Insight 12 - The Flood a Localised Phenomenon
The Tower of Babel incident following the great flood may indicate that the flood was a localised phenomenon
The story of the great flood in Chapters 6 - 9 of Genesis contains a number of references to “the earth”, and one reference in verse 9 of Chapter 8 to "the face of all the earth" in respect of the dove which could find "no rest for the sole of her foot". Clearly the dove's range was limited to a small area and so "the face of all the earth" in its context refers to a limited area.
That all these expressions of area may not be intended to refer to the whole world, but rather to the whole of the then inhabited world is borne out by the contents of verse 1 of chapter 11, which relates events occurring after the flood, and reads:
And all the earth was of one language and of one speech.
Verses 2 - 4 of Chapter 11 make clear that all the then existing people, who constituted ‘all the earth’ in verse 1 of Chapter 11, were in fact together and built a city:
And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth.’
Verse 8 of Chapter 11 goes on to say that God then “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth …..”
The text indicates clearly that this had hitherto not happened. The context of Parshat Noach (1), which includes the incidents of the flood and the Tower of Babel, indicates that the expression “all the earth” in verse 1 of Chapter 11 and the expression "the earth" in Chapters 6 - 8, including "the face of all the earth" in verse 9 of Chapter 8, may have been intended to refer only to the portion of the earth inhabited by human beings, and may have to be distinguished from the expression “the face of all the earth” in verse 8 of Chapter 11. The word “thence” in verse 8 of Chapter 11 refers, of course, to “all the earth”, which as we have seen was a limited area of the earth, and "all the earth" must be contrasted with “the face of all the earth”, which was clearly not a limited area. The argument is strengthened by the fact that the expression “the earth” used, except for the one exception stated above, in Chapters 6 - 9 is narrower than that of “all the earth”, the latter of which clearly concerned only the then inhabited world. The argument is strengthened too by the contents of verse 57 of Chapter 41 of Genesis where "all the earth" is reported to have come "to Egypt to Joseph to buy corn because the famine was sore in all the earth". Clearly, only a limited area of the earth is intended. A further argument yet is that the Hebrew word for "earth" can also be translated as "land" - see the Steinsaltz Humash's translation of verse 57.
The text of Chapter 11 is telling us, interestingly, that all of the then mankind, mentioned in verse 1, confined to a limited area of the world, were descendants of Noah and therefore must have known of the great flood before they were scattered over the "face of all the earth", and this may explain why flood narratives are so ubiquitous.
The interpretation I have applied here is consistent, I believe, with South African law on the interpretation of documentary texts: in Swart v Cape Fabrix 1979(1) SA 195 (A) South Africa’s then highest court stated that it would be wrong to view words in isolation, and that words had to be viewed in the context of the document concerned as a whole; this was affirmed in the Supreme Court of Appeal judgment of Natal Joint Municipal Pension Fund v Endumeni Municipality 2012(4) SA 593(SCA) at 609B, in which case, at 609D-F, Wallis JA also stated that “(m)ost words can bear several different meanings or shades of meaning and to try to ascertain their meaning in the abstract, divorced from the broad context of their use, is an unhelpful exercise”. In KPMG v Securefin 2009(4) SA 399 (SCA) the Supreme Court of Appeal stated at 409I-410A that to the extent that the factual context or ‘matrix’ may be relevant to interpreting a document it may be used but ‘as conservatively as possible’. The factual matrix of the flood narrative is a world involving many continents separated by seas and huge distances as well as large numbers of animals. That factual matrix supports the interpretation I contend for.
In Rabbi Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (2020) on page 40 the following is stated:
Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, the greatest halakhic decisor of early twentieth-century German Jewry, maintained that the story of the Flood recorded an actual event, but that the floodwaters covered only the plains of Mesopotamia, not the entre face of the earth.
If we postulate that the flood was confined to the then human-inhabited world, the narrative becomes more probable, including such elements of it as Noah’s ability to accommodate all the animals, the limited area of the ark and the fact that the animals were able to get to it.
A further alternative point worth making is that the revelation at Sinai and the Divine authorship of the Five Books are clearly established. That authorship includes a flood narrative and how we are to understand it may be debatable.
Perhaps we have to view it simply as a miracle – one well within the capability of the Creator not only of our unimaginably huge and magnificent universe, but also of all its billions and billions of detailed material including the smallest particles of matter science tells us of, but which we cannot see - the quarks inside an atom.
(1) During the course of a year the Five Books of Moses are read in Synagogues on the Sabbath. The whole is divided into weekly sections and the section concerning the flood and Tower of Babel is known as Parshat Noach and runs from verse 9 of Chapter 6 to the end of Chapter 11.
Podcast ChaiFM - Insight 12