Did God Flood the Whole Earth as Genesis Says?

Herbert Wolf
header for Did God Flood the Whole Earth as Genesis Says?

Few issues have been as controversial as the debate between those who believe that the Bible teaches a universal flood and those who are convinced that a local flood better fits the data. Since the publication of The Genesis flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in 1961, the debate has been particularly spirited.[1] Whitcomb and Morris have attempted to buttress biblical arguments with evidence from geology to demonstrate that the flood must have covered the entire globe. Other scholars, such as Bernard Ramm and Davis Young, have defended the local flood hypothesis, arguing that both Scripture and science point to a limited rather than a worldwide flood.[2] Most Christian geologists favor a local flood, but biblical scholars are more evenly divided. As in other issues when science and Scripture need to be reconciled, the amount of data is mind-boggling and the interpretation of the evidence is anything but simple.

Evangelicals readily admit that God used the miraculous to accomplish His purposes, but the number and scope of the miracles is hotly debated. We should also point out that God has chosen to perform a large number of “water” miracles and that all of them are hard to explain. In the Old Testament are the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River under Moses and Joshua and the floating of the axehead and purification of poisoned water by Elisha. During Christ’s ministry on earth He changed the water to wine and He walked on the Sea of Galilee. Throughout the Scriptures God has chosen to demonstrate His sovereignty over water in a way that defies natural explanations, and this should serve as a warning not to expect too many answers from a study of the Noahic flood.

The Case for a Universal Flood

Judging from the language used in Genesis 6 and 7, the flood was a catastrophe of global dimensions. God decided “to destroy all life under the heavens” (6:17) because mankind had filled the earth with corruption and violence. To carry out this judgment God commanded “all the springs of the great deep” to burst forth, “and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (7:11). It rained for forty days and forty nights as tremendous amounts of water were poured out upon the earth. This description seems to reverse the work of creation, when God “separated the water under the expanse from the water above it” (Gen. 1:7) and when He distinguished between the dry ground and the seas (1:9–10). As the flood continued, everything disappeared in the water, and the earth became formless and empty as it had once been. Ironically, the word for “the deep” in Genesis 1:2 (tehôm) appears in 7:11, when the springs of the great deep burst forth. It looks as if the whole earth is returning to a watery chaos.

As the waters rose “all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered” to a depth of at least twenty feet (7:19–20). Since water seeks its own level, how would it be possible to cover one high mountain without covering the entire earth? Even if the Alps and Himalayas were excluded, hardly any creature could have survived such a tremendous flood. According to 7:23, “Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out,” including men, animals, and birds. The only survivors were Noah and his family and all the creatures that had taken refuge with them on the ark. If the flood were only local, why would it have been necessary to take aboard animals and birds? Surely Mesopotamia would have soon been replenished with creatures that had safely avoided the area during the flood. The size of the ark also indicates how extensive this flood was, for it measured approximately “450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high” (6:15). Such a ship could accommodate thousands of animals and birds, far more than would be necessary if a localized area were intended.

Similarly, the duration of the flood tells us something about its extent. Noah and his family were in the ark for more than a year, and according to John J. Davis, “a flood which lasts 371 days cannot be anything short of universal.”[3] Moreover, when God made a covenant with Noah after the flood, He promised that He would never again destroy the earth by means of a flood (Gen. 9:11). In view of the large numbers of devastating local floods that have ravaged our planet since then, it would seem that God has either broken His promise or the Noahic flood was worldwide.

Since the main purpose of the flood was to destroy sinful mankind, a strictly Mesopotamian flood would be ineffective, unless everyone were still living in that limited area. Yet when one looks at the longevity of antediluvian man, the population must have increased rapidly, making it unlikely that the many millions of people would all have been able to stay close to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.[4] Did those who lived outside of Mesopotamia thereby escape judgment? If so, a number of scholars argue that Peter’s warning about the future day of judgment loses its impact. In 2 Peter 3:3–7 the apostle addressed those who scoffed at the notion of a second coming and a day of reckoning. He reminded them that the world of Noah’s day “was deluged and destroyed” as a sign that “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire” in a judgment that will destroy all the ungodly (2 Pet. 3:6–7). Why would Peter compare the final judgment with the Noahic flood unless the whole world were involved in both events?

The Case for the Local Flood

In spite of the formidable arguments in favor of a global flood, a number of scholars have shown how the biblical data can point equally well to a much more limited flood. Geographically, the account of Noah and his family is set in Mesopotamia, and even after spending more than a year in the ark, they landed “on the mountains of Ararat” (Gen. 8:4), the ancient area of Urartu just to the north of Assyria. If Noah had been afloat for a year, why did the ark not drift much farther than the few hundred miles to Urartu? When we consider the vast size of the globe it is remarkable that Noah landed so close to his starting point, unless the flood was restricted to Mesopotamia and the Near East.

In other words, when the Bible speaks of the waters increasing on the earth and covering “all the mountains under the entire heavens” (Gen. 7:19), it might be referring to that area of the world familiar to Noah and his countrymen. From their perspective the waters flooded the world that they knew and the mountains they had seen, without at all intending to include the vast peaks hundreds and thousands of miles away.

The Hebrew word for “earth” (’eresi) is in fact often translated “land” or “country,” and its meaning has to be determined by context. It may be significant that the other common word for “world” (te ̄ be ̄ l) does not occur anywhere in the flood narrative. Elsewhere in Genesis the word ’eresi has the same ambiguous sense in connection with another catastrophe, an extensive famine. After Joseph wisely stored up grain in preparation for seven lean years, the text says that the whole world descended upon Egypt to buy grain, “because the famine was severe in all the world” (Gen. 41:57). According to most interpreters, the famine affected Egypt and several other countries around the Mediterranean Sea, but it is not necessary to think in terms of a “global” famine. It was a Near Eastern famine restricted to the Mediterranean world. Perhaps Peter’s reference to the floodwaters that destroyed “the world of that time” has a similar limited sense (2 Pet. 3:6). In Colossians 1:23 Paul rejoices that the gospel “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven,” a statement very close to Genesis 7:19 but clearly understood as hyperbole.

Although the local flood theory must wrestle with the problem of water seeking its own level, those who believe that the flood was global have the equally difficult problem of explaining where the water came from and also where it went. A flood that covered mountains 15,000 feet high would require several times more water than the earth presently holds. Where did all of this water go? Genesis 8:1 says only that God “sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.” Does this mean that the oceans were made deeper to contain much larger amounts of water?[5] Perhaps God did intervene in a miraculous way to remove the water, but Genesis states that within a year the waters receded enough to enable Noah and his family to disembark. This was a very short time for so vast a runoff. A mixing of fresh water and salt water would also have required a miracle to keep most of the fish from dying; yet the Bible says nothing about preserving any fish in the ark.[6]

Since the ark did contain large numbers of animals and birds, however, a local flood theory could make the task of caring for them more manageable. Noah and his family had to feed these animals and birds (Gen. 6:21), an assignment that would have been overwhelming if thousands of species from all over the world were involved. But if the flood was limited to the Near East, it is easier to understand how the animals of that region found the ark and how the eight people on board were able to take care of them. Such a view still requires a miracle to get the animals into the ark, but it reduces the scope of the miraculous to bring it more in line with the biblical evidence.

At the end of the flood when Noah was trying to determine whether it was dry enough to disembark, a dove brought to him “a freshly plucked olive leaf” (Gen. 8:11). Here was proof that the waters had receded and that at least one olive tree had survived the flood. This would seem to indicate that the flood was not geologically active and that the earth’s surface was relatively undisturbed.[7] Additional evidence comes from the reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in connection with the garden of Eden. Apparently they remained in approximately the same riverbeds after the flood, for Genesis 2:14 states that the Tigris ran along “the east side of Asshur,” the region known as Assyria in later times (cf. Gen. 10:11).

Final Thoughts on Global v. Local Floods

Without question the problems associated with the flood are challenging ones, and we must be careful about dogmatism. The judgment of God was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world with awesome power and to this day remains a warning of His great wrath. If the flood was global, the number of miracles involved were greater than if it was local, but either way the miraculous is clearly evident throughout the account. The issue is not what could God have done, but what did He do in this great catastrophe. If one were to opt for something less than a universal flood in view of the scientific problems inherent in the universal flood approach, something on the order of a regional or continental flood might be the best choice. This would explain the need for a sizable ark and also account for the destruction of all mankind. It is unlikely that a strictly Mesopotamian flood could have accomplished this, unless the world’s population was much smaller than most calculations.

The Babylonian Flood Stories

Since the discovery of the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, scholars have been aware of another ancient account of a flood that is somewhat similar to the biblical record. In tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic, we have a description of the flood that wiped out everyone except Utnapishtim and his family. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk around 2600 B.C., hears the story of the flood from his ancestor in a visit to the underworld, where he had journeyed in a vain attempt to find immortality. After an arduous trip through the underworld, Gilgamesh finally found Utnapishtim and learned about the flood. According to Utnapishtim, the god Ea warned him that Enlil was planning to send a flood to destroy the earth. Utnapishtim proceeded to build a ship 120 cubits square and seven stories high to save his family and some animals. He also took aboard food, gold and silver, and some trained seamen. After a seven-day storm, the water began to recede and the boat landed on a mountaintop. Utnapishtim sent out a dove, a swallow, and a raven to determine if the earth was really drying out. The raven found something to eat and did not return to the boat, so Utnapishtim knew that it was safe to disembark. As he left the ship, he offered sacrifices to the gods, who gathered around the altar like flies in their eagerness to eat the meat. Enlil was distressed that any mortals had survived the flood, but he did reward Utnapishtim and his wife by turning them into gods.

Another version of the flood is found in the Atrahasis Epic, which H.W.F.Saggs believes lies behind the Gilgamesh Epic.[8] In this account, Atrahasis replaces Utrapishtim as the hero and the flood was sent because men were too noisy and the gods could not sleep. Again, it is Enlil and Ea (=Enki) who play the leading roles among the gods.

In some respects the Babylonian flood stories are remarkably similar to the biblical account. A key role is played by a hero who is divinely instructed to build a large boat to save his family and an assortment of birds and animals. The storm itself brings a terrible deluge that wipes out mankind. After the flood abates, the hero sends out birds to assess how quickly the earth is drying up. Noah sent out a raven and a dove, whereas Utnapishtim used a dove, a swallow, and a raven. As a token of gratitude to the deity, offerings are presented as soon as the ship is emptied of its precious cargo.

There are, of course, significant differences between Genesis and the Babylonian accounts, but nonetheless we must ask about possible relationships between them. Did the Hebrews derive the flood story from the Babylonians and modify certain elements to make it more acceptable? Or do both accounts go back to the same event that Genesis reports accurately and the Babylonians corruptly?[9] Certainly the dimensions of Noah’s ark befit a seaworthy ship, unlike the cube-shaped Babylonian vessel that would have capsized quickly. The flood lasts only a few weeks in the Babylonian version, compared with the more realistic year-long ordeal of Noah and his family. Moreover, the sharp contrast between the righteous and holy God of Genesis and the quarreling gods of Babylon with their human passions indicates the vast gap between the accounts. Only in Genesis are we given a clear reason for the flood and an equally clear reason why only Noah and his family are saved. By way of summary, then, the Babylonian flood stories present a garbled and confused account of a real event and manage to preserve only a few details relatively intact.

[1] Published by Baker, Grand Rapids.

[2] Ramm, Christian View of Science, 238–47; Davis A. Young, Creation and the flood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).

[3] Davis, Paradise to Prison, 125.

[4] Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis flood, 27.

[5] As argued by Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis flood, 77, 121–22.

[6] Youngblood, How It All Began, 127–28.

[7] Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis flood, 104–6, argue that the olive leaf grew from a broken branch buried near the surface as the waters receded.

[8] Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon, 406.

[9] Kidner, Genesis, 97; Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1949), 260–69.

For Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch

by Herbert Wolf

The Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are the vital first books in the Bible. Understanding their scope, meaning,...

book cover for An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch