Appendix: Noah’s Flood

In Chapter 11, we examined numerous debates among Christians about the interpretation of scripture and its relation to scientific theories of natural history. Most of that discussion focused on the first two chapters of Genesis. A further point of contention, however, concerns the story of the flood in Genesis 6 - 8. At least four interpretations of the flood narrative have been proposed, each with significant ramifications for our understanding of the relation between science and the Bible:

  1. Many Christians understand Noah’s flood as a literally true, historical account of a deluge that covered the entire planet, even submerging the tallest mountains on Earth. This global flood interpretation is especially popular in the young-earth “creation science” movement, as it purportedly provides an alternative to mainstream geological explanations for rock strata and the fossil record. However, it raises innumerable scientific and commonsense problems, some of which will be mentioned below. Moreover, it seems to conflict with other scriptural affirmations, such as Proverbs 8:29 and Job 38:8-11, which indicate that God’s command on the third day of creation—when He set boundaries for the oceans (Genesis 1:9-10)—was never rescinded.Hugh Ross makes this point in his defense of the local flood interpretation: “Limitation of the flood’s extent is confirmed in other texts beyond Genesis that elaborate on creation day 3. … Job 38:8-10 and Proverbs 8:29 indicate that the continents formed permanent boundaries for the oceans.” Hugh Ross, “Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism” in J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 85.
  2. Other Christians have argued that the biblical story is better understood as describing a local or regional flood rather than a global deluge. This regional flood interpretation agrees with the previous view that the story of Noah’s flood is a true account of historical events, but denies that the literal meaning of the text demands a global interpretation.
  3. Tremper Longman III and John Walton defend an interesting variant of the regional view that deserves separate mention, as it differs in a crucial way from other interpretations. They argue that the biblical story employs hyperbole: the extent of the flood was deliberately exaggerated to make a theological point. Although Noah and his family really did survive a flood, on this hyperbolic interpretation, the flood was a regional deluge that is described using global language to emphasize its universal significance.Tremper Longman III and John Walton, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018).
  4. Based on its striking similarity to flood legends from other ancient cultures, such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, some Christian scholars (along with a majority of secular historians) conclude that the biblical flood narrative was borrowed from an ancient myth and adapted to teach a theological lesson. According to this non-historical interpretation, the story of Noah’s flood was never intended as a description of real events, but was written as a parable, allegory, or polemic aimed against pagan beliefs.

I am far from certain which interpretation is correct, but my own sympathies rest with the second view: I think Genesis 6-8 recounts the true story of a vast, regional flood. The fact that similar flood narratives appear in other ancient cultures only strengthens its historical credibility, in my opinion. Moreover, though I keep an open mind toward other views, I’m not convinced that the biblical account describes a global flood even when understood literally. A strictly literalistic interpretation of the narrative—in its original Hebrew language—is compatible with a regional flood, as I will argue below. I see no reason to insist that it describes a miraculous submersion of all seven continents, nor am I persuaded that the account is hyperbolic, parabolic, allegorical, or polemical. Properly understood, the story of Noah’s flood is scientifically plausible as a bona fide historical account, or so I contend.

The word translated “earth” throughout the flood narrative is the Hebrew word 'erets, which in its ordinary usage means land rather than planet Earth. Elsewhere in scripture, it often refers to a specific, local region. For example, when the prophet Ezekiel warns of an end coming upon the “four corners of the earth ['erets]” (Ezekiel 7:2, CEB) or “four corners of the land” (NASB), the context shows clearly that he is referring to the land of Israel, whose four corners—i.e., boundaries—had been specified in Exodus 23:31 and Numbers 34:2-12.I want to thank my brother Elijah Hershey for bringing this helpful example to my attention. Even the phrase “all the earth” or “the whole earth” (Hebrew: kol 'erets), which appears twice in the flood narrative (Genesis 7:3 and 8:9), can refer to a specific geographical region. The same phrase is used in Leviticus 25:9, for instance, where God instructs the Israelites to announce the Day of Atonement by sounding a trumpet throughout the whole land (kol 'erets). As Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser observes:

The phrases in the flood narrative that suggest a global event occur a number of times in the Hebrew Bible where their context cannot be global or include all people on the planet. For example, the phrase “the whole earth” (kol ╩żerets) occurs in passages that clearly speak of localized geography (e.g., Gen 13:9; 41:57; Lev 25:9, 24; Judg 6:37; 1 Sam 13:3; 2 Sam 24:8). In such cases, “whole land” or “all the people in the area” are better understandings. Those options produce a regional flood event if used in Gen 6-8 where the phrase occurs.Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015), 190, fn. 14.

On the other hand, advocates of the global flood interpretation point to one specific verse that seems incompatible with a local flood, at least in popular English translations:

The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. (Genesis 7:19, NASB)

Can a literal interpretation of this verse be reconciled with a local flood? The phrase “everywhere under the heavens” (NASB), or “under the whole sky” in some English translations,See here for a comparison of popular English translations. certainly gives the impression of global extent. However, the Hebrew word translated “heavens” or “sky” in this context is the word shamayim, which in its literal sense refers to the visible sky. Thus, the literal meaning of verse 19 indicates that the land was covered in water from horizon to horizon, as far as the ark’s passengers could see in any direction. Even the region’s highest points (which could be translated hills rather than mountainsThe Hebrew word har, translated variously as “hills” or “mountains,” does not draw a distinction between the two.) were submerged.

This commonsense, literal interpretation is compatible with a regional flood. It was a flood of epic proportions, as the description makes clear: it must have extended for miles in every direction from the ark’s location. However, the fact that no land was visible from the ark does not imply a global range. On a clear day, a person standing on a beach can see only three miles of the water’s surface. Beyond that, due to Earth’s curvature, the water is literally below the horizon! From the top deck of the floating ark, it would have been possible to see just a little further, up to six miles over the water’s surface.As described in Genesis 6:15, the ark was 30 cubits tall—roughly 50 feet, according to typical estimates—but about half of that would have been beneath the water’s surface. So, the roof of the ark would have been about 25 feet above the water. From that height, a person could see up to 6 miles over the water on a clear day, as calculated using this handy formula developed by Pan American pilots in 1943. So, a large regional flood many miles in diameter easily could submerge all visible land from horizon to horizon. Indeed, some recent floods have done so in other parts of the world.For example, in 1927 the Mississippi River overflowed its banks to flood 27,000 square miles of the river basin, surging to a width of 80 miles in some locations. (See this article.) A person standing on the roof of a two-story building near the center of the flooded region would not have been able to see land in any direction. (The land where Noah settled never experienced such a flood again, however, as God promised in Genesis 9.)

In my judgment, a regional flood interpretation seems more plausible than a global interpretation for both scriptural and scientific reasons.Michael Heiser summarizes several scriptural arguments for a local flood interpretation, in addition to his first argument, which I quoted above. Immediately after that quotation, Heiser continues:

“Second, Gen 9:19 clearly informs us that ‘the whole earth’ was populated by the sons of Noah. Gen 10 (see 10:1) gives us the list of the nations spawned by the sons of Noah—all of which are located in the regions of the ancient Near East, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. The biblical writers knew nothing of nations in another hemisphere (the Americas) or places like India, China, or Australia. The language of Gen 10 therefore allows Gen 7:21 to be restricted to only (or even some) of the people groups listed in the Table of Nations. That interpretation is consistent with a localized flood. Third, the phrase ‘all humankind’ (kol ╩żadam) used in Gen 7:21 also appears in contexts that cannot speak to all humans everywhere (e.g., Jer 32:20; Psa 64:9 can only refer to people who had seen what God had done, not people on the other side of the world). Lastly, Psa 104:9 appears to forbid a global flood, since it has God promising to never cover the earth with water as had been the case at creation.” [Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015), 190, fn. 14.]

Similarly, local flood proponent Hugh Ross points out: “Limitation of the flood’s extent is confirmed in other texts beyond Genesis that elaborate on creation day 3. … Job 38:8-10 and Proverbs 8:29 indicate that the continents formed permanent boundaries for the oceans.” [Hugh Ross, “Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism” in J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 85.]

The regional interpretation also accords better with scientific evidence concerning geological strata. The so-called “flood geology” endorsed by many young-earth creationists does not provide an adequate explanation of geological strata, while mainstream geological theories—especially the theory of plate tectonics (see Chapter 9 [coming soon]) and its associated processes—provide better explanations for most geological features flood geologists attribute to the biblical cataclysm. For further discussion of the geological evidence against a global flood interpretation, I recommend David Montgomery’s book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012).
An important objection to this interpretation is worth addressing, however. If the biblical flood was a regional rather than a global deluge, what was the point of building an ark? Why didn’t God simply advise Noah to migrate to higher elevation? Advocates of the local interpretation give two responses to this challenge. First, scriptural clues suggest that the flood occurred during a recent ice age, when most regions of higher elevation were covered in glaciers and the sea level was significantly lower than it is today.Hugh Ross identifies several lines of scriptural and scientific evidence for this suggestion:

“In Genesis 8 we read that the floodwaters took seven to ten months to recede. Recession of that time length suggests a large quantity of water, primarily melting snow and ice, indicating Noah’s flood likely occurred sometime during the last Ice Age. Such a date would be consistent with a reasonable calibration of the Genesis 11 genealogy, an era when easy migrations across Arabia’s empty quarter would have been possible. This timing also aligns with mitochondrial DNA dates for migration of large human populations from the Middle East and Africa into Europe, East Asia, Australia, and North and South America. Noah’s flood may well have occurred at a time when most of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea area was dry land. The topography of that time would have allowed for a flood of sufficient extent to affect the entire human population. One of the added features of this flood perspective, in addition to providing biblically and scientifically viable interpretation of the text, is that it answers the question of how the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2 could have come together in the garden of Eden. They did converge during the last Ice Age in what is now the southeastern part of the Persian Gulf.”

Hugh Ross, “Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism” in J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 85-86.
If elevated regions were glaciated and thus uninhabitable, building an ark may have been Noah’s only viable option. Second, even if Noah and his family could have migrated out of the danger zone, God might have had other purposes for instructing Noah to build an ark instead. The ark gave Noah’s community a standing opportunity for salvation up until the very day disaster struck. If Noah had simply fled to higher elevation months or years ahead of time, he couldn’t have continued to plead with his neighbors to repent and be saved.The account in Genesis doesn’t explicitly say whether Noah invited anyone besides his family aboard the ark, but I presume he did so on the basis of several New Testament passages. Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:37-39 and Peter’s remarks in 1st Peter 3:20 both imply that Noah’s relationship with his community was analogous to our own evangelistic mission, and 2nd Peter 2:5 calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness.”

A related objection to the regional flood interpretation questions why Noah took so many animals aboard the ark. If the flood wasn’t global, why was it necessary for Noah to rescue the animals? The most plausible answer, in my opinion, is that the ark’s animal passengers consisted of fauna endemic to the flooded region along with domesticated varieties that would have been eliminated by the catastrophe. Some domestic animals may have been selectively bred over hundreds or thousands of years to serve the needs of human civilization. Rather than requiring Noah’s family to start over from scratch after the flood, capturing and breeding wild animals, God allowed them to preserve the genetic lines of tame animals that were important to their culture and way of life.Hugh Ross makes a similar suggestion, noting that the animals Noah had to rescue were specifically the “nephesh (higher animals) associated with humanity.” Hugh Ross, “Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism” in J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 85. I see no scriptural reason to accept the children’s storybook depiction of the ark housing all terrestrial animal species from the entire planet. The ark wasn’t nearly large enough for that,As Hugh Ross notes, “Even if all the animals aboard hibernated throughout the flood’s duration, the ark’s maximum carrying capacity by young-earth estimates would have been about 30,000 pairs of land animals. But the fossil record indicates the existence of at least 100,000,000 such species, of which more than 5,000,000—according to a recently completed quantification by biologists—live on Earth today.” Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy, Second Expanded Edition (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015), 117. and even if it had been, the kangaroos would have had some difficulty hopping home to Australia after the ride.The problem of animal dispersal and migration across vast oceans is just one of many commonsense objections to the global interpretation. For further discussion of this and other related issues, see David F. Siemens Jr., “Some Relatively Non-Technical Problems with Flood Geology,” Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith 44.3 (1992): 169–74.

One final objection to the local flood interpretation concerns the location specified in the biblical text. According to Genesis 8:4, the ark eventually ran aground somewhere in “the mountains of Ararat,” traditionally identified as a region in present-day Turkey. Although the location is uncertain, the fact that the ark landed in a mountainous (or, at least, hilly) region suggests that the flood must have occurred well above sea level. How could such a vast flood occur at a high elevation? Is it even physically possible for a mountainous region in Turkey to experience such a flood?

The answer, I think, is that it is not possible today, given Earth’s current climate. However, high-elevation floods were not only possible but frequent during the ice ages, when the Genesis flood most likely took place. In many locations around the world, geologists have discovered compelling evidence for catastrophic floods caused by the rupture of glacial ice dams. The Channeled Scablands in Washington State provide stunning examples of geological features carved by sudden, catastrophic floods. These floods occurred when the movement of glacial ice periodically blocked the flow of water from the mountains of western Montana, creating an enormous lake known as Lake Missoula. At its peak, Lake Missoula contained over 500 cubic miles of water—as much as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. When the water rose high enough, however, the ice dam would begin to float, suddenly releasing hundreds of cubic miles of water over the hills of Idaho and Washington.For a riveting discussion of this discovery and its historical importance for geology, see Chapter 11 of David Montgomery’s excellent book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012). Similar glacial lake outburst floods occurred in many locations all around the world during prehistoric times, and some icy regions continue to experience glacial lake outburst floods today. The Hubbard Glacier flood that occurred in Alaska in 2002 was among the largest in recent history.

photo of the
Hubbard Glacier

In July 2002, Hubbard Glacier pinched off the flow of water between Russell Fjord and Disenchantment Bay, creating a lake that rose over 60 feet in less than a month. On August 14, the ice dam suddenly ruptured, producing the second-largest glacial lake outburst flood on record.Image source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Other possible mechanisms have been proposed to explain the Genesis flood,Many interesting speculations have been put forward. One popular idea attributes the Genesis flood to the Bosporus strait breakthrough: the Black Sea Deluge hypothesis. A similar hypothesis identifies the earlier, even more cataclysmic breakthrough at the Strait of Gibraltar. Robert Sheldon develops the latter theory in The Long Ascent: Genesis 1-11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2017). He writes: “The breaking of the dam at the Strait of Gibraltar would begin an immense, unstoppable Flood that lasted far more than a year; it would entrap the citizens in a mountain-ringed valley because the bed of the Mediterranean is over two miles (3 km) below the rim; and it would come with violent stormy weather that compounded the disaster. It is likely that all humans would have been concentrated in this most fertile of valleys and they would require a boat to survive. The Flood would also place Eden for all time under two miles of seawater, hidden from view.” (p. 46) but a glacial lake outburst fits the biblical description well. There is no indication in the text that the flood was a miraculous or supernatural event. To the contrary, the flood is attributed to natural mechanisms. Both rain and terrestrial water sources contributed to the flooding:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened. (Genesis 7:11, NASB)

Heavy rains and melting ice could have accelerated the rise of a glacial lake. “Fountains of the great deep” bursting open, moreover, sounds like an apt description of ruptured ice dams!

Glacial melting might also explain how the water receded at the end of the flood: it may have drained out of similarly leaky ice dams or narrow glacial valleys downstream. (Such explanations are compatible with God causing a wind to dry out the saturated soil while the waters receded, as described in Genesis 8:1.) This is an important advantage of the glacial lake explanation: most other hypotheses about the flood—including the global flood interpretation—have difficulty explaining where all the water went after the flood ended. Whether or not the glacial hypothesis is correct, its scientific plausibility shows that the biblical story of Noah’s flood very well could be an accurate description of a real, historical cataclysm.