Science, History, and Noah’s Ark


I have always had a special connection to this week’s Parsha, Parsha Noach.  Besides for the fact that this was my Bar Mitzvah Parsha – the first portion of the Torah which I had ever read and studied in depth – it is also one of the most intense stories in the Torah, and demands much discussion.

I remember a few years ago I happened upon a blog post which compared Noah’s ark as described in the Torah to the Titanic, ultimately arguing that there is no possible scientific way that Noah’s ark could have withstood the flood described in Genesis.  At that time I shrugged off the argument, rationalizing that since the entire flood story is full of divine providence and miracles anyways: what different did it make if God made one more miracle to save Noah via an unstable wooden ark?

Needless to say I have learned a lot in the last few years.  As I looked deeper into the flood story I realized that the story as described in the Torah could not possibly be historically true.   While I do not wish to go into all of the different reasons here, I will just say that if one wishes to accept basic geology, genetics, biology, physics and archaeology they have a good amount of explaining to do if they still want to believe in the historical accuracy of the account given in the Torah.  For specific details of the scientific problems I recommend clicking Here.

True, one (like my old self) could continue to argue that everything is a miracle, however I do not wish to do this for a few reasons.  First off, one would need to adopt a very anti-rationalist view of the way that God interacts with the world.  I think that the very fact that God creates a flood to destroy the Earth rather than just metaphorically “snapping his fingers” and killing everyone, shows that God is trying to act through nature.  Once we accept a more rationalistic type of view in regards to how God interacts with the Earth, we would expect the flood to be contained within nature, not contradict it.

Second, even if one is willing to accept a non-rational view of the world, it still seems a bit ridiculous to claim that God made this elaborate miracle and then, not only hide all of the evidence for it, but rather give us loads of scientific evidence that blatantly contradicts the miracle.

As we move away from the scientific accuracy of the flood and begin to develop a more allegorical approach to understanding this story, one may assume that everything is fine and dandy.  However, we quickly realize that this is not the case as we run into another problem – other ancient flood stories.  A quick google search of ancient flood stories will quickly show that the flood story given in the Torah is shared, in some version or other, by many other ancient texts.  The most famous of these stories being the story of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian flood story, which is thought to have been adapted from a much older (1600 B.C.E.) flood story.

Not only does the Epic of Gilgamesh also contain a story where God (or in their case gods) wanted to destroy the Earth with a flood, but many of the smaller details are also very similar.  In both stories the protagonist is a man who is saved from the flood on a boat, along with his family and many different species of animals.  In both stories, the ark settles on a tall mountain and the man who is saved sends a raven and then a dove out to find land.  Finally, after the main hero is saved, he offers up a sacrifice and then God (or the gods) vow never again to send flood to destroy the Earth.  These similarities, along with many unmentioned additional ones, challenge our conception of the uniqueness and overall truth of the Torah.

When two ancient sources share many elements there are three ways that scholars can deal with them.  The first way is to simply argue that it is a coincidence.  Saying that all the similarities are a coincidence may work for some cases of literary comparison, but in the case of Noah and Gilgamesh it seems very difficult for this to be one’s argument.  Imagine if a few years after Harry Potter came out, someone across the world came out with a book with all the same major details just changing around the names or places and then tried claiming that they have never heard of Harry Potter.

The second way that a scholar can deal with two similar texts is to say that one of the sources is copied or borrowed from the older one.  In our case, since the Epic of Gilgamesh is undoubtedly older than the Torah, this would mean that the Torah borrowed or copied from an older source.  The last option is to say that both sources copied from an even older third source.  This last opinion would also imply that the Torah is not original in its story of the flood.

So now what?

At first glance the threat posed by science and history may not be too bad.  We can argue, as many have (see: A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man by Joel Wolowelsky), that the flood in the Torah actually only covered a small area within ancient Mesopotamia.  This reading would take care of the scientific issues by saying that the Torah was speaking in hyperbolic language, arguing that the Torah made a small flood, which may have been very destructive within that area, seem like a world ending flood, because for the people experiencing the flood that is exactly what it would have seemed like.  This idea goes well with the famous Talmudic saying “The Torah speaks in the language of man”,  meaning that the Torah may not be giving an objective historical account of what had happened, but rather it gives a subjective view from the people whom had supposedly been there.  Going along this same theme it now makes sense why many other ancient Mesopotamian religions and texts share a story about a big flood…because it happened!  If there was a flood sometime in ancient Mesopotamia, it makes sense that different cultures would have various versions of what had happened – each in accordance with their own theology.

At this point, while we have have seemingly dealt with many of the difficulties regarding the flood story, I am not completely pacified.  Not only is the story in the Torah extremely similar in detail to the Epic of Gilgamesh, it also uses very similar language.  Couldn’t God have rewritten this old story using his own words?  Why does the language and flow of the story need to be so similar?

When asking a question like this it is immediately obvious that there is no way to definitively show that one answer is correct over all of the other ones.  Bible critics will point to these comparisons and say that this is just another support to back up the claim that the Torah was written by humans – with no divine inspiration.  People who hold onto a dogmatic belief that the Torah is the only source of knowledge in the world, will probably just ignore this question or may even claim that the story of Noah was actually written down way before the Torah was officially “given” and that Gilgamesh was copied from the original writing of Noah’s flood.  As with most difficult questions in life I think that we must leave behind our tendency to think in black and white.

The Torah is not a history book, but rather a book to guide us and show us how to act.  I think that the Torah copied the same language and the same minute details from Gilgamesh to teach us a lesson far greater than than the fact that some flood occurred 4,000 years ago.

In the beginning of the book of Gilgamesh, it is written that the gods wanted to destroy mankind because the humans were annoying them by making too much noise.  Just from this one idea we can learn out two major theological implications: 1) the gods are governed by human like emotions, such as annoyance and rage.  2) The gods are morally corrupt if they are willing to completely wipe out the world because of a little noise.

When the Torah version was written, the message that it wanted to convey through the flood story was obvious.  God would never destroy the world on a random whim.  The point of the world, according to the Torah, is for man to act on a higher moral plane than animals, emulating the God himself who is the exemplar of moral justice.

What may have been a well known story to the ancient Israelites, was adapted by the Torah into an extremely important lesson about man’s duty in the world.  It makes no difference if this story never actually happened or if the Torah directly copied from an older story, all that matters is the lessons that we can take from studying this story.  If man acts morally corrupt than the entire point of the world is lost.  It might as well be destroyed!

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