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The Leaky Noah’s Ark Tale

I discussed the logic (or lack of logic) in the Garden of Eden story in two recent posts. The story of Noah and the flood is another fascinating tale from this period and from the same sources.

Let me again address the question many are probably asking: given that this is just an ancient myth, why evaluate it as if it’s history (which I will be doing)? Because for 60% of Americans it is literally, word-for-word true. For Protestants, that figure is 73%. For Evangelicals, it’s 87%.

Prior flood stories

Robert Price in The Reason-Driven Life (pages 102–106) gives a summary of what came before.

[The Noah flood story] is a derivative version of demonstrably much older flood epics from the same area, including the Gilgamesh epic [Sumerian], the Atrahasis epic [Akkadian], the story of Xisuthros [Sumerian], and that of Deucalion and Pyrrha [Greek], all of whom survived the world-devastating flood by setting sail in a protective ark, most of them bringing the animals along for the ride. We find all the familiar details: The decision of the gods to flood the world for some offense committed by the human race, the stipulated dimensions of the ark, the provision for the animals, the onset of the rains, the number of days the flood lasted, the naming of the spot the ark came to rest, the sending forth of birds to find dry ground, the emergence of the refugees, their sacrifice, and the promise of the gods never to doom the world thusly ever again. It’s all there, at least most of it in most versions.

Yes, just because there were prior flood stories from that region doesn’t mean that the Noah story didn’t actually happen. And yes, just because the Sumerian cosmology both preceded Genesis and is the same as that described in Genesis—it allows water from below (“the springs of the great deep burst forth”) and above (“the floodgates of the heavens were opened,” both from Gen. 7:11)—doesn’t mean that the Genesis account was copied.

But in both cases, that’s certainly an enormous clue.

Contradictions

As with the two Genesis creation stories—six days vs. Garden of Eden—a flood story from the older J source (about 950 BCE) is squashed with one from the P source (500 BCE) to make an unhappy compromise. (I discuss the Documentary Hypothesis and the Old Testament’s different sources here.)

The clumsy intermingling of the two stories can be seen, for example, in Genesis 8. The first five verses (the P account) tell about the water receding, the ark coming to rest on Ararat, and land becoming visible. The next seven verses (from J) make clear that land is not yet visible when Noah sent out birds to check for land, but “there was water over all the surface of the earth.”

The P source says that Noah brought just one pair of all animals (Gen. 6:19–20), while the J source says that he also brought seven pairs of all birds and kosher (“clean”) animals (7:2–3).

According to Price, these two sources each had their partisans, so each had to be preserved. Better to merge them, however imprecisely, than to drop a beloved story element.

Story problems

It’s fun to compare the Noah story with science and history as we know it. Here are some of the problems that I’ve come across. Add any that I’ve overlooked in the comments.

  • The ark was 137 meters long, making it the largest wooden ship ever built. It would’ve taken tens of thousands of big trees. Where did the wood come from? Could four men (Noah and his sons) have built such a craft by hand in less than 100 years?
  • Consider how the square-cube law applies to the ark (discussed more thoroughly at Skeptoid). When you double the size of a ship, you double it in three dimensions. That’s also true for every piece of timber. Take a beam, 6 feet long, with a 4-inch-by-4-inch cross section. Now double it to 12′×8″×8″. The volume has gone up 8-fold, but the cross section has only increased by a factor of 4. It’s 8 times heavier but only 4 times stronger. This means that if you take a small boat and double every dimension, you have a much more fragile boat. To make it seaworthy, you’d have to use much thicker timber. How much cargo space would’ve been available given the massive beams the ark would’ve needed?
  • What did the carnivores eat? There were a few extra kosher animals and birds for sacrificing and perhaps for Noah’s own table, but what’s left for the lions and tigers and bears?
  • What did the herbivores eat? Hay could store well, but what about the birds and bats that eat fruit? Most fruit won’t last for the many months of the journey. Did Noah’s sons collect fresh Chinese bamboo for the pandas? How did they provide nectar for the hummingbirds?
  • What did the insects eat? Biologists today would probably be unable to provide the right kind of food and living environments to ensure 100% survival for all known insects, but we’re to imagine that Noah and his sons had no problem?
  • How did the fish survive? With the earth covered by a single body of water, the freshwater and the saltwater fish couldn’t have both been happy.
  • How did animals get from far-away places and then get back home afterwards? How did the penguins and polar bears get to Mesopotamia and stay comfortably cool during the trip? How did the kangaroos and koala bears get to Australia afterwards?
  • What did the carnivores eat after they were released? Remember that eating even a single rabbit or zebra would’ve made that species extinct.
  • Could all of today’s plants have survived months of immersion in salt water to recolonize the land?
  • Some Bible literalists try to bypass the problem of finding space on the ark for millions of species by arguing that by “kinds,” the Bible isn’t referring to species but genera (the next-higher taxonomic level). But this forces them to imagine rapid speciation in the 6000 years after the flood, which is hard for the evolution deniers among them to do.

And let’s simply bypass the problem that geology tells us that there was no global flood.

Of course, God could’ve solved any of these problems with a miracle, but then why tell the story as if Noah and his family did everything? Why not just have God poof into existence a new world with everyone painlessly dead except Noah and his family? Because it’s just a story written with no concern about modern science.

Read part 2 here.

If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall.
If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do.
The same happens in the absence of prayers.
— Steve Allen

Photo credit: Amazon

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Y. A. Warren

    Superstition will always trump reason in the uneducated.

    • busterggi

      And the deliberately stupid as well.

      • Y. A. Warren

        It is elitism to assume that all who have no, or limited, ability to reason, are deliberately stupid. There are many genetic and birth trauma anomalies in humanity that limit the ability to reason. It is bullying behavior to ridicule the ability of another. True responsible compassion seeks to include all in the human conversation

        • kraut2

          True responsible compassion seeks to include all in the human conversation

          There exists no obligation to engage in anything with those who despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary persist in believing bullshit.

          I feel sorry for those who deny themselves to acquire real knowledge and can live with uncertainty (all scientific knowledge is as any real knowledge provisional) but do not have to waste my time discussing nonsense with them.

        • Y. A. Warren

          There are kind ways to say that the other person’s experience or information is simply not consistent with your own experience or information. I often say this and then change the subject.

          When the true zealots continue to attempt pressing their beliefs on me, I simply exit their presence, lest I turn to my own form of zealotry. Some people are aggressively stupid, but really can’t help themselves. They operate on a lower level of human intellect than do some others.

          At least, that is my experience.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          It is elitism to assume that all who have no, or limited, ability to reason, are deliberately stupid.

          It is inattention to detail, or perfidy, that causes one to parse “the deliberately stupid are included” as “all included are deliberately stupid.

        • Y. A. Warren

          I’d say it’s a compassionate attempt to clarify, though I’m not sure why you find what I said offensive. I was commenting on someone else’s comment, which you misquoted, not one of yours.

    • RichardSRussell

      Apropos of which, meet my new favorite word:
      mumpsimus (noun):
      1. A view stubbornly held in spite of clear evidence that it’s wrong.
      2. A person who holds such a view.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        Yeah, but … what does that have to do with a critique of Christianity?

        • RichardSRussell

          It was in agreement with Y. A. Warren’s comment about some people’s continuing preference for superstition over reason (and, by extension, evidence). It’s my contention that this attitude explains much of Christianity, and in particular belief in the literally incredible Noah’s Ark story. And now we’ve got a word to describe it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          (That was an attempt at humor on my part. Perhaps I should leave humor to the professionals.)

        • RichardSRussell

          No, you were fine. If I’d been awake, I would’ve noticed that the comment was coming from you and not some fundie apologist, but that’s what I get for trying to think at 2 in the morning. Sorry.

  • John Kesler

    As we know, due to the way that various traditions were compiled in the Torah, sometimes a later-inserted tradition created inconsistencies with existing texts. This is precisely what happened when the story of the Great Flood was placed where it is. The author of Genesis four, call him Moses or whomever, wrote at a time after the flood allegedly occurred, and his etiologies attempt to explain why people practice various crafts. He penned the following, which I quote from the KJV:

    19 And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. 21 And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. 22 And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.

    Notice that “Moses” speaks of those who “dwell” (present tense) in tents and “handle” (present tense) the harp and organ. Were it not for the Flood story later, no one would question that this passage is intended to explain present (to the author) realities.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      “Etiology” sounds better than “just-so story.”

      • Reginald Selkirk

        “Aetiology” is even better, because the double vowel makes it appear deep and mysterious.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Ætiology cooler still.

    • Paul D.

      Whoever wrote that passage didn’t even know about the flood, since all these pre-flood people could not possibly have been the founders of post-flood industries and arts.

      Just like whoever created the table of nations with individual peoples and languages in Genesis 10 didn’t know about the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, where everyone is still one nation speaking one language.

  • John Kesler

    An oldie-but-goodie involves the enigmatic Nephilim. The story of the Nephilim is an etiological one, to explain why the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Canaan were so large: they were the descendants of divine beings and human women. Again, the intrusion of the Great Flood story causes a problem, because the obvious question is how the Nephilim could still be around in Numbers 13:33. A scribe at some point noticed this and added the clumsy parenthetical gloss “and also after that” to explain this anomaly:

    Genesis 6:4 (KJV)
    There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

    What were “those days,” keeping in mind that the author is writing well after the putative flood occurred? Obviously, it’s the time of Noah, or perhaps more specifically, the preflood days of Noah. To say that it could mean anything else makes the phrase “and also after that” meaningless, because such a phrase would be unneeded if “after that” meant just a short time later. Since any time after the flood is “after that,” then this means that the Nephilim survived the flood.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The Nephilim are said to be to people as we are to grasshoppers. These aren’t simply guys who wear XL t-shirts.

      Did God cause the flood to get rid of wicked people or to destroy some mutant race of demigod Nephilim?

      • John Kesler

        Bob Seidensticker wrote:
        Did God cause the flood to get rid of wicked people or to destroy some mutant race of demigod Nephilim?

        I like the NAB’s footnote for Genesis 6:1-4:

        These enigmatic verses are a transition between the expansion of the human race illustrated in the genealogy of chap. 5 and the flood depicted in chaps. 6–9. The text, apparently alluding to an old legend, shares a common ancient view that the heavenly world was populated by a multitude of beings, some of whom were wicked and rebellious. It is incorporated here, not only in order to account for the prehistoric giants, whom the Israelites called the Nephilim, but also to introduce the story of the flood with a moral orientation—the constantly increasing wickedness of humanity. This increasing wickedness leads God to reduce the human life span imposed on the first couple. As the ages in the preceding genealogy show, life spans had been exceptionally long in the early period, but God further reduces them to something near the ordinary life span.

    • Paul D.

      It wasn’t just the people that were giants. The grapes were so big it took two Israelites with a pole to carry a single cluster. :)

      It’s like a scene out of Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

  • Mick

    Regarding the Flood story you say, “…for 60% of Americans it is literally, word-for-word true. For Protestants, that figure is 73%. For Evangelicals, it’s 87%.”

    Would it possible to improve the American education system, or does the Government prefer to deal with an ignorant hoi-poloi?

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Would it possible to improve the American education system, or does the Government prefer to deal with an ignorant hoi-poloi?

      One of the problems is that in our democracy, the government is an ignorant hoi-polloi.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Maybe the Jewish god Jealous turned all the animals into breatharians for the duration of the journey, and they lived on sunlight alone.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I’ve heard that Ken Ham’s Creation Museum says that the 6″ teeth of the T-Rex were used to open coconuts in the days before the Fall, when everyone was a vegetarian and there was no death.

  • kraut2

    Yes, just because there were prior flood stories from that region
    doesn’t mean that the Noah story didn’t actually happen. And yes, just
    because the Sumerian cosmology
    both preceded Genesis and is the same as that described in Genesis—it
    allows water from below (“the springs of the great deep burst forth”)
    and above (“the floodgates of the heavens were opened,” both from Gen.
    7:11)—doesn’t mean that the Genesis account was copied.

    Lets assume genesis account was not copied from preceding sources, and also let us assume that the prior flood stories are based on sincerely held beliefs – there was a lot of flooding and destruction going on within a rather short time frame.

    Now my question to the believer – why should I give preference to a convoluted and partially contradictory story in the bible when there is a much clearer story in the Gilgamesh epos – and for much better reasons: humanity was getting too noisy, something that is easily understood by present human society.

    The reasons for Noahs flood are really incomprehensible

    “In context, the passage
    before us gives a plausible reason why God would eradicate almost all
    of humanity. Its position in the opening verses of the Flood account
    serves as an introduction to the greatest destruction of human life in
    history. Satanic influx, the “seed” of Satan, entered the human race by
    the action of those fallen angels. Only “Noah was a just man, perfect in
    his generations”, (Genesis 6:9). The word “generations” is the Hebrew
    word, toledah. Usually it is used in Genesis to mean “family history”.
    However its primary meaning is “descent” or “family lineage”.

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/06/28/Why-Did-God-Send-the-Flood.aspx (by another dentist…they seem to be fond of explaining the bible…)

    If one assumes an omniscient/omnipotent being who really should have watched what he created but always seems to be tinkering with the mess that happened when he wasn’t paying attention.

  • Greg G.

    Did Noah’s sons collect fresh Chinese bamboo for the pandas? How did they provide nectar for the hummingbirds?

    Ooh, ooh, ooh… eucalyptus for the koalas.

    I think you could add Egyptian theology as a source for the Flood story. The Ogdoad are four gods and four goddesses who are depicted as seven people on a boat with animals held up by Nu, the god of the deep. The name “Noah” may come from “Nu”. The story has the gods as people whereas Genesis 1:2 has their personalities stripped down to their essences.

  • MNb

    I am baffled that 60% takes the Flood Story literally. There isn’t enough water on Earth to cover it entirely. And how is the nice little sloth supposed to reach the Ark? It walks with an amazing pace of 150 meters per hour, can’t swim and can’t survive in deserts.

    Here is what a pro has to say about the Great Flood:
    http://www.livius.org/fa-fn/flood/flood1.html
    Make sure to read the last page as well for the archeological evidence.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      That’s a great summary of the different flood stories.

      Yes, I’d heard of evidence of local flooding. In one, the Black Sea might’ve been cut off, making a basin below sea level. When the Bosphorus (or the Dardanelles) opened up (7000 years ago?), there was a slow-motion flood as the basin filled up and lakefront communities were covered.

      • John Kesler

        Speaking of local flooding, there are some Christians who claim that the Great Flood was only local in scope–that Yahweh never intended to flood the whole globe. It has appeal if you’re a Christian, since it eliminates some of the problems outlined in this post and the comments, but it creates problems of its own, as the biblical authors clearly had a global flood in view.

  • TMU

    As a USMC Officer currently deployed on a Navy ship, I can tell you that 60 days aboard a ship without any underway replenishment (un-rep) would be basically impossible.

    We get “un-rep” weekly. It’s a significant, complex operation that requires the attention and coordination of the entire ship’s company. We take on massive amounts of food and supplies.

    We have the capacity to turn sea-water into potable water – we can make hundreds of thousands of gallons at a time… and if those systems were to shut down completely, we’d be out of water within a couple days.

    We also have a very maintenance-intensive CHT system (that’s the sewage). It holds tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage, and it fills within less than two days if we don’t empty it routinely. And there are no animals aboard this ship – just people.

    Without the ability to replenish at sea, without a means to create potable water, and without a way to get rid of our sewage and trash… without a massive crew to keep this ship under repair (because stuff breaks all the time), we’d be dead in the water within a week.

    To expect anyone who has ever been at sea for any length of time to believe that a wood boat floated around for 60 days with no provisions, no crew, no accommodations, and filled with every kind of animal on the planet is not only laughable… but a bit insulting as well.

    I can forgive primitive men for thinking this kind of thing was possible. Not so easy to forgive modern men for pushing this sort of silliness with a straight face.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      That’s some fascinating real-world data. Thanks for contributing that.

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