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D'var Torah: Noach

Noah is a great parashah to discuss. We could talk about Noah’s righteousness and why God decided to save him and his family. We could talk about why, unlike Abraham, Noah did not plead for God to spare the rest of the world’s humanity—after all, God would have relented for just ten not-so-evil souls in an entire city. We could talk about the logistics involved in building and suppling an ark to carry double the 953,434 known different animal species (not including fish, but the number is larger when kosher animals are counted—seven pairs). We could even talk about wine-drinking and morality. But today, we won’t. Let’s talk about whether the flood was a real event. Back in the 1850s, explorers at Mt. Ararat in Turkey found pieces of the Ark; in 1960, the Ark was sighted from a plane flying over Turkey. And in April 2010, another explorer team found a structure consisting of the Ark’ cabins. So now that we have evidence that an ark really does... Oops—wrong d’rash. That was the one I was going to give to a fundamentalist group. Let’s see—the KI version...

In a theory propounded by William Ryan and Walter Pitman in their book, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History (Simon and Schuster, 1998), the origin of the great human migrations that occurred in many regions of Europe and southwestern Asia in the sixth millennium BCE was a sudden loss of their homes and lands around the shores of the Black Sea that resulted from a sudden rise of the level of the sea. Not incidently, this event also engendered Flood legends found in the folk tales and traditions of many of these cultures. Ryan and Pitman, using the results of their own geologic and oceanographic research together with the research of many other scientists working in Europe, Asia, North America, and on the oceans and seas of the world, have assembled the data into a picture of this ancient event and its effect on the history of the ancient world.

Before the last ice age (the Weichsel, ca. 110,000–11,300 BCE) which marked the end of the Pleistocene epoch, the Black Sea was a marine (salt water) body that was connected to the Mediterranean Sea by the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits that divide Europe from Asia Minor. After the last ice age began, huge quantities of water became locked up in the ice sheet that primarily covered northern Europe, Asia, and North America. This resulted in the lowering of the world’s sea level while the glaciers that supplied fresh water to the Black Sea during the glacial period caused it to gradually change from a marine body to a fresh water body. Also, during this period the Bosporus, the Black Sea’s only outlet, became blocked through the action of thousands of years of sediment deposition and upward movement of rock strata that resulted from local tectonic activity. Throughout the ice age, water levels in the Black Sea (called the New Euxine Lake during this period) were high enough to reverse the flow of the Sakarya River in northwestern Turkey; this allowed lake water to bypass the blocked Bosporus Strait and drain into the Aegean Sea.

By 15,000 BCE the ice sheet that covered northern and central Europe was in full retreat. The only direction that meltwater could travel was to the south of the glaciers, but topography usually prevented southerly drainage unless an existing watercourse was present to allow water to flow away from the face of the glacier. By 12,500 BCE these watercourses, the Danube, Dniester, Dnieper, and Don Rivers being the major ones, which had formerly drained an enormous area of Europe and part of Asia into the New Euxine Lake, began to lose their glacial source of water. As the glaciers continued to withdraw to the north, the water at the glaciers’ faces became concentrated into a sort of “moat” that was augmented by a depression of the ground under and in front of the ice sheet caused by the considerable weight of the ice sheet. Water that could not drain to the south now tended to flow parallel to the face of the glacier, generally to the west into the Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, while areas to the east of the Ural Mountains drained to the east, away from the Caspian Lake and Lake Aral (both of which drained into the New Euxine). The result was that by 12,500 BCE the New Euxine Lake was no longer receiving enough water from the rivers feeding it to sustain the flow of the Sakarya outward to the Aegean.

The warming period that had begun as the ice age ended was conducive to the migration of humans coming from Africa through the Rift Valley and archeologists have identified the first settlement in Jericho as occurring in ca. 12,800 BCE. However, in 12,500 BCE another climate change occurred. Known as the Younger Dryas, this change in climate resulted in the lowering of the temperature and amount of rainfall in southwest Asia, Europe, and northern Africa. One major result of this change was that evaporation in the New Euxine now exceeded its inflow, and the level of the water in the lake began to drop. During this cooler, dryer period the settlement at Jericho was abandoned, as were many others in the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia (Turkey) and in what is now known as the Fertile Crescent in the northern Levant. The Younger Dryas lasted about 1,200 years, after which temperatures warmed and rainfall increased. However, around the shores of the New Euxine Lake, the exposed lake bed with its rich soil, plentiful water, and slowly moving rivers had encouraged settlement and it was here that many anthropologists believe farming originated.

With the end of the Younger Dryas came the end of the ice age and the beginning of the Holocene epoch: the beginnings of human civilization. Humans in larger numbers than before began to spread out into Anatolia, the Levant, and northern Mesopotamia, and the communities around the New Euxine grew. Conditions were substantially unchanged until about 6200 BCE, when a mini-ice age began, bringing falling temperatures and reduced rainfall in southern Europe and Russia. Lakes and rivers in Anatolia, southwest Asia, southeast Europe shrank. Villages in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent once again were abandoned; people retreated to the banks of the New Euxine where the broad flat shores had become grassy savannahs suitable for farming and livestock grazing. All around the New Euxine many broad, shallow rivers still flowed and water was plentiful. It’s conjectured that the techniques of irrigation were developed at this time.

Around 5800 BCE the period of cooling and low rainfall ended. By now, the surface of the New Euxine was about 500 feet below the level of the Aegean Sea; its shores contained settlements of many cultures which traveled and traded widely around the lake. Farming, fishing, and trading occupied the lakeside dwellers.

At the end of the ice age, the world’s sea level had gradually stabilized at a level of some three hundred fifty feet higher than its level during the glaciation period. Near the former outlet from the New Euxine Lake, at the Bosporus Strait and Sea of Marma, the rising sea water level, coupled with the effect of storms over thousands of years, gradually wore away the foundations of the dike that plugged the opening to the lake and sometime about 5600 BCE overtopped it. Starting slowly, trickling at first, the marine water gradually moved across the stone and soil of the dike, and as the water moved ever faster, its velocity and scouring power grew to became enormous, and the rushing water, now carrying rocky debris with it, quickly gouged a flume into the bedrock that grew to as much as 475 feet in depth. During almost the entire period of the flooding of the lake, some ten cubic miles of marine water would have flowed through the breach each day, raising the lake’s water level about six inches each day; around the shore line the water would have advanced inland about one mile per day in many places. To lakeside dwellers this would have appeared to have happened almost overnight and the sudden loss of their farms, villages, and docks would have been an inconceivable catastrophe.

Anthropologists have traced the movement of cultures into and through Europe, Asia, and the Levant, and have noticed that most of the major population movements seemed to have occurred over a fairly brief period in the middle of the sixth millennium BCE. It is also during this time that the forerunner of many languages of Europe and central Asia, proto-Indo-European, appears to have branched into most of its daughter languages. Some of the major cultures who have been identified as coming from the Black Sea basin are the Vinča, who moved into Bulgaria and up the Danube valley; the Danilo-Hvar who emigrated to the Dinarides (Balkans); the LBK (“Linear Pottery Farmers”), to Germany and France; the proto-Indo-Europeans, to the Russian steppes and Urals; the Tochatians, to the Tibet region; the Ubaids, along the foothills of the Caucasus and Zagros to Mesopotamia (forerunners of the Sumerians); the Semites, across the Taurus Mountains to the Fertile Crescent and Levant; and the pre-dynastic Egyptians, through western Turkey to Egypt. The beginning of these migrations can be confidently dated to about 5600 BCE. What would have induced the movement of such large populations? Only a widespread catastrophic event like the wholesale loss of their territories.

This, then, is the natural history of the events that led to numerous folktales in many cultures of a “flood,” but the ones best known in Western civilization are the flood stories in the Bible and in the Babylonian legends, especially the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, very likely a real person, was the fifth king of Urak, of the early Sumarian First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BCE). Earlier versions of the Gilgamesh epic existed; the story of Ziusudra (the Sumarian Noah) was part of the mythology of Sumer, which became adopted by successive Mesopotamian cultures and the Epic of Gilgamesh is the latest and most complete version known. The story was probably first recorded in Akkadian writings that originated around 1600 BCE, but older tales were circulating before the poem was written, probably based on versions which had been circulating orally for centuries before. It holds interest for archeologists because it contains numerous details that parallel what we know about the early history of this region. Some think that the biblical story is directly derived from the Sumarian/Babylonian/Akkadian stories that include the story of Ziusudra, the Atrahasis Epic, and Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim (all Noah analogues); but similar stories such as that of Matsya in the Hindu Puranas and Deucalion in Greek mythology, and even some in ancient Sanskrit, imply a common source rather than a borrowed tradition. It is, however, from the Epic of Gilgamesh that many clues about the historicity of the flood can be deduced.

Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu, set out on a journey of discovery. Traveling far from his home in Uruk, Gilgamesh and Enkidu went first along the Euphrates River toward its headwaters, to “the gates of the great forest,” and there fought with and killed its guardian, the monster Humbaba. The trees of this forest have been identified in the Akkadian texts of the legend as cedar and pine which are not found in Mesopotamia, but can be found in the Levant, which is traversed by the upper Euphrates. The legend even refers to Gilgamesh as crossing seven mountains before coming to the gate of the forest; the upper stretches of the Euphrates are indeed mountainous. As a result of killing Humbaba and another monster sent by the gods to punish the adventurers, Enkidu is killed by the gods for his defiance.

After a period of mourning for his companion, Gilgamesh becomes obsessive about his own mortality and resolves to find his ancestor Utnapishtim to learn the secret of his immortality. Utnapishtim, a favorite of a Sumarian god, had been warned by his patron god of an impending world-wide flood and, heeding the warning, built a vessel, loaded it with his family and representatives of each species of animal, and so survived the flood. For his subsequent services to the gods he was rewarded with immortality and Gilgamesh wanted to learn how he could receive this gift for himself.

Following the path to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh travels west, “toward the mighty portal that opens each night to admit the sun,” crosses a hilly steppe and arrives at a mountain range “whose peaks reach into the sky, where scorpion people keep watch.” The geography of this description is matched by assuming Gilgamesh followed the Euphrates to northern Syria, crossed the coastal mountains, then turned north and traveled over the highlands of southern Turkey to the Taurus Mountains of central Anatolia, some of which reach over 14,000 feet in height. This was the kingdom of the Urartu, a warlike people, and their descendants, the Kurds, still use patterns of scorpions and fantastic creatures in their weaving. The name “Ararat,” the mountain range where the Bible says the Ark came to rest, is from the Urartu language. Also, Utnapishtim is identified as the son of Ubartutu; the similarity of the names has not been ignored by scholars.

Now Gilgamesh crosses through a “land of impenetrable darkness,” which has been assumed to be the dense primeval forest that existed through the Taurus range, reaching to the Black Sea. Upon arriving at the shore of the sea, he asks a local woman about finding help to cross the sea, and is told that it had never been crossed since “it’s a sea of death.” He is told, “Far out in the waters, forbidding the way, there slide other waters, the waters of death.” This description does indeed describe the Black Sea: When the marine waters filled the lake basin the salt water overlaid the fresh water with little mixing. At the interface between the layers, which lies at an average depth of about 450 feet, there exist regions of high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas, a result of the action of microorganisms on decomposing organic matter. The gas is trapped at the interface and becomes dissolved in the water. Under certain conditions—such as storms or earth tremors—the surface layer has been known to slide aside, allowing the hydrogen-sulfide-laden water to well upward; the resulting drop in water pressure allows the gas to escape from solution. A lungful of this gas can kill a human.

Gilgamesh finally learns of a ferryman, in fact, a servant of Utnapishtim himself, who has the knowledge and equipment needed to navigate the sea. The description given by the ferryman reveals a knowledge of a technique that is still used in modern times by boatmen traversing the Bosporus, and is only usable in that strait—it would not work anywhere else in the world. Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim and learns from him the story of how he saved himself, family, and animals from the flood and was given immortality, but tells Gilgamesh that basically there is no way he could achieve it for himself.

The specifics of this story, both the search for Utnapishtim and the description of the flood itself, are so detailed and contain so many verifiable geographical referents that it’s hard to believe that the story is not a traditional retelling of a real event. There are extensive parallels between this story and the biblical story of Noah, so many that some scholars are convinced that the biblical story was borrowed from the Sumarian version. This idea has been challenged by scholars who recognize that the theogonic orientation of the biblical story is completely different from all of the Mesopotamian versions and that a common source that reflects the original cultures’ traditions is much more likely. The great flood affected people from a large number of different cultural ancestries. Since versions of the flood story exist in so many cultures whose origins can be traced back to this region, it’s possible to see how the stories of a group of people who escaped a natural catastrophe of the magnitude of the flooding of the Black Sea basin could be preserved over millennia of retelling, with the factual elements of the story gradually becoming adopted into the myths and folklore of their respective cultures.

So did anyone find an ark? Well, according to Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist specializing in the Middle East at SUNY Stony Brook in New York, “I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it.” No one knows where the “mountains of Ararat” are; the Genesis account appears to refer to the mountainous region near the Caspian Sea in Armenia and Iran. Ararat is mentioned in 2 Kings and contemporaneous writings indicate that it refers to a region in northwestern Iran. So the folks who are looking on Mt. Ararat in Turkey remind me of the inebriated guy who dropped his keys at night and is searching for them under a street lamp. A passerby asked where he was when they fell; the guy indicated a spot about fifty feet away. Asked why he wasn’t searching there instead, he responded, “Well, the light’s better here.”

Shabbat shalom.

October 2011

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