In order to prove the historical accuracy of the biblical Flood story, a geologist is currently suing the National Park Service for the right to remove 60 half-pound rocks from the Grand Canyon National Park.
His formal request was denied last July and, now, Dr. Andrew Snelling is being represented by the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. Senior counsel Gary McCaleb told the New York Times that the proposal was denied not “on the quality of the proposal” but on “what [Snelling] might do with [the data].”
Snelling is what is known as a young-earth creationist, someone who, following the biblical book of Genesis and the biblical timeline of events, holds the position that the earth is only a few thousand years old. His motivation is to demonstrate the biblical Flood story happened, and happened just as the Bible says it did. His research, if it panned out, would have the additional bonus of grounding the scientific evidence for the flood in the United States. And for fundamentalist Americans the only thing better than a Bible story is an American Bible story.
But rocks won’t prove the Christian Flood story, because, as popular as the story is, we have all been lied to about Noah’s Ark since we were children.
1. We only think we know the story
The main problem is that we only think we know the story. According to Sunday school tradition, God tells Noah to build an ark and gather into it a pair of every kind of animal, it then rains a great deal, and there’s a flood that lasts for forty days and nights, its conclusion marked by the appearance of a rainbow.
All of this is in the Bible, but it is only half right.
Sure, the animals did go onto the Ark “by twosies twosies.” God tells Noah to assemble a pair of each kind of animal, but then a couple of verses later he tells Noah to bring seven pairs of the “clean” kinds of animal and one pair of the “unclean” kinds of animals. That doesn’t rhyme at all, but it’s important because at the conclusion of the story, just before the rainbow, Noah goes and sacrifices a number of the clean animals to God. And, if Noah didn’t have seven pairs of animals, he would have saved all those species only to engage in an ad hoc mass extinction project.
The Flood does last for “forty days and nights.” But it also lasts for 150 days and nights. And while the Flood is caused by rain, it is also caused by the opening of primordial floodgates positioned above and beneath the earth. Not only is this confusing, it does mean that scientific efforts to prove the historicity of the Flood should also have to explain where all of the water above and below the earth is. And, for this purpose, an underground reservoir probably isn’t going to cut it with one’s fellow scientists.
All of these inconsistencies make for pretty difficult reading, which is why Christian tradition has plumped for a streamlined version that cherrypicks certain details. But the inconsistencies in the story can easily be explained by one simple observation: the story in the Bible is made up of two separate stories, taken from different sources and woven together by a later editor. Scholars like Joel Baden, who work on this issue, have separated the account in Genesis into two independent and actually pretty different versions of the flood.
The most alarming part about this is that the story we learned in Sunday School doesn’t follow either of the original versions—or their combined form in the Bible, either, which contains both sets of descriptions: two animals and seven pairs; forty days and 150 days; rain and primordial waters. As a result, we butcher not just the details of the story, but also its meaning.
2. Every culture has a flood story, making it likely to be true
One of the most sensational discoveries of the late nineteenth century was the realization that the ancient Mesopotamians had a Flood story too. This version (or versions as there are a number of them) is most famously contained in the Gilgamesh Epic. It not only bore a lot of similarities to the story in Genesis; it also considerably predated it. As a result, almost all scholars agree that the Mesopotamian Flood stories actually influenced and were the conceptual sources for the versions we find muddled together in Genesis.
There are two ways to think about this discovery. One is that the ancient Israelites who wrote the Flood stories “stole” or “borrowed” the story from a now extinct religious culture. Logically speaking, the Mesopotamians couldn’t have had everything right, religiously speaking, because no one worships their deities anymore. So this might make you worry about what other potentially inaccurate and undeniably pagan traditions are preserved in the Bible.
The other is to say that because most cultures had a Flood story it is more likely to have been true, because they are all talking about the same thing. Except, well, that’s not quite true. In Mesopotamian myth the gods, plural, bring about a flood because human beings are getting too noisy. In the Bible God, singular, is worried about all of the violence and wickedness in the world. Water aside, the kind of deities these stories describe are very different.
What we can say is that ancient Israelites adapted earlier traditions and reshaped them to fit their own theology. And that recognition can help explain one of the puzzling things about the Flood story: why Israelites even think about global destruction in terms of water. Anyone who has been to Israel knows how scarce water is there. The overwhelming majority of geologists will tell you that there’s no question of a major flood in, say, Jerusalem. If you were going to imagine a natural disaster in Israel, it’s much more likely to be drought than flood. For those in Mesopotamia, things were very different. The word “Mesopotamia” means “between the rivers” and floods were a regular part of life.
3. We found the Ark
If you could find the Ark, then that would seem to be the smoking gun. And, of course, just as people have gone looking for Sodom and Gomorrah, they have gone looking the Ark. Christian archaeologists and documentary filmmakers, in particular, are fond of trying to track down Noah’s vessel, leading to multiple shows claiming to have “discovered” the Ark. These arguments are based either on finding wood on the top of mountains (where it shouldn’t be) or on aerial photographs that seem to show the outline of an ark-shaped item buried in the ground. Key locales for the Ark include various locations around Mount Ararat and Mount Suleiman, both in modern-day Turkey. In 2010 an expedition representing NAMI (Noah’s Ark Ministries International) and The Media Evangelism claimed to have discovered the Ark itself. They released media footage claiming to show team members inside one of the Ark’s wooden compartments. But as other Fundamentalist Christians have argued, the footage and discovery is almost certainly a fraud.
So, no, the Ark was never discovered. There is a “life size” replica (meaning, constructed using the dimensions specified in the Bible) Ark in Kentucky, but that’s something else entirely.
4. This is a story for children
It almost seems to be a requirement for young Christians to draw a picture of the Ark, complete with a menagerie of (mostly African) animals. If you don’t want to paint a mural yourself, you can even order wallpaper or decals for your child’s bedroom. But this is actually a story about genocide. God gets angry and drowns almost all of the global population in one fell swoop. And yet children’s books describe the story as having a happy ending, establishing the rather uncomfortable precedent that, as long as God is the aggressor, widespread slaughter is “good.”
All these cultural assumptions and myths about the Ark continue to feed into modern “scientific” searches for evidence of the Flood. Dr. Snelling, for example, is looking for evidence of a Flood, not evidence of mass extermination; and he is looking for evidence of excess water on the earth caused by rain, not the underground or heavenly pools of primordial waters that caused the flooding. This kind of research is not just bad science; it’s also predicated on poor reading comprehension.