“[I]f the report is a phenomenological depiction, permitting the possibility of a local flood, the meaning is not substantially altered: all that Noah and his generation know is swallowed up by the waters so that none survives.” — Dr. Kenneth A. Mathews, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1A
In my Facebook travels, not long ago I came across the following request (not challenge) by a Young-Earth Creationist named Randy on the Genesis Debate Forum:
I’d really like to know how a localized flood interpretation is possible through Genesis 7:18-24 NASB
“18 The water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. 20 The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered. 21 All flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind; 22 of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died. 23 Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky, and they were blotted out from the earth; and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark. 24 The water prevailed upon the earth one hundred and fifty days.”
I am not interested in an argument however, simply wanting to understand a different view of interpretation. Thanks.
*Note: I added in the verse numbers for sake of reference.
It was an honest, non-adversarial question, which I appreciate. He got a few answers from both Old-Earthers and Young-Earthers (doing their best to explain their understanding of the local-flood position). But, they were incomplete and unsatisfying, and, by the time I happened across the thread, Randy had gotten very frustrated and left the group completely. Very unfortunate, especially since a few more helpful comments were added to the thread in the days that followed. However, part of the problem is that a full explanation requires addressing many elements of the passage and probably a longer response than most are willing to put together.
I have addressed parts of this elsewhere, but I was wishing I had a more complete summary that I could link to (or copy-n-paste) in cases like this. So,… now I do. I take my queue from the scholars at RTB (reasons.org), as usual, with additional insights from Bible commentaries by OT scholars Dr. Ronald Youngblood and Dr. Kenneth A. Mathews. I’m not claiming this is a comprehensive explanation, nor is it the only approach taken by OECs. But, it is gaining popularity, at least in its broader aspects — e.g., closer inspection and better understanding of the Hebrew words used, as well as integration with other biblical passages. The problem is going to be limiting myself only to the passage above.
So, before addressing the passage as a whole, let’s look at some of those words that tend to cause confusion or about which modern readers often make assumptions. As we do, please realize that biblical Hebrew had a rather limited vocabulary, with only a few thousand words, so most of those words had multiple, literal definitions/uses. Also, I bracket transliterated Hebrew words with “<” and “>” but cannot show most of the marks that should accompany them….
The same Hebrew noun is used in all but two places. In verse 22, the relatively rare word <haraba> is used for “dry land” (see also Ex. 14:21). In verse 23, the word <‘adamah> is used in the phrase “face of the land” but is more typically translated “ground” (see also the end of Gen. 2:5). For all other instances in this passage, the common word <‘eres> (alternatively, <‘eretz>) is used. It is the fourth most frequently used noun in the entire Old Testament. Its range of definitions include the planet Earth but most often denote a specific area, region, or territory of land.
The phrase “all the high mountains” in (transliterated) Hebrew is <kol heharim hugebohim>, with the central word being <har>. <Har> can be translated “hill”, “hill country”, “mount”, “mountain” — in fact, any spot of raised ground ranging from a small hill/mound where children play to a towering peak may legitimately be labeled a <har>. The adjective translated “high” is <gaboah>, which may also be rendered “exalted”, “elevated”, or “lifted up”. It may refer to anything from a landmark hill to a tall mountain peak (e.g., Mt. Ararat, 16,945 ft.). The combination of the two words probably indicates that it was more than just foothills being “covered”. But, as Dr. Hugh Ross has noted,
“If the ark were floating anywhere near the middle of the Persian Gulf or the vast Mesopotamian plains on water as much as two or three hundred feet deep, no hills or mountains would be visible from his position [on the ark’s upper deck]…. His view would have been limited by Earth’s curvature, by atmospheric conditions, and by his aging eyes, among other factors.”
Here, I will quote R. Laird Harris, lead editor for the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT):
“The usual usage of the verb <kasa> is the literal meaning “to cover.” Frogs covered Egypt (Exodus 8:6 [H 2]. The pillar of cloud covered the tabernacle (Numbers 9:16). It is also used more generally to mean “conceal” (Genesis 37:26; Proverbs 10:18, KJV “hide”) or overwhelm (Proverbs 10:6,11, NIV “overwhelm”). In Genesis 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.”
Assuming the covering/concealment was indeed from water, how might this happen? One possibility, the one preferred by global floodists, is that roughly 20 feet of water “stood” atop the high hills/mountains. It could also be the effect of flash flooding over and around the peaks. A third scenario simply involves heavy rainfall. Or, of course, it could be a combination. The context simply isn’t clear.
That’s all fine and dandy, you may be thinking, but it doesn’t just say “a few mountains” or even “all the mountains of Mesopotamia” were covered. It says, “all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.” It doesn’t say some flesh or some of mankind was wiped out. In both cases, it says “all”. Then, it re-emphasizes, “He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land.” Surely, the logical conclusion is that the Flood was global and all mankind — except for Noah & his family, of course — and land animals on the planet were obliterated. Right?
First, regarding mankind, some who hold to (or at least entertain the idea of) a local Flood have theorized that the story deals only with a subset of the planet’s population at the time, who were essentially wiped out by a regional flood, but the rest of humanity was not directly affected. However, I agree with RTB’s position that the Genesis text gives clues indicating that humanity at the time was geographically limited, most likely to what we now call the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula. So, a “local flood” only needed to be sufficiently large to reach all of mankind in this region, as well as the land and animals most likely to have been affected by their sin. (This goes to the subject of God’s judgment and how He handles it in Scripture, which is outside the purview of this article.) In other words, the Flood was geographically limited but anthropologically universal.
With that out of the way, I would like to get back to the issue of language. Specifically, we must be careful to avoid modern assumptions. When we read the word “earth”, unless the context makes it clear that it refers to dirt/ground, we tend to think of Planet Earth. It comes from our modern, global perspective. Another reason we might have for assuming passages like the one in question are referring to worldwide events is simply because that is how we heard it as a child and were socialized to believe it in church and in our culture.
I would point out that, while written by an inspired Moses, the Flood account is told from Noah’s perspective, not from God’s view in the heavens or hovering over the planet. When communicating events of various sorts, people often use the language of appearance (i.e., phenomenological or optical) in their telling. Whether meant as hyperbole or not, such usage is not meant to deceive but to relate what the writer experienced and/or the magnitude of its significance. This is as true in the Old Testament and New Testament as it is with modern writers. So, let’s look at a few biblical examples in which phrases similar to “all the high mountains” or “everywhere under the heavens” are used.
1) Genesis 41:57 — “The people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth.”
I suppose there may be some who read that and think Joseph was selling grain to the Chinese, Australian aborigines, or Native Americans. The surrounding verses, however, make it clear that “all the earth” referred only to the nations subject to Egypt’s sovereignty and influence at the time.
2) I Kings 4:34 & 10:24 — “Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom…. All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart.”
“All (the kings of) the earth”? Again, we don’t really expect that Solomon got visitors from the Far East or Western Europe. In fact, we know from the text (I Kings 4:31 & II Chronicles 9) that they came from as far away as Sheba (i.e., modern-day Ethiopia) and all the lands of Arabia — roughly a 1300 mile radius outward from Jerusalem.
3) Joel 3:2 — “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat….”
God speaks of gathering “all the nations”, but the context shows He is referring to those surrounding Jerusalem and Judah.
4) Colossians 1:23 — “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.”
Again, we have a rather “universal” phrase, but we know that at that time the gospel had probably not yet been proclaimed outside of the Roman Empire.
If we allow that Noah may very well have used similar “universal” language, he would have been describing the “high mountains” that he knew or had seen or heard of. “Everywhere under the heavens” would refer to the sky he was familiar with or that which was within his immediate perception. (See Ross quote under “(High) Mountains” above.) “All” could mean everything that Noah could perceive, and it may have been used with hyperbolic intent to convey the totality of devastation to the “land” wherein mankind had lived. And, as we have seen, <‘eres> is probably better translated “land” (as it is in 80% of the OT) rather than the somewhat loaded English word “earth”. I will say, however, that the repetition regarding all living creatures and mankind being “blotted out” seems to indicate that it really was “every” one in the land.
Now, with this understanding of the available Hebrew vocabulary and their various definitions and possible (probable?) use of phenomenological language, we begin to see that a global flood is not demanded by the biblical text — even when limited to looking at only this passage — and we don’t need to do verbal or theological gymnastics with the text, either. It doesn’t prove a local flood, but it certainly opens the door to it being a legitimate interpretation by those holding a high view of Scripture and reading it “literally” wherever warranted.
Of course, a full explanation/defense of the local flood view requires looking at the entire Genesis flood account (6-9), other passages in both the OT and NT, and various scientific considerations. But, that calls for a much longer study and probably multiple posts. One o’ these days….