“While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Gen 8:22, World English Bible)
A question that arises for some is with regard to the Genesis account of the Noachian flood. Some are disturbed by claims that ancient Mesopotamian documents give a chronology that would extend the history of the population of that region much farther back than the allowable amount of time of the Noachian flood which Scripture evidently places in the third or fourth millennium BCE. Others are in doubt due to the question of the extent of that flood, whether or not it was a global flood affecting the entire planet. A major point advanced as indicating otherwise is the fact that certain species of animals, (as one example among several, the kangaroo), are found only in isolated parts of the planet, both as to living creatures and fossils of such creatures found in the earth. Similarly, if a global deluge occurred with vast amounts of water covering the entire planet, it seems difficult to understand how the same rivers described as existing in the region previous to the flood were still there afterward, apparently unaffected. (Genesis 2:10-14.) Perhaps more significant is that the purpose of the flood is shown to have been God’s decision to put a halt to the rampant wickedness proliferating among the human race. That raises the question, what purpose would there be in annihilating all the animals and bird life in the vast unpopulated areas of earth since these creatures had nothing to do with the human wickedness carried on in the region where Noah lived?
We here present some information that may prove helpful on both these issues, and which serves to confirm the historicity and reliability of the Scriptural account.
THE CHRONOLOGY OF ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA
Are the chronologies of Mesopotamia and Egypt in conflict with the Biblical date of the Flood, i.e., c. 2500 BCE according the Hebrew Masoretic text and c. 3500 BCE according to the Greek Septuagint version (LXX)? (The Septuagint version adds 100 years to the age of certain of the pre-Flood patriarchs at the time of their firstborns, beyond the ages given in the Masoretic text.).
Many seem to believe that the chronologies of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt are safely fixed, while in fact they are very loosely founded and changeable.
The chronology of ancient Mesopotamia, for example, has been considerably shortened, step by step, as a result of research during the past century, as illustrated in the table below, which shows the gradual lowering of the datings of the reigns of Sargon I and Hammurabi. The chronology of ancient Egypt has been shortened in a similar way during the same period. The following chart illustrates this, the names at the left being those of the more prominent experts in the field of ancient Mesopotamian (Akkadian) history and chronology during successive periods of research in the 19th and 20th centuries.
ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIAN CHRONOLOGY
Changes during the past century (1895—1998):
|(The 1st king of the dynasty of Akkad)||(The 6th king of the 1st dynasty of Babylon)|
|1895||Boscawen||3800-3755 B.C.E.||2235-2193 B.C.E.|
|1935||Will Durant||2872-2817 B.C.E.||2123-2081 B.C.E.|
|1942-1998||High chronology:||1848-1846 B.C.E.|
|Middle chronology:||1792-1750 B.C.E.|
|Low chronology:||1728-1686 B.C.E.|
|1977||Brinkman||2334-2279 B.C.E.||1792-1750 B.C.E.|
|1987||Many scholars:||[2270-2215 B.C.E.]||1728-1686 B.C.E.|
|1998||H. Gasche et al:||[2238-2183 B.C.E.]||1696-1654 B.C.E.|
|Changes 1895 / 1998||– 1562 years||– 539 years|
|||[Professor P. James]||[A further reduction of the chronology by about 250 years]|
The problems with the ancient chronologies are far from solved, and it is more than likely that they will be further reduced. One problem is that they are often in conflict with C14 (radioactive Carbon 14) dates.
The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 1:2 (1971) tentatively dates the Early Dynastic (E.D.) period in Mesopotamia to c. 3000-2450 BCE, and it seems appropriate, therefore, to quote what this work has to say about one of the problems with this dating. Chapter XVI, “The Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia,” was written by the famous British archaeologist Max E. L. Mallowan (d. 1978), who explains:
“Unfortunately, this apparently satisfactory estimate for the length of the E.D. period does not agree with recent carbon-14 findings, particularly material from Nippur lately tested, which may require a reduction of third millennium dates by as much as six or seven centuries. We have to face the possibility that if the newly emerging carbon-14 pattern for the third millennium is the right one, we must jettison the whole of the previously accepted basis of Egyptian chronology upon which the Mesopotamian in large part depends. But we should be reluctant to do this without much stronger contrary evidence, for Egyptian calculations based on written evidence can be checked on astronomical grounds with but a small margin of error [this supposed “astronomical” support for the Egyptian chronology is increasingly rejected by modern scholars!] and, if we accept a low carbon-14 chronology for the E.D. period, we are faced with a big and unexplained hiatus between this and the Neolithic, for which the same method has given unexpectedly high dates. Some authorities are therefore for the present inclined to believe that at this end of the third millennium there was some physical disturbance in the solar magnetic field, which may have affected the level of the carbon-14 activity in the carbon exchange reservoir.” (Pages 242-243).
True, this was written back in 1971, well before calibration curves had been worked out and extended back to this early period. But still, archaeologists excavating the early civilizations of the ancient Near East are usually distrustful of carbon-14 dates.
THE ASSYRIAN KINGLIST (AKL)
The backbone of the Mesopotamian chronology before the first millennium BCE is the Assyrian Kinglist tradition. Five copies of the Assyrian Kinglist (AKL) have been found, but as two are only fragments, the three others are the most important. The list gives the names and the lengths of reigns of Assyrian rulers from ancient times down to the Neo-Assyrian period, one of the copies ending with Shalmaneser V, 726-722 BCE.
The lists were updated at various times. All the extant [existing] copies are late, the oldest having been compiled in the reign of Tiglath-Pileser II, 966-935 BCE. (The “editorial history” of the AKL is discussed by Shigeo Yamada in Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie, Band 84:1, 1994, pp. 11-37) In the later parts, the list may be checked against the Assyrian Eponym Canon (covering the period 910-649 BCE), and for this period at least it seems to be reliable. From there and back to the end of the Kassite period, c. 1155 BCE, too, it seems to be on the whole in agreement with other sources.
The earlier parts of the list, however, have been shown to be far from reliable. The earliest parts are believed to be partially based on oral tradition. Further, a number of rulers and dynasties that are presented in the list as consecutive may in reality have been contemporary. Thus, discussing the evidence found for concurrent kings in Kish, scholars Wu Yuhong and Stephanie Dalley state: “If it is possible for a district to have two kings at one time, the one ruling the settled, urban population and the other the peripheral encampments, it becomes possible to apply to the Assyrian king list the same criteria as are now well established for the Sumerian king list, namely that parallel dynasties are represented as successive.” (Iraq, Vol. 52, 1990, p. 163).
Attempts have been made to date the First Dynasty of Babylon (to which Hammurabi belongs) by the aid of a number of astronomical texts containing observations of the planet Venus. These tablets are known as the “Venus Tablets of Ammisaduqa” because they are dated to the reign of Ammisaduqa, the next to the last ruler of the dynasty. However, the observations are difficult to interpret and may be given a number of alternative dates. Based on these tablets, scholars in general have proposed three different chronologies for the First Dynasty of Babylon, the so-called “high”, “middle”, and “low” chronologies (see the table above). The difference between the high and the low chronology is about 120 years, and there is still wide disagreement among scholars about this. Some have also proposed other alternative dates for the Venus tablets.
The actual state of the Mesopotamian chronology for the second millennium and earlier periods is aptly described by Professor F. H. Cryer:
“In contrast with dating of the first millennium, the absolute dates of other chronological periods in Mesopotamia are conjectural. The beginning of the first millennium and the transition from the second millennium is very unclear in all our extant sources, as far as Mesopotamia is concerned. An extreme lack of sources is usually cited as the reason for our ignorance, and in fact, we are largely, if not entirely, reliant on the sometimes widely divergent kinglists to obtain even a shadowy picture. In this connection, we are hindered by the fact that it appears to have been important to the local chronographers, especially in Assyria, to sketch out at least the illusion of dynastic continuity, so that numerous simultaneously reigning kings of rival principalities (that is, collateral reigns) seem to succeed one another in the records. The same is also true of diverse ancient editions of the Sumerian kinglist, a document that gives as a sequence the city-states, together with their succession of rulers, on which gods bestowed the institution of kingship.” – F. H. Cryer in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Jack M. Sasson et al (eds.), Vol. II, 1995, p. 657.
These problems with the Assyrian kinglist tradition and the chronology for the early civilization of Mesopotamia has quite recently been emphasized by Dr. Julian Reade at the British Museum in a lengthy article, “Assyrian King-Lists, The Royal Tombs of Ur, and Indus Origins,” published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 60:1, January 2001, pp. 1-29. In his detailed and very interesting discussion, Reade states that the Mesopotamian chronology for the period 2500-1500 BCE is “distorted,” and he argues for “much lower chronologies than are usually cited for this period.” He also demonstrates that such a lowering of the chronology is also supported by recent tree-ring studies. (pp. 1, 10).
In view of the evidence now available, therefore, there is no substantial basis for doubt as to the authenticity of the approximate time of the Noachian flood as indicated in Scripture.
As to the second issue, that of the extent of the flood, we can recognize that nothing is beyond the power of the Creator of heaven and earth. But the real question is: What does the Biblical account actually say? Does it require a global deluge, affecting every part of the planet?
THE MESOPOTAMIAN FLOOD OF C. 3500 BCE
That an enormous Flood, at present dated by geologists to approximately 3500 BC, drowned the plain of Mesopotamia and swept away the pre-Sumerian Ubaid civilization seems now to have been clearly established by geological and geomorphological research performed in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf area. A summary of the evidence is presented by Theresa Howard-Carter in the article, “The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun,” published in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 33, 1981, pp. 210-223.
In her discussion of the Flood, Howard-Carter starts by pointing out that, “Nearly all the authorities who have attended seriously to the flood question in writings before 1975 are generally proved right insofar as they merely refer to existence of floods in Mesopotamia. But recent research in the geomorphology of the Gulf area now forces us to think in larger terms.” She then briefly presents the new evidence of an enormous Flood, dated to about 3500 BCE, that was much more extensive than the local floods discussed in earlier works:
“Previously the Flood had always been discussed in terms of the area which includes the head of the Gulf, the Delta, and lower Mesopotamia. The new evidence forces us to consider the entire Gulf area quite literally in depth. … This giant of all floods occurred just at the middle of the fourth millennium [c. 3500 BCE] at a point already distinguished archaeologically as the beginning of the Uruk period. This is stratigraphically demonstrable at Eridu, Ur, and Warka.” (Pages 221-222).
Marine shells, marine terraces, and other evidence show that the waters that drowned the cities of the Ubaid civilization was caused by a massive movement of the sea from the Gulf. This finding agrees with the statement at Gen. 7:11 that the waters of the Flood had two sources: (1) “the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and (2) the windows of heaven were opened.” The “great deep” (Hebr. tehom rabba) is used in the Bible especially of the sea (e.g., Isa. 51:10; 63:3; Jonah 2:4). The inundation from the Persian Gulf explains why the ark of Noah (= the Sumerian Ziusudra, who is stated to have lived in the city of Shuruppak in southern Mesopotamia) was brought northwards to the mountains or hills in the area of Ararat. If the Flood had been caused only by rains from above and inundations of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the ark would have been brought southwards to the Gulf.
THE EXTENSION OF THE FLOOD IN C.3500 BCE.
It seems evident that this disastrous catastrophe was the historical background of the Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood traditions. How far northward this “giant flood” reached is still an open question. An enormous sea wave from the Persian Gulf could reach a very long way northwards along the plain, even up to the mountainous districts of northern Iraq. It should be remembered that most of the Mesopotamian plains below that area are very low. The whole delta lowland south of Baghdad, for example, is extremely flat and rises only a few meters from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad, so that Baghdad which lies 600 kilometers north of the Gulf is still less than 10 (ten) meters above sea level!
For a local flood to last more than a few hours or days there would have to be an enclosed region that includes the entire Tigris-Euphrates region. And the fact is that Iraq is often described as a “trough”. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 12 (1969), for example, explains: “Iraq consists of a lowland trough lying between asymmetrical and very different upland massifs to the east, north and west, and continuing southeastward as the Persian gulf.” (Page 527) Similarly, Dr. Susan Pollock says in her recent work, Ancient Mesopotamia (Cambridge, 1999):
“Mesopotamia is, geologically speaking, a trough created as the Arabian shield has pushed up against the Asiatic landmass, raising the Zagros Mountains and depressing the land to the southwest of them. Within this trench, the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries have laid down enormous quantities of alluvial sediments, forming the Lower Mesopotamian Plain (also known as the alluvial Mesopotamian plain). Today the Lower Mesopotamian Plain stretches some 700 kilometers, from approximately the latitude of Ramadi and Baquba in the northwest to the Gulf, which has flooded its southeastern end.” (Page 29)
As it is not known exactly what caused the massive movement of the sea to inundate the Mesopotamian plain, there may have been circumstances involved unknown to us today that prevented the waters from turning back too quickly to the sea again. Clearly, much research remains to be done.
In good measure, the difficulty raised by some rests largely on the meaning assigned to certain words in the Hebrew text of the Genesis account. These include the words often rendered as “earth,” “heaven,” “high mountains.” A consideration of the basic meaning of these terms is enlightening.
THE FLOOD — REGIONAL FLOODINGS WORLDWIDE
It is very possible that the Flood of Noah’s time was related to one of a series of risings of the sea level that occurred subsequent to the end of the last Ice Age (presently dated to about 11,000 years ago).
In recent years scientists have revised their views on the end of the Ice Age it has been found that this end occurred much more quickly than had been held previously. Scientists Olaf Jöris and Bernard Weninger, for example, state:
“The Holocene climatic conditions, as it now appears at least for the northern hemisphere, are not a result of slow, gradual changes. On the contrary, they have come about by leaps and abruptly, in just a few decades. Olaf Jöris & Bernhard Weninger, 14C-Alterskalibration und die Absolute Chronologie des Spätglacials, Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt, Vol. 30:4, 2000, p. 461.
In their book, Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes (Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing Ltd, 2000), authors Richard A. Muller & Gordon J. MacDonald, who are leading experts on the Ice Ages, further explain on page 4:
”The abruptness of the termination is startling. Agriculture, and all of our civilization, developed since this termination. The enormous glacier, several kilometers thick, covering much of North America and Eurasia, rapidly melted. Only small parts of this glacier survived in Greenland and Antarchtica, where they exist to this day. The melting caused a series of worldwide floods unlike anything previously experienced by Homo sapiens. … The flood dumped enough water into the oceans to cause the average sea level to rise 110 meters, enough to inundate the coastal areas, … The water from melting ice probably flooded down over land in pulses, as ice-dammed lakes formed and then catastrophically released their waters. These floods left many records, including remnant puddles now known as the Great Lakes, and possibly gave rise to legends that persisted for many years.”
This rising of the sea level has been shown to have occurred in a number of sudden stages, the last of which is dated to about 3,500 BCE. That this last catastrophe was contemporaneous with Noah’s Flood is geologically fully possible and perhaps probable.
In a certain sense, then, such a Flood could be regarded as worldwide, as the rise of the sea level would affect the coastal areas and lowlands all around the world. There is evidence to show that a catastrophe of enormous proportions depopulated other areas outside Mesopotamia about this time, ending the so-called Chalcolithic period in the Near East. Margie Burton and Thomas E. Levy at the University of California, San Diego, explains:
“The end of the Chalcolithic period – the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze I (Early EB I or EB IA) transition – has been described as a case of social, political, economic, and demographic collapse (Gophna 1998) Current stratigraphic and radiometric evidence indicates that most of the large Chalcolithic sites were abandoned by the mid-4th millennium BCE [c. 3500 BCE] and not resettled, although some may have had limited and ephemeral occupation extending into what may be termed the Early Bronze IA (EB IA). M. Burton & T. E. Levy, The Chalcolithic Radiocarbon Record and its Use in Southern Levantine Archaeology, Radiocarbon, Vol. 43:3 (2001), p. 1232.
“EARTH” OR “LAND”?
The evidence, then, shows that there was indeed a Flood. It may very well have been “local” or “regional” in the sense that it was limited to Mesopotamia and perhaps some other coastal areas and lower areas of the earth, places where people usually settled in ancient times. In the Sumerian Flood tradition, at least, it is clearly indicated that the Flood was a localized catastrophe, as it is stated that “the Flood swept over the Land [Sum. kalam].” Kalam was the name the Sumerians used of their own country, which roughly covered the area from the Gulf up to present Baghdad, before it was, in the later Akkadian period, divided into Sumer and Akkad.
The Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood traditions correspond closely, although it cannot be shown that the Biblical account was derived from the others or vice versa. They give evidence of having a common origin and speak of the same event. For this reason it is possible, perhaps probable, that the Bible, too, like the Mesopotamian traditions, speaks of a regional catastrophe, using the Hebrew word erets in the sense of “land” or “area” rather than “earth”. That the Biblical account of the Flood in Genesis 6-8 may be understood in this way is demonstrated, for example, by Professor Franz Delitzsch, a leading conservative Bible scholar in the 19th century, in his work, A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1, pp. 222-282. (This commentary was originally published in German in 1887).
It should be emphasized that the Bible most commonly uses the word erets in the sense of “land”, and more rarely in the sense of “earth” (= the globe). In the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 393, Dr. Magnus Ottosson explains: “It is not always easy to determine whether erets means ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in a given instance.”
At Genesis 10:10; 11:2, for example, erets is used to refer, not to the planet Earth, but to the “land” of Shinar, again in Genesis12:5 it refers, not to the whole globe, but simply to the “land” of Canaan, and in 13:10 to the “land of Egypt,” in 36:31 to the “land of Edom.” So the term has variable application and this rule against an arbitrary rendering. As stated, the most common use of the term is with reference to a “land” rather than to the planet Earth.
Translators have the same problem with the Greek word for ‘earth’, ge. (From which basic term come our word “geography” and “geology”.) It may mean either ‘earth’ or a more limited area, such as ‘land’ or ‘district’.. In our space age we are used to think of the “earth” as the whole globe, but in ancient times people did so less frequently. In Colin Brown’s The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 518, Dr. R. Morgenthaler says:
“It is frequently difficult to decide whether a particular passage is speaking of a particular country, especially the land of Israel, or of the populated earth as a whole. With our modern outlook on the world we are inclined to think globally and universally. However, the NT can use ‘the earth’ in a very particularistic way.”
It is quite possible, therefore, that the erets that was covered by the Biblical Flood primarily referred to the ”land” or area of Mesopotamia, like the Sumerian word kalam. The context must always decide whether erets means ”land” or ”earth”. And if the Scriptural context is not enough for deciding the matter, the historical context in which the account originated may be our best guide.
The later Biblical references to the Flood, too, need not be understood as referring to a global event. At Genesis 6:17 we find the words, “everything that is on the earth [Hebrew erets] shall die.” In Scripture we sometimes encounter metonymy, that is a using of a part to represent the whole. The same is found in modern language. For example, in speaking of a gathering of persons at some location, the statement “Everybody was talking” would be rendered in Spanish “Todo el mundo hablaba.” Todo el mundo literally means “all the world,” but in this case it simply means everyone among those present at that time and in that location. The same would be true in French and the expression “tout le monde.” It is interesting to observe that Jesus, in speaking of his second coming as an unexpected event, compared it not only with the coming of the Flood, but also, in the very same passage, with the destruction of Sodom. And just as he said that the Flood “destroyed them all,” he also said of Sodom that the fire and sulphur from heaven “destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:26-30) The word “all” in both cases refers, of course, to all those involved in the respective catastrophe, not necessarily to all the people on earth, as is obvious in the second case, that of Sodom. Peter, too, mentions both of these catastrophes in a similar way. (2 Peter 2:5-9) Something similar needs to be kept in mind in considering the words in Peter’s statement that “the world of that time was deluged with water and perished.” Here the term “world” is the Greek kosmos. In the book Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, by K. S. Wuest (p. 57) we read: “As kosmos is regarded as that order of things whose center is man, attention is directed chiefly to him, and kosmos denotes mankind within that order of things, humanity as it manifest itself in and through such order (Matthew 18:7) …”
The crucial point of the Genesis account as well as the references by Christ and Peter, is that the human race was subjected to a watery catastrophe and that humanity survived only as a result of God’s provision through Noah. (Matthew 24:39) If, as seems evident, the human race in Noah’s day was confined to a relatively limited geographical area—and that must have been the case if all people were able to be aware of the preaching of Noah (2 Peter 2:5) and be cognizant of what he was doing in the construction of the ark—then the flooding of that entire area would constitute a flooding of the world (the human sphere and man-centered order) or kosmos of that time.
As one commentary expresses it:
There is every reason to believe that this catastrophe was co-extensive with the human population of the world. In every branch of the human family traditions of the event are found. These traditions need not be recited, though some of them bear a remarkable likeness to the Biblical story, while others are very beautiful in their construction, and significant in individual points. Local floods happening at various times in different countries could not have given birth to the minute coincidences found in these traditions, such as the sending out of the birds, and the number of persons saved.” — The Expositor’s Bible, with commentary on Genesis by Marcus Dods.
The same source makes the following observations:
“It [is important] to consider the nature of the narrative, and the common use of language among the Hebrews. And if we do so carefully, we shall surely be led to conclude, that the Deluge is described as from the point of view of an eyewitness. , , , we may remember too, that the custom of Scripture is to refer historical records to the evidence of eyewitnesses. This is very much the case in the New Testament. The Apostles and Evangelists constantly claim to have been present at the scenes which they relate (see especially Luke 1:1, 2; John 19:35; 21:24; Acts 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:3—8; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1); and they relate them as those scenes appeared to them. The baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, the walking on the waters, the multiplying the loaves and fishes, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the tongues of fire at Pentecost, are all simply painted as they who were present saw and conceived of them…”
“Now just so is the Deluge described in Genesis. It is pictured, as it would have presented itself to the eyes of Noah and his family. Moreover, on the principle just mentioned, it is in the highest degree probable, that the description is really that which was given by one of such eyewitnesses. It would have been very strange if no such description had been given and preserved. Shem would almost certainly have related it, over and over again, to his children and grand-children. They would have treasured it up in their memories and have handed it on. As has been so notoriously the case among later nations (see Max Müller’s ‘Sans. Lit.’ p. 500) the very words or the original narrative would be carefully recorded from father to son, whether in writing or by oral tradition; and so, in all probability, we have in Genesis the very syllables in which the Patriarch Shem described to the ancestors of Abraham that which he himself had seen, and in which he had borne so great part. The divine authority of the narrative would be no more affected by this, than the Authority of the Gospel of … Mark is affected by the probable fact that .Mark relates that which … Peter communicated to him as the result of his own ocular and aural experience. Let us then view it thus. One of the eight human beings saved in the ark relates all that he saw.”
That the Jews in ancient times were aware of the possibility that the Biblical Flood might have been a regional catastrophe is evident from the fact that the rabbis, according to the Talmud, had discussions as to whether the Flood waters had reached the land of Israel or not. (Babyl. Talmud Zeb. 113b; Gen. Rabbah 33.6; Lev. Rabbah 31.10; Cant. Rabbah 1.15, par. 4; 4.1, par. 2).
“MOUNTAINS” OR “HILLS”?
According to Genesis 7:19 the waters of the Flood covered “all the high mountains under the whole heaven.” This does not necessarily mean that the waters covered all the high mountains of the entire planet. “Under the whole heaven” may simply mean that the waters covered all the mountains above the horizon visible to the people on the ark. We may first note that the Hebrew term (sha.may.im) rendered “heaven” has a range of applications.
At Deuteronomy 4:17; 1 Samuel 17:44 it refers simply to the air above the land, in which birds fly. The high-walled cities of Canaan were described as “fortified to the heavens” (Deut. 9:1). Thus “under the whole heaven” can correctly mean all within view from horizon to horizon.
Further, the Hebrew plural noun harim can mean either “mountains” or “hills”. Not only the translators of King James Version, but also the modern translators of the New King James Version translate harim as ”high hills” at Gen. 7:19. So does also Bullinger in his The Companion Bible: “All the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.” Ferrar Fenton’s The Five Books of Moses, too, has ”all the hills”, but adds “and mountains”. These translators chose the word ”hills”, certainly not because they believed the Flood was local, but because this was what the word harim often meant, and because they felt it was quite proper to render it this way in this context. This would be especially appropriate if the Flood account, as is commonly believed, was the testimony of people who had lived in Mesopotamia, where the only “mountains” the inhabitants could see were hills. For someone living in southern Mesopotamia, like Ziusudra who lived in the city of Shuruppak between the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris, the high Persian mountain range in the east was 250 kilometers away and could not be seen because of the curvature of the earth’s surface.
Some people refer to Psalm 104:6 to show that the Bible speaks of a global Flood. However, this psalm does not refer to the Flood. It is a hymn to the Creator, and, as Biblical commentators have observed, the reference is to the creation in Genesis Chapter 1, not to the account of the Flood. Thus the “waters” mentioned at Psalm 104:6 refer to the waters of the “deep” (Hebrew tehom) that according to Genesis 1:2 cover the entire earth before land appeared on Day Three.
THE “MOUNTAINS OF ARARAT”
At the end of the Flood the ark of Noah came to rest “upon the mountains [or, ‘hills’] of Ararat.” (Gen. 8:4) Originally, Ararat was not the name of a mountain, but of a geographical area, which later, in the Assyrian period, was consolidated into a kingdom. (See 2 Kings 19:37; Isa. 37:38; Jer. 51:27.) This later kingdom lay north and northeast of Mesopotamia with its center around the seas of Van and Urmia. In Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions the form of the name is Urartu. The kingdom of Urartu was destroyed late in the 7th century BC, after which the name disappears.
Thus, when Genesis 8:4 states that the Ark ”came to rest on the mountains [hills] of Ararat,” this means that it came to rest on the mountains or hills in the area of Urartu. The plural, “mountains, hills,” should be noted. It is only in later Christian tradition, from the 11th century CE and on, that the high mountain of Agri Dag in northeastern Turkey came to be called ”Ararat” and was identified as the site of the landing. However, the Bible itself does not mention the name of the mountain, nor does it say that it was a high mountain.
The Targums and the early Syriac translation (Peshitta) render Ararat as ”Korduene” (Karduchia), and this is also where Berossus locates the site of landing, according to Josephus (Ant. I.3.6). Korduene seems to refer to the area occupied by the Kurds, Kurdistan, the former Armenia. The Latin versions, in fact, render Ararat as ”Armenia”, the territory of which roughly corresponded to the earlier kingdom of Urartu. An excellent recent work on the Urartu/Ararat kingdom is Urartu-das Reich am Ararat (“Urartu-the kingdom at Ararat”), written by Ralf-Bernhard Wartke (Mainz am Rhein, 1993).
Archaeological findings show that the southern border of the kingdom of Urartu extended down to the area of Nineveh (close to present-day Mosul) and the Zab rivers. It is quite possible that the earlier geographical area called Urartu was larger and extended further south and southeast. Vast areas of the southern kingdom of Urartu was only between 300 and 200 meters above sea level. The Hamrin range to the northeast of Baghdad reaches to about 500 meters. But at the time of the Flood these areas may have been much lower, as the mountain-building movements of Iraq and southwestern Persia have been going on since that time. Drs. G. M. Lees and N. L. Falcon point out:
“This mountain system has developed out of a broader zone of depression or geosyncline, by a relative approach between central Persia and the stable massif of Arabia which compressed the mobile strip between and formed a series of giant earth waves or fold mountains. The time of the maximum tangential movement was in the late Pliocene but the elevation of the mountain belt as a whole, as distinct from fold movements, continued into recent time and is in fact still active.” (”The Geographical History of the Mesopotamian Plains,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. CXVIII, 1952, p. 27. [Emphasis added.]).
There are reasons to believe that the mountain/hill upon which the ark of Noah came to rest cannot have been very high. When the ark had come to rest on a mountain/hill in Urartu, Noah sent out a raven and then a dove. When he sent out the dove a second time, it returned with a fresh “olive leaf”. (Gen. 8:11) People in the Middle East knew very well (and still know) that olive trees can grow only up to about 500 meters above sea level. The ark, therefore, can hardly have come to rest higher up than that, and possibly at a much lower level. This, too, accords with the understanding of the Flood as a more or less regional catastrophe.
As stated earlier, God’s power was certainly equal to producing a deluge that was global. The points here made are set forth to show that the Biblical account itself allows for another understanding.
On the means used for the preservation of the human race, The Bible Commentary, edited by F. C. Cook, with commentary on Genesis by E. H. Browne, says:
“If it be inquired, why it pleased God to save man and beast in a huge vessel, instead of leaving them a refuge on high hills or in some other sanctuary, we perhaps inquire in vain. Yet surely we can see, that the great moral lesson and the great spinal truths exhibited in the Deluge and the ark were well worth a signal departure from the common course of nature and Providence. The judgment was far more marked, the deliverance far more manifestly Divine, than they would have been, if hills or trees or caves had been the shelter provided for those to be saved. The great prophetic forepicturing of salvation from a flood of sin by Christ and in the Church of Christ would have lost all its beauty and symmetry, if mere earthly refuges had been sufficient for deliverance. As it is, the history of Noah, next after the history of Christ, is that which perhaps most forcibly arrests our thoughts, impresses our consciences and yet revives our hopes. It was a judgment signally executed at the time. It is a lesson deeply instructive for all time.”
Commenting on the effect on Noah and his need for faith in God’s wisdom and providence, the commentary of David Atkinson in the series “The Bible Speaks Today” (published by Inter-Varsity Press) states:
“Life for Noah was [not] a luxury cruise. Shut up for [a long time] in a dark, doubtless smelly, not to say unhygienic, sepulchre, Noah might well have despaired for his life….One might guess that Noah rather persistently remembered the Lord, and wondered what on earth was going on…. Was he saved for this—to live his days cooped up in this prison, eight people and a menagerie, and without even a view [?] What price obedience now?”
The Chaldean account of the Flood depicts Noah as at one point being overcome with grief at the experience. The Expositors Bible commentary expresses the view that such feeling on Noah’s part would be reasonable, giving as reasons and also the lessons that might be drawn from this:
“… the sense of desolation and constraint would rather increase in Noah’s mind than diminish. Month after month elapsed; he was coming daily nearer the end of his food, and yet the waters were unabated. He did not know how long he was to be kept in this dark, disagreeable place. He was left to do his daily work without any supernatural signs to help him against his natural anxieties. . . . He was indeed safe while others had been destroyed. But of what good was this safety to be? Was he ever to get out of this prison-house? To what straits was he to be first reduced? So it is often with ourselves. We are left to fulfill God’s will without any sensible tokens to set over against natural difficulties, painful and pinching circumstances, ill health, low spirits, failure of favorite projects and old hopes—so that at last we come to think that perhaps safety is all we are to have in Christ, a mere exemption from suffering of one kind purchased by the endurance of much more suffering of another kind that we are to be thankful for pardon on any terms; and escaping with our life, must be content though it be bare. Why, how often does a Christian wonder whether, after all, he has chosen a life that he can endure, whether the monotony and the restraints of the Christian life are not inconsistent with true enjoyment?
“The use made of this event in the New Testament is remarkable. It is compared by Peter to baptism, and both are viewed as illustrations of salvation by destruction. The eight souls, he says, who were in the ark, “were saved by water.” The water which destroyed the rest saved them. When there seemed little hope of the godly line being able to withstand the influence of the ungodly, the Flood came and left Noah’s family in a new world. The penitent who believes in the efficacy of Christ’s blood to purge away sin, lets his defilement be washed away and rises new and clean to the life Christ gives. In Christ the sinner needs shelter for himself and destruction for his sins. It is God’s wrath against sin that saves us by destroying our sins; just as it was the Flood which devastated the world, that at the same time, and thereby, saved Noah and his family.”
Image: Sunset – Porto Seguro (Brazil)