Instone-Brewer: Did Noah’s Ark actually happen?

Dr David Instone-BrewerAs part of a series “Embarrassing Bible Texts?” in Christianity magazine, David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House, Cambridge, asks, Did Noah’s Ark actually happen? Were six million land species really rescued in one boat? He concludes that there was a real flood, and a real ark in which “the precious animal stock – specially bred by generations of farmers” was rescued, but that this flood was not worldwide. Neither is he is quite saying that it was a local flood. Rather he links this with a flood attested by proper scientific observation:

Archaeologists in the 1930s found evidence of an amazingly widespread flood (or floods) which covered the whole plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – an area of 140,000 square miles – before 3000 BC. This wasn’t just a shallow flood; even the silt they found deposited by this water was eight feet deep! The whole country is flat, with just a few small hills, so this flood would have been utterly devastating; there is simply no high ground to run to for hundreds of miles. The area was the homeland of the ancient Middle Eastern world and the whole population living there must have been wiped out by this flood. It was a disaster on a scale never seen anywhere in the modern world.

So how can we reconcile this with the Bible passages which appear to teach a worldwide flood:

The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.

Genesis 7:18-20 (NIV 2011)

Instone-Brewer is certainly correct to point out that the Hebrew word eretz, here translated “earth”, can also mean “land”, as in eretz Yisrael which is the normal Hebrew for “the land of Israel”.

More problematic is the phrase “all the high mountains under the entire heavens”. Yes, the Hebrew for “mountain”, har, can also refer to quite a small hill, as in 1 Samuel 26:13. And perhaps “under heaven” can mean within the visible horizon, as Instone-Brewer suggests from Deuteronomy 2:25. But it seems unlikely that “all the high mountains” and “the entire heavens” can be understood in this way.

So how should we understand passages like this? Instone-Brewer seems to treat the Genesis story as a literal account of historical events, and then tries to argue that those historical events did not happen as commonly understood. I don’t think that quite works. It seems to me that if the account is literal, it is about a worldwide flood – one which scientists tell us could never have happened.

However, we need to consider what the authors’ intentions were in writing the accounts in the early part of Genesis, about the creation and the fall as well as the flood. They were not writing scientific papers but stories. And these stories are intended not so much to tell the past as to teach God’s ways – in the case of the flood story, as Instone-Brewer writes,

the message that God hates evil and is willing to take drastic steps to deal with it.

Didactic stories the world over use figures of speech such as hyperbole for dramatic effect. So it would hardly be surprising to find hyperbole in an account like that of the flood. A clear candidate for this kind of hyperbole is Genesis 7:19 quoted above, which turns a flood covering small hills in a local area into a worldwide one reaching above Himalayan peaks.

One might ask, how can one tell which statements in the Bible are hyperbolic, and so can be ignored as unhistorical? But that is the wrong question. If the story is not intended to teach history, one cannot expect to get any reliable historical information from it. That may be frustrating for modern scholars, but it is true. If one wants to know what happened in the past, didactic stories from the Bible or elsewhere may give useful indications, but they can never give the kind of reliable details one might obtain from inscriptions or archives intended as records of events.

In my recent post Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic I suggested that that infamous preacher of the Rapture might have been led astray by his engineering background into

taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I also suggested that this approach might be typical of creationists. This is seen also in the reading of the Noah’s Ark story as an engineer’s literal report of the height of the water. I suggested in a Facebook comment on the Camping post that

engineers, and physical scientists like myself, tend to be rather literal minded and so to prefer a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible, whereas those trained in the humanities tend to be more liberal theologically.

Well, in this case “those trained in the humanities” (and I am also that) are likely to be better qualified than engineers to understand the implications of the literary genre of the text. If their conclusions seem liberal rather fundamentalist, that doesn’t make them less valid.

0 thoughts on “Instone-Brewer: Did Noah’s Ark actually happen?

  1. I believe that Instone-Brewer is on the right track with this. His account is not unlike that of David Rohl’s take on Noah in his book ‘Legend The Genesis of Civilisation’.

    I think you can argue convincingly from the Bible that the flood was not worldwide. Rohl also points out that the Ark came to rest on the ‘mountains’ of Ararat not ‘Ararat’. He further states that the place of descent was a mountain called Judi Dagh (part of the Ararat range) in Assyria. I do not agree with all that Rohl says, but some of his arguments are very compelling indeed, and if you have not read his book then I recommend you do so.

    But you are right that the key is knowing what the correct hermeneutic should be when interpreting these texts. The fundamentalist literalist use of the text can often be misleading and leads to conclusions completely different to what the writers of the text intended. Unfortunately any criticism of the ‘standard evangelical model’ leads to accusations of liberalism where in fact people like Instone -Brewer may be closer to the truth of the text while in no way undermining its divine perogative and being faithful to its intent. I imagine that he will come in for a lot of flak for this like his ground-breaking study on divorce.

    I am a physicist by training but it has never occurred to me to take a overtly literalist approach to the Bible and I have no difficulty in believing in miracles. I am only concerned with establishing the truth and correct meaning of the text all of which I regard as inspired by the Holy Spirit. To do this we need to get into the mind of the ancients and understand how that would have read it – something that is often very difficult to do (and too much like hard work for many Christians), but is what I spend most of my time doing when I am studying the Bible and is one of the reasons why I read your blog.

    The so called ‘plain meaning of the text’ is often not so plain as we may think.

  2. Iconoclast, thank you for this. Please continue to read here!

    I have read some of David Rohl’s work and like it. I did read “Legend” at one time but I forgot the details. Although I don’t think he is a believer he takes the biblical accounts as serious, but not inerrant, historical sources – an approach I would share.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that all of us physicists take an over-literal approach to the Bible, just that it is a tendency.

  3. Pingback: Biblioblogging Carnival – Unsettled Edition | Unsettled Christianity

  4. Pingback: Noah's flood came from Canada - British scientists - Gentle Wisdom

  5. Peter

    something worth thinking about, and in the time I have taken to prepare this, I note your latest offering about the Canadian lake.

    Along with the origins/creation debate you posted on a few weeks ago – as has TC on New Leaven – this is an area where my leanings do sway, though in this instnance I have been more consistently inclined to a worldwide flood view. I have heard it said that if we sliced off the world land mass at sea level we could bury it all in the depths of the sea with room to spare. You or other contributors may be better able to comment on that. So a total flood in principle looks possible. And if you add in the Genesis reference to the “fountains of the deep bursting forth”, then we have the suggestion (I freely admit it is just a suggestion) of tectonic activity on a scale which make recent tragic events look like nothing much. God’s power in destroying evil is truly awesome. To what extent does the world today look like what it did before Noah? How much was destroyed? All of it if you go with Steven Robinson’s views (

    I appreciate that this is not at all a coherent argument, and like Tim above continue to weigh up the alternatives as I see the evidence. As I suggested in your earlier post on Theistic Evolution, I tend towards being ordered and systematic. I am not an engineer or a scientist (since A levels), but that is a common enough trait in those who like me entered the Accountancy profession in the 1970s! One feature of my spiritual development over the years has been a much enhanced recogition of the”softer” qualities you imply – which are probaly more ingrained than I sometimes allow to show!

  6. Colin, thank you for your comment. I could retort that accountants think like engineers, taking everything very literally. But that wouldn’t really be fair on either profession.

    Yes, in principle it would have been possible for the earth before the flood to be very flat and then for the waters to have flooded it. Then in principle the mountains and ocean trenches we see could have been formed since then. But if so, where is the evidence that this has happened? Over the last 200 years geologists have amassed huge quantities of evidence which can be explained in a fully coherent way, about how the rocks that we see have been formed, and including their fossil content. This consistent scenario lasts billions of years, and includes high mountains and deep oceans for all that time.

    If you are “inclined” to a different view, where is the detailed theory which supports your inclination? I don’t mean an exegesis of the biblical text, which I don’t think settles the matter either way. What I am looking for is an explanation of the geological mechanisms by which the currently visible mountains and deep oceans could have been formed during a flood lasting less than a year, or even in the few thousand years since then. Most geologists would say that this is impossible because, for example, certain fossil-bearing rocks must have taken millions of years to form and become hard. Maybe you can put forward alternative convincing mechanisms by which these things could have happened. But until you do I cannot take your inclination seriously.

    I suppose you could say that God could have created the mountains and oceans as they are in an instant. Well, yes, he could. But in that case why did he create them with a fake history of, for example, carefully layered fossils? To fool fools, as someone said once? I don’t buy that argument.

    I looked briefly at the website you named, I must say it is an interesting idea that Noah’s Flood took place in the Archaean era. Perhaps in that extremely remote past period the earth was flat enough to be covered by water. The problem is that it was also long before the beginning of the fossil record, at least of any complex creatures. The only known life from that period is cyanobacteria. But it is of the essence of the Noah’s Ark story that before the flood there were many species of complex land animals, and humans living in a complex society of the kind that has existed for only about 10,000 years. But the Archaean period ended 2,500 MILLION years ago, according to mainstream scientists. Even on the improbably compressed timescale on that website it was long before humans emerged. So I really don’t think this is a credible explanation.

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