Noah & the Ark - was it true?
The story of Noah's Flood was once the best known story in the world. In one form or another more than 200 flood legends have been recorded, and they occur on every inhabited continent. Modern ideas about the Flood, nonetheless, assume that it affected only a limited region. During the last century two theories were proposed: one that it took place in Mesopotamia, as indicated in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (one of the earliest surviving works of literature) the other that it took place in the Black Sea area.
Among the various weaknesses of these theories perhaps the greatest is that they do not account for the building of the ark. Some kind of vessel in which a righteous man kept representatives of each kind of animal occurs in nearly all flood legends. From this we can draw a number of conclusions. First, the ark was likely a real vessel, not a fanciful addition to the story. Second, the righteous man must have been forewarned, or he would not have thought of building an ark. And third, the flood was appears to have been a global event. At least two of each kind of creature had to be preserved in order that the earth - having been destroyed and wiped clean of animal life - could be recolonised.
The best known of the flood legends are those in the book of Genesis and the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Genesis 6-8 preserves both the most detailed and the least fanciful. In sober terms it records a disaster of world-shattering power and world-wide extent. It's useful to note the account describes:
- The preceding context, telling the story of the whole earth
- The events that triggered the Flood: all the fountains of the great deep under the earth erupted (7:11)
- The depth of the waters (7:19)
- The emphasis on universality (7:19, 21, 22, 23)
- The need for an ark
- The size of the ark (6:15)
- The duration of the flood - about a year
- The re-peopling of the whole earth from the sons of Noah (9:19)
By contrast, the story in Gilgamesh has a mixture of features, some suggesting that the flood was confined to historical Mesopotamia, others that it was a global event.
Gilgamesh is internally inconsistent because it represents a corruption of a primeval tradition common to both Gilgamesh and Genesis. The disaster thus remembered was a global flood. However, long afterwards, when the whole earth was re-populated and some people were again living in cities, Mesopotamia experienced an exceptionally devastating local flood. The priests and bards of Mesopotamia deliberately confused the two events. Inspired by a polytheistic religion that worshipped spirits and manipulated them through magic, they suppressed the tradition that the Creator had once destroyed the earth because of man's wickedness. Certain elements of the original story nonetheless persisted, as the ark element again illustrates. Onboard this gigantic cube of a boat Utnapishti, the hero of the story, had to take 'the seed of all living creatures'. The building of an ark at all, the huge size of the vessel, and the taking of wild animals on board make no sense in relation to a merely regional inundation. It is Genesis which makes clear the reason for the ark: all life was to be blotted out, and from the preserved animals the earth after the flood was to be restocked. Even birds would not survive the deluge.
The clues Genesis gives about when the cataclysm occurred also tell us that this was not a recent flood. An exact date is not given. Despite giving the ages of the fathers of the next generation mentioned, the genealogies spanning the time between Noah and Abraham do not function as a chronology. They function as a bridge between the cataclysm and the narrative of Israel's beginnings and as a record of the ancestors who defined the tribe.
What Genesis does tell us is that by the time of the next historical event the sons of Noah had spread out across the whole earth. Men were settling Mesopotamia and building such historically familiar cities as Erech (Uruk) and Babel (Babylon) - a point in time dateable to the fourth millennium BC. How long it took to reach that stage we can only estimate, but at a minimum it must have been tens of thousands of years.