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Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Does the Genesis Flood Story Hold Water?

According to Genesis 6:1-3, as people began to procreate, “the sons of God” found the daughters of humans attractive so they took multiple wives for themselves. Who were “the sons of God?” Some people claim that this phrase always refers to angels. Others claim that the phrase refers to male humans who were possessed by demons. Yet another view claims that the phrase refers to the descendents of Seth, while the “daughters of men” refers to the descendents of Cain, i.e., the line of Seth intermarried with the line of Cain resulting in the corruption of society. There is no definitive answer, but the reference to Seth and Cain is interesting.

In Genesis 6:3, the LORD decreed that mortals would not live forever; the author(s) of Genesis claims humans will live “one hundred and twenty years.” In our modern world, life expectancy ranges from 46 years in Sierra Leone to 84 years in Japan – far less than 120. The United Nations reports that there were 135,000 centenarians in the world in 1998. It also claims that by 2050 there will be 2.2 million with Japan having the highest percentage of its population over 100 years old. There will be far more female centenarians than male.

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4). Nephila were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men;” in Numbers 13:33, the same word is used in reference to giants who inhabited Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Whoever the “sons of God” were, it sounds suspiciously like Greek gods cohabiting with human females or space aliens mating with earthlings.

God became disturbed by the wickedness of humans (Genesis 6:5), but God is supposedly omniscient, which means that God would have known that the humans he created would become wicked. However, God appears to have been surprised by their wickedness and regrets that humans were created. Therefore, the LORD decided to “blot out from the earth” not only human beings, but the animals, creeping things and birds (Genesis 6:6-7). Appallingly, God even drowned innocent children (and even unborn infants). God punished innocents who do not possess the intellectual capacity to determine right from wrong. Animals also suffered because humans were wicked. Such malice is not uncommon for the God of the Old Testament.

One man, Noah, who according to Genesis was 600 years old, earned God’s favor because of his blameless behavior (Genesis 6:8), so God instructed Noah to build an ark large enough to hold his family and pairs of every kind of living animal, because a flood would destroy the earth. Noah followed God’s orders. After the ark was completed, his family and the animals entered the ark prior to the deluge (Genesis 6:13-7:1).

The Great Flood myth in Genesis has parallels in other literature. It is similar to some Babylonian stories, except in those tales there is more than one god. In the Eridu Genesis, the Epic of Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgames, the gods decide to destroy mankind, so a man is ordered to build an ark, survives the flood, and lands on a mountain named Nisir or Nimus.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian legend that predates Genesis by a thousand years or more, similarities between the two myths are so close that it cannot be coincidence. In the Sumerian flood legend, Utnapishtim receives directions and exact proportions for the construction of a large vessel to escape an impending flood (similar to Genesis 6:14-16); he takes his family and animals aboard to insure that life on earth will not be completely destroyed (similar to Genesis 6:19-7:1); after the flood, his vessel lands on a mountain (similar to Genesis 8:4); he releases a dove and a raven to search for dry land (similar to Genesis 8:6-11); he offers a sacrifice to the gods who find the odor pleasing (similar to Genesis 8:20-21). These similarities suggest that the author(s) of Genesis patterned their flood story after the flood legend in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Another flood story comes from the Sumerian The Instruction of Shuruppak, dating from approximately 1700 BCE. The gods said, “A flood will sweep over the… (unintelligible) the seed of mankind is to be destroyed… The verdict, the word of the divine assembly, cannot be revoked… All the windstorms and gales arose together, and the flood swept over the… (unintelligible). After the flood had swept over the land, and waves and windstorms had rocked the huge boat for seven days and seven nights, Utu the sun god came out, illuminating heaven and earth. Zi-ud-sura could drill an opening in the huge boat and the hero Utu entered the huge boat with his rays. Zi-ud-sura the king prostrated himself before Utu. The king sacrificed oxen and offered innumerable sheep…”

A Hindu flood story appears in The Mahabharata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Markandeya-Samasya Parva: Section 186: “…the dissolution of all this mobile and immobile world is nigh at hand. The time for the purging of this world is now ripe… Thou shall build a strong massive ark and have it furnished with a long rope. On that must thou ascend, O great Muni, with the seven Rishis and take with thee all the different seeds which were enumerated by regenerate Brahmanas in days of yore, and separately and carefully must thou preserve them therein… thou shall act according to my instructions, for, without my assistance, thou canst not save thyself from that fearful flood… And there was water everywhere and the waters covered the heaven and the firmament also. …the fish diligently dragged the boat through the flood for many a long year and then… it towed the vessel towards the highest peak of the Himavat… the fish then told those on the vessel to tie it to the peak of the Himavat.”

For many years I have consider the Genesis flood story a myth. I felt a global flood was ridiculous to consider; some sort of regional flood in Samaria and Mesopotamia, maybe, but not a world-wide flood. However, if flood stories exist in other cultures outside the Middle-East, particularly the Hindu story above, perhaps the evidence needs reexamining.

In the Genesis account of the flood, the “world” can be interpreted as a flood occurring only in the area that Noah knew or as a global flood that occurred thousands of years ago, however, there is no geological evidence of a global flood.

The possibility of a global flood is complicated by the fact that records exist in China, Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia during the supposed time of the flood and there is no mention of a cataclysmic, world-wide flood in their records.

Robert Ballard, an underwater archaeologist, claims to have found traces of an ancient civilization in the Black Sea off the coast of present day Turkey. His findings were reported on ABC News in 2012. Ballard said that approximately 12,000 years ago, much of the world was covered in ice. When it melted, the world’s oceans flooded. Two Columbia University scientists believe that the Black Sea, which is now salty, was once a freshwater lake that was flooded with salt water from the Mediterranean Sea. Ballard and his crew found evidence that they believe confirms a catastrophic event happened in the Black Sea region approximately 5,600 BCE. If Ballard’s claims “hold water,” 93,205 square miles of land were flooded and that land would have been buried under hundreds of feet of water. Such a calamity could have caused the birth of the stories that were handed down by oral tradition about a massive flood.

Catastrophic events like the 2004 tsunami that wiped out villages on the coasts of eleven countries surrounding the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of this country’s worst hurricanes, might be modern day events that were similar to what the people of the biblical flood experienced.

Genesis says humankind’s wickedness caused God to send the flood, but in the Babylonian version God’s judgment on humans was caused by overpopulation and noise. In the Greek version, there was a reference to giants in the section immediately preceding God’s decision to destroy mankind. In the Babylonian version, Noah sacrifices and obtains immortality, but in the Genesis and Greek versions, the flood survivor does not obtain immortality.

According to Genesis, the ark was 450 feet by 75 feet and was 45 feet high – taller than a three-story building; the deck was the size of 36 tennis courts. A group in Maryland has been building a replica of the ark for thirty years – Noah did not have thirty years to build the ark.

The longest wooden ships in modern times are about 300 feet and these require reinforcing with iron straps and leak so badly they must be constantly pumped. According to Genesis, the ark was 150 feet longer and did not have reinforcing with iron straps, so it would have leaked badly. Since, according to Genesis, Noah built the ark with cypress wood (gopher wood in some translations) and pitch, it is questionable that the ark would have been seaworthy.

If the myth of the flood were true, why has no evidence ever been found of the ark? Multiple expeditions have searched for the ark, but have found absolutely nothing.

In 2010, a group of “evangelical explorers” from Noah’s Ark Ministry International and Hong Kong’s Media Evangelism claimed to have found the ark on Mount Ararat. They also alleged that carbon dating showed their find was 4,800 years old. The team shared wooden remains and strands of rope from the site. An Oxford University professor called their find, “the usual nonsense.”

In 1993, George Jammal claimed that he had “sacred wood” from the ark, but it was later revealed that he was an actor and the wood was taken from railroad tracks in California and baked in an oven.

The flood reportedly killed every living thing except for “seven pairs of all clean animals… and a pair of the animals that are not clean… and seven pairs of the birds of the air also…;” the Priestly tradition presumes that sacrifice of animals was not introduced until Mt. Sinai, so only one pair of each species was taken in that tradition; in Genesis 7:9, it says the animals entered the ark two by two, male and female, however in the Yahweh tradition, animals were sacrificed in Genesis 8:20; if there was only one pair every sacrifice would have eliminated a species, therefore according to Genesis 7:2-3, there were seven pairs of clean animals, but only two of each unclean animal.

Were fish and other aquatic life spared? The flood waters would not have killed aquatic life unless salt and fresh water were mixed. Oceanic life and the inhabitants of fresh water could not survive in each other’s environment. Since the flood waters reportedly came from rain, one might assume most of it was fresh water, but supposedly the oceans flooded the land.

Evangelicals argue that Noah needed 40,000 animals to represent every kind of creature, but a more realistic estimate suggests that he would have needed at least 1.5 million species (World Book Encyclopedia says scientists have named and classified over 1.5 million animals).

Collecting every species of animal from the millions of animal species would have been an impossible task – it would be practically impossible today, but it would have been extremely unlikely during Noah’s time. Some argue divine intervention caused the animals to migrate to Noah’s area and willingly entered the ark. Others argue that a uniform environment would have enabled all the animals to live nearby. However, in a uniform environment many species could not have survived. For example, penguins from the frozen poles would have died in the near-desert climate of Mesopotamia.

Logically, Noah could not have traveled to Australia to collect two koalas and kangaroos or North America to get a male and female grizzly bear. Even if it was possible, without divine intervention, collecting animals from such disparate locations would have taken a considerable amount of time (God gave Noah seven days, see Genesis 7:4).

Some species, such as ants and bees, need a colony to survive. Two ants or two bees are not a colony. Most snails, slugs, earthworms, etc. would have to have been on the ark to survive.

Noah’s next problem was to collect and preserve enough food for the special nutrition requirements of each animal species.

The flood myth only speaks of animals (perhaps more specifically mammals) and birds being collected. What happened to insects, bacteria and the myriad of other living things not accounted for in the Genesis myth?

Loading the ark would have been a logistical nightmare. According to Genesis, Noah had seven days to load the ark. One species would have had to be loaded every few seconds, which would, of course, have been impossible.

If, as creationists claim, all fossils were deposited by the flood, then all the animals that became fossils were alive then. Therefore all extinct land animals had representatives aboard the ark. That would have included all the large and small dinosaurs.

According to Genesis, the animals were “the male and his mate,” which indicated that the animals were sexually mature. Wouldn’t they have bred and produced offspring during the time they were on the ark? More than two of each species might have exited the ark.

Different animals have completely diverse space requirements, but according to John Woodmorappe in his book Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study, animals would have occupied 47% of the space on the ark. However, conservative Christians have argued that as few as 2,000 animals might have been needed on the ark, others says 35,000 were needed, and still others speculate that 50,000 were present. They also argue that the largest creatures would not have been represented by adult specimens.

The ark as described in Genesis would not have been adequate to carry a cargo of animals sufficient to repopulate the earth, not to mention the amount of food that would have been necessary.

Noah, his family and the animals entered the ark twice: first in Genesis 7:7 and again in Genesis 7:13, which reflects interwoven flood accounts.

According to Genesis, where did the flood waters come from? In Genesis 7:4 and 7:12, the earth is flooded by rain. In the NIV translation, Genesis 7:11 says “all the springs of the great deep burst forth,” which implies that water came up from large fissures in the ground. Any water that came from beneath the earth’s surface would probably have contained noxious gases that would have made the land uninhabitable.

According to experts, it would have required six inches of rain per minute for forty days to produce enough water to cover the earth’s surface so that the mountains were covered “to a depth of more than twenty feet” (a category five hurricane can only dump six inches per hour, not six inches per minute). Where did this enormous amount of water go after the rain ceased? Did it simply vanish? If it either drained away or evaporated, it would have taken an enormous amount of time. How long did the flood last? The Yahweh account says it rained for forty days and forty nights (7:12 and 7:17); the Priestly account claims “the waters flooded the earth for one hundred fifty days” (7:24).

The humans on board would have fed the animals (it takes a very large crew to feed the animals in a zoo every day) and disposed of their waste. That would have been a grueling, never-ending task.

Most vegetation could not have survived submersion in water, especially if there was any salt water. And any seeds that were in the soil would have been covered with so much water, and perhaps sediment, that they would not have germinated. Supposedly, Noah brought seeds onto the ark to assure plant survival, but that hypothesis is simply unrealistic.

Once the waters began to recede, the ark landed “on the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4). Noah sent birds to look for dry land. After a few failed attempts, a dove returned with “a freshly plucked olive leaf” (Genesis 8:6-11), but there would not have been time for that plant to sprout and grow after the flood. The bird must have found the olive leaf in some un-flooded area.

When the waters completely receded and the earth dried, Noah’s family left the ark and God repeated the “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” command from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 8:14-19). In addition to his mention in Genesis, Noah is one of the main prophets of Islam. The Koran says Noah’s wife drown during the flood, but Genesis claims that Noah, his wife, their sons (Ham, Shem and Japeth) and their wives left the ark after the flood.

Even though God instructed them to be fruitful and multiply, the population would not have rebounded quickly. Supposedly the Tower of Babel story occurred one or two centuries later. Eight humans – two of them elderly – and their descendants could not have reproduced enough in that amount of time to repopulate the earth. The DNA of various races proves that all humans on earth do not descend from the eight humans who survived the flood.

Once the animals exited the ark, their food supply would have been destroyed. It would have taken quite a while for plants to have sprouted and grown to nourish the plant-eating animals.

Were we supposed to be vegetarians? Some people interpret Genesis 1:29-30 that way, but after the flood, in Genesis 9:3, God said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” However, God forbids eating flesh that is bloody or drinking blood.

If all the animals were killed except those on the ark, what would the carnivores have eaten – each other?

After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk with the wine he produced. When he exited his tent, he wasn’t wearing anything. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, saw his naked father and told his brothers. Shem and Japeth somehow managed to cover their father without looking at his nakedness. When Noah awoke from his stupor, he discovered what Ham had done (according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, some have speculated that Ham had sex with his father, since seeing nakedness refers to incestuous behavior, see Leviticus 20:17. If that is true, homosexuality entered the biblical story very early).

For some reason God condemned Canaan, Ham’s youngest son, to be the slave to his brothers (Genesis 9:20-27). Why did God take his wrath out on Canaan instead of Ham?

As a child growing up in the church, I heard the flood story and naively accepted it as fact. It never occurred to me that it didn’t happen exactly as described in Genesis. God saved Noah and his family and two of each animal – I didn’t know there were such things as clean and unclean animals. It never would have crossed my mind that God killed every human and animal except those on the ark. Yes, God saved the eight humans on the ark, but if the story was factual, which it is not, God annihilated thousands – maybe millions – of men, women and completely innocent children. God was upset with the wickedness of humans, so God unleashed his wrath not only on humans but on animals that were not guilty of wickedness. The Old Testament God was certainly indiscriminate in his wrath!

After reexamining the available evidence, I am convinced that the Genesis account of a flood was not a historical occurrence. If it cannot be accepted as fact, then is it a metaphorical story? Why is it in the Bible? What are we supposed to glean from it? Does it mean that God will destroy humanity if we are corrupt? God’s first attempt at starting over obviously did not work. It didn’t take long for Noah, a supposedly righteous man, to do wrong after the flood: he planted a vineyard, reaped its harvest, made wine, got drunk, and exposed himself sexually to his sons. So does the story mean that even the righteous can quickly become corrupted? Early church leaders like Tertullian, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine thought the flood story was to encourage moral conduct.

Is the story simply an example of perseverance? It certainly required perseverance and trust in God for Noah to build the ark. Did God really intend to uncreate – to return the earth to its original state of chaos – and recreate it again with Noah as the new Adam? I don’t know that these questions can be answered authoritatively.

Conservative Christians have filled the internet with arguments about the authenticity of the Genesis accounts of the Great Flood. They are no more willing to accept my reasoning than I am to accept theirs. They say, “If the Bible says it, it is fact” – no alternative is worth considering. But I cannot think that way. When I read books and articles by authors who have examined the evidence with an open mind, I tend to side with the progressive rather than the conservative (more closed minded) approach.

The Genesis account of the flood was written by two Israelites (the Priestly account and the non-Priestly version) who were trying to tell a story that would help their fellow Jews better understand their place in the world. If a myth about a flood covering the earth and killing everyone and everything except for one man and his family and a select number of animals accomplished that goal, then it may be worthy. But the vengeful God who decided he had made a mistake so he wanted to start over is not my idea of God. A God who would destroy the world and its inhabitants – except for one “righteous” man and his family (who may not have been righteous) and a handful of animal species – is not worthy of worship. I agree with Brian McLaren’s quote below.

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren wrote, “The Noah story, in which God wipes out all living things except one boatload of refugees, has become profoundly disturbing.” McLaren was “trained to read it as a story of divine saving,” so he “missed the small detail of divine mass destruction on a planetary scale… If God single-handedly practiced ‘ethnic cleansing’ once, and if God cannot do evil, then there is apparently a time and place when genocide is justified… a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.”

Topics: Bibles and Bible Study. Ages: Adult. Texts: Genesis. Resource Types: Articles and Read.

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