The story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood has long cast a spell on the public imagination.
The Biblical account of Noah’s Ark has inspired multiple archeological attempts to “recover” the wreckage of the ark across various mountaintops in the Middle East and a $100 million “biblically-accurate replica” that serves as a tourist attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky.
And in 2014, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream fame) drew the Evangelical community’s ire with his bombastic and Jewish mythology-heavy take on the Noah story starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson.
It may also be one of the most misrepresented stories in the entire Bible, curiously repackaged as a children’s tale about a “faithful servant of God” rescuing smiling animals in his big boat from the big rain instead of the more textually-accurate (and terrifying) account of a wrathful deity instigating a planet-wide genocide by submerging the Earth underwater for more than a year.
The story serves another role, as well. For Christians who believe the Earth was created in six-literal days about 6,000 years ago, the Great Flood explains everything from the extinction of the dinosaurs to the Grand Canyon’s formation. According to Young Earth Creationists, Noah’s Flood occurred 4,500 years ago. In their eyes, the flood was such a geologically catastrophic event, that it resulted in the appearance of a billions-year-old Earth.
For the more curious and critical Christians, the story of Noah’s Ark is a stumbling block in their acceptance that the Bible is the “perfect and infallible Word of God.” Is there any evidence of a global flood in Earth’s geological history? Was the ark Noah built big enough for all of those animals? And what are to make of a God who so capriciously wipes out and decimates civilization?
And, if you were a precocious nine-year-old child (like myself), the question you really wanted your Sunday School teacher to answer was, “How did Noah get all those dinosaurs on the Ark?”
A Tale As Old As Time
The story of Noah and the Great Flood can be found in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Testament. Though attributed to Moses, the authorship of Genesis is shrouded in mystery. The stories of Genesis were probably passed down for hundred of years by oral tradition (storytelling) before being written down and compiled anywhere between 6,000 and 3,500 years ago — since we don’t have anything resembling original copies, these dates are nigh-impossible to nail down.
Genesis appears to be a pastiche of ancient Near East mythology, folklore, genealogical records, and historical narrative, and Biblical scholars traditionally divide it into two distinct sections – the Primeval narratives (Genesis 1-11) and the Abrahamic narratives (Genesis 12-50).
In other words, Genesis starts big before narrowing its scope down to the lineage of Abraham, the patriarchal religious figure for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Read in sequence, the story of Noah follows creation of the Earth, the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. By the time Noah enters the narrative, the depravity of humanity has spread beyond the confines of a single family and infected the rest of civilization. Yahweh “regrets” making humans and vows to wipe out “the human race – and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground.”
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Noah’s tale is preceded by a curious prologue about the “sons of God” (or, Nephilim) having sex with human women which results in “heroes of old.” Are the Nephilim fallen angels? Aliens? Don’t even try to figure this one out. No one knows what’s going on in this passage).
Noah is described as a “righteous man, blameless among the people of his time,” who “walked faithfully with God.” This stands in stark contrast with the “corrupt” earth, filled with men embroiled in never-ending cycles of violence and vengeance. The Hebrew word for violence used here is chamas, a word that also translates as “wrong.”
Yahweh reaches out to Noah and reveals His startling plan: He’s going to destroy the world and everything in it with a flood, but He’s chosen to save Noah and his family from the impending destruction. Noah just needs to build a boat.
Oh, yeah. And gather a few animals.
At first, Yahweh instructs Noah to “bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female” (and food for them all), but a few verses later, Yahweh appears to change his mind. Instead of two of every animal, Noah now has to get “seven pairs of every clean animal,” “one pair of every unclean animal,” and “seven pairs of every bird” onto the ark. That’s a lot of animals – which (according to young-earth creationists) also includes dinosaurs.
(Another puzzling aspect of this story is the fact that the differentiation between clean and unclean animals isn’t made until after Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt – at least a thousand years later according to the Biblical genealogies).
It takes Noah and his three sons one hundred years to build the ark (like other ancient Mesopotamian cultures, the early Biblical authors used a highly complex and symbolic method for calculating age and measuring time), and they completed it just in time.
On the “seventeenth day of the second month” during the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, the floodgates of the heavens open as water simultaneously erupts from beneath the ground. The rains descend for forty days and forty nights, and the great deluge sweeps across the planet’s surface, drowning and destroying everything and everyone in its path, until only those safe in the ark remain alive.
After 150 days, the waters slowly begin to recede, but it takes months before the tops of mountains begin to peak above the water line. The ark’s nautical journey grinds to a halt atop the mountains of Arat, and – after more than a year in the ship – Noah and his family disembark the ark to repopulate a decimated Earth.
Noah’s odyssey is a grandiose epic of disaster, survival, and redemption, but it’s not as unique as one might expect.
Anthropologists have identified more than 250 “flood narratives” across cultures and continents – and several of these stories bear striking similarities to the account of Noah found in the Book of Genesis.
- According to the Sumerian creation myth, the gods decide to destroy mankind, but one of the gods warns Ziusudra, a Sumerian king, and instructs him to build an ark to save himself and some animals.
- In the Gilgamesh flood myth, a man named Utnapishtim is told by a rogue god of a secret plan to wipe out humanity via a flood. Utnapishtim builds an ark (called the “Preserver of Life”) and gathers together all of the craftsmen, their families, and animals to save them from the worldwide flood. After the flood, the ark came to rest on top of a mountain.
- In the Aztec flood myth, a couple (Note and his wife Nena) are warned of a worldwide flood by the god Titlacauan and told to hollow out a great log to ride out of the coming storm.
Are these ancient stories example of cultural plagiarism, or are they proof that the Earth really was submerged in a cataclysmic event of Biblical proportions?
In The Good Book of Human Nature, social anthropologists Carel Schaik and Kai Michel write,
“We know of more than 250 stories of floods from all over the world. The advanced civilizations arose along the great rivers: the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Ganges, Yellow River, and Yangtze. Such rivers were especially susceptible to flooding – and their densely populated centers made them particularly vulnerable.”
For people who centered their cities and settlements around rivers, lakes, and oceans, the threat of a large-scale flood was ever-present and universal. Alongside famine and disease, floods would be one of the most common natural disasters an ancient civilization would experience.
So, how would you, a pre-scientific and deeply superstitious person who saw no distinction between the supernatural realm and natural world, process the cultural trauma of having your entire community wiped out by massive flood?
Well, you’d tell a story, of course.
Interlude: The Great Deluge
According to ancient Babylonian cosmology, an ocean hung above the vault of the sky (or “the firmament”) and an ocean lurked below the ground. While this may seem silly to our modern understanding of geology and astronomy, you need to place yourself in the sandals of someone who lived eight thousand years ago.
Imagine you’ve never seen a satellite image of the Earth. You have no reason to suspect you live on a planet shaped like a globe with North and South Poles, multiple oceans, and several continents. The size of your “known world” is as far you can travel without running out of food.
At the time Genesis was probably written, humans in the Mesopotamia Basin had settled mainly into agricultural communities, primarily abandoning the dangerous hunter-gatherer lifestyle that hinged on large animals’ migratory patterns. Your day-to-day life revolves around three essential goals – attaining a sufficient caloric intake, protecting your family, and trying to avoid invoking the wrath of the gods.
At night, you gaze upon the night sky and marvel at the brilliance of the stars. The concept of these tiny pinpricks of light as flaming balls of hydrogen spinning millions of lightyears away is as alien to you as the invisible world of microbes and bacteria that inhabit your body. As your elders tell it, starlight is the glories of the heavens streaming through holes embedded in the great vault of the sky at night.
And rain. The lifeblood of the crops that feed your village is the water that occasionally falls through these same holes from the great ocean above. And when you dig deep enough to build a well, water bubbles up from the ground. Reasoning tells you there must be another great body of water underneath your feet.
But you also know water has a dark side. Traders have visited your village with tales of a massive body of water that stretches beyond the horizon, too salty to drink, a place of unpredictable storms, huge waves, and giant leviathans. If the land is order, then the sea is chaos. You’ve never seen it, but its presence haunts your dreams. And it’s from one of those nightmares that you’re shaken awake in the dead of night.
Maybe an earthquake shifts the flows of one of the great rivers that bring life to your valley, or a tectonic plate slips in the depths of the sea and triggers a tsunami. Whatever the cause, the result is the same. You awake to a deep rumbling beneath your feet. The ground pitches and rolls. Panicked, you stumble out of your swaying hut, a great chorus of alarm from your fellow villagers harmonizing with Earth’s labor pains.
And then the water comes. A roiling mass of thick silt, bone-crushing boulders, and uprooted trees crests the low-lying hill that forms the eastern boundary of your ancestral territory. Lit only by the glow of a crescent moon, the thunderous surge looks black. The turbulent flow sweeps through your village, washing away and pulverizing everything in its path. Many of your friends and family members die without knowing why – alive one second, buried under dozens of feet of mud and water the next.
Or maybe it’s less dramatic – but no less deadly – than all of that. A monsoon spins out from the humid waters of the Mediterranean and slows as it approaches your village. At first, the rain is a welcome relief. The summer was dry, and you fear famine. But soon, the consequences of too much prove to be as dangerous as too little.
The banks of the rivers and inland seas overflow, and their waters merge with your flooded plains and downpour above. It appears as if the divine forces that hold back the waters above and below have withdrawn their hedge of protection. Over a few days, everything your ancestors spent generations building and establishing is submerged. In the aftermath, you see low-lying swamplands everywhere you look.
You’re forced to leave your ancestral lands. And, along with your few possessions, you carry the story of what happened and tell it to whoever will listen. Over time, the story of the gods’ wrath evolves into an account of the God’s mercy, and it will continue to gain life long after your bones turn to dust.
Extinction Level Event
About 232 million years ago, when Earth’s continents were connected into one supercontinent (Pangea), it began to rain. A lot. And it didn’t stop for two million years.
Referred to as the Carnian Fluvial Event, this dramatic climate shift (possibly triggered by the eruption of a multiple supervolcanos) paved the way for the Age of the Dinosaurs. However, while many floods did occur during the period, it was not a global flood event, but a global “humidity” event – which led to a massive surge of flora and fauna biodiversity.
Using geological rock layers and the fossil record as a guide, most scientists estimate the Earth has experienced five major Extinction Level Events since life began on our floating space rock about 3.5 billion years ago. Some scientists believe we’re currently in the midst of a sixth major extinction). And we know this because each of these events resulted in many dead things preserved within rock layers as fossils.
Like volcano eruptions and earthquakes, floods leave a very distinct geological “signature” in rock layers – and those signatures are undeniable. Basically, they’re a mess. Floods churn up the environment and leave scrambled deposits of soil, rock, and fauna.
In the event of a worldwide flood, we would expect to see a significant and consistent geological signature in our rock layers – especially if the flood occurred less than 5,000 years ago. The fossil record would also reveal a startling mishmash of biodiversity from different periods – dinosaurs, insects, giraffes, elephants, plants, and, yes, people – preserved within that same geological rock layer as victims of the flood.
But we don’t have that. Instead, we have a fossil record that reflects various species’ evolutionary progression across distinct epochs of time. We don’t see any human remains (or that of modern mammals) brushing up against the dinosaur bones of the late-Jurassic Era. Instead, we observe fossilized biodiversity stratified in their respective rock layers (which, yes, do include thousands of examples of transitional fossils) relative to their appearance on the geological and evolutionary timetable.
In the same way that the can of soda you threw away last week can be found lower in your trash can than the milk carton you threw away today, older fossils are located deeper in the rock layer than newer fossils (this is called the Law of Superposition). Simply put, our fossil record and basic geology don’t lend credibility to the idea that a worldwide flood ever occurred – especially not less than 10,000 years ago.
Such an assumption also leaves no room for the various Ice Ages that have sent glaciers expanding and retreating across the Northern continents as recently as 11,700 years ago. Many anthropologists suspect human settlement in the Americas may have begun when the open sea between Russia and Alaska solidified during one such Ice Age into the Bering Land Bridge.
The BioLogos Foundation, a faith-based organization founded by Christian scientists, declares in no uncertain terms,
“The scientific and historical evidence is now clear: There has never been a global flood that covered the entire earth, nor do all modern animals and humans descend from the passengers of a single vessel.”
However, we do have evidence a significant flood occurred in ancient Mesopotamia around 7,500 years ago. Could this be the flood that inspired the multiple Ancient Near East flood narratives? We can’t be sure, but the point is that we’re able to deduce when and where large regional floods actually happened by assessing the physical evidence left behind in their wake – even if they occurred in the distant past.
And we need to talk about the animals. Based on the measurements provided in the text (and our best-guess estimation of what a “cubit” is), the ark built by Noah and his family was probably about 500 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 50 feet high. Admittedly, that’s a big boat (almost half the size of a modern-day cruise ship), but its size pales in comparison to its function.
As I mentioned above, Noah didn’t just gather “two of every animal.” He was told to bring fourteen of every clean animal and two of every unclean animal. Even if we accept that “kinds” of animals indicates the “family” or “suborder” taxonomical classification of animals, we’re dealing with tens of thousands of different animals (including dinosaurs and any other species that’s gone extinct in the interim) that need to be fed and cared for by eight people on a boat for more than year.
Then, there’s the problem regarding what geologists and biologists refer to as “deep time,” or unfathomably long periods of time necessary for geological development and ecological diversification. Ironically, one would have to accept some form of super-accelerated macroevolution to explain the resurgence of biodiversity in such a short (relatively speaking) amount of time. Instead, we have animals that have evolved and adapted to their respective environments (like kangaroos) with a fossil record to back it up.
With all of this information taken into account, we reach a sort of theological crossroads about the nature of God and humankind’s ability to observe its environment: Did God design the natural world in such a way to trick us and test our faith in the Bible? Or are we holding the Bible – specifically the Primeval narratives – to a scientific standard it wasn’t meant to satisfy?
As Francis S. Collins, devout Christian and former director of National Human Genome Research Institute, writes in his book The Language of God,
“I do not believe that the God who created all the universe, and who communes with His people through prayer and spiritual insight, would expect us to deny the obvious truths of the natural world that science has revealed to us, in order to prove our love for Him.”
And the Waters Receded
The Hebrew Bible wasn’t written to impart scientific or geological truth to its ancient audience. Therefore, when a modern-day person tries to use the Bible to construct an airtight scientific worldview, they run the risk of missing what these stories were trying to communicate to their original audience.
In other words, the “The Bible Says It. I Believe It” method of Biblical interpretation may lead to a less accurate understanding of Scripture. And I think this is especially true of the Primeval narratives in Genesis.
Written in highly figurative, poetic, and repetitive language, the Primeval Narratives were designed to convey theological truths about God, human nature, and our role in creation that could be easily memorized and retold. They were not intended to be read as error-proof eyewitness accounts or scientific treatises.
Can you read these stories as literal events that occurred exactly as they’re told?
The ancient peoples who once recited these stories around campfires probably assumed they happened, as well. But I believe we do ourselves a disservice if we limit our understanding of the text to a surface-level reading.
As we grow older and mature in our faith, we should at least be open to more challenging and theologically-rich interpretations of familiar stories. As Paul writes in his first letter to Corinthian church, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Here are a three different ways one can read Noah’s harrowing ordeal as something more than a literal event:
1. The story of Noah and the Great Flood is another Genesis account about God bringing order out of chaos.
The Bible begins with the Earth in a state of primordial chaos. The original creation account is – in part – a story of Yahweh taming chaos to bring about order and life. In fact, one of Yahweh’s first creative acts on Earth is separating the waters above from the waters below – with turbulent water being one of the primary ways the Hebrew Bible personifies chaos.
And when it comes time to “reboot” the human race, what does Yahweh do? He returns the world to a state of primordial chaos by bringing down the ocean above and bringing up the sea below. In the aftermath of the flood, the Bible uses language strikingly similar to that used in Genesis 1-2 to describe the “re-creation” of the Earth.
2. The story of Noah and the Great Flood is a creative revision of ancient Israelite history.
If you look at the early Bible stories from a high-altitude perspective, you’ll begin to notice some recurring narrative beats – habitation, disobedience, and exile. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Noah’s Ark. The Tower of Babel. The Exodus out of Egypt. In broad strokes, all of these stories tell the same story but with different settings and characters.
A bulk of the Old Testament was compiled during the Babylonian Exile, a traumatic moment in Jewish history when the Babylonian Empire invaded the “Promised Land,” destroyed the temple, and conquered the Israelites. Therefore, the Primeval narratives and the Exodus story all hinge on this cyclical narrative structure that would’ve resonated (and given hope) to “God’s Chosen People” living in exile.
In How the Bible Actually Works, Biblical scholar Peter Enns writes,
“Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present.”
In other words, the story of Noah’s survival is a clever way of talking about God keeping His promises to the “faithful remnant” (the Israelites) when it looked as if He had abandoned them.
3. The story of Noah and the Great Flood was “in conversation” with flood accounts from surrounding cultures.
We’ve already established several flood accounts were circulating among the surrounding cultures in the Ancient Near East. Instead of trying to prove which story is the “most true,” it’s much more interesting to compare what they have to say about the gods’ nature.
A familiar refrain in many of these comparative accounts is the gods destroying all of humanity because they were too noisy. In other flood stories, humanity is completely wiped out, and the gods start anew. However, in the Genesis account, humanity is destroyed because Yahweh is disgusted with society’s pervasive violence. And He spares Noah and his family because Noah earned Yahweh’s favor by living righteously.
For the time period, this was a profound observation about the relationship between the Divine and humanity. Noah’s way of life and Yahweh’s mercy appeared to work together to save Noah’s family from disaster. And, at the end of the story, Yahweh makes a covenant with Noah and promises never to flood the Earth again and a better future for his descendants – if they commit to lifestyle of nonviolence. Unlike the other gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh appears to desire a relationship with humanity – a gradual step forward (but not the final word) toward a healthier understanding of the Divine mystery.
In Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans writes,
“We miss all this when we insist the Bible’s origin stories are simply straightforward recitations of historical fact, one scientific discover or archaeological dig away from ruin. What both hardened fundamentalist and strident atheist seem to have in common is the conviction that any trace of myth, embellishment, or cultural influence in an origin story renders it untrue.“
Regardless of the expectations we may bring to an ancient religious text, mythological folklore shouldn’t form the basis of our scientific worldview – or, at the very least, not in a way that denies the veracity of other scientific observations. No one, for example, is trying to seriously argue the existence of a solid firmament in the sky that holds back an unseen ocean – even though the Bible opens with that ancient cosmological assumption.
Instead, these stories provide a treasure trove of anthropologic insight into how ancient peoples perceived the world around them and processed their shared cultural history. Claiming “The Flood!” every time we come across a dramatic geological formation or carbon-dating discrepancy isn’t good science. It’s lazy reductive reasoning.
Here’s another point I hope to make with all of this information: Geology, archeology, paleontology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology are really cool scientific disciplines. But, how many bright Christian students have been dissuaded from careers in these fields because they’ve been primed from a young age to believe science is out to destroy their faith?
And how many people have walked away from their faith when they realize the “Sunday School versions” of ancient Bible stories don’t stand up to the rigors of modern scientific inquiry?
If you frame the world as a pitched battle between scientific reasoning and blind faith, science will always win because it’s a framework designed to encourage questions and unafraid of going where those questions lead. But this battle doesn’t have to exist in the first place.
Yes, the tale of Noah’s Ark isn’t a “fun” story. It has an angry God and bloated corpses and dead babies. It’s a dark and disturbing tale that reveals how much our understanding and view of God has evolved in the ensuing centuries.
Like many of our beloved epic sagas – like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter – a story doesn’t have to be literally true to ignite our imaginations, help us rethink our role in a greater narrative, and teach us truths about the world around us.