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January 28th, 2014
10:37 AM ET

Noah's Ark discovery raises flood of questions

Opinion by Joel Baden, Special to CNN

(CNN) That faint humming sound you’ve heard recently is the scholarly world of the Bible and archaeology abuzz over the discovery of the oldest known Mesopotamian version of the famous Flood story.

A British scholar has found that a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet from what is now Iraq contains a story similar to the biblical account of Noah’s Ark.

The newly decoded cuneiform tells of a divinely sent flood and a sole survivor on an ark, who takes all the animals on board to preserve them. It even includes the famous phrase “two by two,” describing how the animals came onto the ark.

But there is one apparently major difference: The ark in this version is round.

We have known for well over a century that there are flood stories from the ancient Near East that long predate the biblical account (even the most conservative biblical scholars wouldn’t date any earlier than the ninth century B.C).

What’s really intriguing scholars is the description of the ark itself.

The Bible presents a standard boat shape long and narrow. The length being six times the measure of the width, with three decks and an entrance on the side.

The newly discovered Mesopotamian text describes a large round vessel, made of woven rope, and coated (like the biblical ark) in pitch to keep it waterproof.

Archaeologists are planning to design a prototype of the ark, built to the specifications of this text, to see if it would actually float. Good luck to them in trying to estimate the weight of its cargo.

So, why does this new discovery matter? It matters because it serves as a reminder that the story of the Flood wasn’t set in stone from its earliest version all the way through to its latest incarnation.

The people who wrote down the Flood narrative, in any of its manifestations, weren’t reporting on a historical event for which they had to get their facts straight (like what shape the ark was).

Everyone reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a round vessel would have been perfectly reasonable in fact, we know that this type of boat was in use, though perhaps not to such a gigantic scale, on the Mesopotamian rivers.

The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, would naturally have pictured a boat like those they were familiar with: which is to say, the boats that navigated not the rivers of Mesopotamia but the Mediterranean Sea.

This detail of engineering can and should stand for a larger array of themes and features in the flood stories. The Mesopotamian versions feature many gods; the biblical account, of course, only one.

The Mesopotamian versions tell us that the Flood came because humans were too noisy for the gods; the biblical account says it was because violence had spread over the Earth.

Neither version is right or wrong; they are, rather, both appropriate to the culture that produced them. Neither is history; both are theology.

What, then, of the most striking parallel between this newly discovered text and Genesis: the phrase “two by two”? Here, it would seem, we have an identical conception of the animals entering the ark. But not so fast.

Although most people, steeped in Sunday school tradition, will tell you without even thinking about it that “the animals, they came on, they came on by twosies twosies,” that’s not exactly what the Bible says.

More accurately, it’s one thing that the Bible says but a few verses later, Noah is instructed to bring not one pair of each species, but seven pairs of all the “clean” animals and the birds, and one pair of the “unclean” animals.

(This is important because at the end of the story, Noah offers sacrifices which, if he only brought one pair of each animal, would mean that, after saving them all from the Flood, he then proceeded to relegate some of those species to extinction immediately thereafter.)

This isn’t news already in the 17th century scholars recognized that there must be two versions of the Flood intertwined in the canonical Bible.

There are plenty of significant differences between the two Flood stories in the Bible, which are easily spotted if you try to read the narrative as it stands.

One version says the Flood lasted 40 days; the other says 150. One says the waters came from rain. Another says it came from the opening of primordial floodgates both above and below the Earth. One version says Noah sent out a dove, three times. The other says he sent out a raven, once.

And yes: In one of those stories, the animals come on “two by two.”

Does this mean that the author of that version was following the ancient Mesopotamian account that was just discovered? Certainly not.

If the goal of the ark is the preservation of the animals, then having a male and female of each is just common sense. And, of course, it’s a quite reasonable space-saving measure.

Likewise, the relative age of the Mesopotamian and biblical accounts tells us nothing about their relative authority.

Even if we acknowledge, as we probably should, that the biblical authors learned the Flood story from their neighbors after all, flooding isn’t, and never was, really a pressing concern in Israel this doesn’t make the Bible any less authoritative.

The Bible gets its authority from us, who treat it as such, not from it being either the first or the most reliable witness to history.

There is no doubt that the discovery of this new ancient Mesopotamian text is important. But from a biblical perspective, its importance resides mostly in the way it serves to remind us that the Flood story is a malleable one.

There are multiple different Mesopotamian versions, and there are multiple different biblical versions. They share a basic outline, and some central themes. But they each relate the story in their own way.

The power of the Flood story, for us the canonical biblical version, is in what it tells us about humanity’s relationship with God. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Joel S. Baden is the author of "The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero" and an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden. 

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Judaism • Opinion

soundoff (5,391 Responses)
  1. aslamproductions

    Arrrgghh! People really believe this nonsense? How much longer will it take until people shed this nonsense we call religion. Don't people understand that all of these stories in the bible, torah, Quran, Bagavadghita, etc… THEY ARE ALL MYTHS. No more true than the Greek myth of Athena being born from Zeus' forehead.

    April 17, 2014 at 8:04 pm |
  2. charlesdbruce

    The Noah story is ridiculous. If the people of the world spent as much energy in the pursuit of science rather than on the fairy tales of religion, we'd all be much better off.

    April 17, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
    • benhoody

      Ya right, I guess we should believe the fairytale that everything came from nothing. Once there was nothing, and then like magic something, dead matter appeared. And then one day it all exploded BANG, and as time went on this dead matter began to think and reason, this dead matter wanted to see, and poof, it had eyes, then this dead matter wanted to hear, it never knew what it meant to hear but like a rabbit out of a hat, poof, it had ears, and a nose to smell and it wanted to feel so it grew nerves and feelings etc. Out of nothing, out of nowhere, BANG here we all are! Talk about a myth, fairytale and magic, and we should believe this nonsense rather than God created is absurd.

      April 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
      • igaftr

        "fairytale that everything came from nothing"

        That is not what any valid theory indicates. Nice strawman though.

        What created your god?

        April 17, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
      • dylanesq

        'Bang, here we all are !"

        I know it's hard to comprehend what billions of years of evolution mean. It's almost beyond our imagination but, that's the way we have developed. mankind, especially those enmeshed in religious mythology' is still stuck back in the age when the apes left the forest for the plains and began to expand their minds. Unfortunately , unable to absorb natural events, mythologies took their place. The only problem for you is to truly open your mind to our true vulnerability in this cosmic shooting gallery. Either way we are all inconsequential as the inevitable space rock is going, once more, to eliminate most of the life on this planet, if not the planet itself. I know this and it doesn't bother me. The sun rises every day so far in my life and I make the best of it, thrilled for the ride.

        April 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm |
    • philbugg

      If it is a fairy tale, why are there over 200 flood "legends" from every corner of the earth? Is it possible that we all descended from Noah and his wife? Even the genome project found that we all descended from one mother. I don't know. Just saying... It's not unreasonable. However, most people have been brainwashed since kindergarten that the bible is a fairy tale and taught the state religion's creation myth(Darwinian evolution).

      April 17, 2014 at 7:32 pm |
  3. iowasundevil

    Noah's ark is an absolutely absurd story. The amount of rain falling from the sky to create a flood of that magnitude would have completely obliterated everything on the face of the earth. The pyramids, Grand Canyon, and the Great Wall of China would be gone if the story were true. Nothing on the surface of earth would have survived. Not to mention the fact that launching a giant boat stuffed full of animals in those conditions is also impossible. Religious belief is a mental disorder.

    April 17, 2014 at 9:38 am |
  4. doctordave777

    The difference between this new find and the authentic ark, as described in the Bible, is that Noah's Ark could and would have floated. The Biblical description of the size and the number of animals plus supplies makes perfect scientific sense. For those that doubt the Word of God (ie. the Bible), please see the following;

    http://www.icr.org/article/8039/

    Dave

    April 15, 2014 at 6:07 pm |
    • dylanesq

      '..the word of God... the bible..'...Mein Kampf..it's all the same. Whether you control by brutal domination or by subtle storytelling..it all has the same outcome. The goal being to dominate and control and deny free thinking and living in the real world.

      April 15, 2014 at 8:13 pm |
    • Elbonian

      Dear Dave: The article makes clear that you have a theological dispute with the authors of other versions of the flood story. If you want actual scientific discussion search out the National Geographic exploration of the Black Sea in 1999/2000 where they confirmed the flood theory originally proposed by Ryan and Pittman that roughly 5,000 years ago the Mediterranean Sea broke through the Bosporus and flooded into what is now the Black Sea. The residents were driven out in every direction by water rising at the rate of 6 inches per day, with the salty ocean water overlying a fresh water lake that had previously served human habitation in that area. The people who were chased out of their homes in that fashion must have felt they had offended the gods in some way, so they made up stories about that, and each resulting tribe of humans had slightly different versions of the story. Since Abraham (the first actual Jew) was a citizen of Ur in Iraq, the Mesopotamian version of the flood story would certainly have influenced what was eventually written down as the Jewish Torah. However, as this article clearly states, even that version is actually two different versions of the flood story! But science tells us there was never an actual worldwide flood. Only the filling up of the Black Sea with salt water. So, you are denying scientific truth in your assertions, and you should thus to attempt to live totally without science in order to be true to your own beliefs.

      April 17, 2014 at 5:11 am |
  5. jcs6

    The only question it should raise is why are so many people stupid enough to believe in such things, and given that fact, why aren't we more concerned that adults with an imaginary friend are in positions of power.

    April 15, 2014 at 1:13 am |
  6. ftank58

    It seems as though to me that people who think the idea of God is so far-fetched are always rushing to any story that has anything to with him to insert their disrespect. I just find it odd that if people strongly believe it is make believe, why even waste the time to go out of your way to type words.

    April 10, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
    • dylanesq

      You hang onto that bubble, that's right. Imagine, those nasty truth tellers, trying to shatter my illusions !

      April 11, 2014 at 12:18 am |
    • jcs6

      Show some sign of valid proof that is not make-believe. You can't. All you have to go on is faith based on a collection of badly written and translated fairy tales. Without proof you are a 6 year old having a tea party with your imaginary friend. But somehow, that's normal.

      April 15, 2014 at 1:16 am |
      • ftank58

        Everybody exercises faith when it comes to historical events that no human was present for, you were not there for the bigbang or to see anything evolve, so I ask you show me evidence of that happening, you cant, because at the root level of EVERY world view is a presupposed assumption.

        April 15, 2014 at 9:14 am |
        • iowasundevil

          There is quite a large volume of evidence supporting the Big Bang. A simple search of "evidence supporting the big bang" on your favorite search engine is a good place to start. I know I'm likely wasting my time since you are not likely to acknowledge any facts you will encounter that contradicts the myth of the buybull. Confirmation bias being what it is.

          April 17, 2014 at 10:07 am |
      • benhoody

        Show us proof God doesn't exist, oh, wait a minute , you can't. Proof of God and creation is all around you but you refuse to see. You would rather believe the fairytale that one day BANG, like magic, now here we are. Like the bible tells us "The fool has said in his heart there is no God".

        April 17, 2014 at 1:57 pm |
        • dylanesq

          Sorry you never made it past 3rd grade.

          April 17, 2014 at 2:25 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.