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Roughly forty miles (66 kilometers) south of Cincinnati, Ohio, stands a full-scale replica of the boat commonly called Noahís Ark. It dominates the surrounding landscape and was built to illustrate the story in Genesis and to promote the doctrine of Creationism. It seems strange to think that anyone today would accept what is essentially an example of Sumerian science fiction as actually true to historical Reality, but the story of Noah is important to Creationists because it appears to be verifiable. If Noah is real, goes the reasoning, then we must accept the other stories in Genesis as equally valid.
The story goes like this: Genesis 6:11-22 - Now the earth was corrupt in Godís sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, you wife, and your sonsí wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them." Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Of the millions of people living on Earth at the time of Noah, only one family was worth saving, so God commanded them to build a giant boat. Although most archaeologists describe the cubit as being about 18 inches (the distance from a manís elbow to the tip of his outstretched fingers), Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis makes it 20.4 inches, so by his calculation (which we take as a maximum) the ark spanned 510 feet in length, 85 feet in width, and 51 feet in height, with 120,000 square feet of floor space on its three decks. Onto that boat Noah was to take a breeding pair of every kind of animal and bird on Earth and enough food to keep them alive for the duration of the mission, one year and ten days from first rainfall to the release of the animals from the ark.
There was a flood, of course. Actually, there were many floods. As the name implies, Mesopotamia (Greek for "between the rivers") is a flood plain created by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Floods occur along the rivers, where people built their cities, and on rare occasions the floods were catastrophic. Beginning in the 1928-1929 digging season, archaeologists found layers of mud and silt lying on top of ruined cities, but those layers, as found in different locations, donít all come from the same date. The one flood that might have inspired the stories that led to the story in Genesis is one that hit the cities of Kish and Shurrupak sometime between 2900 BC and 2800 BC.
That flood consisted of a tsunami and torrential rain. The tsunami is indicated in the statement "all of the fountains of the deep burst forth" (Gen 7:11), which sounds like a witnessís inference from seeing the sudden rise in the level of the Persian Gulf. There are fresh-water springs on the bottom of the Gulf (pearl divers use them to refresh themselves while they work) and almost certainly the Mesopotamians knew about them. When people saw the water in the Gulf heave up and surge inland, they inferred, quite reasonably, that those "fountains of the great deep" and others had broken open and were gushing huge amounts of water. It was unlike any flood those people had ever seen and would have made a lasting impression, especially on storytellers.
Of course, those springs didnít cause the flood. Almost certainly the flood originated in the impact of a small comet or asteroid at a spot about 930 miles southeast of Madagascar. There, under two miles of water, lies 18-mile wide Burckle Crater. The impact that created that crater raised a mega-tsunami that inundated coasts around the Indian Ocean and likely around the world as well. At the same time the steam from the explosion spread outward and condensed into heavy rain. Researchers have guesstimated, based on stories preserved by people in the area, that this event occurred in 2807 BC, but they need to conduct further research, especially in the crater itself, to pin down the date more firmly.
There were survivors from the catastrophe, mostly people who were in boats on the rivers at the time. If a boat could successfully get past the turbulent water at the tsunamiís leading edge, then it would float on the flood until the water receded and left it grounded somewhere. If one of those survivors was a boatman taking a flock of sheep to market, then his story would easily be embellished into a saga of a pious man saving the worldís animals from the wrath of an irritated storm god. Thatís what we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
How does a flock of sheep turn into a zoo sampling all of the animals and birds in the world? So far biologists have identified about 33,100 species of non-fish vertebrates (animals and birds). No boat conceivable by the Sumerians could have held that many pairs of animals and birds and enough food to sustain them for a year. But it didnít have to do so. The world known to the Sumerians consisted of Mesopotamia plus some patches of surrounding areas, essentially all desert and semi-desert. Relatively few species inhabit such lands, so an ark that could hold breeding pairs of them and enough food to support them, while large by Sumerian standards, would still appear feasible.
The story goes wrong when anyone tries to extend the flood from Mesopotamia to the entire surface of Planet Earth, as the Creationists do. Not only do those people have to account for a boat that will hold 33,100 pairs of animals and birds and their feed, they must account for the epic journeys that some of the animals had to make to get to the boat. The animals of Australia, for example, had to swim across the Timor Sea and then progress from island to island to reach the Asian mainland. The American contingent had to cross the Bering Strait and then trudge through Siberia (after the South Americans had made it across the Sonoran Desert).
Hypothesizing a planet-wide flood produces other problems as well. According to Genesis, in light of that hypothesis, water covered the peak of Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) to a depth of 25 feet (15 cubits)(Gen 7:19 & 20). That puts the surface of the flood almost five and a half miles above current sea level. If half the water in the flood came from rain, thatís almost two and three-quarters miles of water falling in 960 hours (40 days and nights), which works out to 15.125 feet of rain per hour (a trifle over three inches per minute). That is very heavy rain, but itís also something much worse.
In this scenario the windows in the firmament of heaven stand over five and a half miles above Mesopotamia, so the first rain had to fall that far. The atmosphere would have offered little resistance to that deluge, so at first the rain would have hit the ground at a trifle over 930 miles per hour. Thatís faster than sound. That rain would have hit the ark with the force of a concentrated artillery barrage and shattered it, killing everyone inside.
If the ark had survived that pounding, it still would not have succeeded in fulfilling its mission. It simply wasnít seaworthy. A minor detail from the construction of Ken Hamís replica tells us that is wasnít. Ham hired 1000 Amish carpenters to build his replica using techniques, tools, and materials authentic to the Bronze Age. This boat will never go into the water; nonetheless, county officials told him that, as a safety measure, he had to use steel fasteners to hold his ark together rather than the wooden dowels that he had planned on using. If that measure is necessary for a grounded ark, then Noahís ark was simply not seaworthy. The torques that it would have encountered would have broken it apart.
With no propulsion, the ark would have fallen prey to another danger of the high seas, one that we have forgotten. In the days when great sailing ships crossed the worldís oceans, sailors feared the Doldrums, but it wasnít the prospect of spending extra days or weeks at sea that aroused their anxiety. With no wind to fill the sails, the sailors could not turn their ship; thus, the force of the swells striking the ship turned the ship until the swells were hitting it broadside. Then the ship began to rock, rolling from side to side and tossing crew, cargo, and passengers about. In some cases the ship would capsize. Noahís ark would not have survived 150 days at sea without encountering that phenomenon.
A Creationist confronted with those propositions might argue that God intervened directly, lowering the rain gently, holding the ark together, and creating a calm spot on which the ark could float safely. That argument reduces the Deity to the status of a child playing with bathtub toys, an appalling version of the infamous deus ex machina. This creates a bit of a dilemma for our Creationist: anything that diminishes the dignity of God is blasphemy, a crime against faith, so this desperate attempt to save the Bible constitutes an attack on proper religion. But worse is yet to come.
After the rain stopped falling, the flood subsided and the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Gen 8:4). Actually, the ark would most likely have been swept out to sea and never seen again, but letís ignore that likelihood. Once the waters had returned to their places, the land was barren: all land life had been snuffed out. All that was left of life on land was carcasses, plant detritus, and swarms of insects feeding on both. Aside from the ark and its inhabitants, Earth would resemble the world of the Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago; plants and insects on land and fish and invertebrates in the sea.
The plants would begin growing back almost immediately, but not rapidly enough to feed the herbivores on the ark. Likewise, there was nothing for the carnivores to eat (if we ignore the herbivores), except for the few carcasses they could find (most had washed out to sea). Only insectivores (birds and some small rodents) would have thriven. The herbivores, those that were not eaten by the carnivores, would have starved to death and the carnivores would have starved soon after that. Cold-blooded reptiles might have survived, because they donít need to eat as much as mammals do, so the crocodiles, turtles, snakes, and other scaly beings might have kept going, along with the amphibians, which could have ridden out the flood on patches of flotsam with the insects.
Noah and his family stepped into a world little different from Earth as it was after the Chicxulub Event, the asteroidal impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. As after that event, after Noahís flood the herbivores and the carnivores would have had to re-evolve from the insectivores. Less than 6000 years have elapsed since the Flood (either Noahís or the Sumeriansí), not enough time for the interplay of mutation and natural selection to work its craft upon the insectivores to produce the animal kingdom that we see today. Simply put, the Flood would have set the world back to Genesis 1 and obliged God to produce a whole new creation.
That all happened for what? Millions of bison, antelope, and others on the plains of North America; millions of horses on the steppes of Europe and Central Asia; herds of elephants, giraffes, and wildebeest in Africa; those and vastly more all died because God was annoyed with humans. That is an impressively inelegant solution of the problem, an example of what an engineer would call a brute-force solution.
Why didnít God create a lethal disease that targeted only humans and then make Noah and his family immune to it? The epidemic of the Black Death in mid-Fourteenth Century Europe gives us a hint at what that might have been like. It would have been a perfectly elegant solution to the problem of wicked humans overrunning the world; that is, it would have solved the problem without creating a large amount of collateral damage to the world. Thatís a solution so simple and obvious that mere finite humans can think of it and see how itís better than the Flood. What does that fact imply?
The obvious implication is that God is either malicious or stupid, but I donít want to go down that path. The alternative implication says that the Noah story was derived from a Sumerian legend, which had only local validity because it was composed by people who did not possess knowledge of the whole Earth and of its workings. That implication makes perfectly good sense, so why do the Creationists insist on presenting the Flood as a worldwide phenomenon?
If they did not, then they would have to acknowledge the truth of the proposition that the Bible contains statements that do not stand true to Reality as we understand it. In particular, they would have no standing for asserting that the account of creation at the beginning of Genesis necessarily stands true to Reality. But they need Genesis to be true, because they need the story of Adam and Eve to stand true to Reality. Without that story there is no Doctrine of Original Sin.
A Christianity authentic to what Jesus actually preached has no need of Original Sin. That doctrine and its consequent need for salvation came from Paulís decision to pattern Christianity after the Greek Mysteries, such as the Cult of Mithra. But a proper understanding of what Christ preached and what he did tells us that he did not die to save us from the consequences of our sins: his death and resurrection (if the latter actually occurred) simply demonstrated that death is not the end of our existence and that we have a strong reason to lead good and decent lives. If the early Christians had followed Christ instead of Paul, then, instead of manipulative churches, people would be following Christís teachings directly. And no one would dream of spending $100 million to build a giant wooden boat instead of helping the poor.
Appendix: Some Additional Problems
The story of Noahís Ark, as understood by Creationists, has an impressive number of problems meshing with our understanding of the real world. Some of those are as follows:
1. How long did it take Noah and his family to build the ark? It took roughly two years for 1000 craftsmen to build Ken Hamís replica. If we divide two thousand man-years of labor by eight people, we find that Noah and his family took 250 years to build the ark. Imagine a project begun during the American Revolution and still having ten years to go before reaching completion (Iím writing this in 2016). This calculation tacitly assumes that Noah and his family were not doing anything else, such as earning a living.
Of course, Noah could have hired people to help him on his project. He would have done this knowing full well that when the flood came none of those people would be allowed onto the boat. Thatís just plain evil, which would qualify him to be among the drowned.
2. Whence did Noah obtain over three million board feet of lumber? Mesopotamia is a desert and thereís no evidence that it has been any different during the time that humans have existed (no tree stumps, for example). The wood had to come from hundreds of miles away. Organizing the production and transportation of the lumber required a lot of significant travel by Noah and his sons and arranging payment for it would have required even more (see #3 below).
That would not have been an insignificant venture. The board foot is defined by a plank one inch thick, one foot wide, and one foot long. Three million board feet in a solid mass would make a cube 63 feet on a side, the size of a 6-storey building. Even spreading that over 250 years (12,000 board feet per year), the project still would have required significant advances in Mesopotamian technology. The development of carts capable of carrying whole tree trunks to the river to be floated downstream to Noahís boatyard would have left traces for archaeologists to find, for example.
3. How did Noah pay for the project? Money per se did not exist in Noahís time. Money as we understand it was invented in the Sixth Century BC, over two thousand years after Noah. In Noahís time people exchanged goods and services through barter. The easiest barter for Noah to use would have been sheep and/or goats: a team of men bringing wood down the river would walk back north herding the animals that they received in payment. Noah would need fairly large herds to breed the animals that he used in payment. Shepherd is not a part-time job, so Noah would have needed hired hands to raise his sheep and goats for him, people who, again, were to be left to drown when the Flood came.
4. How did Noah avoid the publicity? Noahís project was to Ancient Mesopotamia what the Apollo moon landing project was to our world. It would have garnered a lot of attention. People would have traveled great distances to see Noahís giant boat, coming from perhaps as far away as Egypt. Pictures of the ark would have been chiseled into stone walls and inscribed on clay tablets to illustrate the travelersí tales.
Letís not forget the parade of animals. People would have noticed that certainly and made pictures. After all, the people of Mesopotamia had never seen an elephant, or a kangaroo, or a bison. Yet no archaeologist has found any record of such a parade in the ruins of Ancient Mesopotamia.
5. Why are the icecaps on Greenland and Antarctica still intact? A flood over five miles deep would have floated those glaciers right off their foundations, breaking up the ice as the water lifted it. In the five to six months the Flood lasted, the ice would not have gone far. A sizable fraction of Greenlandís ice would have drifted out to sea, but most of Antarcticaís ice would have settled back onto the continent when the water receded. However, the ice would have collapsed, as glaciers do when they reach the sea and float free of solid ground. Glaciologists would discern the resulting icescape readily, yet there have been no reports of such broken ice on Antarctica.
Of course, the Creationists might reply that God magically solved all of those problems by willing them to go away. But that assertion reduces God to the status of a stage magician correcting the mistakes of an incompetent planner. That would be a pathetic deity. Again, a proper respect for the Thing that Created the Universe obliges us to regard the Noah story as a somewhat garbled recounting of a real historical event that was limited to southern Mesopotamia.
Appendix: Survival of Legends
How is it that we remember, however imperfectly, a great flood that swept southern Mesopotamia in or about 2807 BC? Usually, in preliterate cultures, stories fade out after a few generations. Even in modern cultures if things arenít written down, they disappear.
Small stories tend to vanish because they are continually being pushed out of memory by new ones. Personal stories are the flimsiest. Consider this: do you remember who was the first member of your family to drive an automobile? Certainly thereís a story of an ancestor who first took control of a horseless carriage. Does your family still tell that story? No? But only about a century has elapsed since that happened. So what kind of story can last a thousand years or more before being written down?
It would have to be a very big story. It might involve only a few people, but it would have implications for the entire society. It would have to involve a unique event that threatens the very existence of society, one that involves forces beyond human comprehension. It would involve the Gods.
The people of Mesopotamia had never seen a tsunami, a roiling wall of water surging upstream over both the rivers and the land. And in the desert prolonged heavy rainfall is rare. The two phenomena occurring together would have cemented the impression that the Gods were out to destroy all of Humanity. It would be taken as a warning and would be taught to children as part of the peopleís religion. Generation by generation people would learn the story from people serving as living memories of the event, so the story would live on as long as the religion did, or even longer if it got incorporated into another religion.
If it were described as the destruction of the world, it would grow as peopleís knowledge of their world grew. It would grow to the point of absurdity and people wouldnít notice. Thus, a local, mind-boggling event becomes cosmic and persists, even among people who have the means to know better.
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