The Historicity of Noah and the Flood

For modern secular people, one of the common objections against Christianity and the Bible is the unbelievability of the story of Noah and the flood. Where did all the water come from and go to? How did Noah fit all the animals into the ark? How did Noah provide food and water for all the animals? For many people, the story seems farfetched, and therefore mythological.

The biblical flood narrative certainly has elements of the miraculous, but that doesn’t necessarily make it mythological (unless one’s confirmation bias towards naturalism trumps all evidence to the contrary). While the Bible often describes God as working through an invisible hand of providence, there are also times where God works through a visible hand of miracles, and the story of Noah and the flood appears to be one such instance.

If that’s the case, then looking for a natural explanation for a supernatural phenomenon (like a world-wide flood) would be like looking for the sun at night-time. Without the regularity of nature, we would have no way of recognising a miracle as a miracle. Belief in God doesn’t deny the regularity of nature (which is required for science), but rather, the evidence for God depends upon it. As C.S. Lewis writes:

“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds. But suppose when I next open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken? Certainly not! I might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer. One thing it would be ludicrous to claim is that the laws of arithmetic make it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention. On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, p62)

If there was a natural explanation for the flood, i.e. if science could explain where the water came from and why, and where it subsequently went and why, then that explanation would undermine the force of the entire narrative. Scientific laws are human descriptions of what happens most of the time, but by all accounts and interpretations of Genesis 6-8, the story of Noah and the flood is not an everyday event. In other words, if the flood was a genuine act of God, then we shouldn’t expect to find natural explanations for where the water came from and/or went to.

Nevertheless, the questions of feasibility remain. How did Noah fit all the animals into the ark? And how did Noah provide food and water for all the animals? According the narrative in Genesis, the ark was 135 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 14 meters high (Genesis 6:15). That’s two and a half times longer than an Olympic swimming pool, seven road lanes wide, and as tall as a four story building. Given that the ark had three levels (Genesis 6:16), these dimensions would give the ark over two and a quarter acres of floor space.

Noah didn’t have to fit the animals in himself, the narrative says that the animals themselves came to Noah and entered the ark (Genesis 7:9). Moreover, the ark didn’t need to house two of every single species that we know of today, but two of every kind of animal at the time (Genesis 6:20). For example, the ark didn’t necessarily need to fit two African elephants and two Indian elephants, but rather two elephants from which the later sub-species of elephants came.

Noah was also to take onboard the food that was to be eaten by them and the animals (Genesis 6:21), including extra animals for food (Genesis 7:2-3), to last for 150 days (Genesis 7:24). Even with two acres of floor space, two of every kind of animal plus a five month food supply sounds like quite a lot. But apart from the medium to large animals that we see in zoos today (and apart from fish), most animals, birds, and creatures that crawl along the ground are relatively small and eat significantly less than we do. If it continued to rain on and off during the time they were on the ark, then water could have presumably been obtained through the open windows at the top of the ark (Genesis 6:16).

Some object that an ark made in those days would not have been able to withstand the brutal elements described in the flood narrative. The problem is that what constitutes the brutal elements described by the flood narrative, is rain (Genesis 7:12). The reason why the elements destroyed life on earth was not because they were brutal, but constant for 40 days (Genesis 7:17). The waters (or brutal elements) that destroyed everything on land, only served to lift the ark up as it floated on top of the water (Genesis 7:17-18).

Even if all of this is conceded, you would think that something as big as a world-wide flood would have left a significant impact on history. While not a lot of history has survived from that long ago, we do in fact have multiple attestation of a world-wide flood from ancient cultures in Europe, the Near East, Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, North America, Central America, and South America. This is precisely the kind of historical evidence we would expect to find from an actual world-wide flood.

However, people exaggerate and stories get embellished, and so what we really need in order to confirm or falsify the historicity of the flood, is scientific evidence. And in recent years, that’s precisely what we’ve found. In 1997, a number of geologists published a scientific paper detailing the geological evidence for an abrupt drowning of the Black Sea shelf around 5,600 B.C. There is still debate over the dating and magnitude of the flood event, but the sequence of events described by the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is agreed upon by all experts in the field.

This is precisely the kind of evidence we would expect to find if the narrative of Noah and the flood was historical: multiple attestation from ancient cultures, and scientific evidence of a catastrophic flood. The historicity of the flood that’s described in Genesis 6-8 is simply where the evidence leads.

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