Many people have contacted me about the recent clai ms by a group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International. 1 The evangelical organization claims to have discovered Noah’s ark. 2 I have responded on several occasions to these dubious claims on my blog. 3 And still, this group has stood behind their claim , 4 insisting that what they have found is real based largely on the belief that because the Bible says the flood and the ark are historical, it must be so. So, instead of addressing their spurious claims yet again, I thought I would approach the issue from a different angle: forget about Noah’s ark; there was no world-wide flood.
The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)
Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, 5 the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic, 6 and the Epic of Gilgamesh, 7 which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.
These flood stories appear to have been transmitted to the Israelites early in Israel’s history. Contact between the Assyrians and the Israelites is known from the conquest of Israel and its capitol, Samaria, in 721 BCE by Assyrian King Shalmaneser V (727-722 BCE), 8 and from the attempted conquest of Jerusalem by the Assyrian King Sennacherib (704-681 BCE). These stories were apparently modified to conform to a monotheistic faith, but retained characteristics such as the destruction of nearly all living things via a flood, the salvation of a select few people and animals by the construction of a boat, and the regret of the deity for the flood, prompting a promise not to do so again. Thus, like many of the early stories in Israel’s primordial history, 9 the flood story appears to be an adaptation and integration of a previously known myth into the theology of Israel.
Most scholars will point out that the biblical flood story is actually two flood epics intertwined into one. However, unlike the two biblical creation stories (Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25), which were set one after the other in the Hebrew Bible, the two original flood stories appear to have been edited into a single narrative. The combined story preserves vestigial indicators that the account was originally two separate narratives. For example, Genesis 6:19-20 states that there were to be one pair of species each animal on the ark, one male and one female:
And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.
However, in Genesis 7:2-3, which was originally a separate flood account, it states:
Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.
Thus, there are two different numbers given for the number of animals on the ark: one pair (male and female) in Genesis 6, and seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean (male and female) in Genesis 7. The integration of two different numbers is evidence of two originally separate flood accounts.
Likewise, Genesis 7:17 states that the flood lasted 40 days:
The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.
But Genesis 7:24, a portion of the second flood story, states that the flood remained for 150 days:
And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
Shortly thereafter in Genesis 8:6, the story switches back to the first flood story, and the number 40 returns:
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made.
Thus, not only are different numbers used for the number of animals on the ark in the two Hebrew flood stories, but different time periods were given for the flooding after the rains: 40 and 150 days.
Further evidence for the presence of two flood stories comes from the fact that in the narratives that speak about 40 days of flooding, god is referred to as the divine name YHWH, which supposedly was not revealed to readers until the episode of the burning bush in Exodus 3. However, in the portions of the flood texts that refer to 150 days of flooding, god is referred to as elohim , the Hebrew word for “god.” The two different Hebrew flood narratives refer to god by different names rather consistently. Thus, the textual evidence demonstrates that two flood narratives, most likely derived from earlier Assyrian and Sumerian flood narratives, were combined and adapted to fit the Israelite’s monotheistic faith and communicate lessons of a wrathful, destructive god, a regretful (Genesis 6:6) yet repentant god, and the origin of rainbows. 10
But for some, the literary evidence is not compelling. So, allow me present some scientific evidence: there could not have been a worldwide flood as described in the Bible because there is simply not enough water in the earth’s atmospheric system to produce such a flood.
According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the amount of water in the earth’s atmosphere could not possibly cover the earth. 11 In fact:
One estimate of the volume of water in the atmosphere at any one time is about 3,100 cubic miles (mi 3 ) or 12,900 cubic kilometers (km 3 ). That may sound like a lot, but it is only about 0.001 percent of the total Earth’s water volume of about 332,500,000 mi 3 (1,385,000,000 km 3 )
If all of the water in the atmosphere rained down at once, it would only cover the ground to a depth of 2.5 centimeters, about 1 inch.
Additionally, because only 1.7% of the earth’s water is stored underground, 12 there is not nearly enough water in groundwater storage beneath the earth’s surface to account for the amount of water necessary to flood the entire earth to the extent described in the Bible.
Simply put: there is not enough water in Earth’s atmosphere to raise the ocean’s levels over an inch, much less to cover Mt. Ararat with water from 40 days of rain. There is simply not that much water in the system.
Thus, in order to even entertain the possibility of a worldwide flood, one has to bypass all laws of physics, exit the realm of science, and enter into the realm of the miraculous, which many biblical literalists are willing to do. It is hypothetically possible that, say, the polar ice caps melted. This could raise the ocean levels beyond the 2.5 centimeters that all the earth’s atmospheric water could were it to all rain down, but even then the thaw would only slightly affect the world’s coastlines. Additionally, all scientific evidence points to larger polar ice caps in recent history, not smaller. 13
Other fantastic scenarios could be offered to explain the flood. For instance, some might suggest that a colossal ice-asteroid could have burst into our orbit and melted, bringing with it an unconscionable amount of water into our atmosphere. But, even this desperate scenario poses a major problem for many biblical literalists who attempt to explain or prove the flood scientifically. The Bible says it “rained” and the “springs of the deep” opened, but mentions nothing about an asteroid. Likewise, were water to enter Earth’s system, where did it all go? To where did the water recede? Earth’s water cycle results in all water residing somewhere on Earth’s surface in the form of oceans, ice, and freshwater lakes, beneath Earth’s surface in subterranean reservoirs that produce springs and geysers, or in Earth’s atmosphere as moisture. So even if water could enter Earth’s closed system, where did it go?
Simply put: there is no evidence whatsoever for a worldwide flood. In other words, it’s impossible. There is not enough water in the earth’s atmospheric system to even come close to covering all of the earth’s landmasses.
It is time for Christians to admit that some of the stories in Israel’s primordial history are not historical. It is ok to concede that these stories were crafted in a pre-scientific period and were designed to offer ethical answers to questions of why and not questions of how. Christians and Jews must concede that the Bible can still be “inspired” without being historically or scientifically “inerrant.” As the early church father Origen explained regarding the preservation of empirical truth within problematic documents edited by human hands , “the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in material falsehood.” 14 Simply because a factual error exists in the text of the Bible does not mean that an ethical truth or principal cannot still be conveyed. It is time for Christians to concede that “inspiration” does not equal “inerrancy,” and that “biblical” does not equal “historical” or even “factual.” Some claims like the flood and the six-day creation are neither historical nor factual; they were written to communicate in an pre-scientific literary form that god is responsible for the earth. It is time Christians conceded that there was no flood. It is time for Reformed Theological Seminary to concede that Bruce Waltke has a point. 15 It is time for groups of evangelical amateurs to stop making sensational claims about discoveries they did not really make. And it is time for people to stop looking for Noah’s ark.
It’s not there.
2 See article in The Sun entitled “‘Noah’s Ark’ found in Turkey,” April 27, 2010.http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2949640/Noahs-Ark-found-in-Turkey.html?OTC-RSS&ATTR=News#ixzz0mIvTDKNW
3 Cargill, Robert R., “no, no you didn’t find noah’s ark,” April 28, 2010(http://robertcargill.com/2010/04/28/no-you-didnt-find-noahs-ark/); “from jason boyett – noah’s ark found! robert cargill debunks!,” April 29, 2010(http://robertcargill.com/2010/04/29/from-jason-boyett-noahs-ark-found-robert-cargill-debunks/); “busted! turkey’s culture ministry is now ‘investigating’ noah’s ark ministries international,” April 29, 2010 (http://robertcargill.com/2010/04/29/busted-turkeys-culture-ministry-is-now-investigating-noahs-ark-ministries-international/); and “does this look like styrofoam to you?,” May 1, 2010(http://robertcargill.com/2010/05/01/does-this-look-like-styrofoam-to-you/).
4 Kurczy, Stephen, “Chinese explorers stand by claim of Noah's Ark find in Turkey” Christian Science Monitor , April 30, 2010.http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-Issues/2010/0430/Chinese-explorers-stand-by-claim-of-Noah-s-Ark-find-in-Turkey
8 Cf. 2 Kings 17.
9 For instance, compare the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 with the text of the Deir ‘Alla inscription, which was painted on the wall of a building in Deir ‘Alla Jordan and dates to around 840-760 BCE. http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Deir-Alla_Inscription,_750%E2%80%93700_BCE
10 Genesis 9:11-17.
11 U.S. Geological Survey.http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycleatmosphere.html
12 U.S. Geological Survey.http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/watercyclegwstorage.html
14 Origen, Commentary on John , Book 10:4, English trans. by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen-john10.html
15 See my April 9, 2010 blog post on Dr. Waltke’s departure from Reformed Theological Seminary entitled, “professor bruce waltke dismissed from evangelical seminary for accepting evolution”(http://robertcargill.com/2010/04/09/religion-profesor-bruce-waltke-dismissed-from-evangelical-seminary-for-accepting-evolution/) and my April 19, 2010 update entitled, “ update on bruce waltke’s departure from reformed theological seminary”(http://robertcargill.com/2010/04/19/update-on-bruce-waltkes-departure-from-reformed-theological-seminary/).