The Noah’s Ark story is one big mess

A young-Earth creationist geologist by the name of Dr. Andrew Snelling is suing the National Park Service to be allowed to take 60 rocks out of the Grand Canyon so that he can prove that the Great Flood of Noah actually happened. He is being supported in his legal battle by a conservative Christian legal group known as the Alliance Defending Freedom. Candida Moss uses that case to anchor her article about why that famous story is far messier than what the Bible actually says.

Moss starts by giving the Cliff Notes version of the story which is what everyone remembers and repeats.

According to Sunday school tradition, God tells Noah to build an ark and gather into it a pair of every kind of animal, it then rains a great deal, and there’s a flood that lasts for forty days and nights, its conclusion marked by the appearance of a rainbow.

If you are real Bible nerd, like I was, you may recall additional details about how the other people mocked Noah for his folly, thus making their subsequent disappearance seem well deserved, and the bit about Noah sending out a dove to see if the flood waters were subsiding.

Moss points out the contradictory details in the Bible story, suggesting that it is made up of more than one legend and was put together by an author who did not seem to care much about making the story internally consistent.

All of these inconsistencies make for pretty difficult reading, which is why Christian tradition has plumped for a streamlined version that cherrypicks certain details. But the inconsistencies in the story can easily be explained by one simple observation: the story in the Bible is made up of two separate stories, taken from different sources and woven together by a later editor. Scholars like Joel Baden, who work on this issue, have separated the account in Genesis into two independent and actually pretty different versions of the flood.

The most alarming part about this is that the story we learned in Sunday School doesn’t follow either of the original versions—or their combined form in the Bible, either, which contains both sets of descriptions: two animals and seven pairs; forty days and 150 days; rain and primordial waters. As a result, we butcher not just the details of the story, but also its meaning.

Moss does not dwell on another problem about the Ark story and that is how to explain the worldwide distribution of species, how the animals ended up in their final locations far from the place where the Ark supposedly was. I wrote about this problem back in 2009.

Young Earth creationists do not deal with all this evidence from biogeography (the pattern of species distributed across the globe) because it is tough to explain for them. With the Noah’s ark story, you would expect most species to be found close to the Middle East and fewer the further you went away. After all, it is quite a hike for a small flightless bird like the kiwi to get from Mount Ararat all the way to New Zealand. One could postulate that it hitched a ride in a kangaroo’s pouch as far as Australia, and then got a bird to carry it over the ocean to its final destination but I suspect that even hard-core creationists (except perhaps for the delightfully loopy folks at Conservapedia) would find that hard to swallow.

If the young Earth people were willing to consider the continental sprint idea to have occurred after Noah’s flood ended, they might have been able to ‘explain’ the kiwi in New Zealand and other exotic island species by saying that, after emerging from the Ark, they grouped together on different parts of the land before these parts split from the rest and sprinted away. But apparently this after-the-flood continental sprint model would undermine their belief that everything is due to one great catastrophe, and furthermore violates some other verse in the Bible which, of course, rules it out. This is the kind of absurdity that results when you demand that modern science conform to the words in a 2,500-year old text.

One point that I am glad Moss makes is that this story, a staple of Sunday School biblical lessons and told to children who are very young, is in reality a grotesque and horrifying tale.

It almost seems to be a requirement for young Christians to draw a picture of the Ark, complete with a menagerie of (mostly African) animals. If you don’t want to paint a mural yourself, you can even order wallpaper or decals for your child’s bedroom. But this is actually a story about genocide. God gets angry and drowns almost all of the global population in one fell swoop. And yet children’s books describe the story as having a happy ending, establishing the rather uncomfortable precedent that, as long as God is the aggressor, widespread slaughter is “good.”

The story of Noah is actually a horror story and yet such is the power of indoctrination using omission that it can be transformed into a wholesome and even uplifting tale for young children. Still, there must be some children who notice the untold story. I wonder how many children, hearing this story for the first time, think about the fact that god was casually slaughtering children just like them for no reason whatsoever. This aspect did not occur to me as a child but that does not mean that other children were not smart enough to draw that inference.


  1. Owlmirror says

    Oddly enough, Ken Ham sort-of agrees with that last point in opposing the “happy shiny fun cute animals in a boat” version of the story, although of course, he portrays it more as being a righteously wrathful God pouring out punishment on a wicked world.

  2. Trickster Goddess says

    I saw the Russell Crowe movie ‘Noah’ a couple of years ago. Although not expecting to like it, I ended up enjoying it very much. It was less of the biblical story and played more like a mythological epic tale with an environmental message. I think the low rating on IMDB comes mostly from Christians who were upset that it didn’t adhere to their religious expectations.

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    …you may recall additional details about how the other people mocked Noah for his folly, thus making their subsequent disappearance seem well deserved…

    This part is certainly included in cartoons and picture books, but it is not mentioned in the Bible. The Bible does call mankind “wicked”*, and it may seem reasonable that Noah would be mocked, but it is never mentioned.

    *it does not give detail on what their wickedness entails, although intermarrying with angels/sons of god may have been part of it…See Gen 6:1-2

  4. kestrel says

    I sure did not realize that it was a horrible story about genocide, I was worried about the animals! I could not understand how there would be enough food for them for a year, and all stored on the ark. Already, by the time I was 6 years old, I knew that elephants ate about 5 bales of hay a day. And I knew that was a lot of hay! I also did not understand how the dove could fly out and come back with …. a LEAF?!! When everything had been drowned? I also knew at 6 years old that it takes trees longer to grow than that.

  5. says

    I had a science teacher in high school who explained conservation laws in terms of the flood. Where did the water go? Did the planet heat up or cool down with the addition of all the water? If you added a lot of water to a planet that was spinning, what does all that water do as it’s coming up to speed? That sort of thing. It was really stimulating and exciting to think about all that stuff.

  6. says

    Addendum -- the discussion with the science teacher was not part of class. My school was progressive, but in the United Taliban States of America, no teacher would touch that topic if they wanted to keep their job.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Moss (like most) ignores the textual evidence that the problem started at the top:

    Genesis 6:2 & 6:4:

    That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. … There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

    Taken literally, this tells us that Jesus’s brothers (and maybe J himself) triggered the debauchery.

    Taken analytically, this shows yet another trace of a priesthood pushing their favored mythology but not yet able to wholly suppress competing lore from polytheistic traditions.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    and there’s a flood that lasts for forty days and nights,

    Not so! The rain lasts for forty days and nights. The flood lasts for about a year.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    If you are real Bible nerd, like I was, you may recall additional details about how the other people mocked Noah for his folly, thus making their subsequent disappearance seem well deserved

    Death penalty for verbal abuse? No, I can’t agree that their fate seems well-deserved. Same for the kids who made fun of a bald guy and got ripped to shreds by she-bears.

  10. lpetrich says

    Richard Carrier liked that movie — it had some of the Apocrypha stuff about fallen angels teaching people various things.

    As to Andrew Snelling, consider — Will the Real Dr Snelling Please Stand Up? There seem to be two Andrew Snellings, one of them a young-earth creationist who believes that Noah’s Flood massively reshaped the Earth’s surface, and the other of them a mainstream geologist who believes that the Earth’s surface is continually being reshaped by geological processes for much longer than the YEC Snelling believes our planet to have existed.

    Seems like the YEC Snelling prefers to whine about religious persecution rather than ask the MG one about what other MG’s would consider a good research proposal.

  11. A Crawford says

    God TORTURED and killed all the children in the world. If anyone doubts that slow, intentional drowning constitutes torture they should seriously propose drowning tanks for capital punishment and see what the reaction is.

  12. flex says

    I doubt that most children, at the time they were exposed to the Noah’s Ark story have much of a developed moral sense. Which means that they just accept the “good” version of the story without thinking and considering the implications of god’s actions.

    God is presented as the greatest source of good, and to a being with little moral sense but a great deal of trust, this is unquestioned. I suspect it’s only later, long after the story has become internalized as a part of the knowledge of the child, that if a person starts to consider the implications of the biblical flood that the moral disconnect occurs. Which leads either to cognitive dissonance (and deliberate denial of the moral problems), or a reconsideration of the meaning of the story.

    I’m traveling right now (I passed through Cleveland yesterday and waved at you Mano), but Jean Piaget did some work on the age which a moral sense develops in children. We are not born with the knowledge of morality, it is learned, and children have to be exposed to a certain amount of knowledge and develop a certain amount of critical thinking to develop a sense of morality. It’s an interesting read.

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