Millions of Americans will soon flood the theaters to watch “Noah.” At the same time a smaller group is sinking hope that Hollywood is returning to conservative values by publishing articles to warn Christians that this new film is not a Biblical depiction of the famed story. This is the perfect time to submerge ourselves into the following question: was there a global flood in recent human history?
This question must be analyzed with a deluge of questions like: does our theological understanding of how the Bible operates, and how it must be interpreted, demand that we read the Genesis flood account as a literal story that actually happened? Or ought it be read as a prescientific (mythical) retelling of “something” that actually happened, perhaps in some form of parable? We must also ask: does our scientific understanding of this world, its geological history, its natural/ontological/logical laws provide evidence for, or against, the idea of a global flood?
Before we dive into this discussion, I’d like to prevent as much conflict and confrontation as possible. I am not writing this out of anger or to make someone look stupid, I am genuinely trying to look a the text from an academic perspective. While most who have grown up in a Biblical fundamentalist culture will be inclined to think a theory of a “local flood” or “mythical flood” comes from Satan directly, or has been passed down by one of his minions, the idea is rather old and has seen much prominence in the church. Many Christian leaders do not accept Noahs global flood as real history, including famous pastors like Dr. Tim Keller, apologists like C.S Lewis, and Bible scholars like Dr. Tremper Longman III or Dr. John Walton (who wrote a leading commentary on Genesis and denied a global flood). These Christian leaders deny a global flood, yet are not “out to get you.” Thus I hope we can discuss this without angry polemics against one another.
PART 1: THE TEXT ITSELF
The Old Testament is a strange book. Let us be honest about it. The miracles recorded therein, if they were to happen today, would be filmed on every single smartphone, and provide us with definite proof of God’s existence, denying the need for faith. The types of laws are endorsed in the Torah would make us sick to our stomachs (this is harsh, but true, imagine having to enact Deut 25:11-12). The events chronicled in it are quite strange to the modern reader, even one who is well versed in the history of the Ancient Near East. And yet, a great many people attempt to read the text with modern days eyes, and apply a post-enlightenment, rationalistic, scientific literalism to the text. In other words, they read it like a modern day history or science textbook.
However, reading the text (especially the earliest portions of Genesis) in such a way leads to many problems and fallacious logical contortions. This does not mean the passages are not inspired by God, but it might mean that reading them as a modern day textbook does not appear to be wise or rational.
Repetitions in the story
Conservative and critical scholars of the Torah/Old Testament point out there are numerous repetitions the Noah story. (1, 2, 3, 4) There are numerous academic explanations for these repetitions from the documentary/fragmentary hypothesis to the ancient writers use of ancient linguistic tools like chiastic coordinations or epic repetitions. It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss these in more detail, however, let us primarily note two things: first, there is an unusually large amount of repetition in this story/narrative, and second, these are strong indicators that this is a story not to be read with modern historic-scientific literalism.
Let us look at some examples.
- There are two repetitions of Noah’s offspring, merely paragraphs away from each other (Gen 5:32 and 6:10).
- There are two repetitions of Noah being righteous and therefore spared from the flood (Gen 6:8-9, 7:1
- There are two unique repetitions for the cause of the flood, and each separate case is followed by God seeing this transgression and God deciding to destroy the earth as a result. Of course, modern geniuses have come up with a third reason altogether “The last straw for God before He brought the flood was when they started writing wedding songs to homosexual marriage and Jesus said that you’ll know the end times because it will be like the days of Noah. There’s never been a time in the history of the world since before the flood when homosexual marriage has been open and celebrated, and that’s another sign that I believe that we’re close to the end.” (7)
- There are four total repetitions of God’s intention to destroy the world (Gen 6:5-7, 6:11-13, 6:17, 7:4)
- There are two repetitions of Gods intent for Noah to get into the ark. (Gen 6:18, 7:1)
- There are two repetition of Noahs age during the flood. (Gen 7:6, 7:11)
- There are at least two repetitions of Noah getting into the ark. Some scholars say it is two (Gen 6:22, 7:5). However, others, like the well-known and oft cited Evangelical Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III, says there are four separate repetitions of Noah entering the ark (Gen 7:7-9, 7:13-14, 7:15, 7:16) (5)
- There are two repetitions of the death of all animals (Gen 7:21, 7:22)
- There are two repetitions of God commanding Noah to gather the animals (Gen 6:19, 7:2)
- There are two or three repetitions of the beginning of rain, again some scholars say two, others like Tremper Longman say there are three. (Gen 7:6, 7:10, 7:11-12)
- There are five repetitions of the prevailing or increase of the waters of the flood (Gen 7:17, 7:18, 7:19 7:20 7:24) (5)
- There are five repetitions of the decrease of the waters in the same fashion(Gen 8:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4, 8:5) (5)
- There are two repetitions of the earth being completely dry (Gen 8:13, 8:14)
- There are three repetitions of God’s promise not to the destroy the earth again (Gen 8:21,9:11, 9:15)
Inconsistencies in the story
A careful reading of the text also reveals there are some parts that seemingly contradict or, at the very least, alter previous passages, especially when one tries to read this as a modern historical text, rather than an ancient, prescientific account. Again, to my fundamentalist readers, this is a not an attempt to “disprove the Bible” but rather to deal honestly and carefully with the text, in order to best understand it. Even if my analysis is wrong here (and likewise most Biblical scholars who also believe this), we would still have to agree that my mistake comes from these texts genuinely appearing inconsistent, even if they are not, they certainly appear as though they are, to the point that an honest mistake is very possible.
Let us consider some examples:
1. Which day does the flood start?
- Flood started on the 7th day: There appears to be a difference in when the flood began. In one account, we see (A) Noahs age, (B) Noah entering the ark, and (C) “and after seven days the waters of the flood came.” (Gen 7:6-10)
- Flood started on the 1th day: In the second account we see (A) Noahs age, (B) the flood begins from the sky and the depths of the earth (C) Noah and his family entered the Ark “on the very same day.” (Gen 7:11-15)
2. What moral reasons caused the flood?
- The flood is caused by the birth of Nephilim and general evil: The first narrative lists the cause, then in response God promises to flood the world. This cause is in Genesis 6:1-5 the “sons of God” marry the daughters of men, and giants, or nephilim, are born. General “evil” ensues with no specific designation. In response God promises a flood. (Gen 6:6-7)
- The flood is caused by the specific sin of violence: The second narrative also lists the cause, then in response God promises to flood the world. This cause is in Genesis 6:11, and it is the amount of violence on the earth. In response God (again) promises a flood. (Gen 6:12-13)
3. What physical forces caused the flood?
- The flood is caused by only rain: In one account God warns “I will send rain on the earth” (Gen 7:4) making no mention of other sources of water. This comes to fruition when “the rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:12)
- The flood is caused by rain and “fountains of the deep”: Yet in another two verses we see that “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” (Gen 7:11) This is repeated a second time, “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained.” (Gen 8:2)
4. How many animals are to be brought?
- Bring two of every animal into the ark: Children’s books commonly depict that Noah had two of every kind of animal. This is based on the text that shows God saying “And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you. “ (Gen 6:20) This is again repeated, with both wild and domestic animals brought in by twos. (Gen 7:13-15)
- Bring seven pairs of clean animals: However, in another repetition of the story, there is a change or addition. A fact few children’s books publishers seem to know. God is depicted as changing the original statement to ”Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals…and seven pairs of the birds of the air also…” (Gen 7:2-3)
5. How many birds are to be brought?
- Bring two pairs of the birds: “Of the birds…..two of every sort.” (Gen 6:20) It is often easy to deal with the two vs seven command by saying the seven is an addendum regarding a new category (clean animals) that does not contradict the original (even though the original includes all categories), however, with birds this is much more difficult.
- Bring seven pairs of the birds: “And seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also” (Gen 7:3) Birds are their own category in both passages and very clearly both prescribe a different amount of birds. There are two very different, and contradictory decrees. (One could say “where there are seven pairs, there are two pairs also, thus no contradiction” and while this is true, it obscures the fact that both passages are very different. It would be writing a recipe that first says “two eggs” then says “seven eggs” only to later say where there are two there can be seven, and while logically true, it’s certainly a dishonest way of hiding the textual difference.)
6. How many days did the rain last for?
- Rain lasts for 40 days/40 nights: In the very beginning God is depicted as promising rains for 40 days/nights. (Gen 7:4) This is then recorded as happening. (Gen 7:12) Then “at the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made.” (Gen 8:6)
- Rain lasts for 150 days: Another passage however, speaks of the flood waters increasing for 150 days. (Gen 7:24) It also states that “the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated.” (Gen 8:2-3) [This section further shows that this story is not a modern historical narrative, for three verses later the text again talks about 40 days after the flood, switching time gaps.]
7. On what day did the earth dry?
- The earth dried on the 1st day of the 1st month: “In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen 8:13)
- The earth dried on the 27th day of the 2nd month: “In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.” (Gen 8:14) This particular passage strongly supports the documentary hypothesis, or that there were two separate stories of Noah, both spliced together, with some conflicting data. The alternative of fundamentalists is that these are two separate events (in one the water completely disappears from the surface, in the second the earth below the surface becomes truly dry and rocky), though this appears unlikely because it would mean Noah waited for two months for the earth to stop being slightly wet before disembarking, and it hardly takes two months for the earth to dry after local floodwaters recede. In addition we might wonder if the land was so “mushy” that Noah couldn’t get off, how did the ark not sink into the mush?
8. When did the water stop covering mountains?
- (7) The Ark rested on the mountains of Ararat on the 7th month, 17th day: “and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” (Gen 8:4)
- (7) The mountains of Ararat were underwater until the 10th month: “in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.” (Gen 8:5) This is another passage that strongly suggests the documentary hypothesis. As an alternative, it could be that the Ark rested on the tip of the highest mountain which was underwater, and waited for 2.5 months for the water to rescind a tiny bit for that tip to be seen. However, consider that the ark was only 45 feet high (6), and only a part of it was underwater. Also that the peak of Mount Ararat is over 16,854 feet above sea level. (7) This means that it took 2.5 months for the water to recede some 30 feet, and then another 2 months to recede 16,810 feet to meet the schedule “ 1st month, 1st day in Gen 8:13.
9. What kind of bird released?
- Raven flies until water dries up: After the rain subsides, one passage states that Noah “sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen 8:7) This Raven appears to be distinct from the second story/explanation with the doves, it appears as it’s own narrative with no explanation. It is possible that this was a line from another Noah story where the raven was the bird that found land and signaled Noah to get off the ark.
- Three doves fly and return every 7 days: The next passage (Gen 8:8-12) says that Noah sent out three doves, each 7 days apart, each bird returning because there was no land, until the last dove did not return (this period totals 21 days). Some Bible scholars say these are likely two separate Noah traditions that were compiled together. (8) First, there is a difference in type of bird. Second, there is a difference in the number of bird. Third, there is a difference in whether the bird returns or doesn’t return. Yet, in both cases, the birds are the sign of the drying of the earth. Others say these are signs of a particular type of literary structure that is reminiscent to repeating verses in a song. (9)
10. How long did the raven fly?
- Raven sent after first 40 days of rain, flies until the earth dries up: “At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen 8:6-7) The interesting question here is, how did anyone know what happened to the raven, if it flew away and did not come back? This alone has the mark of a story, rather than a history.
- The earth dries up some 370 days after the start of the flood: The rain began on “the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the 2nd month, on the 17th day of the month.” (Gen 7:11) Then “In the 601st year, in the 1st month, on the 1st day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen 8:13) If we try to read this as a historic-scientific narrative this means the raven was in flight for hundreds of days without returning to the ark, while the doves returned the same day.
Other Bible Passages negate a Global Flood
In Psalm 104 we see another description of the Creation of the world. The Psalmist sings of the earth being set on its foundations and the separation of water from land (just as Genesis 1:7) and the creation of mountains and valleys (Psalm 104:8). Right after the creation of valleys and mountains, and the separation of land from water, the psalmist writes “you set a boundary that they [waters] may not pass over, so that they will not return to cover the earth.” (Psalm 104:9) The Psalmist is essentially saying that since the division of water from land during creation, the waters would never again cover the earth. This passage has so confused some believers of a global flood that they have attempted to say this psalm isn’t really speaking about creation, however, closer inspection proves otherwise. (10)
Many times when the Bible says “Whole Earth” it refers to local geography
One more interesting fact is that a literal reading of the text may not in fact refer to the whole earth anyway. The Hebrew phrase used in Genesis to refer to the “whole earth” being flooded is kol erets, yet this is used numerous times to refer to something other than literally the whole earth. (11) See these examples (courtesy of GodandScience.org)
- The “whole land” was only the land of Canaan: “Is not the whole [kol] land [erets] before you? Please separate from me: if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left.” (Gen 13:9)
- The people from the Americas did not go to Egypt: “And the people of all [kol] the earth [erets] came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth.” (Gen 41:57)
- The Hebrews were not required to sound a horn throughout the entire earth: ‘You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all [kol] through your land [erets]. (Lev 25:9)
- The law does not apply only to those who own the entire earth: “Thus for every [kol] piece [erets] of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land.” (Lev 25:24)
- kol erets could not refer to the entire earth, since it would not be possible for Gideon to check the entire earth: “behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all [kol] the ground [erets], then I will know that Thou wilt deliver Israel through me, as Thou hast spoken.” (Judges 6:37, see also 6:39-40)
- Obviously, Saul could not have blown a trumpet loud enough to be heard throughout the entire earth: “And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout [kol] the land [erets], saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” (1 Sam 13:3)
- No, the battle did not take place over the entire earth: “For the battle there was spread over the whole [kol] countryside [erets], and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.” (2 Sam 18:8)
- No they didn’t go through the entire earth, just the lands of Palestine: “So when they had gone about through the whole [kol] land [erets], they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.” (2 Sam 24:8)
- It is unlikely that the Native Americans went to see Solomon: “And all [kol] the earth [erets] was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart.” (1 Kings 10:24)
- It is unlikely that the Australian Aborigines knew about David: “Then the fame of David went out into all [kol] the lands [erets]; and the LORD brought the fear of him on all the nations.” (1 Chron 14:17)
- It is unlikely that the South Americans brought horses to Solomon: “And they were bringing horses for Solomon from Egypt and from all [kol] countries [erets].” (2 Chron 9:28)
Continued in Part 2
Is it possible that this story is a myth? (And by myth I don’t mean a “lie” but a “pre-scientific way of talking about spiritually significant matters in story form.”)
I believe the text allows for that.
Is it possible that this story is a retelling based on a local historical flood?
Again I believe the text allows for that.
Is it possible to read this story as scientific-historic narrative?
I don’t believe a rational understanding of the text allows that, and I will explain exactly why this is the case in part 2.
As far as the Christian ethics of reading the Bible like this, let me end with a citation by C.S Lewis, the most influential Christian scholar and apologist of our era:
The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. And “incarnate” here is more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.” (Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 129)