The Great Flood of Noah is a classic Bible story - and a contentious one. Many would argue that traditional or literal interpretations cannot be squared with modern scientific thinking - others reject that science.

I'm sure you also have an opinion. I'm primarily interested in knowing what the main streams of interpretation are. How, for example, do the major churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) interpret this story — is there an official teaching? Beyond doctrinal arguments, what's the spectrum of belief in interpreting the Flood, and in reconciling it with later NT references and concepts of inerrancy?

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    Hi and welcome to the site. Please take the tour and check out how we are different than other sites when you have a chance. Because of the particular format of this site, more focused questions work better here and sometimes overbroad questions get closed. It's a somewhat subjective judgment, but your question does seem broadish, so you may want to consider editing to focus it just a little more sharply to prevent votes to close. Mar 26 '17 at 18:58
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    Perhaps you could first settle for an overview of the various views and then consider reasking some of your sub-questions as follow-up questions instead. Mar 26 '17 at 19:01
  • I understand, thank you for your correction. I don't feel capable of reducing the scope of the question at present, so please feel free to close the question if necessary. Mar 26 '17 at 21:49

There are 4 basic views regarding the interpretation of the great flood. Generally speaking, these connect to the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 as well.

Global Flood

The first camp is from those who take literal reading of Genesis. Despite some scientific drawbacks here, such as the fact that there does not exist enough water in any form (including ice) to cover the continents and mountain tops and most mainstream scientists state that there is no geological evidence for a global flood. In response, many creation scientists will attempt to dispute this and seek to assemble evidence to the contrary, though mainstream scientists will generally dispute and critique these interpretations of the geological record. This can often lead to some allegations of great conspiracies and cover-ups by mainstream scientists. There is, of course no issue with this interpretation in terms of Biblical Inerrancy.

Local Flood

These scientific challenges generally lead to a second camp of those who take a literal reading of Genesis, but simply do not believe the whole earth was flooded and instead believe a portion of the Levant was flooded. This view depends on the idea that instead of the whole earth being flooded, it was only the whole known earth. This view attempts to appeal to world maps of the time which depict only the Levant such as the Imago Mundi.

Imago Mundi Translation of the Imago Mundi

Since this was the "Whole Earth" as Noah and the writers of Genesis knew it, the argument is that we should simply be better translating "earth" to clarify that this really refers to the Middle-Eastern region.

Similarly, many believe that Noah simply assumed the whole earth was flooded since there was water as Far as Noah could see. Obviously, Noah did not paddle the ark around in a grid search pattern to verify the veracity of this claim before making it and even had he done so, he would have been unable to map the whole earth in the ark in 40 days. As such, these interpreters would say that this is pretty a pretty obvious exaggeration in the text - so obvious that the author of Genesis did not intend this to be understood as the whole earth literally being flooded, but instead this was intended as an obvious hyperbole. The argument here is if this was intended to be obvious hyperbole, then there is no scriptural errancy - the error is in our own understanding and interpretation of the text.

Those with this view might cite the flooding of the Black Sea, the creation of the Medeterranian Sea itself, the formation of the Red Sea, and/or the formation of the Caspian Sea. Still others might suggest the flood event records a tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea or even the idea that a Tsunami/earthquake caused a strait to burst/give way causing the formation of one of the above events.

Allegorical Interpretation

This view attempts to avoid any scientific problems with the above by simply claiming that the great flood was not intended to be understood as a literal event. This view would appeals to the genre of the text of Genesis to claim that it was always intended to be understood as allegorical. Those in the allegorical school of thought generally would claim that either 1) the entire book of Genesis was intended to be this way, 2) the first 11 chapters of Genesis are allegorical or 3) Only the creation and flood stories are intended to be allegorical. This view would argue that because the text was intended allegorically, it there is no issue with inerrancy.

There are many criticisms of this view including larger theological discussions regarding issues like original sin which debates the need for a literal Adam, and the critique that the flood story is sandwiched between genealogies and historical narratives similar to those of the other patriarchs which do not have the hallmarks of the intent of a non-literal interpretation seen in texts like Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesasties, and similar texts. In favor of this view is the idea that Genesis 1 seems to take the form of a hymn, poem, or prologue and factors like the fact that "Adam" means "Man" and "Eve" means "Life" which some argue shows that the authorial intent that these names are meant to be proxies for mankind, not specific, real individuals and similar literary notes.

Framework View

This view, favored by Panbabylonists makes little or no attempt to address scriptural inerrancy. Instead, this view prefers to make comparative studies of Genesis as a literary framework. This view notes the presence of things like the Toldoth forumla which divides Genesis into sections of narrative and seeks to make a Poleic comparison to similar flood narratives by other cultures such as the Epic of Atra-Hasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh. This view may appeal to Documentary Hypothesis to suggest that the flood narrative might be a post-exilic addition added by a later redactor to an earlier version of Genesis - a view supported by scholars like Gordon J. Wenham and others.

Instead of looking for the literal plausibility, most who hold the framework view are unconcerned with inerrancy and instead prefer to assume that the story was intended literally, but also as a corrective to the existing flood narratives. This view then looks for the notable differences between the stories to attempt to determine the theological claims being made (namely the superiority of Yahweh) by examining the polemic comparisons.

Instead of retaining the idea of Biblical inerrancy, some adherents of this view favor infallibility of the text - making a distinction between the two. Instead of being concerned with the duration of the flood (was it 40 days or 41 days?) or how much of the earth was flooded, this view focuses on the larger picture and meaning of the text - that Mankind is sinful, that God is a God is a God of salvation who seeks to restore mankind, etc. and views these larger truths to be infallible. Other adherents of this view may adhere to some or all aspects of the Global, Local, or Allegorical views, or none of the above.

This view largely arises as an attempt to explain archaeological and historical discoveries and as such is the "new kid" on the block and is thus not as widespread as other views. Due to the high academic cost of entry and the need to be well-versed in archaeology and the to be read archaic Sumerian and Babylonian texts, this view is largely relegated to the realm of academia. The complexity and academic background needed for this view has often caused it to be largely dismissed by laity in the mainstream which usually prefer one of the 3 above simpler views.

  • A fantastic summary, thank you James! Do you have any ideas where individual denominations/churches sit on this spectrum? I imagine the Catholic Church may have an official teaching, while the Protestant groups allow more 'flexibility'. Mar 27 '17 at 16:13
  • Yes - that is correct. It will vary widely among protestants. Some denominations have official positions while others do not. Catholic, Othodox, LDS, etc probably have official church positions, but I'm not sure what those are. Mar 27 '17 at 16:18
  • This is a solid and useful overview of major views on the Flood narrative of Genesis. However, there are a few things that may need some fixing. 1) the opening paragraph is somewhat confusing. First you speak of four basic views, which you will then proceed to cover one by one. But then you jump to the YEC vs. OEC view, which has no clear connection to the four views covered in the main body of the answer, making it unclear why you are including them in your introduction. Mar 27 '17 at 18:29
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    2) A minor point, but the ark was afloat, not for 40 days, but for 150 days. See Genesis 7:24, 8:2-4. Mar 27 '17 at 18:31
  • 3) Scholarly objectivity seems to go out the window in the section on "Allegorical Interpretation," where instead of simply stating what this view posits, it is framed with "attempts to," "claims that" and other such wording implying that this view is probably wrong. Allegorical interpretations don't "attempt to avoid any scientific problems." They do avoid any scientific problems. And so on. Whether those interpretations are right or wrong is beyond the purview of the question, and of the guidelines of this site. Mar 27 '17 at 18:35

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