The previous issue of New Reasons to Believe addressed the extent of the Genesis Flood as indicated by references to the entire “world.” In both its linguistic and historical context, world in the Genesis passages refers not to the entire planet but rather to the “world” of people. So the Flood could have been worldwide without being global.
However, many other Bible passages outside the Genesis text shed even clearer light on the geographical extent of the Flood. The most explicit of these passages is Psalm 104, a beautifully descriptive recap of the major miracles God performed during the six creation days of Genesis 1.
In Psalm 104:6, the writer describes Earth’s appearance before any islands or continents had formed (creation days 1 and 2). Psalm 104:7-8 recounts God’s transformation of Earth’s crust (on creation day 3) from a water world into a surface with both oceans and permanently established landmasses. In verse 9, the psalmist explicitly states that in this continent-forming process, God “set a boundary they [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.” Given that the Genesis Flood occurred some time after the creation days, this passage would indicate that the Flood could not have been geographically global in extent.
The book of Job, in chapters 38-39, also describes the events of the Genesis creation days. With reference to creation day three God asks, rhetorically, “Who shut up the sea behind doors …when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt.’?” Again the passage implies that in forming the continents God established permanent limits for the oceans, boundaries they could never again cross.
Several more texts seem to underscore the point established in Psalm 104 and Job 38. Two of these are Psalm 33:6-11 and Proverbs 8:25-29. Additionally, 2 Peter 2:5 informs us that God brought the Flood upon “the world of the ungodly.” If humanity had not yet migrated to all Earth’s continents, including Antarctica, Greenland, Australia, and North and South America, there would have been no apparent reason for God’s devastation to extend that far. A similar point is expressed in 2 Peter 3:6: “By water also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.” Peter seems to distinguish Noah’s “world” from his own, the Roman world.
Even within the Genesis Flood account itself (Genesis 6–9) we see indications that the deluge was somewhat less than global in extent. In Genesis 8 for example, as Noah observes the recession of the waters, verse 5 says he could see the distant hills and mountains from his perspective on top of the vessel. So he released a dove, “But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth” (Genesis 8: 9). Apparently the dove flew below the altitude of Noah’s vantage point. But the Hebrew words translated “all over the surface of the earth” in this verse are the same as those used in Genesis 7:19, the text most frequently cited as proof the Flood was global. Phrases such as “all the surface of the earth,” “under the entire heavens,” and “the whole world” may, thus, refer to an area smaller than the planet’s total surface, say, from horizon to horizon (more or less) or the area inhabited by people, on whom the text focuses.
The Genesis Flood may well have extended beyond Mesopotamia. Most of the place names recorded in Genesis 2-8 are associated with locations within Mesopotamia, but some are not. The notable exceptions are the Pishon and Gihon rivers, which flowed from the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. It seems possible that the Genesis Flood inundated not only all of Mesopotamia but also the entire Persian Gulf region and much of southern Arabia as well. It’s intriguing to note that the Persian Gulf region was dry land, according to geologists, some 40,000-80,000 years ago, an era that roughly coincides with Noah’s day (based on appropriate calibration of the Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 genealogies).*
As with any biblical question or controversy, the most helpful approach is to integrate all Bible passages that address the subject. Any study of the Flood, then, must also encompass the biblical material on God’s judgment against sin. In other words, why the Flood? That’s a topic for another article.
*See More than a Theory (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 189-90.
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