NOAH'S FLOOD: Examination of scripture from the standpoint of an engineer

an essay by Ken Wear, 1998

The biblical story of Noah is important to me because of its impact on my life. When I first became aware of the movement that has become known as "Creationism," in the late 1960s, I was told that the single requirement for eligibility to join was acceptance of the literal accuracy of the biblical account of Noah's flood. At the time I peremptorily dismissed that flood as beyond the reach of reason. But now I realize how unscientific that attitude was because I did not attempt to describe the flood and its consequences in our vernacular and I was therefore depriving myself of the intellectual exercise that undergirds understanding.

I understand God to be a personality, much as you and I are personalities, having wishes and dislikes, capable of being pleased or displeased; if He was unhappy with the result of His creative effort, then He could be motivated to do something out of keeping with the ideal of all-embracing and total love. Certainly it is within God's ability to do whatever He sets about to do. Let us, for the sake of discussion, define a miracle as something outside the ordinary operation of physical laws as we understand them. We need not understand how they were accomplished in order to explore the magnitude of the miracle(s) accomplished during the Noah saga.

The entire Noah saga is described in Genesis, chapters 6, 7 and 8. Chapter 9 describes the establishment of God's covenant, but the flood saga is wholly contained within Chapters 6-8. The entire text, taken from the King James Version, is appended for reference; I quote as needed in this article only the verses crucial to this presentation. In studying the Noah saga one should be alert to possibilities of allegorical comment as well as poetic license.

Let us look first at dimensions.

6:15. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
7:20. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
7:21. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth . . .

Dimensions are outlined in terms of cubits, which is presumably a measure of length. How long is a cubit? Knowledge of the immensity of the ark requires us to have an estimate. From an encyclopedia comes the dimensions of the ark as 450x75x45 feet, or some 18 inches per cubit. Verse 7:20 tells us the water rose 15 cubits so that 'the mountains were covered.' Since verse 7:21 tells us that all flesh died that moved upon the earth, it must be presumed that even the highest mountains were covered; water 22-1/2 feet deep isn't nearly enough unless there is dual usage in the magnitude of the dimension reported as cubit since verses 6:15 and 7:20 seem at first blush to be at odds.

Elevations in modern Israel range from the Dead Sea at 1300 feet below sea level to Mt. Heron at 3963 feet above sea level. The Golan Heights' Mt. Hebron rises to 9232 feet. Mount Ararat, in Turkey, which may not be the biblical mountains -- note plural -- of Ararat, rises to 16,804 feet. Looking at elevations of mountains in the region, if 15 cubits was enough to cover them, then obviously the tradition that places a cubit at about 18 inches is seriously in error. If 15 cubits depth covered Mt. Heron, a cubit must be nearly 250 feet; the ark was indeed huge and very adequate to house all the creatures needing space. And with only three stories (6:16), each story must have allowed ample flying space for the birds to exercise. While I have little knowledge of the technology of the time, building such a vast ocean-going vessel was indeed an impressive feat. Let us grant the possible dual usage of the word cubit and move on.

(In actuality, the mountain referred to as 'Ararat' has never been clearly identified, so the above arithmetic may be questioned. If the flood was in the cradle of civilization -- the valley and flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers -- rather than Israel itself, there are mountains to the east, but I have not found information on elevations.)

Duration of the flood is reported in terms of Noah's life span.
7:11. In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
8:13. And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.
8:14. And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, was the earth dried.

Simple subtraction yields a duration of one year plus ten days [375 days] from the time it commenced to rain until the flood subsided and the ground was dry. It rained 40 days (and nights) (7:12), the water 'prevailed' 150 days (7:24) [until day 190], and the ark came to rest on day 17 of month 7 (8:4) [day 227] though the mountains were not visible until day 1 of month 10 (8:5) [day 301]. After another 40 days (8:6) [day 341] Noah opened his window and sent out his dove (8:8) and again 7 (8:10) and 14 days (8:12) later. Elapsed time seems to be well accounted for. (These periods are reported in verses:
7:12. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
7:24. And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.
8:4. And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.
8:5. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.
8:6. And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the windows of the ark which he had made;
)

Some may contend all animals were in hibernation during their stay in the ark; the biblical text is silent. However
6:21. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shall gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.
suggests ample food and water were taken aboard. Apart from the logistics problem of assembling such a mass of food and water to support Noah's herd and family for over a year, there was little problem of space aboard an ark as large as it must have been. But sanitation must have worked the family pretty hard if the animals were awake in the ordinary sense.

What was destroyed by the flood?

6:17. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.
7:15. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.
7:21. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

We recognize as life forms on our planet a wide range of beings, from simple to very complex - bacteria, fungi, worms, grass, trees, insects, fowl, fish, higher animals, man . . . Each has its necessary conditions for survival. Nothing is said of forms of life lower than those that creep; neither is anything said about creatures that live in lakes and oceans. Although life must have been difficult for fish and other aquatic life due to the upheaval in their environment and the destruction of many food sources, the Noah saga is silent about their deaths. It must also be supposed that vegetation perished under the waters although seeds may have survived.

It is the contention of evolutionists that the present mix of life forms resulted from successive differentiation of pre-existing forms as they adapted to changes in weather patterns and availability of foods. The suggestion of "survival of the fittest" is questionable because it does not allow for natural calamities and pure chance, so the doctrine of evolution as commonly taught may be in need of revision. At the same time it is the contention of creationists that God did it all in His six days and rested on the seventh, so that the entire sweep of species destroyed by the flood, numbering into the hundreds of thousands, were all created as already-differentiated species. We have seen the operation of evolution in our lifetimes in simple life forms such as viruses, so we know evolution at some level has been a factor since the original acts of creation.

Science's notions of evolution of species require extended lengths of time, measured perhaps in millions of years. Contemplation of the variety of species living today suggests a very rapid evolution in the decades following Noah's flood since it is questionable he could have successfully accommodated the entire range of species. Stock for this evolution, of course, came not only from the creatures aboard the ark but also from the aquatic species that survived. And the extended range of creatures over the planet suggests rapid travel after disembarking plus possibly unusual assistances in crossing waterway barriers.

Rounding up the creatures in order to take them aboard the ark is not addressed in the biblical account. But it is implied that they presented themselves to Noah for housing and transport, quite without his involvement. Neither is the appropriateness of food addressed, nor, indeed, any food at all for the carnivores. But problems of logistics I take to be easily managed by a Creator undertaking such a project.

Decomposition of plants and creatures killed by the flood must have been handled in some unorthodox manner. And reforestation and reestablishment of plant life must have had supernatural assistance.

The reason I had earlier peremptorily abandoned the Noah saga as overreaching in its claims arises from consideration of the behavior of water, or hydrology. Many of us have experienced floods, for the most part relatively minor ones. Our geologists rank the severity of flooding by frequency of flooding to that level, as 25-year floods, 50-year floods, 100-year floods, 500- year floods, etc. The concept is that only once in that span of years has a flood of that severity been experienced in that region. Where annual flooding occurs, it ordinarily reaches a certain level, but once in a century (or more accurately ten times in a millennium) it reaches a significantly higher level, the 100-year flood. I suppose the 10,000-year flood must be indeed mind-numbing in its extent and devastation.

Water, like all else, responds to gravity; in the case of water it rushes toward the ocean following channels of decreasing elevation. Even a few feet of flood water exerts massive forces as it flows toward lower elevations. More significantly, for our discussion, it cannot easily be restrained. Even today our strongest dams can hold back only a few hundred feet of water. And, unless the water be restrained, it will assuredly head for the ocean.

I have heard there is enough water tied up in glaciers in Antarctica to, if melted, raise the level of our oceans significantly, measured in tens of feet. Moreover, during the glacial epochs of earth's past, enough ocean water has been tied up in glaciers to drop the level of the oceans significantly, measured in tens of feet. There is a fixed quantity of water on our planet. Should there be universal flooding, even a few feet, inevitably the level of the oceans must drop, increasing the difficulty in restraining the water to increase the depth of flooding. Several hundred feet must surely deplete the shallower oceans, and a couple thousand feet must deplete the oceans completely.

To retain the water upon the land 150 days must have required some sort of impoundment such as dams. Even though the depth of flooding decreased after the 40 days of rain, to take such an extended time to recede requires the waters be restrained from their normal flow toward the ocean.

It is this twin requirement that boggles my mind: the quantity of water, and restraining it from returning to the ocean. As miracles go, this must far exceed in magnitude the relatively simple tasks of rounding up and feeding Noah's herd, followed by travel to diverse places and rapidly evolving to produce today's range of species.

I have no question of the reality of Noah's flood. It was a real event, survived and reported by real people. Nor do I question the effort of one family to protect animals. But it must have been limited in geographic reach. Even if repeated in other regions sequentially. Those who point to massive flooding in other parts of the world at roughly the same geologic epoch must keep in mind that events thousands of years ago and tens of years apart can rarely be distinguished time-wise through study of the geologic record. My thought is that a real event is portrayed in the Bible, and with a little poetic license during myriad renditions of oral tradition over a span of centuries before it was finally written down, it grew in extent to be universal as seen by people with limited geographic knowledge.

In studying the Noah saga it is evident that both allegorical comment and poetic license are involved in the story as it has reached us. Newsmen of today would have reported that same flood, or series of floods, very differently.


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Genesis 6:

1.  And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of
	the earth, and daughters were born unto them,
2.  That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were 
	fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
3.  And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man,
	for that he also is flesh; yet his days shall be an 
	hundred and twenty years.
4.  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.
5.  And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,
	and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart 
	was only evil continually.
6.  And it repented that Lord that he had made man on the earth, 
	and it grieved him at his heart.
7.  And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from
	the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the 
	creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth
	me that I have made them.
8.  But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
9.  These are the generations of Noah:  Noah was a just man and 
	perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.
10.  And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11.  The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was 
	filled with violence.
12.  And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; 
	for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.
13.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before 
	me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; 
	and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
14.  Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the
	ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
15.  And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of:  The 
	length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the 
	breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty 
	cubits.
16.  A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; 
	and the door of the ark shall thou set in the side thereof; with lower, 
	second, and third stories shalt thou make it.
17.  And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the 
	earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of 
	life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the 
	earth shall die.
18.  But with thee shall I establish my covenant; and thou shalt 
	come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and 
	thy sons' wives with thee.
19.  And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort 
	shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with 
	thee; they shall be male and female.
20.  Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of
	every creeping thing of earth after his kind, two of 
	every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.
21.  And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou 
	shall gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for 
	thee, and from them.
22.  Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so 
	did he.
Genesis 7
1.  And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into 
	the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this 
	generation.
2.  Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the 
	male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by 
	two, the male and his female.
3.  Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; 
	to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
4.  For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth
	forty days and forty nights; and every living substance 
	that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the 
	earth.
5.  And Noah did according unto all that the Lord commanded him.
6.  And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters 
	was upon the earth.
7.  And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' 
	wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of 
	the flood.
8.  Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of 
	fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth,
9.  There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and
	the female, as God had commanded Noah.
10.  And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the 
	flood were upon the earth.
11.  In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second 
	month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were
	all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the 
	windows of heaven were opened.
12.  And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
13.  In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and 
	Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three 
	wives of his sons with them, into the ark;
14.  They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle 
	after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth 
	upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his 
	kind, every bird of every sort.
15.  And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all 
	flesh, wherein is the breath of life.
16.  And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, 
	as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in.
17.  And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters 
	increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above 
	the earth.
18.  And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the
	earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.
19.  And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all 
	the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were 
	covered.
20.  Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the 
	mountains were covered.
21.  And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, 
	and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, 
	and every man:
22.  All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was
	in the dry land, died.
23.  And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the 
	face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping
	things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were 
	destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, 
	and they that were with him in the ark.
24.  And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty 
	days.
Genesis 8
1.  And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the 
	cattle that was with him in the ark; and God made a wind 
	to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;
2.  The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were 
	stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;
3.  And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and 
	after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters 
	were abated.
4.  And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth 
	day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.
5.  And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in
	the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the 
	tops of the mountains seen.
6.  And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened
	the windows of the ark which he had made,
7.  And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until 
	the waters were dried up from off the earth.
8.  Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were 
	abated from off the face of the ground;
9.  But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she 
	returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the
	face of the whole earth; then he put forth his hand, and 
	took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.  
10.  And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth 
	the dove out of the ark;
11.  And the dove came in to him in the evening; and lo, in her 
	mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the 
	waters were abated from off the earth.
12.  And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; 
	which returned not again unto him any more.
13.  And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in 
	the first month, the first day of the month, the waters 
	were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the 
	covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face 
	of the ground was dry.
14.  And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of 
	the month, was the earth dried.
15.  And God spake unto Noah, saying,
16.  Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and 
	thy sons' wives with thee.
17.  Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, 
	of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every 
	creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may
	breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and 
	multiply upon the earth.
18.  And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his 
	sons' wives with him;
19.  Every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, and 
	whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, 
	went forth out of the ark.
20.  And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every 
	clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt 
	offerings on the altar.
21.  And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his
	heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for 
	man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil 
	from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every 
	thing living, as I have done.
22.  While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and
	heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not 
	cease. 


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