For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. – Genesis 7:17-20 (NIV)
A literal interpretation of this passage is problematic for many geologists because it seems to be very specific about the fact that the flood covered all the high mountains, including one of the tallest in the region, the Ararat Mountain range and Mount Ararat (5,137 m or 16,854 ft). Mount Ararat is no slouch of a mountain. There is still some debate about exactly which mountain is described as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark.
Regardless of where the ark came to rest, in order for the water to reach a depth of 15 cubits (roughly 7 meters) over Mount Ararat the water would have to be over 16,000 feet deep. From a scientific perspective, clearly this is either 1) hyperbole; 2) mistranslated; 3) allegorical; 4) a truly miraculous “magical” occurrence for which no geologic record remains. I favor the idea that this story was handed down and perhaps made into hyperbole by the people who captured the narrative. Perhaps a regional flood covered many “high hills” as the King James version puts it, but it is not possible for a geologist to believe that floodwater covered Mount Ararat without a major suspension of natural laws and an effort by God to “fool” us with the present geologic record.
The specificity of the last verse is a bit odd. Why specify that the flood waters reached a specific height above mountains when the mountains are different heights? How could flood water reach a certain height above mountains of different heights? The last verse reads to me like it may have been grafted onto the narrative, perhaps later to describe an actual observation of a regional flood. For example, perhaps the flood reached a height of >20 feet over the “high hills” of the rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, etc.) region of area. A regional flood in large rivers of >20 feet would certainly be a very large flood and would have covered a large area of the region. Many sincere Christians have tried to make fossils scattered around the world fit with the Noah’s flood account. I have collected fossils around the world in different places and from many different age rocks and a Noah’s flood origin for these fossils is not geologically possible. Could God have miraculously caused these fossils to be in the rock, sure, but why would He do that? I see no other evidence in the bible that God is interested in deceiving us into believing and following him.
I have had many conversations with both Christians and fellow scientists about this verse (and the age of the earth). This verse (and the age of the earth) is a stumbling block for many scientists (especially geologists) who would otherwise consider the person of Jesus and what he came to accomplish. Which is more important; the veracity of a literal interpretation of the biblical account of Noah’s Flood (or the age of the earth), or the ability of spiritually curious God-seekers to find Christ and follow Him? I will pick the second option every time.
Prayer: Lord help me to understand passages such as this in the context of your ongoing desire to know and love all of us as your children through Jesus Christ.