The Problem with the Flood

Once you allow for an old earth and evolution of humankind, I think there are ways of looking at Adam that are a combination of literal and allegorical elements that do not conflict with scientific evidence (see my July 25 post on “How do theistic evolutionists view the fall of man?”). My problem is with the flood. I don’t have a problem with the idea that it was a local flood - I understand that the translation of “kol erats” does not really indicate the entire globe, just the “land” which was known to Noah. If there was a catastrophic local flood, then scientific evidence must show a major population bottleneck. Science does show that there was a major population bottleneck between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, bringing the homo s.sapiens population down to between 3,000 to 10,000 individuals. It is not too hard to consider that it could have been 8 individuals who carried 5 DNA lines (Noah and his sons plus 4 wives).

I don’t even have a big problem with getting representative animals in the Ark, if they were only the subset of animals that were in the region of the flood.

However, this means that the flood happened about 50,000 or so years ago.The problem with that is that scientific evidence shows that humankind was not nearly advanced enough at that time to build a huge ark. How do we solve this problem?

I realize that one potential solution would be to move the flood to much later in history, but there is no evidence of a big population bottleneck to match. Besides, by this time humankind would have been disbursed around the globe. You would have to assume a smaller flood which only wiped out peoples in a regional area, not all people or even a sizable % of all people… At any rate, that scenario has some significant problems with it as well.

Any thoughts?

@DougK My first thought is that I hope you’re able to walk away and conclude with an “I don’t know.” :slight_smile: But as a fun thought experiment, I’m game. So, off the top of my head…

-Divine Revelation: Easily accepted in Christian circles, but I’m not sure about using this explanation if talking to somebody whose default is that there is no divine being.

-The theoretical flooding of the Black Sea. Still very much a contested theory but allows for a much more recent dating around 5600 BCE.

-Also, there is some evidence indicating that the Persian Gulf was potentially much lower and supported some of the oldest civilizations. That puts a possible flood event at about 7,000 B.C.E.

-I should note that I’m pulling my information from my popular sources (Wikipedia and LiveScience) so perhaps someone here can contribute a little more depth.

-I also find it interesting that Nimrod (2nd generation to be born after the flood) becomes THE founder of many recognized early city-states. It seems likely that the text assumes survivors other than Noah and his family.

-Finally, many of the traditions surrounding Melchizedek identify him as either Shem or a priest directly descended from Shem who then passes the priestly tradition to Abraham. Such a reading could indicate that God was preserving a priestly line descended from Adam and not the human species. Once again, not an area I’m spend a lot of time in so I’m spit-balling here. :slight_smile: Having a good weekend!



@DougK this is such a thoughtful set of questions. I think you are right that the Flood brings science/faith issues to the forefront in a clearer way than even Adam, Eden, or the Fall. Particularly, it illuminates a lot of our presuppositions about the nature and authority of Scripture.

A couple of months ago I was thinking about the exact phrase you mention—“tol eretz”—and it occurred to me that translating it as a portion of the Earth instead of the whole earth is a strange statement about the way in which that part of the Bible was inspired and written. I think we can agree that the author of Genesis did not (out of his own capacities) know about the modern globe. So what we’re saying is that God inspired him to use a phrase that softened the sense of “whole earth”, even though that’s what he himself was trying to convey (just so future generations could fuse together scripture and modern science?). Or perhaps he decided (on the Spirit’s urgings) to use the phrase just in case there was more of the globe than he thought, and the global flood he was recording was not, in fact, global? The more you think about it, the more acrobatic that interpretation gets. The far simpler option is to say that this story was meant to reference a global flood.

I also wonder whether our efforts to “find” the flood of Noah are equally acrobatic. What if someone said that the “Flood” was really referring to the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs? I mean, there’s no ark or Noah, but it was a global catastrophe that killed off an awful lot of creatures, right? Or if we found evidence of a local flood in South America where a man and his wife survived on a raft with their household animals, is that the flood of Noah? Or—to even push the analogy further—if we found evidence of a global flood about 4,500 years ago from which only a boat full of people and animals survived, would that be the flood of Noah? But what if the water in that case hadn’t risen to the top of the highest mountains, as Genesis indicates, or the “fountains of the deep” hadn’t ejected billions of gallons of water from a vast underground ocean (also, as Genesis indicates)? Is it still the flood of Noah? And what if the animals and people in this boat didn’t represent every species on earth? Still the biblical flood?

These are the perils of trying to find the scientific story “behind” the biblical story. It seems like the acrobatics are driven by an approach to Scripture wherein we read the text with a list of non-negotiable demands that the Bible must fulfill. That approach, when applied to Genesis, isn’t really reading the story with open ears (as much as it intends to). It’s trying to figure out what version of the story can best be promoted to TIMELESS TRUTH and promoted to other Christians as the one true infallible account of the Earth against which science is powerless.

As you might have guessed, I’m increasingly convinced this approach to Scripture creates more problems than it solves. My own approach, alternatively, is the following:

  1. I read the biblical text listening for what the author was trying to communicate in the original context
  2. I then ask, “how does this text help me understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?” (As a Christian, I read all of Scripture with Christ as the center of gravity).
  3. I then ask, “How has this text been applied to different contexts throughout church history? And how might I apply it to my context?”

Within this approach, I’m completely comfortable with the idea that the Genesis Flood is a poetic re-telling of ancient flood legends, told through the lens of what ancient Hebrews knew about God Almighty and the world around them. To put it bluntly, Genesis records a flood that didn’t happen. And I’m OK with that. For me, if a biblical text helps the community of faith understand Christ and his work and live as his Body, then it’s authoritative. And vice versa. A text doesn’t need to prove itself to be TIMELESS TRUTH (according to our modern definitions) before it can accomplish this.

Just my two cents.


I moved 6 posts to a new topic: The accuracy of global past human population estimates

Certainly, I don`t like your statement, Brad.

In my view, it is impossible for a story told as false history of Gods relationship with his created people, to help me understand Christ. It is impossible for a book to record something that didnt happen; that is not a record, but an imagination, or a revision, or a simple deception. The issue is not whether it is a timeless truth; the issue is whether it is true at all as told.

If a story of an imaginary flood, then it would induce me to understand God`s punishment and anger with people as also imaginary. The promise of the rainbow to never again flood the earth would also be imaginary. Your authority of the story does not come from the story, but from other precepts and ideas in your mind which you superimpose on the story. The story itself accomplishes none of this, and cannot accomplish it if it is itself deceptive in its essence. ``It never happened" Really

I am confused by just reading your question :smiley: I really wonder if some of this stuff will ever be known this side of the pond.

It seems like the subtext to the Flood story is that there was great evil in society that affected both man and beast and God was punishing wickedness. There also seems to be reference to interference from the heavenly realm whether you take this figuritively, historically, or a repurposing of pagan mythology-it all seems to point to judgement on a seriously violent society.

I think the important thing for me - and I hope for those of you who read this discussion line - is the search for truth, not being afraid to question the tradition we have been taught when it greatly contradicts the science. After all, real truth is God’s truth. And if we are Christians, the natural world as well as scripture are both from God. We need to move forward (seeking God’s guidance) where truth takes us.

I have been researching what BioLogos and its ‘leading lights’ have been saying about the flood. I’m finding it very interesting. If you are looking for information on the flood, then the following may also be of interest to you:
1. First, BioLogos has a summary on this subject regarding, How should we interpret the Genesis flood account? in <> It has a very good overview of the subject. It also notes the Adventist origins of young-earth creationism and the global flood. It seems that even mid-19th century fundamentalists did not see reasons to reject evolution (see also: Young earth creationism essentially began with Ellen Smith of the Seventh Day Adventists, who had visions in which she says she was shown new details on the 6 day creation and the global flood. That lead to a book by George Price, an Adventist, called The New Geology, claiming proof for a planet-wide flood. It was extensively used and updated in a popular 1961 book called The Genesis Flood by two fundamentalists, and thereby became a part of fundamentalist dogma.)
2. Former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation, Pete Enns, writes a series of posts about how closely the Biblical flood story parallels the flood stories from Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. He notes that it is possible that all of those stories may be based on local floods in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. The Biblical story contrasts the two other stories, with a story that shows one true God (as opposed an on-going belief in multiple gods) who was ridding the world of tremendous evil: (
3. In this series of posts by Paul Seely presents the view that the flood story is mostly theological, not historical: <> (BioLogos notes that what is in the article is not necessarily their view).

I’ve also again worked through the Internet reviewing the different issues with the flood. As I already knew, the idea of a global flood is untenable for many reasons as shown in this link from science educators: Interestingly, the same group did a much later report,, acknowledging the geological possibility of a regional Mesopotamian flood. However most of the problems with the flood story from the first article remain: construction of the ark, the animal issues, etc.

I’m not expecting a definitive answer. As @jlock says, I have to be able to say “I don’t know.” But, can we Christians proceed without at least some ‘plausible’ possibilities?

It seems to me that believers in science and Christianity, are left with the following options:

a) an incredible series of miracles for a regional catastrophic flood 40,000 to 75,000 years ago (when there is very strong scientific evidence of a major population bottleneck). This is what the Old Age Earth people at Reasons to Believe seem to believe. One of the biggest miracles would have been the detailed design and construction of a huge Ark bigger than anything that was built for many millennia after that, despite only rather primitive tools being possible at that time. Numerous other miracles related to the animals would also be necessary.
b) An almost entirely allegorical story (see #2 above about this and the allegorical lessons from the story). There have been some suggestions that the first 11 chapters of Genesis were a kind of poetic/allegorical type of language, while the later chapters were more historical. One of the problems with this allegorical option is that there are 5 references in the New Testament to the flood, including from Jesus himself, indicating a belief in the literal Noah and flood story.
c) A regional Mesopotamia (or Mediterranean/Black Sea) flood 2900 to 4000 years ago that only killed a relatively small, regional subset of humans and animals. I say “subset” of humankind, because at that time homo s. sapiens were very disbursed over the planet and there is no scientific evidence of a significant population bottleneck at that time. I can imagine it being partly literal and partly allegorical, just as I can conceive of a partly literal and partly allegorical Adam & Eve story. The nice thing about that is that some people can lean more to the literal side while others can lean more to the allegorical side.


One could justifiably say also that one should carefully examine scientific conclusions about natural history when they clearly conflict with scripture, which is a true and recorded account, and has been found to be true whenever apparent contradictions are raised.

Ascribing scripture to pagan myths or to adventists is pure revisionism, and does not deserve consideration. There is no justification for concluding that it is not exactly the other way around, ie. that the pagan myths are perverted derivatives of the true account, and that the adventist interpretation just happens in this case to agree with a commonly accepted christian interpretation. The common and numerous pagan mythséstories are evidence that something likely happened since although they are different, yet they are similar enough to demonstrate that it is likely one real event happened.

First, I have an intellectual problem with thinking that the Bible records history that is tens of thousands of years removed from us. (That it is describing the reasons for the observed population bottleneck over 50,000 years ago.) We just don’t see oral tradition surviving that long and being transmitted through that many language and cultural shifts. It just sounds super implausible to me.

So, I think the account is a literary retelling of an event in the history of the ancestors of Israel that is designed to reveal truth about them as a chosen people as well as the character and mission of God. I think Noah was a real person who had a covenant with Yahweh. I think the “facts” of the story are probably not meant to be taken as straight history in our modern conception of it, so I don’t lose too much sleep over trying to reconcile the measurements of the ark with the biodiversity of earth or the cubic meters of water that would be needed to cover the highest mountains, or the tracing of the genetic lineage of all humanity to Noah and his kids. I don’t think that is what we are supposed to do with Noah’s story.

When I read it as divinely inspired literature (not modern history), I see the repeated scriptural theme of God choosing a representative to mediate a way of salvation for his people. (These are themes we see repeated in the story of Abraham, of Joseph, of Moses, of David and culminated in Christ and reenacted in the Church.)

I see the repeated scriptural theme of someone being counted righteous because of their faithfulness to the one true God in the midst of idolatry and paganism, and counted righteous because of their faith in the word of the one true God. (Hebrews 11:7)

I see the repeated Scriptural theme of God making good on his promise to save, and sending his redeemed people out into the world to spread to ends of the earth the blessing of the knowledge of the one true God and membership in his covenant people.


Do you believe that Noah was a real person who had a life span of some 900 years? And worked on building a boat of that size at that advanced age?

No. I think the numbers used to give people’s ages in the Bible had symbolic or literary significance for their ancient audience that is mostly lost on us today.

There was an interesting post on it here a while back. Long Life Spans in Genesis: Literal or Symbolic? - Article - BioLogos

I’ve read similar treatments in other places.

I don’t believe that Achilles was dipped in the River Styx and made invincible except for his heel either, but I do believe that there was a conflict at some point in history between Troy and Greece. So maybe there was a local hero named Achilles who did brave stuff. Ancient history is usually mythologized to some extent. I don’t personally put the Bible in the same category as the Iliad and the Odyssey, but some of the same principles of literary analysis can apply to understanding it.

I don’t think the genre of much of Genesis is factual modern history reporting. I think it was intentionally crafted by the authors to serve other purposes, like unifying a people group and preserving distinctive religious beliefs in the face of multiculturalism.

Certainly agree with you. Thanks for the biologos link, I hadn’'t seen that one and I really enjoy J. Stump’s clear factual writings. I always learn something new from his work. Thanks

Certainly agree with you. Thanks for the biologos link, I hadn’'t seen that one and I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks

I have trouble believing that the flood story was entirely allegorical, especially since there are 5 references to it as a literal event in the New Testament, including by Jesus. I lean to the version that it was partially literal and partially allegorical local flood about 3000 years ago. But if we are allowing partially allegorical, then a catastrophic ‘known world’ flood 50,000 years ago (at least 1,000 years after Adam and Eve) is possible if you eliminate the big ark and large numbers of animals aspect.

Christy notes there could be a problem with the conveyance of the story over that amount of time.

That brings up another question. Some experts say that there were probably at least 4 individuals whose hands were in the writing of the Pentateuch, including some of whom use “Yahweh” for God’s name and others who use “Elohim.” You can also see some differences in the creation account in Genesis 1 vs Genesis 2. Were the original writers of Genesis inspired by God in such a way as they told what God wanted to convey or did they, or subsequent copiers, make up large parts of the stories?

By the way, I’ve heard some say they can’t believe that God would destroy almost all humankind in a flood. I hear that and the option of a local flood that only killed a portion of humankind makes it less dramatic. In addition, I think that we may not realize how incredibly evil humankind had become. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) Constant killings, rape, abuse of children, etc. Furthermore, there have been large natural disasters over history that probably killed more than the Genesis flood. Is it better to have our lives on earth prolonged to 80 -90 -100 years if we spend 10 of them with Alzheimer’s or 5 of them in very poor condition in a nursing home? A fair amount of people on earth now, especially in lands where ISIS reigns, it is far worse than that. Although it must have been
e terrifying, drowning is over pretty quickly and relatively free of great pain.

In our non-oral culture, the writers are the authors for the most part. In the oral cultures of the ancient world, entire communities participated in the composing, maintaining, passing down, refining, embellishing, re-framing and other “authoring” activities related to their cultural texts before these texts were ever recorded in written form.

I think it is a mistake to assume that the accounts recorded in Genesis were created or authored by the people who first wrote them down. The texts themselves probably had a long history in the culture before they were recorded. And the reasons they were recorded were probably not parallel to our cultural reasons for recording things in writing. In the ancient world, if you put something in writing, it was so it could go in the archives for safekeeping in case something happened to the people who knew and recited the stories. If you wanted to hear the history, you called in the people who told the history, you didn’t consult the scrolls. It was the designated story-tellers who held the authority associated with the text, not the written manuscript.

How you reconcile that reality with inspiration and infallibility is an interesting mental exercise. John Walton and Carlos Bovell have written some lay-person audience stuff on orality and literacy in the ancient world and how it relates to the authority of Scripture (Lost World of Scripture), if it interests you.

They say, “When we talk about the authority of Scripture, we can now see that we cannot construe authority around the idea that each book of the Bible was first constructed as a literary document—a book, by an author. . . . Some community of people, we believe under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined that certain individuals, as well as certain traditions unattached to specific individuals, had authority—God’s authority” (63).

Ièm not sure this is an intellectual problem, but a psychological problem. We have evidence of ancestries being preserved well through oral traditions in Africa for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. While it is not impossible for stories to change, the community preservation is also not unreasonable (if one person makes a mistake, another corrects him). But the desire for truth must exist, of course, otherwise the drama of myth and falsehood will overtake the true story.

The theme of a story does not really have anything to do with its truth… it does not give weight for a theory of superimposing falsifying the truth in order to enhance the theme. After all, if it is known to be false, then the theme begins to lose its weight.

No need to lose sleep over the facts. But the fact that continents can move, that there is enough water on earth to cover it (if the mountains are somewhat lower and the ocean valleys somewhat less deep), that the ark was huge, and only needed to preserve a very small part of the species of earth (land dwelling which could not survive floods even on floating rafts of logs and flotsam) are pertinent, and deny the evolutionists tendency to absurdify the flood and the ark.

What evidence or justification do you have for attributing false ages to all the people prior to the flood as well as to several generations that survived the flood. You admit you do not know or understand the symbolism, yet accept that it must be there on faithÉ (thatès a question mark… no idea what my computer is doing). Is it legitimate to make a correlation between a pagan story of a war hero, and the recording of Godès interaction with his peopleÉ To me, it is like saying that some religious leaders are frauds, therefore it is likely that your religious leader is also a fraud.

As I mentioned above, Doug, the numbers of animals have been worked out a number of times, and the numbers are not as large as presumed. In addition, preserving baby animals takes up a lot less room than full-grown adults. The calculations even show sufficient room for two thirds of the ark to contain food for the animals.

I do think it is not legitimate to impose oneès idea of ÈdramaticÈ as some sort of criteria for establishing allegory vs fact. The fact that there are similar flood stories would indicate that they are possibly all the same story, otherwise they should be much much different. On the other hand, the real differences in the stories indicate that they are likely diversions from the genuine article. The scripture story indicates the most likely scenario, compared to all the others, based on the comprehensive accounting, as well as the most potentially possible.

I agree with your analysis of Godès ability to destroy almost all mankind.

It is not difficult to reconcile… there is no reason that written stuff should automatically be more inspired than spoken stuff. In fact, almost everything was spoken before it was written; think of God speaking to Moses, and Moses speaking to the people. Or Elijah speaking to Ahab, or Nathan to king David. All inspired and true. It was the story that had the authority, and if the speaker misspoke, then the speaker lost authority. The speakerès authority was verified by the story, which many besides the speaker would have heard before, as it was repeated often in the oral traditions.

On the other hand, it is no doubt harder to change written documents, and so they retain an authority (only assuming they are true) even when not read often.

An interesting bit of information on oral transmission in ancient communities - I read a book (by a white man) who went to some lengths to understand the songs of Aborigines in the deserts of Australia. This author finally worked out the content of the songs and found out they contained information on how to navigate the dessert, where water and food could be found, and a great deal of information for survival and also teachings regarding their community and beliefs. This dessert region is harsh and had claimed the lives of early white explorers, who were equipped with the latest scientific information and material. The songs are said to have been thousands of years old and part of the Aboriginal culture and spirituality.

I thought Jim Stump outlined some great explanations for non-literal ages based on what we do know about ANE numerology. “False ages” is a value judgment. I never said they were false or incorrect or wrong. I said I don’t think Noah lived to be 900 365-day-long years. I think his age of 900 years is true in a different sense, one that we are not culturally familiar with.

Well, if that is what you got out of the comparison, it wasn’t what I intended by making it. The only point of bringing it up was to illustrate that the idea of “history” as unbiased, objective, recording of facts is a modern idea of history and the creators of ancient histories exercised much more narrative and artistic license in the telling and re-telling of their histories. There was not this strict dichotomy between fact and fiction. I was reacting in part to the idea that there are only two options for approaching Genesis; either it’s all 100% accurate literal history or it’s 100% made-up fiction with no basis in reality or actual events. I think it’s pretty obvious that most of recorded ancient history is somewhere on a continuum between fact and fiction.

I believe the Bible is unique and unparalleled in many ways when compared to other ancient sources, but I don’t believe it is so “other” that we can’t learn valuable things about how to understand the genres and symbolism and cultural presuppositions that relate to Scriptural accounts by making comparisons with other literature and cultural products.

To reconcile them, you have to step outside of our typical modern paradigms. I agree that there is no reason to assume spoken stuff is less inspired than written stuff (or less authoritative, or more likely corrupted or incomplete) But we bring a lot of assumptions that come from growing up in literate, written text-focused societies to our veneration of the written Word of God. Written texts had/have different functions and status in oral societies, and writers/scribes were not the same people as authors.

I disagree. That’s not how orality works. Yes, there are community “checks and balances” so to speak, but the authority lies with the speaker, not with the text. And “text” doesn’t just refer to something written down, it refers to the content that is being communicated in any form, orally or in writing.

“Orality” is a current research topic in Bible translation studies so it comes up all the time in classes I’ve been taking over the last several years. It is really amazing what some cultures have managed to preserve in their oral traditions and how much information people can remember. Some people have done studies (somewhat contested, of course) on how the transition to literacy actually changes the way people’s memories work and how it permanently alters the relational dynamics in communities. It is really interesting stuff.