Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5763/ October 12, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Noah 5763/ October 12, 2002
Science and the Flood

Prof. Moshe Kaveh
President, Bar Ilan University
Director, Resnick Institute for Advanced Technology in Physics

The story of the Flood in Parashat Noah is one of the most dramatic in the annals of man. The massive destruction and calculated deliverance in this narrative have sparked the imagination of novelists, poets and humanists, making the story of the flood and its hero, Noah, the most recounted myth in all human society throughout the ages.

Two hundred and seventeen cultures around the world have a flood story (see the book by C. Sellien and D. Balsiger). Many studies document stories of the flood in the region of Mesopotamia, including stories written on stone or papyrus (cf., for example, the documentation in Lambert and Miller, The Babylonian Story of the Flood).

From the documents that have been recorded and come down to us, we see that in most of the stories the dove heralds the end of the flood, appearing with an olive branch in her mouth, which in the fullness of time was adopted universally as the symbol of peace.

For over a century the flood has also been the object of scientific research, including recent studies by scientists at the world's leading universities. These studies examine the flood from the point of view of chronology, geology and oceanography, biology and zoology, archaeology, as well as philosophy and theology. Thus we see that interest in the flood is not confined to esoteric fields, rather it encompasses a broad spectrum of disciplines.

Everything, it turns out, can be a topic for research, even whether the zebra was on the second level of Noah's ark, next to the lions, or on the third level, next to the bears.

The Vast Amount of Water

Generations of scientists have sought an explanation of the source of the vast quantity of water in the flood. Some have argued that the water resulted from subterranean volcanic shifting, and others believe that gasses covered the earth's surface and turned into droplets of water. According to the latter theory, which today is considered more piquant than scientific, the gasses blocked the ultra-violet radiation, causing Noah to live nine hundred years. Scholars today generally accept the hypothesis that most of the water came from glaciers melting. Both cite the Bible in support of water flowing from above and from below: "all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open" (Gen. 7:11).

As for dating the flood, early studies set it around 5,600 B.C.E. A British archaeologist by the name of Leonard Wooley dated the flood to 2,800 B.C.E. Recently Gene Faulstich, from the Iowa Research Institute, proved the exact date of the flood to have been 2,345 B.C.E. Using methods from astronomy, he dated the onset of the flood precisely to the 14th of May in that year. The Sages also related to the timing of the flood. Rabbi Joshua said that it took place in the month of Iyyar (approx. May; see Sanhedrin 108a); thus Faulstich's findings match the Sages' remark.

Noah's Ark

Attempts at finding Noah's ark have virtually become an obsession for more than a century. In 1887 two Persian princes reported that they had seen Noah's ark on one of the mountains of Ararat, and in 1916 two Russian pilots claimed to have seen it from the air. Since then dozens of similar reports have been published (see Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible, HarperCollins 2001). Since 2000, in the wake of the findings mentioned above, the flood has become accepted as definite scientific fact.

It should be noted that none of the expeditions in search of the ark on the mountains of Ararat have come up with anything. Recently the idea came up of using satellite imaging from outer space. There is currently a plan to send up a photo satellite, Okono 2, capable of photographing objects as small as one meter, with which researchers hope to discover the remains of Noah's ark.

Life in Noah's Ark

Finding Noah's ark is a fascinating archaeological challenge. But short of actually discovering the ark itself, the idea of the ark has aroused the curiosity of zoologists and biologists. They relate to the ark as the largest biological laboratory in the history of the universe. According to the Torah, Noah's ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. That makes it a vessel about half as large as the Titanic. One of the most widely researched questions is how the ark could have contained some two million kinds of animals. John Whitcomb surmises that Noah's ark hosted 3,700 mammals, 8,600 birds, and 6,300 reptiles, and in view of the size of the ark there was room for all.

Another related question is how these animals were fed. How much food did Noah have to load on board his ark in order to support the living things in it? The question of garbage disposal has also been researched. According to zoologists from San Diego University, the animals in the ark must have produced about 800 tons of refuse. The stimulation for all this research is provided by the biblical narrative itself, this week's Torah reading.

The Scope of the Flood

Now we get to the motivation for writing this article, namely the amazing story that broke about a year or two ago, in which the world press announced that "decisive proof of the flood" had been discovered. The plain text of the biblical narrative gives the clear impression that the flood encompassed the entire world: "All existence on earth was blotted out - man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark" (Gen. 7:23). However, scientific computations show that there is not enough water to cover the entire earth to the height of Mount Ararat. Moreover, there is no tradition of a flood story in the ancient civilizations of the Far East. Chinese civilization, which is well documented as far as 7,000 years back, makes no mention of any event resembling a flood. Particularly in the ancient Near East, however, there are flood stories, such as the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia.

Views of the flood as local in scope go back to the time of the Sages. According to R. Yohanan (Zevahim 113b), the torrential rains did not fall on the Land of Israel. Likewise, the Torah Temimah commentary of Rabbi Epstein writes: "Regarding Babylonia receiving more rain than any other land in the world and being drowned by the flood, it should be noted that according to Tractate Zevahim, loc. sit., Babylon was therefore called Shinar, because all the creatures that perished in the flood were tossed (Heb. ninaru) there. It is a deep valley, and therefore is also called metzulah ('the deep')." In the mind of the Sages, Babylonia constituted the 'entire world'. This is evident in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (Horev ed., ch. 10, s.v. "be-shishi"): "... since all the creatures lived in one place, and seeing the waters of the flood, Nimrod became king over them, as it is said: 'the mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, ...' (Gen. 10:10)."

Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History, 1999, a book by Geologists Dr. Willian Ryan and Dr. Walter Peterman from Columbia University, suggests a fascinating theory based on research indicating that Noah's flood was a local event that came about as follows: at the end of the ice age European icebergs began to melt. The floods that resulted from this melting turned a fresh-water lake into a sea - the Black Sea. A study published in 1993 presented findings that a local body of fresh water was flooded by salt water. The Bosphorus blocked the water from flowing out; but gradually a channel was formed, and about ninety days later the water broke through with great force. Analysis of various shells from the area indicate the existence a subterranean division line that was formed thousands of years ago. Ryan and Peterman's study also showed that melting of icebergs caused the level of the Mediterranean Sea to rise and water to flow through the straits of the Bosphorus. Scientists calculated that water flowed through the Bosphorus so fast that the size of the lake increased at the rate of one and a half square kilometers a day.

Amazing Recent Discoveries by Ballard

An expedition called Black Horizon set out in the year 2000 under the leadership of the well-known oceanographer Ballard (famed for his discovery of the Titanic) to substantiate the above flood theory with remains of findings from the bottom of the Black Sea. About 20 kilometers offshore from Turkey, near the city of Sinop, the expedition discovered a well-preserved structure that was thousands of years old. This finding adds greatly to our knowledge about life in the ancient civilizations of this part of the world. It appears that from time to time the ancient dwellers of this area had to relocate due to floods.

An article in National Geographic describes the operations of a submarine robot that was lowered into the sea to photograph the area. The photos reveal a rectangular area approximately 15 meters long and 4 meters wide into which a structure of wood and mortar had apparently collapsed. The findings from this site - carved wooden pillars, tree branches and stone vessels - are well-preserved. There is broad consensus among scientists that this study, publicized in the press the world wide, is conclusive proof of the historicity of the flood.

The flood in the literature of the Sages

The Midrashic comments of the Sages were concerned not with the physical reality of the Deluge but with its moral and religious repercussions. They did not treat the deliverance from the flood as an event with religious meaning for later generations, due to the way the Sages thought one should react to "G-d's creatures drowning in the sea," namely, that one should not sing or declare a day of rejoicing in honor of Noah having been saved when so many other lives were lost. But the covenant made between G-d and Noah at the cessation of the Flood was preserved for all time by the Sages in the benediction they formulated, "Blessed art thou ... who remembers the covenant," recited whenever one sees a rainbow after a storm.

Instead, the Sages thought we could learn from the causes of the Flood; in Parashat Noah (Gen. 6:11) we read: "The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness." The human virtues necessary to maintain a proper society had been destroyed, and corruption and lawlessness reigned. Such a society was not worthy in G-d's eyes: "And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened" (Gen. 6:6). The sadness felt by G-d at having to drown the work of His hands did not give rise to a day of rejoicing, rather to an everlasting covenant between Him and man. Even though "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth," nevertheless the Lord promised never again to destroy all His creatures.

The very rainbow that forms in the sunlight after a rainstorm reminds human beings that the Lord remembers - as we say in the formulation of the benediction, "who remembers the covenant" - and symbolizes both refraction into the colors of the spectrum and the unity of the great light. Human beings, as diverse as they are, must lead their lives as creatures made "in the image of G-d" (Gen. 9:6).