Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mabul as a local flood

There are various reasons, based on what we know about derech hateva, to question whether the mabul was a global flood. For example, how to fit all the world species we know evolved before this on the teivah. Or how animals which only developed in the Americas, or Australia, were saved by Noach.

Baby Einstein - Baby Noah - Animal Expedition

In Baby Noah, from the Baby Einstein collection (used to teach babies and small kids about the animals which live in different areas), they "solve" this problem by having Noah drop the animals off at the end of the flood in its respective location. So penguins would be dropped off in a polar region.

In terms of peshat in the parsha, there are various textual cues which appear to strongly indicate that it was a global flood. And indeed, 7000 years ago (a bit before Noach, but we can fudge it for now), there was a megatsunami which caused a global flood. (A megatsunami is not the same as a tsunami, which we have seen in or days. It is more massive than that.)

But if indeed there is no indication of a global flood at the time of Noach in the geologic record / historical record, and we are convinced that if such a global flood had occurred, it would have appeared on the geologic / historical record; and if it does not appear that this could have happened based on our understanding of the way the world works, then perhaps a reinterpretation of the pesukim is in order.

However, a word of caution before we do this. There can be at least three reasons such a reinterpretation would take us farther from peshat, rather than closer to it:
  1. It indeed happened, by nes, and evidence was destroyed, and so we are introducing a falsehood.

  2. It did not happen, but was intended as a metaphor or polemic. And perhaps part of the meaning of the story is dependent on it having been a global flood. If so, we destroy the mashal and destroy the nimshal along with it.

  3. It was intended literally, but is false. If this is so, then perhaps the intellectually honest position to take is that the story encoded in Torah is false, rather than reinterpret it in order to save our comfortable theological convictions. This is a way of being true to the text and to ourselves.
But still, we should consider the idea that it was a local flood. I'll list some difficult passages which are at odds with this, but we might be able to answer based on Devarim 29:

כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַה', אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. {ס}28 The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. {S}

Noach was tasked with saving the world. And from his perspective, he did save the world. His world was perhaps fairly limited, but that was the world. Did he know about the kangaroos in Australia? Likely not, but then he did not know about Australia. Those were nistarot, which were to Hashem, whereas the revealed things were to Noach.

Compare parshas Vayera, according to one plausible interpretation in which Lot's daughters believed the world to be destroyed, and that it was up to them, and their father, to repopulate the earth.

לא וַתֹּאמֶר הַבְּכִירָה אֶל-הַצְּעִירָה, אָבִינוּ זָקֵן; וְאִישׁ אֵין בָּאָרֶץ לָבוֹא עָלֵינוּ, כְּדֶרֶךְ כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.31 And the first-born said unto the younger: 'Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth.
לב לְכָה נַשְׁקֶה אֶת-אָבִינוּ יַיִן, וְנִשְׁכְּבָה עִמּוֹ; וּנְחַיֶּה מֵאָבִינוּ, זָרַע.32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.'

If so, "all living things" and "all the mountains under the heavens" can be written for dramatic effect and from Noach's perspective. All living things in that particular area, species which otherwise would have perished.

Looking at the parsha, the following pesukim (among others) present difficulties in terms of interpreting it as a clocal flood:

From perek 6:

ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ; וַיִּתְעַצֵּב, אֶל-לִבּוֹ.6 And it repented the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶמְחֶה אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה, עַד-רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם: כִּי נִחַמְתִּי, כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם.7 And the LORD said: 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.'

If this is only one group of man, but other homo sapiens live elsewhere, how is this blotting out? And it seems the entire creation of mankind which Hashem created.

יז וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מֵבִיא אֶת-הַמַּבּוּל מַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם: כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-בָּאָרֶץ, יִגְוָע.17 And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall perish.

From under heaven and all that is in the earth connote a global scale.

יט וּמִכָּל-הָחַי מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל, תָּבִיא אֶל-הַתֵּבָה--לְהַחֲיֹת אִתָּךְ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, יִהְיוּ.19 And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

We take this as every living thing.

From perek 7:

יט וְהַמַּיִם, גָּבְרוּ מְאֹד מְאֹד--עַל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיְכֻסּוּ, כָּל-הֶהָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים, אֲשֶׁר-תַּחַת, כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם.19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered.
כ חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה, גָּבְרוּ הַמָּיִם; וַיְכֻסּוּ, הֶהָרִים.20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

All the high mountains, under the whole heaven. And

כג וַיִּמַח אֶת-כָּל-הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה עַד-רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיִּמָּחוּ, מִן-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּשָּׁאֶר אַךְ-נֹחַ וַאֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ, בַּתֵּבָה.23 And He blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark.

utter destruction. This is a partial listing. I could have cited others. Despite this, using the mechanism described above, I think someone could effectively argue for a local flood.

If one were arguing for a local flood, apparently there is some geological evidence for a massive flood by the Black Sea about 5600 years ago. And see e-man's work to try to fit the Biblical narrative into this event (here and here).


Akiva said...


A basic question on dating of biblical events...

The Torah does not contain dating. It does provide _some_ relative dating by stating generations that past until the next narrative, though with lifespans changing through Berashis, the length of a generation has a tremendous range of it's own.

Of course various commentators present their best understanding based on exigis from the Torah, midrashim and so forth. Yet there are a variety of opinions and positions.

So I wonder why we are so firm on exact dating from the early stages of the biblical narrative that itself is rather vague on it?

joshwaxman said...

good point.

if so, we could go well past the aforementioned 7000 year old global flood to perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago (or earlier), and perhaps find something that matches...

shabbat shalom,

joshwaxman said...

even so, Pangaea was well before the arrival of human beings...


E-Man said...

THe biggest question I have about a global flood is this: How does the Dove come back with a leaf if the entire land was covered with water for such an extended period? Wouldn't all plant life have died as well? I mean an olive tree covered in water for that long would probably no longer have leaves. Or am I wrong about that? This is especially true if we take into account that the harsh rain and floodings would most probably rip all the leaves off every tree and break most of the branches.

So if it was Global, where did the Dove get the leaf? And if it was a dead leaf floating in the water, what was it symbolizing?

But then again you can just answer up like the Maharal and say it was a miracle and miracles do not effect nature in any way, they are outside of time and therefore happen without leaving a trace. So the olive branch symbolized that the miracle was over and nature had returned to its common way.

anon1 said...


isn't there a fourth possibility for how to account for the Mabul and our understanding of science:

It was literal and intended as such, but our current understanding of science/geology etc. is either flawed or incomplete. Obviously our knowledge of science and these other areas today cannot be compared with our knowledge 100 years ago and things people thought then were true are entirely not (and vice-versa). So, obviously to the extent possible to reconcile our understanding of Torah with our understanding of science, we should do so -- but where it is not possible, why do all of the approaches require a tzarich iyun (or reinterpretation) on the Torah side and never a tzarich iyun on the science side?

I am not saying this is absolutely right and THE approach to take. But why not offer it as a possibility? Unless that is what you mean by "nes" -- but I would argue that what I am suggesting is not a nes, just not understandable to us yet.

frumheretic said...

anon1 - suggesting that "our current understanding of science/geology etc. is either flawed or incomplete" is an often used approach by those who attempt to deny the value of the scientific method. Since an essential part of science is that it is falsifiable, the various disciplines are constantly being tested and refined. Those who lack an appreciation of this then erroneously assume that science is unreliable because it is subject to change. Paradoxically, such folks believe that religious beliefs are more reliable simply because they are (thought to be) static systems that are not subject to change, regardless of what evidence is presented. It's perfectly ok to say "God said it, I believe it, end of story", but one should admit that this is an emunah-based and not a rational-based approach.

In any event, your "fourth possibility" adds nothing to the claim that God hides the evidence except possibly to mitigate the implication that God is purposefully deceiving us.

Hillel said...

"3. It was intended literally, but is false. If this is so, then perhaps the intellectually honest position to take is that the story encoded in Torah is false, rather than reinterpret it in order to save our comfortable theological convictions."

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by this statement - can you expand on it a bit? Why would God write something intentionally false in the Torah that is not intended as a metaphor or polemic or the like?

Thanks and shabbat shalom,

Joe in Australia said...

This is meant speculatively - how are we to take the stipulation that the waters rose fifteen amot (around fifteen feet)? If "the mountains were covered" then the water would have had to have been many hundreds of times higher than that. I'm not satisfied by the suggestion that it means the highest mountains were covered by at least fifteen feet, because it is a very odd way of saying that.

How about we understand "mountains" to mean "the local high points" and it simply means that in the relatively-flat location of the ark (presumably the plain of Bavel) every place was covered by a flood fifteen amot deep. And yes, life went on in other areas - but the people significant to the Biblical narrative (i.e., us) all derive from the survivors of this flood.

Anonymous said...

what with the alternating spellings of Yericho is there some Zohar about I know it represent the smell which Rashi brings in Gemara Brochos from Josephus and the other spelling because the served the moon but the Torah does not seem to have a consistent approach when to spell it one way or the other?

joshwaxman said...

i like it. i was thinking along the same lines -- that in חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה, גָּבְרוּ הַמָּיִם; וַיְכֻסּוּ, הֶהָרִים, they rose 15 cubits, and thus covered parts of the mountains. the "problem" with that is וְהַמַּיִם, הָיוּ הָלוֹךְ וְחָסוֹר, עַד, הַחֹדֶשׁ הָעֲשִׂירִי; בָּעֲשִׂירִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ, נִרְאוּ רָאשֵׁי הֶהָרִים. roshei heharim implies that even the tops of the mountains were covered.

i cannot come up with a way of making both the former interpretation and the latter pasuk true simultaneously, but that may be my flaw.

mountains as "local high points" is possible; but וַיְכֻסּוּ כָּל-הֶהָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים אֲשֶׁר-תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם doesn't recommend it. it might indeed be resolvable.

regardless, i most definitely agree with you in terms of the pasuk about the height, and think it makes for extremely compelling local peshat.

absolutely. i was just trying to present three alternate scenarios, of it is right and factual, it is allegorical, and it is false. i illustrated "it is right and factual" as i did, but your way also works.

certainly in previous generations people thought quite strongly that their scientific beliefs were accurate, but they were not. and so the same might well be true for us. but there still is a big difference, in that we had a scientific revolution. the process of ascertaining scientific facts is quite different, and much of our science has led to demonstrable results which have shown them to be much more than speculation. therefore, my strong inclinations are that the science is right, even though i know that others have made similar arrogant mistakes in the past.

that third possibility wasn't meant to be a frum alternative. rather, this would be the conclusion of the unbeliever. but it would be unfair to leave that alternative unmentioned. we believe in judaism as true beliefs, and if the Torah says something that is false, then it could falsify our entire religion. i don't think this is the conclusion to be made here, but *if* it were the correct conclusion, then "covering it up" by providing untrue answers that it was a local flood would serve to keep ourselves following a false religion, which would not be a positive thing.

the point i was trying to make is that from a wide range of perspectives, and various different scenarios of intent and historicity, an inaccurate local flood scenario would not serve anyone's interests.

on the other hand, if it *was* a local flood, and the text was referring to a local flood, then we would have arrived at historical truth and peshat in the pesukim, which would be a wonderful thing.

kol tuv,

משה רפאל said...

Around the time of the 5.9 kiloyear event there was great flood in Mesopotamia.

Shlomo said...

Two ideas:

1. I once speculated that the flood was a reference to the Ice Ages, in which much of the world was covered by water (albeit frozen) and many people and animals like dies.

2. A "second flood" occured in Nineveh during bayit rishon - apparently, exactly 1656 years after the first one, according to the Biblical chronology. See

Shlomo said...

"like dies"
=likely died

anon said...

Thanks for posting this, this has been bothering me for a while.
Recently, I have begun to think that the allegorical or partially-allegorical approach may work.
We would need to figure out what it is teaching us, and why exact dates are provided for an event that never happened.
If you have more on this, please post.

joshwaxman said...

Rabbi Shubert Spero has an article on Noach as allegory, which I commented upon before having read it, assuming that it meant some sort of moral lesson. But see here,

or here, for the actual article. BeEzrat Hashem, I'll get around eventually to evaluating it, or proposing my own metaphorical explanation...


David Mescheloff said...

a - Is there not a midrash that says that eretz yisrael was not flooded? Clearly the problem that bothers you did not bother the author of the midrash.
b - I think one key to solving "the problem" lies in realizing that the Torah does not necessarily mean 100% when it says "kol" (usually translated "all"). I believe there is a large number of instances where this is the case, and it makes it easier to understand many pesukim and halakhot.

E-Man said...

There is a machlokes in meseches zevachim, I think on daf 103 or so between rav yochanan and reish lakish. Rav Yochanan held that Eretz Yisroel was not covered whereas Reish lakish says it was covered.

Could you bring some of these instances where the Torah says kol and does not mean everything? Because the way I learned it, it is either kol in the eyes of G-D or Kol in the eyes of Noach. If it is kol in the eys of G-D then it has to be global, but if it is kol in the eyes of Noach then we for sure have room to say it is a local flood.

joshwaxman said...

good points.
i'm going to try to answer in a follow-up post, where the gemara in zevachim, Bereishit Rabba, and Ibn Ezra all come into play. al regel achat, though, there is a surely a difference between "kol" and "asher tachat kol hashamayim." in the latter case, the Torah seems to go out of its way to convey the sense of all-encompassing flood.

one approach might be as follows: first, channel Ibn Ezra in his discussion on the different language in the two givings of the luchot. namely, that the meanings are the nefesh and the word forms are the guf, and what one should focus upon are the nefesh rather than the guf, and this is what linguists of all other languages do. so it can change from one place to another. and also channel him about how it doesn't make sense to here darshen because the yud is extra, and there darshen because the yud is missing. rather, different spellings conveys that both forms were acceptable, and that there is no regular spelling in these instances.

secondly -- and this is no longer channeling Ibn Ezra: i am not sure where in Torah Yericho is spelled differently. A quick search on Yericho with and without a yud gave me the following rough data:
It is spelled with an internal Yud throughout sefer Yehoshua, as well as in one instance in Melachim.

It is spelled without an internal Yud everywhere else, which includes Torah, Yirmeyahu, and one instance in Melachim.

If so, one can say that different neviim in general spelled the words differently, based on the standard spelling of the word in their time.

Alternatively, throughout sefer Yehoshua we are just dealing with Yericho, the city, so it is just Yericho. In all the other instances, it is the *target* of a construct form, and thus Yarden Yereicho; of Arvot Yereicho. Perhaps the different grammatical construction brings upon the switch from chirik to tzeirei, and along with that the disappearance of the yud.

if you give me other data -- e.g. where in Torah itself it is spelled in various forms, perhaps i can come with another theory.

kol tuv,

E-Man said...

Josh, doesn;t the concept of ain bakiim biyiseros vichaseiros come into play when you are talking about spelling things with a yud or not?

joshwaxman said...

certainly -- though if midrashim darshen them, then the implication is that in this instance, they did keep track of them. if zohar is an early midrash, then perhaps we are bekiin.

to really complicate matters, see what Ramban says in his hakdama to bereishit...


joshwaxman said...

a new post on that midrash, here.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

Where would this Ibn Ezra be?

joshwaxman said...

see here, reading from the beginning of his commentary on Shemot 20:1, but particularly from Amar Avraham Hamechaber.

kol tuv,

Devorah said...

A perfect title for this post:
"When cynicism replaces innocence".
For some insights into the dove and the raven, listen to a shiur by Rabbi Jacobson here

joshwaxman said...

thanks; that's a long shiur.

getting spiritual lessons from the narrative is always good.

in terms of resolving what we know about science and what we know about Torah, the underlying assumption is that both science and Torah were created by one Creator, and therefore they have to work together...


Bartley kulp said...

The problem with speculating that the narrative of the mabul may have been from Noach's perspective and thus dramatizing the events is that the Torah is G-d's perspective of the world, not man's.

The example that Josh Waxman brings from parshat Veyra just reenforces this point. In the parsha the torah points out that it was from the perspective of the daughters that the world except for them had been wiped out. We do not see any such language in parshat Noach.

Could anybody say that the story was allegorical? I do not know.

Anonymous said...

"Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered."

What mountain is Fifteen cubits high?

joshwaxman said...

in this theory, covered does not necessarily mean entirely covered, but that even *parts* of *mountains* were covered.

also, perhaps see how "har" is sometimes translated as "hill".



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