The National Center for Science Education published a terrific tour of creationist Ken Ham’s new Noah’s Ark theme park by Dan Phelps, the president of the Kentucky Paleontology Society. The entire piece is well worth a read, but I was especially interested in the Ark Encounter’s presentation of antediluvian life, the period of the Nephilim from Genesis 6 that so interests both creationists and fringe historians of every stripe. After reading Phelps’s description, I was genuinely surprised to see that Ham has absorbed so much fringe history into his supposedly “scientific” approach to Biblical literalism.
The first and most important thing to note before beginning is that Genesis is largely silent on the world before the Flood. It offers only a few hints about what the ancient Jews imagined the world was like in the earliest ages. We know, for example, that there were cities because Genesis 4:17 describes the fratricidal Cain as building the first city, Enoch. From the description of Cain’s other descendants, we are to infer that wicked humans not only lived in cities by had music (4:21) and metalworking (4:22), and that somehow this was a bad thing since the godly line of Seth in Genesis 5 does not engage with them. In Genesis 6 we learn that the “Sons of God” had sex with human women and bore Nephilim giants to them, and God declares all humanity to be corrupt and wicked. And that is the extent of the antediluvian world as given in Genesis.
Obviously, such a paltry description practically begged the ancients to try filling in the gaps. Apocalyptic Jewish and Christian literature described fallen angels corrupting human women and tempting them with makeup lessons, medicinal plants, and horoscopes (1 Enoch 7:1, 8:1, 8:3). They developed myths about cannibal giants (Jubilees 5:2) and a world undone primarily by vain and horny women (Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Reuben 5; Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women 1.2, etc.) and by music (Book of the Cave of Treasures, etc.). They even filled in the biography of Noah with fanciful details. The Genesis Apocryphon gives Noah a supernatural look and causes his father to worry that he is a son of the Fallen Angels. In one version, Noah lives on a mountain all alone until he decides at the age of 500 to marry have kids (Agapius of Hierapolis, Kitab al-'Unwan). Another version makes him an evangelist preaching godliness to the Nephilim (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 1.74) and to people in general, though to no avail, as ancient and medieval Jewish sources attest.
This last version is the biography of Noah adapted into Islamic lore. In the Qur’an, Noah preaches to the sinful antediluvians. In stories outside of the Qur’an, Noah has a convoluted history in which his building of the Ark is intertwined with the parallel construction of the Pyramids of Egypt as safeguards against the Flood that the sages of Babylon, Egypt, and Arabia prophesied. The Akhbar al-zaman and Murtada ibn al-’Afif preserve versions of Noah’s adventures with the high priest of Egypt and the king of Babylon.
The point is that there is a ready-made mythology of the antediluvian world that Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis could have drawn upon, one which is hallowed by time, if not by facts. Instead, Phelps reports that Ham’s group went down the fringe history rabbit hole. First, let’s start with the more or less “normal” stuff, as Phelps describes it:
Since the Bible only has a limited description of Noah and his family, AiG “research” is required to fill in the missing details. These details are provided by the steaming shovelful. One sign under “Artistic License” states, “This exhibit provides a plausible backstory based on clues from Scripture to explain how the Lord may have prepared His faithful servant to fulfill such an important mission.” In this artistic version of Noah’s story, we learn that he was raised a farmer; but, after seeing small ships, he longed for adventure. He became an apprentice shipbuilder, learned all the appropriate skills, and married the daughter of his employer. If anyone else invented embellished stories about anything in the Bible, AiG would have a conniption.
How strange is it that Ark Encounter chooses to ignore the Jewish, early Christian, and Islamic accounts of Noah to make up stories of their own? As Phelps notes, Answers in Genesis threw a fit that the 2014 movie Noah featured extra-Biblical references to the Watchers, and yet they are happy to make up their own details as needed. Perhaps it is simply politically inconvenient for political conservatives such as Ham to suggest that Jews and Muslims have a share of the truth that he does not.
Ark Encounter offers a strange antediluvian history. According to them, the Earth was filled with violent giants who engaged in great wars with sinful regular humans. This, as should be obvious, is not in Genesis but echoes the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees. But then Ark Encounter tells visitors that the people before the Flood engaged in a snake cult, worshiping a serpent. The accompanying illustrations feature cultists drawn from Mycenaean and Minoan imagery and Mexican-style pyramids, but the claim itself is quite explicitly extra-biblical. It comes, more or less, from John Bathurst Deane’s Worship of the Serpent from the 1830s, in which the clergyman argued that all pagan religions were a corruption of Genesis, and that evil pagans mistook the Serpent in the Garden for a wisdom god. The claim is best known from Rosicrucian Freemason Hargrave Jennings’s version of it in his book Ophiolatreia, a book that helped shape Theosophical ideas about a Brotherhood of the Snake and eventually fringe history views on Reptilians. The Brotherhood of the Snake became popular among ancient astronaut theorists in the 1980s and 1990s. Ark Encounter seems to be taking the Theosophical snake-worshiping cult of antediluvian Lemuria and Atlantis and ascribing it to the antediluvians of Genesis. This is certainly an odd thing for a creationist to do!
But here is the weirdest thing: In a mock-up of Noah’s “library” of antediluvian artifacts (!) is a globe depicting the Earth as it would have appeared in 2348 BCE, according to catastrophist creationist “Flood geology.” Does Ark Encounter expect us to believe that the Nephilim mapped the world before the Flood? That claim doesn’t come from the Bible but from Charles Hapgood’s catastrophist classic Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, which argues that Ice Age humans had mapped the world in astonishing detail before a pole shift destroyed their civilization. Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods adopted this catastrophist line to explain the Flood (since swapped out for a comet, which was Edmund Halley’s Flood explanation). This seemingly insignificant detail in Ark Encounter’s exhibit suggests that the creators of the place are less biblical than they imagine, and much more heavily influenced by secular fringe history than they will ever admit
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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