A study of the Genesis Flood account and related questions. From the June 2010 Creation Answers Newsletter.
The Vapor Canopy Idea
Movement of the Continents
Chronology of the Flood
In this series we have looked at what Genesis tells us about the global Flood in the time of Noah. Though it is often referred to by Christians as "Noah's Flood" I have decided to call it "God's Flood." The God of the Bible is Judge of mankind. In Parts 1 and 2 we have also looked at various questions about Noah and his family and about the Ark itself. In Part 3 we will consider a variety of things from Genesis that affect how we understand the Flood. You might think of this as "tying up loose ends." Or you could consider this some biblical questions about the Flood. These are issues Christians may take different views on. Thus the following is only my perspective after years of studying these questions.
There are some questions about Genesis chapters 1-3 that affect how we understand the Flood in chapters 6, 7, and 8. One of these is the meaning of the Hebrew word "raquia." in Genesis 1:6-9. This word is translated "expanse" in the NIV and "firmament" in the King James Bible. When the King James was translated in the 1600's the translaters elected to use a Latin word for "raquia" and not even attempt to translate it into English. This is something translaters have sometimes done in English Bibles for words that are difficult to translate. Thus, "firmament" comes from the Latin word "firmamentum." You may find other ways this is translated in other Bible versions. I think the 1984 NIV translation is good to use "expanse." There has been significant controversy about the meaning of raquia in Genesis 1. Raquia in the Old Testament is used in a couple of ways. Sometimes it is used to mean a solid surface, such as in Ezekiel chapter 1 where Ezekiel has a vision of God on his throne in heaven and it describes the throne as sitting on a solid transparent crystal surface. That surface is described with "raquia." However since this passage is about a vision I do not think it tells us anything about the meaning of raquia in Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is not a vision or symbolic. Genesis 1 is a narrative. There are some Christians who would insist that the meaning of raquia in Genesis 1 is indeed the same as in Ezekiel 1. There are other ways raquia is used in the Old Testament that must be considered. Sometimes raquia is used in a way very similar to the word for "heavens," which is transliterated "shamayim" from Hebrew. There has been a misconception about ancient peoples, that they often believed the sky was a solid dome, but this is incorrect. This seems to be a misunderstanding about what ancient peoples believed. Even if some ancient Hebrews thought of the sky as a solid dome that held up stars and the "waters above" this is not really biblical. I do not think Scripture teaches or encourages the idea that raquia is a solid. The idea from Scripture is more "spread-out thinness"; Scripture is not telling us anything about what the "expanse" is made of.
The word for "heavens," "shamayim" is a word that is used a variety of ways also and you must be careful interpreting it in the Old Testament. The meaning of raquia in Genesis 1 depends on how you understand "heavens," "sky," and the "waters above." Sometimes "shamayim" may refer to where God and the angels are, at other times it may refer to Earth's atmosphere where clouds or birds are, or it may refer to outer space where the stars are. To know the difference you must look at the context to get clues from what the passage is talking about. So if it refers to stars or constellations near the word "heavens" then you know it is referring to outer space. There apparently are no words in Hebrew specifically for "outer space" or "Earth's atmosphere". The same word, “shamayim” is translated as either “sky” or “heavens” in various passages in the Old Testament. So in the Bible, the word "heavens" can mean "where the birds are," or "where the stars are," "where the Moon is," or "where God is" depending on the context. Psalm 19:1 and Daniel 12:3 are verses that use "raquia" to refer to outer space and they use the word in a way that exactly parallels the word for heavens, "shamayim." These two verses use what is known as parallelism, where an idea is stated and then restated using slightly different wording. This clearly shows that raquia can mean the same thing as the word for "heavens." The Bible refers to the “heavens” and the “sky” but it does not tell us what the sky actually is. It describes it in terms of what is there that we can see.
In Genesis 1:6-9, raquia is used to describe a separation between "waters above" the expanse and waters below the expanse. Then in Genesis 1:20 it refers to the birds flying across the "expanse" (raquia) of the sky. The Bible never really gives a technical scientific description of things in nature, but I believe it is accurate in what it does say. Thus it won't answer all technical scientific questions about some details. There has been different views of "waters above" suggested by creationists and Bible scholars.
The Vapor Canopy Idea
One old idea put forward by creationists was that the "waters above" refers to a vapor canopy, a layer of Earth's atmosphere that no longer exists today. The vapor canopy would have served the purpose of helping provide a uniform near-tropical climate in the preflood world, but the canopy would have collapsed or dissipated in the Flood and no longer exists. This canopy was envisioned as a transparent layer of Earth's atmosphere that held water vapor. It was once thought that the vapor canopy might provide water for the 40 days and nights of rain in the Flood. However, when the Institute for Creation Research did research on this concept, they found that such a canopy could not contain large amounts of water such as would be required for 40 days of rain. Only a small amount of water could be in the canopy or otherwise the greenhouse heating effect from it would be so strong it would make Earth's surface uninhabitable. Few creationists with science backgrounds still believe in the vapor canopy today. Most creation scientists have abandoned the idea as unnecessary. I would say the vapor canopy idea is not really a necessary concept and it is unlikely. Certainly, if there was a vapor canopy, it did not provide the water for the 40 days of rain in the Flood.
I would not be dogmatic on the meaning of "waters above" (Genesis 1:6-7). I think it is possible the "waters above" may simply refer to clouds. Some creation scientists have suggested "waters above" refers to water out in space. See, for instance, Psalm 148:4 which mentions waters "above the heavens." Or, the way raquia, sky, and waters above are described in Genesis 1, it might be possible it is saying something about HOW God created the atmosphere, not describing what it is made of. It could be God took some water from the Earth's surface and used it to make the atmosphere, separating it from the Earth's surface and then converting it to different gases in the atmosphere. There is also water vapor throughout Earth's atmosphere (and sometimes ice crystals), so there may be other possibilities. Earth's atmosphere could have been different before the Flood in a manner that we are not aware of. But I think it is incorrect and unrealistic to say that raquia in Genesis 1 definitely refers to a solid surface. It is where the birds fly, so it is logical to say it is not solid. The word "raquia" does not tell us anything about what raquia is made of in Genesis 1. Also, raquia in another passage and a different context, such as Ezekiel 1, may be using the word to refer to something totally unrelated to Genesis 1. Genesis 1 does not explain what raquia actually is. It is only a "separation" between waters above and waters below.
Another controversy pertaining to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is about rain. Some have suggested there was no rain on Earth until it rained at the beginning of the Flood. What is this based on? This idea is sometimes related to the vapor canopy idea, arguing that when the vapor canopy collapsed this started the first rain. Recall that the vapor canopy idea does not offer a good explanation of the rains of the Flood. Another basis for the "no rain until the Flood" idea comes from Genesis 2:5. This verse says, "no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground (NIV)." This verse is apparently describing the state of the Earth between the third day and the sixth day. When it says the Lord had not sent rain, does this mean there would never have been rain until the Flood? Genesis is not clear on this, I do not think we know if there was rain before the Flood or not. It could be it did rain after Adam was created. We can infer a few things about the preflood world from fossil evidence and the general description in Genesis that it was very good. I think rain is not necessarily a bad thing, but violent dangerous storms are. Rain as we know it often causes erosion of the soil, which is indeed a bad thing. Today people take measures to minimize and prevent soil erosion. But if rain were gentle it would not cause soil erosion. Thus, I think it is possible there could have been gentle rain in the preflood world, but we do not know. There are other possibilities for how God may have provided water for plants, such as through ground water and morning dew.
On the other hand, when the Flood began, there was indeed intense rain. Genesis 7:11 says, "In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, on the seventeenth day of the second month--on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened (NIV)." In Genesis 7:4 and 7:12 it states that it rained for 40 days and nights. This clearly implies intense storm activity that would have been frightening to people who were used to living in such a pleasant environment. The 40 days of rain also is scientifically interesting because today it is physically impossible for Earth to do this. Earth's atmosphere probably could not sustain rain this long. Also, it seems likely, though it is not explicitly stated, that this rain was global. In order for it to rain this long over the entire Earth surface, something had to put large amounts of water into Earth's atmosphere. Earth's atmosphere apparently became "overloaded" or supersaturated with water in a way that was sustained for weeks. I suspect that even at the end of the 40 days there could have been continuing rain on some occasional or scattered basis for some weeks.
Creation scientists have much debated what Genesis 7:11 means when it says "springs of the great deep" or "fountains of the deep." Volcanic eruptions, hot water geysers, water jets from the mid-ocean ridges, and impacts from space vaporizing ocean water have all been suggested as possible means of putting large amounts of water into the atmosphere rapidly. Some or all of these catastrophic mechanisms could cause intense long lasting rains. The Flood account in Genesis raises many scientific questions. Surely a global Flood would cause many geological and physical effects on the Earth. In fact, not one square inch of Earth's surface would remain unchanged. The Bible does not spell out what happened in technical detail but it gives a general outline of the events. There is a great desire on the part of Christians in the sciences who are creationists to understand what this Flood did to the Earth. Though we may never fully answer every question about the Flood, various ideas have been proposed to relate the Flood as described in Genesis to what is known from modern Earth sciences.
Movement of the Continents
A question that sometimes comes up is what about the continents and the concept of Plate Tectonics. In other words, was there once one large supercontinent that split up, as is believed today by modern geologists? Could this have something to do with the Flood? Some creationists would say, yes this does have a lot to do with Noah's Flood. But, other creation scientists reject the idea of Plate Tectonics completely. Does the Bible speak to this? It has been argued by some creationists that the Bible implies there was once one continent based on Genesis 1:9-10. This passage says, 'And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." ' The relevant part is about the water being "gathered to one place." The idea is that this implies one contiguous body of water in the ocean, therefore there would be one contiguous land mass. However, I think this is a very weak argument. In fact, since verse 10 says the gathered waters were called "seas" plural, it may be incorrect to take this to mean there was one contiguous body of water. I would be reluctant to infer anything about the arrangement of the preflood oceans or continents from the information in Genesis 1. However, even if Genesis does not say anything about a supercontinent in the past, that does not necessarily rule it out as a possibility. It could be something the Bible just does not mention. There are many processess that may have happened in the Flood that the Bible does not describe.
Another passage in Genesis is sometimes related to the break up of a past supercontinent, Genesis 10:25. This is in the section of Genesis often called the "Table of Nations." It lists descendants of Noah's three sons and shows that there were groups of people who came from Noah's descendants. Thus the Israelites would have known something about the origins of the various people groups they would encounter in their journey to Caanan because of the background about those people groups given in Genesis. Among the descendants of Noah's son Shem is a man named Eber who had two sons, one of whom was Peleg. This is what Genesis 10:25 says about Peleg, "One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided." The name Peleg apparently means "divided" or similar. Thus some have suggested this verse is talking about the Earth continents dividing in the time of Peleg. However, I don't think this is clear from Genesis based on just the little information in this verse. Genesis 10:25 comes right before the account of the Tower of Babel and thus Peleg and the Babel account were probably concurrent in time. So I think it is most likely Peleg's name refers to the dividing of people groups by different language groups, not the dividing of Earth's continents. Also, Peleg would have lived a few hundred years after the Flood considering Genesis 10, so if Peleg did refer to the breakup of the continents, that would put the breakup of a supercontinent after the Flood, rather than during the Flood. This has also been suggested by some creationists. A number of well known creation scientists today tend to lean toward the view that a separation of the continents happened during the Flood. I would agree with this view, though I would say other views are worth considering. I do not think Genesis answers the question of was there once a supercontinent that broke up. I think science must be applied to answer that question.
Something that is important for understanding God's Flood is the chronology of the event from Scripture. Creationists still debate some details about the sequence of events. Following is a sequence that Genesis gives us of what happened in the Flood. This is describing it from the perspective of Noah in the Ark. Time is apparently marked in Genesis based on days from Noah's birthday.
Chronology of Flood Events
Date Events Reference
Noah’s yr 600, Mo 2, day10 Noah enters Ark, Gen. 7:7-9
Mo 2, d 17, 40 days of rain starts , 7:10-11
Mo 3, d 27, End of 40 days of heavy rain, 7:12
Mo 7, d 17 150 days, Ark rests on a mtn in Ararat. Rains stop , 7:24, 8:2, 8:4
Mo 10, d 1 , Other mtns visible from the Ark, 8:5
Mo 11, d 11 Raven sent out, Dove sent out and returns, 8:6-9
Mo 11, d 18 , Dove sent out again, returns with olive leaf, 8:10
Mo 11, d 25, Dove sent out again, does not return, 8:12
Noah’s yr 601, Mo 1, d 1 , Some dry land , 8:13
Yr 601, Mo 2, d 27 , Land completely dry. Noah exits Ark, 8:14-19
To summarize, Noah, his family, and the animals were in the Ark for one year and 17 days. This is probably based on 30 day months. Note that for over half of the Flood year, Noah was sitting on the mountain waiting for the water to go down. Another point worth noting is that in the Ararat region, there is a whole range of mountains. The mountains of Ararat are volcanic. There is evidence they uplifted during the Flood and volcanic eruptions caused them to grow in altitude for some time after the Flood. So, at the end of the Flood, the mountain would not have been such a high altitude as it is today. Many mountains in the Earth today would have formed during and after the Flood. This means the Flood waters did not have to be over 25,000 feet deep so that Mt. Everest was covered with water. Mt. Everest did not exist in the preflood world. Thus the post-Flood world is very different from the preflood world.
The God of the Bible did indeed judge mankind in the past with a global catastrophic flood. This shows he is a holy God who judges sin. He promised not to do that again, and he has given a way of salvation through faith in Christ. This gives us hope for today and for the future.
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