Few Christians would disagree, I think, on these basic points. More spirited debate has focused rather on the narrative’s place in history, including its relationship to the facts of geology. Young (1995) chronicled how the church’s perception of the flood has changed repeatedly in light of new evidence from science—from Aristotle to Steno to Hutton to modern geology. Universal agreement on the historical and scientific implications of the Genesis narrative has never existed in the life of the church, and today is no exception. In addition, numerous expeditions have produced more fanciful stories than remnants of the ark. Did the ark ever exist, or have we simply been looking in the wrong place?
Quests for the ark—today, in history, and in geology—are intimately linked to our understanding of the text. Those convinced of a global flood in the text will search for evidence in rocks around the world. Conversely, those convinced of only local floods in the rocks will search for supporting evidence in the text. Reconciling both records is not easy, and I admit my own bias in the process. But this bias is universal and unavoidable, even to critics of the biblical narrative. One can not presume to have a final answer without demonstrating how the same conclusion may be drawn independently from all disciplines. Thus I hope you will give me credit here, if nothing else, for trying to be consistent.
As a geologist, I recognize that there is no evidence of a global flood in Earth history. Neither is there evidence of a global interruption to human civilization in the last 10,000 years. Thus I have used this blog to highlight the shortcomings of Flood geology, and demonstrate where its hypotheses have been thoroughly falsified. I have done this primarily to call others to academic (and Christian) honesty, and so I welcome the same feedback. For those interested in further reading—or yet unconvinced by my own analysis—I highly recommend The Bible, Rocks and Time by Young and Stearley (2004; or start with a helpful review of the book here).
Though you may not share my conclusions about the geological and archaeological evidence against a global flood, I will assume them here as being well established and encourage you to pursue that issue further. My goal here is to examine 1) whether the biblical text requires a ‘global-flood’ interpretation; and 2) whether the flood narrative may be identified in history, archaeology, and geology. By way of preface, I generally agree with Dr. Carol Hill’s conclusions about Noah in history (2001; article found here) and her comments on the text (2002; article found here).
I also cite two other papers by Carol and her husband (Hill, C.A. 2006; Hill, A.E., 2006) that examined the hydrology of a catastrophic flood in Mesopotamia. I came across their work after I began to write Part 2 of this series, and was thoroughly impressed. The articles are well thought out, and deserve the attention of anyone seriously interested in the historical question of Noah. I will reiterate some of their arguments below, adding my own thoughts between, but I should admit up front that I can offer little more, academically, than they have produced.
Israel retells the story of Noah: polemical historiography in the heart of Canaan
Stories about the past are told to comment on the present, in an effort to better write the future. In this sense, historiography in general—and biblical narrative in particular—is not merely an intellectual quest, but often pastoral and even eschatological. By reminding us where we’ve been or whence we came, stories tell us where we ought to be and how to get there. That doesn’t mean we can’t discern the historical referents, but it does make the quest more challenging.
Contrary to subconscious perception, the story of Noah was written for an audience far removed from our own culture. The author of Genesis took a well known history and recast it as an apologetic for the covenant God of Israel, over against those of the surrounding nations (Enns, 2005). Everyone knew the story of the flood, but Israel’s neighbors had long credited pagan gods with the events. The flood narrative in Genesis thus served in part to tell Israel that God had been at work since the beginning—long before Moses or even Abrahaam. Moreover, He acted then for Noah just as he had acted for them in Egypt. The covenant God of Israel would not tolerate wickedness, violence, and idolatry among His covenant people. But at the same time, He would act on behalf of those faithful to Him, providing both the means of atonement and deliverance for His people—then in the form of an ark; now in the tabernacle.
The tale of Noah is not just history, it is historiography. These events are retold with specific motives; the author has an agenda. When the story is placed canonically within the Pentateuch, we find how the author has made his case that YHWH, the covenant God of Israel, deserves worship and praise, unlike the pagan gods of the nations who only bicker with each other to fulfill greedy passions and lusts (e.g. compare Gen. 1–11 with contemporary creation/flood epics; cf. Walton, 2007). The story of Noah and his ark is thus polemic through and through. Moreover, it was structured to comment directly on the current state of Israel, specifically with regard to their customs and laws, and provide hope to the vulnerable Israelites. They were surrounded by greed, hostility, and pagan worship, and were but an unfaithful generation away from bringing judgment upon themselves. I will return to this point when I discuss the post-Flood covenants.
Form criticism and the flood narrative
The flood story in Genesis does comprise an historical account, but much of the account elucidates the theological reasons behind the catastrophe (i.e. How was God involved and why did He do this?). Another challenge comes in the style of the narrative, which was not written like an article out of Science. The form is rather semi-poetic (Kline, 1958), and fits nicely into that of ancient Hebrew storytelling, where parallelism abounds (i.e. the same thing is said twice, in two different forms). Genesis 7:17–23 is a great example of this.
As an aside, I am not saying that the literary form of Genesis 6–9 implies it was written only metaphorically, abstractly, or somehow removed from real events in history. I don’t think the narrative would make sense unless the events were real and people knew about them. Consider a personal example from my own history:
If I were a great storyteller or poet, I could recast these events in a form not unlike the Genesis narrative. A careful reader, even hundreds of years from now, could then use my story to rebuild the timeline of national events that week in September. It will contain historical facts and details—accurate ones at that. But since the primary goal of my story would be to relay how the providence of God allowed me closure in my aunt’s death, the account cannot simply be read at ‘face value’ if one were interested only in historical details. Discerning those details requires some work on the part of the reader.
Who is the audience of Genesis 6–9?
Knowing the original audience is vital in literary criticism. There remain a few difficulties, however, in determining the original audience of the flood narrative, not least in the challenges of modern biblical scholarship. The prevailing hypothesis is that Genesis was written in parts between the division of the kingdom (after David, ~1,000 B.C.) and the Babylonian conquest (586 B.C.), and later redacted during or after the return from exile (538 B.C.) along with the rest of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomic history. This is known as the Documentary Hypothesis, and I recommend Who Wrote the Bible? by Friedman (1997) for a scholarly introduction to how this idea has evolved over the past few centuries.
Since the oldest physical copy of the Tanakh is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 100 B.C.), theories about the authorship and date of Genesis must rely almost entirely on internal evidence. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis has changed, and will continue to change as more evidence comes to light. Most conservative evangelicals have rejected the Documentary Hypothesis outright, opting instead for a Mosaic authorship (based Talmudic tradition and New Testament references to Moses). I am not qualified to draw a final conclusion either way, but I do feel that opponents of the hypothesis have yet to answer satisfactorily many of the textual challenges raised (e.g. duplicate accounts with unique vocabularies; interrupted chronologies; references to people, places, and events long after Moses’s death), and that some of their efforts are misguided.
For example, the Documentary Hypothesis does not reject that Moses gave a written law to Israel (called Torah), but only that Moses, or any single author, wrote the entire Pentateuch in the form we have today. Even the most conservative evangelicals recognize that a later author must have written some parts of the Pentateuch (e.g. the account of Moses’s death), and many are comfortable saying that Moses did not author any of Genesis, minus a few edits (e.g. article here by Russell Griggs; see also Morris, 1976).
On the other hand, the initial proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis assumed too little about the literary abilities of the ancient Near East, and too much about the evolution of religions. Ancient Mesopotamia was not characterized by a primitive society, practicing some simplified form of a fertility religion, passed on through oral tradition alone. Thousands of clay tablets, recovered in the past two centuries, reveal that ancient Sumeria was rather a highly ordered civilization, replete with priests, temples, and law codes—as early as the fourth millenium B.C. (Walton, 2007)! They were not only literate, but skillfully so. The same has been demonstrated for Israel, at least as far back as the 11th century B.C. Consequently, proposed dates of authorship for much of the Pentateuch have been pushed back several times, and Friedman (1997) suggests that all of J, E, and P were written long before the destruction of the first temple.
There is no reason to doubt a priori that written records could have been passed on from Abrahaam to Moses to the post-Exilic scribes. The question is whether and how they have been rewritten since that time (and they would have had to, if only to account for the evolving language of the people). The contextual antiquity of Genesis 1–11 is obvious, even if the form is more recent. Moreover, the accounts were not simply fabricated from Babylonian records, despite the minor similarities. Details about the geography, politics, and economics of the region suggest that the original author was personally familiar with ancient Sumeria, in addition to her famous epics (Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, etc.). Use of ancient words and numbering systems further attest to this fact (Hill, 2001).
Whether or not the Pentateuch was compiled by Ezra during the Babylonian exile (Friedman, 1997), the story of Noah would have been told—even written down—in some form long before Moses. Perhaps a Mosaic composition inspired the words we now attribute to J (and thus P)? Whatever the case, I think we can say with confidence that Genesis 6–9 was written in the form we have today sometime after the Exodus, but certainly before the first temple was destroyed (as proposed by Friedman, 1997), because it fits both chronologically and canonically into the Torah as a whole, but retains details from antiquity (Sumeria). If so, we should be conscious of its relationship to the rest of the Torah when interpreting the historical particulars, and try to read it from the perspective of an Israelite that just settled in a recently conquered Canaan.
Though I do not offer my full, unequivocal support to the Documentary Hypothesis, I am convinced that Genesis 6–9 does contain two flood narratives (call them J and P for convenience). Several parts of the story are told twice in different ways. For example, 6:9–13 (P) is essentially a repeat of 6:1–8 (J). The beginning of chapter 8 (J) repeats the end of chapter 7 (P) in terms of gathering the animals. Everyone enters the ark in 7:6–9 (J), and again in 7:13–16 (P). Lastly, the covenant in chapter 9 (P) repeats that given at the end of chapter 8 (J), but with added detail.
Whenever the narrative contains a duplicate account, there are key differences. Most notable is the name of God used (Elohim vs. YHWH), which has long been noted by Christian scholars. The end of chapter 6 says to gather 2 of every kind of animal, including birds, but the beginning of chapter 7 says to gather 7 of every clean animal, and 7 of every kind of bird. Part of the narrative seems to indicate the flood would last (or did last) only 40 days, but the rest outlines a year-long deluge. In both forms of the covenant, God promises not to wipe out the life of the land on account of man’s sin, but the account in Chapter 9 gives commentary on the law and priestly duties, whereas the Chapter 8 account simply reverses the curses of Genesis 3 and promises not to interfere again with the natural order given there.
These apparent contradictions can be resolved without assuming two flood narratives (i.e. as the text stands), but the task is done more easily if understood this way. For Noah to eat meat after the flood (Gen. 9:3), for example, the animals would have to be sacrificed. [Note: Animal sacrifice was not just a ceremonial cremation to appease God’s wrath, but the only means by which animals were consumed. Only clean animals were fit for eating, because only clean animals were fit for sacrifice. Thus eating meat in the early church sometimes required eating animals sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8; Rom. 14)] Since the P account does not include Noah’s offering after the flood (8:20), the extra animals are not mentioned at the end of chapter 6 (or they are included, subtextually, in the “food for you” of 6:21). On the other hand, the seven pairs of 7:2–3 set up the narrative for an offering in 8:20–21. These differences are not contradictions, therefore, but follow the respective purviews of the individual authors (at least one of whom may have indeed been Moses or Aaron).
Many still deny that the flood narrative was redacted from two accounts, but I don’t see any good reason. The flow of the text is interrupted in several places (e.g. 7:11), and it’s hard to say why a single original author would switch between two different names for God, seemingly arbitrarily. Different vocabularies are used where the story repeats itself: ‘male and female’ vs. ‘a male and his female’; ‘expired’ vs. ‘died’; ‘raven’ vs. ‘dove’. Moreover, the timeline of the flood (see below) loses much of its significance within this interpretation. I believe that the more parsimonious conclusion is that a single author, inspired by God, redacted the two accounts to fully explain Israel’s place in history (i.e. in light of the flood) as the covenant people of God. Whatever the case, the literary structure of Genesis 6–9 is an amazing work of art (see Wenham, 1994 for detailed analysis). Each account is equally poetic and well structured when considered individually. Personally, I think this only adds to the magnificence of the narrative as we know it, as well its ultimate Author.
The literal reading of Genesis 6–9
We are now to the point where the rubber meets the road. So far, I have tried to establish that 1) the flood narrative of Genesis was passed down from antiquity, but rewritten for post-Exodus Israel; 2) the account was written partly as an apologetic for the covenant God of Israel, elucidating also the place of His covenant people in history; 3) the literary genre of Genesis 6–9 is epic or myth, in that it uses familiar history to unfold the worldview of the authors; thus 4) we must properly apply form criticism to uncover the historical and scientific particulars; but 5) we must be careful not to impose our own cosmology and worldview on the text, as many earlier commentators have done. In light of these principles, we can outline the literal reading of Genesis 6–9 and compare it against history, archaeology, and geology.
Noah’s globe, however, was quite a bit smaller and flatter than our own. I would argue, therefore, that since the narrative is firmly rooted in the cosmology and geography of the ancient near East (e.g. reference to the floodgates of heaven and fountains of the deep—physical barriers that kept the waters above and the waters below from overcoming the dry land), we should not apply this language to our own picture of the planet. As mentioned in Part 1, the end goal of Gen. 6–9 was to return the land to a state of chaos (Gen. 1:2) through uncreation, and reestablish God’s covenant people through Noah—a new Adam. God brought life to the land of ancient Mesopotamia, placed Adam there, and then made a covenant with Adam and Eve. Through the flood, He judged those that abandoned the covenant and destroyed the fruitful land they had enjoyed. From Noah’s perspective, the whole land given by God was indeed overcome with water and all life perished, save those aboard the ark.
Construction of the ark
Very specific measurements are given for the size of the ark, as well as its composition. I don’t really have any comments on the composition of the ark, except that the type of wood was foreign to those used in later construction (the word is never used again in the OT). If nothing else, this could suggest that the ark was built in a land other than Canaan, where different kinds of trees were growing, or that the word was passed down from antiquity. I see no immediate reason not to take the physical dimensions of the ark at face value, though I would be very interested to see someone build a full size model that could survive on open water, rather than on dry land! Hill (2002) suggests that the original dimensions could have been disguised in the fact that the Sumerians used a different numbering system (sexagesimal) than the Hebrews. Physical proportions of the ark would allow for maximum stability, but using the Sumerian cubit (72 cm), the dimensions are about 6 times that of large, Mesopotamian river boats.
Some have related the dimensions of the ark directly to the tabernacle (dimensions given in Exodus 27), providing an intertextual link (i.e. they did serve a similar purpose). The height of the ark (30 cubits), for example, is exactly 3 times the height of the tabernacle (10 cubits), and the surface area (300 x 50 = 15,000 cubits) is exactly 3 times that of the courtyard (50 x 100 = 5,000 cubits). In addition, Moses himself was carried by an ark (same word) to safety as an infant. These textual links allow the ark narrative to be read partly as a commentary on God’s redemptive plan, particularly in the meaning of the tabernacle. Thus the actual dimensions of the original ark are less important, compared to the point that the ark is a type for the tabernacle (and ultimately, Christ’s church), and may have been rewritten (or rounded off) to drive that point.
Disputes on how to interpret the blueprint are perhaps trivial (e.g. how the ‘window’ looked, whether the bow was rounded, etc.), but the command to coat the ark with pitch corroborates a limited flood, over against a Flood geology interpretation. The primary meaning of the word would suggest that bitumen from oil seeps was used (which should not have existed in a Flood geology scenario). Contemporary uses of the word in ancient literature, as well as later uses in the Bible, also confirm this interpretation. YEC commentators hypothesized the use of harvested tree resin (e.g. here), but I think their arguments are very poor. First, why would the author use a term specifically used for oil in a land where oil seeps abound? The product of harvested tree resin may be called pitch, just like our English translation of Genesis, but it has nothing in common with the Hebrew word. Second, the assumption that Noah had the technology to harvest tree resin is entirely arbitrary and imposes on the plain reading of the text. Lastly, harvesting tree resin is a very slow, time consuming process that is counterproductive to harvesting wood for a giant boat (cf. RTB article here). A much simpler, straightforward reading of the text is that Noah did live in ancient Sumeria, and used bitumen from oil seeps like any other ship builder of his time.
The Sumerians regularly imported pitch and cedar from upriver (Hill, 2002; Morozova, 2005), and the former was also used to build the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), ziggurats, and earlier temple mounds. A literal reading suggests the source of the pitch was petroleum based, contrary to the Flood geology hypothesis that oil is a geological product of the flood. Flood geologists cannot account for the geological production of oil in a recent flood scenario, however, so the weight of archaeology, geology, and the biblical text falls in favor of a ‘local flood’ reading (more about oil here).
Depth and extent of the flood
In short, I don’t think the language of Genesis (7 in particular) requires us to think that the flood was any more than 30–50 ft (depth of a catastrophic, but localized flood on the Mesopotamian valley). When the text says “the mountains were covered”, it cannot be referring to any of the high ranges we know today (including Mt. Ararat), because the original (Sumerian) audience of the flood narrative, as well as the participants, did not know any mountains outside of those north of Sumeria (northern Iraq/southern Turkey today). Back in Noah’s and Abraham’s day, these were called the mountains of Urartu (rrt, rendered Ararat). Logical conclusion? The hills that were covered were located in Mesopotamia, and the resting place of the ark was northern Iraq or southern Turkey.
What are the hills that were covered by the deluge? One possibility is that the waters were just high enough to cover the hills immediately surrounding the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia (e.g. Urartu), but I think that given the topography of the region (these mountains are hundreds to thousands of feet high), a flood this deep is out of the question. Moreover, if such a flood did occur, there would be obvious evidence that could be correlated across adjacent continents. In other words, this option faces the same problem as conventional Flood geology: there is no such evidence.
If the language of Genesis 8 were meant to be phenomenological (as in the creation psalms), however, the interpretation might be recovered. Picture yourself on the floodplains of northern Mesopotamia (Google Earth is a great tool for this). The hills are just visible on the horizon. But if enough rain fell that the entire valley flooded for days to weeks/months, even the highest mountain peaks would not be visible to you any longer. One reason is that the horizon would be obscured with flood water. The other is that clouds would, quite literally, cover all the mountains (I lived along the Wasatch Front in Utah for 12 years and whenever it rained, the mountains were invisible from even a mile away). From any point of view, “all the mountains under the high heavens” would indeed be “covered”. Moreover, the floodwaters would push everything out toward the edge of the floodplain (i.e. to the base of the hills). This interpretation explains the language used to describe the rising waters, as well as the resting place of the ark.
Although the Hebrew word for “covered” (as well as the Septuagint rendering) primarily refers to concealing something from view, the syntax demands that the rising waters (not falling) were responsible for the concealing. We should read Gen. 7:19–20, therefore, to mean that the “high hills” were indeed submerged by the floodwaters. I propose a simpler interpretation, taking into account the geography, hydrology, and architecture of ancient Sumeria, as well as the ‘semi-poetic’ style of the narrative—particularly that of J.
If Noah were originally a prominent figure of Shuruppak (Hill, 2001), then the only “hills” of the land would have been natural levees (3–4 meters; Morozova, 2005) and the mounds upon which the cities were built. In fact, these mounds were built specifically to avoid damage from flooding (Heyvaert and Baeteman, 2008). Hill (2002) speculates that since the Sumerian word for ziggurat was derived from mountain/hill (literally, ‘temple mound’), it could be the referent of Gen. 7:19–20. The high Sumerian and Babylonian ziggurats (up to 300 ft), however, were not prominent in Mesopotamia until long after Noah’s time. Instead, Sumerians of the 4th/3rd millennia B.C. built much smaller structures (1-2 stories) on natural and artificial mounds, which they simply called: mountains.
Most commentators have read Gen. 7:19–20 to mean that the waters covered the mountains, and then rose an additional 15 cubits. The two verses form a basic parallelism, however, rather than sequential events:
The parallelism is more obvious in the natural, chiastic structure of the J narrative (see Appendix below), in which these two verses mark the climax—structurally and contextually—of the story. Thus the author of J writes that after the ark was afloat (7:18), it took 15 cubits to cover the hills (or “the water rose more than 15 cubits, and the mountains were covered”, cf. NIV footnote). Using the Sumerian cubit (72 cm), this implies a depth of ~35 feet plus the draft of the ark. The mound at Shuruppak ranged from 3 to 9 meters above the floodplain (Martin, 1983), or a maximum of about 30 feet.
A 40-foot flood would have been sufficient to cover all hills and structures under Noah’s sky. It is also consistent with the hydrology of the Mesopotamian floodplain (i.e. the gradient, width, and area of the drainage basin) in the case of a rare and extreme avulsion of the Tigris. Flood deposits at Shurrupak and Kish confirm that a large, lasting flood covered the cities at the time when Noah is said to have lived. As Morozova (2005) puts it: “In modern avulsion belts, several meters of silt and sand are deposited during long-term inundation…whereas typical floodplain deposition by annual floods, very common events in lower Mesopotamia, is only on the order of millimeters or centimeters.”
The specificity of the 15 cubits in 7:20 should lead us to ask how the measurement was taken. As Hill (2002) rightly points out, the measurement is quite meaningless in a global flood scenario. But in the case of a ~40-ft. flood on the Sumerian plain, Noah or a person on the ark could have easily obtained the depth by conventional means.
Resting place of the ark
That Noah’s ark came to rest in northern Iraq or sourthern Turkey is further corroborated by the fact that Noah’s dove brought back an olive branch, and that he planted a vineyard shortly after. Grapes and olives can grow well in the ‘hills of Urartu’, but not in the lower Sumerian plain (or Mt. Ararat, for that matter). Consequently, Hill (2002) argues that the strength of the wine overwhelmed Noah because he may have been quite new to the drink (the national drink of Sumeria was a weaker, malted barley).
Contrary to long-standing tradition, Genesis 8 does not suggest that the ark came to rest high on a mountain. The resting place of the ark was “the mountains of Urartu”, which could mean anything from the floodplains at the base of the hills (where people actually lived) to the mountain peaks of northern Iraq. The former is a political description: the land dominated by the ‘Kingdom of Urartu’ (e.g. Isa. 37:38). No details are given as to the elevation of the ark when it came to rest—only the geography. Hill (2002, p. 176) points out that the Urartian region only covered the “northern fringes of Mesopotamia” in the 3rd millenium B.C., expanding northward into modern-day Armenia more than a thousand years later. Combined with early historical accounts about the ark’s resting place, she argues for Cizre, Turkey as the most likely candidate.
The scenario of Hill (2002) is not without difficulties. First, Genesis 8 says that the mountain tops became visible after the ark had come to rest. Secondly, one must explain how the ark traveled up gradient to the north (approximately from Shuruppak to Cizre), rather than out toward the Persian Gulf. In response to the second challenge, Hill (2006; husband of the former) constructed a physical model that accounted for the hydrology of a year-long, 40-ft. deep flood over Mesopotamia, as well as size and approximate weight of the ark. He concluded that a strong, prevalent wind from the Gulf (cf. Gen. 8:1) could provide the sufficient drag force needed to move the ark from point A (Shuruppak) to point B (Cizre) in less than 40 days.
Hill’s model assumed the full dimensions of the ark (Gen. 6), a range of wood densities, and cubit lengths between 18–21.6 inches. In other words, the model complies with even the most rigid hermeneutic. Alternatively, I believe it is entirely possible that Noah’s ark was much smaller—closer to that of a large Mesopotamian cargo ship (see above). Also, nearly every commentator has assumed that the ark’s movement was entirely at the mercy of the wind and currents. But the Sumerians knew how to get up and down the rivers (even to Urartu). Although the text of the biblical narrative does not specifically mention any effort to move or steer the ship, we should not assume that is the case, particularly if the ark moved upstream! This assumption constitutes an argument from silence that goes against the prevailing archaeological evidence regarding Mesopotamian trade routes.
Lastly, the fact that the mountain tops become visible after the ark comes to rest may seem to require that the ark rested on top of a mountain peak, but only if the “hills of Urartu” is taken to mean a structure and not a region. The former idea reflects early translations of the phrase as “Mt. Ararat”, which has long been abandoned. I believe rather that the hills referred to in Chapter 8 are those that become covered in Chapter 7, and the “hills of Urartu” simply refers to the “region north of Mesopotamia”.
Survivors on the ark
To be succinct, if we take the narrative at face value, then the flood destroyed only the land known to Noah and his family. The world they knew was indeed overcome with water and there was no place to escape. There is no need to speculate, then, how the modern world population was descended from Noah’s family, some 4,500 years ago. Or how every terrestrial and avian creature today was descended from a single pair on the ark. Neither must we speculate about how thousands upon thousands of animals fit into the ark, or were cared for, etc., or how Noah managed to seal the boat with tree resin. We need not explain why human occupations are found on 5 other continents, uninterrupted at the time of the flood. Rather, we can focus on Noah, his family, and the creatures of his immediate region (livestock, birds, etc.—note the account does not include the wild beasts like lions, etc.). At this point, the literal reading of the narrative is perfectly in line with the geography, geology, archaeology, and history/literature of Mesopotamia.
Timeline(s) of the flood narrative(s)
How long did the flood actually last? First, God says that after 7 days, 40 days/nights of rain will come (7:4), but then we’re told that the waters prevailed for 150 days (7:24). We might say, for example, that it rained 40 days/nights, but that the waters continued to rise from other means (fountains of the deep?). But this creates a problem in chapter 8 (see below). Moreover, Flood geology must allow that rain continued to fall (recycle) throughout the entire event, given the heat of volcanism, tectonics, and the high relative humidity of the atmosphere. If the flood were global, the period of 40 days/nights of rain becomes a physically meaningless figure.
Gen. 8:3 refers to the “end of 150 days”, but Gen 8:6 refers to “at the end of 40 days”. Does this refer to the 40 days of rain or an additional period of 40 days after the climax of the flood? If it’s another period, then it doesn’t fit well within the timeline. The text cites 2 1/2 months between the peak of the flood and when the mountains were visible, after which Noah waited 40 days, and released the birds. But it would be another 50 days before the waters finally dried up, and yet 56 more days before Noah and his family exited the ark. I think there is a better solution.
If we unravel the two flood narratives, we find two timelines—each with their own numerical significance. In the first story, there are: 7 days of waiting; 40 days/nights of rain; 7 days of waiting until the dove returns; then 7 days of rest before Noah leaves the ark. Thus there are 54 days of flooding, followed by 7 days of rest/waiting. I’m not big on numerology, but it’s worth noting that this equals 6 intervals of 9 days (3×3), followed by 1 interval of 7 days. Some have associated the number 9 with judgment, and of course 7 with heavenly perfection. Regardless, the account breaks down to another ‘Creation Week’: 6 days of judgment/recreation, followed by a day of Sabbath rest.
I have already noted the canonical tie of this account to the creation/Eden narrative, so I think my analysis could be valid. Of course, it would require the author of J to have known about the 6-day creation narrative (P), contra the traditional Documentary Hypothesis. Perhaps this is weak evidence of an even earlier date for this portion of P? I shouldn’t speculate too much!
In any case, the canonical link between the older flood narrative and the Exodus also becomes more clear. In Egypt, God warned Pharaoh (through Moses), before committing to a process of uncreation (the plagues), culminating in death across the whole land to every firstborn. Finally, Pharoah’s army is swept away by water (the flood). But God’s people spent yet another 40 years in the wilderness and several more in conquest before they could find rest (the “7th day”) in the promised land. Moreover, their survival and well being was intimately linked with the tabernacle—a rather out-of-place, rectangular, wooden structure, not unlike the ark.
The second story describes a year-long catastrophe (some say 365 days, or 1 solar year, which is 1 lunar year plus 11 days: 2nd month, 17th day to 2nd month, 27th day—I’m not entirely sure). The exact days of the year are given for the start of the flood, resting of the ark, etc., but not for scientific/technical purposes, I believe. The flood begins on a Sunday (like creation), and the ark comes to rest on what would be preparation day (Friday), just in time for the Sabbath (see Wenham, 1994). God remembers Noah on what would become the Day of Atonement. In other words, this timeline unfolds the antiquity of God’s redemption and Sabbath cycle—all in light of the recently established calendar of post-Exodus Israel.
In concluding, I should clarify that I do not propose these accounts contradict each other or that either is necessarily in error. Rather, I think we should allow the possibility that some numbers constituted a literary tool to grab the reader’s attention and direct it elsewhere. If I were describing a recent political figure, but prefaced my story with “Four score and seven years ago, so and so first became interested in politics…” you would recognize immediately that I’m not giving a timeline for the figure’s youth, but wish to compare their efforts/charisma with that of Lincoln. Although it is possible that the flood lasted exactly 365/370 days, as outlined in the full account, a literal reading of the text (given the style and genre) does not require that we understand it this way.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the flood narrative to understand from a limited-geography perspective is the covenant made to Noah after the deluge. The question stands: didn’t God promise never to do this again? Yet floods approaching this scale have no doubt occurred around the world since Noah’s time! That is true, but the dilemma is a two-edged sword, I believe.
A global-flood interpretation would require us to read the covenant as following (paraphrasing, tongue-in-cheek): “Well, the flood you just survived destroyed every individual land animal and bird on Earth, and I promise never to do that again. On the other hand, there will be some pretty heavy flooding in the future that may even wipe out whole civilizations, including yours; but not all of them simultaneously, on the rest of the planet you have yet to discover.” There is little comfort to be found in God’s promise if we are to read it this way.
Two covenants are made after the deluge: Gen. 8:20–22 and Gen. 9:1–17. Both are tied intertextually to the creation narratives—Gen. 2–3 and Gen. 1, respectively (whether or not one accepts dual authorship is inconsequential to this point). In the first covenant, God promises never to “curse the ground on account of man” again, reversing the curse of Gen. 3 and implying that His creation (land and life) will not suffer on account of man’s sin. As an aside, this passage seems to contradict the YEC position that animal death and natural disasters are still a consequence of man’s sin, because it would have been reversed at this point. God also promises that the seasonal cycles created to provide man with food and shelter would not be interrupted (a long-standing flood, even 40+ days, would be sufficient to upset harvest for a year).
But in the global-flood paradigm, this again provides little comfort to the primary audience (post-Exodus Israel). Imagine that you are an ancient Israelite, a son or daughter of the Exodus generation enjoying the fruit of the promised land. You have just heard the tale of Noah, as retold by Moses in the Torah. What is the first logical question? I think it is this: if we are unfaithful to God and Torah, will the Lord send the flood waters upon us? Will He destroy the promised land, and all life within, with a flood as in Noah’s day? That is the key question, I think, addressed by the record of God’s covenant with Noah.
In the second covenant, God reiterates the commission to Noah that was given in Genesis 1: be fruitful and multiply, and I will give you sustenance. But He expands the commission in terms of available food, using language that was very familiar to the priests of post-Exodus Israel (i.e. similar to the law code found later in the Torah). Thus God also establishes the antiquity of His holiness found in Torah. A straightforward reading of the promise to follow (sealed by the rainbow) implies that God would never destroy the land and sustenance given to His covenant people following the flood. Since the time of Noah, Abrahaam, and particularly Moses, God has kept good on this promise. Though Israel would stray, and God would chastise—through conquest and exile—the land and its fruit would never be destroyed by the waters of a flood. It remained the promised land until fulfilled in Christ.
While the story of Noah and his ark has never failed to captivate our young minds, it has remained for many just a story. Centuries of critique from extrabiblical sources have caused many to consign the tale to imagination, hoping that the moral lesson could still ‘matter’. Part of this shift, I think, is due to the insistence on reading the narrative as a recent, global flood. For those who recognize the weight of evidence against this claim, a choice between blind faith and reality seems to be knocking at the door.
But I am confident now that the dilemma is indeed a false one. Despite some modern, rigid traditions regarding the historical and physical implications of Noah’s flood, the church has never found consensus. Instead, she has struggled to incorporate new evidence over the past two millennia, and so the ‘meaning’ of the narrative was as fluid as the worldview of the respective reader. We should welcome the evidence from antiquity that is available to us today, limited as it is, to recover the historicity of our beloved Noah.
Taking into account the style and genre of the narrative, as well as the original audience, I believe that a literal reading of Genesis 6–9 fits the available historical, archaeological, and geological evidence. Noah lived in Mesopotamia in the early 3rd millenium B.C. By the providence and mercy of God, he survived a catastrophic deluge and relocated to the highlands upriver. From there, the land was repopulated from the north by many of his descendants. The Semitic influence upon Mesopotamia that followed (~2,650 B.C.) is written in stone and preserved to this day.
Centuries later, God led Abraham out of southern Mesopotamia, toward the promised land. Israel would eventually conquer Canaan, but only after surviving a ‘deluge’ of their own. Even at her strongest, Israel was vulnerable to the surrounding nations, and again was at the mercy of God for protection and deliverance, not least from the physical elements. But God promised not to curse that land on account of their sin by overcoming it with water. Israel would face punishment and exile, but God would yet preserve His covenant people and the promised land, until all would be fulfilled.
Appendix: the two flood accounts
Consider the natural, poetic flow of the following excerpt. I’ve taken out only the portions that are hypothesized to be from one of the authors (J, according to Friedman, 1997). Notice also how only the word YHWH is used for God.
7:7, 16b, 10, 12, 17–23; 8:2b–3a, 6
Then Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him entered the ark because of the water of the flood, and YHWH closed it behind him.
It came about after the seven days, that the water of the flood came upon the earth.
The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights.
Then the flood came upon the earth for forty days,
and the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth.
The water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth,
and the ark floated on the surface of the water.
The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.
The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered.
of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died.
Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land,
from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky,
and they were blotted out from the earth;
and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark.
and the rain from the sky was restrained; and the water receded steadily from the earth
Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made;
Obviously, I imposed the chiasmic structure myself, and it could be subjective. But the story moves from the Lord closing the ark to Noah opening the ark, climaxing when the waters cover even the hills, and with a perfect symmetry (keep in mind that the English translation disrupts some of that symmetry). When the other account is isolated, you can see the same symmetry and structure, but it climaxes when “God remembered Noah.” To me, this is not only evidence that two stories were redacted, but it also shows the artistic glory of God in uniting the legends of that culture to form a single, inspired text that unfolds God’s theological message about judgment and redemption. Feel free to contact me for further discussion about this hypothesis, or a copy of the two accounts separated.
Enns, P., 2005, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 208 p.
Friedman, R.E., 1997, Who Wrote the Bible?: Harper Collins, New York, 303 p.
Heyvaert, V.M.A., and Baeteman, C., 2008, A Middle to Late Holocene avulsion history of the Euphrates river: a case study from Tell ed-D er, Iraq, Lower Mesopotamia: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 27, p. 2401–2410.
Hill, C.A., 2001, A Time and a Place for Noah: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 53, p. 24–40.
Hill, C.A., 2002, The Noachian Flood: Universal or Local?: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 54, p. 170–183.
Hill, A.E., 2006, Quantitative Hydrology of Noah’s Flood: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 58, p. 130–141.
Hill, C.A., 2006, Qualitative Hydrology Of Noah’s Flood: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 58, p. 126.
Kline, M.P., 1958, Because It Had Not Rained: The Westminster Theological Journal, v. 20, p. 146-157.
MacDonald, D., 1988, The Flood: Mesopotamian Archaeological Evidence: Creation/Evolution Journal, v. 8, p. 14–20.
Martin, H.P., 1983, Settlement Patterns at Shuruppak: Iraq, v. 45, p. 24–31.
Morozova, G.S., 2005, A Review of Holocene Avulsions of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and Possible Effects on the Evolution of Civilizations in Lower Mesopotamia: Geoarchaeology, v. 20, p. 401–423.
Morris, H.M., 1976, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings: Baker, Grand Rapids, 716 p.
Walton, J.H., 2007, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible: Apollos, Nottingham, 368 p.
Wenham, G., 1994, The Coherence of the Flood Narrative, in Hess, R. S., and Tsumura, D. T., 1994, I studied inscriptions from before the flood. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study: Eisenbrauns, USA, 480 p.
Woodmorappe, J., 1996, Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study: Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, 298 p.
Young, D.A., 1995, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence: The Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 341 p.
Young, D.A., 2004, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth: Intervarsity Press Academic, 510 p.
Wow. A lengthy piece. But fair and thorough.
I especially liked this: “I don't think the narrative would make sense unless the events were real and people knew about them.” I've been thinking this is an important key to understanding the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
Please keep this up. I'm glad to know there are people who love God and love Scripture but refuse to see scientific discovery as a massive conspiracy to undermine our faith.
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