top of page

Science vs. Noah’s Ark and the Flood

By Luke Lancaster

Is the world-wide flood account in Genesis 6-9 literal? Many Christians believe so, yet geologists and scientists of various fields often claim that there is zero evidence for a world-wide flood. Immediately, one can suppose that there is a conflict between faith and science. Yet what if a literal, world-wide flood account is not what the author of Genesis intended? This is the thesis of my friend Dr. Tremper Longman, a biblical scholar who co-authored the book titled, “The Lost World of the Flood.” He argues that the flood account should be read through the lens of hyperbole - that a local flood occurred which everybody in the ancient Near East (ANE) knew about, but which was exaggerated and described in symbolic language.

Hyperbole means that someone exaggerates what actually happens. For example, a victorious basketball team frequently says that they “demolished” or “annihilated” the opposition. If one were to take such a statement literally, then the opposing basketball team was murdered! The literal meaning, however, is that the victor won the game via a wide margin, such as 100 – 70. The language of “demolished” or “annihilated” was exaggerated. Another example would be saying the phrase, “it’s raining cats and dogs outside.” The literal interpretation would be that a heavy rainstorm is occurring, not that literal cats and dogs are falling from the sky! The same is likely true for Genesis 6-9.

The ancient Hebrew people, for which Genesis 6-9 was written for, frequently exaggerated events in Scripture, just like we do today with many stories. For example, Joshua 1-12 recounts Israel militarily taking over the Canaanites living within the Promised Land. This is described with statements like “we left none that breathed.” Statements like these were obviously not true, for the rest of the book of Joshua describes the Canaanites still living within the Promised Land! The book of Judges also recounts multiple wars going on after Joshua between Israel and the Canaanites within the Promised land! If one were to have taken those previous statements of “we left none that breathed” literally, one would have had to have thought that the Canaanites were eradicated. This tension is alleviated through the notion of hyperbole, which turns out to have been common in the conquest language found throughout the ancient Near East. Scholar K. Lawson Younger notes in his book, “Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing” how conquest accounts by the nations surrounding Israel (Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hittite) use similar language to Joshua 1-12. Genesis 6-9 then could very likely have been hyperbolic as well.

Hyperbolic language within Genesis 6-9 is seemingly scattered throughout. Gen. 6:5 says that every person on earth only had evil thoughts. Such a statement does not mean that every person on earth literally had zero good thoughts. Noah himself is portrayed as righteous (Gen. 6:9)! Gen. 6:5, then, should be interpreted hyperbolically, with the literal meaning in actuality being that many people were habitually thinking evil thoughts. Gen. 6:15 also appears to be exaggerated, for it speaks of a boat for Noah called the “Ark” that possesses gigantic proportions – the length is 300 cubits long (≈450 feet). That is comparable to the size of 1 ½ football fields. No wooden boat in human history, even modern, has been made to this size. So, the size of the Ark could have been exaggerated. Another example is Gen. 7:19, which says that there was a world-wide flood that covered the highest mountains on the earth. That would be tens of thousands of feet of water, which is a mind-boggling amount of water. Also, the “world” for the ancient peoples did not include places like Madagascar or North America, but only the world that they knew. Abraham lived in Mesopotamia, so his ancestor Noah would have probably lived in Mesopotamia as well. The “world” to the ancients, then, would have been Mesopotamia. If a regional, localized flood occurred within the Mesopotamian world, then it likely would have been described in hyperbolic language. This is similar to St. Paul, who refers to the “world” typically in reference to the Roman Empire, which mainly encompassed the Mediterranean countries.

This localized flood is probably the same flood spoken about by the other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) flood accounts, such as the Sumerian King List, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Atrahasis Epic, Eridu Genesis, etc. Yet some will object and claim that Gen. 6-9 simply copied them. This is not likely, for there are numerous differences between the biblical account and the other flood accounts. The most glaring difference is that Gen. 6-9 attributes the flood to the sinfulness of mankind. According to Scripture, God punished the sinfulness of mankind with a flood, what Catholics commonly call temporal punishment. This idea of temporal punishment is found throughout Scripture, such as when Eve sinned and was punished with painful child-labor (Gen. 3:16). The ANE, on the other hand, did not say that sin was the cause of the flood. The Atrahasis Epic, for instance, says that the flood was caused because humans were making too much noise! Other differences between the ANE accounts and Scripture include the divinity sending the flood. Ancient cultures were polytheistic and claimed that their gods caused the flood. Yet Gen. 6-9 rebuts the ANE peoples by saying that it was the LORD, God of Israel who sent the flood. So, Scripture probably refers to the same flood story which all of the ANE flood accounts refer, yet Judaism described the story from their theological framework, which included key differences from the ANE.

Another reason to suggest that Gen. 6-9 is not strictly literal is that there are various symbolic parallels between the Ark story and the Temple/cosmos/Garden of Eden. For example, Noah’s Ark has multiple similarities to the Jewish Temple according to multiple biblical scholars. One such similarity is that both Noah’s Ark and the Jewish Tabernacle (cultic center) are the only two buildings in the Torah commanded to be built by God. One scholar even suggests that the dimensions of Noah’s Ark are proportionate to the Jewish Temple! So, it is very possible that the size of the Ark was described by the Jewish author of Genesis 6-9 in a way to bring the Jews to remember their massive Temple to God. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the Gilgamesh Epic describes the Ark as being built in seven stages, which is exactly how many stages the Babylonians utilized to make their worship structures – ziggurats. If Gilgamesh and Genesis 6-9 are describing the same flood story, then symbolic imagery likely was incorporated into the ancient story telling. Another possible link is that the ancient Near Eastern people commonly described the cosmos in three levels, and Noah’s Ark was built with three levels. The Ark would then be a symbol for the cosmos. Yet another fact is that the Garden of Eden in Gen. 3 is comparable to the Ark story in Gen. 6-9. Just as the Garden had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing out of it (Gen. 2:10, 14), so also Noah’s Ark rests on the place where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow out of – Mount Ararat (Gen. 8:4). Both the Garden and Noah’s Ark possess the lives of humans and animals together as well. So, the flood account could be fashioned in symbolic imagery. Insights from this paragraph taken from biblical scholar Dr. L. Michael Morales’ book, “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?

Evidence for a regional Mesopotamian flood has been discovered by archaeologists. One such archaeologist is C. Leonard Wooley, who says in his book, “Ur of the Chaldees” that he discovered 8 feet of sediment in Abram’s hometown, Ur. This implies a serious but regional Mesopotamian flood. He says, “Taking into consideration all the facts, there could be no doubt that the flood of which we had thus found the only possible evidence was the Flood of Sumerian history and legend, the Flood on which is based the story of Noah. . . . The discovery that there was a real deluge to which the Sumerian and the Hebrew stories of the Flood alike go back does not of course prove any single detail in either of those stories. This deluge was not universal, but a local disaster confined to the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, affecting an area of perhaps 400 miles long and 100 miles across; but for the occupants of the valley that was the whole world!” Another possibility for the flood of Gen. 6-9 is the flood evidence found underneath the Black Sea (see the book, "Noah's Flood"). Archaeologists say that around 7,000 years ago there was a massive flood due to the melting of the ice glaciers. They state that the ancient coastlines of ancient cities have been found via people diving underneath the Black Sea. So, there is even evidence of localized floods within the potential regions of Gen. 6-9.

The flood of Gen. 6-9 does not need to be interpreted in a literalistic way. Rather, based on the common hyperbolic language of the ANE, along with the symbolic parallels, Christians can interpret the flood as more of a regional flood of Mesopotamia. There is evidence for regional floods according to archaeologists. Finally, the flood of Gen. 6-9 was very possibly the same flood of the other ANE flood accounts, yet Gen. 6-9 has various differences with such account, for Genesis was written by a Jew with a Jewish worldview.

bottom of page