly lends credence to the biblical assertion that all of these peoples are descended from the same family of Noah that was spared in the Flood, but it does little to clarify the extent of the Flood.
In order to address this issue, we need to look carefully at the language used to describe the Flood. At first glance, Gen. 7:19 would seem to make it plain: "(The waters) rose greatly on the earth, and all of the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered." The next sentence, however, states that the mountains were all covered with water "to a depth of more than 15 cubits" (more than 7 meters). Clearly, this cannot mean that the top of each mountain was covered with standing water a bit more than 15 cubits deep, unless you want to postulate that "all of the high mountains under the entire heavens" were at this time essentially the same elevation. If you have mountains of varying heights covered with standing water, then you're going to have vastly different depths of water covering them. The Hebrew word translated as "more than" can, of course, be taken to imply this was the minimum depth of the water, with the implication from the global flood perspective that lower mountains would be covered with hundreds or even thousands of cubits of water. Thus, some have taken the position that this reference simply is stating that the depth above the highest points in the region were sufficient so that the ark, which presumably had a displacement of about 15 cubits as it floated on the surface, would not run aground on any of them. From the perspective of a global flood, this seems to be a reasonable interpretation. However, we need to consider what other possible interpretations are allowable in the context of the original Hebrew, given the goal of having internal consistency in our interpretations of all relevant passages.
We'll come back to the issue of what other possible meanings the phrase "covered" by "more than 15 cubits" of water might have, but first let's look for clues within the rest of the text as to the extent of the Flood. The first issue is what the Hebrew words translated as "entire earth" are referring to. The phrase "kol erets" is used in the Hebrew Old Testament a total of 205 times, and in only 40 of these instances is the reference even possibly to the entire planet. The other 165 instances clearly refer to a local area. Sometimes "kol erets" is modified by a place name, such as in Gen. 2:11, where it referring to the rivers in the Garden of Eden: "The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire [kol] land [erets] of Havilah, where there is gold."
Even when "kol erets" is not attached to specific place names, in most instances, it is clearly not referring to the entire planet. For example, in Genesis 41:56-57, it says, "When the famine had spread over the whole [kol] country [erets] (translated in the KJV as "all the face of the earth")… all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all [kol] the world [erets]." It is clear from the context that this refers only to Egypt and neighboring lands. No one would suppose that the ancient Japanese or the American Indians, etc. came to Egypt to buy grain. Even if famine stalked their land and they knew there was grain in Egypt to buy, they could not have survived the trip.
Likewise, numerous other similar instances of "kol erets" clearly referring to a local area could be cited. Nevertheless, there are cases where the context does indicate a universal meaning for "kol erets", such as in Genesis 1:26, where God mandated humanity to have "dominion over the entire earth." Thus, by itself, the term "entire earth" in the context of the Genesis Flood does little to clarify the extent of that flood. In the Hebrew, this term could be used to describe either a global or local event.
Similarly, the expression "under the entire [kol] heavens [shamayim]" needs to be considered in light of its varied uses. Like "kol erets", "kol shamayim" can either refer to the skies above the entire planet or a more limited area. For instance, this same phrase is used in Deut. 2:25: "This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on the nations under heaven [kol shamayim]. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you." In this instance, "under heaven" clearly refers not to the entire planet but to those nations the people of Israel were to displace as they conquered the Promised Land (and for this reason, the NIV leaves out the word "entire" even though it is in the original Hebrew). Thus, the use of these two phrases in and of themselves does not determine for us the extent of the Flood. To determine that, we must look at other evidence.
Hints in the Genesis text that indicate the extent of the Flood
Several other verses in the Genesis Flood account throw light on the extent of the Flood. First, consider the dove that Noah sent out after the ark had come to rest "on the mountains of Ararat." Genesis 8:8 tells us that Noah's purpose in releasing the dove was to see if there were nearby areas where dry land had reappeared. Verse 5 indicates mountaintops some distance away were already visible. Verse 9, however, says that the dove returned because it "could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth." In this case, "kol erets" clearly cannot mean the entire planet, since dry land was already in plain sight, but from the standpoint of the dove, which apparently could not fly that far (or at least didn't want to), water still covered the "entire earth." Verses 10 and 11 indicate that after waiting another week, Noah sent out the dove again and this time, it flew back that same day carrying a fresh olive leaf in its beak.
This indicates that somewhere relatively close to where the ark rested were olive trees that had survived the Flood and had fresh leaves on them. Would this be possible in a flood covering even the highest mountains of planet earth? In today's world, olive trees grow only at lower elevations, and presumably this would also have been the case in Noah's day. Thus, the global flood interpretation has to account for how an olive tree could survive being covered by thousands of meters of salt water for several months — especially when that water is supposed to be laying down thick sedimentary deposits. Even if one supposes that in the pre-flood world, olive trees grew on the top of Mount Ararat, the highest mountain in the region, one still has to appeal to miraculous intervention by God to either protect an existing tree or to cause a seed to be preserved in the Flood, be deposited on top of the mud, and then sprout and grow enough to have leaves big enough to pluck in only 3 months at most.
In fact, there are numerous other aspects that are necessarily part of the global flood scenario for which miraculous intervention by God — beyond that which is in the text — must be appealed to. This is not to say that God could not or did not bypass natural processes in bringing about his purposes in the Flood. After all, the text clearly indicates he did. However, the miraculous interventions directly referred to in the text are limited to the sense of God using natural processes in ways that would never happen without his direct intervention. Natural weather patterns, for instance, would never produce 40 consecutive days of intense rain anywhere in the world, much less in a place like Mesopotamia.
Nowhere in the text are there any indications that God superseded the laws of nature he had created. For instance, in the case of the rain clouds, God would need to intervene to keep the rain patterns stationary over Mesopotamia and replenished with new moisture for 40 straight days. But there is no warrant — either biblically or scientifically — to speculate, for instance, that the rain came from a "water vapor canopy" that God had created above the earth and miraculously held in place until that day. Not only does such a proposal find no support in the text, but it would violate the natural laws God set in place when he created the universe.
The other source of water mentioned in the text is "the fountains of the great deep," which God caused to open up and spew forth their stores of water. The Hebrew term "rab tehowm", translated here as "great deep," can mean anything from the "depths of the ocean" to "abundant subterranean waters." So, how does one decide what the intended meaning of this phrase is? A basic principle of biblical "exegesis" is to let the text speak for itself and not read into the text one's presuppositions to arrive at a preconceived conclusion.
In order to achieve any consistency in the global flood interpretation, one has to appeal to much more than "abundant subterranean waters" (aquifers) underneath the Mesopotamian Plain. Thus, speculations abound as to how the oceans or vast stores of water underneath the seafloor could have sprung forth to flood the planet. One such proposal has God creating huge caverns of water underneath the ocean floor when he created the earth. According to this hypothesis, these vast caverns were unstable, and so as soon as a crack in the ceiling began, it all collapsed and the weight of the material above the sub-oceanic waters forced the water out in a huge fountain that deluged the entire earth.
In order to conceive of such scenarios, however, one has to envision God creating the earth in a more or less instantaneous fashion with a "water canopy" above and "subterranean caverns" below — both in defiance of the ordinary workings of nature as God established them. This situation, then, had to be maintained until the time of the Flood. Could God have done this? Of course, he "could" have, but did he? The Bible certainly doesn't give any indication of such fantastic scenarios, and the record of nature cannot be reconciled with them. The only reason such scenarios are conceived of is to attempt to explain where enough water could have come from to cover the entire planet and where it could have gone so quickly afterwards.
Where did the floodwaters go as they receded? Global flood advocates generally appeal to rapid mountain building and seafloor subsidence to create space for them to flow into. Genesis 8:1, however, gives a strong clue as to where the waters of the Flood went. It says God "sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded." From the standpoint of a global flood, this would not make any sense, because the atmosphere above a global ocean would have universally high humidity and little if any evaporation would occur. There would also be no purpose in the wind pushing the water some place else, as everywhere was flooded. Hence, this wind really would accomplish nothing in a global flood. If the flood were regional, however, a strong, drying wind would accomplish much. In addition to speeding evaporation, if it were from the right direction, it would greatly assist in pushing the water towards the ocean.
The topography of the Mesopotamian Plain fits this understanding quite well. It is a very flat plain some 1000 km long and 300 to 400 km wide. Likewise, the Persian Gulf averages only about 25 meters in depth, with a maximum depth of only about 100 meters at the narrow, 70-km.-wide Straits of Hormuz. Thus, during an ice age, the sea level drops enough to make essentially all of the Persian Gulf into an extension of the Mesopotamian Plain. Given these dimensions, a flood only a couple of hundred meters deep would have covered an area so vast that a boat floating anywhere near the middle of it would be totally out of the range of sighting any land even on the clearest of days. From the standpoint of Noah, "all of the high mountains under the entire heavens" would be hidden from view by the floodwaters.
A linguistic point of importance here is the Hebrew words translated "high [gaborahh] mountains [har]". "Har" is a very broad term encompassing any significant rise in the land, from a mound to a tall mountain. Indeed, the KJV translates this phrase as "high hills." Thus, the original Hebrew "har" need not conjure up images of Mt. Everest. It could as easily apply to any elevated rise in the landscape.
Now, let's return to statement in Genesis 7:19-20 that the "high hills/mountains" were covered "to a depth of more than 15 cubits." The regional flood model needs to be able to account for this. First of all, what does it mean to be "covered?" The usual translation of the Hebrew word, "kacah," is "cover," which carries the sense of covering something so that it is hidden from view. For instance, after the Flood, when Noah drank too much wine and got drunk, his sons covered [kacah] his nakedness with a garment. In the Hebrew of Genesis 7:19-20, it does not specifically say what the "highest ‘har'" were covered with, though the obvious assumption is that it was water.
There are two distinct possibilities for what the intent of the original Hebrew was in these verses. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament points to one possibility. It states, "In Gen 7:19-20 the hills were ‘covered'; the Hebrew does not specify with what. The NIV specification of water goes beyond the Hebrew. The Hebrew may merely mean that the mountains were hidden from view by the storm." We can see this point more clearly by looking at the KJV, which is a more word-for-word literal translation. It reads, "And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that [were] under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered." The reference to a specific depth can be understood to mean that Noah is simply referring to the fact that the water was deep enough for the ark not to run aground on even the highest point in its immediate area. Since the ark was 30 cubits high, Noah could easily see how much of the ark was above water and figure out the minimum depth of the water. If this view is correct, then the draft of the boat was 15 cubits, a reasonable figure.
The other possibility is that this "covering" of the mountains with water refers to the amount of rain that fell on them. Fifteen cubits (7+ meters) of rainfall, if it were in the form of snow, would literally "cover" the mountains like a blanket. But at least in all but the very highest elevations in the greater region, it would be in liquid form and would quickly run off to lower elevations. Thus, the obvious question then is how Noah would have known how much rain had fallen?
Though the text doesn't tell us, we can presume that Noah did not directly measure the water that "covered" the mountains. The only way he could have known was for this information to be communicated to him by the Spirit of God. (Or alternatively to Moses when he recorded the story in written form.) If we are to integrate this statement using this interpretation into a consistent understanding of everything the text tells us about the Flood, the most logical explanation would seem to be that this "more than 15 cubit" cover of water that had been laid down on the "high hills" of the region refers to the total rainfall that fell during the 40 days. While that would only average about 200 mm of rainfall a day — something that happens frequently with large storms — what would make it unprecedented is having 40 straight days of it.
Such a super-storm is necessary to account for either of these scenarios, and it is conceivable within the natural laws God created, provided that God intervened to control the weather pattern. It would certainly never happen naturally. It would take a monster storm sitting stationary to the west of the Mesopotamian Plain being continuously fed by moist air from the southeast. The strong winds blowing steadily across the Persian Gulf would create a giant tidal surge that would have pushed far up the valley. Together with the torrential rains over the entire watershed, along with melting snow from the higher peaks, the water collecting over the entire basin could easily reach a depth of one or two hundred meters in the lower areas, and perhaps more. Since the slope of the land is so gradual, even after the winds driving the storm surge subsided, the flow back to the ocean would be very slow, with continued runoff from mountains replacing water that did drain off. With such a scenario, the ark could easily be floating for several months out of the sight of land even after the storm abated.
The Ark's Landing Place
Contrary to the common perception that the ark landed on Mt. Ararat, Genesis simply says that it ran aground some place in "the mountains of Ararat," a region that begins in the foothills at the northern end of the Mesopotamian Plain and continues to its highest point, Mt. Ararat, some 300 km to the north. The geology of Mt. Ararat shows that it is a volcanic mountain that cut through and over the sedimentary layers that preceded it. According to the global flood scenario, however, these very sedimentary layers were laid down in the Flood itself. So, that leads to the clear impossibility of having the mountain the ark supposedly landed on being created after the Flood deposits were laid down. However, since the text merely indicates the general region, this in itself doesn't disprove the global flood. So, what other clues do we have?
For starters, the global flood scenario pictures essentially all of the sedimentary layers that exist on the earth as having been laid down in this flood and its aftermath. Thus, the oil and coal that exist within these rocks are the result of the life that existed just prior to the Flood. However, the Genesis text clearly alludes to the presence of such pre-Flood deposits. God directed Noah to cover the ark with "pitch" to make it waterproof. The Hebrew word translated as "pitch" is "kopher," but it is used this way only in this one instance in the Bible. What exactly is "kopher?" The general consensus is that it is "asphalt," which is simply an oil residue resulting from the lighter hydrocarbons having evaporated away. The global flood model, however, would require these to be produced as a result of the Flood and the layers it laid down, and therefore only available well after the Flood, after having sufficient time to form.
It should be noted, however, among the Japanese translations, the "New Japanese Bible" has translated "kopher" as "tree resin," which gives it an entirely different nuance. It would have been possible to produce such large supplies of resin in the pre-flood world according to the global flood model, but it would have been a tedious process to produce enough to cover both the inside and outside of such a huge boat. Asphalt, however, is easily available in large quantities in the oil-rich Mesopotamian region, and assuming it was available to Noah before the Flood, it would make much more sense for him to have used that for waterproofing.
The Septuagint Translation of the Hebrew into Greek done during the third century B.C. translates "kopher" with the Greek word "asphaltos," from which the English word comes. All of the English translations I could find translate it as "pitch," "tar" or "asphalt," and the two other commonly used Japanese versions do as well. Thus, while it is technically possible that "kopher" could mean "resin," it seems highly unlikely. If one is going to insist on the global flood scenario, however, it must be translated that way, as asphalt would not be available to Noah when he was building the ark.
Another point is that the "mountains of Ararat" are well to the northwest of where Noah and his sons built the ark (assuming that it was in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, where it seems that most people lived), and thus there had to be an overall drift against the runoff current. Since God would have had to intervene to keep the weather patterns in place to accomplish his purposes in the 40 days of the main storm, according to this scenario, he could have simply maintained a more or less steady southeasterly wind for the next few months. Not only would this have slowed the flow of water towards the ocean, it would have gently pushed the ark against the runoff flow until it had run ground on "the mountains of Ararat." Given the fact that the ark went only this far also mitigates against a global flood, as the strong currents and winds that would of necessity be associated with a global flood would likely carry the ark far away from its original location. Even a slow drift over several months can add up to thousands of kilometers. But a gentle push by southeasterly winds against the slow runoff current could easily account for the final resting place of the ark as well as the lengthy time it took to run aground.
One other point to consider is the length of time it took for the earth to become "completely dry" (8:14). From one perspective, it seems to have taken a very long time, while from another perspective, the drying out process was surprisingly quick. According to the text, it took more than 2 months for the tops of surrounding "har" (hills/mountains) to become visible. The ark would presumably be higher than whatever is being referred to in verse 5. Could this be accounted for in a regional flood? Admittedly, it does sound more like a description of the ark landing on the highest point in the region and it taking that long for lower mountaintops to appear.
A related problem involves the geography of the hill country in what is now northern Iraq and southern Turkey, where "the mountains of Ararat" begin. Given the traditional understanding of the boundaries of this region, there would appear to be no isolated hilltop on which the ark could run aground that would not be in view of higher mountain peaks further to the north. Can a regional flood scenario be reconciled with the biblical description on this point? Admittedly, it would certainly have clarified things if high peaks on the horizon had been referred to in the text, but the fact that they are not mentioned doesn't necessarily mean that Noah could not see them 50 or 100 km away. Such mountains would simply have been too far away to be of any use to them. The tops of the "har" referred to in verse 5, then, could simply be nearby hilltops a few kilometers distant. One clue that might be in favor of this understanding is verse 7, where it says the raven Noah first released "kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth." I rather doubt the meaning here is that the raven stayed aloft non-stop for 2 or 3 weeks, not returning to the ark and yet not finding any place to land. The text can, of course, be taken to mean that the raven kept returning to the ark as there was no dry land within its range, but unlike the dove later on in verse 9, it is not clear whether or not it could land any place other than the ark. The fact that it does not mention this at least lends credence to the interpretation that it could fly a good bit further than the dove and had no need to take refuge in the ark, as there were exposed areas within its range. If it returned, which isn't clear from the text, it could be just to get food.
Another possibility, however, is that the region described as "the mountains of Ararat" included the hilly areas of what is now northern Iraq that would be out of sight of the much higher areas that are normally associated with the name. Such "har" do exist. For instance, to the south of present-day Mosel (ancient Ninevah), there are small mountains 200 meters or so above the surrounding plains that would fit the description if this area were considered to be part of the "Mountains of Ararat." If the ark landed on one of these isolated hilltops, it would be out of sight of the high mountains to the north. There would be somewhat lower hilltops within a few kilometers that would gradually appear as the waters receded. Such a scenario would match the biblical description, but admittedly, this is only speculation, as I have no evidence that these hills would have been considered to be part of the "Mountains of Ararat."
Either way, however, the question of why it would take more than two months for the lower hilltops in the surrounding area to appear above the water still needs to be addressed. We can only speculate, of course, but one thing to consider is that it was a very long way to the ocean, to which there was only a narrow opening at the Straights of Hormuz, and the gradient is exceedingly low. From this standpoint, even in a regional flood, it would take God's intervention to make it go that fast. That is why God sent the wind (8:1). Not only could it evaporate large quantities of water, if the wind were from the northwest, it would efficiently push the water towards the ocean, aiding the slow current due to the gradient itself. Without that wind, it would have taken much longer to drain the area.
Purpose of The Flood
It is also important to consider what God's purpose was in causing the Flood. The immediate reason for the Flood is that it was God's judgment on the pervasive sin of Noah's day. In fact, the text indicates that Noah and his family were the only righteous people left. Given the decadent and violent culture around Noah and his family, it is apparent that God prevented them from being murdered — something that would have been expected during the long period of ridicule they suffered as they built the ark. In fact, given how long Noah lived and the normally large families that would have been the norm, it is hard to imagine that Noah and his wife had only 3 children. We have no direct information concerning this, but it seems likely that he would have had many more children, the rest of whom had died a violent death (or perhaps defected and "gone over to the other side.") The text simply does not address this question. Whatever the case may be there, it is clear that God's judgment in the Flood was his method of saving humanity from itself. In addition to this immediate purpose, God used this event as a concrete illustration for all humans thereafter of the seriousness of pervasive sin as well as his provision of a means of rescue from it.
A general principle we can derive from Scripture is that when God judges sin, he limits his judgment to the people in question and the animals that are in close association with them and affected by their sin. We see this in such events as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and in the various judgments on the people of Israel or on other peoples as they related to Israel. Of course, it can be argued that God's judgment in the Flood is of a different type, since it was a universal judgment, as opposed to all other examples we can look at in Scripture (other than the initial judgment in the Garden of Eden and the future "Judgment Day" at the end of history, which, of course, are universal). A global flood, in fact, requires that we treat these as very different kinds of judgments, since animals that had no relation to humans at all are also destroyed. Since all air-breathing animals on planet earth are destroyed in a global flood except for the representative pairs on the ark, this scenario leads to all sorts of difficulties in explaining how such animals got to the ark, how they could all fit in, how they were cared for by only 8 people for such a long time and how certain species could have survived and returned to their specialized habitats far from Mesopotamia.
Of course, one can always appeal to the miraculous intervention of God. However, it was God who dictated to Noah the dimensions of the ark he wanted built, and so we can probe what might be possible by taking into account those dimensions. If the ark simply isn't big enough to hold representative pairs of all of the air-breathing animals of the entire earth — not to mention all of the food that would have been required to feed them — then this is further biblical evidence that the Flood was not global.
The Genesis text only mentions two categories of animals that were taken into the ark, referring to them as "clean" and "unclean." This refers to whether they could be used for food and sacrificial offerings in the later Jewish ritual system. It says that Noah took seven pairs of all of the "clean" animals (as well as seven pairs of each bird), while only one pair of each unclean animal was taken aboard. This clearly indicates the purpose was not just saving species from extinction. Not only was this to provide individual, ritually clean animals after the Flood for burnt offerings to God, but also to more quickly establish the livestock Noah and his family needed for their own livelihood. It would have taken many years for such animals to naturally spread back into the devastated area, and even then, they would had have to be domesticated from scratch.
Specifically, the Hebrew words, "yequwm," "chay," "behemah," "remes," "owph" and "basar" are used to describe the animals and humans that were to be either destroyed or saved in the ark. "Yequwm" and "chay" are general terms for "life" and are not specific. "Yequwm" (7:4, 23) is translated in the KJV as "living substance" and would presumably include plant life, since it would be destroyed along with the air-breathing animals. As for aquatic life (a good bit of which would have died as well), since the "living substance" is qualified by the phrase "on the face of the ground," it would apparently not include those life forms.
"Chay," in this context (7:14, 21; 8:19; 9:2, 5), is translated "beast" (meaning "wild animal"), but it also means "life" in general, such as in the phrase "Noah's life" (7:11). In fact, in 6:19, 8:1, 17, and 21, it is translated in the KJV as simply "living thing," though it's identical to when it is translated "beast." Interestingly, "chay" is used together with "nephesh" after the Flood in 9:10, 12, 15, and 16 and is translated as "living creature." Whether any differentiation is intended, however, is unclear. "Nephesh" is used by itself to refer to the human "soul," but here it is combined with "chay" and refers to "soulish" creatures, those endowed with mind, will and emotions. It is the same phrase used to describe the creation of birds and mammals in Genesis 1 and 2. And in 9:4, it is combined with "basar" to refer to the "lifeblood" in animals, which God commanded Noah not to eat.
"Behemah," "owph" and "remes" are more specific terms that are fairly easy to deal with. "Behemah" refers to livestock, and "owph" refers to birds. "Remes" is a fairly broad term that refers to short-legged animals that move quickly along the ground, and would include rabbits and rodents, although it also can refer to reptiles such as lizards. Within the context of a regional flood in which God destroys all humans outside the ark along their animals, it probably wouldn't include reptiles, unless they were part of the human economy.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the Hebrew that needs clarification is the meaning of "basar" in this context. "Basar" has a wide range of meanings, and is often translated with the English word "flesh." For instance, when Adam refers to Eve as "flesh of my flesh," this is the word used. Thus, it often refers specifically to human beings and not animals in general.
In Genesis 6:12, when the corruption of the earth is being described, "basar" is clearly referring to human beings alone. All "flesh" [basar] had corrupted God's ways, and only humans have the capacity to sin against God. Likewise, in the next verse, "basar" clearly refers to people, since the "earth" (human society) is filled with violence because of them. In several verses thereafter, however, "basar" clearly refers to the animals brought onto the ark. Since these "basar" are described as having the "breath of life" [ruwach chay] in them (6:17, 7:15), this implies that they are higher animals (birds and mammals) that can relate to humans. In 7:22, "neshamah ruwach chay" (breath of life) is used to refer to these "basar," which is similar to the phrase "neshamah chay" used to describe God's breathing in the "breath of life" into Adam in 2:7 so that he became a "living soul" [nephesh chay]. Both "ruwach" and "neshamah" mean, depending on context, "spirit" or "breath" (with "ruwach" also meaning "wind" in certain contexts), and so this supports the idea that the animals referred to here are of the advanced animals that can relate to humans and are a part of the human economy.
One more point concerning purpose in the global flood model is that proponents need to be able to answer what possible purpose there would be in destroying parts of the earth that were totally unaffected by human sin. If God's purpose were to judge human sin, then his destruction of the parts of the earth (most of the earth, in fact) that were not affected by sin would serve no purpose.
In concluding this discussion of the Genesis Flood, I want to briefly look at two other biblical passages that provide important data in support of the regional, yet universal, flood model. Psalm 104 is a poem about creation that has many parallels with Genesis 1. It is clearly referring to events that took place during the Genesis 1 creation days. After describing God creating the earth and covering it "with the deep as with a garment" so that "the waters stood above the mountains," it says God caused the waters to flow to the places he had assigned for them. Then, in verse 9, it says God "set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." (Proverbs 8:29 makes a very similar statement.)
The global flood model requires the interpretation of this passage as referring to the Genesis Flood. But, unlike every other Scripture that refers to the Flood, there is no mention of judgment in this psalm. Likewise, the context is clearly the Creation. God did not "stretch out the heavens like a tent" or "set the earth on its foundations" during the Flood. This Scripture clearly states that after God caused the dry land to appear (on Creation Day 3), he would not again cause the waters to cover the entire earth. Thus, it follows that the Flood could not have been global. In this context, "earth" [erets] obviously means the entire planet.
The other passage that must be considered is 2 Peter, where the Flood is mentioned twice, in 2:5 and 3:5-6. In the first reference, Peter says, "if he (God) did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;…" This implies the flood was limited to the area where the "ancient world's" [archaios kosmos] "ungodly people" lived. Likewise, referring to Noah as "a preacher of righteousness" implies that an additional reason for having Noah build the ark was to serve as a "pulpit" from which to preach God's message of impending judgment unless they repented. If any had believed, they would have been allowed on the boat and would have been saved.
In the other passage, Peter refers to the earth being created "by water," and then says in verse 6, "By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed." Again, this phrase, "the world of that time," makes more sense in terms of a local, universal flood that destroyed the human world of Noah's day, which was apparently limited to the greater Mesopotamian region.
The insistence by some in the Church that the Bible teaches a young earth and a global flood is a major stumbling block to many who might otherwise consider the claims of Jesus Christ and thus put their faith in him. It is true that both the global flood and regional flood models have difficulties in fully explaining everything in the biblical text. As noted above, there are numerous statements in the Genesis text and elsewhere that cannot be reconciled with the global flood model. The main difficulty in reconciling the regional flood model to the text is in the description of the landing site of the ark, but here it is more a matter of what the text doesn't say than with what it does. I have suggested two plausible scenarios for reconciling this difficulty, and perhaps there are others. In my opinion, a consistent reading of the biblical evidence clearly points to a universal flood that was limited to the areas of human habitation of Noah's day. If I am in error at any point in this evaluation, I am open to correction, and I challenge global flood advocates to likewise reevaluate their understandings of this issue. "Test everything. Hold on to the good." (1 Thes. 5:21)
1 See my article: The Age of the Earth in Light of the Bible
4 Likewise, the primary reason that global flood proponents insist that their interpretation of the Genesis text must be correct in spite of the numerous textual as well as practical problems it entails is that a young earth (24-hour creation day) interpretation of Genesis 1 requires it, which in turn is required by the "Perfect Paradise" paradigm that assumes God could not call his creation "very good" if it contained "millions of years of death and suffering of animals prior to Adam's sin." For a excellent analysis of the issues surrounding this, I highly recommend the book, Peril In Paradise by Mark S. Whorton (Authentic Media, 2005)
7 As always, of course, one could appeal to miraculous intervention and attribute its presence to God's direct creation of it. This, of course, is pure ad hoc, as there is no support for it in the text.
8 In the Hebrew, the word translated here as "earth" [erets] is identical to that of the "earth" being flooded, and yet no one would suppose that the intent of this verse is that the entire planet became a desert. In this context, "the earth" obviously means the area where the ark was located.
9 It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into a thorough discussion of these issues. For a comprehensive analysis of this issue, I recommend the article, http://www.reasons.org/articles/rapid-post-flood-speciation-a-critique-of-the-young-earth-model by Greg Moore
10 With respect to the fish and other aquatic life forms, the global flood scenario has the additional problem of explaining how both saltwater and freshwater life forms survived the flood. There is no possibility (other than by miraculous intervention) for pockets of fresh water to remain within a global ocean, and so freshwater fish should have all died off, as they cannot survive for long in saltwater.
11 Global flood advocates, of course, answer that the entire creation was affected by the Fall of Adam, and thus it wasn't "unaffected by sin." Even if we are to grant that assertion, however, if therefore God needs to bring judgment on the entire creation, why stop at the earth? If humans had never been to the Americas, for instance, and yet those areas of the earth needed to be destroyed in judgment, then why should the rest of the universe be different? The problem, of course, is that the young earth/global flood paradigm is a "perfect paradise" model with no decay or death prior to the Fall. This view, therefore, results in a necessary corollary that the very laws of nature itself were affected by the Fall. This is in spite of the fact that Jeremiah 33:25 clearly states that the laws of nature God established are fixed and unchanging. This issue is covered in the article, Creature Mortality: From Creation Or The Fall?