January 28th, 2014
10:37 AM ET
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.
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