Friday, 7 June 2013

The flood was geographically and anthropologically local

The Genesis flood and universal human descent from two people created 6000 years ago are arguably the most difficult events related in the Bible to integrate with the evidence from the natural world. For Christians whose faith is rooted on a literal interpretation of Scripture, there is a strong psychological motivation to dismiss this evidence, even if they have never examined it. For those who have examined it and found the evidence compelling, the motivation to reconcile these events with the evidence from the real world is quite strong, but it does require an abandonment of literalism. For literalists, this is difficult at best.

 Some special creationists have argued that no evidence from the real world can be allowed to contradict a literal reading of the relevant verses in Genesis. [1] One suspects that those who argue this have never examined this evidence. A full elaboration of it is beyond the scope of this article, but a brief discussion will suffice to show why ignoring it is not an option.

Robert Roberts recognised that the distribution of animals argued strongly against a global flood. In The Visible Hand of God, he wrote:
The question of how much was necessary involves the question of the area to be covered: in other words, was the flood universal in the sense of covering the entire globe? Considering the comparatively limited extent of the human family at the time, and that it was confined to one small district of the globe, it would seem reasonable to conclude from the principle already looked at—the divine sparingness of means—that the flood was co-extensive only with the Adamically-inhabited portion of the globe.

There are facts that compel such a conclusion; and as all facts are of God, they must be in agreement. The animals of New Zealand are different from those of Australia. The animals of Australia, again, are different from those of Asia and Europe. These again differ entirely from those of the American continent: all differ from one another: and the fossil remains on all the continents show that this difference has always prevailed. Now if the flood were universal in the absolute sense, it is manifest that these facts could not be explained, for if the animals all over the earth were drowned, and the devastated countries were afterwards replenished from a Noachic centre, the animals of all countries would now show some similarity, instead of consisting of totally different species. The animals taken into the ark in that case would be the animals of the humanly-populated district only—a comparatively small district in relation to the face of the world at large. If we suppose that only the district populated by the human race was submerged, there would be no difficulty, because in that case, the outlying parts of the earth would not be interfered with, and the state of the animal life in these parts would continue to be what it had been in previous times.

It seems at first sight a difficulty in the way of this view, that the Mosaic description of the flood seems to set before us an absolutely universal flood.

“All the high hills that were under the whole heavens were covered.”

This difficulty will vanish, however, if we realise that the language of the narrative is intended only to represent things as they appeared to the Noachic survivors. The whole Bible narrative was written for the inhabitants of the earth, and therefore adopts their point of view throughout. Any other would have been inconsistent with the object of the narrative. When you describe a matter to children, you instinctively adapt the form of your discourse to their modes of looking at things, otherwise you fail to be understood. [2]

Roberts was correct. The biogeographical distribution of species, contrary to what special creationists assert without credible peer-reviewed evidence to back up their claims. One would expect to see evidence of animal radiation out from Mt Ararat if the flood was global. We don’t see that.

A valuable point made by Roberts is that the narrative was not written from the point of view of 21st century people who have grown up in a scientific culture. but to people who lived in a pre-scientific age, whose knowledge of science and history was limited. Therefore, the narrative was tailored to their point of view. The early Israelites would not have known of Australia, its indigenous inhabitants or its unique fauna and flora. As far as they were concerned, the world was limited to the Ancient Near East.

Roberts has shown us that a geographically universal flood is ruled out by the distribution of animals and plants. However, an anthropologically universal flood is also difficult to reconcile with evidence from human molecular genetics. Roberts, like many early Christadelphians, made excellent use of the science of his day, but over 100 years have passed since then, and our knowledge of genetics, anthropology and palaeontology has exploded since then. If an interpretation of the Bible is contradicted by evidence from the natural world which is equally a revelation from God, then we need to change our interpretation if we wish to remain honest to this evidence.

An anthropologically as well as a geographically universal flood is impossible for two broad reasons. With respect to the first, if every human alive today descends from Noah and his family, we would expect to see what geneticists call a bottleneck dating back around 5000 years ago. We can calculate the amount of time it takes for the genetic diversity we see in the human genome using known rates of mutation and some sophisticated mathematical tools. There is no evidence of such a sharp bottleneck. Rather, we see evidence that some genes would have taken hundreds of thousands of years to acquire the amount of diversity we see. Another reason against an anthropologically universal flood is the existence of infectious diseases caused by pathogens and parasites that can only live on human hosts. Therefore, Noah and his family would need to be carriers of such diseases as smallpox and syphillis. Within a very short time, such a small population would be driven to extinction or at the very least suffer significant morbidity.

Geographical universality of the Flood would leave evidence in the geological record - this we do not see. The geophysicist Glenn Morton - a former young earth creationist - whose work in the oil industry has allowed him to see first-hand the evidence points out that the entire geological column (the sequence of rock layers dating from over 500 million years ago  to the present) can be found in over 30 sites. [3]  In none of these do we find evidence of a global flood. Special creationists have also argued that desert deposits would be difficult to integrate into their concept of a global flood. Morton cites the young earth creationists Henry and John Morris who have argued:
If real desert-formed features do exist in the deeper geologic deposits, this could indeed be a problem for the Biblical model since the antediluvian environment was said by God to be all 'very good' and the future promised restoration of these to good conditions to the earth includes desert reclamation (e.g. Isaiah 35). [4]

Morton however notes that the evidence not only refutes the flood geologist supposition, but shows that increases in ocean salinity would destroy marine life:
The early oceanic sediments are covered by desert deposits of the Prairie Evaporite, Interlake, and Minnelusa formations. Oncolites found in the Interlake prove that these deposits took some time to be deposited. There are 11 separate salt beds scattered through four ages: 2 Jurassic Salt beds, 1 Permian salt bed, 7 Mississippian salt beds, and one thick devonian salt. Half of these salt beds are up to 200 feet thick. The top Mississippian salt is 96% pure sodium chloride! Since they are sandwiched between other sediments, to explain them on the basis of a global, one-year flood, requires a mechanism by which undersaturated sea water can dump its salt. If the sea were super-saturated during the flood, then no fish would have survived. [5]

The universal descent of all humanity from two people cannot be sustained for two reasons. The first is the same which disallows the anthropological universality of the flood. The second is the presence of human fossils dating back from ten thousand years ago to nearly two hundred thousand years ago. No evidence of a catastrophe prior to the time of Adam exists in the record which could have wiped out these earlier humans, so the conclusion that these people continued living past the time of Adam is the only reasonable one.

As I mentioned earlier, the evidence against universal human descent from Adam and Eve, and a universal flood is insurmountable. What proponents of these arguments ignore however is that there is strong internal evidence in the Bible that makes these readings untenable.

In Genesis 6v4 one encounters the Nephilim for the first time. We read that:
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

The key thing to note here is the phrase "and also afterward." These Nephilim were first encountered before the Flood, so if it was universal in extent, we would expect them to be wiped out. However, this verse states that the Nephilim appeared after the flood, which implies that they survived it. In Numbers 13v32-33, we read the report of the spies who had returned from scouting Canaan:
So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. "There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight."

This suggests that the Nephilim survived the flood, which implies that it was not universal either in geography or anthropological extent. This is a view which is hardly isolated in the scholarly literature. [6] [7] [8] [9]

In two verses, we have  evidence about the extent of the Flood which is consistent with what we know from human genetics and geology.

It is worth noting in passing that the late 19th / early 20th century Anglican scholar Ethelbert Bullinger noted the survival of the Nephilim after the flood. Wedded to the idea that they were the children of a union between angels and man, he postulated a second fall of angels to the earth to breed with women. His solution is one I reject, but it is based on a clear recognition that the Nephilim existed before and after the flood.

Human genetics and palaeoanthropology tell us that humans have existed for longer than 6000 years. Strangely enough, the Bible alludes to the existence of humans not that long after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. The story of Cain and Abel is well-known, and I will not reiterate the details, other than to comment on these verses:
Gen 4v14-15: "Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." So the LORD said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold " And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him
Gen 4v17: Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after the name of his son.

A plain reading of these verses suggests that at this time, the only people on earth would have been Cain, Adam and Eve. Not a few people have asked:

  • Whom did Cain fear would kill him?
  • From where did he get his wife?

The traditional explanation has been to telescope Gen 5v4 back to before this event, and argue that Adam and Eve had many children at this time, who would both provide a wife and be the source of the avengers. Frankly, this explanation is feeble since it involves some creative reading of the text, and ignores the fact that Gen 4 nowhere mentions the birth of any other children.

We know from archaeological and anthropological evidence that the earth at this time would have been occupied by people - Mesopotamia at this time was well-settled - so rather than postulate incest and threatened fratricide as a solution to this problem, one can take the text at its face value. Cain left Adam and Eve, found a wife from the surrounding people, and started life on his own.

It needs to be stressed that this is not motivated by any need to accommodate evolution, but by internal evidence which has either been ignored or poorly explained. Letting the Bible speak for itself is often the best way to resolve apparent conflicts between the two books of God.

This article first appeared at my Facebook page here.


1. In their statement of faith, Answers in Genesis assert “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.” ( What AiG conveniently overlook is that the Bible is also subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. The fact that people cited Scripture to prove that the firmament was solid or that the sun revolved around Earth or that the earth was flat should be enough to point out that Biblical literalism can lead people to make invalid claims about the world in which we live.

2. Roberts R “The Visible Hand of God” - Chapter 5: Enoch and the Flood

3. Morton G "The Geologic Column and its Implications for the Flood"

4. Morris, H.M., Morris J. Science, Scripture and the Young Earth (1989, El Cajon: ICR) Cited in reference 3.

5 Morton op cit

6. ‘It is not clear why or how the Nephilim survived the Flood to become the original 'Canaanites; probably a duality of older oral traditions can be detected in the clash between these two texts.’, Hendel, ‘Nephilim’, in Metzger & Coogan (eds.), ‘The Oxford guide to people & places of the Bible’, p. 217 (2004).

7. 'The nephilim of Num 13.33 are the people whom the men saw when they were sent to spy out the land of Canaan while Israel was in the wilderness. These beings described as giganteV in LXX present the reader with the problem of how giants survived the Flood, in contrast to the Watcher tradition that conveys that all the giants were physically killed.', Wright, ‘The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6.1-4 in Early Jewish Literature‘, p. 81 (2005).

8. Thus, within the Flood narrative itself, the sole continuity of life between pre‐Flood and post‐Flood is represented by Noath and the others in the ark. Beyond the Flood narrative proper, however, there are implicit pointers in a different direction. One issue is the presence of "the Nephilim" both before the Flood (Gen. 6:4) and subsequently in the land of Canaan as reported by Israel's spies (Num. 13:33). Indeed, there is a note in the text of Genesis 6:4 which expliciitly points to the continuity of Nephilim pre‐and post-Flood: "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days ‐ and also afterwards", a note which of course poses the problem rather than resolves it.', Barton & Wilkinson, ‘Reading Genesis After Darwin’, p. 12 (2009).

9. ‘Although in Numbers 13 the inhabitants of Canaan are considered enemies of the Israelites, both the use and co‐ordination (LXX) or derivation of the designation (MT) in an allusion to Genesis 6 betrays an assumption that one or more of the Nephilim must have escaped the great deluge.', Auffarth & Stuckenbruck, ‘The Fall of the Angels’, p. 92 (2004).