University Congregational Church
Aug. 4, 2013
“Noah, the Flood Myth, and Atlantis”
Gen. 6:5-8; Exo. 8: 1-2
A month or two ago, Allan Grohe introduced me to a book by Charles Pellegrino entitled “Unearthing Atlantis”. Ever since, I’ve been on an adventure into the past, discovering an ancient civilization that seems unbelievable.
There is a place – a city – 3650 years old, “with its storefronts and apartments perfectly reserved, and they would not look out of place on a present-day street. The homes had running water and flush toilets; and it even seems possible that bedrooms were heated in the wintertime by steam piped in from volcanic vents, as it traveled on to rooftop cisterns, where it was condensed for bathwater.” Some of the homes were actually equipped with showers. The plumbing systems in this ancient ruin were not duplicated anywhere on Earth for nearly three thousand years.
Pellegrino, pgs. 2, 167
The sophisticated inhabitants of this place 5,000 years ago were the first Europeans to use a written language, known as Linear A, and the first to construct paved roads. They were an advanced society of highly-cultivated artisans and extremely skilled civic engineers. They were ship builders and sailors, tradesmen who imported wares from far away. Pbs.org
But in the fall of 1628 BCE, a volcano “kicked up block after block of multistoried houses, bakeshops and storefronts, and sank them out at sea.” Other places were buried under a blizzard of volcanic ash. The ash acted as a cushion, protecting the ruins from an explosive force exceeding 150 hydrogen bombs detonating at once. Thirty cubic miles of rock became as a vapor and a tsunami with waves the height of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building crashed 30 miles inland. The tsunami widened
to two hundred miles in just an hour; and then to four hundred miles. It rolled over Turkey and Egypt; Syria and Iran, and even into Asia.
“Anyone living behind that mouth might just as well have been a flea located in the throat of a cannon. As the shock wave surged east between increasingly confined shorelines, the waters piled higher and higher until at last they became a foaming white mountain.”
Pellegrino, pg. 11-12, 93
This city is now a treasure chest whose lid is being pried open by archaeologists, geologists, and historians. In twenty years, only one city block has been excavated because of the hundreds of artifacts found in each section of the site. It will take at least 300 more years of excavation to reach the edges of this ruin.
From the pictures in your bulletin, you can see where part of the island fell into the sea.
Amid the cracked plaster walls are traces of frescoes, delicately painted ceramic vases, evidence of hanging gardens, warehouses filled with human-sized storage jars with the capacity exceeding sixty thousand gallons. Discovered there are hundreds of kitchen utensils, and even a frying pan. There was even a finger smudge left on a blackened surface, undisturbed for thirty-six hundred years!
Pellegrino, pgs. 186-187
This is a lost Minoin society near the island of Crete and under the volcano Thera. Could this be the society Plato described in his epic tale about the vulnerability of civilization and the dangers of arrogance and corruption? Could this lost island of Thera actually be Plato’s basis for the lost city of Atlantis?
Furthermore, is there a chance that this explosion of Thera and resulting tsunami in 1628 BCE are described in our Bible as Noah’s flood and/or Moses’ release of the people from Egypt?
Pellegrino makes a case for all of these possibilities. And he’s not alone. In 1909, an anonymous letter published by The Times proposed that the Atlantis legend is based on what happened in Minoan Crete 3600 years ago. Today it is the most academically accepted theory on the origins of the Atlantis legend.
The biblical story of Noah and the flood is not unique. There are more than 80 myths, lores and religions that claim the earth was overtaken by a cataclysmic flood. In the Greek flood story, Zeus sends a flood to destroy the people of the Bronze Age. Only a few who escaped to high mountains were saved. The Roman story has Jupiter, who resolves to destroy the earth because of the evil ways of humanity. He was about to set the earth to burning, but considered that that might set heaven itself afire, so he decided to flood the earth instead. In Scandinavia, Oden, Vili, and Ve fought and slew the great ice giant Ymir, and icy water from his wounds drowned most of the Rime Giants. The giant Bergelmir escaped, with his wife and children, on a boat. Ymir’s body became the world we live on. The German myth tells of a louse and a flea who were brewing beer in an eggshell. The louse fell in and burnt herself. This made the flea weep, which made the door creak, which made the broom sweep, which made the cart run, which made the ash-heap burn, which made the tree shake itself, which made the girl break her water-pitcher, which made the spring begin to flow. And in the spring’s water everything was drowned.
Noah’s story in our Bible is the story carried forth by the Hebrews. It is found in Gen. 6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved
him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of God.” You know the rest of the story. Noah builds a boat, saves pairs of everything and a flood comes to destroy everyone and everything as far as they could see.
Could some, most, or all of the flood myths stem from the destruction by Thera? At the excavation, the archeologists have found buried under Thera, another city – about 2,000 years older yet. What stories have yet to be discovered?
To the ancient people, the flood waters were a way of cleansing humanity in preparation for rebirth. Most of the flood myths also contain a culture hero – a Noah – who strives to ensure the rebirth of a good humanity. While the flood stories may seem like tragic stories to us, many of the flood myths are really about rebirth, new opportunities, fresh starts, and a future that is open. Flood myths are often set up as a paradox for redemption. Friends were over last night and one friend said “You aren’t going to say that God destroys the earth because of sin? That sounds like theology spewed by Fred Phelps” No. This is an ancient story and the focus is on what God can do after tragedy.
Also in our holy book is a story of the Exodus. The Hebrew people had been enslaved in Egypt when a leader with a unique and entertaining story decides to free the slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh. Moses asks Pharaoh for the release of the Hebrews, but Pharaoh is resistant. You can find the detail of the story starting in Exodus 7. Exodus 8 tells us, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord; let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country.’”
Ten devastating plagues ensue (presumably to convince Pharaoh to “let the people go”). When I went back to read about the plagues, I realized how a tsunami might be the impetus for such events – it was fascinating!
Given the velocity of the Thera event, is it possible that the plagues described in our Bible could have been the result? A BBC documentary presented a program using scientific research to argue that the plagues were triggered by the Thera eruption, which would have been a thousand times more powerful than a nuclear bomb.
The ash cloud likely plunged Egypt into darkness and generated lightning and hail – two of the ten plagues. The same ash cloud reduced rainfall, causing a drought. If the Nile had been poisoned by the effects of the eruption, pollution could have turned it red.
The same pollution could have driven millions of frogs onto the land; and with frogs on the land dying, leading to an explosion of flies and lice. The flies could have transmitted fatal diseases to cattle and boils and blisters to humans.
Even the fiery cloud that the Hebrews associated with God could have been rooted in the Thera event.
“So while it’s interesting”, my friend said, “What does it mean today?” How do we apply it to our lives?” “Two lessons.” I said. All of this is fancy speculation rooted in history, geology, theology, and ever-evolving archeology. But I think we can learn from this journey into Thera. Captain Cousteau himself said after traveling to the Thera Lagoon, “(In order to replenish the earth and subdue it as God asked the first humans to do), we have to remember that the earth has a life of its own. That’s when people get in trouble: when they have no respect for the earth, for its power, its majesty. We need it to survive, but it doesn’t need us. The planet existed four and a half billion years without us, and if we’re not very careful, we may be as extinct as the brontosaurs one day.” Pellegrino, pg. 321
The second lesson came to me as I was reading Pellegrino. He describes the eerie sensation of viewing a crushed civilization underwater after three millennium. Can you imagine? A fingerprint? An oven filled with dinner? A painting depicting
life 3650 years ago? The humans are long forgotten. Someday, we too will be gone. I believe that the flood myths and Thera remind us that what seems to be disruptive and devastating can offer opportunities for new life. The destruction of Thera created an underwater paradise with flora and fauna to spur new life underwater. The plagues of Egypt, while devastating to the people, provided opportunity for the Hebrews to be freed. The flood myth tells a deep truth – that what may seem to be an end can lead to a beginning. Thanks be to God!
- Genesis 6:5 - 8
- Exodus 8:1 - 2