Real Bible Studies: The Flood


The story of Noah and the flood takes up most of Genesis chapters 6 through 9. However, important background on Noah can be found in Genesis 5, which gives us the generations between Adam and Noah. These sorts of listings show up frequently in the bible, most notably at the beginning of Matthew and third chapter of Luke in the New Testament. Often times, they’re meant to establish the lineage from a particular ancient person to individuals in the current story to show how they fit into the grand scheme of things.

The lineages in the Old Testament are also notable, as they frequently state that individuals had extremely long lifespans, usually in excess of eight or nine hundred years. People have proposed many theories on why these ages are so inflated, from Biblical apologists who claim that people just lived longer when they walked with god, to scholars who cite the general tendency in tall tales and legends to inflate numbers as stories get passed around. There may have been a more practical intention to this, however, given that the people who wrote and compiled Genesis believed that the world was only a few thousand years old (as some still do in the modern era).

Typically, a “generation” in Biblical terms is around forty years, so when looking at the number of generations between a given ancestor, and the person trying to establish the link, there may not be enough generations to account for all the years in between. For instance, a person born in 1970 is unlikely to have a grandparent born in the 1820s. A notable exception to this logic is tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, born in 1790, but who still has two living grandsons in 2014. Accounting for missing generations is a common problem encountered in genealogical research. However, if a given ancestor didn’t produce offspring until he was a hundred and thirty years old, as is said of Adam, or five hundred years old, as is claimed for Noah, that helps to fill in the time between, allowing eight or nine generations to span a thousand or more years.

In my family, by comparison, eight generations only spans about two hundred and fifty to three hundred years. For instance, from the birth of my three-greats grandfather, David Lupo, in 1804, to the current year 2014, is a span of two hundred and ten years, and covers six to eight generations of my family, including me. Adding up the ages of Adam and his descendants down to the birth of Noah, we get one thousand fifty-six years, spanning only nine generations. If we multiply the number of generations by forty, however, it equals only three hundred and sixty years, which is much more realistic, but casts doubt on the belief that Adam came into existence on the sixth day of creation. If we divide the years by forty, we get a potential of twenty-six generations, so either the span of time is off, or there are a lot of missing generations. Rather than attempt to account for either, whoever sat down to tell the story of Noah most likely just increased the ages of each person to fit the timeline, and let it go at that.

Genesis 5 ends with the birth of Noah’s sons, when Noah is said to have been five hundred years old. Chapter 6 starts off with a curious legend concerning the sons of God, and their custom of taking human women, who they found attractive, as wives. It also mentions the Nephilim for no apparent reason, stating that they’re still alive at the time. The Nephilim, (the word is sometimes translated as giants, as in the KJV) are also mentioned in Numbers, when scouts sent by Moses to the promised land report seeing them, which suggests they survived the flood, despite there being no mention of them on the ark. God also designates the maximum age for humans as one hundred and twenty years old, after Genesis has already told us that Noah was over five hundred.

At last, we get into the heart of the story. God is disappointed with its work in creating the world and populating it with humans. Apparently, the all-seeing, all-knowing entity which created the world and everything in it didn’t anticipate the consequences of letting people walk around with the knowledge of good and evil. We’re not really told at this point exactly what the humans have done to disappoint God, except that they’ve always evil, all the time. This is one of those points in the bible, when God’s actions don’t make a lot of sense, given that God’s willing to wipe all living creatures from the face of the earth to overcome its disappointment with humans. If the humans aren’t performing up to spec, fine, exercise the warranty, but why do the animals, birds, and creatures that move along the ground have to pay for that as well? We’ve only been told that humans ate of the tree of knowledge, and presumably know the difference between good and evil, while the animals should still be blissfully ignorant. Also, why go to all the trouble of flooding the earth, which will most likely take out all the plant life which never hurt anyone. Couldn’t God just wish humans out of existence, or threaten their first born, given god is all-powerful? One would think the creator of the universe would have more advanced weapons in the arsenal, than simply turning up the rinse cycle.

For whatever reason, God decides to go with Plan A, and, as described in Genesis 6:15-16 tells Noah to build the ark to these specifications: three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high; with a roof over top that has an opening below it one cubit high. Noah is to include a door in the side, a lower, middle, and upper deck, and coat the whole thing with with pitch inside and out. The question which arises here is how long is a cubit? Most people who focus on the size of the ark cite the measurement as it would have been used in Noah’s time, but it’s probably more correct to use what would have been understood by those who were writing the bible many centuries later. Those who passed around the legend before it was written down, probably didn’t use exact measurements, since all they had to convey was that the ark was really, really big, sort of similar to the modern practice of comparing things to the size of a football field. Someone writing for posterity would have needed a more exact measurement.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a cubit as the length between the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, or approximately 18 to 21 inches or 46 to 53 centimeters. It also says the measurement may have originated in Egypt. Wikipedia states that the earliest standard measurement, the royal cubit, comes from the Egyptians, who are identified in Genesis as descendants of Noah, so it seems unlikely Noah could have used a system of measurement created by people who didn’t exist in his time. In any event, assuming 18 to 21 inches as the equivalent measure, the ark would have been 450 to 525 feet long, 75 to 87.5 feet wide, and 45 to 52.5 feet high. By comparison, a U.S. Navy Cruiser is 567 feet long, with a beam (breadth) of 55 feet, and a crew of 367 to maintain it. The Bible doesn’t mention stalls, or stables in which to house the animals, just that they’re supposed to be there. Exactly how many are supposed to be there is subject to debate.

In Genesis 6:19-20, God instructs Noah to bring two of every kind of animal on board the ark. Genesis 7:1-4 gives us a different story, however, as Noah is told to bring aboard seven pairs of every clean animal, male and female, one pair of every kind of unclean animal, and seven pairs of every bird. This raises a couple of issues; first, and most obviously, why is there a difference in numbers? Second, and more importantly, nowhere in Genesis up to this point, has a distinction been made between clean and unclean animals. Noah is only eight generations removed from the time when Adam and Eve inhabited the garden with all the animals that had been created equally by God. No covenant existed between God and any of Noah’s forerunners which designated such terms. It’s not until the time of the Exodus, many generations after Noah, that God establishes the concept of people or animals being clean and unclean, which is defined in Leviticus 11. This issue will come up again later, once the flood waters recede. God gives Noah a week to sort out all of this, and get the animals on board the ark.

So to sum up, God has left Noah to build a huge ark, using a standard of measurement that hasn’t yet been invented, and instructed Noah to populate the ark with animals that meet a ritualistic criterion he’s unfamiliar with. It’s at this point where we must question how much the Jewish scribes exiled in Babylon must have embellished the story as they were writing it down, since all these concepts would have been very familiar to them. Nevertheless, Noah meets the challenge with the typical can-do attitude one expects from a Biblical patriarch and gets everything done just in time for God to seal him, his family, and all the animals and birds inside the ark, just before the floodgates open up.

Then it started to rain, and rain, and rain. Forty days and nights it rained, until the ark was floating around to who knows where. All the while, Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were locked inside with lots of animals roaming freely about the ark, and while a distinction had been drawn between clean and unclean animals, after about forty days, it’s most likely the conditions inside were closer to the latter. Genesis states that the water rose to cover the mountains by more than fifteen cubits, or 270 to 315 feet.

Just to be sure a thorough job was done, God let the waters stay around for a hundred and fifty days, leaving Noah and the inhabitants of the ark to their own devices. Finally, God remembered Noah and company were floating around out there, and started having the waters recede. Eventually the ark came to rest somewhere among the “mountains” of Ararat, which many have identified as Mount Ararat, located in modern day Turkey, which, to this day, lures adventurers to seek out the ark, whenever the Turkish government lets them go there. Why any sensible person would believe a crude wooden structure, exposed to the elements for several thousand years would still be intact, is anyone’s guess. Since there doesn’t seem to be any sort of scholarly consensus on exactly where the mountains of Ararat are, we may never know the actual final resting place of the ark. Noah gets out, sacrifices some of the clean animals as a burnt offering to God, observing a ritual which won’t be required until god’s covenant with the children of Israel, then sets out with his wife, his sons, and their wives, to repopulate the earth. God decides not to wipe out the human race again, and shows Noah a rainbow to prove God means it.

We know what happened, but what does it all mean? Once again, God doesn’t come across as very adept at understanding the creatures it has created, and rather than seeking a creative solution, or trying to talk things out, God decides to wipe everyone out and start over from scratch. The same God, who will later send plagues and famine to assault the Egyptians, and smash the Tower of Babel, while confusing everyone’s speech, can’t come up with a better solution than flooding the entire earth, while forcing the only worthy people God can find to take refuge in a creaky boat with every sort of animal imaginable for more than a year. God also doesn’t exhibit an understanding of modern genetics, or the number of creatures necessary to successfully repopulate a given habitat. After smelling the aroma from Noah’s sacrifice, God finally has a reflective moment and decides that maybe it overreacted a bit and promises not to kill everyone again. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.

People are fond of citing flood narratives in other cultures, such as those of the native tribes in America, as evidence that the Biblical account of the flood in Genesis is true. There’s a more logical reason for similarities in these stories, however. People need water, and to survive, a civilization needs access to a reliable source of water, for both drinking and agriculture. It’s no mistake that the earliest human civilizations can be traced to the “fertile crescent” situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq. As has been evidenced many times in the U.S. one consequence of living near a source of water, such as a river or large stream, is that it makes a region more flood-prone. Insurance companies either won’t insure, or will charge astronomical premiums for people living in low-lying areas where flooding is common. The fact that different people around the world have accounts in their histories of floods of “Biblical” proportions, does not necessarily mean they experienced the flood spoken of in Genesis.

So, what happened next? After disembarking from the ark, Noah, identified as the most righteous man on earth, so much so, that his was the only family spared in the deluge, planted a vineyard, made himself some wine, and got so drunk off it, he passed out naked in his tent. His son, Ham saw him and, instead of covering Noah, went to tell his brothers about it, who devised a way of covering Noah without observing him unclothed. In another curious episode, once Noah finds out about the incident, he doesn’t get on Ham’s case about it, but rather curses Ham’s son Canaan, making him subservient to the other sons. It’s probably no coincidence that the son’s name just happens to be the same as that of the land the descendants of Shem will conquer several hundred years later. The Bible’s funny like that.

4 thoughts on “Real Bible Studies: The Flood

  1. I believe most of the stories in the Bible to be allegorical. There’s obviously been editorial oversight throughout Genesis by someone with a different point of view than the denizens of the stories.

    1. That makes sense. I think the from the time of Abraham etc probably to around the mid 19th century (or later), the consensus was that they were allegorical, certainly the Old Testament stories. Literalism is a modern invention, I believe.

      1. I think a lot of the religious stories of the time were allegories based on astrological phenomena. Most of Jesus’ parables were, by his own admission. He told his followers he spoke in parables to the crowds and revealed the true meaning to his closest followers.

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