Noah and His Flood: History or Fantasy?
|By Guy Freeland|
honorary lecturer at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney
The story of Noah and his Flood is one of the great ‘Ripping Yarns’ of all time. Even children like myself brought up in humanist or neo-pagan households (the latter in my case) learn the story at their mother’s apron strings.
Now, an interesting thing is that it is not just children in cultures which have inherited the Old Testament who have been told the story of the Great Flood but children in very different cultures going back centuries, perhaps millennia, before ever the biblical version of the yarn was written down.
In fact, over three hundred ancient versions of the story have been collected by scholars. Sure, some of the details differ from version to version, and Noah might be called Utnapishtim, Atrahasis or Deucalion, but the essential story line is invariably much the same as that of the biblical narrative (Genesis 6-9).
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Mesopotamian Flood Myths
|That there were Mesopotamian myths about a cataclysmic flood and the building of a great boat stocked with plants and animals by a righteous man forewarned by a god was not known until 1872, when George Smith announced his discovery of a fragment of the story in cuneiform writing on a clay tablet.
The story was part of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. This account is now believed to have been borrowed from the Sumerian Flood myth, which has also been recovered. Though the earliest known copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh dates only from the seventh century BC, that of the most extensive Flood narrative, the Epic of Atrahasis, dates from the seventeenth century BC.
What came as a real shock was not so much that there were pre-biblical tales about apocalyptic floods, but that many details were so close that there could be no reasonable doubt that Mesopotamian Flood myths and the biblical story must be connected in some way.
In Genesis, after the Ark had come to rest on a mountain, Noah first released a raven, which flew around until the waters eventually subsided. He then released a dove, but the dove returned as she could find nowhere to roost. A week later he released the dove again and this time she returned with an olive leaf in her beak, indicating that the flood was subsiding. A further week passed and Noah released the dove for a third time, but on this occasion she did not return.
In the Gilgamesh version, Utnapishtim, the Gilgamesh Noah, released first a dove and then a swallow, both of which returned having found no trees in which to roost. Finally he released a raven which did not return. The details are not identical but are so close as to make coincidence extremely improbable. So with several other components of the biblical story.
Does this mean that the biblical story is simply a reworking, for theological reasons, of Mesopotamian Flood mythology; or rather two reworkings, as biblical scholars are agreed that the Genesis account is the combination of the, not entirely compatible, work of two groups of redactors (editors)?. Possibly, but it is also possible that both the Hebrew and the Mesopotamian versions derive from an earlier common widespread oral tradition of a cataclysmic flood. This tradition might have been reworked in different times and places, perhaps in response to a recent severe local flood. Various candidates for this supposed original flood have been proposed, including the eruption of the volcano Santorini.
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The Mother of All Floods?
|Recent scientific evidence from cores taken from the floor of the Black Sea has, however, led to a very plausible theory as to the identity of this hypothetical mother of all floods.
In brief, the theory is that as the Eurasian Ice Sheet melted after the last Ice Age a huge freshwater lake was formed, which has been named the New Euxine Lake, with a drainage outlet to the Sea of Marmara via the Sakarya River, not the Bosporus as today. The, then fresh water, Sea of Marmara in its turn drained into the Aegean.
As the flow of glacial melt water declined, evaporation from the lake came to exceed water flowing into the lake and the level dropped below the level of the Sakarya outlet. The lake was now land-locked and its level continued to drop as rainfall declined. Almost certainly, thriving Neolithic (New Stone Age) communities would have become established around the remnants of the New Euxine Lake.
But while all of this was occurring, the rising global sea level was putting pressure on the Bosporus valley, with the result that eventually, c. 5600 BC, the sea broke through this natural dam blocking the greatly diminished New Euxine Lake from the, now salt water, Sea of Marmara. As the Bosporus dam was swept away, the sea water would have cascaded down into the lake basin hundreds of feet below at an incredible rate and with enormous force until the level, of what we can now call the Black Sea, equalled that of the Mediterranean.
The effects on the Neolithic communities would have been catastrophic. All would have been forced to flee or face drowning as the waters rose over their homes. In these circumstances, some enterprising patriarch may well have hastily built a mighty boat and stocked it with seeds, plants and domestic animals so that a new beginning could be made when the inundation finally came to a halt.
There is much in the biblical story which is consistent with such an event. The description of the Flood doesn’t fit a mere river flood but something altogether more catastrophic. That the Ark supposedly came to rest in the Ararat Mountains (the Hebrew doesn’t say Mount Ararat) also suggests a Black Sea flood, as Ararat (or Urartu) is a mountainous region of Armenia at the South East end of the Black
Certainly, the Flood myths were believed in Ancient times to have their origin in an actual cataclysmic flood. Writing around 300 BC, the Babylonian historian, Berossus, reports that remains of the Ark still existed in Armenia in his day and were used for making amulets. However, none of the several recent claims that the Ark has been found has been substantiated. So where does this leave us?
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Interpreting the Biblical Story
|Clearly, the biblical story of the Flood could be grounded in an actual historical event. But even if the story does have an origin in fact, there are numerous aspects of the biblical narrative which are clearly mythopoeic in character. For instance, the reference to the sons of God (divine beings belonging to the heavenly court) mating with human women (Genesis 6:2) obviously derives from primal myth.
Although some modern biblical scholars have argued that the Flood might have been local rather than universal, since the Hebrew word translated as Earth also meant country or land, the text clearly refers to a universal flood, and it has always been so interpreted in the past. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:5 also definitely seems to be referring to a world wide flood.
However, that a flood could have covered the whole Earth, much less up to the mountain tops, can be ruled out on scientific grounds. Further, the whole story is grounded in a typically primal mythopoeic flat earth cosmology that was abandoned (contrary to popular belief) by almost all educated people within the Ecumene (the known world) as early as Hellenistic times.
Then there is the problem of how to pack all the animals into the Ark. There have been many ingenious, but implausible, attempts to show that by rounding up young rather than mature animals and the like this could have been possible. But even if all the creatures could have been accommodated, how on earth could Noah and his band of seven helpers have rounded up animals from every continent?
Did Noah send his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, off to Australia (which nobody even knew existed or could exist) to ensnare kangaroos, koalas and goannas, calling in on China on the way home to round up a couple of giant pandas plus a supply of bamboo shoots on which to feed them?
But now we come to the crux. Does it matter, from an Orthodox theological perspective, whether or not the biblical Flood narrative is an historical record of an actual event, true in every detail?
The answer is that it matters little whether the story is an inerrant historical record, a legend loosely based on an actual event, or a work of total fiction spun in order to encode a spiritual or theological message. What matters is whether the story is Holy Scripture or not, whether or not God speaks to us through it.
The Bible is in fact an anthology of a large number of books written and edited over a long span of time. Moreover, there is a large range of different kinds of literary composition: myths, legends, history, parables, visions, wisdom, liturgical texts, poems and canticles, laws, allegories, apocalypses, gospels, letters and so forth.
Each of these works is, of course, an historical text -- just as the works of Homer or the Epic of Gilgamesh are historical texts -- which has a specific historical context within which it was composed and which needs to be understood in order to determine its literal meaning.
But not all historical texts are historical records, supposedly accurate reports of actual events. There is historical record in the Bible, but there is a great deal which certainly is not historical record. The voice of God speaks in Scripture not only through historical record but through literary forms of the most diverse kinds.
For Orthodox Christians, the whole Bible is interpreted Christocentrically. Christ, the eternal Logos, speaks through every passage of Scripture. But to discern the voice of Christ we frequently need to penetrate beneath the level of literal meaning to expose the underlying spiritual or theological meaning.
This is not to say, though, that correct literal interpretation of Old Testament texts doesn’t frequently convey important spiritual messages for Christians in and of itself. And it is not to say that we can ignore the literal meaning and go straight to what is called the sensus plenior, the underlying fuller, spiritual meaning of Scripture; indeed the Fathers insist that the sensus plenior must be anchored in the literal meaning of the text. This is the case even given that our understanding of the literal meaning of the text will change as we come to understand the language and historical context better. But what it is to say is that to extract the deep Christian meaning of a text we often need to decode the literal meaning in the light of the revelation in Christ.
Fundamentalists and others who insist, in the teeth of all of the evidence, in reading the Genesis Flood narrative as an inerrant historical record are, strangely enough, guilty of de-Scripturising the narrative. What they see as inerrant is not the Logos speaking through the text, but what they believe to be the reporting of a mighty work of God.
Rather than the Holy Spirit infusing the Word into a humanly composed narrative, on this view divine inspiration operates to prevent any error in the reporting of what is asserted to be an actual historical event directly performed by God. The result is not only that literalists frequently find themselves at odds with archaeological, historical and scientific evidence, not to mention plain common sense, but that they frequently miss the real theological or spiritual meanings of biblical narratives entirely. Biblical narratives cease to be Holy Scripture and become mere (albeit for them inerrant) reportage.
But the Fundamentalists’ problems don’t end with trying to account for the logistics of the Ark story, nor with having somehow to square the account with scientific data, they also have a problem concerning the nature of God.
If the Flood narrative is understood literalistically then we are confronted with a vengeful, wrathful, merciless and incompetent tyrant of a god who destroys the whole world in a fit of pique, expressing sorrow for having created humanity and the animals in the first place; even if, at the end of the story, he does redeem himself to some extent by repenting of his monstrous act of carnage and making a covenant with humanity and the animals, of which the rainbow is the sign. But how can such a god be reconciled with the God of love revealed in Christ in the New Testament?
Most biblical scholars believe that the Flood narrative was composed -- whether by reworking Mesopotamian Flood myths or by reworking a Jewish tradition (or, of course, a combination of the two) -- during the Babylonian Exile of the Jews (6th century BC). If this is so, literally (as opposed to literalistically) interpreted the story was most likely intended as an allegory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the ending of the Davidic line of kings and the exile of the people to Babylon. In the Ancient world, cataclysmic floods are often used as metaphors or symbols for great social calamities. Noah and his family would, then, represent the righteous remnant of the Jewish people.
That the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile were indeed likened to the destruction of cosmic order and a return to primordial chaos is confirmed by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:23-26). And here one must recall that prior to God’s first act of creation, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3), ‘The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2).
So interpreted, the Flood narrative is an allegory of hope, which tells of God’s loving protection of His people, despite the appalling calamity which has befallen them. It is an allegory designed to reassure and bring comfort to the people, as they ‘lay down and wept’ by the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137:1 / 136 LXX), that out of the chaos to which their world has been reduced God would create a new order. It was at this very period of Jewish history, scholars have pointed out, that the Jews ceased to think of their God, Yahweh, as one amongst many gods, even if the most powerful, and proclaimed Him as the one and only, omniscient and all-merciful, God.
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The Spiritual Meanings of the Genesis Narrative
|In order to find the fuller spiritual meaning and significance of the Genesis narrative for Orthodox Christians, we need to see what the New Testament, the Fathers and the iconographers make of it.
In the New Testament, the story is interpreted as a type; in other words, a figurative foreshadowing of the Gospel or of the mysteries of the Church. Noah is seen as a type or prefiguring of Christ and also (see Hebrews 11:7 & 2 Peter 2:5) of the righteous Christian.
Christ Himself uses the Flood as a type of His own Second Coming (Matthew 24:37-39 & Luke 17:26-27). And in 1 Peter 3:18-22, the Apostle uses the Flood as a type of Christ’s death and resurrection and of our redemption through baptism, for in baptism we die to sin in the waters of the font and are raised up having been clothed with the resurrected Lord.
In early Christian iconography, the image of Noah rising from the Ark is simultaneously a type of Christ rising from the tomb and of the newly baptised Christian rising from the baptismal waters, born anew into Christ. The dove with a sprig of olive in her beak (which today has become a universal symbol for peace) signifies the Second Coming of Christ, the true olive (and remember that the dove returned twice to the ark).
The Ark itself is seen by the Fathers and the iconographers as a type of the Church, the Ark of salvation, and sometimes it is depicted, as in a twelfth century stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral, as a church building with masonry arches and columns. Moreover, the nave (Latin navis = ship), the main body of a church where the faithful stand, symbolises the Ark. Fathers such as Justin, Irenaeus, Origen and Augustine give allegorical interpretations of almost every detail of the construction of the Ark and of the Flood narrative.
So, irrespective of its authenticity as literal historical record, Christocentrically interpreted the Flood narrative becomes a story of God’s love. It teaches us that we can sacramentally die with Christ, be buried with Him, and be raised up with Him. We can be redeemed, cleansed and re-created through water and the Spirit and find salvation in the Ark of the Church. And we can await in hope the Second Coming of our Lord.
1 Readers interested in the scientific evidence for the Black Sea flood should consult William Ryan and Walter Pitman’s, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, New York: Touchstone, 2000. I acknowledge my debt to information contained in this highly readable book in writing the above paragraphs.
This article was published in The Greek Australian Vema, September 2003, pp.8-9.
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