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Does the Story of Noah's Ark Have to Be Taken Literally?

Does the Story of Noah’s Ark Have to Be Taken Literally?


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Hi JITC-

On the first full shabbos I kept, I had a wonderful time, but as I was walking to shul, I asked my host, “Do you really believe that all of those animals were in that ark?”Because it seemed difficult to believe. I put it out of my mind for years, but now it’s gnawing at me again. As rational thinkers, how are we supposed to come to terms with a story that doesn’t make sense?

All the best,
Jamie

Dear Jamie-

Thanks for your question. My answer is potentially going to anger everybody. There are those who will read the first 90% of what I’m going to say and decide that I’m a fundamentalist. Others will read the last 10% and decide that I’m a heretic. What that boils down to is that I’m a moderate and a moderate approach takes both sides of such questions into account, albeit not necessarily in equal measures.

First, allow me to speak in favor of the flood story. Virtually every culture has a flood myth that includes a number of elements found in the story of Noah, including the wrath of God (or of “the gods”), righteous people being saved, animals being collected, longevity, sacrifices, rainbows and more. Here’s a small sampling of examples (and it was really hard to pare this list down to a manageable size!):

  • In India, there’s the story of Manu. The god Matsya (an incarnation of Vishnu) appeared to Manu and warned him about an impending flood. Manu was instructed to collect samples of all types of grains and animals in a boat. The flood destroys the world and Matsya guides the boat to safety.
  • In Hopi mythology, the god Tawa destroyed the world in a flood. Spider Grandmother saved the few righteous people by sealing them into hollow reeds.
  • In the Aztec flood myth, a human couple survives by hiding in a hollow vessel.
  • In the Hawaiian version of the story, Nu’u builds an ark to escape the flood, eventually coming to rest on Mauna Kea. Nu’u mistakenly credited the moon for his salvation and offered sacrifices to it. The creator god came down to earth on a rainbow and corrected his misconception.
  • In Greek mythology, Deucalion is told to build a chest to escape the flood. Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, are saved and eventually come to rest on Parnassus (or Phouka, or Mount Othrys – versions differ). After the flood, Deucalion offered sacrifices to Zeus. Zeus then had Deucalion and Pyrrha throw stones that turned into men and women, respectively.
  • In the Andaman Islands version, the god Puluga sent the flood to punish people for forgetting his law. Two men and two women survived.
  • Only one man and one woman survived in the Incan version, in which the god Viracocha sent the flood.
  • Aside from the story of Noah, the best-known flood story is probably that of Utnapishtim in the epic of Gilgamesh. While Noah lived an extremely long life, Utnapishtim is said to have been granted immortality by his gods.

From the Chinese story of Yao to the Norse myth of Bergelmir, from various African tribes to the arctic Inuits, nearly every culture has a similar story, most incorporating many of the same details found in the Biblical account of the flood. So, is there something inherent in mankind that makes people compelled to compose and disseminate this particular story? Or is it possible that this reflects an oral history transmitted to all of mankind by a common ancestor who was actually there?

As far as the number of animals on the ark, the first thing to consider is that there were far fewer animals in Noah’s day than there are now. For example, there are 339 breeds of dog in the world today – and most of these were created within the past 200 years by man imposing selective breeding on them! Noah didn’t have a pair of Afghans, a pair of Airedales, a pair of Malamutes, a pair of Terriers, a pair of Corgis, etc. He had a pair of archetypical dogs, from which all such breeds were later descended. Similarly, Noah didn’t have Jersey cows and Guernsey cows and Brahma bulls, etc.; he had a pair of archetypical cattle, from which these breeds later descended. The same is true of elephants, horses, chickens, pigs, snakes – you get the idea. Bottom line, Noah needed wayyyy less space than most people typically think. (Science accepts the concept of micro-evolution but would no doubt attribute it to a much longer time frame for many species. So let Torah and science quibble over the details!)

Now, let’s assume that you’re still skeptical that all those rats and cats and bats and gnats could fit on the ark. Bottom line, it all boils down to one thing: it was a miracle. Making things fit into spaces where they shouldn’t is actually one of God’s specialties, as we see in many places. The mishna in Avos (5:5) gives two such examples: (1) even though the people in the Temple stood pressed closely together, when they bowed down and prostrated themselves, each person had four cubits of space (about six feet) around him; (2) even though the whole nation came to Jerusalem for the various Festivals, no one was ever unable to find a place to stay. There are additional examples. The gemara in Gittin (57a) tells us that Israel is like a deer. The explanation of this is that when one skins a deer, it’s incomprehensible how the carcass could ever fit inside that skin and yet somehow it did. Similarly, the tiny country of Israel shouldn’t be able to accommodate the throngs of Jews who live there, yet somehow it does. Finally, the gemara in Yoma (21a) and Megillah (10b) tells us that the aron (the ark, as in “Raiders of the Lost…”) took up no room in the Holy of Holies. If you measured from the aron to the wall, you would find that it was 10 cubits on either side – and yet the entire width of the Holy of Holies was only 20 cubits! Somehow the aron occupied no space whatsoever! (It’s beyond our scope but these dicta mirror the physics concept of a singularity. From Israel to Jerusalem to the Temple to the Holy of Holies, the phenomenon of spatial dilation intensifies with each increasing degree of holiness until one reaches the holiest point, in which matter occupies no space at all.)

If God can take people who are standing shoulder to shoulder and give each one a six-foot diameter when they bow down, and if He can make a box of acacia wood coated in gold occupy no space, I think it’s a no brainer that He can figure out how to fit some giraffes, aardvarks, rhinoceroses and mongooses on a boat!

All of the above is the stuff that probably makes me sound like a fundamentalist. Now for the stuff that probably makes me sound like a heretic: if it bothers you, don’t worry about it. I’ll explain.

Many things in the Torah are allegorical. For example, the Torah speaks of things like “the hand of God” even though He has no physical body. It also says things like “the sun rose,” which are not technically accurate, because from our perspective, that’s what happens. (“The Earth rotated until the sun could be seen” is rather cumbersome.) So the concept of allegory exists. Hold that thought.

Nowadays, we all accept that the universe was created, we just quibble over how long ago it may have been. In the Rambam’s day, however, the debate was about whether the universe was created or whether it always existed, the science of his day arguing for an always-existent universe. Despite his belief in the Torah account, the Rambam says that if the eternity of the universe were proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, he would have no problem relegating the creation account to the realm of allegory. He accepts the Torah account as presented but he’s also open to the possibility that we may be misunderstanding it. If the Rambam says that about the Creation account, I don’t see why the flood should be any different.

Don’t get me wrong: many parts of the Bible are allegorical but the overwhelming majority are meant to be taken literally. I believe that the flood story – like the Creation account, the stories of the Patriarchs and the Exodus – are among those that are meant to be taken literally. But the Torah is not primarily a history book or a science book. If, for some reason, you can’t reconcile such a Biblical account with your other knowledge and understandings, try to compartmentalize things. Focus on the moral lessons that the Torah tells the story in order to impart rather than on the cognitive dissonance created by trying to reconcile all the details. (For the record, it wasn’t until the 20th century that science caught up to the Torah and decided that the universe actually was created after all, so never be too sure about what really “makes sense!”)

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

EDITOR’S NOTE: Perhaps another way to come to terms with a seemingly irrational story in the Torah is to consider that the Talmud raises the possibility that the land of Israel (which was much larger than the present State of Israel is today) may not have been flooded. Going with this approach would lessen the challenge in terms of saving every single species of animals as well as repopulating them all in a few thousand years.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.