I’ve gotten this question before in podcast Q & A, but I was reminded of it today when someone posted this article on Facebook, aimed at “flood geology”: Twenty-One Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened. It’s by a retired geology professor. I don’t understand the science as I’m not a geologist, but I do know biblical studies. It’s actually not difficult to argue for a local-regional flood from the biblical text. In what follows I’ll show you how. My purpose is to say that, if a global flood really is geologically denied or impossible, you really don’t need to care with respect to biblical accuracy. The biblical text can indeed sustain a local-regional flood. Another purpose is to promote debate via inspection of the text, as opposed to pejorative or ad hominem attacks (i.e., promote charity among those who disagree). As you’ve heard me say many times on the podcast or elsewhere, we should care only about what the biblical text can sustain, not what tradition says. That means the task of both sides to read the text closely and think carefully about it. What follows is how a local-regional flood theorist would do that.
To begin, the argument / approach would go this way in a nutshell:
- Demonstrating that the word “all” (כֹּל / kōl) doesn’t solve anything. Rather, it begs an obvious question: “all of what?” The same goes for words like “mountain” (הַר; har). What we think of as a mountain may not be what the word must mean. And let’s include the word translated “earth” in the flood account. It’s the frequently-found ʾerets (אֶרֶץ), which often means some point or piece of land.
- Demonstrating that phrases like “all flesh” or “all humankind” or “the whole heavens” (all of which use kōl + noun) do not speak of exhaustive totality in various places in the Bible. Once that is known, you’d ask a simple question: are we justified in taking the “less than exhaustive totality” meaning back to Genesis 6-8 and interpreting the flood event accordingly — an event that did not cover the earth in exhaustive totality?
- Supporting a “yes” answer to the above via context. Context in this case means interpreting Gen 6-8 in light of the known world at the time, described in Genesis 10. That also produces a question: Is there a textual way to connect Genesis 10, the nations that extend from the sons of Noah, to the flood account?
There are other ways to defend a local-regional view, but those are the backbone trajectories. So here’s the thought experiment….
The word “all” (כֹּל / kōl)
The word “all” (kōl) means nothing in and of itself, for it produces the question: “all” of what? If I say, “that vacuum sucked up all the dirt,” do I mean that there isn’t a single speck of dirt (every molecule of dust, e.g.) left anywhere? Of course not. In Gen 41:57 we read: “All (כֹל; kōl) the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain.” Are we to conclude that every last human being on the globe came to Egypt? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. We know this not only because it’s ridiculous, but because we know from the biblical story that Jacob and his sons and their families had not gone down to Egypt at the time of the statement (see ch. 42ff.). In regard to ʾerets, as noted above, the term often means a point of piece of land. Gen 41:56, the verse before the one cited above, is an example: “So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land (ʾerets) of Egypt.” The “land” (ʾerets) of Egypt isn’t the whole world. Some global flood theorists like to argue that “land” + a qualifier (like “Egypt”) is necessarily limited, but “land” (ʾerets) without such a qualifier must mean the totality of the globe. Gen 41:57 contradicts that, and it isn’t the only such instance where ʾerets by itself cannot mean exhaustive totality (see Gen 10:11 – Shinar is the referent; Gen 12:7, 10; 13:7, 17; 15:18; 23:15; etc. etc.). The word for “mountain” in the flood account (har) is used elsewhere of a hill or, in general terms, something quite smaller than Everest (Gen 22:14; 36:8 [Edom]; Josh 13:19; 2 Kings 1:9; 23:13; Jer 3:6; Hagg 1:8 [trees don’t grow on very high mountains]). Even “high” doesn’t help much as a qualifier, as it begs the question, “How high is high?” Consequently, in response to the water covering “all the earth a local flood theorist would say, “Yep, the water covered the entire / all the earth in that region.” – and add that their view is defensible because of the *limitations* of the phrase “all” + noun elsewhere and their context argument (see below).
Word Combinations (“all” + noun) Found in the Flood Story That Do Not Speak of Exhaustive Totality Elsewhere
Here are some examples where the vocabulary of Genesis 6-8 (individual words or combinations or phrases) show up elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible where “all encompassing” interpretation isn’t coherent or even possible. In many such instances, the language is hyperbole or that of naked eye observation.
Combination of כֹּל (kōl; “all”) and אֶרֶץ (ʾerets; “earth, land”)
The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole (כֹּל) land (אֶרֶץ) of Havilah, where there is gold. (Are we really being asked to believe that every place in Havilah was infiltrated by this river? Or that a river surrounded the entire land? If so, the Bible would be in error when it comes to Havilah.
And the name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole (כֹּל) land (אֶרֶץ) of Cush (Ditto the above)
1 Sam 14:25
And all (כֹּל) the land (אֶרֶץ) entered the forest, and there was honey on the ground. The word כֹּל presumes “people” here – but are we really to believe that every last person of the land of Israel entered into this single forest?
The whole (כֹּל) earth (אֶרֶץ) is at rest and is quiet … Really? No human or animal in the entire earth was making a sound?
Genesis 13:9 (Abraham to Lot)
Is not the whole (כֹּל) land (אֶרֶץ) before you? – No, Lot wasn’t looking at the entire globe, nor could he.
And the people of all (כֹּל) the earth (אֶרֶץ) came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph . . . Did everyone in the Mediterranean come? China? India? North America? Again, the hyperbole is obvious.
Judges 6:37 (Gideon)
Behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all (כֹּל) the ground (אֶרֶץ), then I will know that Thou wilt deliver Israel through me – “all the ground” refers to a small portion of land in the area where Gideon was.
1 Samuel 13:3
Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout all (כֹּל) the land (אֶרֶץ), saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” – Obviously, Saul didn’t blow a trumpet loud enough for everyone on the globe to hear it (nor could he send trumpeters throughout all the earth).
2 Samuel 18:8
For the battle there was spread over the whole (כֹּל) land (אֶרֶץ) … (This battle didn’t take place in every portion of the entire globe).
1 Kings 10:24
And all (כֹּל) the earth (אֶרֶץ) was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart. (Everyone in the Mediterranean come? The Chinese? The people of Easter Island? Native American tribes? Again, the hyperbole is obvious.
Combination of כֹּל (kōl; “all”) and בָּשָׂר (bāśār; “flesh”)
There are several instances where this combination cannot logically refer to every human on the planet (you can look them up — that will promote study!):
Ps 65:2 – What about people on the other side of the world?
Isa 40:5 – Is everyone awake at the same time? When this passage is quoted in the NT, it isn’t used for a universal reference, otherwise we’d have to adopt universalist salvation (which has serious problems).
Isa 66:23-24 – How will every person in the world (v. 23) see these bodies (v. 24)?
Jer 25:31 – God is judging the nations, not Israel, here, so it isn’t every person on earth.
Ezek 20:48 – The fire is in the Negeb (v. 47), so is every human being gathered to the Negeb to see this fire?
Ezek 21:4 – What about east and west? (The context and geographical reference of north and south refer to Israel, and so not all the people of the entire planet).
Joel 2:28 – Not everyone received the Holy Spirit when this passage was (at least partially) fulfilled in Acts 2. And not every person will be saved, either.
The Contextual Argument
What about context? Context is king for interpretation. Context always dictates word meaning. So what is the right context for reading the flood account? Many (oddly) think Gen 1:1-3 is the context for the flood account. But why? There’s a better one — and one that is pretty explicit.
A regional flood theorist would direct you to Genesis 10 as the context for the flood account asking, What is “the world” to the biblical writer? Answer: Genesis 10. That chapter lists out all the nations descended from Noah’s sons. They cover only the Mediterranean and ancient Near East. There is no knowledge of Australia, China, Japan, North America, South America, etc. Hence they would take the language of Gen 6-8 and simply argue that, to the writer, the account covered all the known land masses, but the real-time event wasn’t global.
They would then take you to “all the earth” in Gen 9:19. Look at it carefully: “These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.”
Since the sons of Noah produced all the nations of Genesis 10, and those nations do not represent the totality of the globe, Genesis 10 = “the whole earth.” The point is the phrase “all the earth” is getting defined in this verse as the places populated by the descendants of the sons of Noah. Those places are listed in Genesis 10, and that very obviously don’t add up to the entire planet.
The contextual argument helps the local-regional theorist to parse phrases like “the whole heaven.” They’d ask the obvious question: Did Noah see the sky over Australia? North America? Or just as far as the eye could see – covering tens of thousands of square miles? A local-regional theorist would point out that a flood of that magnitude (hundreds of thousands, even millions of square miles — but not the entire globe) is unprecedented and accounts for the language and the real-time experience of Noah.
The lesson here is that those who prefer a global flood reading of Gen 6-8 need to avoid calling those who don’t “unbiblical” in their position, or arguing “from science against the Bible” when taking a local-regional view. The above has nothing to do with science. It’s a text-based approach. So, if we’re going to argue about the biblical account of the flood, let’s do that from the text, not personal attacks.