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

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

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

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

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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.


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