20 Noah and the Deluge
Bible and Science – Noah and the Deluge
And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD (Gen. 6:7, 8).
The story of Noah and the flood is probably one of the most well-known sagas in the Bible. Many great works of art, books, movies, TV specials and children’s toys celebrate the event. There was a time in the heyday of Bible criticism in the 19th century that pundits relegated the story of Noah and the flood to myth and legend, but that is certainly no longer true. Biblical, historical and geological evidence today are so compelling that the only argument that remains is the extent of the flood. However, before we focus on the contentious issue of the extent let us first review the persuasive scriptural and historical evidence of the certainty of a massive deluge, the likes of which the earth has not seen since, that annihilated all humanity save eight souls.
Referred to throughout scripture
The existence of the patriarch Noah and the events associated with his calling are amply spelled out in the scriptures in Genesis chapters 6 – 10, and in many other places in both the Old and New Testaments. The name Noah means rest and he is indeed appropriately named.1 He provided a “rest” for his family and through his righteousness we can be thankful for the continued existence of the human race.
Noah’s name is evoked by the prophet Isaiah to confirm God’s mercy (Isa. 54:9). He is mentioned by Ezekiel as a notable illustration of righteousness (Ezek.14:14, 20). Noah is held up as one of the heroes of the faith by the author of Hebrews (Heb. 11:7) and the deluge story is confirmed once again by the writings of the apostle Peter (I Peter 3:20; II Peter 2:5). Noah is also mentioned in the lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke3:36).
What absolutely clinches it for any believing Christian is the endorsement of our Lord, who uses Noah as an exhortation in watchfulness that could well apply to these latter days (Matt. 24:37-38; Luke 17:26,27). There is also a parallel between Jesus and Noah that is understood when we realize Noah provided a refuge, a rest, from the judgments of the Almighty in his day and likewise the Lord Jesus Christ will provide the ultimate rest for the righteous in the kingdom of God: There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God (Heb. 4:9).
Thus, while one might quibble about some of the details, from the Biblical point of view, the existence of a man of righteousness called Noah and the story associated with his construction of a gigantic ark for preserving his family and animal life from a massive deluge is beyond question. What about the historical evidence?
The historical evidence is extensive; more than 100 “deluge” stories have been documented from cultures spanning the globe.2 The most famous of these tales was recorded sometime between 2000 and 1700 B.C. and is part of what is known as the “Gilgamesh” epic. In the years 1852 and 1853, the British archeologists Layard and Rassam excavated the library of the Assyrian King Ashur-bani-pal (668-627 B.C.) at his palace in Nineveh (near modern day Mosul in Iraq). The collection of that library consisted of 25,073 cuneiform tablets, which are now in the possession of the British Museum in London. Gilgamesh was a legendary Sumerian king of Erech who ruled in Mesopotamia prior to the conquest by the Babylonians. Tablet XI of the history of this king is on view at the British Museum; a portion of the description accompanying this display reads: “…(this tablet) describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world. Like Noah, Utnapishtim was forewarned and built an ark to house and preserve living things. After the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land.”3
There are remarkable similarities in the two accounts of Noah and Utnapishtim, which leads one to believe the two stories derive from the same ancient root. The detailed similarities and differences between the Biblical and Sumerian accounts have been spelled out elsewhere and will not be repeated here.4 However, the key factor that makes these comparable accounts interesting from the viewpoint of a Bible believer is not so much their similarity, but rather a couple of the startling differences, namely the cause of the great deluge and the ultimate fate of the survivors of the flood.
In the Gilgamesh epic, the cause of the flood is attributed to the rashness of the god Enlil, who apparently gets into a dispute with other gods and mankind pays the price. In the Biblical account, mankind is punished for extraordinary wickedness and Noah is saved because of his righteousness. As in many pagan legends, the Utnapishtim tale displays the capriciousness of the gods and the apparent innocence of humankind. The Bible account argues for the responsibility of mankind to obey spiritual principles laid down in each dispensation by our heavenly Father. After their survival, the result for our two heroes is completely different. Utnapishtim and his wife become one with the immortal gods, but Noah and his family are commanded, in words echoing that spoken earlier to Adam and Eve, simply to renew man’s history on this planet (Gen. 8:17).
How extensive was the flood?
The extent of the flood is the only area of dispute. On one extreme of opinion are those who limit the flood to a local overflowing of the region bounded by the Tigrus and Euphrates rivers. On the other extreme, are those who believe the flood was not only global but also was part of a cataclysm that fully explains the current geology of the earth. The problem with both of these views is that there is little scientific evidence that can clearly back up and prove either one. Bible skeptics will say we have never seen a global flood and the geological evidence for such is lacking. The cataclysm people will cite a global flood and use it to explain everything in geology from the erosion that produced the magnificence of the Grand Canyon to the mechanism that accounts for the extinction of dinosaurs. Of course, both of these views cannot be right. In fact, both of them may be wrong! Let us try to examine rationally what is the hard logical evidence involved.
Two of the leading supporters of a global flood and great cataclysm are Whitcomb and Morris, who give a number of reasons why they believe in a global flood and earth-altering cataclysm, and the reader is referred to this reference for full details.5,6 In contrast to this is the view of skeptics who generally attack every aspect of the story, seeking to diminish in terms of size, scope and impact.7 This chapter will restrict itself to examining the point of view of Whitcomb and Morris and others of a similar opinion.
World population was sufficiently large and dispersed, requiring a truly global flood.
Neither the Bible nor any other historical record indicates what the population of the world was roughly 5,000 years ago. In order to estimate the population of the world at that time, the school of Whitcomb and Morris have resorted to statistics. The demographic formulas are well known and given the proper input should give reasonable results. However, this begs the question: Just what are the reasonable parameters to assume? We need to know the birth and death rates, and the average length of time for a generation to pass. Those making a case generously assume numbers that are favorable to their arguments based on the Biblical records of long lifetimes prior to the flood and using current values of population expansion.
With these ideas in mind Whitcomb and Morris8 estimate the world population at the time of Noah at over a billion beings and, with a slight adjustment in the input values, another of their opinion gets a figure of nine billion or more!9 This latter figure is almost 50% higher than the population of the world today.
The argument for an extremely large and dispersed population at the time of Noah simply does not seem reasonable based on the following:
- The world population at the time of Christ, almost three thousand years from the flood, was only 200 to 300 million.10Using the Bible’s own time scale the time from Noah to Christ was nearly twice that from Adam to Noah. How then could the world population have been 5 to 30 times greater at the time of the flood?
- With regard to population growth rates we know again from the Bible record that Noah was six hundred years old and had only three sons at the time of the deluge (the same number of sons that I had in 33 years). This argues for long generational time scales and birth rates that aren’t completely out of line with modern man. With assumptions along this line one would find that a population level of a few tens of millions (at most) would be more reasonable.
- Another fact that would argue against billions of human beings living at the time of Noah is that food supply, not birth rate, would be the determining factor on population limit. How could a billion or more humans have found sufficient food resources given the level of ancient agricultural knowledge? Even with all our modern technology it would be nearly impossible to feed the 9 billion or more people assumed in some texts.
- If the world population at the time of Noah was indeed greater than a billion or more people, one would expect that archaeological efforts would have long ago uncovered evidence for such. Such large-scale populations would have left behind telltale signs of their existence. I haven’t located a single piece of archaeological evidence in the literature to support the large population claim.
The ark was big enough to carry all animal species that lived on this planet.
The ark as described in Genesis was indeed a very large ship even by modern standards and its volume capacity of 1,518,750 cu. ft. with 101,250 sq. ft. of deck space on its three decks rivals that of modern ocean going transports. The ark needed no space for propulsion, nor any other kind of mechanicals, hence the claim that it could have held and fed 37,000 species is not unreasonable. Let us examine further the claim that all animal species on earth were represented on the ark.
- It has been asserted that 37,000 species could fit on the ark. This is based on the assumption that from about a million species on earth one could discount those able to survive the flood without the aid of Noah. However, as we have shown in earlier chapters, the actual number of species on earth is nearly 10 million, nearly ten times that assumed by Whitcomb and Morris. Even discounting all aquatic species the capacity of the ark would be hard pressed to have taken aboard representatives of all of these.
- Then there is the question of dinosaurs. To justify both their young earth and global flood claims and at the same time explain the fossil remains of all the various dinosaurs, it is claimed that they, too, were on the ark (as babies!). The usual justification for this is Genesis 6:4, There were giants in the earth in those days. But the word “giant”in this verse refers to the character of the leaders in that age rather than the size of any animal. The Hebrew text here refers to tyrants11 and is no doubt connected with the cause of the flood that the earth was filled with violence (Gen. 6:11, 13), i.e. due to spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). Dinosaurs then supposedly died out after the flood from the changed climatic conditions. Unfortunately the fossil evidence just doesn’t justify the assertion that this species co-existed with modern man.
- We also have to consider the evidence from fossil distributions of marsupials (animals that bear their young in pouches, such as the kangaroo). There is absolutely no evidence of fossil remains of this species of animal in Europe, Asia or Africa. It is assumed that they travelled to the ark over a land bridge from Australia; however, the land bridge would have disappeared after the flood. If it was global and oceans rose to their present level, how did they get back?12
The waters of the flood covered the highest mountains.
The text of the King James Version says: Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered (Gen. 7:20). However, the same exact Hebrew word is translated as hills in the previous verse. To make a case for covering Mount Everest, for example, we would need a flood level of greater than 29,000 ft.! How could this happen and where did all the water go afterward?
- The explanation is that prior to the flood the earth was covered with a canopy cloud cover that held a vast amount of water. The forty days and nights of rain unleashed a torrent that, combined with waters from the fountains of the deep, inundated the earth, covering even Mt. Everest. The existence of such a canopy cloud cover at the time of Noah was simply not possible. We know that mankind practiced normal agricultural methods from the time of Cain, who was a tiller of the soil, onwards. If a cloud cover dense enough to carry the amount of water required by Whitcomb and Morris existed in Noah’s day, nothing on earth could have received sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis to work, to say nothing of the lack of vitamin D conversion necessary for human beings to exist.
- To account for covering the highest mountains and at the same time trying to explain what happened after the flood, it is usually asserted that the mountains were much smaller and the oceans very shallow prior to Noah. If this is true it flies in the face of a vast amount of geological evidence. It also contradicts some of the very assumptions made by the school of Whitcomb and Morris as we already showed above in discussing supposed marsupial migrations.
When Genesis records that all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered it literally meant that the entire planet including Australia, North and South America, etc.
At first glance, the Mosaic account certainly seems to be literally saying that ALL the continents from Asia to the Americas were covered with water sufficient to submerge the highest mountain. However, we have to bear in mind that “the narrative is intended only to represent things as they appeared to the Noachic survivors.”13 When Moses said that God would put the dread of thee (Israel) and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven….(Deut. 2:25), did that literally happen to all nations on the earth or only those in contact with Israel? Again when the apostle Paul said that the gospel was preached to every creature which is under heaven (Col. 1:23), did he mean this in an absolute sense or not? There are many other examples in the scripture where things are meant in a relative sense even though the strict literalist might think otherwise, e.g. Mark 16:15, Acts 2:17, and others. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the account in Genesis is also speaking in a relative sense in terms of its extent.
In sum, the Whitcomb and Morris model of a global cataclysm with a flood covering even the highest mountains doesn’t hold water. It requires God completely rearranging the earth with vast alterations that would have changed the rotational speed and unleashed tectonic forces that would have swamped Noah and the ark in a monstrous tsunami. Of course the Lord God could have done any level of miracle that He wished in order to accomplish His goal of destroying wicked humanity. The issue is not what God could do, but what the evidence actually proves. Bro. Roberts once wrote: “The ways of God are always most wisely adapted to the requirements of each situation as it arises, and it will be found in the study of each case that the amount of miracle employed is the smallest that the case calls for. There is none of the prodigality of marvel – meaningless marvel that characterizes all artificial history…Only so much extra-natural effort is put forth as is needful for the objects in view.”14
I see no need to expand on his conclusion, namely, that the deluge was neither global, nor did it cover Mt. Everest. Were the skeptics then right that the deluge was just a small local flood and life outside of the Tigris/Euphrates river valleys was unaffected? Hardly, but we need to leave that discussion for the next chapter.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1 Strong’s number 5146, the same as 5118; rest…
2 James George Frazer, Sir, Folk-lore in the Old Testament: studies in comparative religion, legend and law, 1st edition. Macmillan and Co., Limited, London (1918), Vol. 1, pgs. 104-361. This book is out of print, but available for purchase from the following website: http://www.alibris.com. Also by the same author is his famous work on the origin of pagan religions The Golden Bough.
3 Picture of the cuneiform tablet which contains the Babylonian flood tale can be viewed at: http://www.greatcommission.com/london/
4 John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, (1961), pgs. 36-42.
6 http://christiananswers.net[search on “Noah”]
7Mark Isaak, Problems with a Global Flood, 2nd Edition, © (1998), also at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html
8 Whitcomb and Morris, op. cit., pgs. 25-27.
9 Lambert Dolphin, “Population growth was very rapid for 1656 years until the Flood of Noah reduced the population to eight persons (4 couples). I have arbitrarily chosen the population at the time of the Flood as 9 billion, though as shown above this may be too conservative.” Quoted from: http://www.ldolphin.org/popul.html
10 Also from: www.ldolphin.org/popul.html
11 Strong’s number 5303 from 5307; properly, a feller, i.e. a bully or tyrant.
12 “…all facts are of God, they must be in agreement (with our Bibles). The animals of New Zealand are different again from those of Australia. The animals of Australia, again differ entirely from those of the American continent: all differ from one another: and the fossil remains on all the continents show that this difference has always prevailed. Now if the flood were universal in the absolute sense, it is manifest that these facts could not be explained…” Quoted from: Robert Roberts, The Visible Hand of God, The Christadelphian, Birmingham, UK, 3rd edition, (1925), pgs. 66-67. (italics by Bro. Roberts).
13 ibid., pg. 68.
14 ibid., pg. 66.