Was Noah’s flood global or local?
I have received a comment that challenges my understanding that the flood described in Genesis 6-9 of the Bible was a global event. The reasons given for the comment include:
– The biblical passages quoted don’t support it in any way.
– Many people who believe Noah was a real person, also believe the flood was local.
– Scholars devote their lives to their studies, and while we don’t always have to agree with what they say, we also don’t have to completely disregard them, either.
They conclude that I’m making a huge assumption to believe that the flood was global rather than local.
My understanding with regard to this topic is based on the biblical text and my concerns about the common interpretation of sedimentary rock layers. I will begin with the Bible as it is the primary historical record of the flood.
What did Moses believe?
Moses complied the book of Genesis, so he knew more about the flood than any other biblical author. This is how he described the floodwaters: “They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark” (Gen. 7:19-23NIV). Note that the flood account is written from God’s perspective, not Noah’s. This seems to be more like a global flood than a local flood. And the purpose of the flood was to destroy sinful humanity (Gen. 6:5-8), which wouldn’t be achieved by a local flood.
Moses recorded the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood as follows.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth” (Gen. 9:8-17).
The format of this covenant follows that of a Royal Grant in the ancient near east where a king grants land (or some other benefit) to a loyal servant for faithful or exceptional service. The grant was normally perpetual or unconditional, but the servant’s heirs benefited from it only as they continued their father’s loyalty and service (NIV Study Bible).
This covenant was made with Noah, and his descendants and “every living creature on earth” (Gen. 9:9-10). It was an “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Gen. 9:16). The covenant sign was the rainbow in the sky (Gen. 9:13, 17).
The promise was, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth … Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (Gen. 9:11, 15). It was an unconditional divine promise to never again destroy all earthy life with a flood. This is what Moses believed. With regard to the destruction of life, the flood was a unique event. But a local flood can’t be unique in terms of the destruction of life. Therefore, Moses didn’t believe that it was a local flood. Clearly Moses believed that it was a unique global catastrophe. There have been no more global destructive floods, but there have been many local destructive floods. And Noah was on the ark for over 380 days (Gen. 7:10-11; 8:14); which is much too long for a local flood! And on the ark “they had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings” (Gen. 7:14). This wouldn’t be necessary for a local flood.
Psalm 104 was written about 400 years after the time of Moses. See the Appendix A for comments on Psalm 104:9, which has been used to support the idea of a local flood.
What did Isaiah believe?
In the context of Israel’s captivity and restoration, Isaiah wrote, “To me [God] this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you [Israel], never to rebuke you again” (Isa. 54:9). Here Israel’s captivity and exile is likened to the flood. Both are God’s judgment on rebellion and sin. Isaiah believed “that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth”. But a local flood can’t be unique in terms of water covering the earth. Therefore, Isaiah didn’t believe that it was a local flood. Clearly Isaiah believed that it was a unique global catastrophe. There have been no more global floods covering the earth, but there have been many local floods covering the earth.
What did Jesus believe?
In Matthew 24, Jesus describes the behavior of people when He returns to establish His kingdom. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man [Jesus]. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark [boat]; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:37-39). This is also recorded by Luke, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man [Jesus]. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all” (Lk. 17:26-27). The flood came suddenly and Jesus will return suddenly to establish His kingdom. In both instances God’s judgment comes suddenly. No one outside the ark escaped the flood. It was inescapable. Likewise, no unbelievers will escape God’s coming judgment.
These passages don’t say specifically whether the flood was local or global. But the fact that it was inescapable suggests that it was more than a local flood. So, what did Jesus think? Jesus knew the Old Testament very well and taught from it in the synagogue. For example, He taught from Genesis (Mt. 10:15; 11:23-24; 19:4-5; 22:31-32; 23:35; Mk. 10:6-8; Lk. 17:26-27) and from Isaiah (Mt. 13:14-15; 15:7-9; Mk 7:6-7; Lk. 4:16-19). Jesus would have understood the Old Testament in the same way that the original authors understood it. His understanding would have been consistent with that of Moses and Isaiah. Therefore, Jesus didn’t believe that it was a local flood.
Furthermore, a global flood illustrates the extent of God’s judgement better than a local flood. Even though a local flood is sudden, people and creatures can escape a local flood. But this is not the case for a global flood.
What did Peter believe?
1 Peter 3 describes what happened in the days of Moses. “In which [by the Holy Spirit] He [Christ] went and made proclamation [through Noah] to the spirits (now) in prison [the unrighteous people in Noah’s day, who were now in hades waiting for the final judgment] who in the past were disobedient [to Noah’s preaching], when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water” (1 Pt. 3:19-20CSB). And 2 Peter 2 gives examples of God’s judgment of sin including, “He [God] did not spare the ancient world when He brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others” (2 Pt. 2:5). The fact that only a few people were saved from the destructive flood, illustrates that it isn’t surprising when only few people respond to the offer of salvation from God’s judgment through Jesus Christ.
These passages don’t say whether the flood was local or global. So, what did Peter think? Peter was with Jesus during His earthly ministry. He was an apostle who brought the good news to Jews and Gentiles and established the early church. He would have believed what Jesus believed. Because Jesus didn’t believe that it was a local flood (see above), Peter didn’t believe that it was a local flood. The main difference between the teaching of Jesus and Peter is that Jesus taught under the old covenant (of Moses) and Peter taught under the new covenant. But this difference is irrelevant as to whether the flood was local or global.
Furthermore, a global flood illustrates the extent of God’s judgement better than a local flood. Even though a local flood is sudden, people and creatures can escape a local flood. But this is not the case for a global flood.
What did the prophets and apostles believe?
The Old Testament was written by the Hebrew prophets and their associates. Moses and Isaiah were prominent Old Testament prophets. We have shown that both Moses and Isaiah didn’t believe that it was a local flood. The other Hebrew prophets would have believed the same as they believed and taught the same law of Moses. This means that they believed that the flood was a unique global catastrophe and not a local flood.
The New Testament was written by the Jewish apostles and their associates. Peter was a prominent apostle. We have shown that Peter didn’t believe that it was a local flood. The other apostles would have believed the same as they believed and taught the new covenant which was instituted by Jesus and revealed to Peter and Paul. This means that they believed that the flood was a unique global catastrophe and not a local flood.
Therefore, the writers of the Bible believed that the flood was a unique global catastrophe and not a local flood. And all Bible translations understand the account of the flood in universal terms. We find none of them substituting the word land for earth or using any other terms that would imply a limited scope for the flood. So, written history shows that the flood was a unique global catastrophe and not a local flood. And written history is the most reliable record of ancient history.
What do sedimentary rock layers show?
The sedimentary rock layers show whatever we want them to show. Our interpretation of these layers is based on our presuppositions. If we believe the theory of biological evolution we will use the geologic time scale which assumes that evolution occurs gradually over a long period of time, and we will say that the layers indicate erosion, sedimentation and deposition over a long period of time.
But if we realize that creatures and plants aren’t being fossilized today, we will wonder, “When were the vast sedimentary rock layers deposited on the earth?”. “When were lots of plants and animals buried to produce fossil fuels”? “When were lots of creatures buried to produce fossils”? If we believe the recorded history of the Bible, we will realize that Noah’s flood caused the death of “every living thing that moved on the earth”, except those on the ark. And a flood of such a magnitude and duration could have caused massive erosion, sedimentation and deposition. In this case, the vast layers of sedimentary rock probably indicate erosion, sedimentation and deposition over a relatively short period of time, mainly during Noah’s flood and its aftermath.
So although the Bible does not say if sedimentary rocks were deposited by Noah’s flood and eroded by the runoff as the waters subsided, this is the most likely event/catastrophe in recorded history to have caused a majority of the sedimentary stratification and the geomorphology of the earth.
My concerns with regard to geologic time
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of geologists began to argue that the thick sedimentary rock layers on the earth were not formed quickly during a global flood, but slowly over long ages. As a result of this shift in interpretation, a number of people began to re-interpret biblical verses referring to the flood as a local flood, rather than a global inundation.
Unfortunately, the geologic time scale used today by many geologists and paleontologists is based on assumptions that make it unreliable. These are the presupposition of uniformity and biological evolution.
It is assumed that “the present is the key to the past”. But this is incorrect with respect to the extent and rate of formation of sedimentary rock layers.
Extent: Sedimentary rock layers cover vast areas of the continents. But today deposition is only occurring in restricted areas like river deltas, lake beds and along narrow strips of coastline. This is different to the pattern of sedimentation in the past. So in this context, the present is not the key to the past.
Rate of formation: Rapid burial is necessary to produce fossils and polystrate fossils (where tree trunk fossils cut across many sedimentary rock layers) and to preserve animal tracks, ripple marks, and raindrop marks in sedimentary rock layers. But today deposition is slow and gradual. This is different to the pattern of sedimentation in the past. So in this context, the present is not the key to the past.
Sedimentary rock layers are generally parallel, with no evidence of long periods of time between adjacent layers. For example, there is no evidence of erosion between these sedimentary rock strata at Umina Point, NSW Australia. It looks like the layers were laid down in rapid succession or simultaneously and not sequentially with millions of years between each deposit and the next. Such lack of erosion within and between sedimentary strata is a feature of sedimentary rocks all over the earth.
Furthermore, the presupposition of uniformity is a huge extrapolation from the present to the past which can’t be verified. It’s poor science (see Appendix B).
Sedimentary rock layers are usually characterized by the fossils they contain and are dated according to the presumed dates when these fossils were living. These dates are speculative, as there is no way they can be calibrated (no one was there to make a historical record).
When radiometric dating methods are used to date geological strata, the only dates accepted are those consistent with the assumed evolutionary dating. In practice, the radiometric dates are very unreliable as the initial conditions and boundary conditions since the assumed date are unknown.
Sin affects all creation
Paul personifies creation when he describes Christ returning to rule over the world, “I consider that our [Christians] present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed [when Christ returns]. For the creation was subjected to frustration [at the fall into sin], not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies [at the rapture]” (Rom. 8:19-23).
When Adam and Eve sinned it impacted the whole earth – the ground was cursed (Gen. 3:17-19). Creatures can experience disease and violent death. All creation was subjected to futility, frustration, disorder and decay. The whole creation is now suffering like a woman in childbirth. Meanwhile creation looks forward to being restored to the idyllic conditions that existed before the fall into sin.
Because humanity’s sin affects all creation we see that God’s judgment of sin affects all creation as well. There are three examples of this in the Bible:
– At the flood – “By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed” (2 Pt. 3:6).
– In the tribulation between the rapture and Christ’s reign – where natural disasters are part of God’s judgment (Rev. 6:5-6; 8:7-12; 16:4, 8-12; 17-21).
– Destruction of the earth by fire (maybe a global nuclear holocaust) at the end of Christ’s Millennial reign (2 Pt. 3:7, 10).
This explains why the flood affected the natural world as well as humanity, and is consistent with the flood being global rather than local. But Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of a local judgement of sin (Appendix C).
After the flood Noah’s family repopulated the world like Adam and Eve did in the beginning. Adam and Eve were told: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground … I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Gen. 1:28-29).
Similarly, Noah was told: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Gen. 9:1-3).
An assessment of some of the written history of Noah’s flood shows that there is more evidence for a global flood than for a local flood. Because of its global extent, Noah’s flood and its aftermath probably caused a majority of the sedimentary stratification and the geomorphology of the earth.
Because it relies on the ideas of uniformity and biological evolution, the geologic time scale is unreliable. Likewise radiometric dating of rock layers is unreliable because of the huge assumptions involved.
Appendix A: What about Psalm 104:9?
This verse has been used to say that the flood was local and not global. The passage says,
“5He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
8 they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.” (Ps. 104:5-9).
This psalm is a poem/song to God as the Creator and Sustainer of everything. He is praising God’s greatness in nature, and in the general laws under which he has placed it. It addresses: the heavens (v.2-4), the earth (v.5-9), plants and animals (v. 10-18), cycles (v.19-23), marine life (v.25-26), God’s providence (v.27-28), birth and death (v. 29-30).
Does v.9 refer to creation (Gen. 1:2) or to the floodwaters of Noah’s time (Gen. 9:11-15)?
Those who believe that the context is the original separation of land and water during creation (Job 38:10-11; Prov. 8:29) may say that this means the flood was local and not global. Or they may think that because humanity crossed the boundaries of human behavior, then God crossed His boundary in Noah’s flood but re-established it in the covenant promise with Noah. God command the waters to cover the earth in Noah’s flood, but afterwards He promised not to drown the world again. Some think there is no need to make this exception; since this was written after the flood, and when God had sworn that the waters should no more go over the earth (Isa. 54:9).
But v.6-9 could be a poetic description of the flood, in which case it is consistent with a global flood.
How can we resolve these two views?
Some principles of biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) are that:
– “Scripture interprets Scripture”, which means that we should read any passage of the Bible in light of the entire Bible and not build a doctrine or position on a single proof text. Also,
– Obscure passages of Scripture must be interpreted in light of clear passages as God is the author behind all Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pt. 1:20-21; Jn. 10:35-36). If something is unclear in one part of Scripture, it probably is made clear elsewhere in Scripture. When we have two passages in Scripture that we can interpret in various ways, we want to interpret the Bible in such a way as to not violate the basic principle of Scripture’s unity and integrity. We use clear statements to help understand ambiguous ones.
As there are many Bible passages that are consistent with a global flood (see the main text of this post), we mustn’t use this single verse to say that it supports a local flood.
Appendix B: Water above the Himalayas?
Some criticize the idea of a global flood by saying that there’s not enough water to cover the Himalayan mountains. That’s true because Mt Everest is 8,848m (29,030 ft) above sea level. But the flood didn’t have to cover the present Earth. The Bible says that “the world of that time [pre-flood] was deluged and destroyed” (2 Pt. 3:6). No one knows the height of the mountains or the depth of the ocean valleys in Noah’s day. Thus, one cannot know how much water was on the earth during the Noahic flood.
But if the earth’s surface was completely flat, with no high mountains and no deep ocean basins, then the water in the oceans would cover the earth to a depth of about 2,500 m (8,200 ft). Afterall, about 70% of the earth’s surface is water.
During the flood the pre-flood topography was eroded and deposited in sedimentary strata beneath water. Later some of these strata were uplifted and some subsided – the mountains rose, and the valleys sank down (Ps. 104:8). Those that were uplifted formed continents and mountain ranges, while those that subsided formed deep ocean basins and troughs. This is illustrated by the fact that the uppermost parts of mountains ranges, including Mount Everest, are composed of fossil-bearing, water-deposited layers.
So Noah’s flood didn’t cover the Himalayas, but it caused them to be formed and uplifted! Where did all the water go? Most of the waters of Noah’s Flood are probably in today’s ocean basins.
This illustrates the misunderstandings that result from the idea of uniformity. The present is not the key to the past. Instead, understanding what happened in the past helps to explain the present. So the past is key to the present!
Appendix C: What about Sodom and Gomorrah?
About 530 years after the flood, God destroyed the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim because of their wickedness (Gen. 19:12-29; Dt. 29:23). “The people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13). It was a local catastrophe that was restricted to the plains near Sodom and Gomorrah, “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land” (Gen. 19:24-25). “Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (Gen. 19:27-28). The NIV Study Bible suggests that perhaps a violent earthquake spewed up burning asphalt.
The vegetation in this area has never recovered. What was once good grazing land that attracted Lot to this wicked city is now bare or submerged under shallow water.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was an example of God’s judgment of sin (2 Pt. 2: 6-7; Jude 1:7). He judged the ungodly and rescued the righteous. In this case it was regional and not global in extent.
Written, January 2019
Also see: Noah: Fact or fiction?