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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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The narrative of a flood, given in the book of Genesis (Genesis 7-8), by which, according to the literal sense of the description, the whole world was overwhelmed and every terrestrial creature destroyed, with the exception of one human family and the representatives of each species of animal, supernaturally preserved in an ark, constructed by divine appointment for the purpose, need not here be followed in detail. The account furnished by the sacred historian is circumstantially distinct; and the whole is expressly ascribed to divine agency: but, in several of the lesser particulars, secondary causes, as rain, 'the opening of the windows of Heaven' (), and the 'breaking up of the fountains of the great deep,' are mentioned, and again the effect of wind in drying up the waters (). It is chiefly to be remarked that the whole event is represented as both commencing and terminating in the most gradual and quiet manner, without anything at all resembling the catastrophes and convulsions often pictured in vulgar imagination as accompanying it. When the waters subsided, so little was the surface of the earth changed that the vegetation continued uninjured; the olive-trees remained from which the dove brought its token.

We allude particularly to these circumstances in the narrative as being those which bear most upon the probable nature and extent of the event, which it is our main object in the present article to examine, according to the tenor of what little evidence can be collected on the subject, whether from the terms of the narrative or from other sources of information which may be opened to us by the researches of science.

Much, indeed, might be said on the subject in other points of view; and especially in a more properly theological sense, it may be dwelt upon as a part of the great series of divine interpositions and dispensations which the sacred history discloses. But our present object, as well as limits, will restrict us from enlarging on these topics; or, again, upon the various ideas which have prevailed on the subject apart from Scripture on the one hand, or science on the other. Thus, we need merely allude to the fact that in almost all nations, from the remotest periods, there have prevailed certain mythological narratives and legendary tales of similar catastrophes. Such narratives have formed a part of the rude belief of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Scythians, and Celtic tribes. They have also been discovered among the Peruvians and Mexicans, and the South Sea Islanders. For details on these points we refer our readers to the work of Bryant (Ancient Mythology), and more especially to the treatise of the Rev. L.V. Harcourt on the Deluge, who appears to have collected everything of this kind bearing on the subject.

With reference to our present design the most material question is that of the existence of those traces which it might be supposed would be discovered of the action of such a deluge on the existing surface of the globe; and the consequent views which we must adopt according to the degree of accordance or discordance which such evidences may offer, as compared with the written narrative.

The evidence which geology may disclose and which can in any degree bear on our present subject must, from the nature of the case, be confined to indications of superficial action attributable to the agency of water, subsequent to the latest period of the regular geological formations, and, corresponding in character to a temporary inundation of a quiet and tranquil nature, of a depth sufficient to cover the highest mountains, and, lastly (as indeed this condition implies), extending over the whole globe; or, if these conditions should not be fulfilled, then, indications of at least something approaching to this, or with which the terms of the description may be fairly understood and interpreted to correspond.

The general result of the geological researches into this subject is briefly this: the traces of currents, and the like, which the surface of the earth does exhibit, and which might be ascribed to diluvial action of some kind, are certainly not the results of one universal simultaneous submergence, but of many distinct, local, aqueous forces, for the most part continued in action for long periods, and of a kind precisely analogous to such agency as is now at work. While, further, many parts of the existing surface show no traces of such operations; and the phenomena of the volcanic districts prove distinctly that during the enormous periods which have elapsed since the craters were active, no deluge could possibly have passed over them without removing all those lighter portions of their exuviæ which have evidently remained wholly untouched since they were ejected.

Upon the whole it is thus apparent, that we have no evidence whatever of any great aqueous revolution at any comparatively recent period having affected the earth's surface over any considerable tract: changes, doubtless, may have been produced on a small scale in isolated districts. The phenomena presented by caves containing bones, as at Kirkdale and other localities, are not of a kind forming any breach in the continuity of the analogies by which all the changes in the surface are more and more seen to have been carried on. But a recent simultaneous influx of water covering the globe, and ascending above the level of the mountains, must have left indisputable traces of its influence, which not only is not the case, but against which we have positive facts standing out. Apart from the testimonies of geology there are other sciences which must be interrogated on such a subject. These are, chiefly, terrestrial physics, to assign the possibility of a supply of water to stand all over the globe five miles in depth above the level of the ordinary sea—natural history, to count the myriads of species of living creatures to be preserved and continued in the ark—mechanics, to construct such a vessel—with some others not less necessary to the case. But we have no disposition to enter more minutely on such points: the reader will find them most clearly and candidly stated in Dr. Pye Smith's Geology and Scripture, etc. p. 130, 2nd edit.

Let us now glance at the nature and possible solutions of the difficulty thus presented. We believe only two main solutions have been attempted. One is that proposed by Dr. Pye Smith (ib. p. 294), who expressly contends that there is no real contradiction between these facts and the description in the Mosaic record, when the latter is correctly interpreted. This more correct interpretation then refers, in the first instance, to the proper import of the Scripture terms commonly taken to imply the universality of the deluge. These the author shows, by a large comparison of similar passages, are only to be understood as expressing a great extent; often, indeed, the very same phrase is applied to a very limited region or country, as in;; , etc. Thus, so far as these expressions are concerned, the description may apply to a local deluge.

Next, the destruction of the whole existing human race does not by any means imply this universality, since, by ingenious considerations as to the multiplication of mankind at the alleged era of the deluge; the author has shown that they probably had not extended beyond a comparatively limited district of the East.

A local destruction of animal life would also allow of such a reduction of the numbers to be included in the ark, as might obviate objections on that score; and here again the Oriental idiom may save the necessity of the literal supposition of every actual species being included.

Again, certain peculiar difficulties connected with the resting of the ark on Mount Ararat are combated by supposing the name incorrectly applied to the mountain now so designated, and really to belong to one of much lower elevation.

Lastly, this author suggests considerations tending to fix the region which may have been the scene of the actual inundation described by Moses, in about that part of Western Asia where there is a large district now considerably depressed below the level of the sea: this might have been submerged by the joint action of rain, and an elevation of the bed of the Persian and Indian Seas. And, finally, he quotes the opinions of several approved divines in confirmation of such a view, especially as bearing upon all the essential religious instruction which the narrative is calculated to convey.

Other attempts have been made with more or less probability to assign particular localities as the scene of the Mosaic deluge, if understood to have been partial. Some diluvial beds posterior to the tertiary formations have been occasionally pointed out as offering some probability of such an origin. Thus, e.g. Mr. W.J. Hamilton, secretary to the Geological Society, in his Tour in Asia Minor (vol. II, p. 386), found in the plains of Armenia, especially in some localities near Khorassan and on the banks of the Arpachai or Araxes, a remarkable thin bed of marl containing shells of tertiary (qu. recent?) species: these he attributes to a local deluge occurring (as the position of the bed indicates) after the cessation of the volcanic action which has taken place in that district. He expressly adds that he regards this deluge as probably coincident with the Mosaic; understanding the latter in a restricted or partial sense, and imagining it explained by physical causes which might have followed the volcanic action.

The only other mode of viewing the subject is that which, accepting the letter of the Scriptural narrative, makes the deluge strictly universal; and allowing (as they must be allowed) all the difficulties, not to say contradictions, in a natural sense, involved in it, accounts for them all by supernatural agency. In fact, the terms of the narrative, strictly taken, may perhaps be understood throughout as representing the whole event, from beginning to end, as entirely of a miraculous nature. If so, it may be said, there is an end to all difficulties or question, since there are no limits to omnipotence; and one miracle is not greater than another. Thus, Mr. Lyell (Principles of Geol. iv. 219. 4th ed.), after ably recapitulating the main points of evidence, as far as physical causes are concerned, remarks, 'If we believe the flood to have been a temporary suspension of the ordinary laws of the natural world, requiring a miraculous intervention of the divine power, then it is evident that the credibility of such an event cannot be enhanced by any series of inundations, however analogous, of which the geologist may imagine he has discovered the proofs. For my own part, I have always considered the flood, when its universality, in the strictest sense of the term, is insisted on as a preternatural event far beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry, whether as to the causes employed to produce it, or the effects most likely to result from it.'

In a word, if we suppose the flood to have been miraculously produced, and all the difficulties thus overcome, we must also suppose that it was not only miraculously terminated also, but every trace and mark of it supernaturally effaced and destroyed.

Now, considering the immense amount of supernatural agency thus rendered necessary, this hypothesis has appeared to some quite untenable. Dr. Pye Smith, in particular (whom no one will suspect of any leaning to skepticism), enlarges on the difficulty (p. 157, and note), and offers some excellent remarks on the general question of miracles (p. 84-89); and there can be no doubt that, however plausible may be the assertion that all miracles are alike, yet the idea of supernatural agency to so enormous an amount as in the present instance is, to many minds at least, very staggering, if not wholly inadmissible. In fact, in stretching the argument to such an extent, it must be borne in mind, that we may be trenching upon difficulties in another quarter, and not sufficiently regarding the force of the evidence on which any miracles are supported [MIRACLES].

In any point of view, it must be admitted that the subject involves difficulties of no inconsiderable amount; and if, after due consideration of the suggestions offered for their solution, we should still feel it necessary to retain a cautious suspense of judgment on the subject, it may be also borne in mind that such hesitation will not involve the dereliction of any material religious doctrine.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Deluge'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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