The Biblical Flood Narrative: does the text indicate a local or global flood?

There are three possible interpretations of the Genesis flood:

  • Anthropologically global, geographically global: all humans everywhere in the earth affected, the entire earth covered with water
  • Anthropologically global, geographically local: all humans on the earth affected, but only a local area of the earth covered with water because all the humans were localized
  • Anthropologically local, geographically local: only humans within the area of the flood affected, and only a local area of the earth covered with water

An argument will be made here for the third of these interpretations, on the basis of the Biblical text.

The Language Used

The language used to describe the flood does appear to refer to a global event, but can apply locally, as the following examples show.

  • ‘all flesh’: Psalm 145:21, Isaiah 40:5; 66:23, Jeremiah 45:5, Ezekiel 20:48; 21:4, Joel 2:28
  • ‘the face of the earth’: Genesis 4:14; 41:56, Exodus 10:5, Numbers 11:31; 22:5, 11, Isaiah 23:17, Jeremiah 25:26, Ezekiel 34:5; 38:20
  • ‘The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the wild beasts, all the things that creep on the ground’: Ezekiel 38:20

Equivalent phrases are also used non-literally.

  • Deuteronomy 2:25, ‘all people under heaven’
  • 1 Kings 18:10, ‘every nation and kingdom’
  • Ezekiel 38:20, ‘The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the wild beasts, all the things that creep on the ground, and all people who live on the face of the earth’
  • Daniel 4:1; 5:19; 6:24, ‘all peoples, nations, and language groups’

The People Judged

The judgment of the flood came as a direct result of the sins of the covenant community, the people who knew God and His commandments, and who were called by His name.1

On the principle that God judges and punishes only those who are enlightened by His law and choose to disobey it,2 the flood could only have destroyed those who had been enlightened by God’s law and chose to break it. This validates the view that God destroyed only the enlightened people in the earth by means of a local flood, while unenlightened people elsewhere in the earth were unaffected by the flood.

The Human Survivors

A well known problem for the geographically and anthropologically global interpretation of the flood, is the survival of the Nephilim.3 The flood narrative itself tells us that the Nephilim ‘were on the earth in those days (and also after this)’ (Genesis 6:4). This is recognized by standard commentaries as an explicit statement that the Nephilim survived the flood.4 5 6 7 8 9

The Animals Saved

Animals designated using the Hebrew words basar, behema, hayya, nephesh, op, remes, and sippor are used to describe the animals which were taken aboard (the common theme is land based oxygen breathing animals with blood).10 Animals designated using the Hebrew words sheres and yequm (the common theme is sea creatures, swarming creatures, insects, reptiles, rodents, and amphibians), are not in the list of animals taken aboard.11 This limited list of animals saved demonstrates that not all species were preserved in the Ark, which suggests a local flood and also suggests that the animals saved were only those immediately local to Noah.

The Floodwater Depth

After the waters had been receding for 150 days (Genesis 8:2-3), the Ark ran aground on the 17th day of the seventh month even though the tops of the mountains were not seen until much later, on the 1st day of the tenth month (Genesis 8:4-5). This proves that the floodwater was only 20 feet above the mountains (Genesis 7:20), in the area local to Noah, and could not have covered all the mountains in the earth.

The Early Expositors

Two first century interpreters of the flood narrative, the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher Philo12 and the Jewish historian Josephus,13 both interpreted the flood as local.

  1. Genesis 6:2, ‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose.’. []
  2. Romans 2:12, ‘For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law’; 4:15, ‘where there is no law there is no transgression either’; 5:13,’there is no accounting for sin when there is no law’, 1 John 3:4, ‘sin is lawlessness’. []
  3. ‘The bald allusion to the Nephilim (lit. fallen ones) in Gen 6:3 (‘The Nephilim were on the earth in those days … ’) fits uneasily into a context that has always presented a challenge to exegetes.’, Coxon, ‘Nephilim’, in Toorn, Becking & Horst (eds.), ‘Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible’, p. 618 (2nd rev. ed. 1999). []
  4. ‘In Genesis 6, the Nephilim are connected with the multiplication of humanity on the face of the earth (v 1) and with the evil of humanity which brings about God’s judgment in the form of the flood (vv 5–7). Verse 4 includes a reference to later (postdiluvian) Nephilim. The majority of the spies who were sent by Joshua to spy out Canaan reported giants whom they called Nephilim, and who are designated in the account as the sons of Anak (Num 13:33).’, Hess, ‘Nephilim’, in Freedman (ed.), ‘Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 4, p. 1072 (1996). []
  5. ‘From Numbers 13 we learn that the Anakites are said to be descendants of the “Nephilim.” If the Nephilim of Num 13:33 and Gen 6:4 are taken as the same group, the verse indicates that the Nephilim and their descendants survived the flood.’, Matthews, ‘New American Commentary’, p. 336 (2001). []
  6. It is not clear why or how the Nephilim survived the Flood to become the original ‘Canaanites; probably a duality of older oral traditions can be detected in the clash between these two texts.’, Hendel, ‘Nephilim’, in Metzger & Coogan (eds.), ‘The Oxford guide to people & places of the Bible’, p. 217 (2004). []
  7. ‘The nephilim of Num 13.33 are the people whom the men saw when they were sent to spy out the land of Canaan while Israel was in the wilderness. These beings described as giganteV in LXX present the reader with the problem of how giants survived the Flood, in contrast to the Watcher tradition that conveys that all the giants were physically killed.’, Wright, ‘The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6.1-4 in Early Jewish Literature‘, p. 81 (2005). []
  8. ‘Thus, within the Flood narrative itself, the sole continuity of life between pre-Flood and post-Flood is represented by Noath and the others in the ark. Beyond the Flood narrative proper, however, there are implicit pointers in a different direction. One issue is the presence of “the Nephilim” both before the Flood (Gen. 6:4) and subsequently in the land of Canaan as reported by Israel’s spies (Num. 13:33). Indeed, there is a note in the text of Genesis 6:4 which expliciitly points to the continuity of Nephilim pre-and post-Flood: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterwards” (my italics), a note which of course poses the problem rather than resolves it.’, Barton & Wilkinson, ‘Reading Genesis After Darwin’, p. 12 (2009). []
  9. ‘Although in Numbers 13 the inhabitants of Canaan are considered enemies of the Israelites, both the use and co-ordination (LXX) or derivation of the designation (MT) in an allusion to Genesis 6 betrays an assumption that one or more of the Nephilim must have escaped the great deluge.’, Auffarth & Stuckenbruck, ‘The Fall of the Angels’, p. 92 (2004). []
  10. All these words refer to birds and mammals, though some can be used a little more broadly. We see a high correlation between this list and the list of soulish animals God created on the fifth and sixth creation days, animals that held significance in the preparation of Earth for humankind. Clearly, the survival of these creatures would be important to the restoration and survival of human society after the Flood. Nothing in the Genesis text compels us to conclude that Noah’s passengers included anything other than birds and mammals.’, Ross, ‘The Genesis Question: Scientific advances and the accuracy of Genesis’, p. 167 (2001). []
  11. ‘While sheres can refer to small mammals, most often it is used for small nonsoulish animals. Likewise, yequm can refer to all animals or just those that merely subsist.’, ibid., p. 167. []
  12. ‘Since the deluge of that time was no trifling infliction of water, but an immense and boundless overflow, extending almost beyond the pillars of Hercules and the great Mediterranean Sea, since the whole earth and all the spaces of the mountains were covered with water; and it is scarcely likely that such a vast space could have been cleared by a wind, but rather, as I have said, it must have been done by some invisible and divine virtue.’, Philo, ‘Questions and Answers on Genesis’, II.29, in Yonge, ‘The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged’, p. 824 (1996); Philo however seems to have believed that the flood was anthropologically universal, though not geographically universal. []
  13. ‘Hieronymus the Egyptian, also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them, where he speaks thus:— (95)“There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses, the legislator of the Jews wrote.”’, Josephus, ‘Antiquities’, 1.94-95, in Whiston, ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (updated ed. 1987). []

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