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Flood Myths and Sunken Arks:
Who needs to believe in Noah’s Ark and why?

Noah’s Ark, oil on canvas, by Simon de Myle (fl. 1570) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Noah’s Ark, by Simon de Myle (fl. 1570) [Public domain] [PD-1923], via Wikimedia Commons


Should the Noah’s Ark story be taken literally? Readers of Skeptic would probably react with shock that such a question should even be asked in these pages. “You’ve got to be kidding!” might be an appropriate response. For us, today, yes, it is something of a small joke even to pose such a question. Yet, as we all know, there are those who would answer with a resounding “YES!” These are the fundamentalists, Biblical literalists, and creationists. If it is our goal at the Skeptics Society, as noted in our statement of purpose (in the words of Baruch Spinoza) “not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them,” then we must ask this question from a historical point of view.

It may have been the intention of the original authors to convince their readers that these stories are true, in the sense we use the word today. But this in no way means that we should interpret them literally, any more than we would today paint wild animals on cave walls and assume the purpose of such an activity would be the same as it was for Cro-Magnon humans so long ago. Likewise, it would be ahistorical of us to assume these figures are “art” by our usage of the word. Historians know how dangerous it can be to apply modern standards and definitions to historical people, places, and things. Similarly, skeptics know how misleading it can be to adopt historical interpretations of longgone centuries to the modern world. We have, after all, learned a few things about nature in the past 3,500 years!

Those who do take the flood story literally, then, believe they should because they assume that people did back then. Our biblical ancestors may have needed such literal interpretations. Creationists and the like need them today because they are, in this sense, ahistorical. If the Bible contains moral homilies relevant for today, then why not take the rest of it at face value? The argument makes no sense from a modern perspective, but then these folks are living in the past—literally! — Executive Editor

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 2.3 (1994). Read Gerald A. Larue’s bio at the end of this article.


Questioning the validity of the biblical flood story rests on the findings of a number of different but related fields, including archaeology, the historical-literary analysis of the Bible, and geology, not to mention good old common sense. It is to these, instead of faith, to which we turn for a skeptical analysis of the source and meaning of the flood story—for those who came before, and for us.

From the Sumerian Deluge Story
Archaeology

Archaeological excavation has produced tablets containing the oldest known versions of the Near Eastern flood story that, since they pre-date the Noah story, shed some light on the origins of this all-important myth. In the third millennium B.C.E., in a Sumerian tale, the flood hero is a priest-king named Ziusudra. From the fragmented text we learn that he built a boat and that after the flood he made animal sacrifices to the gods of Sumer.

A more detailed flood myth was included in the Babylonian story (second millennium B.C.E.) of a legendary King of Uruk named Gilgamesh, who learned of the flood from an ancestor named Utnapishtim. Warned by the Babylonian earth-god Ea that the gods were about to destroy all life by a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube, 120 cubits (180 feet) in length, breadth, and depth, with seven floors each divided into nine compartments, and to take aboard one pair of each living creature. After the flood, because Utnapishtim saved the “seed of life,” he was granted immortality. Motifs in the Babylonian account are echoed later in the Noah story:

  1. Both heros are warned of the flood and told to build an ark. Both take aboard living creatures in pairs.
  2. Both send out birds: Utnapishtim sent a raven that did not return; Noah sent a dove.
  3. Both arks landed in mountainous areas: Utnapishtim’s on Mount Nisir (identified as Pir Omar Gudun); Noah’s in “the mountains of Ararat,” not on Mount Ararat.
  4. Both heros offered sacrifices after disembarking.

The Gilgamesh epic circulated for centuries throughout the Near East and was known in Palestine before the coming of the Hebrews. D. G. Wiseman noted that a fragment of the text was found in the 14th-century B.C.E. level during the excavation of Megiddo, Israel. Literary comparisons make it clear that the biblical flood stories are borrowed from older versions of the tale.

From the Mesopotamian Deluge Story

Archaeological researchers have suggested that the Near Eastern flood myth may have its origin in the actual flooding by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. During the excavation of ‘al Ubaid, Sir Leonard Woolley found a deep level of river silt covering habitation, indicating that the site had been completely inundated. Above the silt layer community living began again. Such flood experiences may lie behind the Mesopotamian deluge stories. The myth would not normally develop in Israel where the only river—the Jordan— flows for most of its length below sea level. It would clearly seem that the Hebrew tale is borrowed and has it origin in these mythological models explaining the real actions of nature.

Biblical Analysis

Modern scholars employ a literary-historical approach in biblical research. They seek to know when a writing was composed, where, under what circumstances, for what purpose, and, when possible, by whom or for whom. They also seek to understand the nature of the writing—is it history, legend, myth, a psalm, a letter and so on. Dr. William Dever has noted in The Biblical Archaeology Review (1990, p. 53):

It has been demonstrated that the Bible is a composite of diverse genres including, myths, folktales, epics, prose and poetic narratives, court annals, nationalistic propaganda, historical novellas, genealogies, cult legends, liturgical formulas, songs and psalms, private prayers, legal corpora, oracles and prophesy, homily and didactic materials, belles letters, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, and so on.

Therefore, simply to accept the flood narrative as literal history today is both naive and simplistic and, more importantly, misses the point of what these stories meant to those people then.

It is clear to any Bible reader that there are conflicting statements in the flood story. One of the most obvious is that in Gen. 6:19–20. Noah is told to bring one pair of each creature into the ark, but in Gen. 7:2 he is told to bring seven pair of “clean animals”—that is seven pair of creatures that the Hebrew temple cult deemed acceptable for food and sacrifice. Why the discrepancy in numbers?

Biblical scholars have demonstrated that the flood story contains the work of two different authors. The earliest account was written by a temple functionary (whom scholars call “J”) during the time of King Solomon when the Hebrew temple was built (late tenth century B.C.E.). The second writer, a temple priest (who is labeled “P”), edited and overwrote the J account shortly after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon— sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. The Noah cycle in J includes Gen, 6:5–8; 7:1–5, 7–10, 12, 16b, 22–23; 8:2b–3a, 6–12, 13b, 20–22; 9:18–27; 10:8–19, 21, 24–30. The work of P includes Gen. 6:9–22; 7:6, 11, 13–16a, 17–21, 24; 8;1–2a, 3b–5, 13a, 14–19; 9:1–17, 28–29; 10:1–7, 20, 22–23, 31–32.

In the J account seven pair of clean animals were taken aboard. Why? Because at the end of the story Noah was to sacrifice clean animals to the Hebrew god, Yahweh; if only one pair of each had been taken aboard all clean creatures would have vanished.

Common sense tells us that the idea of llamas and penguins, polar bears and kangaroos, none of which were known to the people of the ancient Near East, journeying all the way to Palestine, is simply nonsense.

But the P writer had a different scenario in mind. He claimed that up until the post-flood era, humans were vegetarians, and only after the flood could they eat flesh (Gen. 9:1–4). Obviously, he ignored the J references to Abel’s sheep (Gen. 4:2,4) and to Jabal as a cattle raiser (Gen. 4:20). Because the P writer was enamored of covenants, he included a covenant agreement whereby the god promised never again to destroy life by a flood. But apparently the deity had a faulty memory. To remind himself of his promise, he placed a rainbow in the sky (Gen. 9:13–16).

Common Sense and the Flood Story

If skeptics are noted for anything, it is the use of common sense. Certainly, to the open-minded reader, the biblical story of the flood makes no sense. To begin, there is absolutely no geological evidence of a worldwide flood. Next, there are no waters above the firmament and no windows in the sky to be opened to let those waters pour down upon earth. Nor are there substantial subterranean waters that can be released by unplugging the “fountains of the deep.” Those notions rest on an interpretation of an optical illusion wherein it appears that, at the horizon, the flat disc of the earth meets the solid sky arched above. It was commonly believed throughout the ancient Near East that the world was a hemisphere submerged within the primeval waters; therefore there were waters above the firmament and below the earth. In our modern age of science, clearly such ideas are outmoded.

Skeptic magazine 2.3

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 2.3 (1994)

Buy the print edition

Common sense tells us that Noah’s ark, which was one-and-one half times the length of a modern football field (300 cubits = 450 feet), would have been three times larger than any wooden boat ever built. A wooden boat of that size would have broken into pieces.

And the animals! Even Sir Walter Raleigh knew back in the 17th century when he wrote his two volume History of the World that Noah’s boat was too small to hold two of every kind of creature. And common sense tells us that the idea of llamas and penguins, polar bears and kangaroos, none of which were known to the people of the ancient Near East, journeying all the way to Palestine, is simply nonsense.

And what about the rainbow story? Were the laws of refraction different before the flood? Was it only after the flood that rainbows appeared? This makes no sense. Common sense tells us that this tale is like Kipling’s “just-so” stories. It seeks to provide a theological or mythological explanation for a common phenomenon. The biblical interpretation of the rainbow is not science; it is religious fiction for a purpose different than our modern interpretations of nature.

So the story ends. There never was a world-wide flood nor was there ever a “Noah’s ark” containing all the species of the world. Despite the desperate, farfetched, pseudoscientific, efforts of Sun International, the Institute for Creation Research, and many others from this century who strive valiently to impose ancient meanings on modern interpretations, Noah’s ark has sunk. And the sinking has not been due to those whom Dr. Morris labels “anti-Christian.” The scuttling of the boat was done by archaeological research conducted, for the most part, by Jewish and Christian scholars; by the literary- historical analysis of the biblical text by Christian and Jewish scholars, and by the findings of modern geology. Most importantly, it went down with the rise of common sense and critical thinking. This is in no way to disparage our ancestors, who needed their myths just as modern humans need theirs, whatever they may be, ultimately to be determined by later generations’ historians—those final arbiters of what mattered and why in the past. END

Suggested Readings
About the Author

The late Dr. Gerald A. Larue was Emeritus Professor of Biblical History and Archaeology at USC, Editorial Board member of Skeptic magazine, Senior Editor of Free Inquiry, and Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. He was the author of hundreds of articles and numerous books, including Ancient Myth and Modern Life, The Supernatural, the Occult and the Bible, and many others.

30 Comments

  1. Kevin McDonald says:

    Any point in forwarding this article on to Ken Ham (Australia’s huge embarrassment)? I can assure you that Australia is glad to get rid of him, but we feel sorry for the USA where he has established his ridiculous Museum of Creation.

  2. Peter smith says:

    You know Ham has just opened a real life size -huge- wooden Ark in Kentucky. Complete with pairs of dinosaurs in cages, because according to this thinking, dinosaurs roamed the earth just recently.
    There is a good question about whether a boat this size could actually float without breaking up under its own weight.
    It’s all rather enterprising, but boils down to an absolute faith in Bible literalism, “we have the book”, against which all evidence, reason, commonsense, and analysis mean nothing.

    • Ed Selby says:

      Ham’s boat also contains concrete, steel, fiberglass, PVC, and plastic – it is wrapped in timber, but it is not timber.

      • Bob Pease says:

        Ham’s Ark is made of Gopher wood.

        “gopher wood is a prophetic name for

        “wood of the true keepers of the Word”

        What Ham needs is a greeter who says
        “flectamus genua”

        You must genuflect or something equivalent
        and then he will say
        “Levate ”

        Dr. Sidethink respects the Constitutional right of Ham to pull this moronic crap on ignorant folks .

        Dr. Sidethink is also pessimistic that Ham would respect the
        right of protest if he were to somehow gain power in U.S.

        rjp

    • Vanwin says:

      Perhaps they were building 500,000 ton cruise ships in those days. It is interesting to see that even in those far off days, according to the painting Noah’s Ark, by Simon de Myle, dogs were not wolves, but I see a greyhound or large whippet. So god made greyhounds at the beginning of time. For the races I expect.

  3. Bill Morgan says:

    I seriously doubt Ken Ham believes the earth is 6,000 years. He has learned that it is possible to make money off of myths that gullible people will believe. I’m sure he will be at the door collecting $20 per person from people who will tour his Ark recreation. That could add up to a lot of money!

    • Mary Goetsch says:

      I, too, wondered at how many priests and clergy actually believed their myths and traditions once advancing beyond basic theology. Once the investment became too great, I think 80% of them just grin and bear their profession; they can rationalize they are being paid to be nice and help people to feel better and have some hope of immortality (which assumes people have bought into the fear of punishment and need for confession of sin). This comes at the expense of cognitive dissonance, which can manifest as alcoholism, sexual predation, gambling, obesity, and migraine headaches.

  4. Clive Varejes says:

    How is Sun International involved in this drivel.

    They are an extremely well run international hotel and casino company and I can find no reference to this whatsoever on their websites or literature.

    I would be flabergasted if they were and would immediately sell my shares in the company. If they belive that I fear for the well being of the company.

    Please elucidate

    Clive

  5. Mark LaJoie says:

    I read once, that until fairly recent times, the Tigris-Euphrates delta would flood every year, and when that happened, the farmers would simply put all their goods and livestock on anchored reed rafts and simply wait it out.
    One can imaging how antsy the kids would get, and how grandpa would try to calm them calm them by telling a story about when he was a boy, the flood lasted a whole year. And that story would grow over the years, until the flood covered the whole Earth, and if the kids didn’t behave then maybe this flood wouldn’t go away, ever. And then grandma, a bit angry because the kids got frightened, would reassure them by saying that Enlil (later Allah), the supreme god, had ruled it would never happen again. Well, we all know that grandpa and grandma would NEVER lie!

  6. Helen says:

    There is of course plenty of evidence of a world-wide ‘flood’, the global sea level rise between 18-6,000 years ago, and some indications that knowledge of this was handed down in human societies. See: Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from more than 7000 Years Ago. Patrick D. Nunn and Nicholas J. Reid. Australian Geographer Vol. 47 , Iss. 1,2016.
    Such oral traditions could easily evolve into complex (and contradictory) religious stories over time.

  7. Simon says:

    I like to imagine the arguments on board as to who was going to clear out the animal dung each morning!

  8. Bob Pease says:

    the latent heat released by the 40-day deluge
    would exceed the energy of a supernova explosion

    (if you believe that Science is not a Satanic Diatribe to lead folks away from the trooth as revealed by Rev. Ham )

    Dr. S.

  9. John Persichilli says:

    Why recreate Noah’s Ark on dry land? If those involved it its construction really wanted to prove the Ark was a viable ship then construct it in dry dock then see if it floats.

  10. steve says:

    There are many more questions. According to the makers: “And there will be only about 30 pairs of stuffed animals on the Ark Encounter because there just isn’t enough space.” …..so, not sure how they would of fit the other 6.5 million land species on this vessel back then?? They also have dinosaurs in here as they are proposing humans lived with them, given the earth is only 6000 years old. Also interesting that “god” gave Noah (an 850 year old human?)7 days to build this sucker..i guess he thought if i can create a whole planet and its lifeforms thereon in the same time, giving Noah the same time to build a boat is fair game…with modern tools and technology it has taken 2 years to build this ark (not 7 days) and lots of steel and bolts etc etc. I think if this was in part to show how smart Noah was then they should of played by the same rules. Furthermore, did the kangaroos and other Australasian wildlife catch a boat to the middle east to get on the arc or did he just pick them up before they went under water? I think all the ark supporters on social media (facebook) have been given instruction not to engage in debate over this as any comments I have made have gone unanswered. The only snippet I got from the was the notion of Walter Brown’s “Hydroplate” Flood Model which looks like one man’s desperate attempt to reverse engineer known science to fit the mythology, including the idea that the Himalayas were created in 10 minutes!
    http://www.creationscience.com/onlinebook/HydroplateOverview2.html
    debunked: http://paleo.cc/ce/wbrown.htm

  11. Daniel Lynch says:

    This showed up on the Science website yesterday about a great and portentous flood in China not related to glacier melting. Interesting

    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/massive-flood-may-have-led-chinas-earliest-empire?utm_campaign=news_daily_2016-08-08&et_rid=86216395&et_cid=699874

  12. Jim says:

    If the rain covered the highest mountains, it would have covered 29.000-foot Mt. Everest where the temperature is 55 degrees below zero on a balmy day and can reach -100 degrees. The ark would have been ice bound and everything on it would have frozen to death. Also, there is only one-third the oxygen on Everest as there is at sea level, and all animals with lungs would have suffocated.

  13. sittingbytheriver says:

    I wonder if Gerald A. Larue believed that Jesus is also a myth. I’m leaning in that direction myself.

  14. Joe Lau says:

    I know Ken Ham’s Ark is the news right now but what about this one that’s actually on the water? http://arkofnoah.org/tour-the-ark/

  15. Tony Barron says:

    What interests me most is what would have happened to the other folks. A few might have died quickly in flash floods but most would have been effectively slowly tortured to death. Can you imagine sharing a hilltop with bears, wolves, lions, … And how about those who got into small boats and sailed up to the ark asking to be saved. Perhaps they repelled them by throwing dinosaur dung on them?

  16. Bob Pease says:

    all the animals were dessicated to POWDER.
    after the Arc landed on Mt.Ararat. ther were simply re hydrated.

    Remember..
    the Laws of Physics was not in effect until after the time that Ham ( not Ken ) saw Noah NEKKID and consequently was banished and his offspring turned into black -skinned Hamites (aka “Negroes” )

    Ask your local parson to explain THIS one!!

    Rev. Jeeter Jones Hp.D
    Faculty
    University of Balder
    Dash , KY

  17. Pete says:

    It was a DNA ark, duuh! all that extra space was for entertainment & sports.

    • Bob Pease says:

      The TROOTH is finally out. !!
      the DNA reduction and reconstitution technology was
      supported by the FLYING SAUCER guys who had been keeping an eye on SOL 3 for millenia!!!

      They also channeled the many terajoules caused by the PHLOOD that would else have made the sun go supernova.

      Dr. S

  18. OldNassau says:

    1. “…there are those who would answer with a resounding “YES!” These are the fundamentalists, Biblical literalists, and creationists… “ Most of these believers depend on translations, rather than learn Aramaic Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament and of Christ, or Greek, the language of the New. Even familiarity with either language, as the article notes, does not guarantee an understanding of those words as embedded in their cultures. This trio is acctually arguing, “My translation , not yours, is inerrant!”

    2. Even if one learns the language as then, not now, the question arises: “Which ancient text?” As Wikipedia notes, “The original manuscripts and early copies of the Old Testament disappeared over time, because of wars, (especially the destruction of the First and Second Temples), and other intentional destructions. As a result, the lapse of time between the original manuscripts and their surviving copies is much longer than in the case of the New Testament manuscripts.”

    In short, there is no The Bible. Rather, there are several, stitched together variously from partial and fragmentary ancient copies. And there is no single translation. Hundreds have been made – and are being made.

    3. The above said, the article’s two derogations Christian fundamentalists have rebuked.
    a. The numbers of clean/unclean animals: “Then, four verses later, God supplemented this original instruction, informing Noah in a more detailed manner to take more of the clean animals.”
    (http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=656) (boldface in original)
    b. The rainbow signifying God’s forgetfulness: Ken Ham (yes, that Ken Ham) writes “First, the covenant of the rainbow is between God and man and the animal kinds that were with Noah on the Ark….Secondly, the rainbow is a covenant of grace. It is actually a symbol of Christ Himself. (https://answersingenesis.org/the-flood/taking-back-the-rainbow/)

  19. Harry Sivertsen says:

    For a perfectly logical explanation of this tale see Deluge: From Genesis to Atlantis at

    https://independent.academia.edu/HarrySivertsen

    The flood is mythical but in fact is a tale that portrays events in the skies on one hand and the water rise at the Ice Age end on the other.
    In great part it is a tale invented as as an aid to memory regarding astronomical events. Much substantiating evidence in the book and Plato used the same tale for Atlantis. The source of the story is earlier than the events relayed in the Gilgamesh account and is derived from India.

  20. Frederick Colbourne says:

    I can recommend Cyrus Gordon’s The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations. Norton 1962. page 79 where he discussed the Flood in the context of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    I did search but could not find Gordon’s reference to Ararat.

    There were two Mount Ararats in the ancient world. Armenians claimed their Mount Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

    Tiridates III, The Great King of Armenia, accepted Christianity and made it his kingdom’s official religion in 301.

    Expeditions have been made to what has been claimed to have been the Armenian landing site of Noah’s Ark.

    For me, the detail that settles the claim was that iron nails had been found with wood at a site on the mountain, evidence of a ship the size estimated for Noah’s Ark.

    Although iron nails were available long before the time of the Armenian Kingdoms, smelting of iron was not known during the Chalcolithic Period, the time of Noah.

    In those ancient times, iron, perhaps meteoric, was a precious metal used to ward off evil spirits.

    During the Roman Warm Period, the climate was probably warm enough to allow pilgrims to visit the site and possibly warm enough to allow an Armenian King to build a ship on the mountain using iron nails.

    Just like documents, artifacts can be forged. And just as we test documents by, among other things, the provenance of the ink, we can test artifacts by the provenance of the technology used for their fabrication. (Pun not intended.)

  21. Harry Sivertsen says:

    Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Stephanie Dalley’s translation of 1989 states the following.

    141. The ship grounded on the mountain of Nimush.
    142. The mountain of Nimush held the ship, it let it not move.

    Note however, that in her notes, Dalley explains that Nimush was previously known as Nisir…since 1984 the name has been changed.

    Igantius Donnelly in his Atlantis investigation used a translation that utilised the name Nizir back in 1882 while the more modern version by John Gardener and John Maier of 1984 translated the word as Nisir. Hence we can be sure that the name Nisir [Nizir or Nazir] is that which applies. Apparently this word means ‘to present a sacrifice’ which is what happened when the flood receded, Noah made sacrifice to the Lord…according to the tale in Genesis.

    It is located about two miles north of the Iranian border, 10 miles south-east of Dogubayazit, 18 miles south of Greater Mount Ararat and has an elevation approximately 6,300 feet above sea level. There is an old settlement near the site, which has been called Uzengili since the 1950’s, but for thousands of years previously was known as Nisir [Nizir] or Nasar [Nazar].

    Here is the location of a geological oddity that is boat shaped and which supplies the reason for this ark inclusion. The boat shaped rock formation has not always been visible as earthslides sometimes cover it and it was exposed most recently in the 1950s being photographed just a little later by a Turkish airforce pilot by the name of Durupinar.

    The Genesis model is rectangular and this one boat shaped but the length is identical, 300 cubits at 1.76 feet per cubit [explanation in Deluge: From Genesis to Atlantis]. By reducing the width of the boat shaped formation by the golden section we then have the width or beam of the Genesis version. [This value is easily derived geometrically with no need for lengthy mathematical exercises.]

    Hence we have the model for the Genesis ark in the location described in the Chaldean tale included in later versions of the Gilgamesh epic.

    All references to timber and nails are imaginary as are the multitudes of animals or limited quantities of ‘clean’ animals.

    The origins of the flood story however, reside in India as the book mentioned above amply demonstrates.

  22. Harry Sivertsen says:

    A small addition to my comments is that Google Earth has this site outlined with a number of photographs.
    Location:- Dogubeyazit, Agri,Turkey
    position:-39d26’25″N 44d15’05″E

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