Part I: The Extent of the Flood
An Examination of The Record Itself
will deal specifically with the actual wording of the text. It
always seems best to determine as accurately as possible the
intention of the Hebrew original rather than to draw conclusions
merely from various translations.
1 of 13
So we begin with a brief examination of
the Hebrew word (eretz)
which is translated "earth," as in Genesis 6:4, 5, 6, 11, 12,
etc. According to Young's Analytical Concordance, the Hebrew word
is translated "country" 140 times, "ground" 96 times
and "earth" and "land" frequently. It is also
rendered "field" once and by several other words in a very small
number of instances. Assuming that Young's list is exhaustive, actual
count shows that the word is translated "earth" about 677 times
and translated "land" 1,458 times. Moreover, of the 677 occurrences,
in at least one hundred instances the word may be equally, if not more
appropriately, rendered "land" rather than "earth."
Whereas in the cases where it is translated "land" in the English,
the instances in which "earth" would have been more appropriate
are rare. That is to say, the choice of "earth" or "land"
as a translation of the original in any particular instance is a matter
of context: and on the whole, if we exclude the account of the Flood,
usage elsewhere shows that the context favours the word land rather
than earth. To put this another way, Hebrew writers evidently employed
the word with its much more restricted meaning about four times as frequently
as they employed it with a broader meaning. Where they wished to make
it absolutely clear that they meant "earth" in the sense of
soil, the word (adamah) was used,
as for example in Genesis 2:5, "there was not a man to till the ground."
And where they wished
to convey the idea of the whole
habitable earth, they used the word (tebel),
as in Psalm 24:1, "the world and they that dwell therein."
A good illustration of the inconsistency
of the Authorized Version in this particular context may be seen
in Exodus 10:13, 14, where it is stated clearly that there was
a plague brought upon Egypt only (for the land of Goshen probably
escaped), and it is surely not intended by the writer that the
whole earth was in view. Yet in Exodus 10:15 the Authorized Version
has left the impression that the plague did indeed cover "the
whole earth." My own studies have convinced me that in many
subtle ways the AV is to be preferred to the Revised Standard
Version. However, in this instance the RSV has translated Exodus
10:15 more correctly, rendering the phrase in question "the
Now, it is quite surprising what
a change this substitution makes in Genesis 6, 7, and 8. For
example, in Genesis 6:11-13 the text would then appear as:
The land also was corrupt before
God, and the land was filled with violence.
And God looked upon the land, and, behold, it was corrupt; for
all flesh had corrupted its way upon the land. And God said unto
Noah, The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the land is
filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy
them with the land.
With this quite
proper substitution, the view is contracted considerably. One
is looking down upon a single community whose opportunity for
wickedness had exceeded all bounds, perhaps partly because of
the highly favourable conditions under which they lived in pre-Flood
times and even more because of the extreme longevity which permitted
the accumulation and compounding of experience in a way unknown
to us today. While the animals suffered inevitably, and while
Scripture elsewhere provides some interesting intimations of
the existence of something akin to responsibility within the
animal kingdom itself, it seems to me that the phrase "all
flesh had corrupted its way" must apply morally only
to mankind, though in effect animal life may have been badly
disturbed as a consequence.
When I say "within the animal
kingdom itself," I do not mean merely that the moral responsibility
is man's by reason of his appointed dominion among the animals,
but rather that the animals themselves may be in some way accountable
to God for their behaviour. This is a very controversial issue
and it is customary to deny any such responsibility to animals.
However, the serpent was
cursed -- a very obvious
statement -- but a fact which implies such responsibility. Does
one curse a completely innocent creature? Again, an ox that gored
a man was to be stoned to death (Exodus 21:28). It is conceivable
that this was really a punishment of the owner for not keeping
control of the animal. It would be a punishment to him because
the meat could not be used, since the animal would not have been
properly bled, and the hide would probably be pretty worthless.
Merely to have killed the beast would not have been so serious,
since he could have saved both the hide and the meat. It is necessary
to make this point because it may be the sole reason why a "guilty"
ox was to be stoned. On the other hand, it may not be.
Furthermore, in the record of Jonah's great evangelistic campaign
in Nineveh it appears that the animals in some way shared in
the repentance of the city and were spared destruction on this
account (Jonah 4:11). Although this point is inconclusive, it
almost seems as though an animal of a certain age might be innocent,
but accountable when older. Thus the Passover lamb was not to
be more than one year old. These are slender threads indeed upon
which to hang an argument, yet Scripture is quite clear about
the part played by animals in God's service. An ass rebuked one
prophet and a raven cared for another. If animals can obey --
can they disobey? If so, are they responsible before God?
We know that animals can learn
forms of behaviour which are contrary to their nature when under
the influence of man, and we know that these inappropriate forms
of behaviour can be communicated by imitation to succeeding generations
of the same species. This is considered more carefully in another
Nevertheless, this was essentially a judgment upon man. There
is a parallel to this in Romans 8:20-22 where the phrase "the
whole creation" has been taken by many to mean every living
thing -- human, animal, and vegetable. However, Mark 16:15 speaks
of the preaching of the gospel "to every creature,"
a phrase which in the Greek is precisely the same as that rendered
"the whole creation" in Romans 8:22. The same phrase
is found in Colossians 1:15 and 1:23. The use in Colossians 1:15
clearly limits the phrase to mankind. Yet there is justification
from other parts of Scripture for believing that animal and plant
life has indeed been made to groan under man's present dominion.
So the fact itself need not be denied -- only it cannot
be proved by an appeal to this
1."Nature as Part of the Kingdom of God",
Part II in Man in Adam and in Christ, vol.3 in The
Doorway Papers Series, Zondervan Publishing Company.
particular text. Accordingly
it seems that the term "all flesh" in verse 12
means the entire human race at that time. This race had
corrupted itself and brought a judgment upon the land in which
all other flesh (i.e., the animals) suffered as a consequence
We thus have two phrases--"all flesh"
and "the whole earth" -- characteristic of the account of the
Flood, which in the English look pretty sweeping, but which may not really
be as broad in their implications as the translation has led us to believe.
When we read of all flesh having corrupted itself throughout the whole
earth, this may in fact mean only that the whole human race (still confined
within the land area in question) had become so corrupt that it must be
destroyed before it could spread so widely as to require some other and
far more completely devastating means of destruction on a world-wide scale.
On the contrary, there are many occasions in which the word (eretz) does mean
earth in the broader sense, as of course in Genesis 1:1, 2, and it must
therefore be admitted that the issue cannot be decisively settled merely
by consideration of the meaning of the Hebrew word for "earth."
have to seek further light, first, from the character of Hebrew
literature itself, and secondly, from certain specific statements
made in the account of the Flood which seem clearly to have been
a record of personal observations made by the captain of a ship
who had sufficient leisure to note them at the time. The reason
for putting the matter this way will become clearer subsequently.
We shall consider, then, some examples
of statements which seem to imply much more than was perhaps
intended by the writer. We have already noted the language in
Exodus 10:5-15 in which the phrase "the whole earth"
is shown by what preceded to mean only Egypt, and not even the
whole of Egypt -- since the land of Goshen was excepted. The
same kind of limitation is found in I Samuel 30:16 in which the
Amalekites are spoken of as "being spread abroad upon all
the earth" by which was meant no more than the land of the
Philistines (I Samuel 29:11).
In Jeremiah 34:1, "all the
kingdoms of the earth of his dominion, and all the peoples, fought
against Jerusalem." There, the phrase "of the earth"
is limited to "his dominion," i.e., the dominion of
When Ahab sent his servant to find
Elijah, it must be assume that he limited his journeyings, in
view of the time interval, to Palestine itself. And yet in I
Kings 18:10 the same servant addresses Elijah
with the words "As
the Lord thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom whither
my lord hath not sent to seek thee."
In 2 Chronicles 36:23, Cyrus' empire
is said to have encompassed "all the kingdoms of the earth".
But there were kingdoms in the Far East which were surely not
included. Cyrus' empire was pretty clearly defined. We are told
in Deuteronomy 2:25 that at this early period in their national
history God had put the fear of the Israelites upon "the
nations that were under the whole heaven." It seems doubtful
if this geographic range included any more than the Middle East,
and probably only part of this. Meanwhile Nebuchadnezzar tells
his contemporaries that "all people, nations, and languages
trembled and feared before him" (Daniel 2:37,38; 5:19).
The limits of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom are very well known.
In Genesis 41:57, "all countries"
came into Egypt to buy corn, for the famine was sore "in
all lands." The story of those famine years reads like a
firsthand account -- not a revelation. The Egyptian government
would hardly have sold corn (i.e., wheat) to people in China
who lived on rice or to those in the New World who lived on maize.
China's history goes way back beyond this period, and certainly
man was in the New World prior to 2000 B.C., antedating this
particular period of famine. Acts 11:28 speaks of a similar famine
throughout all the world, yet it is not likely it really meant
over the whole globe including the New World.
The New Testament is full of illustrations
of the use of hyperbole. The apostle James, in Jerusalem, points
out that "Moses . . . hath in every city them that preach
Christ" (Acts 15:21), and Paul claims in Colossians 1:23
that the Word of Life had actually been "preached to every
creature under heaven". Had this literally been the case,
would not the end of the age have been upon us long ago, for
was not this to be the signal? The Lord had said, "This
Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for
a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come"
The Queen of Sheba is said to have
come to hear the wisdom of Solomon "from the uttermost parts
of the earth," which was probably another way of signifying
Yemen in Southern Arabia. And this word was spoken by the Lord
Jesus Christ, who most certainly did not suffer the limitations
of the geographical knowledge of His contemporaries (Matthew
12:42). He was evidently using language which is reflected in
I Kings 10:24 and there used in the same connection. Solomon's
father before him had enjoyed a similar notoriety, as indicated
in I Chronicles 14:17, but surely Europe and the Far East were
quite ignorant of David's existence, and so was the New
2:1 refers to a decree which went out to tax "the whole
world." Surely we are not intended to suppose that the pygmies
of the Ituri Forest in Africa and the nomads of Eastern Asia
were also forced to pay dues. The phrase undoubtedly refers only
to the Roman Empire, a limitation which must probably be applied
in Romans 1:8 also, where the faith of the Roman Christians is
said to be "spoken of throughout the whole world."
This same faith had become a challenge in Acts 19:27 to the worship
of the heathen goddess, a worship which was claimed to have been
equally "world-wide." Both the early Christians and
their contemporary pagans used a term which must obviously be
limited, and which was quite meaningful in its limited sense
to their listeners. In Acts 19:10 we are told that "all
that dwell in Asia" had heard the gospel. It is not unreasonable
to speak in this way. It is analogous to saying: "everyone
knows that" -- a term we use without insisting on its literal
There are many such passages in
which hyperbole is clearly the reason for the comprehensiveness
of the statement. In Acts 2:5, devout men from every nation under
heaven surely does not include the Americas? Similarly, in Daniel
6:25 Darius writes to all peoples, nations, and languages that
dwell in all the earth -- but, again, surely exclusive of the
Far East, the New World, and even Western Europe, England, and
the Scandinavian countries. In Israel's history, there were many
occasions upon which God moved mightily in their defense, and
such occasions must have seemed to them to have been told around
the world, as Joshua 4:24 implies! Yet even neighbouring states
take no note of them in their official histories...David's fame
went to all lands and all nations (I Chronicles 14:17) as did
his son, Solomon's (I Kings 10:24). Yet we find scarcely any
reference to either in the records of the time outside the land
Moses, who is similarly unknown
so far except in the Bible, is said to have been the meekest
man of all men upon the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). Perhaps
he was, literally. But I do not think we are really required
to believe this: only, that he was an exceedingly meek individual.
In II Chronicles 36:23, Cyrus claims
that the Lord God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of
the earth. We can be quite certain, I think, that this is merely
royal exaggeration. . . .
James 5:17, 18 tells us that in
Elijah's time it rained not upon the earth for a space of three
and a half years. Are we to suppose this was true even in Tierra
del Fuego, where it seems to be raining all
the time? And it is rather
unlikely that the world could survive zero precipitation for
more than three years. A single area could, insofar as there
would be some input of food for man and beast from neighbours.
But over all the whole globe?
In all these cases it could be
that the statements are precise observations of sober fact. But
to argue this too emphatically would surely mean that Hebrew
simply did not as a language allow the use of imagery to impress
the reader. Actually, we know it does. It speaks, obviously
hyperbolically, of waves mounting to heaven (Psalm 107:26), trees
growing unto heaven (Daniel 4:11), a tower as high as heaven
(Genesis 11:4) -- though admittedly this passage could conceivably
be interpreted to mean dedicated to (the worship of) heaven.
In II Chronicles 28:9 a man's rage reaches to heaven -- we might
exclaim, "Good heavens, what a rage!" And in Deuteronomy
1:28 and 9:1 the enemy cities that stood in Israel's way as they
marched into the Promised Land were walled up to heaven and had
just as impressive fortifications along the walls!
So one can take virtually every
word descriptive of the magnitude of Noah's Flood and find it
elsewhere applied in Scripture to circumstances of rather clearly
limited, though impressive, dimension. Allowing Scripture to
be its own best commentary, I do not think we can argue that
the record of one single event should determine the precise meaning
of the terms used in describing all other events. We ought rather
to let the many occurrences govern our judgment about
the terms used in the one event.
Quite incidentally, but not without
relevance, there are numerous passages in which the words "all
men" occur with the meaning of "all kinds of men"
or "all sorts of men". In John 8:2 "all the people"
undoubtedly means "all kinds of people". In the same
way, in Mark 3:28 "all sins" is given in the parallel
passage in Matthew 12:31 as "all manner of sin". In
John 12:32 the Lord said He would draw all men unto Him, which
surely means all kinds of men. Similarly, in I Timothy 6:10 the
love of money is probably not the root of all evil, unless one
is to attribute cancer, for example, to this cause -- which seems
absurd. The love of money is the root of "all kinds of evil."
There are many illustrations of this: such, probably, are John
1:7 and I Timothy 2:4, for example.
From such illustrations one gathers
that the Old Testament and the New Testament writers both made
use of expansive terms similar to those employed throughout the
Flood story, attaching to them
no greater significance
than we would attach to such a colloquialism as "everybody's
doing it wherever you go". It is not necessary, I think,
to insist upon a literal interpretation of any passage of Scripture
where there is a wealth of evidence from other parts of Scripture
to support a less literal interpretation. There are other indications
from the text itself that the terms employed were the rather
natural expression of a man overwhelmed by the devastation of
his own community and countryside. It is quite natural for a
man in such circumstances to note that the water had risen above
all the hills and mountains familiar to him from childhood. Knowing
the draught of the ship and finding that the waters carried him
over these familiar landmarks, he simply observed that the waters
were at least fifteen cubits deep over their tops. The ark would
not have drifted freely over them otherwise. It seems unlikely
that this fact was supernaturally revealed to him, by the way
the text reads (Genesis 7:19,20); yet he could not have known
it by any other means if the reference is to the level of the
water over the Alps or the Himalayas. But it would be quite clear
to the captain of a ship, who had a pretty good idea of the draught
of his vessel. Moreover, there are certain figures indicated
in the text which, if we are rightly interpreting them, provide
some rather surprising information about the rate at which the
waters receded. In Genesis 8:4 we are told that the ark came
to rest, i.e., grounded, on the seventeenth day of the seventh
month. If we are permitted to assume that the draught of the
ark (that is, the distance from the bottom of the keel to the
water-line) was in the neighbourhood of fifteen cubits, or about
twenty-five feet, it means that the water was just twenty-five
feet deep at the spot on which the ark came to rest. It could
hardly have been much more for the ark to have grounded at all,
but even if it were twice that amount and the draught of the
ark accordingly increased, the picture is not seriously affected.
The record states then that the
waters receded (Genesis 8:5) until the first day of the tenth
month, at which time apparently it became possible to see
Before this, the raven released from the ark had not found any
resting place within easy flying distance so that we must assume
that the peak on which the ark was actually grounded had not
appeared above the water up to this time. Obviously,
2. According to William G. Lowe, this would
be after an interval of seventy-three days. See: "Discovering
the Calendar of the Creation," Science and Scripture,
September-October 1971, p. 11.
Figure 1. Diagrammatic illustration of the recession
of the waters.
if land could be seen,
the raven would have found a place to alight instead of wandering
to and fro as depicted in Genesis 8:7. In this interval, therefore,
from the seventeenth day of the seventh month to the first day
of the tenth month, the water level had fallen perhaps twenty-five
or thirty feet. It is clear that as soon as the level had fallen
by the amount equal to the draught of the vessel, dry land would
appear (see Figure 1).
Thus the interval between these
dates, a period of about seventy-three days, was the time required
for the water to leave the "water-line" of the vessel
and reach a level twenty-five or thirty feet below it. The seventy-three
days are made up of the thirteen days which remained of the seventh
month, the twenty-nine days of the eighth and thirty days of
the ninth month and the first day of the tenth month; and twenty-five
feet in seventy-three days is the equivalent of a drop in level
of about four inches per day (see Genesis 8:4,5).
On one occasion a flooding of the
Tigris River brought the water level up some 22 1/2 feet and
it was thirty days before the waters had run off sufficiently
that the people could again go outside their city walls.(3) This is a rate of fall
of about nine inches per day. Such a rate for a comparatively
small flood in a very flat plain would be, I should think, not
unusual. It may seem that twenty-two feet of water is not much
of a flood. Anyone who has lived near a large river and has seen
it rise eight or ten feet will know what a terrifying monster
it suddenly becomes and how wide may be the spread of its waters.
Delitzsch records an occasion in
1876 in which a tornado coming from the Bay of Bengal accompanied
by fearful thunder and lightning approached the mouth of the
Ganges River, and the high cyclonic waves uniting with the then
ebbing tide formed one gigantic tidal wave with the result that
within a short while an area of 141 square miles was covered
with water to a depth of forty-five feet and 250,000 men met
their death by drowning. (4) This is not for a moment intended to support the
idea that the Flood was merely the result of a swollen river.
It is only mentioned to show how widespread in its destruction
a local flood of this kind can be, and to give some idea of the
rate of recession of the water.
It is often argued, by those who
feel very strongly that the Flood must have been world-wide,
that they are showing much greater respect for the Word of God
than are those who view the
3. Loftus, W. K., Travels and Researches
in Chaldea and Susiana: quoted by F. A. Moloney, Transactions
of the Victorian Inst.utes, vol.68, 1936, p.52. The
reference is to the city of Baghdad.
4. Delitzsch, F., Babel and Bible, Williams & Norgate,
London, 1903, p.43.
geographically limited. The latter, like myself, see the Flood
as being universal only in terms of the world's population, supposing
that this population was still somewhat confined in a restricted
Actually, I would say personally
that anyone who takes the text wholly seriously will be forced
to conclude that the event had a quite limited magnitude in terms
of depth of water, simply because the run off was so slow.
This run-off can be shown from the figures given in the text
to have been only a few inches per day!
Now, this total is not much affected
if the months were twenty-nine or thirty days. For the present
purposes, we have a period of perhaps approximately seventy-three
days for the water to fall from the water-line of the ark till
the ark was "high and dry," as indicated in Figure
1. There does not seem to me any other way of reading
these figures nor interpreting their implication. So we have
a rate of decline at a critical period of the Flood of only four
inches per twenty-four hours. Moreover, the waters were only
324 days running off. . . . From the cessation of the rain
to the time the waters were fully abated -- i.e., from the twenty-eighth
day of the third month (Genesis 7:11,12) to the twenty-seventh
day of the second month of the following year (Genesis 8:14)
-- the total number of days, according to William Lowe's calendar,
is seen to be 324 in all. A very approximate estimate, at a run-off
rate of four inches per day, gives a total depth of water of
about 108 feet. It is conceivable that the run-off was much more
rapid at first and only four inches per day for the last seventy-three
days (on an average), but a fast rate of run-off would have caused
considerable current and the ark would have undoubtedly been
carried some distance by it. But one certainly sees no indication
of such a current in the "ship's log" kept so carefully
by Noah. How long would it have taken the waters of a world-wide
Flood to run off? And where would they run to?
There is no question to my mind
that if God wished to submerge all land below the available waters,
He could do so. It has often been pointed out that the average
continent can be represented in its relative depth and area by
a postage stamp. This is all very inexact, but broadly speaking
the area of the postage stamp relative to its thickness is of
the right order of magnitude. The height of the highest mountains
relative to the area of the continents in which they are found
is in reality very small indeed. If for some reason the land
masses were submerged, the oceans could easily pour over them,
and in fact have done so in different places and at different
times. However, as we shall see, this kind of
catastrophic event seems
to be so far beyond what was required for the judgment of mankind
that it is unlikely God would see fit to bring it about. For
where miracle is concerned, God is an economist.
I believe it is a mistake for anyone
who wishes to be rational and scientific in his approach to such
problems to assume that one must at all costs eliminate miracle
in order to make the explanation valid. There are so many mysteries
in everything that total explanations are probably quite beyond
our powers even of the simplest daily occurrences. To attempt
to explain the Flood by wholly natural means is in effect to
explain it away, because this overlooks the matter of its timing
entirely and tends to do away with all the supernatural elements,
including the reality of the forewarning given to Noah. After
all, he was warned in sufficient time that he could just nicely
complete the ark and assemble its cargo and provisions. Here
is a series of timed events prior to the coming of the flood
waters involving a kind of foreknowledge which Noah surely did
not have except by revelation. One cannot rationalize revelation.
And if part of the story is rationalized, why not the whole of
it? This is the tendency, the "implacable offensive of the
scientific method," as it has been called. The divine warning
becomes merely a human premonition.
This is the danger, as I see it,
of all efforts to subject such events to rational explanation.
I do not believe that the miraculous element can ever be eliminated
entirely in God's dealings with man, and therefore even in the
daily life (indeed, the very existence of life itself) there
is always this element of miracle. It is in operation all the
time -- sustaining the world -- though only occasionally becoming
What is important, I think, is
that one should not attempt to find a scientific explanation
of every incident or factor in the Flood story, if by "scientific"
is meant "accountable by known laws". But this admission
does not automatically require us to expect to find miraculous
elements where Scripture does not give reason to believe they
were needed. Miracle was certainly required in the forewarning:
but it may or may not have been needed to bring about the catastrophe
itself. In due time we may find the physical explanation of the
presence of so much water, so suddenly cast upon the land: and
to continue the search for this is, to my mind, quite proper.
But it may be asked, If the Flood
was local, why was an ark necessary at all? Could not Noah have
simply migrated? Moreover what of the Flood traditions which
are found all over the world? Do they
not imply, as modern
anthropology seems to demand, that by at least 5000 B.C., man
had already migrated into every part of the world, requiring
that the catastrophe be world-wide, if all mankind was involved
in it? And surely it would not be necessary to take birds into
the ark if the Flood was only limited in extent?
All these are legitimate questions.
To some of them at least, there are satisfying answers.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next Chapter