Guest writer Paul Garrett brings us the Monday Book this week.
It is common knowledge in the Christian west that sometime in the dim chambers of pre-history, God caused a great flood to cover the earth and destroyed all life except a small cadre of beings sequestered on a large boat. After all, it was written right there in the book of Genesis, and the Bible couldn’t be wrong. Could it?
In The Rocks Don’t Lie (Norton, 2012) The Geologist David Montgomery traces the history of the flood story and its effects on science, especially Geology.
For centuries, natural scientists clung to the Biblical flood as a foregone conclusion but were at a loss to come up with explanations for things they saw that contradicted the flood story, such as fossils of large animals in rocks, and were loath to explain where the fantastic amount of water it would take to cover the entire earth to a depth of several thousand feet came from and where it went. They made up fantastic theories to explain these anomalies, clinging to the idea that, according to Bible scholars, the earth was only around 6,000 years old.
Two consequential events put the Bible story in a different light. In 1788 James Hutton discovered a rock outcrop on the coast of Scotland that could only have been formed over billions of years, not a few thousand. He had discovered geologic time. (The photo of the outcrop decorates the book cover). In 1872, a man named George Smith working at the British museum translating piles of broken cuneiform tablets from centuries before the Torah was written, discovered a flood story almost identical to the one in Genesis. Was the Genesis story a copy of a much earlier text? (Irving Finkel, also of the British Museum, built a proof-of-concept vessel based on the ancient Babylonian blueprint. You can watch the story here.)
But while the people in the new field of geology slowly came to realize the earth could not have been shaped by a single enormous flood, fundamentalists dug in their heels, refusing to believe the discoveries, or making up fanciful theories of their own to explain them away.
Montgomery, who was raised a fundamentalist, points out that flood stories exist all over the world. In Mesopotamia, where the Genesis story takes place there have been several devastating floods throughout history that could have wiped out the “world” as the locals knew it to be. These stories are often passed down orally. Noah’s flood is probably one of them. But even if it is fake, the flood story works as well as anallegory as it does history.
The Rocks don’t Lie is a fascinating story of the tug of war between facts and dogma, and its lessons are just as applicable today as they were over 200 years ago.