Why would someone ask this question? Let’s back up and look at this from a big picture. Consider what the Bible says about the voyage of the ark:
The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered (Genesis 7:19–20).1
People look at the earth today and note that the highest mountain is Mt. Everest, which stands just over 29,000 feet above sea level. Then they put two and two together and say that Noah’s ark floated at least 15 cubits above Mt. Everest — and at such high altitude, people need oxygen!2
It sounds like a straightforward argument, doesn’t it? But did you notice that I emphasized the word today? In light of this, the solution is quite simple: the Flood did not happen on today’s earth but rather on the earth of nearly 4,300 years ago (according to Ussher).
The world today is not the same as it was before the Flood, or even during the Flood. For instance, if the mountains, continents, and oceans basins of today’s earth were more leveled out (as would be expected in a global Flood), the planet’s surface water alone would cover the earth an estimated 1.66 miles deep — about 8,000 feet. Yet when I visited Cusco, Peru, which is around 11,000 feet above sea level, I didn’t need an oxygen tank.
Furthermore, atmospheric air pressure is relative to sea level. So as rising sea levels pushed the air column higher, the air pressure at sea level would stay the same.
Beginning on day 150 of the Flood, mountains began overtaking the water again, as the mountain-building phase had begun (Genesis 8:2–4). Poetic Psalm 104 gives further hints of this mountain building as the valley basins sank down:
You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters were standing above the mountains. At Your rebuke they fled, at the sound of Your thunder they hurried away. The mountains rose; the valleys sank down to the place which You established for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass over, so that they will not return to cover the earth (Psalm 104:6–9).
This section of the Psalm is obviously speaking of the Flood, as water would no longer return to cover the earth — if this passage were speaking of creation week (as some commentators have stated), then God would have erred when the waters covered the whole earth during the Flood. Consider this overview, as the entire Psalm continues down through history:
|Psalm 104:1–5||Creation Week|
It makes sense that, because the Psalm is referring to the earth and what is in it, it begins with earth history (creation week). But mentions of donkeys (verse 11) and goats (verse 18) show variation within the created kind, which shows this would have taken place after the Flood. Also, a post-Flood geographic location is named (Lebanon, verse 16) as well as ships (verse 26) that indicate this Psalm was not entirely a look at creation week.
While everyone agrees that Psalm 104:1–5 is referring to creation week, what of the argument — made by many commentators from the 1600s onward — that attributes Psalm 104:6–9 to creation week? One could suggest that much of this is due to the translation being viewed. Two basic variants of the translation of the Hebrew in Psalm 104:8 read:
In fact, a variety of translations yield some variant of one of these two possibilities.
|Translation||Agrees with: “They went up over the mountains and went down into the valleys”||Agrees with: “Mountains rose and the valleys sank down”|
|New American Standard||X|
|New International Version||X|
|King James Version||X|
|New King James Version||X|
|English Standard Version||X|
|Holman Christian Standard||X|
|English translation of the Septuagint||X|
|Revised Version (UK)||X|
|Good News Bible||X|
|New English Bible||X|
|New Living Translation||X|
|The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text (a new translation by the Jewish Publication Society)||X|
|Revised Standard Version||X|
|Young’s Literal Translation||X|
|King James 21st Century Edition||X|
|New Revised Standard Edition||X|
|New International Children's Version||X|
Obviously, there is no consensus on translation among these English versions. Looking at other languages, we see how the Hebrew was translated.
|Foreign Translation||Agrees with: “They went up over the mountains and went down into the valleys”||Agrees with: “Mountains rose and the valleys sank down”|
|French Protestant Bible (Version Synondale)||X|
|Italian Edizione Paoline||X|
|Spanish Reina Valera||X|
|Latin Vulgate (by Jerome)||X|
|La Bible Louis Segond 1910 (French)||X|
|Septuagint (Koine Greek)||X|
Notice that there doesn’t seem to be a discrepancy. Of course, there are many translations, so one cannot be dogmatic, but the point is that many foreign translations agree with “mountains rising and valleys sinking down.”
In Hebrew, which reads right to left, the phrase in 104:8a is literally four words. Translated into English, the phrase in question is:
|valleys||down go/sink||mountains||up go/rise/Ascend|
Take note that there are no prepositions like “over” or “into.” It is literally “up go mountains, down go valleys.” It makes sense why many translations, including non-English translations, use the phrase “mountains rose and the valleys sank down” — this is what it should be.
Commentaries could easily misinterpret this passage if they were based on translations that agree with “they went up over the mountains and went down into the valleys.” For example, the most popular English translation for several hundred years, the King James Version, reads this way.
Furthermore, from a logical perspective, water doesn’t flow uphill over mountains but rather the opposite. Given language like this, commentators likely attributed this to a miraculous event during creation week, when many miracles were taking place anyway; also, creation week was referenced earlier in the chapter. Of course, the problems came when reading the rest of the context. One excellent commentator, John Gill, regarding verse 9 and the waters not returning to cover the earth, stated:
That they turn not again to cover the earth; as they did when it was first made, #Ps 104:6 that is, not without the divine leave and power; for they did turn again and cover the earth, at the time of the flood; but never shall more.5
Gill was forced to conclude that the waters did return to cover the earth, and he justified their return on “divine leave and power”! Yet this would mean that God breaks promises. Because we know that God does not break promises, this must be referring to the end of the Flood.
That said, we should understand the difficulty in commenting on the passage: it is a psalm of praise to God, and thus it is not as straightforward as literal history. It is difficult to determine where the shift from creation to the Flood occurs and where the shift from Flood to post-Flood occurs. However, there are a few more hints in the text.
We should use clear passages in Scripture to help interpret unclear passages. Consider that God’s “rebuke” would not exist in a perfect world, where nothing would need rebuking or correcting. (Remember, a perfect God created a perfect world — Genesis 1:31, Deuteronomy 32:4.) One should expect nothing less of such a God.6
Therefore, during creation week when everything was good, there would be no need for any rebuking. If Psalm 104:6–9 were referring to creation week (specifically day 3), then why the rebuke in Psalm 104:7? This implies an imperfect, not very good creation. But if Psalm 104:6–9 is referring to the Flood, then of course a rebuke would exist in a fallen world where the judgment of water had overtaken the earth.
Additionally, note that Psalm 104:9 is clearly referencing Genesis 9:8–16 in saying that the waters would not return to cover the earth. (Some have asked how mountains and valleys could move up and down when the foundations are identified as immovable in Psalm 104:5. Keep in mind that mountains and valleys are not the foundation, but like the seas, they all sit above the foundation.)
Lastly, note that when the land appeared in Genesis 1 on day 3, the land that was being separated from the water was dry, not wet. The text in Genesis says that the waters were gathered into one place and then the dry land appeared. It says nothing of water flowing over the land to make it wet; otherwise, wet land would have appeared and then become dry.7 But during the Flood, the land was indeed overtaken by water that eventually stood above the land.
The Hebrew phrase in Psalm 104:8a is the basis for the correct translation of mountains rising and valleys sinking. This shows that mountains and valleys during the Flood were not the same height as they are today. Even today, mountains and valleys are changing their height; volcanic mountains, for instance, can grow very quickly, such as Surtsey or Paricutin (a volcanic mountain in Mexico that formed in 1943).
Therefore, with mountains and continents leveled out and ocean basins nowhere near the depth they are today, it makes perfect sense that Noah was not at the height of modern-day Mt. Everest. Instead, the ark would have been at sea level, where oxygen would have been nearly the same as today at sea level. Noah and those aboard the ark would not have required oxygen.