Thinking Through the “Noah’s Ark” Myth January 14, 2011Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
In his most recent special on HBO, the hilarious Ricky Gervais got to talking about the Noah’s Ark story, during the course of which he mentioned that there are about five million species of animals, birds, and insects alive today. (Actually, the true total is probably closer to TEN million species.) Even if we discount a million or two species for aquatic life, that’s a LOT of animals for Noah, a nomad allegedly living around 2350 BCE in what today we would call Palestine, to round up and fit into a large wooden box (the literal meaning of “ark”) measuring 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. To help you envision this wooden chest: the U.S.S. Alabama is 680 feet long, 108 feet wide, and 194 feet tall, and displaces 40,000 tons. Frigates, used in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, were about 212 feet long, 48 feet wide, and 19.5 feet tall, and displaced 1,600 tons. The Mayflower was about 95 feet long and about 25 feet wide and displaced about 180 tons. 450 feet is a football field and a half — two fifty-yard lines dividing thirds. I’d guess that a wooden box the dimensions of the Ark would probably have displaced around 10,000 tons.
(For people who enjoy Bible trivia: In Exodus 2:3, the original Hebrew tells us that Moses’s mother set her baby adrift in an “ark”; it was made of papyrus, or mashed river reeds, and sealed with daubed-on petroleum tar and plant-based tar, or resin.)
The most ancient parts of the Bible were set into writing around 1000 BCE, but contain myths that must have been centuries older — in the case of the Noah’s Ark story, millennia older. Scholars have argued that the myth in the Bible (which is a riff on the Sumerians’ Bronze Age myth about the Great Flood, the Enûma Eliš), is based on rising sea levels caused by the end of the last Ice Age around 10000 BCE; by a massive flood caused by the sudden draining of the gigantic prehistoric Lake Agassis around 8400 BCE, which would have raised sea levels around the world by up to 9 meters; by a catastrophic deluge of the Mediterranean into the Black Sea around 5600 BCE; by a tsunami in the Mediterranean caused by the Thera eruption around 1630 BCE; or the pre-literate race memory of all of the above conflated into one.
Darwin-haters like to proclaim that these ancient myths are the same sort of literal history one sees in encyclopedias today, or school textbooks in states that do NOT practice revisionist history (as do Texas, Kansas, and other “Bible-believing” states). For example, bibliolaters insist that the world was literally created at 9:30 a.m. on October 23, 4004 BCE, and every historical fact suggesting otherwise, like the fossil record, was created by God to make fools of paleontologists, paleoarcheologists, paleobotanists, archeologists, historians, astronomers, physicists, biologists, educated laypeople, and other evil non-believers. Why God should go to all this trouble, why God should want to deceive skadillions of intelligent people from around 1870 CE to around 18700000000000 CE — why a truth- and justice-loving God would want to deceive in the first place — no one ever seems to have plausible reasons for.
The FACT is that today’s idea of literal history first came into general acceptance during the Enlightenment, just a few hundred years ago. And the FACT is that just because an ancient text presents myths does NOT make the ancient text fiction. The TV show “Mythbusters” is entitled that because “Urbanlegendbusters” isn’t easy to say or fit into a TV guide. Myths are NOT fiction! Myths are theology presented in narrative form, simple enough for children and fools to understand — even conservative Christians — and subtle enough for scholars to argue about for millennia. In ancient cultures, myths that taught about the relationship between humanity and the divine were “true history,” while fables were “false history.”
In my opinion, most Christian theologians did not imagine or pretend that the Bible was literal history until Darwin’s theories began gaining acceptance among educated people and frightening the ignorant and simplistic; call it 140 or so years ago. Evolution is not a theory but a fact. It is Darwin’s 1859 theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) that upsets people who are ignorant and theologically unsophisticated. It is instructive for Christians who realize that the Christian Testament is dependent on the Hebrew Scriptures to notice that Jews, for whom the Hebrew Scriptures were written, do not believe their ancient writings are as historically factual as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The myths of the Bible are not literal history, no matter what “Bible believers” proclaim. I would like some dedicated young skeptic to demonstrate this with some work on the Noah myth. If the Noah myth is not theology teaching that God will rescue the righteous and radically faithful through any catastrophe, but rather a factual historical account of real-world events written to 20th-century standards of veracity, how would it have happened in the real world? For example:
- To build the U.S.S. Alabama, a battleship, it took 3,000 men and women working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 30 consecutive months (February 1, 1940 – August 16, 1942) — completing their work an amazing nine months ahead of schedule. Building the Titanic took about five years.
- How long did it take Noah to find, chop down (with a small stone or possibly bronze axe), season, transport, cut (with a small stone or possibly bronze saw), shape, nail together (assuming nails were available in prehistoric Canaan), and seal all the trees needed for AT LEAST 216,525 square feet of wood strong enough to support thousands of pounds of weight, plus load-bearing walls, plus interior rooms, stalls, pens, staircases, etc? How much pitch (tar made from plants, or resin) would Noah have needed to seal more than 114,750 square feet of exterior against a year’s immersion, and how would he have obtained so many thousands of gallons?
- How long would it have taken Noah, working single-handedly or with the help of his three sons, six days a week, ten hours a day, to build and seal a wooden box 450′ by 75′ by 45′ with three decks and an 18-inch overhang on the roof, more than twice the size of the largest ships built in the 19th century CE, roughly three-fourths the size of a 20th-century battleship, roughly 14 times larger than the Mayflower? God told Noah to make three decks, but apparently did not give Noah any more specific design instructions. As we will see below, whether it was 10000 BCE, 8400 BCE, 5600 BCE, or the 2348 BCE alleged by the Bible’s chronology, everyone in the world was illiterate and uneducated in the design and construction of gigantic vessels. How did Noah design the Ark to house hundreds of carnivores and many hundreds of herbivores (see below), AND all the food these animals needed? He would have needed to leave passageways around the perimeter of each deck and do frequent checks for leaks. He would have needed several staircases to get from deck to deck; 450 feet by 75 feet is not exactly cozy. He would have needed lots of support beams and load-bearing walls; a deck of 33,750 square feet, supporting thousands of tons of weight, is not going to hold itself up. He would have needed lots of stalls, pens, and cages, as well as ample storage. The Bible does NOT say that God magicked up the Ark, its contents, and all its passengers for Noah; it unmistakably implies Noah did all the work all himself.
- The nomads of ancient Palestine had no way of knowing about the existence of koalas, raccoons, penguins, giraffes, lemurs, walruses, platypuses, or millions of other species. So my dedicated young skeptic has my permission to limit “all flesh” to the 120 species mentioned in the Bible. HOWEVER, many species known to the Bible are carnivores (dogs, lions, eagles, etc.), so Noah would have had to stock lots of “extra” sheep, goats, etc. to feed the carnivores. My young friend should start with “List of the Animals in the Bible,” and then proceed to “Which Animals Does the Bible Designate as ‘Clean’ and ‘Unclean’?”, which tweaks out the 35 clean species of birds, mammals, and insects.
- There are also 47 species of clean fish, which leads me to wonder exactly what Yahweh expected Noah to do about the salt-water species once the oceans were diluted with at least three billion cubic kilometers (792,000,000,000 gallons) of rainwater. Some scholars have estimated that to cover Mt. Everest with 250 feet of water (Gen. 7:19) would require ten times as much water as exists on Earth today in every ocean, lake, river, etc. Wouldn’t that mean 11 times as much pressure at ocean bottom? Wouldn’t that much pressure and that much fresh water kill off all saltwater life?
- The Bible specifies that Noah was to gather seven breeding pairs of each species of ritually clean animals and birds, but only one breeding pair of each “unclean” species. There are 20 different species of vultures alone. There are 40,000 species of spiders, 160,000 species of moths, 17,500 species of butterflies, and 350,000 species of beetles. Millions of species merely of the animals known to the Bible, each of which was to be represented by one or seven breeding pairs. (Preferably with pregnant females, I presume, for fertility and restocking-the-Earth purposes.) That is insane. I hereby give my skeptic permission to limit himself to one species each of every lifeform mentioned in the Bible. Dromedary camels, yes; bactrian camels must drown.
- Several of the life-forms mentioned in the Bible would have been unobtainable, including the basilisk, the camelopardalis, the cockatrice, the dispas, the dragon, the faun — and that’s just the first few letters of the alphabet! How did Noah obtain the unobtainable? Why are none of the mythological and fantastic animals mentioned in the Bible, like the unicorn or the lamia (a female monster whose food is human blood), represented in any fossil record outside of fundamentalist theme parks? . . . Oh, yeah: For some unexplainable reason, an all-loving, all-forgiving, truth-justice-and-the-American-way-only God wants to deceive intelligent people and all non-believers.
- Limiting the animal passengers in the Ark to one species of each genus mentioned in the Bible works out to a rock-bottom minimum of 490 clean animals and birds plus 170 unclean ones; but as I mentioned earlier, many of these species are carnivores, so Noah would have had to stock up on lots of “extra” prey animals. Once on dry land, Noah immediately began making sacrifices of thanksgiving to Yahweh, so he would have had to stock up on extra cattle, sheep, and goats as well. We also need to keep in mind that, as we’ll see in a moment, Noah would have had to stock the Ark with at least a year’s worth of food (see below) for at least 1,000 animals, discounting for eaten prey but adding for extra chicks, baby mice, kittens, puppies, calves, kids, lambs, etc., etc.
- The Bible tells us that it rained for 40 days and nights, the Ark drifted for 150 days, and then the water receded for 150 days. It also says it took four weeks from the time Noah began sending out birds to the day the reconnaissance dove failed to return, and another ten days between the time the Ark came to rest and the day Yahweh told the human survivors to disembark. While the Bible contradicts itself on these details (why did Noah bother sending out reconnaissance birds when he could see he couldn’t “land” and release his cargo?), I think it’s appropriate when dealing with fundamentalists to take the Bible as literally as they do: 378 days aboard the Ark, which is almost two weeks longer than a year). My dedicated young skeptic needs to figure out how much space would be needed to store the food needed for a rock-bottom minimum of 1,000 animals of all sizes for more than a year.
- Noah had 33,750 square feet per deck (the Ark was shaped like a box, not a ship; it had no steering mechanism or intended destination) available to handle load-bearing walls, staircases, companionways, human living space, stalls, cages, hives, nests, food storage, bilges, etc.; excrement disposal, leak repair, and similar maintenance chores; and feeding, grooming, exercising, animal doctoring, eaten-carcass disposal, etc., for 378 days in the Ark. My young skeptic needs to figure out how many square feet per deck would be needed for food storage, given that unrefrigerated food tends to rot; you wouldn’t want one bad apple spoiling not just the barrel but the entire year’s food supply. My young skeptic also needs to figure out how to keep all this food fresh for 13-plus months using nothing but Bronze Age technology. I’m not sure that leaf-eating beetles, for example, would much appreciate the sort of dead-leaf piles that kids used to love to jump into in northern autumns.
- Next, my young skeptic needs to design a system that will allow the storage of a year’s worth of food for both herbivores and carnivores of various sizes. Mice, cockroaches, and other vermin can subsist on scraps, but what about the oryxes, the bisons, the elephants (100 pounds of food per day, each), the aurochs? The eagles, the ptarmigans, the owls, the chickens? The sheep, the cattle, the pigs, the dogs? How and with what did Noah feed the dragons, the leviathans, the camelopardolises, the satyrs, the pygargs, the cockatrices?
- Did I mention that only Noah and his three sons were available to do all the manual work? The women would have been busy the whole preparation time obtaining drinking water, obtaining firewood, obtaining food, grinding flour, baking bread, preparing lentils, plucking olives and pressing them for oil, cleaning, weaving, sewing, infant and child care, being “doctor mom” (there were no physicians, of course), and all the other drudgeries of female life in 2350 BCE. The first alphabet was invented around 2200 BCE. How long would it have taken four illiterate, uneducated, inexperienced nomads first to design, build, and outfit the Ark (not merely enormous for its era but colossal) and make it watertight; then to obtain first the food to feed 1,000 animals for more than a year, then to store the food aboard the Ark; and then to obtain the 1,000-plus animals themselves? . . . Could they have done it all in the six working days that the Bible says Yahweh gave them (Gen. 7:4)? Remember, if the Bible is in fact literal history, we can’t just say “God magicked it all”; we have to provide a rational, real-world explanation for “Noah did as God commanded.”
- Bill Cosby’s comedy routine portrayed Noah as saying to God, “Have you looked at the mess [of excrement] in the bottom of the Ark? Who’s going to clean up down there? Not me, I’ll tell you that!” (To which God’s response is an ominous clap of thunder and the sound of more rain beginning.) How much excrement would eight humans, their presumptive infants and children, and a minimum of 1,000 animals generate every day? In MY opinion, Noah and his sons would have had to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week (the heck with the Sabbath) shovelling poop, taking it up onto the top deck, and dumping it over the side. And forget all other requirements of animal care, like feeding, grooming, exercising, or veterinary care; forget patrolling for leaks, plugging leaks, eating, sleeping, frakking the spouse, complaining about the weather, or any other reality of the waterborne lifestyle.
- Coin money is relatively recent: the Lydians invented coins in 700 BCE. Whenever Noah lived, “money” consisted of cattle, lambs, and goats (and for NON-Hebrews, pigs). How much would building and stocking the Ark cost in today’s money? Billions? How did an illiterate nomad in 2350 BCE come up with that kind of economic power? The Bible does NOT say that God magicked this economic power; it says that “Noah . . . did as God commanded.”
- According to the Bible’s chronology, in 2348 BCE there were exactly eight human beings alive on Earth, plus about 1,000 animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, plus whatever terrestrial plants survived a year without sunlight, oxygen, or fertilization. According to Wikipedia, the human population of the Earth was about five million continuously between about 8000 BCE and about 1000 BCE. Assuming that both the Bible and paleontology are strictly factual, how did we get from three women of childbearing age in 2348 BCE to 5,000,000 people in 2347 BCE? How did we get from eight Canaanites living near a mountain in today’s Turkey to a world full of Semites (“descendants of Noah’s son Shem”), Mediterraneans, Celts, Chinese, Africans (descendants of Noah’s son Ham, according to slavery apologists), Europeans, Indians, Eskimoes, Caucasians, Native Americans, Samoans, Aztecs, Maoris, aborigines, Vikings, Eskimos, etc., in both 2348 BCE and 2347 BCE?
- And what about the water pressure? Calculations have shown that to cover the entire Earth with water, “250 feet” above the top of Mt. Everest, would require ten times as much water as exists in all oceans, lakes, rivers, etc. today. I don’t know what the PSI is at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but it strikes me that eleven times that pressure comes out as a lot. My young skeptic needs to show which species would have died from all that fresh water, and which species would have died from being smooshed by the weight of all that water.
- I want my young skeptic to compile a sophisticated list of every life form that literalists insist God mass-murdered. Five million human beings. X million rabbits. X billion mice. X billion ruminants. X trillion insects. You get the idea. This time the skeptic should not be limited to the species known to the Bible; everything should be included, from manatees to marsupials, from forests to coral reefs, from penguins to polar bears. How many quadrillions of lives were lost so that eight human beings and approximately 1,000 animals and birds could live?
- And speaking of paleontology, why is there nothing in today’s fossils’ DNA record to indicate that every species of life on earth is descended from one, seven, or in the humans’ case three breeding pairs? According to the Bible’s chronology, the Flood took place in 2348 BCE. The Great Pyramid in Egypt was built between 2600 and 2500 BCE, and Stonehenge, in England, was also completed around 2500 BCE.
Why does neither the Great Pyramid nor Stonehenge bear any trace of having been submerged for most of a year? Why wasn’t the Stone Age cave art in Lascaux, France, washed away, or the ancient pottery of China, Japan, and India melted into mud pies?
Oh, yeah, I forgot: God magicked away all the evidence because “he” wants to deceive rational skeptics for some unexplainable reason.
If the Bible is a collection of ancient myths, sacred narratives meant to illustrate the relationship between God and humanity in a form simple enough to entertain children, fools, and fundamentalists as they were being educated, we can answer all these questions with “miracle.” God miraculously answered all the questions I’ve come up with here, and all the ones I haven’t thought of yet. The point of the Noah’s Ark myth is not to provide a real-world historical record of the extermination of 99.9999 percent of all life on Earth because a violent, unthinking divine mass murderer was too stupid to create human beings who were not genetically, irreversibly “corrupt and full of violence,” even the toddlers and babes in arms. The point is to to teach what the ancients thought was theological truth: that if you pursue justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (are “righteous”) AND live in radical trust of God’s goodness, like Noah, God will save you from even the worst catastrophes.
If instead the Bible is literal history written by God “him”self, as fundamentalists and evangelicals insist, then all the above questions must be answered with either literal, verifiable history or with rational arguments and proofs: Here is the fossil record showing that all dogs on Earth are descended from one breeding pair. Here is the scientific evidence indicating that Great Pyramid and Stonehenge were buried under miles of water for more than a year. Here are the ancient writings and DNA studies indicating that everyone on Earth, black and white, yellow and red, is descended from four pre-semitic women living near Mt. Ararat in 2350 BCE. Here are the reasons to believe that even newborn babies, kittens, puppies, and bunnies can be corrupt, full of violence, and worthy of extermination.
And more to the point, the “Bible believers” need to explain why God would destroy five million human beings, including every baby and every child, as well as countless quadrillions of animals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, trees, flowers, bushes, and dolphins, whales coral reefs, and other saltwater life, bacteria, and viruses because “the world was corrupt and full of violence.” Did 9-year-old Christina Green need to be murdered because people like Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay are corrupt and Sarah Palin likes to shoot wild animals (especially from the comfort of small aircraft), urges her followers to “reload,” places crosshairs on her opponents, and agrees that the Tree of Liberty needs to be nourished with the blood of Democrats in violent armed rebellion against the “tyranny” of quasi-democratically elected leaders?
Hitler killed roughly one-third of the Jews in Germany, and history calls him a monster. According to Bible believers, God killed 99.9999999 percent of everything alive on Earth, and this ultimate mass-murder demonstrates the loving compassion Jesus spoke of so eloquently.
If an all-knowing and all-powerful God wrote the Bible and wrote it to be as historically factual as an encyclopedia, as “Bible believers” insist, then why must believers come up with so many incredibly convoluted explanations to cover the many, many problems similar to the ones discussed above? (Three more quick examples: Leviticus 11:6 tells us that rabbits and hares chew their cud like cows. 1 Kings 7:23 tells us that pi equals 45 divided by 15, or 3.0. Exodus 17:8-13 tells us that Moses had body odor so powerful it could kill non-Hebrew enemies from hundreds of yards away but leave the Hebrew warriors alive.)
Why must literalists come up with so many excuses for God? (“All the babies in the world were corrupt and full of violence, and deserved to die!”) Why should an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-loving God need to be either excused or defended by weak, poorly educated, locally present, unloving mortals?
A “literal history” reading of the book of Exodus shows that the bibliolaters’ God is quite capable of mass-murdering Egyptian babies selectively; one-month-old big brother gets Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but not his minutes-younger fraternal twin. But even if in 2348 BCE every adult on Earth was “corrupt and full of violence,” why couldn’t God have hunted down and mass-murdered the corrupt and violent selectively, and allowed millions of innocent babies, children, lambs, kittens, puppies, kids, calves, foals, chicks, bunnies, buds, saplings, coral reefs, etc. to live in peace, to love and serve their God?
Please, young skeptic, get to work!