It does not matter how one looks at the story of the Deluge in the Bible; it can only be described as absurd. The reasons advanced why Yahweh decided to destroy the world, for instance, do not make sense. According to Genesis 6:2 and 4 he was upset that “the sons of God” (that is the lesser gods or angels) apparently had consensual sexual intercourse with the daughters of men. Later we are told in Genesis 6:5 that man was wicked and had evil thoughts in his heart. Why man had to punished for the misdeeds of angels, or killed because merely because some people had evil thoughts are not explained. One also searches in vain for an explanation of why God decided to exterminate all animals except the fish. What made them so special?. This came shortly after his earlier unsuccessful attempts to curb the alleged wickedness of the world by limiting the life span of man to 120 years instead of the almost one thousand years in the case of Methuselah who attained the ripe old age of 969. (See Gen 6:3 and 5:27). When that had no effect, Asimov says, “God apparently planned to return everything to Chaos and wash out the whole experiment of Cosmos as a blunder.”(In the Beginning… P.151).

Two mechanisms were used by God to cause what is called in the Bible a worldwide flood to destroy his own handiwork. The first was sending a storm that caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights. Secondly, he commanded the fountains of the deep to break up and bring forth great quantities of water to supplement the rainwater. (Gen 7:11-12).

Problems with the Biblical account started mounting once it was realised that the world was not flat but round and much bigger than had been thought. Critics wondered whether enough water could be produced from rainwater and fountains to cover the whole earth up to 15 cubits (around 7 meters) above the tallest mountain as is claimed in Genesis 7:20. Another was whether the Ark, built by Noah on the instructions of God to survive the flood, would have been seaworthy. According to Genesis 6:15 it was completely rectangular and not at all shaped like a ship; 300 cubits in length, 50 in breadth and 30 cubits high.

Knowing nothing about the fauna of the world, the people of antiquity believed the Ark would have been able to accommodate all the animals found in nature. Asimov points out on page 156 of his book for instance that Aristotle, who was a keen observer, was only able to list 500 species of animals in the year 350 BCE. Today we know that there are more than 15,000 species of mammals alone. Only a few of these were found in the ancient Middle East. Accordingly, as new lands were discovered, it became increasingly more unlikely that the Biblical story is correct. One person who started to doubt was Sir Walter Raleigh who became a sceptic after he had visited the Americas. Writing in his History of the World in 1616, he calculated that the Ark would have been too small to hold all the animals and expressed the view that Noah must have taken only Old World animals and that those from the New World must have developed from them.

To explain how Noah would know what animals to admit to the ark, Yahweh made the animals travel to him. (See Genesis 7:9). Writing in his book Some Mistakes of Moses (originally published in 1879), the freethinker Robert Ingersoll made fun of this alleged willingness of pairs of wild animals to report to Noah for duty. He pointed out that sloths from South America are exceptionally slow and only manage “three rods a day.” If they had to travel to the Middle East (presumably via the Bering Strait and across Siberia) they would make a mile in a hundred days. If the total distance is conservatively estimated to be 6,500 miles, Ingersoll said, it would mean that the two sloths would have had to start on their journey before the world (in Genesis 1) had even been created (P. 154 – 155).

Particularly damaging to the story was the translation in 1872 of cuneiform tablets containing Sumerian literature by George Smith of the British Museum. It transpired that Noah and his Ark were simply a myth that had been taken from the much longer Gilgamesh Epic predating the Bible. (A Babylonian version, also older than the Bible, is likewise based on it). While there is a remarkable resemblance between the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts, there are also differences among the various versions. In the Babylonian version of the myth, for instance, Noah is called Ut-Napishtim while the ancient Sumerians referred to the hero of the story by the name of Ziusudra and maintained that the gods decided on the destruction of mankind because of the noise that they made which prevent the gods from sleeping at night. The Sumerians also believed that the flood lasted for 7 days while according to the Babylonian myth the deluge abated after 6 days. (See C.W. Ceram Gods, Graves and Scholars 2nd Ed. P. 274 – 8 and S.H. Hooke Middle Eastern Mythology P. 133- 136).

These discoveries, however, had no effect whatsoever on American Fundamentalists. On the contrary, they argued that the existence of other flood accounts provided corroboration for the Biblical claim that the Deluge had been universal. They conveniently forgot that all the versions are from the Middle East and Greece. There are none from elsewhere in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the Far East. But if their belief in the veracity of the Noah story became stronger, certain aspects of the Biblical account did worry them though. Would the rain and fountains of the earth have been enough to cover mountains like Mount Everest which is 8848 meters above sea level? Another was whether that huge amount of water would have evaporated after the flood within a period of 150 days as is claimed in Genesis 8:3. Calculations performed by Professors Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites of San Diego University have shown that under ideal conditions only about 7.38 meters of water would have evaporated within the 150 days. (See their Evolution vs Creation Aztec Lecture Notes P. 51).

But a lack of belief in the righteousness of their cause is one thing the Creationists cannot be accused of. Many of them borrowed their geology from the American Quaker schoolteacher Isaac Newton Vail. In his 1874 book The Waters Above the Firmament: The Earth’s Aqueous Ring and its Cause Vail proposed that the earth initially had rings like those of Saturn which had caused the missing precipitation at the time of the Deluge. Vail called his system “annular” and maintained that all the planets had such rings in the past. We know now that Vail was not far off the mark but still wrong: of all the planets only Saturn is known to have had rings and while these rings do indeed consist of ice water, they cannot be converted to rain.

Meanwhile, the self-taught Canadian-American fundamentalist George McCready Price wrote a number of books in support of the Biblical deluge, more particularly flood geology. He seemed to oppose the approach of some of his fellow-believers, like Vail, to adopt ideas from outside the account of the flood found in the Bible to make it more credible and circumvent scientific objections. In a letter written in 1937 he deplored “the permanent evil of wholesale adding to the Word of God”. (Quoted in The Creationists 2nd Edition by Ronald L.Numbers P. 129). But Price’s intention not to make himself guilty of similar misconduct was not reflected in his own work. In his Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science (1902), for instance, he did not hesitate to invoke a sudden shift in the earth’s axis to release massive subterranean reservoirs of water while to keep the bodies from those killed in the flood from polluting the air, he conjured up a miraculous “cosmic storm” to bury them. (Numbers P. 93).

Of all the books written on the flood by conservative Christians the best known and most comprehensive (at 518 pages) is The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. It first appeared in 1961 but has never been out of print. As can be imagined, however, a book as voluminous as The Genesis Flood on a subject that occupies but a few pages in the Bible, is bound to embellish the original text or add wholesale to it. In this regard The Genesis Flood does not disappoint. According to the authors, the early earth had a water vapour canopy in the upper atmosphere which created a universal greenhouse effect before the advent of the universal flood. This, they say, made the world a tropical paradise; people had a high life expectancy, the oceans were shallower and the dry land lower and more extensive than today while the greenhouse effect kept the temperature constant. Wind circulation and rain were absent; instead, the earth was watered on a daily basis by the global mist. When the time came for the Deluge, we are told, a weak point in the earth’s crust released pressurised water leading to a chain reaction throughout the world. This, in turn, initiated turbulence in the atmosphere and dust storms leading to the condensation and precipitation of the vapour canopy.

The question is where Whitcomb and Morris got the idea of the “water vapour canopy” from. It certainly does not appear in the Biblical account of the flood (Genesis 7,8 and 9) or anywhere else in the Bible. An investigation into the matter by the geologist Arthur N.Strahler has revealed that the idea had its origin during the time of the Renaissance (in the 1500s) but that the one used by Whitcomb and Morris in particular, was borrowed from Thomas Burnet’s book The Sacred Theory Theory of the Earth published between 1680 and 1689. (Strahler Science and Earth History P. 189).

Conventional scientists do not support the water vapour canopy theory and furnish a number of reasons why it should be rejected. Strahler (P. 195-6) is of the view that it cannot exist in nature since it is inherently unstable. He argues that unless the water vapour is not isolated or enclosed by a barrier, it will quickly diffuse into the areas around it where the vapour density is lower. This diffusion, he says, will take place downward and upward until the canopy is uniformly distributed across the globe and in the same ratio to the other molecules in the atmosphere such as oxygen and nitrogen.

A second reason why the vapour canopy theory is doomed to failure, Strahler thinks, has to do with the energy of the sun.and its rays in the shortwave spectrum that includes visible light. The input of energy on earth is largest at the equator but diminishes as one moves away and falls to zero at the poles. He points out, however, that the earth also emits energy in the long-wave (infrared) section of the spectrum and returns as much energy to the sun as it receives from it. Still, imbalances exist depending on the latitude; an energy surplus exists at low latitudes while a deficit occurs at high latitudes. This instability or imbalance is responsible for the global circulation system. There is no way, Strahler says, that the flood in pre-flood times could have remained static and maintain a uniformly dense canopy over the entire earth. The earth’s Hadley cell system that transports heated air from the equator over the two subtropical belts which contain the deserts would have destroyed any vapour canopy system. In the higher latitudes, great upper airwaves form and reform repeatedly, mixing warm air from low latitudes with cold air from the poles. This advection, as it is called, would also have destroyed the vapour canopy in high altitude zones.

Awbrey and Thwaites (P. 50) think that even if the vapour canopy were possible, it would have been inimical to life. They point out that if you assume that one-quarter of the flood came from the vapour canopy, that vapour would translate into a layer of water 692.3 meters thick around the earth. And since water vapour occupies approximately 6,000 times the space of water, the vapour canopy would have had to be 8,000 kilometres thick. Both the water and vapour referred to have the same weight and atmospheric pressure when experienced at 692.3 meter under the ocean (or 68.6 atmospheres). At pressures greater than 5 atmospheres, the authors continue, oxygen is toxic while nitrogen narcosis sets in when the water is deeper than 61.5 meters. Moreover, with virtually no light penetrating below 184.6 meters in the ocean, the early earth (that is now between the time of Adam and Noah) must have been pitch black and no plants or animals would have been able to live on its surface.

Mark Isaak (The Counter-Creationism Handbook P. 222-3) also thinks that the vapour canopy would have destroyed life. He is of the view that if the world’s atmosphere began purely as a vapour, any water from it would be super-heated and the flood water boiled off. That is true, he says, even if the ice began as solid ice in orbit around the earth. In that case, its gravitational potential energy would be converted to heat as it fell, super-heating the atmosphere well beyond the ability of any life to survive.

Similar far-fetched devices have been concocted by the creationists to account for the drying out of the earth within a period of one hundred and fifty days. According to them, God performed further miracles when the rain stopped by making the continents rise and the ocean basins sink along vertical faults. The new basins, believers say, were big enough to contain all the augmented water and form new oceans. But again, no word of all these marvellous deeds appear in the Bible and there no mechanism in science that can do what is claimed. (See Strahler P. 201 -2).

The reason why the creationists are so obsessed with the ridiculous story of the Genesis flood and determined to protect it against criticism by scientists and rationalists is not because of any the original reasons why it was initially included in the Bible, including an attempt to explain the origin of the rainbow (see Gen 9:11-17). It is because in their eyes the flood must explain the fossil record: in particular why certain animals that were created by God have become extinct and why one finds a certain order of fossils in the geological record. (An order, it should be noted, that is at complete odds with creationist dogma).

If, however, no proof exists of the worldwide flood propagated in the book of Genesis, what about a more localized one? An answer to this question was furnished by Leonard Wooley, the British archaeologist who undertook excavations at Ur, the home town of Abraham (see Gen 11:31) in 1927 and 1928. He found an alluvial deposit; a layer of clay 12,3 meter underground free of shards and rubbish not less than 2.35 meter thick. He concluded that a tremendous flood must have inundated the delta of the Euphrates-Tigris rivers during the time of the Sumerians but that “…this actual flood, which gave rise to the Deluge as myth, did not destroy the whole human race with the exception of Ut-napishtim – Noah and family. It must have been an unusually severe example of the characteristic local inundations that periodically drown the Euphrates-Tigris delta region.” (C W Ceram P. 312).

Not everyone was satisfied with this discovery. Some wanted a more extensive flood; at least a regional super flood to account for the various flood myths. They point out that these myths also occurred as far afield as Greece where the protagonists are Deucalion (the son of Prometheus) and his wife Pyrrha (the daughter of Pandora). According to the story Zeus was angered by the race of men who inhabited the world at the time; a violent and vicious lot called ‘the men of bronze’ and he decided to drown them in a huge flood on the earth. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha were spared and instructed to build a ship. After floating for 9 days and nights on the storm waters their ship came to rest on a mountain in Thessaly in Greece. Eventually, the two of them and their descendants repopulated the world. (See Larousse World Mythology (ed) Pierre Grimal P.113-4).

Two scientists, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, were among those who decided to investigate the matter afresh. They published their findings in a book that was published in 1998 with the title Noah’s Flood: New Discoveries about the Event that Changed History. As appears from the title, Ryan and Pitman accept that there was a flood and that it requires an explanation. They concentrate, however, on the Sumerian account of the flood since it was the first to appear.

What Ryan and Pitman contend is that simply that huge amounts of water from the Mediterranean Sea caused the Black Sea to burst its banks 7600 years ago. The catastrophic flood that followed in its wake gave rise to the myths that one finds in the countries that were subsequently affected by the flood.

What is important is that other researchers agree with Ryan and Pitman’s idea of such a flood but disagree with them regarding the intensity thereof and the time when it happened. Some are of the view that the flood was moderate while others propose periodic floods instead. What cannot be disputed, though, is that the level of the Black Sea did indeed rise over time. In a television program shown on the National Geographic channel, it appeared that portions of the Black Sea that used to be on dry land, are now under water.

It doesn’t really matter whether Ryan and Pitman proposed the flood theory to save the Gilgamesh Epic or the Noah story because there are a number of insurmountable problems with their idea. One is that approximately 2500 years elapsed between the event itself (the flood) and the first recorded account of it. What is the possibility that pre-literate people will preserve an accurate and reliable record of what exactly happened after such a long period of time? It would have amounted to repeated hear-say for 100 generations until someone was finally able to write down what he or she had been told. By that time the story would have been completely garbled and unreliable. Ryan and Pitman counter this argument by claiming that an oral tradition can be accurate if it is composed as a poem and spread by word of mouth. This is of course what happened in the case of the two poems the Iliad and the Odyssey that were written down by Homer 2900 years ago. But that is only in Greece. We don’t know whether similar processes were at work in other countries. Generally, though, it is not true that the contents of such poems are accurate. Today we know that the two Homeric poems are largely fiction. The only thing that we can safely say after the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann is that the city of Troy did exist.

A further problem is that if one looks at the topography of the area around the Black Sea, one finds that its lowest areas are situated in the north-west, that is to say where present-day Romania and the Ukraine are. When the flood occurred, the water must have flowed from the Black Sea in that direction and not in the opposite direction towards Syria and Iraq – yet it is exactly in the latter countries where the first recorded claims of a flood were discovered!

Lastly, Ryan and Pitman concede that the flood that they propose would not have covered the whole world and that the tallest mountains like Mount Ararat would not have been totally submerged in water. According to them, people would have been able to flee on foot before the flood because of its localised nature.

I think that all we can say with any certainty is that one cannot rule out the possibility that local floods may have taken place in the Middle East thousands of years ago and that they may have given rise to myths. Once these stories became known, they were often adopted (and adapted) by neighbouring nations.

Lastly, as I was writing this post, I was reminded of a cartoon that I once saw of Noah’s ark drifting aimlessly on the boundless ocean. Everywhere on the ark one could see pairs of animals; 2 giraffes, 2 lions and so on. Noah was also standing with his wife but looked pretty dejected. Said he to her: “You know, I don’t think it is fair that I should have received both the tapeworms.”

Christo Roberts

I am a retired Senior State Advocate and I live in Cape Town.