Deep Water There is a deluge of good arguments for a global flood
The story of Noah and the Flood, insofar as people know it at all, has become for many no more than a quaint children’s tale. Cartoon-type pictures and models of Noah’s ark provide amusement for the kids, while sentimental references to the animals going into the ark with Noah and family following behind give the atmosphere of a fairy tale to what is properly an account of the extinction of the early world. There is the rub: a story of fearful divine judgment has been sanitized into an Aesop-type fable at best, a story-with-a-moral.
The more serious reader will, however, ask a number of questions. Is the flood that’s described local or universal? How could all those animals fit into an ark? Did Noah take on board dinosaurs from North America, kangaroos from Australia, moas from New Zealand, and dodos from Madagascar? For that matter, how did he get them on board anyway? How did he feed them? Where did all the water come from, and more particularly, where did it all go?
Then there is the issue of the Babylonian Flood story (Gilgamesh Epic): is the biblical story just another myth on the same level? These and a series of other issues are questions on a similar level to the old chestnut, where did Cain get his wife?
The short answer to all these questions is that the story of the Great Deluge involves at once the elements of miracle, special providence, and normal providential processes, or “natural law” if one prefers. In similar vein, our Lord’s birth involved both the miraculous and the normal: the conception was indeed miraculous, but the gestation and birth were along the normal biological lines.
The question whether the flood covered the whole earth or whether it was restricted to the Mesopotamian valley is a relatively recent issue in terms of church history. If one looks at the older commentaries, e.g. of Luther, Calvin, Poole, Henry, and Scott, they all affirm a universal flood. Of these, Poole alone seems to be a little hesitant, because in his commentary on Genesis 7:19 he entertains some limitation as a possibility (i.e. to the sphere of human and animal habitation), only to dismiss it when he considers the universal flood legends known in his day. Many more such legends are now known from tribal cultures the world over.
The origin of the modern debate can be traced to John Pye Smith, who in 1839 wrote a treatise advocating that the flood was restricted to the Mesopotamian Valley. While it caused a furore among evangelicals at the time, after a while yesterday’s heresy became today’s orthodoxy, an all-too-familiar story. Local flood advocates have repeated Pye Smith’s arguments without much refinement to this day, even those who have never heard of him.
There are many arguments from both the flood narrative itself, and from later Scriptural references, that establish that the deluge was indeed universal. I cannot list them all, but here are some of the more important ones:
- The cosmic scope of the narrative itself, and of the context in Genesis 1-11, indicates that the “heavens and earth” which the flood wiped out was the same as that created in the beginning. This should be clear from Genesis 6:7,11, 17; 7:21-23, where “earth” and “heavens” are combined to describe the total event, a pair of terms which in conjunction denote “world system”. Interestingly, Pye Smith saw this point and proposed in harmony a “local Creation” view of Genesis 1. The mind boggles as to whether Genesis 3 likewise teaches a “local Fall” with localised consequences! His concession here really gives the game away.
- The writer uses universal language consistently throughout the entire narrative.
While it’s true that such language can be restricted, e.g. in Luke 2:1, where “all the world” clearly did not include either China or Scandinavia, nevertheless the context will indicate if such restriction applies. However, no such indication is evident in Genesis 6-8. Moreover, if this universal language is to be explained away here, the Genesis author is put in a “catch 22” situation: with the vocabulary and idiom available he could not have described unequivocally an earth-covering Flood even if he had wanted to!
- Water finds its own level, and this natural/supernatural event is no exception. According to Genesis, the mountains were covered, at least to the depth of the Ararat range (8:4). It is impossible to have a year-long, mountain-covering, local flood, unless one invokes a miracle, something these advocates want to avoid.
- The rainbow covenant is made with the earth and all its inhabitants that no similar flood will ever again cover the entire earth (Gen. 9:9-11). If, however, the flood were local, God breaks his covenant every time a local flood occurs, and there have been many over the centuries. That rainbow hanging over a flood-devastated ravine in Peru, or a swollen Ganges basin, is on this view nothing but a monument to divine hypocrisy, a blasphemy indeed!
- Finally, 2 Peter 3:5-7 should be quite clear: a contrast is made between the “kosmos” or world system before the flood and that which now exists. The agency that destroyed the former was the deluge which overflowed it. Peter is surely talking of the total world system in each case: the water overwhelmed it last time, the fire will consume it next time. Furthermore, if the flood was localized we hand the unbeliever the perfect excuse for his unbelief: his rigid adherence to the principle of uniformity (2 Pet. 3:4) goes unrefuted. Well may he insist, “There never has been a world-wide, God-sent catastrophe; there never will be”, courtesy of the Christian preacher himself!
The exploration of Mars has now begun in earnest, and many scientists are freely speculating about a Mars once covered completely by water, or nearly so. Mars is now devoid of liquid water, and seems to have precious little either in its rocks or in its polar caps, yet this unproven speculation meets with the approval of the scientific community. When, however, Biblical creationists insist that the Earth’s surface, which has liquid water in abundance, was once flooded for a year or more, there is an outcry of abuse and derision. One can surely be forgiven for alleging prejudice.
While these arguments have appealed to many Christians, some have still sought to have it both ways with uniformitarian geology and Scripture. Thus certain scholars have come up with a “tranquil theory”, whereby water slowly and gently rose, covered the mountains, and then sank again, leaving everything as it was, save for a layer of mud. This notion, which had a vogue in the 19th century, has undergone a revival in recent years.
However, both Scripture and the laws of hydrodynamics would deny such a scenario. The flood destroyed the world of that time, and Noah’s family emerged from the ark into a different world, one that has been with us ever since. This came about through the break-up of “the fountains of the great deep”, combined with the rain from above, the two sources of water according to Gen. 7:11-12. These would certainly have involved massive geological and tectonic movements, releasing water trapped beneath the earth’s crust, and also involving all manner of major convulsions.
Then there is the hydrodynamic aspect: water in motion has awesome power. Recent television documentaries have drawn attention to the destructive power of tsunamis, immense waves generated by underwater seismic movements.
The recent movie Deep Impact purported to show a damaged but eminently recognisable Washington after the Atlantic impact of the asteroid and the associated tsunami. However, if that ever did happen, all of the cities of America’s East Coast would cease to exist entirely. One would be hard put to find them, let alone repair them.
Therefore, given the volume of water of Noah’s Flood even in its early stages, tsunamis would have occurred simultaneously on a massive scale, destroying everything in their path. Such global upheavals render any tranquil theory as all too facile.
Where did the water go? The answer quite simply is: it’s still there! The oceans cover some two thirds of the Earth’s surface, and to a very great depth. The average depth of the major oceans, beyond the continental shelves, is between 12,000 to 20,000 feet, while some trenches are as deep or deeper than Mt Everest is high. This entails that the pre-flood earth had shallower seas, and possibly a single continent (cf. the “one place” of Gen. 1:9), although the evidence for that is a bit thin. Whatever, that world was very different from the one which now exists.
Let us suppose for the sake of argument the theory of a single continent in the pre-flood world. On that view, there were no isolated islands in mid-ocean like Japan, Iceland, or Madagascar (or Australia, for that matter). The land animals are therefore restricted to that one land-mass, and hence “Aunt Sally” scenarios of Noah travelling to New Zealand to gather a pair of moas, or to the Galapagos to gather finches, are really quite foolish. For all we know, most or all species could well have lived within range of Noah’s residence.
In all, there is much we don’t know about biological diversity and distribution in that former world, and to infer about it based on the present world is to compare apples with oranges.
According to Gen. 6:20, God announced that the animals and birds would come to Noah, while Gen. 7:14-15 indicates that they went in with Noah on the day the flood began. So God brought the animals to Noah; Noah did not go scurrying far and wide, trying desperately to coax or cajole lions, leopards, armadillos, eagles, kangaroos, and ostriches to go with him into the ark.
For that matter, there was no necessity to take fully-grown adult members of each kind, but only younger specimens. Likewise with the dinosaurs: since those monsters kept growing throughout their lives, only young and small members were necessary to take on board. Here, however, we can see the supernatural element in the narrative: from elephants to egrets, leopards to lorikeets, all kinds came to the ark, and were kept together harmoniously, by God’s special providential control.
As to feeding them, while some animals would have required this (cf. Gen. 6:21), others would, I believe, have been put into extended hibernation for the duration. Admittedly, this invokes a miracle not explicitly in the narrative, but something like this must have been the case, otherwise Noah’s feeding schedule would have been akin to painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge!
When Noah emerged from the ark, God commanded him to bring out also the birds and animals (Gen. 8:17) to “multiply on the earth”. This entails that from somewhere in Eastern Turkey (whether the traditional Mt Ararat or the Ararat region), all animal life dispersed, ultimately to fill not only the major post-flood continents, but also the oceanic islands, many of which are volcanic and whose form changes to this day.
Most likely a land bridge existed in the early stages, linking Australia to Asia through the Indonesian Archipelago, which subsequently broke up through subsidence. Isolated islands would have gained their animal populations partly through human agency (as they have in modern times), and partly through natural transportation, although accounting for moas, kiwis, and tuataras in New Zealand remains a knotty, though not insoluble, problem.
Less serious a problem is the range of marsupial animals in Australia. While these are now unique to our country, fossil marsupials have been found elsewhere, e.g. in South America. Kangaroos have survived only in Australia simply because here there are no natural predators for them. It is reasonable to suppose that these animals had migrated here before the subsidence of the land bridge to Asia, but were then cut off from the outside world. The isolated environment created an ideal breeding ground for marsupials.
We know at least three stories of a great flood from Ancient Mesopotamia: the Gilgamesh Epic, Atrahasis, and Ziusudra.
The flood-story component, which circulated independently in antiquity, has been incorporated into each tale with some variations.
The Epic is in essence not about the flood, but the quest for immortality on the part of its hero, Gilgamesh. When his friend Enkidu dies, he embarks on a long series of adventures, and finally contacts Utnapishtim, the “Noah” figure of the story, who received eternal life from the gods for surviving the great flood. Utnapishtim then recounts to Gilgamesh the story of the flood.
For reasons not entirely clear in the epic, the gods decide to send a great flood to wipe out mankind. However, Ea, the water deity, obliquely reveals the plan to Utnapishtim in a dream, and the latter builds a boat to save himself, his family, relations, craftsmen, birds, and “beasts of the field”. When they had all embarked, a great rainstorm flooded the world “for seven days and nights”, after which their boat landed on Mt Nimush.
On the seventh day Utnapishtim began releasing a series of birds to ascertain the water level, then after an unspecified time he and the others emerged from the boat. The god Enlil, initially angry that anyone had survived the flood, at Ea’s intercession, conferred upon Utnapistim and his wife immortality.
Obviously there are close parallels between this and the biblical story, many more than with the creation story. However, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the Genesis author “borrowed” his version from the Babylonian story, and therefore that they both belong to the category, “myth”. That indeed has been the standard critical explanation for many years, even though others have pointed out serious difficulties with this simplistic outlook. Some of the sharp, even fundamental differences are below (see Table).
In seeking to explain the similarities, we should bear in mind that these ancient Mesopotamian stories are just part of a large number of flood traditions in tribal folklore around the world, although, as we might expect, they become in general more garbled the further away from Mesopotamia they occur.
Quite striking stories occur in Aboriginal lore even here in Australia. Although efforts have been made to derive these from the work of Christian missionaries, that explanation fails since in many cases secular anthropologists gathered the stories before missionaries reached these tribes with the Gospel. In other cases, missionaries have related how they indeed told the story of Noah, only to find that the tribal folk already had a similar tale in their own legends. Therefore the best explanation is of a common tradition emanating from a firm historical event, but the versions becoming more garbled the further they move away in time and geography.
One other factor emerges from these comparisons: the most ancient stories all stress heavy rain as the principal source of the floodwaters, a fact noted by ancient historians. Yet this is at odds with the common modern explanation in terms of an embellished tale of a river flood. Even Christian scholars have become overexcited about flood layers at various ancient sites in southern Iraq, but they do not correlate with each other, and are clearly due to river floods at different times in early history. They have nothing to do with Noah’s flood.
Think of Noah and his family in that ark, with torrential rain bucketing down over them continuously for six weeks, torrents gushing from the ground, plus huge waves driving the ark to and fro. It would have been terrifying, especially as the Lord had locked them inside, while observation to the outside was limited (cf. Gen. 6:16). What comfort did they have as their world literally disintegrated around them?
God had warned Noah concerning things not as yet seen (Heb. 11:7), and now they were here — all part of an overwhelming flood. But he had promised to “remember his covenant” (Gen. 6:18), as well as to “remember Noah” (i.e. take special care of him, Gen. 8:1). The Word of God alone was the consolation, and by receiving the Word in faith, and entering the ark upon those promises, Noah was carried through to the new world.
The same God has warned us of a coming fiery conflagration which will also consume the entire world (2 Pet. 3:7). Sceptical scientists and others tell us it can’t happen; they point to the uniformity of nature, just as Peter said they would. But we are dealing here also with things not as yet seen; the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is due to God’s patience. Again, he has provided an ark: Jesus Christ! He has promised to carry through to the world to come all who trust themselves to him.