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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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (5,820 Responses)
  1. S-3B Viking

    OTOH,

    You out there?

    February 2, 2014 at 12:20 am |
  2. Observer

    (2 Kings 6:28-29) “And the king said to her, “What is the matter with you?” And she answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we boiled my son and ate him; and I
    said to her on the next day, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him’; but she has hidden her son.”

    February 1, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
    • Topher

      And?

      February 1, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
      • Ron

        Topher, exactly...and? The Word of God in the hands of the godless will get you nowhere.

        February 1, 2014 at 10:06 pm |
        • tony

          It clearly says those are the words of the king (of Israe) , not god.

          February 1, 2014 at 10:46 pm |
        • S-3B Viking

          2 Timothy 3:16

          15and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

          ...From the hands of the godless

          February 2, 2014 at 12:22 am |
        • sam stone

          And to think you know the mind of god is delusional

          February 2, 2014 at 10:07 am |
      • Observer

        Topher,

        It's irrelevant quotes from the Bible that have NOTHING to do with the story in the blog.

        JUST like Ron. That was the point.

        February 2, 2014 at 12:23 am |
  3. JCS

    "Lions are obligate carnivores; they require up to seven kilograms (15 lb) of meat per day."

    They were supposed to be on the boat for 150 days.

    Let's be CONSERVATIVE and say there was JUST ... 2 lions. 2 tigers. 2 cheetahs. 2 panthers. 2 pumas.

    That's around 150 pounds of MEAT....every single day.....roughly 22,500 pounds after 150 days!!!! That's about TWO FULL GROWN ELEPHANTS.

    So....how many species went extinct while on Noah's ark to feed all these obligate carnivore cats??????

    Or did the power of Jesus....wait, that's right...this was before the sequel....did the power of Yahweh keep their kitty tummy's full?

    February 1, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
  4. JCS

    Here's what idiots that believe in the bible haven't been able to explain to me.....

    What did the obligate carnivore lions , tigers, pumas, cheetahs, panthers, etc eat while on the boat for however long?

    "What's an obligate carnivore???" Is about all you get from them.

    February 1, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Reality #2

    Back on the topic:

    And again and again and yet again, the bigger question is did Noah even exist? Other than the OT/Torah is there any other evidence?

    And did Abraham and Moses exist? From the information (and lack thereof) available, no they did not. Added details are available upon written request

    February 1, 2014 at 7:29 pm |
  6. Austin

    Topher, is that me ??

    February 1, 2014 at 5:41 pm |
  7. Mopery

    In other news, archaeologists have found ancient Greek text describing in detail a winged horse. Clearly this is evidence of the journeys of Perseus on his quest to defeat the mighty Kraken and save Andromeda. Praise be to Zeus!

    February 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm |
  8. cyndi kelly

    Love the article. I am a Christian- a believer that Jesus Christ is God's Son. And, also a scientist. So thankful that the Lord – who is the Living Word – gives us things on this World- which God created by the way- to remind us of who HE is. The ark is mentioned in many religious texts. Has anyone looked at the scientific evidence found of the ark in the mountains situated between Turkey and Iran. Both regions argue about whose mountains they are- but, whether you are an atheists, Christian, scientologist, Mormon, hindu, muslim- whatever else we choose to call ourselves- God is God- He loves us all- somehow. He gives us little treasure to seek and find. Much like the Bible tell us so. Love ya.

    February 1, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
    • Austin

      thank you for serving in that field!

      Jehovah Shammah
      The Lord is There

      February 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Austin: Silly boy, she's not a scientist...if she was she wouldn't believe that story. Much like you, she is a liar!

        February 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
        • Austin

          is perception false?

          February 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
        • Perceptions

          Austin,

          See "Qualia" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia

          February 2, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
    • hey hey

      "Has anyone looked at the scientific evidence found of the ark in the mountains situated between Turkey and Iran."

      Yes, it was debunked.

      LOTS of articles on it (and all of the other purported 'finds'). One for starters:
      http://www.godandscience.org/doctrine/noahs_ark_found.html

      February 1, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
    • doobzz

      "Has anyone looked at the scientific evidence found of the ark in the mountains situated between Turkey and Iran."

      Snopes did a good job of examining the "evidence".

      http://www.snopes.com/religion/noahsark.asp

      Scientist, my ass.

      February 1, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
    • arnold kelly

      cyndi kelly is a liar. And she's disgustingly fat too. I otta know. She's my sister.

      February 2, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
      • Ottoman

        You otta, man. You otta

        February 2, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
  9. tony

    JW promotes his region by trying to smother intelligent posts into obscurity by posting masses of his nonsense.

    What a deadful sin!

    February 1, 2014 at 9:39 am |
    • cough

      What region is he from?

      February 2, 2014 at 8:11 pm |
      • Pete

        Christianity.

        February 3, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
        • cough

          That must be a new region, let me guess it's be Easter Island somewhere?

          February 3, 2014 at 7:11 pm |
        • cough

          "by"

          February 3, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
  10. history teacher

    Wow, WAY too much being made out of this. There isn't much new to this CNN story, considering anyone with any exposure to Mesopotamian History has likely been exposed to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Utnapishtim (The Sumerian "Noah"). The fact that the story refers to him as Noah reveals the author did very, very little research, and I don't see what so many commenters are getting all wound up about. Chill, and do a little reading.

    February 1, 2014 at 9:05 am |
    • doobzz

      A lot Christians aren't encouraged to read real history, it might expose them to the inconsistencies and contradictions in the bible, and we can't have anyone start thinking critically about it.

      But I hear you, this discovery isn't even about Noah and the biblical flood myth.

      February 1, 2014 at 11:47 am |
      • Defamation

        Yeah they aren't people or anything.

        February 1, 2014 at 6:22 pm |
    • Akira

      The headline is for clicks...CNN does this kind of misleading stuff a lot.

      February 1, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
  11. Science Works

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HZzGXnYL5I&w=640&h=390]

    Published on Jan 22, 2014

    Bill Moyers continues his conversation with the astrophysicist in part two of a three-part series.

    Watch part one with Neil deGrasse Tyson: http://bit.ly/1dvNWcW

    Subscribe to 'Moyers & Company' channel: http://bit.ly/LGjeaM

    Science & Technology

    February 1, 2014 at 8:19 am |
    • Science Works

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRx6f8lv6qc&w=640&h=390]

      February 1, 2014 at 8:21 am |
  12. Reality #2

    Back on the topic:

    And again and yet again, the bigger question is did Noah even exist? Other than the OT/Torah is there any other evidence?

    And did Abraham and Moses exist? From the information (and lack thereof) available, no they did not. Added details are available upon written request

    February 1, 2014 at 7:07 am |
    • saggyroy

      I think they may have existed in the form of real people whose stories got blown waaay out of proportion, out of context and out of control, or were just based on some previous mythology.

      February 1, 2014 at 9:13 am |
  13. panrhrotheist

    its not only phropecy ,but computational theology predicts the evolution of the next faith in Panthrotheism for the next 3 generatiom or about 200 years from now,the discussion or posted arguments in this blog shows how important this concerns are to the faithfuls and the opposing atheists,But considering all variables or parameters in technical terms ,reveals a direction towards a logical and scientific resolution.

    January 31, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
    • neved

      in my estimate or reckoning,the exponential growth of scientific knowledge and discoveries and the advent of modern communications ,the world will shift to the new faith in 100 years ,more or less

      February 1, 2014 at 12:12 am |
  14. Kitteh

    I need a friend. Don't you? Local shelter, second cage from the bottom. I'm the fuzzy one in the back. Oh and I'll need a name.

    January 31, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
    • tony

      But will you promise not to catch the birds in my garden?

      February 1, 2014 at 9:36 am |
  15. Nope.

    Topher, is that me?

    January 31, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  16. bostontola

    I guess God suspended disease for a while. If an animal died on the Ark, that would have been bad. But then how did all those diseases survive. Back then people thought disease came from evil spirits, but God knew better, right?

    January 31, 2014 at 7:10 pm |
  17. bostontola

    Was there a refrigerated section of the Ark for polar bears and penguins?

    January 31, 2014 at 7:01 pm |
    • If

      I'm sure there was it was where they kept the dog and cat food cans after they were opened.

      January 31, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      As this was closer in time to the fall (of humankind) the world was more nearly perfect. Temperatures stayed between 20 and 22 C pretty much all of the time. No animals suffered.

      January 31, 2014 at 7:11 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      probably a local event Boston, no penguins.

      January 31, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
      • Alias

        If it was a local event, then it would have been unnecessary to save the animals.

        January 31, 2014 at 10:14 pm |
      • igaftr

        lngtrm
        Gen 7-4 "Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made."

        Gen7 "19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.[a][b] 21 Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

        Pretty sure that covered the highest mountains and "every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out" eliminates the possibility of a local event.

        The whole thing is a myth.

        February 2, 2014 at 2:23 pm |
  18. If

    If you are smarter, wiser, funnier, and brighter than everyone here. If you have the best stories or the best puns. If you have insulted the most people or if you made the most people think.

    In one hundred years no one will remember. In forty years no one will remember. In two days no one will remember but you. For the next two hours, if anyone remembers your comments you will never know and never look them in the eye.

    January 31, 2014 at 6:50 pm |
    • Ponyboy Garfunkel

      C'est la vie

      January 31, 2014 at 6:59 pm |
    • bostontola

      By that logic, why bother having fun, loving or talking to anyone. You can keep that fatalistic philosophy, I prefer to interact with people in person and on line.

      January 31, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
      • If

        I don't know about fatalism. I think I'm more of an absurdist.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism

        January 31, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
        • bostontola

          It's the "no one will remember anyway" part. That applies to just about anything. But absurd also applies.

          January 31, 2014 at 7:07 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      People will remember doG on Judgment Day!!!

      January 31, 2014 at 9:03 pm |
  19. Sungrazer

    I see a troll here today. Trolling is illuminating. And I mean true trolling, not trollish behavior. It's almost always on the theist side. I personally don't think the true troll has a stake on that side, I think he/she just finds it easier to troll that side. There are more atheists here than theists; that is probably some of it. But what is illuminating is the vast range of theistic statements one can make in the name of trolling. You can call atheism a religion; you can claim the Earth is 6000 years old; you can ask if humans came from monkeys, why are monkeys still around?; you can state that Jesus existed because millions of Bibles prove it (I actually saw someone here claim this – not that THE Bible proves it, but the large number of copies did, as if each one added more evidence on top of the others). Now, some theists genuinely believe one or more of those things, and that doesn't make them trolls. My point is that there are so many outlandish things you can say on the side of the theist that makes it easier to troll on that side.

    What would an atheist troll look like? An atheist troll could troll theists with namecalling and insults. Regrettably, this does happen. But what else? Perhaps some dogmatic declarations of atheism being the answer to all the world's ills, or some such. After all, theists seem to hold atheists as arrogant. But does it really move the meter? What would?

    I would think that if you are a theist, it would annoy you as well when some of othe more ridculous, obviously trollish statements are made, because it is not good representation, and there may be some readers who take it seriously.

    January 31, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
    • If

      I am a troll. I troll to troll. I am theist for a moment, atheist the next and agnostic in between. To blog is to troll to troll is for my own enjoyment because in the long run I doubt anyone cares what I have to say but me, and that is the art of trolling along.

      January 31, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
      • Bill Shakespeer

        What troller's troll is trollin' over yonder?

        February 1, 2014 at 12:50 am |
  20. Jake

    M&M, I'm on to you. It just hit me. You're posts are so insane that you must be an atheist trying to make believers look like idiots. You sly devil you! But don't waste your time, the true believers do a pretty good job themselves.

    January 31, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
    • Sungrazer

      Funny, that dovetails with the post I was composing at the time you posted your comment.

      January 31, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
      • Jake

        Great minds think alike! M&M was using capital letters, punctuation, coherent grammar, etc. Text book give away that he isn't a true fundamentalist wacko.

        January 31, 2014 at 6:51 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.