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The surprising contemporary relevance of the Noah flood story

By Keith Mascord - posted Friday, 8 June 2012


Those who, like me, grew up in 'Bible-believing' churches are likely to think they have little choice but to accept what the Bible says (or implies) on such contemporary issues as same-sex marriage and the roles and rights of women. They may secretly wish it were otherwise. They might even acknowledge the strength of arguments in favour of honouring and encouraging long-term homosexual unions. They may be embarrassed by the seemly senseless restrictions placed upon women in their churches, when no such restrictions appear warranted in any other area of human endeavour. However, they are also likely to believe they have no room to move on this, no alternative other than the unthinkable option of ditching their Bible-based faith altogether.

I once thought that way – until some surprising implications of the story of Noah's Flood began to dawn on me. I discovered that the same principles of interpretation that prevent some Christians from budging on homosexuality and women's roles also lock them into unsustainable views on other Biblical matters, including the historicity of Noah's world-wide flood. Let me explain.

The Noah story

The main details of the Noah story are well enough known, and need only brief rehearsal. At the beginning of Genesis 6, God decides to wipe out every living creature (6:6-8), including the entire human race. Noah and his family alone are spared. They are given instructions to build an ark into which they are to bring seven of every kind of clean animal, two of every unclean animal, and seven of every kind of bird (7:2-3). In Noah's 600th year, the springs of the great deep burst forth, the floodgates of the heavens are opened, and a forty-day and forty-night deluge is unleashed. With no let up, the floodwaters rise and rise until 'all the high mountains under the entire heavens' are covered, covering them to a depth of at least seven metres, (7:12, 20). 'Every living thing on the face of the earth' is thereby wiped out (7:23), except for Noah and those with him on the ark.

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What makes this story so interesting and important is that it is so unambiguous. As a Sunday school child, I got the point – easily, quickly and frighteningly. Moreover, whenever the story is referred to elsewhere in the Bible, it appears that the writers are taking the story as straight-forwardly factual. Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus, suggesting he believed Noah to be an actual person. The writer of Hebrews includes Noah in his list of heroes of faith, along with other characters mentioned in Genesis 1-11. Jesus himself appears to have accepted the story of Noah as factual, as indicated by these words from the Olivet Discourse:

'As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.' Matthew 24:37-38 NRSV; parallel passage Luke 17:26-27.

That Jesus accepted the Noah story as factual is good reason for his followers to take it that way as well, as is the fact that the Bible as a whole appears to take it that way. Principles of Biblical interpretation I imbibed at theological college encouraged me to accept this story as factual. Three principles in particular, forged during the Protestant Reformation, were influential. The principle of sola Scriptura encouraged me to give much greater weight to what I read in the Scriptures than to other sources of knowledge, including the natural sciences. The principle of the analogy of Scripture encouraged me to be guided by what Scripture says about Scripture, to interpret the doubtful bits by the plain bits. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture asserts that the Bible's meaning will mostly be obvious – and in the case of the Noah story this seemed correct.

Adding support to a plain-sense reading of the story is the fact that Jewish and Christian interpreters have mostly taken the story as straightforwardly factual. Norman Cohn, in Noah's Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, chronicles the history of theological reflection on the flood story from pre-Christian times to the present, and notes the near universal acceptance of the Noah story as factual, along with the chronology of Genesis implying a young earth. Many of the first geologists had a Bible in one hand and a pick or shovel in the other as they went about their geological work, convinced they would find ample evidence of a recent and cataclysmic flood.

The trouble is, they didn't. The genealogies of Genesis 1-11, if taken literally, date Noah's flood at around 2,300 BC, or about 1,700 years after the creation of the world. According to this dating, the flood happened a very short time ago, and therefore could be expected to have left abundant evidence of its occurrence. There is no such abundant evidence. In fact, there is none. While there is evidence of floods, even large floods, happening at around that time, and earlier, there is no evidence whatsoever of a universal or worldwide flood happening then, or at any other time in human history.

The Noah story, as it stands, faces formidable challenges to be accepted as credible today, challenges that can be expressed in the form of questions such as the following:

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  • Where did all the water come from? 4.4 billion cubic kilometres of water would have had to be added to the oceans for Mt. Everest and other large mountain ranges to be covered.
  • Where did all the water go after the flood, and in so short a time?
  • How did the world's plants survive being submerged for between five months and a year?
  • How did the world's fresh-water fish survive their marine environment being swamped by salt water - or vise versa if the water was fresh?
  • How did Noah and his tiny family keep the animals alive – many with highly specialized dietary requirements? How, for example, were the carnivores fed and kept apart?
  • How did Noah manage to keep so many species alive? We now know that there are between 50,000 and 75,000 species of birds and animals and about 30 million modern and extinct species of organisms, which raises the problem of how they would all fit on the ark. Even if we assume that there were only two of each animal, rather than 2 plus 7 of some, it has been estimated that each of these animals would have needed to squash into the volume of a milk carton just to fit into the ark.
  • How did the animals manage to return to their specialized environments – many across un-crossable seas (e.g. Tasmania's tiger; animals from North and South America). How did the sloth, who doesn't walk on land, manage to get all the way back to South America?
  • Where is the evidence of this massive destruction in places like Australia?

Questions such as these made it impossible, for me at least, to accept the Noah story as factual, even as largely factual. This wasn't a disturbing realisation. By the time I had begun to ask questions about the historicity of the Noah story, I was already well aware of the widely accepted view that the early chapters of Genesis are best understood as myth, or as a mixture of myth and legend (Sage). Most scholars see the Noah story as a variation and adaptation of earlier Mesopotamian flood stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic, both dated to around the turn of the second millennium BCE.

That the Noah story might be mythical was not a big problem for me. However, I was aware that it constituted a considerable problem to those who persist with the hermeneutic I was taught and embraced at theological college. That there was a flood, and that a man named Noah and his family escaped the flood in a specially made boat, cannot reasonably be doubted by those who follow the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura, the analogy of Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture, especially when you consider that Jesus and his apostles appeared to accept these details as factual, as have most Christians (and Jews and Muslims) up until the last few hundred years. Add to this the common belief among fundamentalists and evangelicals that the Bible is inerrant, that it has no errors, even of a scientific nature, the problem becomes enormous.

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About the Author

Keith Mascord taught philosophy and pastoral theology at Moore Theological College in the 1990s, and up until 2006 part-time. He currently works as a Parole Officer. He is the author ofA Restless Faith: Leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God, 2012

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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