This is something every Christian has wondered at some point in their lives. Did Noah’s Ark really happen? Is there any physical evidence that supports Noah’s Ark? What about the dinosaurs? Were they on the Ark as well? And what about this “Epic of Gilgamesh” story we hear about? Doesn’t it show that the Israelites borrowed the account from other ancient people? How can we make sense of any of this?
Is There Any Evidence?
Let me be the first to say that geological evidence exists for both sides. Hard as that might be to swallow for some, there’s physical evidence both against a global flood and evidence for a global flood. I’ve taken pictures of the Grand Canyon, and while that basically makes me an expert in geology, I’ll neglect to weigh in on the matter. What I’ll do instead is simply share some interesting things I’ve found about the narrative itself.
Global or Local?
It may surprise you to learn some biblical scholars interpret the Flood account as a local, rather than a global, event. They agree a significant H20 event took place in the Ancient Near East, but it didn’t exactly look like the story you heard in Sunday School. You might be wondering, but doesn’t Genesis clearly dictate a global flood (Gen 6:17, 7:3, 8:9)? The short answer is it depends on your interpretation of the text.
The Hebrew words which are translated as “whole earth” or “all the earth” are kol, which means “all,” and erets, which means “earth,” “land,” “country,” or “ground.” There are many instances in the Old Testament where kol erets refers not to land, but to people (Genesis 18:25, Joshua 23:14, 1 Samuel 14:25, 2 Samuel 15:23, etc.). There are also many instances where kol erets refers to local geography (Genesis 41:57, Judges 6:37, 1 Samuel 13:3, etc.). Given the various usages in the text, the first task is to determine how the Flood narrative uses these terms.
Word studies are fun (and important), but context plays a huge role in interpretation. The historical context of the Flood account will prove instructive. Many conservative scholars have concluded the earlier Mesopotamian accounts (like the Epic of Gilgamesh) are so similar to the biblical account of Noah that both go back to a common tradition . This poses no threat to inerrancy or inspiration, as it is the final product that is inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). The conclusion to draw is that the account is not “made up” since it is grounded in objective fact.
Secondly, we shouldn’t read our modern scientific knowledge of the Earth into these ancient documents. It would be a mistake to assume the person writing Genesis had a modern understanding of cosmology. Nor would it be wise to think God would miraculously impart our understanding of cosmology to them (why not the understanding 2,000 years from now, or 2 million years from now?). God accommodated His message to the understanding of the ancient Israelites. The point is that we shouldn’t automatically assume “the whole Earth” refers to the entire globe as we know it today. God operated within the confines of their ancient viewfinder.
What’s the Point?
You might be wondering: if the Sunday School version we all grew up with didn’t actually happen, then what’s the point? Was God lying when He included it in Genesis? The “point” of any narrative is going to be determined by what the author intended to say or do with the text. Even if the account were entirely allegorical, there would still be a number of theological truths the author could be getting at. For instance, the account shows that God takes justice seriously. It’s of lesser importance to us, but it also shows there’s only one God running the show; there are no other gods He must contend with (this was important for the Israelites as polytheism was rampant in the Ancient Near East).
I will lastly note that I am undecided on how to interpret Noah’s Narrative. It’s very much an open question for me. I suppose I lean toward a local/theological interpretation, but, as I say, I am not leaning too heavily one way or the other. I hear that John Walton has a book coming out on it relatively soon, so I’ll keep an eye out for it.
 Conservative Scholars in question: Alexander Heidel, Merril Unger, Donald Wiseman, and John Walton. Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament, Donald J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology, John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context.