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.