The story of Noah’s Ark is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament, because it is one of the few miracles that would’ve left behind a literal “flood” of evidence for us to examine. But before we can begin exploring this evidence, we need to ask how we should be interpreting the story of Noah, because not all Christians seem to agree…
“Secularists deny the possibility of a worldwide Flood at all. If they would think from a biblical perspective, however, they would see the abundant evidence for the global Flood.”
“There are no historical facts verifying this biblical account… So, it seems reasonable to read the story of Noah and the flood as an allegory…”
“An integration of all flood and creation passages clearly indicates that the Genesis flood was local in geographic extent.”
So… which is it? Global, local or allegorical?
Navigating Troubled Waters
Up until about the 18th century, most Christians simply accepted the story of Noah as historical fact. But new discoveries and a rising tide of evidence slowly began to erode confidence in the historicity of the flood narrative, leaving many Christians with a boatload of reasons to reject a literal interpretation.
Maintaining a literal stance meant having to potentially defend and explain…
- why most geologists and archaeologists are wrong;
- how four men managed to build a boat large enough to hold all the world’s animals in under 75 years, using nothing but primitive tools, wood and pitch;
- where the flood water came from and where it all went;
- how Noah collected and cared for the over 8 million species that exist today;
- how freshwater fish survived an influx of salt water;
- how Noah obtained animals from distant places;
- how animals became distributed after the flood;
- how Noah obtained food for special diets (e.g. bamboo for the pandas, eucalyptus leaves for the koala bears, etc.);
- how Noah stored a year’s supply of fresh water for all the animals;
- how Noah provided suitable environments for all desert, amphibious and arctic wildlife;
- how so many plants and trees survived the flood;
- what the animals ate after departing the ark;
- why all dinosaurs and many other animals still went extinct;
- how all races sprung up from one family;
- why ice cores don’t contain an obvious “flood lair;”
- why no one else was aboard a boat during the flood,
- and many other issues.
While those who take a literal view have gone to great lengths to provide us with complex explanations, this hasn’t been enough to satisfy the most ardent Christian skeptics. But rather than just rejecting the Bible altogether, many Christians have taken to interpreting the story as allegory or a local flood.
Was Noah’s flood a local flood?
The local flood view begins with God warning Noah that there is going to be a great flood, but He neglects to tell him it’s only going to be a local flood. AnswersInGenesis.org asks:
“If the Flood only affected the area of Mesopotamia, as some claim, why did Noah have to build an Ark? He could have walked to the other side of the mountains and escaped.”
For once, Answers in Genesis and I are on the same page. God didn’t need to order Noah to spend decades building a giant boat. God could’ve just said, “Hi Noah! I need you to take the family on a little vacation while I do some remodeling. Why don’t you visit those mountains over yonder, where all those animals are headed?”
Local flood advocates tell us that God was simply testing Noah… for 70 years… because apparently God likes to test people by making them do unnecessary things for an insanely long time, (probably so they can laugh about it later in Heaven. “Hey Noah, remember that time I asked you to spend 70 years building that humongous boat!? And then I only sent a local flood!? HA! Man, you were so pissed after that, you got drunk off your ass and passed out butt-naked in front of your sons! And then yelled at them for covering you up (Genesis 9:21-25)! Ha! But it’s funny now, right?”).
Our story continues…
So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”
~ Genesis 6:7
Luckily for God, the entire human race lived in Mesopotamia at the time. Unfortunately, not all the animals did, so it’s a bit strange that God should put such emphasis on killing the animals, when He was actually only killing a very small fraction of them. In fact, why mention them at all? The only ones that would’ve gone extinct were those indigenous to Mesopotamia, and God doesn’t seem to have any reservations about letting animals go extinct. And certainly Noah didn’t need such a large boat for just the indigenous animals.
Next we move on to the problem of the waters covering the mountains…
…all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.
~ Genesis 7:19
According to some local flood advocates, the word “mountains” is better translated “hills,” so this verse should probably read “…all the high hills under the entire heavens were covered.”
Here in California, we have a name for really high hills, we call them “mountains.” Noah never gives us any reason to believe that the mountains were not covered with water.
Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
~ Genesis 7:23
According to local flood advocates, killing “every living thing on the face of the earth,” actually means killing “every living thing on the face of Mesopotamia.” We must also accept that the “entire heavens” only stretch out as far as Mesopotamia (which is quite a stretch).
God also mentions that “the birds were wiped from the earth.” Why? If this was a local flood, then were the local birds not smart enough to fly over the mountains to safety? Likewise, it wasn’t necessary for Noah to take two of “everything with wings” (Gen. 7:14).
If Noah’s flood was just a local flood, then there is no miracle here. No longer is this a story of a man left hopelessly adrift in an endless ocean, Noah is now just a man floating in a sea, surrounded by seashores. All this boat needs to do is drift ashore and everyone can disembark; it’s not necessary to spend an entire year on board, and Noah doesn’t need to wait for the water to recede. But alas, he does, and the ark comes to rest on… well… I guess we would have to call it the hills of Ararat (Genesis 8:4).
After the local flood, God creates the rainbow as a covenant to never kill all mankind with another flood, but leaves Himself a loophole that will still allow Him to kill millions of other people through floods.
In short, the local flood interpretation makes for a completely nonsensical story: there’s no need for a boat, or to rescue animals, or to remain at sea for a year, or to wait for the waters to recede, or for a rainbow covenant.
Was the story of Noah’s flood allegorical?
While the Bible does contain many parables and metaphors, I see little evidence that the story of Noah’s ark is intended as anything but a literal story.
Firstly, we have Noah who is listed in the genealogies of Genesis 5, 1 Chronicles 1, and Luke 3. Noah also had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. So unless Noah’s wife was impregnated by a particularly potent metaphor, we must accept that Noah was a literal person.
Second, if Noah was a real person, but the flood story was just an allegory, then someone was lying about what actually happened to Noah and his family.
Third, God Himself refers back to the flood in Isaiah:
“To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.”
~ Isaiah 54:9
God seems to have forgotten that this was just a metaphor, and that He didn’t actually cover the earth with water.
Fourth, Jesus too seems to believe the flood was a literal event:
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot.”
Jesus could’ve cleared things up by saying, “Just as it was in the parable of Noah…” yet he chose to describe these times as literal days. There were literal days before the flood, and literal days afterward. Jesus also says “It was the same in the days of Lot” — should we also take the story of Lot allegorically?
Fifth, elsewhere in the New Testament, Noah’s flood is also understood as a literal event:
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.
…to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water…
~1 Peter 3:20
…he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others…
~2 Peter 2:5
The people of “the ancient world” who were “disobedient long ago” were not imaginary, nor was the ark that Noah was building, they were all as real as Noah was.
Lastly, once again, there is the matter of the rainbow. Why do rainbows exist? According to the Bible…
And God said, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
~ Genesis 9:12-15
Why would God create a literal rainbow as a promise to protect us from a metaphorical flood?
Noah’s story is even a difficult to turn into a meaningful allegory. Sure, if we only look at Noah we can compare it to God’s salvation plan. But what about everyone else? Why did God make so many people, and then regret making them? Why was God more interested in saving the animals than these men and their families? Is God’s salvation only intended for a very small number of men… and animals?
I think it’s pretty obvious what the motive is for wanting to turn away from a literal interpretation, but I believe it’s clear that the Bible intends for the story to be understood literally. I believe the majority of Americans are correct in holding firm to a literal interpretation, so when I address Noah’s Ark in future questions, I will apply a literal translation for all the aforementioned reasons.
If it turns out the flood narrative is bogus, I think we need to man-up and accept it as such, not retreat to alternative interpretations that attempt to salvage a religious tradition.