The Incoherence of the Flood

The Incoherence of the Flood March 8, 2007

It’s been too long since I posted anything controversial so I guess I better start living up to my villain namesake. Actually, this discussion has probably already been done to death on the ‘nacle so feel free to ignore this post. It’s just that it’s one of my favorite heresies and never fails to stir up some conversation.

I’m a moderate Mormon, which means that I meet a lot of fellow LDS that think that I’m a flaming liberal because I’m not exceptionally conservative like they are. Trust me, there are some flaming liberals at this blog and yours truly is not one of them.

As an example, when I’m speaking with such people, I like to use the Flood as an example of how coming to see things taught within the Church from a different perspective has actually led me to receive greater insights and a stronger testimony. So lets dis the Flood, open our minds a bit, and walk away even happier with God.

There are so many points of contention that I have with the Flood story as it stands that I hardly know where to begin. I guess we should review the record. The whole story is found in Genesis chapters 6-8.

The whole land has grown wicked, very wicked. God warns Noah that he’s getting fed up with his children and Noah gets sent out to preach repentance for 120 <i>years</i>. The people laugh and jeer at Noah and his warnings and God decides that since everyone is so bad that he’s going to wipe them all out and start over with Noah and his sons.

God gives Noah enough of a warning before things go down to build an ark, or really big boat. He gives him instructions to make it out of gopher wood (cool!) and to make it 300x50x30 cubits. A cubit is about 18 inches or so so we’re talking about 450x75x45 feet. It has to be pitched in and out and it gets one “window.” It has a (presumably) big door and has three interior floors with lots of rooms.

Noah then has to collect animals. <i>Lots</i> of animals. Two of every kind and seven of every clean kind. He’s to take only himself, his wife, his three sons and their three wives by way of people. Then the flood comes. Of course food and water for all are needed also.

It rains 40 days and nights. The windows of heavens open and the fountains of the deep break up. The water rises and rises and doesn’t stop until the water has risen 15 cubits above the highest mountains. The waters prevails 150 days. It takes a while before the plants start to come back and everyone can safely leave. God makes a covenant not to do all this again and puts a nice rainbow in the heavens to show that he’s not lying.

Before we get into Bible bashing, let me just explain where I <i>think</i> the problems originate. I think that what we have here is a true story that got mythologized. Serious exaggeration that got way out of hand. There are several possible examples of this (only possibilities though). One that comes to mind is the height of Goliath. Sure the dude was big, very big even, but by all accounts 12 or 13 feet high is off the charts. The cool thing now is that the Dead Sea Scrolls have a different reading that puts him at 7 or 8 feet, a definite improvement. In fact, lots of numbers appear to be exaggerated in the OT. It happens when these oral stories get passed down over hundreds of years. And that’s not even the only reason or way that mythologizing happens to a text. But rather than argue this point (it could be someone else’s post if there is enough interest in it), let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Lets start with the ark. The thing is made from Gopher wood. We don’t actually know what type of plant this was and it could have been anything. So I won’t make issue here. However, regardless of whatever wood it was made from, this is a boat that would have had a tough time floating. Wood makes a good material for ship building, up to a point. It doesn’t have the strength of other materials (usually metal) that we make ships out of today. Sliming the boat with pitch and stuff is all good and necessary but for a boat that is 450 feet long and 75 feet wide, wood will not do. Our ark would have sprung a leak and sank, even if empty, within a few hours. Not a great start.

Now this can be a place where God intercedes and helps out. Maybe the boat doesn’t sink because God performs a miracle. It could happen. So let’s go on.

One of the most obvious problems in the whole story involves the fitting of the animals into ark. Even if God miraculously sends a perfect pair for Noah so he doesn’t have to go look for them, how do they all fit? I’ve heard one estimate that it would take more than 10,000 (and I’m being generously low here) arks just to fit two of every animal in the world known today. That requires a miracle of unprecedented proportions. And it doesn’t account for the necessary food and water. For me, this is serious strike number one.

Serious problem number two involves the water. Where did it all come from and where did it all go? This is a pretty standard question and the Bible gives its answer: rain, the windows of heaven, and the fountains of the deep. These terms don’t mean much to us (except rain of course) unless we have a good picture of how the Israelites viewed the world and universe. Here’s the one I am familiar with (although I know that there are others out there).

When God created the world everything was water, or chaos which is usually viewed as water. God divided the waters and created a little bubble in which the earth resides. Land is gathered up into one place. It is surrounded by water: water above (why the sky is blue silly!), water below (those fountains of the deep), and water all around (the ocean). When you see things this way, there is more than enough water and God has lots of places to put it when he is done.

Clearly this doesn’t work for us. And even if all the ice caps melted there still isn’t even close enough to flood the whole earth above the tops of the mountains. Throw in a couple of seriously big ice asteroids and maybe you have enough then, but then where does it all go? This requires, again, another miracle the likes of which we don’t see anywhere else. Strike two. (interesting note: Mt. Ararat, the traditional landing site of the ark and tallest mountain in the region (I think) is 16,854ft tall. Add 20 more and you have the water level of the earth rising almost 17,000 ft in 40 days or 425 ft a day or a shade under 18 feet an hour. Everest is 29,035 feet. That means that the water would have risen 725 feet a day or more than 30 feet an hour for 40 straight days. Forgive me if I’m skeptic)

The third problem has to do with mud and animals and people. Where is the evidence of this flood. The amount of debris that this sort of calamity would stir up is enormous. It would leave a huge layer of silt etc in the geological record around the whole world. And we’d have found it by now and it would be very obvious. After all, ancient floods, asteroids, volcanoes, and other major disasters (all of which pale in comparison to what we’re talking about) have left incredible amounts of evidence behind. There is no world wide flood layer. Nothing even close.

In the Genesis account all of the land and air animals have to be preserved in the ark because all of their counterparts are destroyed and representatives are needed to repopulate the planet afterwards. Again, the geological and other natural records available to us through good solid science do not agree with this whatsoever. The first problem is diversity. The animals got far and wide throughout the earth very quickly. And either all of their very diverse natural habitats reappeared very quickly also so they could resume normal life or they diversified into different species at an astronomical rate. Also, there is no evidence of all the species of animal on the earth today radiating quickly out from one tiny area about 5000 years ago. And trust me, there would be lots of evidence for this too. But it isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the problem of plant diversity (no account of Noah having to save two of every plant and then having to replant them all all over the world post-Flood).

The same problem applies to people. Genesis insists that all the families of the world descend from Noah and his sons at this point and we have Shem, Japeth, and Ham scattering in every direction to populate the known world. Shem gets the Middle East (the term Semitic derives from this name), Japeth repopulates Europe, and Ham and his cursed spouse move to Africa. What about our Far East Asian friends? Or our Indian brothers and sisters? Or our non-Jaredite, Lehite, Mulekite indigenous American neighbors? And where is the archaeological evidence for this happening 5000 years ago? Things just do not add up.

Here’s how I see the Flood. There was a real Noah who was a real prophet who really was spoken to by God who really lived in an exceptionally wicked place and time. God did command him to preserve his family and as many animals as possible by means of a boat that he showed him how to make (hello? Nephi anyone?) while he catastrophically flooded the land. The basic premise is entirely correct. It’s the details that are off in a major way.

Contrary to what some people have heard, not every people, kindred, tongue, and nation has a flood story. Many do, it’s true, but not all. And they are not all alike. And there is one very good reason for most people having some kind of a flood story: all civilization as we know it sprang up in places where there was not enough rainfall to support a large sedentary population but there was nearby a body of water that that could be drawn from. To my knowledge, these bodies of water were always rivers: the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Yangtze, the Yellow, that one in India I can’t remember. And if you live near a river long enough it will always flood. Always.

Because of Katrina more of us have learned about 100 year storms. It’s a theory about weather that states that as storms increase in severity, the frequency of occurence between storms of such power increases. For example, on average the area of New Orleans will have a Katrina strength storm once in a hundred or so years. This is not the worst kind of storm. There are 500 year storms and 1000 year storms. I don’t actually know how high that number can go (1000 may actually be too high already) but you get the idea. Maybe Noah’s storm was a 1000 or 5000 year storm.

Another part of the story that probably very naturally got exaggerated was how extensive the flood was. There is almost no way that the Israelites knew about the geography of the world the way we do. We have some old maps, maps that don’t go anywhere near as far back as Noah, and they all show the same thing: people in general had no idea how big and extensive the world really was. The land they knew by personal experience, trading, and rumors from other peoples made up about the extent of it. For a person living in Palestine during the Roman era the ends of the world were Britain, India, maybe China, Ethiopia, and Spain. You get the idea. And the world would have looked a lot smaller in the days of Noah. What constituted his world? We don’t know. We do know that the word for world in Hebrew is the same as land and earth and sometimes country. Even retelling the story accurately could have lead to an exaggeration of how much land was covered with water. It very easily goes from all the land around where I lived got flooded to the whole earth got flooded to the water went way over the tops of the mountains! Not a stretch at all.

There are plenty of times and places when this catastrophic flood of Noah’s could have taken place. I’m not personally a fan of the American Noah so I look to somewhere in the East. The tradition of where Noah landed might generally be correct, somewhere near eastern Turkey. I personally favor the flooding of the Black Sea story myself. The Black Sea used to be the Really Big Inland Freshwater Lake. But Turkey separates the Mediterranean from the Black and they have lots and lots of big earthquakes there. A particularly nasty one goes off a few thousand years ago and all of a sudden the waters of the Mediterranean go flooding down into the previously below sea level Black Sea, add a huge rainstorm, and voila! you have yourself a very plausible Flood story.

See, I’m not completely heretical. I just think that the story as we currently have it asks too much of God. I don’t see the need for all of the miracles about animals, water, and people when the miracles that would have taken place in the story underneath the story would do just fine. I don’t see God working that way at all. It doesn’t seem to be his style. God’s miracles are subtle, improvable, and must be taken on faith. I can’t see God creating this horrible flood and then going back and erasing all proof that it ever existed just to confound us.

The reason why I like to use this as an example of thinking outside of the box is because I don’t believe that my salvation is jeopardized by believing what I do about it. I’m not going to get to the pearly/fiery gates and meet Peter/Joseph/whoever and have them say to me, “man you made and kept those covenants spot on but that whole Flood heresy is going to keep you out.” Not going to happen.

However, it does give me some very positive things to focus on. For starters a greater appreciation for the depth of the sacred texts we have and the need to read them very carefully and prayerfully. I also appreciate the stuff that is not as messed up as this is. I appreciate that any truth at all comes down to us from so long ago and that God is willing to preserve such a long and rich history of his interactions with his children so that we can see how acts toward us and have faith that he is a loving and kind Father. There are countless other reasons I could list, not all of which everyone would agree with, but the one thing that this teaches me is that I must be discerning when it comes to all scriptures. It opened my mind to the possibility that other scriptures should be understood in dramatically different ways and reveal great truths. Since then I have tried to view almost everything in the Gospel in a different light just to see whether it made more sense or taught me something new. The fruits of this have been on occasion as beautiful and amazing as the fruit from the Tree of Life, probably because they have in some real way come from there.

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