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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Noah 5763/ October 12, 2002
Science and the Flood
Prof. Moshe Kaveh
President, Bar Ilan University
Director, Resnick Institute for Advanced Technology in
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
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.
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'
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
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
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
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
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
flowed through the Bosphorus so fast that the size of the lake increased
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
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).