And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. — Genesis 7:19 (ESV)
Many Christians point to the universal nature of some verses in the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9 to prove that the flood must have been global in extent. For instance, Genesis 6:13 states,
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
We also read,
The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.
How do old-Earth Christians who hold to a local (rather than global) flood interpret these passages? The answer is by using standard tools of hermeneutics (interpretation), including examining what the text does and does not say, and by comparing Scripture to Scripture. I would like to focus right now on the “let Scripture interpret Scripture” aspect of hermeneutics.
There are a number of passages in the Old Testament (and even in the New Testament) where “all the earth” does not mean “all the earth.” Here are the main ones:
- Genesis 41:57 — Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. — In this case, does “all the earth” mean “all the earth,” or does it mean a widespread area in the Eastern Mediterranean? Most Bible scholars take this as a figure of speech, not as a literal statement. People came from far away, such as from Canaan, but not necessarily from Spain. I was having a conversation with someone about this passage a few months ago, and I asked him if he believed that people from every nation, from the Eskimos to the Zulus, showed up to buy grain from Joseph. He answered that he believed it was a literal “all the earth,” but that mankind had not yet dispersed very far following the Tower of Babel.
- Deuteronomy 2:25 — This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’ — Did the Incas and Chinese hear reports about the Exodus, or again, is “the peoples who are under the whole heaven” to be taken in some sense figuratively?
- 1 Kings 18:10 — There is no nation or kingdom where my lord [King Ahab] has not sent to seek you. — Did Ahab send emissaries to Japan and Zimbabwe to look for Elijah? If I were a hyper-literalist, I would have to say that he did.
- 2 Chronicles 9:23 — And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. — Do I have to affirm that leaders of the Australian Aborigines showed up in Jerusalem to listen to Solomon?
- Jeremiah 27:7 — All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson. — God said that “all the nations” shall serve Nebuchadnezzar. Does this mean that there is some gap in our historical knowledge; a period of time when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire stretched from Los Angeles to London to Tokyo, and from Murmansk to the Cape of Good Hope? Or was God using a figure of speech?
- Dan 4:22 — It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. — As in Jer 27:7, does the Bible teach that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire covered the entire planet? (see also Daniel 5:19).
- Zephaniah 1:2 — “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (also see v. 18) — Is this teaching the destruction of the entire Earth, or a more limited judgement on unfaithful Israel and the surrounding nations?
- Similar “universal” passages can be found in the New Testament — Luke 2:1 (all the world to be registered), John 12:19 (the Pharisees were concerned that the whole world was going to Jesus), Acts 2:5 (Jews were present at Pentecost from every nation under heaven), Colossians 1:23 (the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven).
In each case a more natural reading of the text is something other than “all the Earth.” Only if we bring a rigid, overly-literalistic hermeneutic to the passages do we end up with things like Ahab’s servants trekking through the Himalayas looking for Elijah.
In many ways, Hebrew functions like other languages. It is not a Vulcan-like tongue where everything is mechanical and logical, lacking in word pictures or hyperbole. In English, if we say “everyone is doing it,” we don’t literally mean “everyone,” unless we are talking about something like breathing. So if I say, “everyone in America likes McDonalds,” most people would not take that to mean “everyone in America likes McDonalds.” The same is true in the foreign language I know best, Romanian. The phrase “toată lumea” literally means “all the world,” which translates into English as “everyone.” If I were to say toată lumea likes going to the beach, I would literally be saying that the whole world likes going to the beach, but I would really mean that many or most people like going to the beach, or most people I know like going to the beach.
I hope that I have demonstrated that “all the Earth” usually does not mean “all the Earth” in the Old Testament. The question then becomes: can we apply this knowledge (letting Scripture interpret Scripture) to the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9? Are the universal phrases in the passage to be taken in a “literalistic” sense, or is there room for reading these as figures of speech? I believe I can show that much of the universal imagery of Genesis 6-9 is indeed hyperbolic, and that the passage can be read naturally as a very large, but still limited flood that appeared universal from Noah’s perspective in the middle of it all. I will save that discussion for another time.
Grace and Peace.