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The Bible & History: The Flood

That the flood stories in the Bible, like their ancient Mesopotamian counterparts, are mythological tales should be obvious to most.

As seen in the article on Genesis 1, older traditions about Yahweh spoke of His divine heavenly council, who are sometimes referred to as “Sons of God”. Genesis 6Open Link in New Window opens up with a short mythology that says that the Sons of God took the daughters of men as their wives and mated with them, producing a hybrid race of “mighty men”.

“That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose…the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6:2, 6Open Link in New Window:4).

This race of half human, half divine heroes sounds very familiar to the ancient Greek tales of the gods mating with human women and producing children, like the great Hercules. Here we also find the statement that “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Gen. 6:4Open Link in New Window). Other translations call these giants the “Nephilim”, including the NIV, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days.” It is apparent that this tradition about giants probably was not a part of the original creation and flood myths. They appear once more in Numbers 13:33Open Link in New Window when spies first sent into Canaan encounter these giants, “We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (NIV). Since the only humans to survive the flood story following the mentioning of this giant race of humans were Noah and his immediate family, there could not have been any descendents of the Nephilim alive during the time of Moses.

Multiple Authorship?

The Bible’s flood story is actually a composite of two originally separate accounts by the J and Priestly authors. These two stories originally stood fine on their own, but a later editor (called a redactor in biblical studies lingo) for some unknown reason decided to blend them together into a single account. This becomes apparent once one considers the various contradictions, differences in style, and different names for God that appear in the composite story. Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? reprints this story (Gen. 6:5-8Open Link in New Window:22) with its two sources clearly highlighted beginning on page 54 of his book. If one reads the two sources separately, rather than in their jumbled form, it becomes even clearer that what we are dealing with are two completely once independent accounts.

In the words of Friedman:

“The two flood stories are separable and complete. Each has its own language, its own details, and even its own conception of God. And even that is not the whole picture. The J flood story’s language, details, and conceptions of God are consistent with the language details, and conception of God in other J stories. The P flood story is consistent with other P stories. And so on” (pg. 60).

Once again, the P source strictly refers to the deity as God while the J source uses the divine name Yahweh (or LORD in English translations). P uses the words “male and female” while J uses the terms “man and his women” in addition to male and female. P says that all life “expired” while J says that all life “died”.

More significant are the contradictions between the two accounts. J has Noah bring one pair of each animal that is unclean on the ark and seven pairs of each that is clean (Gen. 7:2Open Link in New Window). P has Noah simply bring one pair of each animal regardless of whether it was clean or unclean (Gen. 6:19Open Link in New Window). A clean animal is one that is fit for sacrifice, and an unclean animal is one that is not fit for sacrifice. According to the P tradition, the sacrificial laws and the designation of clean and unclean animals were not made until the establishment of the Levitical code (which, unsurprisingly, was written by the same Priestly authors) during the time of Moses. So, going along this line of reasoning, Noah would not have known how to designate clean from unclean animals nor would he have known how to properly make a sacrifice. Fittingly, the P writers do not have Noah perform a sacrifice once he gets off the ark.

In the J version the flood is caused simply by rain and it lasts for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:12Open Link in New Window). The P version states much differently that “all the fountains of the great deep [were] broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Gen. 7:11Open Link in New Window). What in the world are the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven? The answer lies in the Priestly writer’s ancient view of cosmology. They believed that there was water above and below the Earth (the watery abyss that existed before everything else), with the waters above being held up by the “firmament” mentioned in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window, the Priest’s creation story. Apparently they thought that there were windows in this firmament that, when opened, let out rain, hail and snow.

Thus, when God opens the windows of heaven He is effectively letting all of the water from above pour down onto the Earth. In addition, the Priestly writers have God cause the waters from below to break up through the Earth and form fountains, and thus we have the fountains of the deep. Without having this elaborate view of cosmology, the J writers found it simple enough to just say it “rained”. So, when it finally comes time to stop the flood, the P writers say that “The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped” (Gen. 8Open Link in New Window:2a) while the J writers simply say that the “the rain from heaven was restrained” (Gen. 8Open Link in New Window:2b). Nevertheless, the P account has the flood last for 150 days (Gen. 7:24Open Link in New Window), far longer than the 40 days and 40 nights with which most people are familiar.

The P version has Noah simply send out a raven to look for dry land (Gen. 8:7Open Link in New Window), while the J version has Noah send out a dove three times (Gen. 8:8-12Open Link in New Window). The first time it returns with nothing, the second time it returns with an olive leaf, and the third time it does not return. In the P version Noah and his family get off the ark and God commands them to be fruitful and multiply. In chapter 9 He sends a rainbow as a sign that he will never flood the Earth like that again (not surprisingly, rainbows appear after it rains!). In J, Noah gets off the boat and immediate sacrifices his clean animals to Yahweh. This is okay, since according to J Noah brought seven pairs of clean animals. Had Noah only brought one pair of each animal like in P, Noah would have effectively caused the extinction of all clean animals.

Yahweh smells the sweet odor from all of this sacrificing (another anthropomorphic trait of J’s God) and promises never to send a flood again because man is inherently evil. “…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth ; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21Open Link in New Window). Since the J story opens with Yahweh regretting that He had made human beings and causing the flood due to humanity’s wickedness, we are left with the twisted logic that Yahweh killed all living things because mankind is evil, and then promises not to do it again because mankind is evil.

Cultural Origins

Both accounts of the flood myth have their origins in much older Mesopotamian myths about a global deluge that go all away back to the ancient Sumerian tablets from between 2000 and 3000 BCE. This civilization, as well as the later Babylonians, was situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (also known as the Fertile Crescent). In fact, “Mesopotamia” is the Greek word for “land between the rivers”. The Euphrates runs south and east for 800 miles and the Tigris flows south for 550 miles before they join and continue down to the Persian Gulf as the Shatt al Arab. As they are descending out of present day Turkey they span about 250 miles apart. While both of these rivers have annual flooding periods (much like the Nile), the Tigris floods worse than the Euphrates. The water that forms these two rivers comes mostly from winter rains and spring snow melt high up in the mountains north of Mesopotamia.

Sumeria, as it was called, “was a flat land. As is true of any large river unusual rises will bring about flooding conditions. In a country as flat as Sumeria, it would not take much of a flood to cover large portions of the entire region” (Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Historical Look at the Old and New Testaments, pg 38). During the time of the Sumerians there is evidence that there was a large flood that covered most of Mesopotamia – so great that its mentioning can be found in some of their ancient literature. Such a large flood and the normal annual flooding in the area could have influenced one of civilization’s earliest flood myths. Such bad flooding would have been difficult to escape from the memories of the land’s generations of inhabitants. Apparently these ancient peoples recognized the power of immense amounts of water to destroy vast stretches of land, so naturally they must have thought that the gods would use water as a means of destruction. For these people, their “whole world” basically consisted of the Middle East. It’s not hard to understand how floods that covered most of Sumeria eventually, through folklore, began to stretch out and cover the entire globe.

The J and P accounts closely parallel the Atrahasis Epic and the Epic of Gilgamesh. The earliest form of these two epics is the Sumerian flood myth, found on a tablet dating to 2300 BCE. In this story, the gods are angry at humanity and decide to destroy it with a flood. The god Enki, however, disagrees and instructs a worthy man named Ziusudra to build a great boat in which to save himself, his family, and a few other people, as well as all animals.

In the Atrahasis, after the creation the gods mix the blood of a dead deity with clay and form a race of savage humans called lullu. The lullu, however, are too powerful and the gods attempt to limit them by plagues. When this doesn’t work, they decide to destroy all humanity in a worldwide flood. The wise god Ea decides to warn Atrahasis of the coming flood and instructs him to build an ark for his household and to fill it with food and animals. Atrahasis survives and makes a burnt offering to the gods. When the gods smell the sweet odor of his sacrifice, they decide not to destroy humanity again, realizing that man will always have a bit of wickedness inside him. This ending, of course, is an exact parallel to J’s ending, in which Yahweh repents after smelling the sweet odor of Noah’s sacrifice.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was “written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets about 2000 BC” (Encarta) while the final version dates to approximately 700 BCE. In the story, Gilgamesh is seeking everlasting life (Remember the serpent that steals the herb of immortality? That’s this story). He visits his ancestor Utnapishtim, who was the only man to survive the global deluge. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that a long time ago Enlil, the god of storm and wind, and the other gods decided to drown all of humanity. Ea, again the wisest of the gods, decides to warn Utnapishtim and orders him to construct a wooden ark for him and the animals. “Dismantle your house, build a boat. Leave possessions, search out living things. Reject chattels and save lives! Put aboard the seed of all living things, into the boat” (excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh).

Mesopotamian culture was rich in flood stories, so it isn’t surprising that the biblical writers behind the J and P sources found it necessary to include their own version of the myth with their creation stories. The Greeks also had a similar flood myth, in which Zeus orders the gods to unleash a flood onto the earth with the aim of destroying humanity. Of course, one mortal couple ends up surviving thanks to a warning handed down by Prometheus. This type of flood myth, however, is not universal but rather is mostly limited to this geographical area. Many other ancient cultures, including the Egyptians, have no flood myths. Other cultures, like the Chinese, have a variation of the flood myth. In the Chinese version the gods send a flood not to destroy humanity but to help it irrigate the land.

Why Yahweh would even consider using such a method to wipe out humanity, His own creation, is not explained. Why destroy everything when it is only humans that He wants to destroy? That such a sloppy method must be used on an obviously imperfect or botched creation does not match up well to the later ideas that Yahweh or God is all-powerful and all-knowing. In Atrahasis, the gods decide to use a global flood only after several plagues and other attempts to destroy the lullu have failed. The Bible’s flood story as well as Atrahasis only makes sense in a theological system where the gods have a limited intelligence and cannot maintain perfect control over their creations. Perhaps some of the oldest traditions of Yahweh had no problem picturing their deity in such unflattering ways.

That the flood stories in the Bible, like their ancient Mesopotamian counterparts, are mythological tales should be obvious to most. A few people, however, still try to maintain that either the story of Noah is literally true or that a worldwide flood once occurred over the face of the Earth. Either conclusion is simply absurd, as there is absolutely no scientific or historical evidence for such a monumental catastrophe and much, much evidence against such an idea.

Historical & Scientific Problems

By doing a few calculations, one can estimate from the Bible that Noah was supposedly born some 1056 years after the creation, or about 3000 BCE. Since Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, “And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth” (Genesis, 7:6), we can estimate the date of the flood, if it actually occurred like the Bible says it did, to roughly 2400 BCE. Middle East historians already know quite a bit about this time period, and no where will anyone find any mention of a catastrophic flood.

By 2400 BCE the Egyptian civilization was already thriving. Their first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqarah, was constructed during the reign of King Djoser, who ruled from 2630 BCE-2611 BCE. The Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was constructed during the rule of King Khufu, which lasted from 2551 to 2528 B.C. If a global flood had come around 128 years later, all of these great Egyptians works would have surely been destroyed or severely damaged. Yet, the Egyptians continued to thrive and build pyramids, over 90 of them, between 2630 BCE until about 1530 BCE. If a world-wide flooding occurred during this time frame, the Egyptians were completely unaware of it.

“The Egyptian civilization, for instance, was in a particularly flourishing state at this very time [2400 BCE] and was building pyramids. Nor do the Egyptian records speak of any floods other than the annual overflow of the Nile, as far as we know” (Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Historical Look at the Old and New Testaments, pg 38). Likewise, civilization in Mesopotamia was also thriving around the time this flood was supposed to have occured. By 3000 B.C. cities in Sumeria had already began to form, prospering until 2330 B.C. when the area was conquered by the Akkadians. Had a global flood occurred in 2400 B.C., rest assured that there would have been no Sumerian cities and certainly no Akkadians to conquer them a mere 70 years later.

What about Noah’s magnificent ark? Genesis 6:14Open Link in New Window has God commanding Noah to “Make thee an ark of gopher wood”. The earliest boats appeared sometime around 16,000 BCE in Europe and were made by stretching animal skin between a wooden frame. By 6,000 BCE the boat had evolved into a hollowed out tree trunk. An Egyptian vase dated to about 3,500 BCE shows the first depiction of a ship with a sail. In fact, the Egyptians sometimes buried their Pharaoh’s with a ship that would supposedly help transport them on their journey to the afterlife. One such ship was found in a 1954 excavation of the Great Pyramid. The ship dates to 2,600 BCE (200 years before this alleged flood), was made out of wooden planks and timbers, and measures 125 feet long.

In Genesis 6:15Open Link in New Window Noah is told to make an Ark that is 450 feet long (converting from cubits to feet). Before the Great Eastern was built in 1858, the longest ship afloat measured 375 feet. The longest wooden ships, however, reached not much more than just 300 feet. These ships were reinforced with iron straps and they leak so badly that they needed to be pumped constantly. The HMS Victory, a British naval war ship built in 1805 and decidedly smaller than Noah’s ship, required about 2,500 mature oak trees to build. Wood is simply not a good choice for building extremely large ships. It’s highly unlikely that a ship 450 feet long and made purely from wood could ever be seaworthy and even more unlikely that such a ship could withstand a violent storm for the duration of the flood.

Scientific theories involving some kind of great flood have continually been shown to be incorrect. See this article, “Noah’s Flood Hypothesis May Not Hold Water” for but one example. Also take a look at this site for a more detailed but concise look at the scientific problems relating to a world-wide flood. Most importantly, the layers in the geological record are sorted exactly how evolution would do it, not a flood. The evidence simply does not exist. There is no historical basis for the fictitious character of Noah and his great deluge.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm


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