The Flood: High-Water Hyperbole or a Clear-Cut Cataclysm?
If Bible students fail to recognize the inspired writers’ use of hyperbole (exaggeration), it will be impossible to correctly understand many sections of Scripture. Just as English-speaking Americans are expected to recognize and properly interpret hyperbolic expressions like “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” or “I have a ton of homework,” Bible students must also be aware that Scripture contains many figures of speech, including hyperbole. When King David sorrowfully stated, “I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim” (Psalm 6:6, emp. added), he did not literally mean that his bed swam in tears. Likewise, when Paul noted in his letter to the church in Colosse that the Gospel “was preached to every creature under heaven” (1:23, emp. added), he was not technically saying that every living thing on Earth heard the Gospel. He’s not even saying that every person, including every infant, invalid, and mentally ill person, heard the Gospel. Paul was using hyperbole to communicate an astounding truth: the then-known world (of both Jews and Gentiles) had been exposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, however, a biblical statement or account is wrongfully interpreted as hyperbolic. Such is the case with the Genesis Flood. Many have concluded that all of the statements in Genesis 6-9 that could be interpreted literally to refer to a global flood (e.g., “all the high hills…were covered”—7:19) should be understood hyperbolically. That is, the Noahic Flood allegedly was just a localized flood and not a worldwide deluge. However, such an interpretation is riddled with error. There is not just one verse in Genesis 6-9 that points to a universal catastrophe; there are many (6:12,13,17,20; 7:4,11,19,20,21,22,23,24; 8:5,14,21; 9:11,19). Furthermore, the burden of proof is on those who take a figurative interpretation of the oft’-repeated universal language in this passage. As D.R. Dungan noted in his excellent book titled Hermeneutics:
We have already seen that much of the Scriptures was written in language that was highly figurative; that its poetry and prophecy, and very much of its prose, contain the loftiest of Oriental hyperbole. It becomes, us, then, to acquaint ourselves with the rules governing this kind of speech. We know that if we shall interpret literal language as if it were figurative, or figurative as if it were literal, we will certainly miss the meaning.
How can we know figurative language? The sense of the context will indicate it. As before said, nothing should be regarded as figurative unless such a demand is made by the meaning of the immediate context, or by the evident meaning of the passage as a whole (1888, p. 195, emp. added).
In truth, the Noahic Flood should no more be interpreted hyperbolically (as a localized flood) than the days of Creation should be understood figuratively (as long ages of evolutionary time). Neither the immediate nor remote context demands such an interpretation.
Moses repeatedly testified that the same omnipotent God who created the Universe and everything in it out of nothing in six days (Genesis 1; Exodus 20:11) caused the entire Earth to be covered with water.
1. With the exception of those on the ark, God promised to “destroy man…from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air” (6:7).
2. God said, “The end of all flesh has come before Me” (6:13).
3. He promised to bring “floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die” (6:17).
4. God commanded Noah, “[O]f every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive” (6:19), because He was going to “destroy from the face of the earth all living things” that He had made (7:4).
5. “[A]ll the fountains of the deep were broken up” (7:11).
6. “[A]ll the high hills under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered” (7:19).
7. “[A]ll flesh died that moved on the earth…. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land died. So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground…. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive” (7:21-23, all emp. added).
Not only are there no demands from the immediate or remote contexts for a figurative interpretation, the very opposite it true. The context demands a universal, catastrophic interpretation!
1. Why build an ark if the Flood was not universal? Why not just instruct Noah and his family to move a few hundred or thousand miles away?
2. Why go through the trouble of taking care of animals for a year on the ark if the animals could have just migrated to other areas of the world?
3. Why did Noah and his family stay on the ark for more than a year (7:11; 8:14), if the Flood was just a local event?
4. Why did God promise, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11), if innumerable localized floods since then have ravaged many places on Earth and killed millions of people and animals? A hyperbolic interpretation of Genesis 6-9 (i.e., “this was just a local flood”) makes God a covenant breaker.
Admittedly, the Bible writers used a variety of figures of speech throughout Scripture, but there is no logical reason to interpret Genesis 6-9 as hyperbolic. On the contrary, everything in these chapters points to a worldwide Flood. One wonders what else God would have had to say to get a Bible reader to believe in the universality of the Flood than what He said? Sadly, many will continue to reject a literal interpretation of Genesis 6-9 for the same reasons they reject a literal interpretation of Genesis 1: they would rather interpret Scripture in light of evolutionary, uniformitarian science than in view of reason and revelation.
Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, reprint).