Sunday, September 1, 2013

Introduction to the flood

Before commenting on the specifics of the flood account, a few preliminary observations are in order:
i) A basic purpose of the grammatico-historical method is to read a text from the past through the eyes of someone from that time and place. To set aside our modern preconceptions, our modern points of reference, and assume the viewpoint of the author and his target audience. 
When reading the flood account, our default perspective is to begin with the present, then extrapolate back in time and space from the present to the past. We take our view of the world as our frame of reference. We unconsciously (or even consciously) map that onto the ancient text. 
But this is backwards. We have to ask ourselves what the landmarks would represent to the ancient audience. What was their sense of scale? What was their frame of reference? What was their geopolitical center and circumference? 
Modern readers tend to have one of two reactions when reading the flood account. Either they say, "A global flood is impossible, therefore the flood must be local!" or, "A global flood is impossible, therefore the Bible must be wrong!"
But we can't prejudge whether the account depicts a local or global flood based on considerations extraneous to the text. We have to construe the text on its own terms, consistent with narrative clues, intertextual parallels, Pentateuchal usage, and the background knowledge of the original audience–insofar as we can reconstruct their cultural preunderstanding. That's grammatico-historical exegesis in a nutshell. 
The narrator wrote to be understood. So we have to ask how the target audience would likely understand his references. We need to clear our minds of our modern cultural conditioning.
What might be "worldwide" from the viewpoint of the original audience might be more limited from our own vantage-point. This wasn't written to readers living in North America. 
Conversely, what's impossible in a closed universe is not impossible–or even improbable–in a theistic universe. 
ii) Some critics say there's no evidence for a global flood. Some critics also say there's no evidence for a local flood within the ancient Near Eastern timeline of the narrative. 
However, the narrative doesn't give a calendar date for the flood. The closest it comes to dating the flood is to correlate the onset of the flood with Noah's age at the time of the flood. But we don't know Noah's birthdate.
iii) Christians need to avoid two opposing mistakes when reading the account. On the one hand, some Christians discount a global interpretation in advance because they think a worldwide flood is unscientific. However, we have to let the text speak for itself. We can't gag the text due to extraneous concerns. It means whatever it means. The converse error is to superimpose our modern map of the world onto the ancient text.
Let's consider the major arguments for the global flood interpretation. In so doing, we're simultaneously considering the arguments for the local flood interpretation, inasmuch as these are logical alternatives:

1) Universal quantifiers

Flood geologists appeal to universal quantifiers in the flood account to prove the universality of the flood. But that's inconclusive:

i) Even flood geologists exempt marine life, despite the universal quantifiers.

ii) In Pentateuchal usage, universal quantifiers can have a geographically restrictive scope. Let's take some examples:

12 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land—all that the hail has left.” 13 So Moses stretched out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind on the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. 14 And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt and rested on all the territory of Egypt. They were very severe; previously there had been no such locusts as they, nor shall there be such after them. 15 For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they ate every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left. So there remained nothing green on the trees or on the plants of the field throughout all the land of Egypt (Exod 10:12-15, NKJV). 
Exod 10:15 mentions the "whole earth," but in context it is clearly referring to the land of Egypt. 
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 (Deut 2:25). 
Although this mentions people-groups "under the whole heaven," in context this is clearly selects for Israel's neighbors. 
For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? (Deut 5:26).
Although this mentions "all flesh," in context it is clearly selects for humans in particular, not biological organisms in general. 
Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth (Gen 41:57). 
Although this mentions "all the earth," in context this is clearly referring to people from famine-stricken lands surrounding Egypt. They didn't come from Iceland, Hawaii, Zimbabwe, Japan, Paraguay, or the Yukon to fetch grain from Egypt and take it home.   
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there (Gen 11:1-2).
Although this mentions "the whole earth," in context it is clearly referring to immigrants from somewhere west of Sumer. They didn't ford the Amazon, cross the Rockies, or sail across the Pacific or Atlantic oceans to get there. That's not what's in view.  
Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground (Gen 2:5, NASB). 
Taking the "earth" in a planetary sense makes this harder to harmonize with Gen 1. Since the word (eretz) can mean "land" as well as "earth," and since the context is arguably local (i.e. the garden of Eden), some translations (e.g. ESV) rightly opt for "land" (i.e. land of Eden) rather than "earth." 
The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land [eretz] of Havilah, where there is gold (Gen 2:11).The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land [eretz] of Cush (Gen 2:13).
Although both verses say the "whole earth (eretz)," they mean "earth" in a local sense. 
Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me (Num 22:5,11).

Clearly the newly-liberated Israelites didn't occupy the entire globe. Indeed, at that time they were confined to the Sinai desert. 

And they shall cover the face of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth (Exod 10:5, NKJV).

Clearly the plague of locusts was directed at the land of Egypt, and not the planetary earth. 
Indeed, the plagues of Egypt provide striking comparison. Like the flood, these utilize natural disasters as a form of divine judgment. And they also employ categorical language. Compare these statements back-to-back
Fifth plague:
Behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks…And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died (Exod 9:3,6).
Seventh plague:
19 “Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.” 20 Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, 21 but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his slaves and his livestock in the field.22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field (Exod 9:19-25).
Tenth plague
29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock (Exod 12:29).
Even though the terminology in the fifth plague appears to be all-inclusive, it makes exception for subsequent plagues. For if all the livestock perish in the fifth plague, there'd be no leftover livestock to perish in the seventh plague. And if all the (remaining) livestock perish in the seventh plague, there'd be no leftover livestock to perish in the tenth plague. So the universal quantifiers are hyperbolic.  
Another problem with pressing universal quantifiers is that, taken strictly, this suggests a flat-earth:
For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die (Gen 6:17).And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered (Gen 7:19).
If all creatures and all mountains are literally under the sky, then that conjures up the image of the earth as a floor under the ceiling of the sky. But flood geologists usually regard this depiction as phenomenological. How the world appears to an earthbound observer, looking up at the sky. From that local perspective, the "earth" is underfoot while the sky is overhead. If the earth is round, then it's not under the sky, but surrounded by sky (Poythress 2006).
The fact that universal quantifiers don't always have a universal range of reference doesn't mean they never have a universal range of reference. It just means they don't have a default range of reference. Their intended scope must be contextually determined. 
2) The depth of the flood

Flood geologists measure the depth of the flood by the height of the mountains (Gen 7:19-20; 8:5). But there are problems with that appeal:

i) The appeal is equivocal. Flood geologists don't think the prediluvian mountains were the same as the postdiluvian mountains. They think the postdiluvian mountains were higher (Snelling 2009). But in that case, they can't use index mountains (e.g. Mt Ararat) to gauge the depth of the flood when the "mountains" lack a consistent referent. 

ii) What mountains is the text referring to? All the mountains of the whole world? But that violates grammatico-historical exegesis, for that identification relies on information that wasn't available to the original audience. They knew nothing about the Alps, Andes, Rockies, or Hindu Kush–to name a few.  

The ostensible audience for the flood account is Jews who resided in the Nile Delta before they were liberated. They had been there for generations.  About 400 years. The newly-liberated slaves have some exposure to mountains in the central and south Sinai peninsula. They hadn't seen any mountains or foothills in Mesopotamia. Neither had their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. So their frame of reference is pretty limited. In reading a text from the past, we need to project ourselves into the situation of the original readers. 

Of course, if the flood was global, then it would be global despite the geographical ignorance of the ancient reader. These hermeneutical constraints pose no constraints on the objective nature of the event. It was whatever it was. But they do constrain what we are entitled to impute to the text. Even if there may be more to it than that, we are not at liberty to substitute different landmarks based on modern world geography. 

All the mountains of the known world? If so, that automatically shifts the narrative viewpoint to a local perspective. The "world" geography which the original audience was familiar with. 

Also keep in mind that Gen 8:5 parallels Gen 1:9. That's the intertextual frame of reference. 

3) The duration of the flood

i) Flood geologists say a local flood wouldn't last a year. But that objection cuts both ways. If that's too long for a local flood, then it's too short for a global flood. In the case of a global flood, there's nowhere for the water to go. So the waters would never abate. 

Of course, flood geologists postulate special drainage mechanisms, but that expedient loses the simple appeal to the duration of the flood to determine the scale of the flood. 

ii) In addition, flood geologists tend to assert that a local flood wouldn't last a year, rather than explaining why that's the case. I'm no expert, but if a floodplain is enclosed by natural barriers (like hillsides), and there's a logjam downstream, wouldn't that be like plugging a bathtub? What if the water backs up because more water keeps gushing in, but there's no outlet (which generates counter-currents)?  

Likewise, isn't the drainage rate related to the gradient?

Once the surface of the land there [Mesopotamia] had been inundated, the comparatively high water table could sustain a flood for a considerable period of time (NIDBA).

The Mesopotamian alluvial plain is one of the flattest places on earth. The surface of the plain 240 miles (400 km) inland from the head of the Gulf is less than 60 feet (20 m) above sea level,25 and at An Nasiriyah, the water level of the Euphrates is only eight feet (<3 m) above sea level, even though the river still has to cover a distance of more than 95 miles to Basra (Fig. 1). Once As Samawah and Al ‘Amarah are passed, the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are lost in an immense marshland-lake region (Fig. 1), where water flows very slowly to the Persian Gulf. During spring this whole region—from the Euphrates east to the Tigris—can become severely inundated.26 The level surface of the plain and shallow river beds of the Euphrates and Tigris, which offer the right conditions for irrigation,27 can also cause immediate, widespread flooding. And, however difficult it is to get water to the land via irrigation canals, it is just as difficult to get it off the land when it floods.28 Before any dams were built (before ~1920), about two-thirds of the whole area of southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) could be underwater in the flood season from March to August.29

4) The size of the ark

Flood geologists say the ark is too large for a local flood. But that objection cuts both ways. If it's too large for a local flood, then it's too small for a global flood. It doesn't seem big enough to accommodate every kind of bird or land animal.

Flood geologists field that challenge by postulating explosive postdiluvial speciation, but that expedient loses the simple appeal to the size of the ark to determine the scale of the flood.

5) The purpose of the ark

Flood geologists say the ark would be pointless if the flood was merely local. With advance warning, Noah's family could evacuate the flood zone ahead of time. And animals outside the flood zone would repopulate the flood zone. However, that objection is deceptively simple:

i) Strictly speaking, the ark is unnecessary to protect Noah's family and the animals during a global flood. God could miraculously protect them, the way he miraculously shielded Daniel's friends in the furnace (cf. Dan 3:19-27). 

ii) The ark is emblematic as well as utilitarian. A floating temple. As one scholar observes:

The three stories of the ark correspond to the three stories of the world conceptualized as divided into the heaven above, the earth below, and the sphere under the earth, associated especially with the waters (cf. e.g. Exod 20:4; Deut 4:16ff.; Rom 1:23)…Clearly, the window of the ark is the counterpart to "the window of heaven," referred to in this very narrative (7:11; 8:2). Appropriately, the window area is located along the top of the ark, as part of the upper (heavenly) story (Kline 1989). 
Moreover, the covering of the ark (Gen 8:13) prefigures the hide covering of the tabernacle (Exod 26:14; 36:19; Num 3:25).

Furthermore, the ark foreshadows an incident in the life of Moses, when his mother put him in a watertight basket, by the riverbank, where the Egyptian princess used to bathe. 

6) The purpose of the flood

Flood geologists say a local flood is inconsistent with the stated purpose of the flood: to execute judgment on all sinners, as well as animals. However, there are some tensions in that argument:

i) Animals aren't sinners. So destroying every animal is secondary to the primary purpose of the flood.

ii) It isn't necessary to submerge mountain ranges to kill off the animals. If the floodwaters rose to the tree line, anything above the tree line would eventually perish from starvation or exposure. 

7) Fossil distribution

Flood geologists say an anthropologically universal flood is equivalent to a geographically universal flood, given the global distribution of human fossils antedating the flood. 

However, that argument cuts both ways. For the age of those fossils is much older, according to conventional dating techniques, than flood geologists are willing to concede. In addition, flood geologists routinely contest the identification of "early human" fossils.

8) Widespread flood traditions

Flood geologists appeal to widespread flood traditions to corroborate a global flood. But that's difficult to assess:

i) There's a difference between universal flood traditions and traditions of a universal flood. 

ii) Cultural diffusion can account for common, far-flung traditions. As the survivors of the flood migrated from Ararat to other parts of the world, they thereby disseminated the story of the flood. 

At the same time, we also need a critical edition of flood traditions. We need sources with dates. James Frazer is not a reliable resource. 

iii) Conversely, it's striking that we don't have flood traditions from Egypt or Ugarit, even though we do have flood traditions from Mesopotamia that are clearly reminiscent of the Genesis account. That evidence points to a flood centered in Mesopotamia. 

iv) Appealing to flood traditions around the world to multiply attest a global flood generates a paradox. If the flood was global, then you can't have truly independent local reports by observers from different parts of the world who witnessed the flood firsthand at the time it overlook their part of the world. For, in the nature of the case, those observers perished in the flood. The only witnesses who lived to tell the story were the eight passengers on the ark. Even if there were humans in North and South America at the time, they didn't survive to share their experience or pass that along to posterity. All flood traditions, if authentic, trace back to the same point of origin. 

Of course, flood geologists don't assume that postdiluvian islands and continents correspond to the prediluvian islands and continents. I simply use "North and South America" to illustrate a principle. They can function as placeholders.  

9) The rainbow

Flood geologists contend that if the flood was local, then God has often broken his promise to never again flood the earth (Gen 9:8-17). However, that argument simply revisits the issue of how we should construe eretz: does it mean the (planetary) earth, or does it mean the "land"? 

10) The flood and the parousia
Flood geologists contend that Peter's comparison between the flood and the Parousia (2 Pet 3:3-7; cf. Mt 24:37) implies the universality of the flood. If the day of judgment is universal, so is the flood. 
i) But that's equivocal. The day of judgment isn't just a terrestrial event. Fallen angels will also be judged.
ii) Moreover, Peter's usage is more qualified. As one commentator notes: 
The phrase "ancient world" may suggest that Peter is thinking here of a universal flood that submerged the entire globe. But in the latter part of the verse, Peter uses the word we translate "world" again (kosmos), but this time he qualifies it as "the world of the ungodly people"…As often in the Bible, "world" refers to human beings rather than the earth itself (Moo 1996). 
iii) Furthermore, the Parousia involves time as well a space. It terminates fallen world history. It makes an epochal change from the fallen world order to the new world order. 
11) Population explosion
Flood geologists contend the longevity and fecundity of the prediluvians would result in a population explosion, leading to mass migration (Snelling 2009). 
i) However, that's, at best, a possible inference from Genesis. Genesis never says anything about a population explosion or mass migration.
Gen 2:10-14 situates Eden somewhere in Mesopotamia. So that would be the epicenter of human population. Man would migrate from that focal point.

And the ark lands in northern Mesopotamia (Gen 8:4). That would be consistent with a flood that originates in Mesopotamia. The diluvial point of origin would correspond to the human point of origin. The scope of the flood would correspond to the biogeography of human dispersion at that stage of human history, where man radiates out from Eden, but is still confined to the ancient Near east–which would also be consistent with the Table of Nations (Gen 10).

ii) In addition, the genealogies don't indicate a population explosion. Prediluvians only begin fathering children at an advanced age, and few offspring are recorded. Of course, it's quite possible that the genealogies are very selective. However, some creationists reaffirm the 6000-year-age of the earth by defending closed genealogies. 
12) The "fountains of the deep"
Flood geologists contend that this phrase indicates "vast geological disturbances" that are inconsistent with a local flood (Snelling 2009). 
i) This appeal is circular. Because rainwater is inadequate to supply a global deluge, flood geologists have to make the "fountains of the deep" the major source of floodwaters. So they don't really construe the extent of the flood from the "fountains of the deep." Rather, they construe the "fountains of the deep" from the extent of the flood. They take the universality of the flood as axiomatic, then interpret the "fountains of the deep" accordingly, since that's their only recourse.
ii) They overinterpret the "fountains of the deep" by reinterpreting that phrase according to their postulated flood mechanisms. That's not exegesis. 
iii) Commentators generally regard the phrase as poetic. It clearly alludes to the creation account. It represents the "waters below" in contrast to the "waters above." Based on passages like Deut 4:18, this probably carries the mundane sense that lakes, rivers, and oceans are lower than dry land. That's what makes the dry land dry. It's higher than bodies of water. Swollen rivers overflowing their banks would be quite consistent with this usage. It could also include spring water. 

Cyclonic Storms. The “Land of the Five Seas” refers to the lands encompassed by the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Red Sea, and Arabian Sea.1 This entire region is (and has been for thousands of years) controlled by the Asiatic pressure system.

Storm Surge. There is the possibility that a storm surge (in addition to rainfall and snow melt) may have helped maintain flooding in the southern part of Mesopotamia. Storm surges are where a low-pressure meteorological system causes high winds and tides, which can drive sea- water inland for hundreds of miles.

In conclusion, we didn't live during the time of Moses. What was common knowledge for the original audience isn't common knowledge for you and me. Likewise, we didn't live just before, right after, or during the flood. Given our distance from the original event as well as the historical horizon of the original audience, I think the most prudent course of action is to make allowance for both local and global interpretations of the text.

Kline, M., Kingdom Prologue (1989), 156.

Moo, D., 2 Peter, Jude (Zondervan 1996), 103n5.

Poythress, V., Redeeming Science (Crossway 2006), 127.

Snelling, A. Earth's Catastrophic Past (ICR 2009).

"Flooding," The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan 1983), 194.