The Flood

FLOOD, THE The Deluge, or world-wide destruction of man and beast, except for Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark.

I. Historical Background of Flood Interpretations. The Noahic flood has been a subject for discussion among scientists and theologians for many centuries. During the Middle Ages, the church was the authority in all areas of thought. Science as we know it today did not exist, for with its theological orientation the church looked with disfavor on observations that did not have theological explanations. It was only natural then that when the early geologists observed many thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks (formed from smaller particles of rocks or chemically precipitated from solution) in the mountains of Europe and the British Isles, they turned to the church for an explanation. The easiest answer for the layers of sediments was that they were laid down by the Flood.

As the sedimentary layers were studied further, problems arose when it was discovered that not all the layers were contemporaneous. It was also readily observed that some sediments had been deposited, hardened into rock, folded into mountain ranges, eroded off and then covered with new sediments. At some places the sedimentary rock layers were cut by formerly molten rock material, which indicated volcanic activity after the sediments were deposited. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientists attempted to harmonize the interpretation of field observations with church tradition.


II. The Purpose of the Flood. An important aspect of the Deluge is that God preserved some men, for Noah and his family were saved from destruction by going into an ark that Noah made according to God’s specifications, and in which he gathered animals and birds preserved to replenish the earth.

It is apparent from Gen.6.5-Gen.6.7 and other passages such as 2Pet.2.5-2Pet.2.6 that the Flood was brought on the earth as a judgment on the sins of the people. Man had become so sinful that “the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth” (Gen.6.6). The Bible refers to the Flood in connection with the judgment at the second coming of the Lord (Matt.24.39) and with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke.17.27-Luke.17.29; 2Pet.2.5-2Pet.2.6).

The purpose of God, as stated in Gen.6.7, indicates that the judgment was not against the inanimate rocks or against plants but against “men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air.”

III. The Phenomena of the Flood. In the following passage, however (Gen.6.11-Gen.6.13), the earth is included in the judgment. There is again difference of opinion as to the meaning of Gen.6.13, in which God said, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.” That the earth was not utterly destroyed as it will be in the last times (2Pet.2.10) is apparent. Some writers would interpret Gen.6.13 to mean that great geologic catastrophes overwhelmed the earth’s surface, while others point out that Gen.6.6-Gen.6.7, Gen.6.12-Gen.6.13 all stress that it was the sin of living things that was to be punished and that the effect on the inanimate rocks of the world was only incidental to punishing the human race.

Despite all attempts at scientific explanation of the minute details of the Flood, there seems to be no doubt that God worked a miracle in causing it. In 2Pet.3.5-2Pet.3.6 the Flood is compared with the creation of the world and is a miracle of the same order. In the same passage, 2Pet.3.7ff., the final destruction of the world is given the same miraculous explanation as the Noahic flood.

IV. The Source of the Flood. The biblical account of the accumulation and dispersal of the waters of the Flood is very brief. In Gen.7.11 the source of the water is explained, “...all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”

The Hebrew word tehom, translated “great deep,” is the same used in Gen.1.2. That this does not necessarily include all the oceans is shown by its use in Isa.51.10 when it refers to the escape of the Israelites in “the depths of the sea” (the Red Sea). The Hebrew word ma’yan means literally place of a spring. This could mean that water rose from the ocean or from fresh water springs on the earth or both.

V. Suggested Causes of the Flood. Some would prefer to believe that the expression “the springs of the great deep burst forth” indicates that the ocean (actually the Persian Gulf, an arm of the ocean) invaded the land. Others have assumed this implies volcanic activity and that some of the water of the Flood is “juvenile water,” which is formed from the oxygen and hydrogen that may occur as separate elements in the molten rock deep in the earth’s crust. This school of thought would also attribute to this verse a great deal of diastrophism (movements of the solid crust that result in a relative change of position of the rock formations concerned). This could account for the sinking of the mountains of the earth so that they could be covered more easily by the waters of the Deluge.

To attribute volcanic activity to Gen.7.11 is highly speculative, for at no place in the Genesis account of the Flood is any more specific description of conditions given. The fact that igneous rock (rock formed by the cooling of molten rock materials) is found between layers of sedimentary rock is not good evidence for volcanic activity at the time of the Flood. Sediments that have been laid down during historic time have been cut by lava from present-day volcanoes. It has also been observed that the oldest layers are also cut by igneous rocks. It seems apparent, therefore, that volcanic activity has gone on throughout the world’s history. It is not possible to designate any particular rock body as being coincident with the Flood.

“The floodgates of the heavens were opened” has been accepted as a description of rain. Some have seen this as a torrential downpour greater than normally experienced on the earth today. A hypothesis has been proposed that the earth from the time of its creation (or at least man’s creation) was surrounded by a canopy of water in some form until the time of the Flood. The canopy was supposedly made of water vapor, ice, or liquid water. It is proposed that the transfer of the canopy’s water from around the earth to the earth would cause rain for many days.

The canopy idea, although firmly entrenched in literature, has doubtful biblical authority, though some cite older versions of Ezek.1.22 in support of it. Again it should be noted that if a miraculous explanation for the Flood is accepted, physical explanations are not necessary.

VI. The Duration of the Flood. The length of the Flood is generally agreed on within a few days. The Hebrews used a solar calendar in contrast to the Babylonian lunar month and the Egyptian arbitrary 365-day year. Most authorities would put the number of days from the time the rain started (Gen.7.11) to the time Noah left the ark (Gen.8.14) between 371 and 376 days.

VII. Traditions of the Flood. Traditions regarding a disastrous flood that occurred long ago are handed down by many peoples. Isolated tribes in all parts of the world have been found to have such traditions. This is not surprising, considering the destruction caused by present-day floods as well as hurricanes and tornadoes accompanied by great rains. A tribe occupying a limited area could be destroyed completely by one storm. Any survivors would date their civilization from such an event.

The Hebrews, Assyrians, and Babylonians who lived within the area of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, all had traditions of a great flood. These narratives stated the purpose of the Flood to be punishment because the world was full of violence, but the Hebrew account remained simple and credible, whereas the other accounts became complex and fanciful. Only the biblical account retained a monotheistic viewpoint. Although it is not possible to affirm dogmatically that all of these three histories had a common origin, it seems probable that they did.

VIII. The Universality of the Flood. One of the great differences of opinion in describing the Flood concerns its extent. Traditionally, most biblical interpreters considered the submergence to be universal; that is, it covered the entire globe including the highest mountains. The reasons proposed to defend this viewpoint include the fact that universal terms are used in the Genesis account. “All the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered” (Gen.7.19), and “every living thing that moved on the earth perished” (Gen.7.21). It has been pointed out that if the Flood were local, there would be no need for an ark to preserve Noah, for God could have directed him to move with the animals to an area that was not to be submerged.

The fact that many civilizations have flood traditions has been cited as an evidence for a universal flood. The same evidence could be used to argue for a local flood because the accounts of floods in other parts of the world are less like the Hebrew tradition than those of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who lived in the same area as the Hebrews.

Today many conservative scholars defend a local flood. The crux of their argument seems to center in the covenant relation of God to man. He deals with certain groups, such as the children of Israel. The reasoning in regard to Noah is that Noah was not a preacher of righteousness to peoples of other areas but was concerned with the culture from which Abraham eventually came. Physical arguments have also been raised against a universal flood: origin and disposal of the amount of water necessary to make a layer six miles (ten km.) thick over the whole world, the effect on plant life of being covered for a year, the effect on fresh water life of a sea that contained salt from the ocean, and the fact that many topographic features of the earth (such as cinder cones) show no evidence of erosion by a flood and are thought to be much older than the Flood could possibly be.

IX. Chronology of the Flood. There is not any general agreement among conservative scholars concerning the actual date of the Deluge. Although Ussher in his chronology placed the Flood at 2348 b.c., most scholars today hold to an earlier date. Scholars who have advocated that the earth has developed to its present condition by a series of major calamities have been called catastrophists. These consider the Noahic flood as the greatest of these catastrophes and believe that the Pleistocene ice age was related to the Flood. Many catastrophists believe the Flood was associated in some way with the end of the Pleistocene ice age and so accept a date of about 10,000 b.c. The lack of consensus with regard to the details of the Flood should make all aware of the danger of placing so much importance on the interpretation of this event that the other lessons of the Bible are missed.

Bibliography: M. F. Unger, Introductory Guide to the Old Testament, 1951; A. Parrot, The Flood and Noah’s Ark, 1955; J. C. Whitcomb and H. M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961; F. A. Filby, The Flood Reconsidered, 1970.——DCB