The Flood >>back home

Although the Flood is not the subject of the present essay this is a suitable place to comment briefly about the biblical record. An ill-conceived attempt is still being made to implicate the Flood with the geological record, i.e. to imply that the fossiliferous strata which are the professional province of palaeontologists were all laid down in this catastrophe. It is a consequence of this view that the earth is very young, a mere few dozen millennia at most. If this interpretation of the record is sound it puts the Bible in embarrassing conflict with the well‑established and well‑authenticated scientific view that the earth is very old indeed. However the view in question cannot be regarded as exegetically sound for at least two good reasons. First, it magnifies the geological significance of the Flood far beyond anything the record itself warrants. It reads into, rather than out of, Scripture. Thus nowhere does the Bible suggest, even remotely, that geologically‑vast quan­tities of rock and detritus were shifted by the waters, nor that violent earth movements occurred on the scale required. Second, and more seriously, the view referred to materially displaces the focus of concern of the biblical narrative. For the purpose of the divine Preacher in this sermon (as always) is to give priority to spiritual realities rather than physical ones,1 and the interpretation in question acts arguably to reverse this intention. There is every reason to believe that the phrasing of the narrative is designed to emphasize the point that when God eventually acts in judgement He does so with finality and completeness; nothing escapes, except the righteous remnant.2 It is for this purpose I believe, that the waters are said to have 'prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep'.3 There was no possible escape. 'By which means, the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished'.4

Scientifically, and I believe in entire loyalty to the biblical record, the narrative can be understood as follows. The cradle of civilization in which the action took place was the flood plain of the great rivers of the Euphrates‑Tigris system, an area about 400 miles long and 180 miles broad (650 km by 300 km). To east and west the land rises to elevated plateaux, and to the north to the high mountains of the kingdom of Ararat (Urartu) near Lake Van. The flooding was caused by torrential rain occurring simultaneously with huge tidal waves from the Persian Gulf, perhaps caused by submarine earthquakes ('the windows of heaven' and 'the fountains of the great deep'). The waters surged over the river plain, covering all human settlements; even the high points of the plain were submerged ('fifteen cubits deep above the mountains').5 As the Ark was borne up and carried northward towards the high ground of Ararat, whichever way the occupants looked out there was nothing but water ('under the whole heaven'). Eventually the Ark grounded in the foothills of Ararat, a resting place not located with any great precision. The raven found the sodden land to its liking; the softer dove preferred to wait till things were more hospitable. As a wind continued to drive the waters back and the land became dry, the human occupants emerged and civilization began again around a new centre.

This schema may not be the only possible interpretation of the text on the physical level, but it shews at least that the narrative is scientifically credible. Bearing in mind the purpose of the narrator, the 'universalist' language ('all the high mountains under the whole heaven', 'every living thing . . . man and animals. . . and birds of the air died') is no insuperable obstacle – compare the similar universal­ism of Gen. 41.57; Luke 2.1; Acts 2.5; Col. 1.23. It is the sort of impressionistic language the reader is expected to take in his stride surely, a natural way of conveying the sense of the severity of the divine judgement. Again, as with the story of Eden, the fact that the biblical narrative has a parallel in for instance the Gilgamesh epic of ancient Babylon is no compelling reason for denying its status as divinely‑given; the existence of other stories (theologically much inferior) can be taken as evidence for quite as convincingly as evidence against.

I believe that to understand things in the way suggested is to do justice to the genius of Scripture; to try to interpret them as the 'Flood geologists' do is not. For these reasons I have no hesitation in agreeing with those6 who see the Flood as a widespread but not uni­versal inundation, obliterating a particular civilisation but nowhere near covering the globe. Rather, it is to be seen as an act of purgation designed (like the wilderness judgement and the Babylonian exile)7 to preserve a godly line through which eventually the promised Deliverer should come. It had no need therefore to be more global than the human race.8

NOTES

1          See Matt. 6:31-33; 10.28; Luke 12.15; John 6.27; 2 Cor 4.18.

2     This point is often made forcefully in Scripture: cf. Gen. 19.24; Isaiah 10.22,23 quoted in Rom. 9.27,28; Nah. 1.7‑9. See also 2 Pet. 2.5‑10.

3          Gen. 7.19,20. 

4          2 Pet. 3.6 RV;  cf Isaiah 28.17‑22; Jer. 11.11.

5     Heb. har means a mountain or hill. In Gen. 22.2 quite a small hill is clearly indicated, probably the site of the future temple. Cf. also 'mount Zion'. The common word 'erets is twice as often translated 'land' as 'earth'.

6     Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution (Triangle Books SPCK, 1985); Dan Wonderly, God's Time Records in Ancient Sediments (Crystal Press, Michigan 1977); Davis Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Zondervan, Michigan 1982).

7          Num. 14:26‑32; Isaiah 10:21‑23; Matt. 24:37f.

8     For a fuller discussion see the article 'Flood' in The New Bible Dictionary (IVP, 1980); also Genesis D. Kidner (IVP, 1967).