There is only one way to understand Scripture: using a literal, grammatical, and historical approach. First, we approach it literally. The Bible is straightforward; it’s written in plain, common language. We are to take it literally unless otherwise demanded by a clear indication that is the text is speaking in a figurative manner. We should also read it grammatically, applying standard rules of language—in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, as well as the language of the translation—to help us interpret the text and context. Finally, we understand it historically. It’s not myth; it’s not legend; it’s not fanciful tales. It is what it says it is; these things happened or will happen.
For some strange reason, even when people interpret the Bible using the literal, grammatical, and historical approach, they still get the meaning of the first eleven chapters of Genesis all twisted. They say, “It can’t possibly mean exactly what it says.” The flood is a prime example. Some theologians and commentators want to make it a local flood instead of a global one. They say things like, “There was a flood, but it only filled the Mesopotamian Valley where Noah was, not the whole earth.”
That cannot possibly be the way to interpret the Genesis flood, for several reasons. First, look at the extensive language that is used to describe the flood. “Behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die” (Genesis 6:17). That sounds pretty extensive. “The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered” (Genesis 7:18-19). These passages describe a global disaster, a flood that covered everything. Every living thing that needed air died. Either that happened, or God was lying.
Second, consider the size of the ark. You don’t spend 120 years building a boat that’s 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 30 feet deep for a local flood. If Noah had 120 years’ warning, why didn’t God just say, “Move to higher ground”? Noah could’ve gone anywhere he wanted in 120 years. Why spend all of that time and effort building that kind of boat to float that many animals unless the flood was going to cover the whole earth?
The third reason is God’s comprehensive promise. “The LORD said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease’” (Genesis 8:21-22). If the flood was merely local, then God lied. We’ve seen other floods, both historically and in our lifetime. If Noah’s flood was just local, for God to promise not to do it ever again would be a lie; and of course, lying is totally against His nature.
Finally, almost every book in the New Testament refer to the events of Genesis 1–11 as literal, historical events. If that’s not enough, Jesus Himself referred to the flood as something that actually happened: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man.... Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:26, 36). Jesus also referred to the creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and other events as literal, historical events.
When we read the Bible literally and historically, Genesis 6–9 is much easier to interpret: There was a flood that covered the entire globe. Every human being outside the ark, perhaps up to a billion people, as well as all of the land animals and the plant life, died. Only eight people and a representative number of animals were preserved. They were enough to repopulate an earth reconstructed by the flood, and the earth that we now live on is the same earth that greeted Noah when he stepped out of the ark in Genesis 8.