Monday, September 12, 2011

The Flood: Planetary Submersion or Local Phenomenon?

The next step in determining the plausibility of Noah’s ark and the flood is to answer the question “is Genesis referring to the entire planet, or just part of the planet?”

There are several Hebrew words in Genesis 6 that are translated ‘the earth.’

1) ground, land
1a) ground (as general, tilled, yielding sustenance)
1b) piece of ground, a specific plot of land
1c) earth substance (for building or constructing)
1d) ground as earth's visible surface
1e) land, territory, country
1f) whole inhabited earth
1g) city in Naphtali,

Urah and Urab
1) land, earth
1a) earth
1a1) whole earth (as opposed to a part)
1a2) earth (as opposed to heaven)
1a3) earth (inhabitants)
1b) land
1b1) country, territory
1b2) district, region
1b3) tribal territory
1b4) piece of ground
1b5) land of Canaan, Israel
1b6) inhabitants of land
1b7) Sheol, land without return, (under) world
1b8) city (-state)
1c) ground, surface of the earth
1c1) ground
1c2) soil
1d) (in phrases)
1d1) people of the land
1d2) space or distance of country (in measurements of distance)
1d3) level or plain country
1d4) land of the living
1d5) end(s) of the earth
1e) (almost wholly late in usage)
1e1) lands, countries
1e1a) often in contrast to Canaan

At this point it seems that there are two possible interpretations of ‘the earth’ in Genesis 6.

1. The entire planet
2. A part of the planet

Much debate could go into which is the better interpretation, but I don’t think it matters. The reason for this is that even if ‘a part of the planet’ is a better interpretation, the water had to be at least deep enough to cover Mount Ararat.

And why, you ask, did I just bring up Mount Ararat? Great question! The answer lies in chapter 7 of Genesis:

Genesis 7:19-24 (Net)
“The waters completely inundated the earth so that even all the high mountains under the entire sky were covered. The waters rose more than twenty feet above the mountains. And all living things that moved on the earth died, including the birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all humankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. So the Lord destroyed every living thing that was on the surface of the ground, including people, animals, creatures that creep along the ground, and birds of the sky. They were wiped off the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark survived. The waters prevailed over the earth for 150 days.”

So, the water was more than 20 feet higher than the mountains, and this depth was maintained for 150 days. Mount Ararat has an elevation of 5,137 m (It is the 48th highest peak in the world). This means that even if Genesis 6 is referring to a flood in one part of the world, that flood had to rise up to at least 5,137 m (+ 20 feet) above sea level across the entire planet.

Note: It has not escaped my attention that the height of Mt. Ararat could have changed since the time of the flood. The thing is a volcano, after all (and one which has been active since the time of the flood). I am going to overlook this variable for now and return to it as soon as possible (maybe you could find some geo-historical data and send it to me!)

For now I think it is safe to assume that the water of the flood must have been at least 5000 meters above present day sea level. Because fluids fill the shape of their container, anything on the entire planet under 5000 meters would have been submerged.

Here is a map of the earth with an elevation scale included (see citation). If a flood deep enough to cover Mt. Ararat took place, then the vast majority of the planet would have been covered by water. Only the darkest of the red areas would have stuck out over the surface (If you can't see the numbers on the scale, click on the link at the bottom of the picture).

What is the point of all of this? Even if the Hebrew words in Genesis for ‘earth’ should be interpreted as a ‘local flood of a specific area,’ that ‘local flood’ would have been over 5000 meters deep. Therefore, basically the entire earth would have been covered by water anyway.


Question- Is it possible to interpret the flood in Genesis as being a local event?

Answer- No, the water had to have been over 5000 meters deep, which would have submerged basically the entire planet underwater no matter how you interpret Genesis 6.

The best intepretation of 'a flood that covered the earth' in Genesis is defined by Genesis 7: 'a flood that was deep enough to cover all of the mountains in the area by at least 20 feet' (which means that the water was at least that deep everywhere else on the planet as well). A safe bet for this depth is about 5000 meters above present day sea level.


Michael Pidwirny (Lead Author);Galal Hassan Galal Hussein (Topic Editor) "Mountain". In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth July 18, 2010; Last revised Date July 18, 2010; Retrieved September 12, 2011 <>
There are several Hebrew words in Genesis 6 that are translated ‘the earth.’


  1. I question why you choose Mt. Ararat as your benchmark. The text you cite mentions mountains but twenty feet is a very exact number in comparison to a colossal peak of that size.

    Also I think you should also examine exactly how the story of Noah has made its way through history. If the story was passed through oral tradition, a person used to the coast could have described something that another person may have interpreted very differently.

    And then finally there's also the possibility that the story of the flood is used to describe something very different than the literal interpretation. It could be a means of explaining the evidence of marine life often found on mountain peaks (because the peaks were once at the bottom of the ocean). Extinctions are very real and I'm inclined to believe the bible got that right, just its authors didn't quite understand it as we do today.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jeff!

    The text says: "The waters completely inundated the earth so that even all the high mountains under the entire sky were covered. The waters rose more than twenty feet above the mountains."

    I simply take this to mean that the water covered all the mountains.

    An argument has been made that the flood was a local phenomena, so I picked the highest peak that was in the area of the events (modern day Turkey).

    This peak, at the top of Mt. Ararat, falls under the category of "all the high mountains."

    I simply concluded that the water must have been about as high as Mt. Ararat (if you wanted to get specific, you could say it was 20 feet higher than Mt. Ararat).

    If you already think that the flood was global in nature, then you would agree with the conclusion of this post even more than I do.

  3. Jeff,
    After reading over my post again I see that I did not point out the relevance of Mt. Ararat very well. I was assuming too high of a level of familiarity with the topic.

    If my previous comment did not provide an adequate explanation, let me know and I will clarify!

  4. Jeff,
    This comment is in response to your second two paragraphs.

    I am currently examining the stance of Biblical inerrancy. I'm seeing if what the text says actually could have hapenned. If there are discrepencies between the Bible and what took place in history, then the historicity of the Bible is weakened.

    By reading Genesis, one will find that the author is writing as a historian. The best interpretation of the accounts is that they are narrations of actual historical events, unlike the psalms which are highly poetic, or the parables in which case the audience assumes that the story never actually happenned.

    I don't see how your last three sentences relate to what this post is about.

    Sorry for blasting you with so many response comments! Thank you for your input.


  5. My last three sentences kind of fit in with your last comment. I think whether the Bible is inerrant or not depends on how big you want your error bars to be. For example, scientists for centuries understood the wave-nature of light and postulated that it must then propagate through a medium (dubbed luminiferous aether). They were of course completely wrong on this but their observations were not wrong, just their explanation. If you hold the author of Genesis to a very loose standard and claim that he was merely explaining what appeared to be evidence for a great flood, then his observation is 100% true; we find evidence of fish on the highest peaks.

    Also, one must ask how did the author know about the flood. With what evidence did he make the statement that all the earth's mountains were covered? Could a real work of God have happened but have been misinterpreted or its scale misidentified? In other words, I think there are scales for error and perhaps certain parts of the bible measure up to some scales but not others.

  6. Jeff,
    Sorry it took me so long to respond! School is really heating up.

    The stance I am examining at this point is that of Biblical inerrancy. If you do not consider the Bible to contain material that did not necessarily take place in history, then my writing on this topic won't apply to the way you think. We have no disagreement- I'm just exploring the question 'Is the Bible historically perfect?' If the Bible is historically perfect, then what Genesis says about Noah should be a logistical possibility. If the account of Noah and the flood is impossible, then I will have discovered an error, which will bring me to the place that you are currently in, if I am not mistaken about your stance.

    Thanks for commenting Jeff! I hope to hear from you again on this post and elsewhere!

  7. Oh no worries... I'm in the same boat as you (no pun intended).

    But I guess that answers my question, you are looking for absolute, verbatim historical accounts in the bible, correct? The far end of the historicity spectrum I guess. I guess my worry is that if some people discount the fact that the bible is inerrant, and then jump to the conclusion that therefore it must be patently false. If one relaxes one's definition of error to 'completely fabricated' as opposed to 'not completely true', there are a number of areas one could say the bible got it kind of right but not completely right.

    Forgive me for not following the blog more closely but have you discussed the potential consequences of error in the bible yet to its interpretation as the Word of God? Let me know when you do :-D

  8. Indeed- I am looking for verbatim historical accounts in the Bible. I have not done a post on the potential consequences of error in the bible with relation to it's interpretation as the Word of God yet- but that certainly is a vital topic! I will certainly let you know when that goes down.