Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Bible and Me Part VIII - Noah and the Flood

[I've struggled for a long time with my relationship with the Bible. It has been a rich source of insight and spiritual nourishment to me, but also at times, a source of deep doubt and confusion. My intention in this series is to share a little of how that relationship has developed over time. If you're a Christian and you're trying to work out your own approach to the Bible then it won't give you all the answers, but it may give you some questions and insights that could help you along the way. If you're not a believer, but you're interested in the Christian faith - or in Christians in particular - then it may give you a little insight into how some of us tick!]

[The Bible and Me Part I - Beginning to Question]
[The Bible and Me Part II - Creation]
[The Bible and Me Part III - Inerrancy]
[The Bible and Me Part IV - Scripture vs Tradition]
[The Bible and Me Part V - Job]
[The Bible and Me Part VI - The Difficult Bits]

One of the most iconic stories in the Old Testament part of the Bible is the story of Noah. This story takes place - according to the genealogies given - just a few generations after the time of Adam and Eve. In this story, mankind has become incredibly wicked, to the extent that, "the earth was ... full of violence", and, "every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time". Because of this, God "regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled"; so troubled in fact, that He decided to send a huge flood to drown everyone so He could start again. There was one person left however - Noah - who was "blameless among the people of his time" and who "walked faithfully with God". So God asked Noah to build a big boat - a huge boat in fact - to save not just Noah and his family, but also a representative sample of all the living creatures on the earth, so that their populations could be re-established once the floodwaters had subsided.

My first observation on this story, is that God killing everyone does sound rather brutal, but if He really is a truly righteous and impartial judge and people really had become as bad as all that, then perhaps He did have a right to. We are all mortal anyway and He does hold all of life and death in His hands, so if He decides to cut our lives short and make another go of it, then maybe that is just His prerogative!

On the more positive side though, this is a story about hope: that even in the middle of such incomprehensible evil - and God's grief and anger over what His creation has become - all is not lost. Also - apart from the creation story itself - it is perhaps the earliest example in the Bible of God's concern for the whole of His creation, and not just for people. Under God's direction, Noah is perhaps the first ever example of an environmental activist!

Is it a true story though, and if not then what do we make of it? Let's take a more detailed look:

As already said, the story starts with God deciding to send a flood, but in order to preserve Noah and his family, He instructs him to build a boat. As a believer in God I'm fairly happy with this so far! It is a big boat - but then it would need to be! The dimensions given, in modern measurements, equate to about 135 metres by 23 metres by 14 metres: it's almost as big as 3 Olympic swimming pools laid end to end! It has 3 decks, which equates to a total of perhaps about 9,000 square metres of floor space. Not an easy thing to try to build all on your own! But presumably his 3 sons at least (who came with him on the ark, along with their wives) would have helped him out. And perhaps he already had some sort of construction business - even a boat-building business - with hired labour on hand to help. We're not told and we don't know.

Noah is told to take into the boat 2 of every kind of animal, along with the necessary provisions for them all - although when they're repeated, the instructions are changed to seven pairs of each "clean" animal and one pair of each "unclean" animal. For me, this is where it starts to get a little interesting. A clean animal means one that is categorised as "clean" according to the Jewish purity laws. Clean animals for example, are considered fit for human consumption, whereas unclean animals are not. But according to the Bible itself, these laws were first given to Moses, another 16 generations later on! - so how does Noah even know what a "clean" animal is? And at this point, why does God care? Unless of course, this is detail that has been added in to the story at a later date, either before or while it was being written down...

Another point probably worth considering, is how did all of the animals get to the ark? God tells Noah that the animals will come to him - fair enough - but if this really was a global flood, then kangaroos for example might've had a bit of a problem, being several thousand miles away and on the other side of an ocean! And then of course there's the problem of how the kangaroos got back to where they were supposed to be, once the flood waters had subsided...

Anyway, reading on: the animals all come to Noah, God shuts them into the boat, the rains fall and the flood waters begin to rise. The story tells us that "The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits". But this is curious as well: how would Noah (or anyone else) know whether all the mountains were covered or not, and to what depth? - some of them would have been thousands of miles away! This (as well as the animal distance/geography problem, the problem of where so much water could have come from in the first place and where it all disappeared to afterwards, and the complete lack of any geological evidence for a global flood!) does beg the question of whether or not this flood - if it happened - really did cover the whole earth. After all, how would Noah (or anyone else) be able to tell whether it had or not? Noah would have had little to no idea of how big the world really was, and would almost certainly have been unaware of most of it. I think perhaps the clincher for all this though, is the Hebrew word "erets". This is the word that is translated into English as "earth" throughout this story (which for us of course is equivalent to the word "world"), but it isn't always translated like this elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, "erets" is more often simply translated as "land" or "ground", and usually means the local area, rather than the whole world - which would have been far beyond the author's knowledge anyway. As an example, later on in the book of Genesis, God tells Abraham to, "Go from your country (erets), your people and your father’s household to the land (erets) I will show you" (Genesis 12:1).

When the flood waters have subsided and Noah, his family, and the animals have left the ark, God makes a solemn agreement, or "covenant" with Noah that He will never again flood the earth (erets!), and declares to him that the rainbow will be the sign and reminder of this. I once took this to mean that God was introducing the rainbow for the first time at this point, which seemed unlikely, given what we now know about rain and physics! But it's since occurred to me that it could just mean that from now on the rainbow - which God created in the first place - would be treated by God, and should also be treated by Noah and his descendants, as a sign and reminder of this covenant.

So at face value this story does seem a little fantastical in places, but I don't find it too hard to accept that there might've been a local flood, which was nevertheless large enough to cover the tops of mountains and to cover the known world as far as Noah knew it at the time. I also don't find it too hard to imagine that God might've warned Noah about this, and may have even intended the flood as a form of judgement on the inhabitants. I can also accept that God cares enough about His world that He wanted to involve Noah in the preservation of its fauna, and was fully able to ensure that His creatures co-operated with him in this process. I can't accept though, that "erets" really means the whole world in the sense that we understand it today - for me the evidence all seems to mitigate too strongly against this.

As to whether this particular flood actually did happen - that's a different question which I don't feel fully qualified to judge. There doesn't seem to be any specific geological evidence - so far anyway - of a flood of this scale at a time and place that would fit accurately with this account, although there is a theory that a large flood occurred in the Black Sea, which could have provided the inspiration for this story, if not even been the actual source of it.

Interestingly, there is another very similar story to this one found outside the Bible, in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both stories involve God (or the gods) sending a huge flood, but sparing one man who is told to build a boat to save both himself and all the animals. There are many other striking similarities between the two stories, as well as many differences in the details. My favourite difference concerns the reason for God (or the gods) sending the flood in the first place. In the Biblical version, God sends the flood because He is grieved by mankind's wickedness, while in the Epic of Gilgamesh (or at least in one version of it), the gods send the flood because the people have become too noisy and are keeping the gods awake!

The oldest copy we have of the Epic of Gilgamesh is on stone tablets and dates to about 1800 BC, whereas we only have much later copies of the Biblical account, meaning that scholars can only speculate - based on the contents - about when the originals were first written down. So based on the evidence, it seems we cannot say for sure whether the Gilgamesh story came first, or the Biblical version, or whether both were developed from an earlier textual or oral tradition. Many non-evangelical-Christian scholars believe that the Biblical account is the later version, and was developed from the Gilgamesh account during the Jewish captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC, but I have not investigated this theory sufficiently to be able to form much of an opinion.

At the end of the day I am curious, but not deeply concerned about the extent to which the story of Noah is or isn't an accurate historical account. It's an interesting question and does have some significance in terms of how I read and understand the Bible, but I doubt if I will ever know for sure. There are things I can learn from the story either way though, and its historicity is not a core component of my faith.

[To be continued...]


  1. Thank you so much. I have read an other blogpost today and was blessed by what I was reading. Keep writing!

  2. Thanks Ariƫlla! I haven't written anything for a while - life has got extremely busy just recently - but I will try to get back to it at some point!

  3. Hi. I ran across this today (searching for computer programming and the bible.)

    I believe the bible is very accurate. You might enjoy this guy (if you have some time.) Search YouTube for Missler Genesis. The fellow's name is Chuck Missler, and he has some very cool scientific and scriptural analysis of the bible. There are over 20 videos. Just thought you may be interested. Hope this finds you well & blessings to you.

  4. Thanks Bob. I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about and investigating this stuff already and don't really have any more spare time to spend on it just at the moment.

    If you have any specific comments on anything I've written though, I would be happy to discuss it further.


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