Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I Was Wrong About Noah's Flood

Ever wondered if Noah's flood really could have happened? Could all the animals fit on the ark? How did the animals disperse back to their continents? How did Noah possibly capture so many animals? How could so many animals survive for a year on a boat without climate control? What about food?

Back in my days as a marine biologist, I wrote several posts about how Noah's flood couldn't have happened in the last 10,000 years. If it were a flood that covered "all the highest mountains" in the region, it would have definitely killed 100% of certain coral species--these coral species are around today (but wouldn't have had time to evolve), so the flood didn't happen.

I really thought it was an example of a definite error in the Bible, and one that had major theological significance due to it's proximity to the stories of Adam and Abraham.

It turns out I was wrong.

The translation of two key words in a single verse, Genesis 7:19, makes all the difference.

Here is the translation from NET Bible:
"The waters completely inundated the earth so that even all the high mountains under the entire sky were covered."

And here is the Hebrew:
"והמים גברו מאד מאד על הארץ ויכסו כל ההרים הגבהים אשר תחת כל השמים"

 The two words I highlighted are הארץ and ההרים, pronounced  "erets" and "har", which mean "earth" and "mountain".

But what do they really mean?

Well, "erets" almost certainly doesn't mean the entire globe. It is most frequently translated "land", as in "land of Israel" (as opposed to "planet of Israel"), and it can also mean ground, country, territory, region, and a smattering of other closely related words (from Strong's Lexicon). "Entire globe" almost definitely is NOT what the author had in mind--ancient Hebrews didn't understand the planet the way we do. It was probably closer to something like this:

At any rate, there simply isn't a good reason to think that the author of Genesis had "entire planet" in mind. I think the best translation is "region".

As for "har", it is most frequently translated "hill", although it can also mean mountain, hill country, or mount (from Strong's Lexicon). There is no context that suggests "mountain" is a better translation, but even if it were, what exactly qualifies as a mountain? Is the cutoff at 100 meters high? or 1,000 meters? Further, the author specifies that the water covered the mountains by 30 meters. If the flood covered Everest, there would only be one mountain that could have been covered at that depth, not multiple mountains.

Because of all this, the most reasonable interpretation of the verse is as follows:

"The waters completely inundated the region so that even all the high hills were covered."

This means that Noah only needed to get the animals that were already close to him, freeing up plenty of room to stretch on the ark. There would be no extinct coral, and land animals would have no problem making a local comeback. There would be no global distribution problem. It could have just been a record-setting flood that hit a single region, but had no global impact.

What's more, the last Meltwater Pulse at the tail-end of the last ice-age was within the time range that Noah's flood could have happened. Even without divine intervention, there probably were record-setting floods going off all around the globe (think Gilgamesh and other ancient flood stories).

In conclusion, I was wrong. I thought that Noah's Flood couldn't have happened the way the Bible describes it, but it definitely could have.


  1. I think this is completely wrong for multiple reasons.

    1) The most apparent reason is that you are playing with the translation to meet your demands. It is almost "wishful translating". Was God not aware for this very exact moment that we will be confused with the translation? Why did he had to choose such an ambiguous word? Can he not choose a better communication method, if this is the best we can get with old Hebrew.

    1-a) Following that: Why did God not wait another 2 millenia until we have much more robust communication techniques? Would it not be a great way to deliver your message, rather than trying to pass the knowledge on using ancient people with pathetic, primitive techniques? These are questions worth thinking... He waited at least 180.000 years after the origin of Homo sapiens. Why did he not wait another 2000 years and let us know his presence through more robust ways? Is he playing, or is he serious about this whole "heaven and hell" thing? :)

    Back to the article...

    2) I tried 3 online dictionaries for Hebrew to English (Google Translate, Morfix and Do It in Hebrew). They are unanimously agree that ההרים is mountain. There is no confusion about that. So please do not try to play with the words. Mountain has a very clear definition by the UN Environmental Programme (I am assuming God is powerful enough to foresee this widely accepted definition). A mountain is one of the following:

    • Elevation of at least 2,500 m (8,200 ft);
    • Elevation of at least 1,500 m (4,900 ft), with a slope greater than 2 degrees;
    • Elevation of at least 1,000 m (3,300 ft), with a slope greater than 5 degrees;
    • Elevation of at least 300 m (980 ft), with a 300 m (980 ft) elevation range within 7 km (4.3 mi).

    Therefore, it cannot be as short as you are downplaying.

    3) The water does not distribute in a polynomial fashion - it tries to keep itself leveled due to extremely low surface tension. So, let us take the definition of the "mountain" with shortest height, 300 meters. Rainfall calculators go up to 100 inches rainfall because it is very high (the most rainy city in the world, Cherrapunji had a rainfall of 1041 inches in a full year). But even if the rate of rainfall is 100 inches and we consider Israel at that time 3600 square miles (source:, it would not be possible to cover more than several meters, let alone 300 meters (play here:

    In other words, in order to cover only 1 square meter area with 300 meters tall of rainfall, it must have rained 11811 inches, which is more than 10 times of what history has ever seen. And we are talking about not covering 1 square meters, but about 3600 square MILES! :)

    Therefore: There is no such rain that can cover 300 meters height and it is not possible for us to not find very clear geological signs of such an extreme rainfall. In fact, in order for a flood to peak at 300 meters, almost all Middle East, Europe, Arabic Peninsula, most of North Africa must have been covered with water.

    Evidence? None.

    It did not happen.

    Then what did happen?

    Most probably, they got so much rain one year that they thought it is a message from the Heavens (well, with that knowledge, I did not expect much from those humans). The amount of rain was beyond their imagination. Maybe they lost their relatives, sheep, cows, etc. Maybe this guy named Noah worked day and night to save people and animals.

    So they created a housewives tale, which traveled from ear to ear, and made its way to the Old Testament eventually. And in 21st century, people that hold PhDs from Tier 1 Research Institutes still discuss whether it happened or not, by distorting translations from an ancient text that has no more credibility than Shakespeare's stories.

    Hope this helps.

    1. Hi!

      Thanks for taking the time to write out such a lengthy response. I strongly, but very respectfully disagree with you (although I'm more than happy to change my mind if I'm wrong).

      1) This is simply ad hominem. I'm not wishful with the translation. And my bias is in the opposite direction, in fact: I was offered a chance to publish a book chapter with a prominent atheist against the flood.

      1a) This isn't a post about whether or not God exists, I'm just looking at is as a historical account and fact-checking it against other kinds of evidence. Your 1 and 1a points may or may not be valid, but they are simply off topic.

      2) I use the gold-standard of Hebrew translation for my information on "erets" and "har", Strong's Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon. See the following reference--!bible/Genesis+7

      Note that "hill" is the most frequent translation.

      Strong's Lexicon is vastly, vastly, extraordinarily vastly superior to Google Translate for interpreting ancient Hebrew. I'm not playing with words, I'm using the maximum amount of rigor currently available.

      Even if mountain is the best word, the author of Genesis was unaware of the definition used by the UN Environmental Programme. We have to decipher what the author of Genesis meant by "har", not what the UN Environmental Programme came up with thousands of years later.

    2. 3) Your number of 300 meters is arbitrary. First off, hill is the best interpretation of "har" in Genesis 7:19. Even if it isn't, we don't know what would have been considered high enough to be a mountain. So the elevation change is unknown.

      Another major topic in the discussion is that "erets" doesn't mean the entire geographic region of Israel. Israel as a nation didn't even exist at the time. Did the author mean the geographic region that would become Israel many years later?

      We simply don't know the location or the extent of the flood. Modern translations insert "Mount Ararat" in the English, but Ararat is NEVER mentioned in the Hebrew. So we are talking an unspecified amount of land, which could have been limited to what the author of the account could see with his eyes at that point in time.

      Further, we actually expect record setting floods to be taking place at about that time in history--Meltwater Pulse 1A, among the last major ice melts after the last ice age, was taking place during the time that Noah's flood would have happened. This makes a great deal of sense when you examine flood myths from all over the world dated to a similar time in history--the ice age was ending, lots and lots and lots of ice was melting, and many huge floods were taking place.

      We have plenty of evidence for this:
      --Cronin, T.M. (2012) Rapid sea-level rise. Quaternary Science Reviews. 56:11-30
      --Bassett, S.E., Milne, G.A., Mitrovica, J.X., Clark, P.U., 2005. Ice sheet and solid Earth influences on far-field sea-level histories. Science 309:925–928
      --Deschamps, P., N. Durand, E. Bard, B. Hamelin, G. Camoin, A.L. Thomas, G.M. Henderson, J. Okuno, and Y. Yokoyama, Yusuke (2012) Ice-sheet collapse and sea-level rise at the Bolling warming. Nature. 483(7391):559-564

      I can provide a bunch more references if you want.

    3. For what it's worth, I have a B.A. in classics (and a B.S. in biology). When I was studying classics, I focused on understanding, translating, and interpreting ancient languages. We did a lot more than Google Translate ancient texts.

    4. Gentlemen. The very picture on this page shows how the extra water was released onto the earth....through the floodgates. When God was finished, He opened the "drains" so to speak, to let the water out, below, to the waters below. Simple. The problem I have with both of your answers is that they suggest the bible story is fabricated, or a fairy tale. If it were such, it would be described in scripture as such, like when Jesus told a parable. He let the people know it was a parable. But Genesis does not contain parables or fictional stories. It is all fact. If not, then we could assume many other parts of the bible are also fiction. This huge doubt would set in and we would end up on the path of not believing any of it.

  2. Hi Josh,

    Very interesting article. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm an atheist, though I used to be a young earth creationist.

    I think the previous commenter did an excellent job pointing out some issues with the Noah's ark story, but there were a few more that occurred to me as well. If your analysis is correct, doesn't it defeat the whole purpose of the flood? If it didn't cover the entire world, then it wouldn't have wiped out all of mankind. And if it only covered a small region, there wasn't even any need to put animals on the ark, since they also lived in areas that would have been untouched.

    No doubt, you're aware that the Noah story seems to just be the Jewish version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And it's possible that the tale sprang from an actual flood of the Black Sea that might have occurred around 5600 BC ( But the event as told in the Bible seems to simply be myth.

    Anyway, it's always nice to run across fellow "seekers of truth." Good luck to you. :)

    1. Hi Nate!

      Thanks for your response, and for reading!

      True, the flood wouldn't have wiped out all humans on planet earth. You make a very interesting point, and I will have to think about that further.

      A possible response is this: the point of the flood was to wipe out all humans and animals on the "erets" (this is why that word matters so much). If "erets" doesn't mean all of planet earth, but rather a region of earth, then the point of the flood simply wasn't to wipe out everyone. It was to wipe out everyone on the "erets".

      See my point on #3 in my response to the previous commenter. The last ice age was ended at about this time in history, so we would have had massive floods taking place all over the world at about the same time. So we would expect to find exactly what we find: flood "myths" dating back to about the same time from numerous, isolated geographic locations.

      It is indeed nice to run across fellow seekers of truth! Good luck to you as well! :)

  3. I'll point out that the first word here is the same one used in Genesis 1:1, which pretty clearly refers to the whole planet (with the understanding that the author obviously didn't personally understand what planets are at that time in history).

    Does that affect your analysis?

    1. Hey Travis!

      That is a very good point. It does not currently change my analysis, let me see if I can explain why.

      The first is pretty nuanced, and has to do with the literary differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 6-9. I don't think Genesis 1 is literal history (if you take it that way, the whole chapter falls into nonsense), but rather a poetic or figurative description of creation. When it states that God created the "heavens and the earth", the Hebrews probably would have taken it to mean "the sky, as in what I see when I look up" and "the land, as in the stuff I walk on that is beneath the sky." And from that, in a figurative (not explicit) way, we infer that Genesis is talking about creating the entire universe (for the Hebrews, the land and the sky WAS the universe).

      The second is that Genesis 1 and Genesis 7 probably had different authors (as much as many Christians will attempt to deny this). Your point would have held more strength if the same person wrote both verses, because cross-referencing meanings within a single author can be informative. However, because they were different people, it is more useful to examine the words from within their own respective contexts--and so far the context of Genesis 7 suggests that הארץ was
      referring to a local region, as in "the land of Israel".

    2. Well, on the one hand, this somewhat dissolves the question. No one would suggest that the ancestors of the Jews (that's clumsy, there must be a single term for them?) never experienced a devastating local flood in their history.

      The phrase translated as "under the entire sky" seems less easy to dismiss, but I suppose that could also be considered poetically relative. This means a number of other phrases that seem universal would not be, though.

      6:17 "to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life [in this land]"
      9:15 "and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh [in this land]"

      This means God's covenant was exclusively to never again flood Israel, or to destroy all living things _in Israel_ (or whatever piece of it was Noah's land). That's certainly a unique interpretation of the story.

      Since floods occur regularly in many parts of Israel, could this covenant be said to have already been broken?

      This also leaves aside other details such as the claimed life spans and Stone Age engineering prowess required for the Ark - these things are certainly exaggerations, even if perhaps not entirely fanciful (an old man, his family and some animals rode out a local flood on a simple boat).

  4. Cross-reference: