Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Noah's Ark Challenge

Question: Which home of Biblical creatures measures 100 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width and 30 cubits in height?

The most common wrong answer to this question is Noah's Ark. It's wrong because Noah's Ark was 300 cubits long, not 100 cubits.

The correct answer is: The new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Amazingly (and completely unplanned), the new museum is the exact width and height of Noah's Ark! The museum is currently closed due to coronavirus, but it is open for live online tours for groups and institutions - see details at this link. These are amazing interactive programs which have been rated as the very best online experiences!

Meanwhile, since it's that time of year again, here is the slightly expanded version of my original post regarding scientific challenges to the Noah's Ark account (which is, ironically, a topic that we do not touch upon in the museum).

Over the years I've received numerous questions about reconciling the traditional view of Noah's Flood with modern science. There are two sets of problems. First are those concerning the scientific impossibility of such an event - how the animals survived without their normal environments, how they traveled from and back to their various locations, where the water for the Deluge came from, etc. These can all be answered by simply positing numerous miracles - the animals flew or teleported to and from the Ark, etc., - but this is not satisfactory for those who follow the approach of Rambam and others which seek to minimize supernatural miracles. 

The second set of problems is based not on the scientific impossibility of such an event, but instead upon the evidence that even a supernatural event of this nature did not happen - i.e. the evidence of uniform geology (the result of which enables geologists to make a living) and records of continuous human civilizations throughout the entire period. Of course, there are anti-scientific polemicists, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who dismiss all the problems by claiming that supernatural processes took place in such a way as to conceal their occurrence (which includes undoing many of its devastating effects and sorting all the different kinds of fossils into neatly differentiated strata) - and Rabbi Meiselman condemns everyone who considers the Deluge to be a challenge as having "a mindset tainted by kefirah and skepticism." But those who understand the historical evidence realize that even this ridiculously far-fetched answer does not remotely deal with the evidence regarding human civilization.

There are a variety of different ways of approaching this topic. I tried discussing some of them online back in the summer of 2004, which may well have been one of the factors leading to the infamous ban on my books, and my comments were subsequently widely and wildly (and sometimes deliberately) misquoted. So instead of discussing it, I will just provide references to further reading material which shed light on various different approaches. Many people will condemn these approaches as unacceptable, but until they have a credible response to the scientific difficulties with the simple understanding, they would be wiser to remain silent.

First and foremost, I strongly recommend that people struggling with this difficulty read The Challenge Of Creation, preferably the third edition and onwards. I only explicitly deal with the flood in footnote 2 on page 302 (third edition), but there are many other parts of the book which are actually more relevant in terms of determining which options are available and acceptable - in particular, chapters 6-8, and 14-15.

Other relevant sources (remember, not all of these present the same approach), listed in no particular order, are:

Joel B. Wolowelsky, "Divine Literature and Human Language: Reading the Flood Story," in Bentsi Cohen, ed. As a Perennial Spring: A Festschrift Honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (NY: Downhill Publishing, 2013), pp. 521-534. (This is a revised version of his earlier article “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.)

Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, BeToraso Shel Rabbi Gedalyah, pp. 116-119.

Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1961).

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, commentary to Genesis, pp. 140-141.

Rabbi J. Hertz’s “Additional Notes to Genesis” at the back of The Pentateuch.

Nahum Sarna, "Understanding Genesis" (New York: Schocken Books 1966). (Note that this is not an Orthodox book, but it contains valuable insights.)

Rav Kook's letter on literalism, translated here.

Marc Shapiro's postings on this topic (I, II, and commentary by Rav Moshe Shamah here).

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks' essay on the Deluge and the Tower of Babel (here)

Natan Slifkin, "Historical Records Vs. Dramatic Accounts"

Lorence Collins, "Yes, Noah's Flood May Have Happened, But Not Over the Whole Earth."

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  1. but this is not satisfactory for those who follow the approach of Rambam and others which seek to minimize supernatural miracles.

    The truth must emerge, 'those who seek to minimize', people with a bias who need things to fit their own narrative. People who shoehorn facts into their own ideologies, while condemning others for doing the same.

    We don't need more education, we need more mirrors. We need people to see themselves for what they are, ideologues not rationalists.

    The Torah writes that there was a Bris, a covenant, that allowed the animals to survive the flood. And that is why supernatural things had to happen at that time. It is not reproduceable, because it was supernatural.

    I have read the claims against the mabul and the paucity of actual logic is mind-boggling. People need to get their heads out of their own bellies and look outside of themselves sometimes.

    1. Your approach requires one to believe that the Mabul was a world changing event that had no discernible effect, no matter where or how we look. That borders on the absurd. The other side of the border.

    2. ZD, I somewhat agree with you although you could be more respectful and less insulting. But my problem is, where in the Torah account does it mention that there was a miracle that reversed all the damage of the mabul so that we don't see its effects today? Or protected certain things, like geological formations, from being damaged? One would expect that such a great miracle would be mentioned. Similarly for the Creation, where is the mention that Hashem created the fossils and the remnants of the town of Tell es-Sultan (10,000 BC)?

    3. ZD, a few questions:

      1). Where is the geological evidence? Where did all the water come from and where did it go? It could not have evaporated into the atmosphere.
      2). Where is the archaeological evidence? Why do we find ruins from the Pyramids of Giza 4000 years old if there was a worldwide flood? And to say nothing about the absence of records recounting the devastating deluge? For example, Japan does not have a flood story. Why?
      3). Pandas and koalas live in China, Australia, and the rainforest, and cannot live in the region of Mt. Ararat. They feed off of bamboo and eucalyptus. And if they weren't in the Ark, how did they get here?
      4). The ocean is salt water but most fish are stenohaline and live in salinity waters. Where did the abundance of fish come from? And if they survived in the water, why were they not punished? Fish also eat warms.
      5). Since your a creationist, what about dinosaurs?

      In short, you cannot answer any of these questions because you are a fundamentalist. Were you to be intellectually honest, you would conclude that there never was a worldwide flood. Period.

    4. HGLP
      The Ramban in Parshas Vayigash. tells us that the Torah does not tell us miracles for no reason. There are other miracles hinted and alluded to in the Torah, but the purpose of the miracles that are told is only when they are promised before by a Navi. The Torah did not have to tell us where the record of the Mabbul went. But the Torah does tell us that the Mabbul was something supernatural, and that the world was commanded to return to normal thereafter.
      I did not mention anything about the fossil record, because I don't know anything about it. I am talking strictly about the Mabbul. The proofs brought against the Mabbul are generally predicated on the reader disbelieving the Torah's account in the first place

      Turk Hill
      1. The possuk tells us where the water came from. Unlike the regular rain cycle, this water came from the תהום. The possuk tells us clearly that windows that were otherwise closed, opened up.

      2. You are being דורש השמטות, the lack of archaeological evidence is your proof.
      To which I ask, what percentage of any era is preserved and visible today through archaeology? The only intellectual answer is "We don't know and we cannot know". How will we find the answer to this question? How will we snapshot an era, nove forward 1000 years, and see how much is preserved?

      3. The possuk tells us that all animals were in the ark, as well as the food they needed. What is the problem? How did they get to their natural enviroment? I don't know, the Torah doesn't tell us. Perhaps the Teiva made multiple stops on the way home, but this question is hardly sufficient to prove anything.
      4. The fish were not punished in the mabbul, they continued to live in the water. What is the problem?
      5. What does that have to do with the mabbul? And the Torah is quite the creationist book. Literally the first verse.

    5. @ZD

      (1) Leaving aside the improbability of the opening of gates to mythical upper and lower bodies of water, when the flood ceased, the ocean basins were already filled, the land saturated, and the atmosphere could not handle the vapor. Where did all the water go? 
      (2) The Pyramids of Giza and other ruins clearly testify to the absence of a worldwide flood.
      (3) The Bible never mentions pandas and koalas. More importantly, how did Noah bring all the animals into the Ark? And how did they return to their natural habitat? At least here you admit that you don't know.
      (4) I agree with this. rabbi Arnold Ehrlich wrote that the fish survived the flood since they survive in water. However, he asks why didn't G-d kill the fish, since they also eat worms?

    6. @ZD

      (5) I disagree. A “day” in Genesis 1 could not mean a twenty-four hour period because that’s not the literal definition of a “day.” Creationists who insist that a day is 24hrs are actually not literalists at all! They are putting their own definition of what a day is. Furthermore, a "day" is not 24hrs necessary. A day on earth is 24hrs because that’s how long it now takes the earth to rotate around the sun on its axis. But a day on Pluto is 130hrs, for example. So the term “day” depends largely on what planet you’re on!

      Therefore we can’t assume that a “day” was 24 hours. This only begs the question, how exactly long was a “day?” The Bible is unclear. Indeed, one could spend their whole life studying those first two sentences.

      In short, literalists deny scientific findings. However, Maimonides writes that if a scientific claim is proven true, then we must read it allegorically. 

    7. Turk Hill
      You claim it is now 'improbable' that the Mabbul happened. I agree. It was quite improbable, in fact it was a one off, and it will never happen again. You call the upper and lower bodies 'mythical', presumably because you have never seen them. The fact that they were opened for the mabbul has already been dismissed, so the fact that the Mabbul never happened is absolute proof that the Mabbul never happened.
      2. Yes, I know nothing about the pyramids of Giza, so I will not mention anything about it. I don't know anything about the dating methods used, about their credibility or accuracy. But when I do have a clear Parsha in the Torah, why would I blindly believe archaeologists? I have not researched the topic myself, so all I can do is believe. I prefer the Torah.
      3. Yes, the Torah does not mention the specific animals. The Torah does not tell us how they went to their habitat. So we don't know, we can theorize and hypothesize, but not really know. How is anything proven or disproven from that.
      You are now bringing up other arguments. I never said anything about the length of the day of creation (although the Ramban did). I merely mentioned that Hashem's creation of the world is literally the first possuk in the Torah.
      I think the argument that the days were longer is specious, it does not address the issue. The Torah is quite clear that Hashem created a world in a certain fashion, and afterwards left it to be run by certain rules. The creation period could have been by some kind of evolution, or the evolution process could have been accelerated in seven days of 24 hours. Or something else. But the world was clearly created by Divine intervention, not by the same processes that run our world today.

    8. The absolute blind deference provided to the Rambam is quite telling. Torah is not easy, it isn't 'read this book and all will be good'. Some people find that too difficult. Learning Talmud Bavli העם ההולכים בחשך, is a lifelong dedication, and with the shitos of the Rishonim and the final psak halacha, there is little time or energy for other matters. When people try and get out of this, they run to the shortened likuttim, or take one shita and adopt it as theirs. Many of those who call themselves Maimonideans are cut of this lazy cloth. They cannot accept the differences of opinions and pethora of understandings, and they blind themselves willfully to the full spectrum of Torah beliefs and attitudes.
      The Rambam is just one shita, not the definitive Judaism

  2. Just a reminder that just as we must make sure not to assume our understanding of the Torah is definitively correct, so too our understanding of science.
    In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn's (a college textbook) Geological Evolution of North America, it is written:

    "The geosynclinal theory is one of the great unifying principles in geology. In many ways its role in geology is similar to that of the theory of evolution which serves to integrate the many branches of the biological sciences. The geosynclinal theory is of fundamental importance to sedimentation, petrology, geomorphology, ore deposits, structural geology, geophysics, and in fact all branches of geological science. It is a generalization concerning the genetic relationship between the trough like basinal areas of the earth's crust which accumulate great thicknesses of sediment and are called geosynclines, and major mountain ranges. Just as the doctrine of evolution is universally accepted among biologists, so also the geosynclinal origin of the major mountain systems is an established principle in geology."

    About five years later, the theory was considered dead, overtaken by Plate Tectonics.

  3. For those who read the Bible literally, here are some questions:

    If there was a worldwide flood, where is the geological evidence? To cover the entire globe would require lots of bodies of water and this enormous amount of H2O cannot simply be evaporated into the atmosphere. Not to ask where did all this water come from and what happened to it? Secondly, where is the archaeological evidence? Surely there would be ruins? But we still find dwellings and other structures. The Pyramids at Giza are dated to be about 4000 years old. Why are they still standing and are intact? And why don't we have records from ancient Egypt recounting the devastating deluge? Interestingly, Japan does not share a flood story. Why?

    Lastly, how could animals from China, Australia, and the rainforest leave their natural habitat to enter Noah's ark? For example, pandas and koalas cannot live in the region of Mt. Ararat. They feed off of bamboo and eucalyptus, food which Noah could not have stored. And if they weren't in the Ark, how do they exist today?  And how about the fish? Our oceans are mostly saltwater but most fish are stenohaline and live in salinity waters. Nevertheless, it seems that the fish survived in the water and went unpunished despite eating worms (rabbi Arnold Ehrlich). And to say nothing about the dinosaurs. 

    In short, there is no evidence that the world is 5000 years old and there is no evidence for a worldwide flood either. At best a localized flood may have occurred.

    1. I am not sharing this to provide a definitive answer, but only for those interested in your question to say, "hmmm, I wonder."

    2. Not to challenge your overall gist (for I'm as skeptical as you are on most of your questions), but just one point: Why couldn't the beefiest man-made structure, a pyramid, survive a flood intact?

    3. @Sedgwick, Thank you for sharing that link. I did not know that about the earth and makes the worldwide flood story seem a little more plausible.

  4. But those who understand the historical evidence realize that even this ridiculously far-fetched answer does not remotely deal with the evidence regarding human civilization.

    Why? Literalists like Rabbi Meiselman anyways have to deal with the question on Creation itself from the fossil record and the human civilization record, why is the Flood harder? They will just say Creation somehow miraculously included the fossils and human civilization remnants, and the Flood somehow miraculously excluded them.

    From Marc Shapiro: However, the entire received body of knowledge in just about every field of human study is dependant on the fact that the world is not 5000 years old and that there was not a flood. These facts are the fundamentals of biology, physics, astronomy, history, anthropology, geology, palentology, zoology, linguistics etc. etc. etc... Belief in a 5000 year old world and a flood which destroyed the world 4000 years ago is a denial of all human knowledge as we know it.

    This is a common sentiment, but I disagree, or it needs more explanation. One can easily accept parts of a field of study while rejecting others. It's obviously false that the the entire field of physics, for example, is all about things that happened >6000 years ago. One can study Maxwell's equations while ignoring the Big Bang. If this type of "cherry picking" wasn't possible, there would be no religious fundamentalist scientists or even doctors, and clearly there are.

    From Marc Shapiro: Obviously it is possible for God to lift Mount Sinai over the head of the Israelites, but must we believe this literally. The whole endeavor to allegorize aggadot is based on the fact that God (and the world) do not behave in a completely outrageous fashion.

    Needs proof that "The whole endeavor to allegorize aggadot is based on the fact that God (and the world) do not behave in a completely outrageous fashion." Even with the extreme "minimizing miracles" approach of the Abarbanel in The ten Plagues, for example, the Ten Plagues are still quite outrageous. Seems more likely that they minimized and allegorized for other reasons, eg. in the Abarbanel's case, because it fit into the pattern of the Plagues nicely. I would speculate in the Mount Sinai case, because we would have expected mention of that particular miracle in the Bible, similar to what Ramban says about Ur Kasdim.

    1. The comments of Dr. Marc Shapiro linked to by RNS are from nearly 27 years ago, while he was still a very young student, and written in an informal primitive group "blog". Its unlikely the mature scholar he is today would say the same thing. For it is clearly not true that the "fundamentals" of all these fields "depend" on the world being more than 5000 years old and that there was never a flood.

    2. Yeah, the science hasn't changed since then. Stating it is "clearly not true" doesn't change reality. As an aside, he was 28 when he wrote those. But he answers email, so if you want to know if he change his mind, you can just ask him.

  5. I have come to understand the flood through science and reference to a great flood in many other cultures.
    My best guess is that the cataclysmic event was the sudden opening of an isthmus into a strait causing sudden flooding and other weather events. This probably occurred at the end of an ice age, think the flooding of the mediterranean basin through Gibraltar (just smaller and more recent).
    As for the ark, I imagine it could have been a mountain top enclave with nested tiers up the slope. Noah brought in all the animals he knew, and they survived the flood waters at such altitude.

    1. That's the Black Sea deluge hypothesis popularized by Ryan and Pitman (about 5K years before the Noah story if one is literal about early Biblical chronology). Also, there are many flood stories in ancient cultures but not all of them refer to the same event.

    2. In addition, there is not flood story in Japanese mythology.

    3. I suspect there are some Japanese wannabe 'apikorsim' that claim their own mythology is suspect, because they just ignore the flood

    4. No, they didn't ignore it. They didn't write about it because it never happened. Why can't you accept that there was a local flood?

    5. Why can't you accept that the Japanese mythology is hardly a source for accurate information?
      Because the Torah clearly tells us וימח את כל היקום. Your claim is that the Torah is misleading us, it isn't just a figure of speech. You may believe like that, but to base it on the השמטה of Japanese mythology is just frivolous and ludicrous.

  6. Thanks for posting this list of sources.
    For a number of years I have found the questions posed by the Flood more challenging than questions about Creation, dinosaurs, etc. Particularly the issue that your raised that there is overwhelming evidence that there was not a disruption to civilization around 5000 years ago.

    I have seen many responses (including your own), for example that it was a localized flood and did not cover the whole world, however so far I have not read a response that I find satisfying.

    If/when I have time, I'll try to look at some of the other sources that you posted, however I think that to have challenging questions that I cannot answer today (and may never be able to answer) is not a challenge to my Emuna - rather it reminds me that as a Human being there are limits to what I can understand, and there will always be challenges and questions to grapple with.

    I think that we need to remind ourselves that human knowledge is be definition limited and we will never have answers to all questions, that should motivate us to keep looking for answers, but to know that whenever you find an answer to a question, there will always be more questions to try to answer.

    If someone thinks that they already know all the answers, or that there are no questions, there is very little room for spiritual and intellectual growth.

    1. I also feel like you, even though I'm much more fundamentalists and anti-rationalist. I just can't dismiss the actual evidence that I understand from fossils, geological formations, tree rings, ice cores, carbon dating, etc. The fundamentalist answers aren't very good. But neither are the allegorical or "dramatic" readings of Creation and the Flood, at least to my mind. So I have to leave it as an unanswered question, like I commonly do with particularly frustrating questions when learning Gemara.

  7. Where can I find Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman's peirush on the Torah?

    1. In printed books. Online, you can find his perush at:

      or at

  8. Another challenge:
    The genetic wealth of all species is too big for having had such dramatic losses so recently.
    For example cheetahs have a unusually low genetic variability, which science explains by one or two bottlenecks, both a lot before the Deluge times (the last one 12,000 years ago, and involving a lot more surviving individuals. So the Deluge should have led to an even more homogenous genome in all species, too much to allow them to go on.
    I'm struggling with this question for a very long time already. Does one of these books speak about that?

  9. It is futile to attempt to reconcile the literal account of a global mabul with science. One must choose either a rational approach that rejects literalism or accept a story that requires convoluted layers upon layers of miracles that rejects a multitude of scientific and historical evidence. There simply is no overlap between the two approaches.

    1. I think it is possible that the Noah story was a parable.

  10. "even this ridiculously far-fetched answer does not remotely deal with the evidence regarding human civilization."

    This is a disrespectful way to talk about rabbis. Why must you use derogatory terms such as “ridiculously far-fetched” and “silly”, instead of just disagreeing respectfully?

    1. If you look at rabbinic literature, you'll find a long history of people "calling it as they see it" regarding whether written opinions make sense.

    2. Plus, what I wrote is positively mild compared to what he writes about others.

    3. Sure, but do we see in the Rabbinic literature insulting and derogatory terms to describe Rabbis who were of much greater stature than the writers? Would we see K'tzos describing something the Rambam wrote as "Shtus" or "Hevel" for example? If you have any such examples, honestly, I would like to know.

    4. I feel perfectly comfortable using such words about the writings of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. And it's much milder than what he writes about the positions of rabbis much greater than either of us.

    5. But why do you feel comfortable using such words about the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Was he not great enough to be worthy of, at the very least, respectful disagreement? Again, if you have a source condoning such a way of speaking without regard to the stature of the rabbis involved, I would be interested.

    6. Do you think it's respectful for RMM to say about abarbanel that his uncle "couldn't take him (abarbanel) seriously?"

    7. @happy:

      Malbim about Ralbag. Melachim 2:6:6.

    8. Here's one:

      Rabad criticized Maimonides with "insulting vehemence":

      “There are many people "greater and superior" to him who adhere to such a belief [that G-d has a body like humans] on the basis of what they have seen in verses of Scripture and even in the words of those aggadot which corrupt right opinion about religious matters.”

    9. I think the Malbim and Ralbag were roughly on the same level. Same with the Rabad and Rambam. I would very surprised if the Malbim would use the same language ("hevel") to criticized the Rambam, even though he, like the Ralbag, was a rationalist who preferred to minimize miracles. The best counter-example I could come up with is the GRA severely criticizing the Rambam.

    10. Whoa - the Malbim and Ralbag were on the same level? You've determined with your great bekius that a 19th century Acharon is on the level of a well-known 13th-14th century Rishon, widely cited by some of the greats, like the Ran, Abarbanel, and many more? This is not an example of some manuscript of an unknown person who simply lived in the times of the Rishonim and we don't know his scholarship. He was widely revered, known and printed. What a mechutzaf you are.

    11. Shlomo I reconsidered and you are correct, the Ralbag was indeed very great and I shouldn't assign levels to great Rabbis. The precedent from the Malbim is good. Still, I think there are limits. I can't say exactly what the limits are, but I would horrified if my shul rabbi used insulting language to denigrate the gedolim of this or previous generations, no matter what their persuasion (chareidi, dati leumi, chasidic, chabad, sephardi, etc.) Wouldn't you?

  11. Hi,
    what are your thoughts on how the epic of Gilgamesh plays into the historicity of the flood. I presume it is easy to deflect it and say "they got the story from us" though use of history and archeology i suppose would render that argument useless. I've often felt that this connection should undoubtedly show that our flood story is clearly influenced by that and therefore clearly not depicting actual historical events...
    What are your thoughts?

  12. Rabbi Slifkin likes discussing bereishis and noach because the rationalist viewpoint seemingly makes more sense and is more appealing than the typical charedie approach. I’m still waiting for the rational explanation of the the time spent in Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai etc of which due to science, archaeology etc the rational approach tends to leave one to not believe in it at all.

    1. @Charedi Zionist
      Here is your rationalist approach to the exodus:

    2. BM, this is a nice attempt to deal with the narrow population problem, but doesn't really touch on many of the main scientific objections to the Exodus. To quote a summary:

      The history of Rameses is exceptionally well documented but there is scant evidence of any such event.
      Further the scriptures tell us that Moses took his followers, numbering in the tens of thousands on a 40 year trek around what we today call the middle east.
      No archeological evidence of any such diaspora has ever been found in any of the likely locations that this long event would have been situated and no historical documentation exists from any of the many different peoples that such an event would have affected.

      These objections would exist whether the number of Jewish slaves was 3 million or 40 thousand, which was still a huge number for ancient times (as the author of your piece shows).

  13. While I am no expert in archeology or geology, I do recall something interesting from a visit to Tel Arad a year or two ago.
    The original settlement at Tel Arad is thought to date more than 5000 years back. It was a huge, walled and fortified city. However, the archeological evidence indicates that the city was abandoned about 4000 years ago for an unknown reason (i.e. no signs of war, earthquake, etc.). This would be about the time of Noah in the Biblical chronology...

  14. Also check out R' Chaim Hirschensohn:

    "כי ידעו חז"ל כי המבול לא ירד בכל העולם כולו"

    Then again Rav Hirschensohn often had a unique perspective on things.


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The Noah's Ark Challenge

Question: Which home of Biblical creatures measures 100 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width and 30 cubits in height? The most common wrong ...