Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Response to Tanner

Thomas Pittman, Ph.D. ASA Member
P.O. Box 7278,
Spreckels, CA 93962

From: PSCF 48 (March 1996): 68-70.

Assuming that a Fellow of the ASA lacks the hubris to succumb to the popular fallacy of picking and choosing which parts of Scripture to accept as true and authoritative, and which to deny as historical errors, it appears to me that William Tanner exacerbates the inherent difficulties of the Noah flood story with "implications that are not in the original story, and a willingness to brush factual details aside as inconsequential."

Tanner tells us that Hebrew word harim must be translated "hill" because the "15 cubits" refers to the absolute water level rise. But his scenario fails a simple reality check: the waters were mighty upon the earth for 150 days; when in recorded history has any other 20-foot flood taken five months to diminish enough for a 400-foot barge to come to rest on the hilltops? Even completely empty, a 40-foot-high ark will draw nearly ten feet, but this one was stocked with every conceivable animal (at least of those known to Noah) two or fourteen, plus supplies for a whole year or more.

Let's grant that the text is unclear about what the 15 cubits refers to, and ask what it could mean. We have perhaps four or five options:

1. The absolute rise from the normal river level to the maximum water level, as apparently preferred by Tanner.

2.The rise above the river banks to the maximum water level. Tanner himself is somewhat unclear; perhaps this was his intended preference. Rivers often cut a channel in the flood plain so that the normal water level must rise at least that much before it can be called a "flood." This could as much as double the total rise of option 1.

3.The depth of the water over the highest hills of the flood plain, the traditional translation, but limited to Tanner's interpretation of harim.

4.The depth of the water over the highest hills of the whole earth, the traditional interpretation.

5. The depth of the water over the highest mountains of Mars, the silly straw man Tanner puts up to make the traditional interpretation look less credible.

We can dispense with #5 very quickly: the waters covered "all the high hills under all the heavens." Mars is in the heavens, not under them. Mars was visible and known to the ancients; the fact that they did not know of its mountains hardly excuses their use of exclusive language if the Almighty God had intended his inspired author to include it. Note, by way of contrast, that the first chapter of Genesis explicitly allows for waters above the sky, such as in Mars.

Option #1 falters, as mentioned, on the dual problems of flood persistence and the ark draft. In fact, it does not even get so far. I live in a flood plain perhaps one tenth the dimensions of the Tigris-Euphrates river plain, and this year we enjoyed the unusual opportunity to see a rare (I believe it was) 17-foot absolute rise in the water level, which overflowed the river banks. Outside the river channel the deepest water was only about five feet. Because the valley floor is, of course, not flat, the flooding never spread more than a mile from the channel. Not even the low hills were covered.

A quick look at the maps in the back of my Bible shows the Tigris-Euphrates river plain to be perhaps 200 miles wide and 700 miles long. That is a lot of water to come from the not-very-miraculous sources postulated by Tanner, especially when it must stay around for five months, then be gone in a year. Assuming this valley is, as the saying goes, "as flat as the state of Kansas," that still allows for (like Kansas, which is in another of the world's great river valleys) 1000 feet or more altitude differential between the high up-river west end and the lower east end. However, I speculate somewhat, lacking ready access to the geographical facts.

The high-water point in the flood of my experience travelled down the river at about five or ten miles per hour. From the time the water went over the banks and they closed the highway (at 2a.m. Sunday morning) until the waters receded enough to reopen the highway was only slightly over 15 hours. At that rate, the 15-cubit high-water in the localized Noachian flood could start at the headwaters of the Euphrates near Haran and be completely washed into the Persian Gulf and drying up a week or two later.

Tanner responds in advance to such a criticism by referring to his research work on a "15-25 meter coastal flood║ some 8,000 years ago," but then admits that its "combined rise and fall were spread across three or four centuries." Really now, don't you think that's a little longer than the 150 days of Noah's flood? Tanner has no other natural flood source to offer that comes even close to the required duration.

With option #3 there still remains the question of just how much of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley must be covered to kill off "all flesh that moved on the face of the earth"? Even granting the author's putative intent to refer only to all living creatures and humans within the circle of human experience, the Tigris-Euphrates river valley floor is rather a myopic view. The most conservative dating of the growth of humanity from Adam to Noah is over 1,500 years; to most people arguing for a local flood, that is far too short (Tanner does not give us his opinion on this matter). Yet it took less than 300 years for a small number of settlers on the east coast of the United States to spread out over an area some two orders of magnitude larger, mostly before there was any technical assistance from the industrial revolution. Also less than 300 years after the Flood, and during a 75-year period of his life, Abraham's father Terah moved from Ur at the mouth of the valley to Haran near the headwaters of the Euphrates, in the foothills approaching Ararat, which is the full length of the valley. So clearly the flood must in all probability cover not only the valley floor near the gulf, but also "all the high hills" including those around Haran.

Tanner himself notes the possibility of walking out of the reach of the flood. I do not understand why he does not give it adequate considerationˇunless it is too obvious. People directly in the path of the waters breaking over the banks of a raging river might be washed to their destruction, but the great loss of energy as the water spreads out over so vast a plain gives ample time for the more vigorous people living farther from the banks to scramble easily to safety. Although the foothills are 100 miles away, any person in reasonable health can walk it in three days. Tanner brings to the discussion no evidence that the people of Noah's time did not walk to the hills regularly, when there was no flood to escapeˇto say nothing of when it was imperative.

Tanner makes this big deal about how an acceptable reading of harim is "hills" but completely ignores that fact that there is no other word in Hebrew for "mountains." The word does not stand alone in the text; it is qualified. Low harim might properly be translated "hills," but the high harim of this text can only be referring to mountains. Mountains at least as high as Ararat, a very high mountain in what is now modern Turkey, and of which the author of the story is very much awareˇbecause he tells us that the ark came to rest in the harim of Ararat. Surely Tanner did not consider that factual detail to be inconsequential?

So where did the 15 cubits come from? If everything is covered, how could Noah or the others in the ark even know how deep the water might be? The best knowledge they could have would be from the observation that the 30-cubit-high ark sank halfway into the water, and never scraped bottom the whole five months. The obvious conclusion for them is that the water covered the highest hills/mountains by at least 15 cubits.

There are other considerations that may have figured in the ancient translators' choice of words, but obviously did not enter into Tanner's thinking. If the Flood were a local river rise, then anything floating on it would be washed out to sea as it subsided, but certainly not float the ark upstream to one of the highest mountains around.

If the (local) Flood is neither an exceptional rise in the river, nor coastal flooding from a melting ice sheet, then we seem to have run out of natural causes and must adduce a supernatural cause. As distasteful as Tanner might find such a supernatural cause, the only alternative is to discard some part of the actual flood story (not just our modern interpretations) as historically erroneous. I trust Tanner holds Scripture in higher regard than that. However, once you accept the possibility of a supernatural flood of sufficient dimensions to cover as much of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley as might then be populated by humans, for at least five months, there remains little reason to reject the only slightly more miraculous global flood.

Thus we see that of all the possible renderings of "15 cubits" and harim in this story, only the traditional interpretation stands up to close scrutinyˇexcept possibly in the eyes of those with a prior commitment to the rejection of a global flood.

It is just such a prior commitment that suggests the only explanation I can imagine for the silly aside on the olive leaf, which also (I presume) leads to Tanner's title. Of course leaves die when they are covered with water! But fresh leaves grow again very nicely in the mud left after water recedes. Is Tanner trying to tell us that an olive pit cannot sprout in the three months between when the ark came to rest in the foothills of Ararat (note that harim here is not qualified, so Tanner's preferred reading "hills" is quite reasonable), and the dove brought back the twig? The trees are not still green; new tree sprouts are green again. God's abundant blessing had returned to the earth scarred by his wrath. That is the whole point of the olive leaf in the Genesis story.

I do not claim that a global flood story is without its difficulties. But if you take the story at face value, then start to ask about the scientific implications of it, there are some fascinating conclusions. Where did all that water come from? Where did it go? How high were those high mountains when they were covered? Why shouldn't we take Psalm 104:6-9 as indicative of the answers to some of these questions? Donald Patten's The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch (1966) makes a good case for a natural explanation of essentially the whole story (except for getting all the animals to come into the ark, which he does not address).

So why the ark? It is very much theological, as Tanner notes. But it is not just a message of grace; it also communicates the uniqueness of salvation in God's provision. There are no hills to run to: they have been covered with water. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other Name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.