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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. valsor

    Many living creatures, especially aquatic ad amphibious ones can survive a flood and do not have to be in the ark.

    February 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
    • Observer

      There are an estimated 6.5 MILLION different land animals.

      February 6, 2014 at 8:12 pm |
      • Red Ormiston

        But perhaps cubits are a mile long and the boat was really, really advanced for the day, with Doctor Who technology or some such... Makes as much sense as the rest of the story...

        February 6, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
  2. LKG

    The Flood is not just in the Bible but also in the Torah (which is probably is where the Bible takes the story from) and the Koran. Stories, like religion, are always going to be passed down and altered in a certain way.

    February 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm |
    • igaftr

      The oldest is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Thats the first written story of the flood myth.

      February 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
    • Skeptimist

      The Torah is the first five books of the Bible – not a separate set of Scriptures.

      February 6, 2014 at 9:06 pm |
  3. Bill

    What a bunch of baloney. The bible gets it's authority from us if we treat it as such??

    That sounds like George Costanza logic; "if we believe it Jerry, it is true.".

    February 6, 2014 at 7:33 am |
  4. JustAPondering

    Wow nearly to 5000 comments to this blog. Bostontola, you are one of the few from the January 28 initial conversations. Just googled Bostontola, is that you with your high school buddy. All you really smart people make me realize how little I know, and much I still want to learn. I choose to believe in a creator God, but have evolved to believe that it is possible in the 'nature' of the universe, that may be a bit arrogant to believe that the human species as we know is the creator God's final objective.

    February 6, 2014 at 4:48 am |
  5. Observer

    laceydon,

    "Was it worldwide? The biblical text does not require that reading. Did it destroy all life on the surface of the earth? The biblical text does not require that reading. All human life? The answer to that question may depend on our definition of human life."

    (Gen. 7:18-20 “The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and ALL the high mountains under the entire heavens were COVERED. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet."

    (Gen. 7:21) “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and ALL HUMAN BEINGS”

    February 6, 2014 at 12:03 am |
    • Marc

      A literalist might read that the flood only covered the mountains. And it is possible that each mountain was covered by separate, possibly sequential, flood events until all land dwelling animals had died. A global tsunami would have done the job nicely, and there is geological evidence of such a tsunami after an asteroid or comet hit the Yucatan peninsula millions of years ago.

      February 7, 2014 at 12:30 am |
      • Observer

        Marc,

        The Bible is pretty clear that all mountains were covered by 20 feet of water. Such nonsense contradicts any estimate of the amount of water possible on the earth. The "forty days and nights of rain" have nothing to do with a tsunami.

        February 7, 2014 at 12:52 am |
  6. laceydon

    A Mesopotamian flood narrative is not news. It has been known for centuries, as have the differences between the Mesopotamian version and the biblical version. In fact, there are more flood narratives. Some of them have remarkable similarities with the biblical narrative. And that brings up the question Baden side-steps: is there a historical basis for the flood narratives.

    Yes, the narratives sound fantastic. But that does not mean they are myth with no historical basis – most myths actually have a historical source. Even without confessing the inspiration of the biblical narrative, the evidence points to some historical and truly significant flood event in the distant past, one probably related to the Middle East.

    Yes, the narratives are theological, as Baden points out. That no doubt determined how the event was framed, but again it does not argue against a historical basis.

    So was it historical? Probably. Was it worldwide? The biblical text does not require that reading. Did it destroy all life on the surface of the earth? The biblical text does not require that reading. All human life? The answer to that question may depend on our definition of human life. The definition we operate under today was not the definition the people of that day would have recognized. So, perhaps, if we adopt their definition.

    And that raises the problem we have with regard to the biblical narrative, not only at this point but others. We tend to force the biblical narratives into our modern and scientific understanding of the world. Often that results in our rejecting them as mythical. If we considered them in the milieu in which they were written we might find there is more truth to them than first appears. Maybe we are missing something important. Maybe we should give them a chance.

    February 5, 2014 at 11:40 pm |
    • jon

      The only historical basis that a myth can tell us, is the theological beliefs people had at the time, a little insight to the culture and society. There is no historical basis to suggest Zeus, Cthulu, Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Athena, Yahweh, Baal, and all the other thousands of gods that have been declared as real. Just fairy tales, stories, schemes, and attempts to explain the world due to the lack of scientific knowledge, understanding and/or development.

      February 7, 2014 at 10:25 am |
      • JustAPondering

        Thanks for your comment. It appears you are onto something. As the biblical/current ruling species under this sun, we have not developed the capacity for understanding all that we see/perceive and know (think we know). We think therefore we are ??? Maybe???

        February 7, 2014 at 7:04 pm |
  7. hellsyeahs

    I dig that dude beard. The bible? Not so much.

    February 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm |
  8. Tannim

    And this matters WHY? If the Bible is correct (and that's a big IF!), Noah's Ark was made of gopher wood, not rope, and it's already been shown as plausible that the Biblical instructions could work.

    Of course, there's no proof it ever happened, either.

    Better to do something productive like improving the lives of the people in that part of the world.

    February 5, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
    • JustAPondering

      That part of the world? Thanks for your comment. The sparks are still a sparkin in my mind ... maybe?.....

      February 5, 2014 at 5:46 pm |
  9. Mack Hopkins

    I particularly like the use of the phrase: "This is theology, NOT HISTORY" There is a difference. You might as well say, "this is mythology, not real and actual accounts of what happened.

    February 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm |
    • hellsyeahs

      Indeed.

      February 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm |
    • JustAPondering

      Just a pondering in my child like/old man way ... since we cannot fully comprehend God ... simple stories, metaphors, allegories, myths, parables ... rather than turning the human race into pillars of salt ... he uses all of these to instruct humans to not harm one another ... so far the human nature has not been very successful to this endeavor. Vaya con Dios.

      February 6, 2014 at 3:19 am |
      • I wonder

        Just,

        You sound more like a Buddhist.

        I think that you have forgotten a whole bunch of nasty things that your Bible's "God" character told his 'children of Israel' to do to each other and to outlanders.

        February 6, 2014 at 3:29 am |
        • JustAPondering

          You are right about the nasty things the Bible talks about in its stories. I am more attracted to the teachings of Jesus Christ; I am at a loss to explain how this works with the Holy Trinity idea. Until I can talk with this directly with the creator God, some things will remain a recognized mystery to me. I respect the scientific method, and have found it useful in my work to pay taxes. I also respect other's chosen beliefs regarding a God or no God; as long as they do no harm to others. It is a good thing to read post like yours and the others who have contributed to this blog. Although, some are a bit rude. Such is life.
          Cordially yours, JustAPondering

          February 6, 2014 at 5:02 am |
        • I wonder

          Just,

          You seem to be a very nice person. Of course I agree with the "do no harm" precept, but therein lies a conflict about what some people consider "harm". Evangelicals (Christian, Muslim and others) continually preach that they are simply warning against and preventing 'eternal' harm to everyone, without a whit of verified evidence that what they say is true.

          As far as the teachings of Jesus, many of them are quite beneficial to human behavior, but his espousal of the OT Hebrew fantasies and supersti'tions leaves me cold. Some of the "simple stories, metaphors, allegories, myths, parables" are nice, but are you aware that Buddha taught with identical methods: "simple stories, metaphors, allegories, myths, parables" - 500 years prior to Jesus's time - and with many of the same practical concepts, minus a deity.

          I'm not a Buddhist, but my point is simply that The Bible is not the be all and the end all as a guide for humankind, and it is even deleterious in many ways.

          February 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
        • JustAPondering

          Thanks again for your mind sparkin comment.
          Maybe in our latest scientism, we have hilarious along with deleterious. Now how many words are coined with 'ious'? Ooops, my subconscious ... coined/taxes ... off to work.

          February 6, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
        • JustAPondering

          Mr. I wonder, thanks for the comment.I like Buda too. A smart guy.

          February 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm |
  10. Lee Jamison

    I say no perfect God would have inspired such a confusing book, the bible, this, because it takes scholars and highly educated theologians to continue debating its true meaning. The money used on these competing forces could probably feed every starving child across the globe.

    February 5, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
    • chuckb

      Nothing confusing about it... if you are a believer. I guess you would be confused if you opened someone elses mail and tried to understand what was written to them.

      February 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        It doesn't match our knowledge. It has contradicting descriptions of many events. Many descriptions defy logic. It has one god portrayed differently in the NT than in the OT.
        That's confusing.

        February 5, 2014 at 5:37 pm |
    • Elaine

      LOLOLOL Gods thinking is way above our thinking but The Bible is easily understood IF you are one of His, All ya gotta do is ASK, SEEK, and Knock, Hes more than willing to give you understanding.

      February 5, 2014 at 7:31 pm |
  11. Vasya Bricklyn

    At one time, 4 guys wrote a story then sat back and wondered. "It's going to be just like the internet. They will blindly believe everything they read, everything that is told to them, because the masses aren't smart enough to think for themselves."

    February 5, 2014 at 10:18 am |
  12. Mark Causey

    "Everyone reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place." This makes perfect sense when one realizes that the concept of "god" is man-made.

    February 5, 2014 at 10:01 am |
  13. Kalunda Sanford

    Is that guy a Noah impersonator?

    February 5, 2014 at 9:25 am |
  14. stan

    Science is as based on 'faith' as religion is. All of humanities scientific knowledge and understanding ends at the 'singularity'(almost exactly as a computer pixel). Scientists quite literally believe, at this time, that matter just spontaneously came into existence out of nothingness. That belief is hardly any different in function and form that believing in an intelligence, outside of our physical understanding, which 'willed' us into being. We could be little other than a computer simulation like the game of Sims.

    February 5, 2014 at 8:37 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      Trying to grasp how everything began (we assume) out of nothing has seemed impossible for our brains to grasp for millenia. It opened the door for an easy answer: that some magical being created all things, but that requires believing that a creator can first create itself out of nothing which is just as impossible to comprehend, so why do some choose to believe in magic? I'll take my chances with science and hope that zealots don't destroy civilization with the technology science provides before some revealing scienctic discovery finally make religion obsolete.

      February 5, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
    • Rationality

      Scientists don't "quite literally believe" any such thing. Science is observing, measuring, and experimenting to determine if hypotheses are accurate, and then adjusting accordingly. We have no idea what happened around the time of the Big Bang, or even if the Big Bang is necessarily what happened; it is a theory, and we observe, measure, and experiment to see if that theory is accurate or not. When new evidence emerges, we adjust accordingly. We do not blindly believe that matter simply emerged out of nothing; we aren't entirely sure what happened, so we make hypotheses and test them based on the available evidence. There is a significant difference between blind faith, that is a belief that something is true simply because you believe it to be true, and how scientists operate, which is that you believe to be true that which you can observe, replicate, and test...but also are willing to admit is not true if evidence to the contrary emerges.

      February 5, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
    • JustAPondering

      Thanks Stan. Stephen Hawking along with others has his opinion. Just another opinion. Ah what a scientist with a magnificent mind/imagination. I do applaud both faculties.

      February 6, 2014 at 3:28 am |
  15. Unrepentant13

    Let's use a little LOGIC, shall we? There are 7.77 million species of animals. 70% of the planet is covered with water, so for argument's sake we will assume 70% of the species live in the water. That leaves 2.31 million species that live on land. If Noah had two of each animal (and that's not taking the biblical self-contradictions into account), that means 4.62 million animals. It has been estimated that the totaled average weight (lightest to heaviest) of a "generic" animal is 43.72lbs. That means the Ark would have had to carry nearly 202 million pounds (or 1009 tons) of animals. Now, let's talk about the weight of food for 4.62 million animals, as well as their daily poop...

    February 5, 2014 at 12:02 am |
    • PikeRover

      maybe that explains the extinction of dinosaurs.... Noah did not have enough room.

      February 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  16. nev

    It is becoming very interesting to read the posts by the opposing groups on the validity of what is written in the bible but to the panthrotheist it seems amusing to note that such arguments are moot and academic in the perception of reality by the panthrotheistic philosophy and faith.The validity of those claims had work in their times and today ,but will be revised in the future but we have to respect it as it is willed by God.

    February 4, 2014 at 10:51 pm |
  17. David

    Selah seals up the boat tight, he made it unsinkable

    February 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm |
  18. Mark

    The article says of the two stories: "Neither version is right or wrong; they are, rather, both appropriate to the culture that produced them." No - they are both WRONG.

    February 4, 2014 at 7:29 pm |
    • Regis

      and do you have proof or some of kind of reference to back up that claim ??

      February 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Salero21

    Hello there my frenemies atheists! 😉 It's me again to remind you all so that you never forget and always remember, especially in the day of reckoning, that atheism is Total stupidity forevermore. In the day of reckoning however it will be too late for you to realize your delusion. 😦

    February 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm |
    • Kathy Kraft

      Yes I'm a Christian, but hopefully one that appreciates antiquity, symbolism and the robust stories of the Bible that are indeed stories, written to reflect the times and supposedly the morals and path to God.

      February 4, 2014 at 8:06 pm |
    • noheavononearth

      You are the delusional one....the follower of a religion, one of hundreds that purports to have the correct god, with stories from men who were nomads thousands of years ago after the world was formed....what's that? the universe is billion of years old, we have fossils from millions of years ago, god is nothing but an invention of man? The earth is not flat oh great pope, the sun does not revolve around the earth? Wait a minute.....the catholic church hides pedophiles amongst it's group, the same men who listen to those who have sinned all in the name of god. What's that? The house of the lord needs poor people to provide money for the church to function......and hide those within it who have sinned?
      The jig is up....the church is pathetic, backward, devoid of any rational thought and represents old man today who could have just as well grown up thousands of years ago when the message was the same, but like today, there was no messenger. All a ruse.......by man. What a joke.

      March 24, 2014 at 10:21 pm |
  20. P Ness

    The story of the Ark is the most outrageous thing I have ever heard. What did all the Animals eat when they got off the ark? I mean the world was underwater for 40-150 days. Wouldn't be a lot to nibble on. The other animals would tear into each other and then everyone would be dead

    February 4, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
    • Eccoo

      Totally unbelievable for you isn't it? You ask silly questions to the obvious answer. If God can do anything why is feeding some animals harder? In the Bible he has instantly turned water into wine. He instantly multiplied a few loaves of bread and fishes to feed several thousands of people. He created the whole universe. So the answer to the question is right there in front of you, but oh that's right you don't believe in God so its not possible. Death comes to all, that is a certainty, so we will soonknow (in atheist case if they are right, never know) after death.

      February 5, 2014 at 12:18 am |
      • Dandintac

        If God uses his magic to deal with the obvious practical and otherwise impossible difficulties outlined by P Ness and so many others, then why even bother with the Rube Goldberg mechanism of a world wide flood, the ark, and so on? Why not just smite the bad people responsible for God's wrath in the first place? Then he could spare the innocent people, especially innocent children and babies, innocent fetuses, who seem to be so important, all the innocent animals in the world, and the entire innocent biosphere. If God's magic helped deal with Noah's practical difficulties and flood the entire world–why not just smite down the evil people? Give them all heart attacks. Quick, efficient, simple, merciful toward the innocents. Hell, even turning them all into a pillar of salt would do the job.

        February 5, 2014 at 12:29 am |
        • JustAPondering

          Good humor. There is an geographical area (forgotten where) that has a lot of salt pillars. Do you know where it is?

          February 5, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
        • Dandintac

          You know, I va-guely remember hearing something about that too, but I can't remember where–maybe somewhere around the Dead Sea, or elsewhere around the Black or Caspian Seas? Could they be people God smote and someone forgot to pass that along for the Bible's authors to incorporate in their myths?

          February 6, 2014 at 1:42 am |
        • JustAPondering

          Dandintac, I believe you are right. 'An geographical' ... forgive the operator keyboard error. Are you the famous
          Dandintac…of newsvine.com, has not published any content yet? Perusing this site lead me to remembering 'Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch'. Humor for the human species. Thanks..

          February 6, 2014 at 2:19 am |
        • Dandintac

          Just a guess on my part. I could definitely be wrong–definite possibility.

          As far as Newsvine, that's probably me. Dandintac is actually for D and A in Tacoma, my wife and I, except that I accidently left off the A for her name (don't tell her though!). I think I made a few comments, or intended to make a few comments a number of months ago. But I can only do a couple of blogs at a time–so right now just YouTube and CNN. Got to make time to take care of A also. I used to publish comments on MSN's predecessor to Newsvine before the pulled the plug on it–mainly political content. Had no idea I was famous though 🙂

          Thanks for asking.

          February 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
        • JustAPondering

          Thanks Dandintac. I feel the earth and the natural world are firmly intertwined in the evolving universe. I like this way. It is all I have known.

          February 7, 2014 at 12:31 am |
        • JustAPondering

          Dandintac, I believe you are right. 'An geographical' ... forgive the operator keyboard error. Are you the famous
          Dandintac…of newsvine.com, has not published any content yet? Perusing this site leads me to remembering 'Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch'. Humor for the human species. Thanks..
          A post on another by a man named Joe Rhodes has some merit with my non-scientific trained mind,
          Joe said, "You could devise a number of explanations which would have equal truth; that is, none. An ambiguous belief in something outside of our comprehension is fair, but a specific story about creation of any variety is patently false."
          My unscientific trained thought is ... If there is a creation God, he just needs to use simple stories for us humans to get the idea. Maybe....? There I go prating again. A risk anyone takes when he speaks aloud. Such is human nature.

          February 6, 2014 at 2:37 am |
    • Loch Ness

      Nice alias x-)

      February 6, 2014 at 10:35 am |
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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.