Exploring the Extent of the Flood: Part One

Exploring the Extent of the Flood: Part One

In my years of speaking and writing on science-faith issues, I’ve discovered only one topic that stirs more heated debate than the age of the universe or the days of creation, and that’s the Flood of Noah’s lifetime. Often this event is called the Genesis Flood, and yet multiple biblical passages, in addition to the initial narrative (Genesis 6–9), shed light on what occurred and why.  

At the extreme ends of the interpretive spectrum are these two positions: the global flood view and the local flood view. The global view says that the floodwaters covered the entire planet, destroyed every living thing, and generated all of Earth’s major geological features. The local flood view asserts that the event was a relatively minor one, affecting only a tiny fraction of the planet and of the human population. The RTB scholar team takes a view that differs from both of these, as will become clear in a series of three articles on the topic. Based on the meaning of the word universal, “encompassing all members of a category or group,” in this case “all humanity,” our position can best be described as the universal flood view.

As with virtually any biblical controversy, our best hope for progress toward resolution and, more importantly, toward drawing truth from the text, comes from examining all the relevant passages, Genesis to Revelation, and applying sound interpretive principles. One of those principles calls for careful consideration of context, both historical and textual. That’s where this series begins.

One of the key words in the Genesis passage is translated into English as “the earth.” What does that expression mean to English readers of the past few hundred years? For those with at least some education, it immediately conjures the image of planet Earth. We moderns think of our earthly habitat as a roughly spherical astronomical body. But that’s a relatively recent conception. The majority of people who have ever lived on “the earth” never knew it as a planet and never envisioned it as such. 

The same is true of the Old—and New—Testament references to “the world.” Modern readers instantly think of the globe. Ancient readers (mostly hearers, because manuscripts and reading ability were limited) never even imagined a terrestrial ball. “Earth” or “world” to them meant “land” or implied people and societies. 

Two familiar Old Testament passages narrate “worldwide” events other than the Flood: Genesis 41:56–42:6 and 1 Kings 10. The same Hebrew word, ’eres, translated as “the earth” in the Flood account, is translated as “the world” in these passages. So their meaning is essentially interchangeable. 

In Genesis 41:57 we read, “[A]ll the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.” Genesis 42:5–6 clarifies that the famine had spread throughout the whole of the Egyptian Empire and the land of Canaan. “The world” in this context refers to a major region of human civilization rather than to the entire globe.

The writer of 1 Kings 10:24 declares that “The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.” Again, the succeeding verses clarify what “the whole world” encompassed. Rulers came from as far away as Sheba (modern Ethiopia) and all the lands of Arabia, probably not from Antarctica or Greenland.

Geographically restricted references to the world may be seen in the New Testament also. In Acts 2:5 Luke describes Jews living in Jerusalem as “devout men from every nation under heaven” (ESV). Most Bible interpreters would agree this passage does not necessarily include Mayans or Aztecs or Chinese. DNA tests confirm that no first-century Jews came from Mesoamerica or the Far East.

In Romans 1:8 Paul says of the Roman Christians, “Your faith is being reported all over the world.” In Colossians 1:6 he writes, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you.” Some translations of Luke mention Caesar Augustus’ decree to tax “the world.” For each of these passages the context indicates the writer’s reference to the Roman world, the extent of the Roman empire.

In all these and other Bible passages the words translated as  “all the world,” “the whole world,” “every nation under heaven,” and “all over the world” refer to geographical or geopolitical regions somewhat less extensive than planet Earth’s entire surface. Therefore, one may reasonably conclude that references in Genesis 6–8 to “all the surface of the earth,” and “under the entire heavens” need not imply a globally extensive event.

Read about the extent of human sin and God’s judgment next issue.

Part 1 | Part 2