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An Ark is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky that invites you to “witness history,” to participate in a “life-sized Noah’s Ark experience” and to “be amazed,” all for the single day price of $40 per adult and $28 for children over 5 years of age. Seniors get a discount. Parking pass not included. Combination rates are available if you also want to go to Ark Encounter’s “sister attraction,” the Creation Museum, just north in Petersburg, Kentucky.
The underlying premise of the Ark Museum is that beside “the Cross, the Ark of Noah is one of the greatest reminders we have of salvation.” The reference, of course, is to the biblical story of a massive, worldwide encompassing flood which destroyed all human and other land based animal life on Earth, save that of a man named Noah, his family and such animals as he was able to collect and maintain on an enormous ship, the Ark, which rode the flooded seas for an extended period. (See generally, Gen. 6:9-9:29.) Ark Encounter considers the story of Noah’s Ark to be “true,” that is, an “historical account recorded for us in the Bible.”
For young earth creationists, like the proponents of Ark Encounter, history dates back to, and only to, about 6000 years ago, when, they believe, God created heaven and earth. Based on the genealogies in Genesis, the flood began when Noah was 600 years old, in the year 1656 AC (After Creation). Following the reckoning of Irish Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th Century as to the date of creation, this equates to 2348 BCE (Before the Common Era). The traditional Jewish calculation of the date of creation is somewhat different, occurring 3761/3760 years before the start of the Common Era, with the flood commencing 1656 years later, or about 2105 BCE.
Ark Encounter claims that it has built a timber frame Ark “according to the dimensions given in the Bible,” more specifically, “(s)panning 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high . . . .” (See Gen. 6:15.) It also promises “jaw dropping exhibits inside the Ark,” where visitors can see models of the animals, including dinosaurs, Ark Encounter asserts were taken by Noah on his voyage.
An analysis undertaken twenty years evaluated major safety parameters and concluded that a floating ship of biblical dimensions would have been seaworthy. Maybe. Without question, though, building a wooden ship the length of one and a half football fields, and seven stories high is quite a feat.
Yet if Ark Encounter’s engineering and construction skills are impressive, its understanding of the biblical story of Noah is less so. In fact, to sustain its undertaking, Ark Encounter has had to purposely ignore the Mesopotamian antecedents of the biblical flood story, reject a consensus among modern academics that the Noah story as contained in contemporary bibles is really a combined and edited version of two quite separate and, in key locations, contradictory stories, and avoid what current science teaches. Ark Encounter, in short, can only sail on a sea of denial.
The Cultural Antecedents for Noah
Ark Encounter recognizes that many cultures, over 200 by its count, have flood stories. That there are myriad stories from every corner of the globe is essentially correct, and flood stories from around the world can now be easily accessed. On its website, however, Ark Encounter discusses only a few of these, and then in a cursory fashion, taking the position that the only “true account” is the one found in the Bible. At the same time, it contends that the existence of so many flood stories “point(s) to a universal truth – there was a worldwide flood in the ancient past.” The argument doesn’t hold water, though. The variety of detail in these stories is so extensive, and the dating, such as it is, so inconsistent, that collectively the vast number of stories refutes the notion that there was one global deluge.
Conversely, there is at least one nation that apparently has no flood story. Surprisingly, given its history and geography as an archipelago, that nation is Japan. Rather than invent or adopt such a story, some Japanese argue that the absence of a flood tradition demonstrates Japan’s uniqueness and superiority to other nations, as Japan alone seems to have existed on a higher plain than other nations, spiritually and physically, and, so, has been spared from an otherwise worldwide destructive event.
Ark Encounter’s failure to address the flood stories of one particular region is especially disingenuous. As Rutgers professor of Jewish history Gary Rendsburg points out, the “only geographical location mentioned in the biblical account is the mountains of Ararat, which are located in . . . modern-day eastern Turkey . . . near the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.” (Rendsburg, Lecture 7 (at 37/203), see Gen. 8:4.) This is in the northern region of the ancient territory of Mesopotamia, literally the land between the rivers. Similarly, the biblical stories that follow the flood account – the Tower of Babel saga and the journey of Abram’s family – are also rooted along the Euphrates and throughout Mesopotamia. (See Gen. 10:10, 11:1-9, 11:31; see also, Josh. 24:2.)
Mesopotamia, in stark contrast to Canaan, the land ancient Israelites later claimed to be promised to them, is prone to flooding. The Mesopotamian plain receives ample rainfall and both the Tigris and Euphrates overflow their banks with regularity. Canaan benefits from no similar experience. So, it would not be surprising if the land of frequent flooding also was the source of flood stories, and, indeed, that is the case.
Perhaps the most famous of these Mesopotamian stories was discovered less than a century and a half ago when the remarkable George Smith, a young printer by trade and largely self-trained archaeologist, was working on a collection of cuneiform tablets at The British Museum in London. In 1872, Smith succeeded in translating a portion of the eleventh of twelve tablets that make up the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, King of the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Smith subsequently deciphered the entire flood story within the Gilgamesh Epic.
The flood story Smith uncovered was written about 3,200 years ago. Tablet XI tells of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality when he learned of Utnapishtim, who survived a massive flood and was awarded immortality by the gods. Ark Encounter’s website acknowledges the Epic of Gilgamesh, but avoids any serious analysis of it, characterizing the saga as “clearly fiction” and a “myth.” In fact, the Noah story appears to incorporate not only the general theme of Utnapishtim’s tale, but also its structure, its details, its phrasing and, especially tellingly, a particular word.
In both stories, there is a divinely ordained flood (which covers the entire earth), a ship serves as a sanctuary for a selected group of humans and certain animals, the ship is built with wood and pitch is used to provide waterproofing. Eventually the ship comes to rest on a mountain top, birds are then sent forth sequentially to determine whether the flood has ended and dry land is again available for occupation, the inhabitants of the ship are released, a sacrifice is offered and the smell of the burnt offering is found pleasing by the divine power(s).
As Prof. Rendsburg teaches, while one could tell essentially the same story with considerable variation, the version found in Genesis maintains many of the key elements in the same order as they are found in the Gilgamesh epic. Even the order of the references to materials, dimensions and decks on the ship is the same. There are differences, of course, large and small. For instance, the theological assumptions expressed and the rewards granted the hero are quite dissimilar. Moreover, the boat in the Noah story is shaped differently than Utnapishtim’s vessel, and it is smaller with fewer decks. Still, the similarities are striking.
Two unique non-Israelite pieces of evidence seem to confirm Gilgamesh Tablet XI as a prior source of the biblical account. Yeshiva Associate Professor Shalom E. Holtz notes, the word for pitch in the Noah story is kofer, the “cognate to Akkadian kupru, which is what Utnapishtim uses.” By comparison, Holtz observes, the word used for the pitch that waterproofed the container in which the baby Moses was placed was a native Hebrew word, zefet. (See Ex. 2:3.) Holtz concludes that kofer was “borrowed directly from Akkadian, and provides the strongest evidence for the Mesopotamian origin of the (Noah story).”
Further, after Noah sacrifices to YHWH, YHWH reportedly “smelled the pleasing odor.” (See Gen. 8: 21.) This, Prof. Rendsburg teaches, is the only time among the many biblical references to Israelite sacrifices where it is said that God smelled a sacrifice. Rendsburg then calls attention to line 161 in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic where it is written that “the gods smelled the sweet savor” of Utnapishtim’s sacrifice.
The Gilgamesh Epic, however, is not the oldest of the Mesopotamian flood stories. It was preceded by about four to five centuries by another flood story, the Epic of Atrahasis. Citing the work of the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Dr. Holtz argues that a “theme of creation, deconstruction and re-creation drives the plot” of the Atrahasis Epic. The story arises out of the circumstances of ancient gods who had grown weary of doing physical labor, including digging ditches for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They created humans to bear their burden, but the human population grew substantially and they were noisy, so the gods could not rest comfortably. The solution was first a flood and, then, new rules to regulate marriage, fertility and infant mortality.
The primeval historical background in the Atrahasis legend is much closer to that in Genesis than is the travelogue of King Gilgamesh. The story of Noah, after all, is in many respects a story of re-creation following the destruction of God’s original world, one in which the people created in God’s own image had become wicked and lawlessness corrupted the earth. (See Gen. 6:5, 11-13.) In the biblical version, the deity that separated the waters above from the waters below in Genesis (at 1:6-7) now reverses course, allows the waters that had been separated for the benefit of the earth to recombine and envelope earth. God will start over, with a newly selected group of humans.
Even older is the Sumerian flood story featuring Ziusudra of Shuruppak. Sumer was in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, roughly from contemporary Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Sumerian civilization was well established by early in the fourth millennium BCE, and Ziusudra is listed in the Sumerian King List. Here, too, the antediluvian gods sought to destroy mankind, but one god, Enki, urged Ziusudra to construct a large boat in order to survive, which he did and, having left his boat, offered a sacrifice.
The archaeological and anthropological records clearly show, then, that several classic flood tales predated the biblical story of Noah. But would the authors of the biblical tale have known of them? And, if so, how and when? Minimally, as the Book of Kings in particular shows, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in constant contact with the greater powers of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, either through commerce or war. No doubt cultural tales, even phrase and words, were shared.
Prof. Rendsburg provides some more concrete clues. He notes that a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic, dating to late in the second millennium BCE, has been found in Megiddo in Northern Israel, and another tablet about Gilgamesh’s life, apparently not part of the twelve tablet Epic, has been found in the coastal city of Ugarit, formerly Northern Canaan and presently in Syria. Neither refer to a flood, but both provide evidence that Mesopotamian stories were transported physically to core biblical lands.
Needless to say, if the exchange of ideas in the normal course was not a sufficient opportunity to learn of ancient Mesopotamian flood stories, the exile of the ruling and literate Judahites to Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem around 587 BCE surely provided it. Those who were taken or, later, grew up in Babylon could hardly have failed to hear of the classic tales that had already traveled beyond their home of origin.
The Refusal to Acknowledge the Cultural Heritage
The failure of Ark Encounter to acknowledge the intellectual history preceding the development of the biblical flood story is more than troublesome. It also precludes a careful reader of the biblical story from appreciating fully the insights and inventiveness of the biblical authors and the dramatic changes they brought to an ancient Mesopotamian tradition.
For instance, the gods in the Atrahasis story resort to flooding the earth because they are irritated by the noisiness of humankind. Their clamor prevented the gods from sleeping well. By contrast, the text in Genesis states that humans were destroyed because of “hamas,” which Yale bible scholar Professor Christine Hayes translates as “violence, bloodshed, but also all kinds of injustice and oppression.” (At Lecture 4, Ch. 4.)
In Gilgamesh, the gods are seen fighting with each other, and once the flood is unleashed, they become terrified of what they have wrought, in part because of the power of the flood and also because they now do not have any food and are starving. That is, as Prof. Hayes teaches, the Mesopotamian gods are in disarray rather than control. The biblical God, however, is neither at the mercy of the elements of nature nor subject to anthropomorphic needs. Similarly, the old gods acted capriciously, but God in the Noah story has standards, and punishes immorality while rewarding righteousness.
The reader will learn no grand lesson from the survival stories of Ziusudra, Atrahasis and Utnapishtim. But the reader of the Noah tale will easily grasp the basic lesson being taught, which Prof. Hayes summarizes as follows: “inhumanity and violence undermine the very foundations of society.” The “cosmic catastrophe” of the flood is not due to religious sins, offensive as they may be, but for a more fundamental breach of basic moral law. With this modified, transformed story, then, the biblical authors changed the discussion of the nature of the universe and provided guidance for future generations.
Obviously, the Noah fable can stand on its own. It has successfully done so for well over two thousand years, effectively replacing the tales of Ziusudra and Utnapishtim as the paradigmatic world flood story. Hamlet, too, can be appreciated without realizing that William Shakespeare relied on earlier sources such as one written by Thomas Kyd in the late sixteenth century and the much older, twelfth century Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus. Understanding that there were such stories, though, rather than diminishing Shakespeare’s contribution only highlights his skill and the marvelous nature of his text. Similarly, Ark Encounter customers could glean certain moral lessons of the Noah tale from the biblical text alone. But by restricting the customer to the biblical text, and avoiding the back stories, Ark Encounter flattens a textured work and disrespects its author(s).
Further, Ark Encounter fails to address the current consensus among contemporary biblical academics, Prof. Rendsburg being an exception, that the story of Noah told in the Torah is the product of a conflating of parallel texts representing two Noah traditions. By utilizing principles of the Documentary Hypothesis and source criticism, a reader can, however, recreate the original texts. In one, YHWH tells Noah to bring one pair of unclean animals but also seven pairs of clean animals, the flood is caused by rain, which lasts for 40 days, Noah ultimately sends out a dove three times, and YHWH enjoys the sweet savor of Noah’s post journey sacrifice of certain clean animals. In the other, longer version, the dimensions of the Ark are specified, only one pair of animals boards, the source of the flood waters is the open gates of the waters above and below earth, the flood lasts for 150 days until the gates are closed by Elohim (God), and, after more than a year has passed, God tells Noah to leave the Ark and repopulate the world. The separated texts can be found here. Ultimately, the reader must decide whether to accept or not the utility of Documentary Hypothesis and source criticism. Failing to provide the opportunity to do so by claiming that the received text is not to be questioned reflects a determination that a closed mind is to be preferred to an open one.
The Refusal to Acknowledge Physical Facts
Ark Encounter’s failure to address the literary antecedents of the Noah story, a story it embraces, is accompanied by its silence in the face of challenges raised by science, which it apparently does not embrace. The issues are extensive, if not endless. Here we will list only a sample.
- Where is the geological evidence, in the nature of silt formations or otherwise, of a global flood about forty-four centuries ago? There doesn’t seem to be any. (See, e.g., here and here.)
- Where is the archaeological evidence, in the form of ruins of dwellings and other structures and of bone layers, of such an event? There doesn’t seem to be any. To the contrary, the antediluvian Great Pyramid of Giza and the circle of large sarsens at Stonehenge testify to the absence of a worldwide deluge.
- Why is there no record of civilizational disruption in the annals of the Old Kingdom of Egypt or even in the records of the great Mesopotamian cultures just over four millennia ago?
- Did Noah collect, say, pandas from China and koalas from Australia? If so, how did he feed them the massive amounts of unique food, bamboo and eucalyptus leaves respectively, they would have required to survive? How did he get them down the steep slope of Mt. Ararat and back home? And, if pandas and koalas were not on the Ark, how can they be here today?
- Where did the dinosaurs live 4,100 years ago, before Noah brought them on the Ark? After they left the Ark, where did they go and when and how did the various kinds of dinosaurs die?
- Once the flood covered the land surfaces of the world, fresh water lakes and rivers would have been swamped by salt water oceans. Most fish are stenohaline, able to live only within a narrow range of salinity. How did saline sensitive fish from either environment survive?
- To have covered the world, over the top of Mt. Everest, would have required an enormous amount of water. For the sake of discussion, given the improbability of such a quantity appearing by rain or the opening of gates to mythical upper and lower bodies of water, when the time came for the flood to cease, where did all the water go? The ocean basins were filled, the land was saturated, and the atmosphere could not contain all that water vapor. Where did the water go?
Honest answers to these questions should confirm the conclusion of Orthodox Rabbi Norman Solomon that that the story of a massive, universal flood rising fifteen cubits over Mt. Ararat some forty-one centuries ago “never happened; [rather] there is overwhelming evidence that most life around the planet continued in its normal course.” Moreover, we have good evidence, from thick deposits near Shuruppak, the Sumerian home of Ziusudra, that a substantial flood occurred there around 2900 BCE. This event is of the right kind at the right time to have prompted the saga of Ziusudra and, in turn, the other stories upon which the biblical tale is based.
Ark Encounter is really Ark Avoidance
Although it extends an invitation to “witness history,” Ark Encounter in practice simultaneously rejects both the flood literature that pre-dates the writing of Noah and also modern science which conclusively demonstrates in a variety of ways why the biblical story did not and could not have happened as it is written. Instead, it focuses narrowly on a story which the author, not claiming to be either an historian or a scientist, carefully constructed for a particular purpose at a particular time. We have not yet sufficiently identified that time, much less that author, but at least we should be able to understand the inspirational precedents with which the author was working, marvel at the vision that guided his work and appreciate the talent necessary to forge the resulting work to advance his needs and goals.
When faith fears facts, and opts for fiction, it risks looking foolish. Rather than demonstrating character, it invites caricature. We have seen the results in our own community, and it is tragic. When any person of faith succumbs to such fear, whether promoted by Ark Encounter or the leaders of the Jewish Satmar sect or others, he or she actually displays a lack of true faith both in the God s/he professes to worship and the reality that God presumably created, including the creature the Bible uniquely claims was made in that God’s image. Conversely, if the phrase “image of God” means anything, it must mean, as the first chapter of Genesis makes abundantly clear, a being capable of making meaningful distinctions among various possibilities, a being that exercises the brain with which it has been blessed.
Asking a person of faith to embrace reality does not require that person to abandon belief in a Higher Power. It merely urges, to paraphrase the words attributed almost two thousand years ago to a young Jewish man from Nazareth who was teaching in Jerusalem, that such a person render to science that which belongs to science, including in this case, at least archaeology, cultural anthropology, geology, evolutionary biology and hydrology. (Cf., Mark 12:17.)
In the end, and in addition to its other failures, Ark Encounter does a disservice to its customers. Though it claims to have spent over $100,000,000, the Ark Encounter project has missed a marvelous opportunity. It has chosen to comfort the choir, instead of informing, challenging and elevating them. Worse, it encourages them, rewards them for keeping their eyes and ears shut and their minds closed. There may be short term financial gain in that, but not much future. What a pity. An Ark is a terrible thing to waste.