The Search for Noah’s Flood

Scientists are looking in the wrong place

Read Ronald S. Hendel’s article “The Search for Noah’s Flood” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, June 2003. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2014.—Ed.


 

Ronald Hendel

On my wall is a newspaper headline proclaiming, “Noah’s Ark Found in Pennsylvania! Scientist: Old Testament ship is buried in mountainside—and it looks exactly like the Bible says!” Slightly lower on the same page is another headline, “Kitty survives after being sucked into vacuum cleaner!” Now you know where I get most of my news about the Bible, once I finish my Bible Review.

Another headline about the flood has flickered on newspapers and TV in recent years. Two geologists at Columbia University made a splash when they announced that a massive flooding of the Black Sea 7,500 years ago may have been the origin of the biblical Flood legend. Shortly thereafter they published a book called Noah’s Flood about their theory.1 More recently a team of marine biologists has announced that there was no massive flooding of the Black Sea at that time, based on their study of the sediments in the sea floors of the region. So it seems that the headlines were premature. Noah’s Flood hasn’t been found in the Black Sea.

But let’s imagine that the first guys were right, and that there was a massive flooding of the Black Sea around 5500 B.C.E. What, if anything, does this have to do with Noah’s Flood?

Biblical scholars will tell you that the Flood Story in Genesis 6–9 (actually stories in the plural, since there are two versions woven together in these chapters)2 derives most directly not from an actual event, but from earlier stories. The earlier stories are from ancient Mesopotamia, best known from the Gilgamesh Epic (Standard Babylonian version, c. 1100 B.C.E.) and the Atrahasis Epic (Old Babylonian, c. 1700 B.C.E.).3 In these stories we learn of a wise man named Atrahasis (later known as Utnapishtim) whom the god Enki saves from a cosmic flood by commanding him to build an ark, put all animal species on it, and save himself and his family. The ark eventually lands on a mountain called Mt. Nimush, which has been identified with Pir Omar Gudrun, an impressive mountain in the Kurdish region of Iraq, northeast of Kirkuk. (Our marines probably have a couple of Humvees parked by this mountain around now.)
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
 

 
The biblical versions of this older story name the flood hero Noah, but many of the details are reminiscent of the Mesopotamian story. In his classic commentary on Genesis, E.A. Speiser concludes, “It is clear that Hebrew tradition must have received its material from some intermediate … source, and that it proceeded to adjust the data to its own needs and concepts.”4 One adjustment was to relocate the mountain where the Ark lands to a higher mountain range to the north, “the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4) in eastern Turkey. The highest of these mountains is today called Mt. Ararat, and it is nearly 17,000 feet high.

If we wanted to find the flood that gave rise to the legend of Noah’s Flood, it seems to me that we should look for a big flood in northern Mesopotamia, not one in the Black Sea. And, indeed, there is archaeological evidence for many local floods in ancient Mesopotamia, since the Tigris and Euphrates rivers occasionally flood. Even a relatively small flood can be catastrophic if it kills many people in your village, and from this local trauma a story can grow and grow, until it takes on cosmic proportions. (Compare how a battle for a Late Bronze Age city in western Anatolia became Homer’s Trojan War, in which even the Greek gods are locked in battle.)

Many cultures have flood stories, and it is no coincidence that many cultures suffer from local floods. It is more compelling to connect these phenomena than to appeal to the melting of the Ice Age glaciers or a hypothetical flooding of the Black Sea. Stories happen. Even stories enshrined in the Bible. The best stories, of course, are a vehicle for profound insights into our relation to the world, each other, and God (or, for the Old Babylonians among us, the gods). The biblical story of Noah’s Flood is an exemplary and immortal narrative in this respect. Even if it didn’t happen, it’s a true story.
 


 
“The Search for Noah’s Flood” by Ronald S. Hendel originally appeared in Bible Review, June 2003. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on March 26, 2014.
 

 

Notes:

1. William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

2. Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 53–60.

3. See the recent translations of Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Penguin, 2000).

4. E.A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), p. 55. See also the superb essay of William L. Moran, “A Mesopotamian Myth and Its Biblical Transformation,” in Moran, The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature, ed. Ronald S. Hendel (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association, 2002), pp. 59–74.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Rock Giants in Noah

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

Where Noah Landed?

The Curse of Ham—A New Reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Exodus as Cultural Memory: Poetics, Politics and the Past
Ronald Hendel’s lecture presented at the conference Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination at UCSD.
 


 

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  • Rayburne says

    We have many scientists today who are “Ever learning , and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). How can they they when they not believe that the Creator-God was able to convey to fallen humanity His divine will and plan in written form, including the Genesis account of the global Flood of Noah (Genesis 6 to 9), without error , which is why they start with the wrong premise–that Genesis is a myth or story borrowed from ancient Babylonian clay tablets (i.e. Gilgamesh Epic or recent Babylonian clay tablet that makes the ridiculous claim that Noah’s Ark was round. So you has a very unstable ship the shape of a huge cube or square box in the Gilgamesh Epic and now you have another obvious corruption of the original Genesis account (Genesis 6 to 9) that postulates the Ark was round. Brilliant? Bible skeptics and liberal theologians would have us believe that the Jews who wrote the Bible borrowed myths of Babylonian origin concerning the Genesis Flood from the Gilgamesh Epic or a recently discovered 4000-year-old Babylonian clay tablet that postulates that Noah’s Ark was round. The big problem with this assumption is that the details of the Genesis account of a global flood are far more reasonable and believable than those of the Gilgamesh Epic and this Babylonian clay tablet, which merely reflect the true record of divine revelation (Genesis 6 to 9). For example, ship builders have calculated that Noah’s Ark (dimensions 300 cubits x 50 cubits x 30 cubits or 450 feet long by 75 feet wide by 45 feet high), with a rectangular or barge shape and a very low center of gravity (ratio 6:1) was an extremely seaworthy and stable ship compared to the dimensions of the ship in the Gilgamesh Epic (dimensions 10 rods by 10 rods by 10 rods or 165 ft. by 165 ft. by 165 ft.), which was shaped like a cube or square box and would not have been very stable in a global flood of very turbulent and high waves. The global flood of Genesis lasted 150 days before the waters receded whereas the flood in the Gilgamesh Epic lasted one week only, hardly sufficient to bring about a global cataclysmic flood as evidenced by the worldwide distribution of billions of fossils of all life-forms (many more examples).

    The true record of the Genesis Flood–given by inspiration of God to Moses, the author of the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis, from the time of creation to the world-wide flood of Noah–is supported not only by God’s providence in preserving His inspired, infallible Word over the centuries until it was finally compiled, edited, and written down by Moses, as evidenced by the accuracy and credibility of its details, but also by the One-Source Theory that leads back to the historical event of the Flood and Noah’s Ark, by the fact that the Hebrews were well known for handing down their records and tradition, and also the fact that the Book of Genesis is viewed for the most part as an historical work, even by many liberal scholars, while the Epic of Gilgamesh is viewed as mythological. On the other hand, it is quite inconceivable that the details of the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as those of this subsequent Babylonian tablet, could be handed down for hundreds of thousands of years (Gilgamesh cuneiform tablets date as far back as 4,000 years), to be fully incorporated in the Gilgamesh Epic of the Babylonians or even later Babylonian clay tablet without being corrupted. By the way, the Gilgamesh Epic alone delivers a fatal blow to the idea of a vast antiquity for Noah and the Flood. God bless.

  • Hendrik says

    Why not include the Atlantis myth as a myth which tell of an inundation of a whole continent? Scientists know that different parts of the planet emerged and sinked, but always they were supposing that there were no people living in those times. So not necessarily we have to look at Mesopotamia. We have to look at those parts of the sea where buildings were seen deep down.

  • Isiaiah says

    Your mind is not God’s mind. the flood was real worldwide

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