Monday, November 24, 2014


Noah's Flood

Genesis 6-9 tells the story of Noah, the Ark, and the Flood. While some Christians interpret the text to mean that the flood covered the whole globe and try to explain the evidence of rocks and fossils in terms of this global flood, others don’t think the text requires a global flood, but one covering the region known to Noah. This reading of the text fits with the majority scientific opinion that ‘The scientific and historical evidence does not support a global flood, but is consistent with a catastrophic regional flood.’[i]

Christian writer Timothy Keller says:

‘I believe Noah’s flood happened, but that it was a regional flood, not a worldwide flood. On the one hand, those who insist on it being a worldwide flood seem to ignore too much the scientific evidence that there was no such thing. On the other hand, those who insist that it was a legend seem to ignore too much the trustworthiness of the Scripture… we should remember that the Bible often speaks of the “known world” as the “whole world” — compare Gen. 41:56,57; Acts 2:5,9-11; Col.1:23.’[ii]

While flood stories abound in ancient cultures from many parts of the world, this doesn’t prove that there was a global flood. Instead, different parts of the world may have suffered floods at various times in ancient history and may have recorded these events, or based stories upon them, from within the perspective of their own religious worldview.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a story about Deucalion and Pyhrra, who saved their children and some animals in a giant box-shaped craft (such a craft would have been unstable in water; this contrasts with Noah’s ‘floating boxcar’, which would have been stable).

The recently discovered Babylonian ‘Ark Tablet’ was written during the Old Babylonian period, broadly 1900–1700 B.C. In this version a man called Atra-hasıs is instructed by the god Enki to ‘Draw out the boat that you will make on a circular plan.’ Atra-hasis’ Ark is effectively a 230 ft wide reed coracle. However, just as in the Noah story, so in this Babylonian version, the animals are said to enter the Ark ‘two by two’.[iii]

A recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review highlights the existence of several different Babylonian accounts of the flood story:

‘In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood… Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East…’[iv]

According to archaeologist James F. Hoffmeier:

‘Given the fact that there were several different traditions from Mesopotamia, and that they have so many points in common with the Biblical story, it might be logical to conclude that all the stories recall a common event that was retold to reflect different social, cultural and theological contexts.’[v]

Noah’s story is related in ‘phenomenological’ terms, that is, from the limited viewpoint of the human observer. Roger Forster and Paul Marston note that: ‘to translate “the whole eretz” as “the whole earth” is really misleading to the modern reader, for we think of “earth” in terms of a “Globe”. To translate it “the whole land”, would much better convey the kind of concept in the mind of the writer – and often it does not even imply the whole of the then known world.’[vi] Moreover: ‘the term tebel, which translates to the whole expanse of the Earth, or the Earth as a whole, is not used in Genesis 6:17, nor in subsequent verses in Genesis… If the intent of this passage was to indicate the entire expanse of the Earth, tebel would have been the more appropriate word choice.’[vii] Indeed: ‘Although the geological record contains ample evidence of widespread, devestating local flooding, most geologists claim to see no evidence of a universal flood.’[viii] As Davies A. Young asks:

‘Given the frequency with which the Bible uses universal language to describe local events of great significance, such as the famine or the plagues in Egypt, is it unreasonable to suppose that the flood account uses hyperbolic language to describe an event that devastated or disrupted Mesopotamian civilization — that is to say, the whole world of the Semites?’[ix]

Davies A. Young concludes that ‘there may very well have been a catastrophic deluge in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys that severely disrupted the civilization of that area — a civilization that represented the world to the biblical writer — and it may be that this is what the biblical story is all about.’[x]

Noah’s ark has not been found (no wooden structure would survive so long unless buried in glacial ice). Forster and Marston comment: ‘As for the various claims that the ark has been “found” on some or the other mountain… we remain very sceptical. Some are manifestly natural outcrops, others are not the shape described in Genesis, and none is convincing.’[xi] 

cf. Noah’s Ark Search @

On the basis that a biblical ‘cubit’ was probably about 18 inches, Noah’s Ark is described as being around 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Dutch carpenter Johan Huibers spent three years building what he thinks is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark:

Michael Lahanas discusses some examples of giant ancient wooden ships in his article, ‘Giant Hellenistic Warships’

A recent article in The Telegraph (April 3rd, 2014) reported that scientists at the University of Leicester:

'have discovered that Noah's Ark could have carried 70,000 animals without sinking if built from the dimensions listed in the Bible. A group of master's students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Leicester University studied the exact dimensions of the Ark, set out in Genesis 6:13-22. According to the Bible, God instructed Noah to build a boat which was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high... The students averaged out the Egyptian and hebrew cubit measurement to come up with 48.2 cm, making the Ark around 144 meters long... Using the dimensions, the Archimedes principle of bouyancy and approximate animal weights they were astonished to find out that the Ark would have floated.' cf.

That said, the ancient use of numbers in the Old Testament is often more symbolic/numerological than literal, and this may be the case with the dimensions of the Ark.

Recommended Resources

Noah Weiner, ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet’
Lorence G. Collins, ‘Yes, Noah's Flood May Have Happened, But Not Over the Whole Earth’
Answers in Genesis (global flood advocates) – Flood FAQ’s
Answers in Genesis (global flood advocates) – Noah’s Ark FAQ’s
Listen: Unbelievable?, ‘Does the rock and fossil evidence point to Noah’s Flood or Evolution?’{6DB9D833-41FD-4433-8549-853D56C3C8FB}
Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (Hodder, 2014)
Roger Forster & Paul Marston, Reason, Science & Faith (Monarch, 1999)
William B.F. Ryan and Walter C. Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event That Changed History (Touchstone, 2000)
Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin and Pavel M. Dolukhanov, The Black Sea Flood Question: Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement (Springer, 2007)
Ian Wilson, Before the Flood (St. Martin’s Press, 2004)
Ian Wilson, The Bible Is History (Weindenfeld & Nicolson,1999)
Davies A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)

[ii] Timothy Keller, Genesis: What Were We Put in the World to Do? (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2006), p. 81)
[v] James F. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Lion, 2008), p. 38.
[vi] Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science & Faith (Monarch, 1999), p. 297.
[viii] The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville, Tennessee: Holman, 2007), note for 6:17, p. 16.
[ix] Davies A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 312.
[x] Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 252.
[xi] Forster & Marston, ibid, p. 440.

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