For over a century and a half critics of the Bible have pointed to the book of Genesis as a main argument against its historical truth. Many of the minor arguments against it in other books, including the existence of King David and some long vanished civilizations, are slowly falling away. Over the last 50 years archaeology has uncovered some remarkable evidence of Bible history. Although minimalists still exist, a growing acceptance of accuracy among academics has shifted. That doesn’t mean they have become religious believers. Instead, they acknowledge that it gets much of history correct, no matter if a blatant bias and religious context. Much of the book of Genesis hasn’t received the same re-evaluation and continues to be rejected and mocked. There are too many world transforming miracles that the scientists and historians don’t see as scientifically sustainable.
Other than the Garden of Eden and the Fall, none have come under such critical ridicule as The Great Flood. It is the story of a world gone morally depraved to the point that God decides to do a reset. He warns the people that if they don’t repent then they will be destroyed. Only a single prophet named Noah and his friends repent and remain righteous. Noah is given the divine command and instructions to build a large boat. The people mock him as deranged. Once the boat is made the world is covered in a massive deluge of water that apparently kills every person and living creature. The only survivors are seven individuals and the animals Noah brings onto his protective ship. After months floating on the water, a bird sent out finds a mountain top that Noah lands his ship. The waters dry up and the world is started over again. Scientists and historians don’t believe there is any evidence for such a tale and dismiss it as laughable. Much like those in the story who eventually drowned.
Easy as it would be to agree that the Biblical writes came up with an astounding whopper of a whale story, that isn’t the only place the story exists. In fact, the myth of a Great flood come from all over the world on every continent that can sustain a civilization. This includes not only Europe and Asia, but both North and South America. Wide ranging as the differences might be, there are some basic similarities. The myths virtually always include a wicked people, the covering of the world by a form of water, and survivors who restart or recreate the world. Very slowly the idea a flood could devastate a large population of people enough to be remembered is gaining acceptance.
A Very Old Story:
The Bible was for a very long time considered the oldest written record. All of that changed in 1849 when archaeologist Austen Henry Layard discovered The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal during a Mesopotamian expedition. The library contained a massive collection of clay tablets with wedge shaped writing called cuneiform. Years later translation became possible and what was lost to history became found. Most of the clay tablets contained information of legal and commercial importance that helped in understanding the ancient civilizations of the region. A group of clay writings stood out from the others because it contained a literary narration. This story became known as The Epic of Gilgamesh and told about a demi-god king who killed monsters and searched for the secret of immortality.
The most shocking discovery within the epic story was the narration of a Great Flood that seemed a copy of the one found in the Bible. Just like in the Bible, people were becoming out of control, Divine disfavor warned of a flood, a man was commanded to build a boat, and only a man and his wife along with some animals survived the watery apocalypse. For some it was evidence that the Great Flood must have happened or it wouldn’t be recorded in another document. Scholars immediately rejected this conclusion to insist that the Hebrews borrowed from the Babylonians while in captivity. The argument has gone back and forth ever since.
Versions of the Hebrew and Mesopotamian Great Flood stories are not even the only ones to exist in the region. In Egypt there is a strange variation that has the flood actually saving humanity. The god Ra is upset that humans are plotting against him, so he sends the lioness goddess Sekhmet to destroy them. She does such a good job that the gods dump blood red wine to cover the world to get her attention. The wine gets her drunk and she stops the destruction. Perhaps this garbled version sees the flood as a way to stop the death and violence of a barbaric people. Ancient Greece has more than one flood story, but the most famous is Deucalion the son of Prometheus who was punished for revealing the secrets of fire to humans. Zeus sends a flood to destroy the Bronze people, but Deucalion builds a chest to escape. He lands on a mountain and performs a sacred sacrifice. In return, Zeus allows him and his wife to throw stones over their heads and create men and women.
The Egyptian and Greek versions of the flood are considered by scholars to be, like the Bible, influenced by the Mesopotamian and Babylonian stories. Where the story originated is unknown, but a few have speculated a regional flood made a cultural impact enough to survive oral transmission. The tragic event was later written down as greatly indulgent mythology. The Latter-day Saint Scholar Hugh Nibley, on the other hand, in the October 1971 Ensign article “Myth and the Scriptures” wrote:
So when the ancient myths from all over the world show us the same situations and the same adventures and monsters recurring again and again, we may look upon this endless repetition not as discrediting the historicity of those events and situations but as confirming it. These myths tell about such things happening because that was the type of thing that did happen, and the ritual nature of the event guaranteed that it should happen not once but over and over again.
His point is that the Bible was neither a self-contained creation, or lacking historical originality. Instead of falsifying the Biblical narrative, “it was only to be expected that in times of apostasy their teachings, in contaminated form, should fall into profane hands.” At worst the Bible’s stories such as The Great Flood are cross pollinated through time and culture. The original prophetic historical writings are shared and spread among the unbelievers who then write their own versions. In return, the Bible version contains shared recitations of actual history. The original manuscripts are lost with only the copies and shadows remaining.
The Strange Boat of Uncertainty:
Along with if The Great Flood could have happened, there is disagreement about the construction of the boat used. The most well known boat is the one in the Bible that Noah built. Warning him about the coming deluge, he also receives a revelation describing the design and materials of a floating ship. The book of Genesis says Noah was told to make it from cypress wood with a coat of pitch inside and out to keep it water proof. It was to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high; the cubit an imprecise measurement about the distance of a middle finger to the elbow. This would make the boat about half the size of the Titanic in comparison. Three stories with different compartments were to be built inside the structure for animals and cargo, along with a side door and roof. Critics admit this would float, but not hold all the requirements for a long voyage of people and lots of animals. Believers see it as not impossible with Divine assistance, although the details a holy mystery. It is also considered by some to be more related to temple than boat construction.
When the Mesopotamian version was discovered, believers in Noah pointed out how unrealistic the boat was in that story. The “prophet” in this case was told by a voice in his wall to build a perfectly square boat along with carrying all the animals and his family. A cube boat didn’t have either the room required or an ability to float without tipping all over the place. On the other hand, critics of Noah’s boat suggest heavy waves would split the Bible version in half. Neither of them were to be taken seriously. Of course, stories from other cultures sometimes have their own boats such as hollowed out trees or floating logs.
A later version of the story was found in Mesopotamia with a more realistic boat, although still different from others. It was round and made from woven rope and pitch, similar to a traditional kuphar used since ancient times to float down the Tigris and Euphrates. Ancient Assyrian and cuneiform authority Dr. Irving L. Finkle made a replica of the boat to test its viability. It was not a comparatively large craft, but it did succeed in floating. However, it had many problems with keeping out water and other minor issues.
The Book of Mormon contributes to the boat construction discussion with the Jaredite barges. There is no explanation of the eight barges’ shapes, but Ether 2:17 states, “and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish,” describing an uplifted bow and stern. Later in Ether 6:7 states, “and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah,” giving the impression they were similar in shape and build. Hugh Nibley in his lectures believed that both Noah and the Jaredites used magur boats that were also an ancient Mesopotamian water craft. The earliest depictions of boats were of this variety. The two uplifts could be used as flotation devices that kept the boat upright. Whatever Noah’s Ark actually was like might never fully be known in this life.
But Wait, There is More:
If all that existed was the Near Eastern narratives of the Great Flood, then critics could have a strong argument. They could easily say a water disaster happened in the area and orally passed down until written down later. The problem with that perspective is that the Near East is not the only place flood stories exist. A Great Flood narrative is found all over the world. Not just regional variations exist, although the flavor of the stories can be different, but the same basic structure. A large number of them contain the story of a great evil in the world, the gods are displeased, a huge body of water wipes out almost all life, and only a couple or handful of people survive.
How extensive is this Great Flood myth? Every continent on both sides of the hemisphere report the story of a great deluge of water wiping out living things on the land. From the Rukwa region of Africa, two men were warned by God to flee in a ship when the rivers started flooding, taking animals and plants with them. In Australia, there is a collection of stories about a person doing wrong, an evil snake sending water that drowns them, and they turn to rock. A story from the Hinduism tells about a small fish that promises the first man protection if aren’t eaten. The fish then tells the man to build a boat because of a flood and tie it to a tree to keep from getting washed away. The man makes an offering afterward that turns into a woman. Scandinavian myth tells of Oden and two companions slaying the ice giant Ymir that gushes water, killing most of the other giants. One of the giants and his family escape on a boat made from a hollowed out tree. The Mayan book Popol Vuh tells how wooden people were formed, but they hand nothing in heart and mind. The gods sent a flood with animals coming into the wooden people’s houses to eat them. Corn was used to form the final people. North American tribes with flood stories include the Algonquian, Choctaw, Cree, Hope, Inuit, and many others. There are hundreds of similar stories.
Scholars still like to explain these away. Geologist David Montgomery of the University of Washington has studied how the search for The Great Flood evidence helped in the development of modern geological science. He agrees with the folklorist James Frazer who in 1918 collected and published flood stories that they are all regional myths from localized disasters. For these two researchers the stories are all too different from each other to accept a wide spread world deluge. Some have ice, some have fire, and each include many other unique details. They must be talking about separate flood disasters. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it cannot explain the huge number of these stories. Adding them all together is too many for coincidence.
Skepticism of a world wide flood is still strong. However, that is slowly changing as the perception of history takes dramatic turns. The idea of massive and destructive events was once dismissed as fantasy. The orthodox belief in uniformity with its long and slow progression based on present examples no longer remains the only scientific explanation. The history of Earth, both recent and millennia ago, contains evidence of great destructive conflagrations. All it can take is a rock from space or massive volcanic eruption to end life as it has in the past. There is reason to believe that something like The Great Flood could have happened some time in the past. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly like the Bible narrative, but much more than a simple regional flood overblown to mythic proportions. Maybe some conspiracy theorists have the answer. They seem to be as accurate with predictions as scientists these days. That discussion might need put on ice.