Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940′s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God’(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

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, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, 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.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been
slain.

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

Noah’s Ark in the Media

Oh Media, when will you learn that you shouldn’t mess with the past?  You can’t ‘recreate’ something that never existed in the first place.

While Noah will likely always remain the first name in arks, tourists are chomping at the bit to climb aboard “Johan’s Ark,” an ambitious re-creation of the biblical boat that’s attracting gawkers galore along a waterfront shipyard in Dordrecht, a city in the western Netherlands.

via Meet the man who’s re-creating Noah’s Ark – TODAY People – TODAY.com.

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