This is something that is very controversial among Christians in particular. Scientifically, it is generally accepted that there has never been a global flood. Does this mean that there was no global flood? Of course not, it simply means that the existing physical evidence, as interpreted by the majority of scientists, indicates that there has not been one. This is something that could easily change with time. Some new evidence may be discovered which changes everything, but until then Christians will need to be able to defend the idea of a Genesis flood without scientific confirmation.
Did the flood really need to be global in order to end all of mankind? Had mankind really spread so far across the face of the earth that God would have to flood the entire planet to kill everyone? Most importantly, what does the Bible actually say happened? First, I will break out some of the language used to display its level of versatility and then I will provide some additional commentary on the matter.
So the LORD said, “I will blot out man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—every man and beast and crawling creature and bird of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.”Genesis 6:7
In this verse we have the promise from God that he will destroy mankind. It does not say that He will use a global flood, merely that He will destroy the life that He has created. The Hebrew word translated as earth here is hā·’ă·ḏā·māh. This word shares it origin with Adam. Let’s take a look at the definition.
Hā·’ă·ḏā·māh: ground, land, country, dirt, dust, earth, farming, fields, ground, lands, soil.
This is one of the few times that this particular word is chosen rather than ḇā·’ā·reṣ or hā·’ā·reṣ. Here, I believe, God is saying that He is going to destroy every living thing that He has created from the ground. This is significant to understand because the English interpretation has already begun creating global imagery while the Hebrew hasn’t yet done so.
As Genesis goes on, there are plenty of scenic descriptors that create the image of a massive flood. As one reads the story, one tends to imagine it from God’s perspective, as He is the one causing the flood. However, the narrative is written in the third person and the scene is focused entirely on Noah. This is likely because Noah’s children would have been the ones to pass this story on to the next generations. From Noah’s perspective, the entire region is covered in water and he can see no land in any direction. It makes sense that it would be described that way in Genesis, regardless of the actual extent of the flood, because that is the way Noah experienced it. All the mountains in the distance were gone, covered in water, obscured by clouds, or maybe the ark moved too far for him to see them on the horizon. No matter what the actual explanation is, the following verses are still accurate for Noah.
So the waters continued to surge and rise greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the waters. Finally, the waters completely inundated the earth, so that all the high mountains under all the heavens were covered.Genesis 7:18-19
My ultimate point here is not to say that the flood wasn’t global, it is to clarify that the biblical context does not distinguish whether or not the flood was global. This is an important thing to keep in mind as there are many regional floods from the time frame of Noah. Lack of evidence for a global flood does not disqualify the authenticity of the story of Noah.
Commentary From Ellicott
Every thing that is in the earth shall die.–That this by no means involves the theory of a universal deluge has been shown with admirable cogency by Professor Tayler Lewis in “Lange’s Commentary.” His view is that the writer described with perfect truthfulness that of which he was either an eye-witness, or of which he had received the knowledge by tradition; or lastly, that he recorded in his own language the impressions divinely inspired in his mind by God. “We have no right,” he adds, “to force upon him, and upon the scene so vividly described, our modern notions or our modern knowledge of the earth, with its Alps and Himalayas, its round figure, its extent and diversities, so much beyond any knowledge he could have possessed or any conception he could have formed.” The excursus is too long even for condensation, but we may add, first, that the idea of unnecessary miracle is contrary both to the wisdom of the Almighty, and to what we actually find in the Bible with respect to the exercise of supernatural power; and, secondly, that the narrative itself repeatedly negatives the theory that the flood extended to any great distance beyond the regions then occupied by man. Moreover, it is in exact accordance with the use of words in Holy Scripture that the large term, the earth, is limited to the earth as known to Noah and his contemporaries. We shall also discover in what follows reason for believing that the account originally came from one who was an eye-witness; and the extreme antiquity of the language is a proof that it was committed to writing at a time long anterior to the age of Moses.