Many Christians maintain that the Bible says that the flood account of Genesis requires an interpretation that states that the waters of the flood covered the entire earth. If you read our English Bibles, you will probably come to this conclusion if you don't read the text too closely and if you fail to consider the rest of your Bible. Like most other Genesis stories, the flood account is found in more places than just Genesis. If you read the sidebar, you will discover that Psalm 104 directly eliminates any possibility of the flood being global (see Psalm 104-9 - Does it refer to the Original Creation or the Flood?). In order to accept a global flood, you must reject Psalm 104 and the inerrancy of the Bible. If you like to solve mysteries on your own, you might want to read the flood account first and find the biblical basis for a local flood.
The Bible's other creation passages eliminate the possibility of a global flood
The concept of a global Genesis flood can be easily eliminated from a plain reading of Psalm 104,1 which is known as the "creation psalm." Psalm 104 describes the creation of the earth in the same order as that seen in Genesis 1 (with a few more details added). It begins with an expanding universe model (reminiscent of the Big Bang) (verse 2,1 parallel to Genesis 1:1). It next describes the formation of a stable water cycle (verses 3-5,1 parallel to Genesis 1:6-8). The earth is then described as a planet completely covered with water (verse 6, parallel to Genesis 1:9). God then causes the dry land to appear (verses 7-8,1 parallel to Genesis 1:9-10). The verse that eliminates a global flood follows: "You set a boundary they [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." (Psalm 104:9)1 Obviously, if the waters never again covered the earth, then the flood must have been local. Psalm 104 is just one of several creation passages that indicate that God prevented the seas from covering the entire earth.2 An integration of all flood and creation passages clearly indicates that the Genesis flood was local in geographic extent.
The Bible says water covered the whole earth... Really?
When you read an English translation of the biblical account of the flood, you will undoubtedly notice many words and verses that seem to suggest that the waters covered all of planet earth.3 However, one should note that today we look at everything from a global perspective, whereas the Bible nearly always refers to local geography. You may not be able to determine this fact from our English translations, so we will look at the original Hebrew, which is the word of God. The Hebrew words which are translated as "whole earth" or "all the earth" are kol (Strong's number H3605), which means "all," and erets (Strong's number H776), which means "earth," "land," "country," or "ground."4 We don't need to look very far in Genesis (Genesis 2) before we find the Hebrew words kol erets.
- The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole [kol] land [erets] of Havilah, where there is gold. (Genesis 2:11)
- And the name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole [kol] land [erets] of Cush. (Genesis 2:13)
Obviously, the description of kol erets is modified by the name of the land, indicating a local area from the context. In fact, the term kol erets is nearly always used in the Old Testament to describe a local area of land, instead of our entire planet.5
The "whole earth" often refers to the people not geography
However, there are many more examples of where kol erets is used without reference to any specific land, although the context clearly indicates a local area. For example, in Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) the text says, "the whole [kol] earth [erets] used the same language."6 We know that this reference is not really to the earth at all (and certainly not to the "whole earth"), but to the people of the earth, who all lived in one geographic location. It wasn't until later that God scattered the people over the face of the earth.6 There are many other examples of where kol erets actually refers to people rather than the geography of the "whole earth":
- Shall not the Judge of all [kol] the earth [erets] deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25) (God judges the people of the earth, not the earth itself)
- Now behold, today I am going the way of all [kol] the earth [erets], and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the LORD your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed. (Joshua 23:14) (Joshua was going the way of all people in the earth, whose ultimate destiny is death.)
- "I am going the way of all [kol] the earth [erets]. Be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man. (1 Kings 2:2) (David was going the way of all people in the earth, whose ultimate destiny is death.)
- He is the LORD our God; His judgments are in all [kol] the earth [erets]. (1 Chronicles 16:14) (Judgments are done against people, not the planet)
- Sing to the LORD, all [kol] the earth [erets]; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. (1 Chronicles 16:23) (The people sing, not the planet)
The "whole earth" usually refers to local geography
Examples of where kol erets refers to a local area include the following verses:
- "Is not the whole [kol] land [erets] before you? Please separate from me: if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left." (Genesis 13:9) (The "whole land" was only the land of Canaan)
- And the people of all [kol] the earth [erets] came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth. (Genesis 41:57) (The people from the Americas did not go to Egypt)
As can be seen above, in the majority of instances kol erets does not refer to the entire planet earth. In fact, of the 205 instance of kol erets in the Old Testament, it might refer to the entire planet just 40 times,9 and even some of those are questionable. About half of those instance occur in the books of Psalms and Isaiah. The Genesis flood narrative also uses the phrase "the face of the earth." This is the exact phrase used by Cain when he was banished by God (Genesis 4:14). Are we to think that Cain was banished to outer space? In addition, the flood narrative says that "the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth" (Genesis 7:17). If "earth" really refers to the planet, this text would imply that the ark somehow levitated above the planet. Obviously, "earth" refers to the local land on which the ark was sitting, and not to planet earth.
How could the text have more clearly indicated a global flood?
I am glad you asked! There is a Hebrew word that always refers to the entire earth or the entire inhabited earth. The word is tebel (Strong's H8398), which is found 37 times in the Old Testament. Curiously, this word is never used to describe the flood, although it is used extensively to describe the creation of the earth and the judgment of the peoples of the earth.
The Local Flood - from the Genesis text
Let's look at the actual Genesis flood passage to determine if it can be interpreted from a local viewpoint. As we determined above, the word erets, often translated "earth" can also refer to the people of the earth. Is it used this way in the actual Genesis flood passage?
- Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. (Genesis 6:11)
- And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:12)
- I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
Genesis 6, verses 11 and 12 both tells us that the earth was corrupt, although we understand this verse to refer to the people of the earth. Likewise, in Genesis 9:13, the verse tells us that God made a covenant between Himself and the earth. However, later verses clarify that the covenant is between God and the creatures of the earth.10 The Genesis text clearly establishes (along with the New Testament11) that God's judgment of humans was universal (with the exception of Noah and his family).
Outside Genesis one (through Genesis 2:5), the entire Genesis account through the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) specifically refers to local geography. All the place names mentioned are in the Mesopotamian flood plain. Therefore, all the instances of the word erets can and should be translated "land," instead of "earth," since it all refers to local geography. There is no reason to think that the flood account is any different from the rest of the Genesis account through chapter 11.
When "all" does not mean "all"
The flood passage uses many universal descriptions, which suggest global proportions. However, the universal text contradicts itself, if it is to be interpreted globally. For example, the Genesis text tells us that all flesh had become corrupted.12 However, the same passage tells us that Noah was a "righteous man, blameless in his time."13 It is clear from the text that "all flesh" did not actually refer to all flesh, since there was at least one exception.
Local perspective of the flood
Does the Genesis text indicate that the flood was local? If you read it carefully, you can determine that the perspective is local. Most English translations are actually interpretations that are intentionally skewed to favor a global flood interpretation. For example, Genesis 7:20 is usually translated as:
The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered. (Genesis 7:20)
In reality, the Hebrew word ma‛al, translated "higher" really means "upward." So, in essence, the text is saying that the flood was 15 cubits (20 feet) deep, in total, not 15 cubits above the mountains. In addition, the Hebrew word har really refers most often to hills rather than mountains. See below.
The translators of most English Bibles use the word "earth," which to us means "planet earth." However, their mistranslation can clearly be seen in the following passage:
- Gen 8:5 And the water decreased steadily until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.
- Gen 8:6 Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made;
- Gen 8:7 and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.
- Gen 8:8 Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land;
- Gen 8:9 but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark; for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself.
We see that in the tenth month, the mountains became visible to Noah (Genesis 8:5). Some 40+ days later (Genesis 8:6), Noah sent a dove out of the ark (Genesis 8:8). However, the dove was unable to land because of all the water (Genesis 8:9). Then, the text tells us that water was "on the surface of all the earth." This is obviously a bad translation of kol erets, since we know that the water had not covered the mountains for at least 40 days. The context makes it clear that kol erets must refer to local geography and should be translated as the "all the land" or "all the ground." In fact, all our major English translations (NASB, NIV, KJV, etc.) make this same error. It is no wonder that people who read the English translation of the Bible "literally" come to the conclusion that the flood must have been global. However, it is apparent that our English "translations" of the Genesis flood text are more than just "translations," but actually interpretations (and probably incorrect ones at that).
There is another indication in the text that the flood did not cover the highest mountains. Again, from Genesis 8:
So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. And the dove came to him toward evening; and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth. (Genesis 8:10-11)
If the ark had come to rest on the top of Mount Ararat, this would be at 17,000 foot elevation. Olive trees (and every other tree) do not grow at 17,000 feet. In fact, you will not find olive trees growing much above 5,000 feet. Therefore, we know from the Bible that the ark did not come to rest on or near the top of Mount Ararat, but probably somewhere on the foothills of the mountain.
The method by which the flood ended also tells us that the flood was local. According to Genesis, the water receded and was dried by the wind.14 If the flood were global, there would be no place for the waters to recede to. Likewise, a wind would not significantly affect a global flood, further suggesting that the Genesis flood was local in extent.
Planet Earth became a desert after the flood!
Another problem for the global flood interpretation is what happened to the "earth" after the flood. Read the following verses and see if you can see why the word "earth" does not refer to the entire planet:
- the water was dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:6-7, NASB)After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:6-7, NIV)
- Now it came about in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the water was dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:13a, NASB)By the first day of the first month of Noah's six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:13a, NIV)
- and in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. (Genesis 8:14, NASB)By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry. (Genesis 8:14, NIV)
If one were to interpret these verses from a global perspective, one would have to conclude that the entire earth became a desert after the flood. Obviously this interpretation is false, so the translations must be bad. In these verses, the dryness of the earth is obviously referring to the local land area and not the entire planet earth.
New Testament perspective
What does the New Testament tell us about the flood? As mentioned previously, the New Testament tells us that the flood was universal in its judgment.11 Besides this, there is an interesting passage from 2 Peter that gives some insight into the nature of the flood:
For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the land was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. (2 Peter 3:5-6)
Peter, instead of just telling us that the entire planet was flooded, qualifies the verse by telling us that the "world at that time" was flooded with water. What was different about the world "at that time" compared to the world of today? At the time of the flood, all humans were in the same geographic location (the people of the world were not scattered over the earth until Genesis 11).7 Therefore, the "world at the time" was confined to the Mesopotamian plain. There would be no reason to qualify the verse if the flood were global in extent.
Early Jewish interpretation
Many Christian believe that a local flood interpretation is a recent invention of those who are trying to reconcile science with the Bible. However, the first century Jewish writer, Josephus wrote about other writers who indicated that the flood was local and that some inhabitants survived by seeking higher ground:
"Now all the writers of barbarian [Greek] histories make mention of this flood and of this ark: among whom is Berosus the Chaldean... Hieronymous the Egyptian.... Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them, where he speaks thus: '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 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'."8
Josephus does not seek to correct their narrative. So, the idea that the flood was a local event is not just a 20th century phenomenon.
Common objections to a local flood
Why didn't God send Noah on a long trip?
If the Genesis flood were local, why didn't God just sent Noah and his family packing. Once they were out of the Mesopotamian flood plain, God could have judged the unrighteous without making Noah go to all the trouble of building a huge ark. It is true that God could have done this, although there are some good biblical reasons why He chose not to do so. Why did God make the Israelites march around Jericho for seven days prior to the wall falling down? Why did God make the Israelite look upon the bronze serpent to be healed of snake bite in the wilderness? Why did Jesus make the blind man go to the Pool of Siloam to heal his blindness? Were any of these things actually required for God to do His work? No! God could have just wiped out all the evil people in the world, as He did later to the all the Egyptians' first-born. Maybe God had good reasons for Noah to build the ark? God has a purpose for each person of faith to join Him in preaching His message. God's plan will be accomplished regardless of our participation in it. However, God gives obedient humans the privilege of participating in God's plans. Likewise, God had a plan for Noah, part of which was for him and his sons to demonstrate their commitment and perseverance to the Lord.
One will notice in the judgments that God renders, He almost always gives a warning to those who are being judged. For example, God sent angels to Sodom before it was to be destroyed,15 sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of the judgment to come,16 and will send two prophets to warn the people of the earth of the final judgment.17 The building of the ark was a great testimony of the coming judgment, since it was preached for 100 years during the building of the ark. The New Testament states this idea directly, since it says that Noah was a "preacher of righteousness":
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:4-5)
If God had told Noah to just migrate away from the flood area, the people would not have been warned of the impending judgment. Ultimately, they were without excuse in their rebellion against God, since the impending judgment was proclaimed to them for 100 years before it happened. Likewise, God will send two preachers for 1260 days prior to the ultimate judgment of God.17 Those who get on God's ark (Jesus Christ) will be saved from the judgment and pass from death to eternal life.
God promised no more floods like the Genesis flood
What about the Genesis 9:11 and 9:15. If the flood was local, did God lie, since floods have destroyed local areas since the Genesis flood.
"And I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth." (Genesis 9:11)and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:15)
The first part of the verse is a promise not to exercise universal judgment by means of a flood, "all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood." The flood, although local in extent, was global in judgment, since all humanity lived in the same locale. It wasn't until God confused the languages (Genesis 11) that people began to spread over the earth. So, God promised to never again execute universal judgment of humans by means of a flood. The second part, "never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth" can be explained by other verses found in the Genesis flood account.
Gen 6:11 Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.Gen 6:12 And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
The passage in this instance refers to the people of the earth, since planet earth itself was not corrupt. Likewise, Genesis 9:11 is referring to the people of the earth rather than the planet itself. Ultimately, even if the flood were global, it did not "destroy the earth," but just the people on the earth. As stated above, "people" is often understood from the Hebrew word erets.
Why were birds on the ark?
If the Flood was local, why would birds have been sent on board? They could simply have flown to a nearby mountain range. Most birds (other than a few migratory birds) have a very localized territory. They would have been killed in the local flood, since they are not designed to fly long distances. Certainly archaeopteryx was not a strong flyer. Hummingbirds would drop dead in 20 minutes or less. One thing that you will notice when there is a strong rain is that birds do not fly. Flying in heavy rain is not easy. They would have sat on their perches until the water drowned them.
Why did God required Noah to take animals if the flood was local?
Some animals are indigenous only to the Mesopotamian area. More importantly, it would have taken hundreds of years longer to replace the fauna if everything had been wiped out and had to migrate back in. In addition, Noah would have had a huge problem replacing his herds.
How could the flood waters rise 15 cubits (8 meters) above the mountains in a local flood (Genesis 7:20)?
Didn't the flood cover the highest mountains? The Hebrew word "har," translated "mountains," occurs 649 times in the Old Testament. In 212 instances, the word is translated "hill" or "hills" or "hill country". In Genesis, it is translated "hill" in 10 out of 19 occurrences. Of course, 4 out of 9 times that it is translated as "mountain" is in the flood passage (the translators were wearing their global glasses when they did that translation!). In every instance in Genesis, the text could be translated "hill". Since no specific mountain range is mentioned in this verse, it is likely that the word refers to the hills that Noah could see.
This paper has shown that the Bible declares the Genesis flood to be local in extent, though universal in its judgment of humans (with the exception of Noah and his family). The evidence presented here is purely biblical, although a strong case could also be given for extra-biblical reasons. A global interpretation of the Genesis flood requires that certain non-flood-related verses of the Bible contradict each other. In addition, a global interpretation of the Genesis flood would require the Genesis text to contradict itself. The lack of global references in the book of Genesis through chapter 11 (with the exception of Genesis 1), reveals that all the early events of Genesis occurred in a small geographic area. In addition, an examination of the original Hebrew text of the Genesis flood passage demonstrates that the global wording of our English translations misrepresents the original intent of the account. Your assignment at this point is to re-read the Genesis flood text with the words "land" or "people" (depending upon the context) substituted where for the word "earth." When you are finished, you will discover a remarkably different flood account than what you have read before.