The Flood Story of Genesis 6-9

A universal Flood couldn't have happened for so many reasons that I don't know where to start. Let's start with the story itself.

The first thing to notice in the story is that there is a great deal of repetition. We are told that Noah is commanded by God to make an ark, load it with food and animals, and then board it. Afterward it says Noah “did everything just as God had commanded him.” (6:14-22). But after doing all of this once, God repeats similar instructions to Noah, and once again it says Noah “did all that the Lord had commanded him.” (7:1-5). Did Noah make two arks and board them twice? But we’re not done yet. It goes on to say Noah and his family boarded the ark again (7:7-9), and again (7:13-16).

There are also discrepancies in these chapters. In 6:14-22 God is referred to as “Elohim”, and only one pair of each species of animal was put in the ark, whereas in 7:1-5 the word for God is “Yahweh” and Noah is told to put in the ark seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. There are also discrepancies with how long the flood lasted: 40 days (7:17), 150 days (7:24), or one year (compare 7:11 with 8:13)?

Biblical scholars now see the way the flood is presented here as reflecting two ancient sources that were combined into one account. This was done by “following a very conservative principle of keeping virtually everything from both sources, even though that produced considerable repetition” and, I might add, discrepancies. Donald Gowan, From Eden to Babel: Genesis 1-11 (Eerdmans, 1988, p. 89).

The closest stories we find to the flood story in the Bible are from Mesopotamia: the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis. According to Gordon J. Wenham the Epic of Gilgamesh was written about 1600 B.C. and it “may be based on the flood story told in Atrahasis.” These stories have several striking similarities, including a flood hero, an ark, a universal worldwide flood because of man’s disobedience, and even a dove! [See “Ancient Parallels to the Flood Story,” in Gordon Wenham’s book, Genesis 1-15 (Word, 1987, pp. 159-166). “These texts are evidence for the transmission of a very popular story from century to century and from people to people; among the recipients of this tradition were the Greeks and the Hebrews.” (Gowan, p. 91).

If this is the case, then the flood story in the Bible is taken and reshaped to fit the purposes of the final editor of Genesis 1-11. And if we consider prior sources to be the more authentic sources (and historical scholars consider this to be the case in every other historical investigation), then the true account of the flood (if there is one, and it reflects something that historically happened) is to be found in Atrahasis along with the Epic of Gilgamesh! Genesis 6-9 is very late and therefore unreliable, historical analysis would reveal. Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh would be our primary sources for information about a great universal flood that covered the whole world. And in them neither a person named Noah, nor a God named “Yaweh,” are to be found!

How much of the flood story that we find in the Bible can be regarded as historical, if it is based upon ancient superstitious polytheistic folk-tales which were handed down throughout the centuries?—tales which have been told by almost every ancient culture except most of Africa, and in central and eastern Asia? [To read 97 pages of summaries of these tales see Sir James G. Frazer’s book, Folklore in the Old Testament]. Textual analysis cannot really lead us to think all of these tales speak of the same event. Rather, these tales are told based upon local devastating floods (notice the absence of Egypt!) which most ancient cultures believed were sent by the gods to punish people for their disobedience. We now know why floods take place, and it isn’t because of our sins, but because of atmospheric, and oceanic conditions.

Problems Connected to the Flood Story. Bernard Ramm’s critical analysis of a universal flood (while dated a half century ago) is still one of the best summations of the evidence. [See Bernard Ramm’s book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Eerdmans, 1954, pp. 163-169). 1) “There is no known geological data to support those who defend a universal flood.”

Gowan sums up the available evidence with these words: “Not only have all archeological excavations failed to uncover any such evidence (for a universal flood), the record of the earth’s history discovered by geology virtually rules out the possibility that anything of that sort has ever happened.” (p. 89). [There is a recent discovery by Robert Ballard that the Black Sea shoreline increased by 60,000 square miles around 7,500 years ago. But he admits this could have been the result of an earthquake, a massive storm, or perhaps the sheer weight of the ocean waters, none of which demands a worldwide flood (See U.S. News & World Report “Mysteries of the Bible," November 2004)].

2) “The problems in connection with a universal flood are enormous.” a) “It would have required eight times more water than we now have.” b) The mixing of salt water and fresh water along with the pressure of the waters would have been devastating to marine life. Fresh-water fish would die in salt water and salt-water fish would die in fresh water. The pressure of the water six miles high (to cover the Himalayas) would crush to death the vast bulk of marine life that lives within the first fifty fathoms in the water. c) Getting rid of such a vast amount of water would be impossible—think of it! d) “The astronomical disturbances caused by the increase of the mass of the earth would have been significant.” e) There are improbabilities with regard to the animals involved. How did Noah get them all into the ark? Bringing them from all four corners of the globe would take considerable time. How did they get along in the ark? Some are carnivorous and would be prone to eating the other animals, while others would have vegetarian diets. Where did the food come from to feed all of these animals from around the world? How could a few people care for them all in the ark? Some animals need a moist climate, and others a dry one; some need it very cold, while others need it warm. f) After the flood how did these animals all migrate back to their original lands, like the kangaroo, from Australia?

There was no universal flood to discount the geological evidence that leads scientists to believe the earth is billions of years old. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Scholars are agreed that archaeological evidence for a universal flood in the historical past is wanting.”

First posted 2/8/06

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