Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, March 2, 2015

Noah's Flood: Did it happen?

Do you believe in Noah's flood as a historical event? Do you believe the flood was global, or local? Have you considered the evidence from all sides of the question? Perhaps there is a viewpoint you haven't considered. Today I'm going to look at some of the evidence for the various viewpoints and hopefully give you plenty to think about.

Before we get started, I want to point out this little gem:
So the LORD said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.”
Genesis 6:7 (NET)
How a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing deity can experience regret I'll probably never know.

Anyway, moving along. Let's look at the evidence for the flood...

Global or local?
I have read a number of arguments on both sides of this debate, and I don't find either side particularly convincing, albeit for different reasons.

The global flood hypothesis is clearly contradicted by a wealth of evidence from mainstream science, such that accepting it would require that one discard much of what we know from science. However, it does appear to fit the text very well.

The local flood hypothesis does not appear to contradict mainstream science, but it suffers from other problems, such as difficulties in textual interpretation. I am not referring to the definitions of Hebrew words, and I am familiar with many of the local flood arguments. We will explore these later.

Both hypotheses lack direct confirmatory evidence, although many attempts have been made by YECs (Young Earth Creationists) to prove otherwise. Of course, many YECs claim this has been done, but they have failed to convince the scientific community. That is, the people most qualified to assess their claims have determined that their claims hold no water, if you'll excuse the pun.

There are two separate issues here. On the one hand there is the question of what the text really means. Then on the other hand there is the question of whether the events actually happened. These two aspects should be dealt with separately. We cannot look at the second until we have established the first.

Did it happen?
Based on the scientific evidence alone, I am going to rule out the global flood hypothesis. There are many other objections I could point to as well, such as too many appeals to miracle and ad-hoc reasoning in order to work. But the scientific evidence is enough to show that it would be far more absurd to believe in a global flood than not to.

So that leaves only the local flood hypothesis. Or does it?

Local flood proponents often like to argue the case as if it's a dichotomy. They figure that all they need to do is show that a global flood is either not support by, or is contradicted by the evidence, and their job is done.

Not so! That assumes that the story is historically accurate. On what basis can we make this assumption?

Do we assume that because we believe one part of the Bible to be historically accurate, we can therefore extrapolate to the whole Bible and claim that the whole Bible must be historically accurate?
This would clearly be fallacious. Otherwise I could argue that since Asterix comics refer to some historically accurate events, therefore everything contained in them must also be historically accurate. This simply doesn't follow.

Can we assume that any text is historically accurate until proven otherwise?
What if we apply this to non-biblical texts too? I suggest that this would lead to absurd outcomes. A topical example in this case is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which closely resembles the Noah story, despite being written much earlier. We will discuss this in more detail later on.

A third option - perhaps it never happened
The Noah story may well not be fictional, but we cannot simply exclude that possibility a priori just because we find it unattractive. Including the "fictional flood" hypothesis makes a huge difference to the way we go about the argument. It is no longer a dichotomy. Arguing against a global flood is not enough to prove a local one. The local flood hypothesis must stand on its own supporting evidence. What evidence is that, and how strong is it?

The fictional flood hypothesis seems pretty close to a null hypothesis in this case. I am not arguing in favour of the fictional hypothesis at this point. I am simply including it because honesty demands it. If we're going to determine which is the most likely conclusion, we cannot hope to do that if we don't start with all possibilities on the table.

Before getting to the bottom of whether the event really happened, I want to discuss some of the interpretation issues with the local flood hypothesis.

The text 'allows' this interpretation
The most common tactic I've seen used by those arguing for a local flood is to show that the text allows their interpretation. That is, it can be made to fit (although they will never put it quite like that). I have not seen anyone claiming that this interpretation is the correct one, or even the most likely one, based on the text alone.

For example, the word for "earth" (Hebrew 'erets') can simply mean "land". Take special note of the use of the word "can". You'll see it come up a lot in their argument. This is because arguing for plausibility is a much lower bar to step over than arguing for necessity.

Further, the word for "mountain" (Hebrew 'har') can mean "hills", or even the more vague "hill country".

Essentially the argument is that the text allows enough wiggle room to support the claim that a local flood can fit without contradiction. What is often missing is evidence that this is in fact the intended meaning of the text.

What is the most likely interpretation?
If we want to know the most likely interpretation of the text, it would be dishonest to appeal to external evidence as the benchmark. Interpretation should not be subject to other views we might hold, unless those views can be independently verified. In this case, we cannot independently verify whether the flood story is historically accurate, without first determining how it should be interpreted. Otherwise we're begging the question.

Thus, we need to establish the most likely interpretation based on the text alone, and only then can we look to history and science to determine whether the events really happened as the text describes.

Nevertheless, even if we make all of the concessions necessary to allow a local flood, does that interpretation stack up?

The sign of the rainbow
"I confirm my covenant with you: Never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood; never again will a flood destroy the earth."
Genesis 9:11 (NET)
"Never again will the waters become a flood and destroy all living things"
Genesis 9:15 (NET)
The local flood interpretation has some problems here.

If we take it as it reads, we are left with God saying he will not destroy all living things again, thus implying that he did it once already. Likewise God says "never again will a flood destroy the earth". Obviously the scientific evidence won't allow this interpretation.

So what if we switch to the other definitions, and allow that the word "all" doesn't necessarily mean "all"?

Now we have God promising that:
  • Never again will "some" living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood
  • Never again will a flood destroy the "land"
  • Never again will the waters become a flood and destroy "some" living things

And that would amount to several broken promises by God, since floods that kill animals and people are not exactly a rare occurrence.

The apologist will then tend to argue that what God really meant is that he wouldn't flood the earth in exactly that way again. This severely weakens God's promise, and I think the scenario is less than satisfactory if we simply leave it there. It just doesn't seem to fit the main thrust of the story.

All of humanity?
Some local flood apologists argue that God is saying he would never again wipe out all of humanity in a flood, implying that all of humanity was wiped out at this time (except for Noah and family). To be clear, "all" does mean "all" in this instance.

This is a bizarre claim for a local flood apologist to make, especially since they appeal to science so often. The flood is often said to have occurred around 2400BCE, or even if we're generous it is at least within the last 10,000 years. It occurred after the story of Cain and Abel, and thus must have occurred after the domestication of animals in the Neolithic revolution (Abel was allegedly a keeper of sheep).

According to modern science, modern humans evolved in Africa as far back as 200,000 years ago, and migrated to Asia and parts of Europe by at least 40,000 years ago. By 10,000 years ago there were even humans in Australia. The apologist is then refuted by their own arguments. There is no scientific evidence of a flood covering that vast distance within the last 10,000 years, and the problems with such a hypothesis start to look very similar to the problems with a global flood.

Scripture interprets scripture
Let's look at how other authors in the Bible interpreted the story.
“As far as I am concerned, this is like in Noah’s time, when I vowed that the waters of Noah’s flood would never again cover the earth."
Isa 54:9 (NET)
"and if he did not spare the ancient world, but did protect Noah, a herald of righteousness, along with seven others, when God brought a flood on an ungodly world, ... if so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment, especially those who indulge their fleshly desires and who despise authority."
2 Pet 2:5-10 (NET)
"Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly."
2 Pet 3:6-7 (NET)
Note the comparison between the judgement on the world in the time of Noah and the future judgement. I presume even local flood apologists would see the future judgement as a global one.

I can think of ways to reconcile these verses with either a global or local flood. The question is, which interpretation is the most likely?

The fictional flood hypothesis
I've demonstrated some problems with the local flood interpretation. Perhaps these are fatal to the hypothesis, perhaps not. If you believe in a local flood and can provide a good answer to the problems with the rainbow promise that I highlighted above, then please let me know in the comments or via email.

In my view a global flood does appear to be the more likely interpretation intended by the original author, and also other biblical authors who refer to the story. However, I will grant that the text does seem to provide the wiggle room necessary to fit the local flood hypothesis, albeit with a few uncomfortable issues relating to the promise in Genesis 9.

But what of the fictional flood hypothesis? What evidence is there for that?

No assessment of Noah's flood would be complete without at least a brief mention of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Sumerian epic poem. It contains a flood legend very similar to the story of Noah. The problem for those who believe that the biblical story of Noah was divinely inspired is that the Epic of Gilgamesh dates to around 2000BCE, well before the story of Noah was ever recorded.

You can read the entire epic here. The flood story begins on page 20 of that PDF.

The epic begins with Gilgamesh, part god and part man, oppressing his people by sleeping with brides on their wedding night. This sounds somewhat similar to the opening of Genesis 6. But let's keep reading...

Later in the story Gilgamesh travels to see Utnapishtim to find out the secret of immortality.
"Gilgamesh observes that Utnapishtim seems no different from himself, and asks him how he obtained his immortality. Utnapishtim explains that the gods decided to send a great flood. To save Utnapishtim the god Ea told him to build a boat. He gave him precise dimensions, and it was sealed with pitch and bitumen. His entire family went aboard together with his craftsmen and "all the animals of the field". A violent storm then arose which caused the terrified gods to retreat to the heavens. Ishtar lamented the wholesale destruction of humanity, and the other gods wept beside her. The storm lasted six days and nights, after which "all the human beings turned to clay". Utnapishtim weeps when he sees the destruction. His boat lodges on a mountain, and he releases a dove, a swallow, and a raven. When the raven fails to return, he opens the ark and frees its inhabitants. Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, who smell the sweet savor and gather around. Ishtar vows that just as she will never forget the brilliant necklace that hangs around her neck, she will always remember this time."
The dimensions of the boat differ from that of Genesis, and the stories are obviously not identical but the similarities are staggering. Many of the responses by apologists online tend to focus only on the differences, and completely ignore or downplay the similarities. This is dishonest in my opinion. Even a cursory reading highlights too many similarities to deny a connection between the two stories. The Noah story does not need to be a direct copy but I find it incredibly likely that the author of Genesis 6-9 knew of or had access to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Consider the strong Babylonian themes throughout the first 11 chapters of Genesis, and you'll agree that the author of these chapters was familiar with Babylonian culture. Almost all of the stories found in these first 11 chapters of Genesis have parallels in Sumerian mythology. Coincidence? I think not.

Let's take a step back and summarise my findings:

  • A global flood appears to be the most likely interpretation of the text of Genesis and other passages in the Bible, although a local flood is allowed.
  • There is clear scientific evidence that rules out a global flood as a historical event.
  • There are problems with a local flood interpretation regarding the promise never to flood the earth again. Perhaps these are surmountable? I have not yet seen a good answer to this, but perhaps someone has one.
  • There is no clear scientific evidence that can directly confirm the Noah story, although several local floods have occurred in the Mesopotamian region. I am not sure what criteria could even be used to identify the exact event. At best it seems a local flood apologist can argue for plausibility.
  • I know of no direct confirmatory scientific evidence for either the global flood hypothesis or the local flood hypothesis.
  • The flood story in Genesis shares many similarities with an earlier Sumerian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is evidence that the Noah account was likely based on earlier mythology and this casts doubt on it being an accurate representation of a historical event.

In my opinion, the evidence supporting Noah's flood as a historical event is weak and insufficient, while the evidence that it is more closely related to mythology is much stronger. I therefore conclude that either Noah's flood didn't happen, or at the very least I have no compelling reason to believe that it did.

It is possible that both stories were based loosely on an actual historical event, the details of which we may never know.