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Is Noah's Ark Really a True Story?

Is Noah's Ark A True StoryA number of Christians, pastors, and good friends I've had over the years maintain to this day that Noah's Ark is literally a true story.  And some would say that Noah's Ark also holds an important place in the overall Christian theological context - whether it be to maintain the claim of inerrancy of the Bible, Christ's lineage, or the age and history of the Earth.  Because of that, I wrote this review to help others who may be looking for a real discussion on the topic.  To be fair up front to you reading this, this post is not a fundamentalist defense of Noah's Ark as a literal story, so if you're not ready for anything but a confirmation of what you already believe to be a fact, then you may want to stop reading now - because I ultimately conclude and that you can remain a spiritual person, and a Christian, but not derive modern genealogy or science from this story.  And I also suggest that children shouldn't be taught that Noah's Ark is a true and literal story...  But I do conclude that there is a great wisdom in this story worth understanding, as I think was the entire point to the Jews who wrote it.  And it also provides some amazing literary study.  

Ever since I was a young kid in bible study class I wondered if the story of Noah's Ark could be true.  When the other kids would ask simple questions and be satisfied with simple answers, I would be the kid asking doozies which would annoy and frustrate the teachers and other students...(and I suppose nothing has changed ;-)  When I would ask those whoppers, the teachers would usually answer that "we just have to have faith" or that "anything is possible with God."  Or maybe, "who are we to doubt what God can do if he had the power to create the entire universe?"  And I understand those answers, especially given to a young kid, as they are usually sufficient to shut down the conversation long enough to let someone else deal with them later - but they never did stop me from wondering...

As I got older the Noah story continued to intrigue me, because now I was reading more advanced books and gaining a better understanding of science, which made the story even more incredible.  I was also asking ordained and educated priests and pastors about it now, as opposed to untrained mom's teaching bible studies (no offense untrained mom's out there) but I still wasn't getting any better answers.  In fact, I was getting these same canned answers from when I was a child, or worse, I was getting even more vanilla answers from the trained folks - such as "whether it's real or figurative doesn't matter" or "no matter how much we learn there will still remain mysteries which we must just accept."  And while I certainly accept that latter statement in general, I only accept it in cases where collective research has led me to agree that no sufficient answer currently exists.

I continued to study the subject looking for answers, but instead found lots of published objections to the story that were even more in depth than my own had been, such as "if the world was covered by water above the height of Mt. Everest, how did Noah and the animals survive at that altitude?"  But then I would find other people who would simply ignore the science and contend that those mountains didn't exist 5000 years ago...or that God gave Noah and the animals special ability to withstand the sub-zero temperatures and low oxygen levels at that height.  So basically any scientific argument became futile in the face of the rebuttal of "what's not possible with an all-powerful God?"

But then I found a lead which would change the game.  I came across a number of differing flood stories from cultures which were older than the Semitic cultures of Noah's writing.  I found that in some cases, these older stories had verbatim language and story lines to Noah's Ark, and the primary difference in them was how God's purpose in the event was portrayed, depending on the culture that the story was maintained within.  It was customary back then to usurp older stories and rewrite them to match your cultures beliefs.  So I began to ask some Ph.D pastors about this, but again, they would only grab hold to the fact that these similar ANE stories only serve to prove that a flood must have actually happened!  And that we couldn't know for sure that all of these other stories weren't actually copies of the Noah account (more on that here).  And while I could certainly agree that localized floods and a person named Noah were possibly real, what of the entire theological context built around them?

So finally I set out to personally read many of these old fables, which included the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.  Now, if a modern university student turned in the story of Gilgamesh to their professor, and another student turned in the story of Noah's Ark to the same teacher, they would certainly both be expelled for plagiarism.  As mentioned earlier, while there have been a number of flood stories out there from ancient times, many were similar in their storyline of many gods dealing with us humans in our quest for immortality.  This portion of Genesis however was intentionally re-designed to model a different and very unique plot, with a more personal God, while still using the core of the older flood stories.  Learning this set me free to find the deeper truth of the story without being bound by a struggle of logic.  For example, some common themes and sayings across cultures and their flood stories include:

  • God(s) gets angry, and is even surprised at times about the behavior of his human creations.
  • God(s) plans to destroy humans because they are not pleasing to him / them.
  • God(s) warns the primary character to build an ark "with a pitch" to escape the flood.
  • The primary character and his family are ordered to board the ark with every species of animal.
  • The eventual flood destroys all sentient life on earth.
  • The water subsides and the lead character sends out a raven and a dove.
  • The ark comes to rest on a mountain.
  • God and man are reconciled at the conclusion
  • In the version with Noah a covenant is delivered at the end; while in the Gilgamesh version, immortality is granted.
  • In the Hebrew version God is certain and focused on a moral covenant, and within pagan versions the gods are arbitrary and the plot lacks a clear character of the gods.

It is also interesting to point out that in the Gilgamesh Epic, the main character is also ordered to bring one of every skilled craftsmen with him on the Ark, but with the point of Genesis redactors being to renew all life via a covenant with God through Noah's bloodline, the craftsmen are omitted so the focus could be squarely on the genealogy starting anew. 

For those who like even more detail there are a number of parallel stories which you can Google for yourself.  In the Sumerian tale, which predates the biblical version by thousands of years, the ark was built by Ziusudra - in Babylon the man Uta-Napisthim was like Noah - and in Akkad, Atrahasis held the role of Noah.  The Greek Noah figure was called Deucalion. The Armenian Noah parallel was named XisuthrusIndia has a legendary Hindu flood story with a character named Manu.  And the Native Americans even have a flood myth with a character named Manaboz .  All of these cultures have their own unique slants on the story (some more divergent than others) but there is that common theme which connects all of them together (which harmonizes perfectly with the "out of Africa" movement in the migration of the human species). 

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Below are some of the most insightful comments sent in by readers from before I removed comments from this site:   (Do you have enlightening thoughts of your own?  You can send them via the direct feedback form below, Facebook, or Google+)

Mike C said:  When we look at the larger picture we see that this is just one of many stories that was mythologized and morphed to suit a specific community's scientific, geographic, theological, biological, and linguistic understandings during the periods of 3000 - 1000 BCE.  And when we understand the style of this story in the grander scheme it provides context to it's creation and purpose.

Phil V said:  HMS Victory was a ship of the line built between 1759 -1765.  Today, she resides in dry-dock at Portsmouth, UK.   She is 226 feet long with a beam of 51 feet - pretty much half the size of the Ark.    She was built from approx 6000 trees which equates to 100 acres of woodland.  The build involved hundreds of men. Her full compliment would have been 850.  Noah's family numbered eight and one assumes built the Ark. If more people were involved in building the ship they were thanked by being allowed to drown!    The logistics in moving and building such a craft would have been monumental - never mind the technology needed to hold this thing together.  The story does take some believing doesn't it?

Shelly S said:  The logistics alone cannot possibly add up.  Even if we conservatively say that 2 of each animal would equate to 5000 total animals on the Ark (in reality it would probably be more like 20,000 animals, especially consider that he took 7 of the clean animals) it would be impossible for the 8 humans on board the ark to water, feed, and clean that many animals in such a confined space over a period of 40 days.  Even though it was a flood, the water would have been undrinkable, so a massive purification process would have had to be undertaken, and the feeding would be impossible at that scale if everything edible was under water.  And then there’s the massive amount of dung and urine that would quickly create an unlivable toxic and unsanitary environment because there would be no way to keep it all clean.   

Stephen L said:  Rereading the story is helpful, as the previous comment said Noah was told to take seven of every clean animal and two of every unclean, and seven of every bird on the Ark, and an assumed seven of every kind of insect and micro-organism that could not live under water for over a month too?   And it said that Noah had just seven days to board them all.  To meet that deadline this would have had to been during Pangaean landmass and pre-macro evolution of animals like polar bears that would have been way over a seven day journey away otherwise.

Abe M saidWithout dizzying the readers with a long drawn out case on evolution and genetics, let me just say that there is no support or evidence for Noah's flood from the genetic record showing that all life on earth derived from 2 - 7 common animal ancestors, and 2 - 8 human ancestors only 4000 years ago.  Furthermore, theres even less likelihood that these animals would be so widely distributed around the world in so little time if they all originated from one mountaintop in the middle east (for example, why would desert species have ever left the middle east?).  Even furthermore, every human's mitochondrial DNA would have to come from Noah's wife and her son's daughers, and all Y-chromosomes would come from Noah.  There's no scientific evidence to support the amount of Y-chromosme or mitochondrial DNA mutations in so little time of Noah, his wife, or Eve.  Most evidence actually indicates that it would require at least 10x more time to get the mutations we see today.   I would love to see if anyone can refute these facts with credible evidence.

Carlos A saidMost expert geneticists agree that there's no way the earth's population could have been only 8 or so people around 4000 years ago after the flood, and the same for animal populations.  The math doesnt work for Noah's ark.

Jeff P said...I completely agree with your post about Noah's Ark and thank you for writing it.  To look at this flood story in any literal way is to completely miss the point.  As you in similar words point out in your essay it was a pretty genius move back then to take a story that is relatable across the known world, and weave in a story that the Gods are not maniacs who hate us, but rather there is one supreme God, and he loves us.  To come to that understanding is a wonderful thing and it's unfortunate that so many people in today's culture don't allow themselves to see that simple point within the Noah story.

Jerrod R said:  ...I The skeptics Bible points out two other points.  One is that Noah sends a dove for dry land. But the dove returns without finding any. Then, just seven days later, the dove goes out again and returns with an olive leaf. How could an olive tree survive the flood? And if any seeds happened to survive, they certainly wouldn't germinate and grow leaves within a seven day period.

Also when the animals left the ark, what did they eat? There would have been no plants after the ground had been submerged for nearly a year.  What would the carnivores have eaten?  Whatever prey they ate would have been killed in the flood. 


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