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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. Ron Swanson

    The Bible adopted stories that already existed in the mythology of ancient civilizations? You don't say...

    February 10, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
    • deisenberg

      Oh, come on, Ron – it's still exciting.

      February 14, 2014 at 10:57 pm |
  2. Emma Morrow

    Nothing brings out the Bigots like a mention of the Bible.

    February 10, 2014 at 11:47 am |
    • Jay

      I'm sorry I worked last Sunday, please forgive. Will you kill me now or later?

      Exodus 31:15
      For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.

      Or will you pick and choose from the Bible like every other Religious hypocrite!

      February 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
      • southerncelt

        That depends. Are your ancestors from one of the Twelve Tribes of Judah? If not, then I wouldn't worry about it as the Old Testament is the recorded history of the Jews relationship with their Creator. Those of us who were not born under the Old Covenant were saved by the New Covenant which is described in the New Testament. Try reading it.

        February 11, 2014 at 8:49 pm |
        • dandintac

          Ah–the "New Covenant" argument.

          Is it not the same god in both OT and NT??

          Is God not eternal and unchanging?

          Is God's morality not objective, eternal, and unchanging?

          Did Jesus not proclaim that he was there to fulfill the law, and that all of the old law still applied?

          Is the OT no longer God's Word?

          Don't Christians still incorporate it in their Holy Bible?

          Don't Christians still cherry-pick parts of the OT when it suits their purpose or argument? And revere and seek to publicly enshrine the OT's Ten Commandments in the form of public monuments? Why would the 10C still apply, but not God's other commandments that followed?

          Is there some passage in the Bible that says we can just ignore all the senseless and hideous commandments God made in the OT? Or list them out–which ones we get to ignore now?

          Do you claim that Jews, who are still, according to you apparently, under the "old covenant", are required to stone unbelievers to death? Why don't they?

          February 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
      • bonza1982

        Jesus was the fulfillment of the law. The law was a reminder to the people that they were imperfect, and needed Jesus ransom sacrifice. Once Jesus died, he fulfilled the law, and the Christians were under no obligation to follow it. Unclean foods could now be eaten, etc.

        I have no idea why modern day Jews don't follow the Mosaic Law Covenant, except that, as Jesus pointed out, they were following their traditions instead. But that in no way invalidates what Jesus commanded. The Hebrew scriptures (OT) are a part of the inspired word, there is history, prophecies, etc., that are important. But we are commanded to follow Christ's teachings now.

        February 11, 2014 at 11:41 pm |
        • ayatc

          "Once Jesus died, he fulfilled the law, and the Christians were under no obligation to follow it. "
          Jesus had never said that. This is only an interpretation.

          February 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
        • dandintac

          In other words, it's just made up.

          February 12, 2014 at 10:53 pm |
    • igaftr

      Emma
      That's true. The bible has been used for centuries to justify bigotry. Bigotry against blacks ( the cursed people of ham), against women, against gay people, and against anyone who don't accept the outlandish claims of the bible.

      February 10, 2014 at 12:39 pm |
      • southerncelt

        Independent interpretation by anyone after the Reformation led to God's words being added, deleted, or changed to justify all kinds of things. Add to that the Nationalist influence of it, and it should give any rational person doubts about the validity of the whole thing. Jesus created one Church. It still exists to this day. Of course, those who deny it or wish to destroy it should wonder where that motivation came from as it runs contrary to The Gospel (which some people should read instead of the Old Testament).

        February 11, 2014 at 8:41 pm |
        • dandintac

          Yes, the Bible has indeed been altered–and not just in terms of "interpretation", but the actual books themselves. Some are forgeries–in other words, not written by the people claimed as authors. Much has been added that was not in the oldest texts–including important things, such as the story of Jesus saving the woman from stoning ("let he who is without sin cast the first stone" or something similar)–this was made up later. The part about handling serpents–added later.

          There may be much more that has been changed or added that we don't even know about, since we do not have originals, or copies of originals, or copies of copies. We have instead, copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies... The earliest fragments we have–and I emphasize FRAGMENTS–of the gospels were written more than a generation after the claimed events took place.

          There are errors galore–most insignificant, but enough to cast doubt into how well it has really been copied over the years, or how close it is to the original books. We don't necessarily know who the authors really were. There are other holy texts that were omitted. Who decided that? What politics went into that decision? There are inconsistencies. There are failed prophecies, such as the one which claimed Damascus would be destroyed. Any supposedly fulfilled prophecies were either too va-gue and unspecific, or written after the facts.

          Now given all this–or even half of all this, why in the world would one place their faith in such a book, and order their whole lives and belief systems around it? And what kind of all-powerful, all-knowing God, who cared about whether people received his word accurately, would place his Word in such a flawed doc-ument that can be interpreted in so many ways and corrupted so easily? And why would anyone believe in it?

          February 11, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
      • bonza1982

        People may have used the Bible as an excuse to justify their bigotry, but that doesn't mean the Bible taught it or approves of it.

        February 11, 2014 at 11:43 pm |
    • theghostofjimjones

      I am sure you agree that no idea should ever be immune from criticism. This is true regardless of whether the idea involves science, politics, or any other discipline. So why should religion be treated differently or receive some type of special treatment?

      February 18, 2014 at 3:09 am |
  3. mdaneker

    The BS came 2 x 2 and they called it "bible" and made it law.

    February 10, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  4. apjdk

    What is wrong with CNN? This religious fundamentalist nonsense doesn't belong on a news site. Tell us about what's happening in real world, please.

    February 10, 2014 at 10:09 am |
    • Mary Rogers

      Um...you are on CNN's Belief Blog and I fail to see how this is fundamentalist at all. The author said specifically that the flood events were not to be taken literally. This article does not just appeal to the religious. It is a facinating look at the the history of near eastern mythology.

      February 10, 2014 at 8:00 pm |
  5. Pie is good for the soul

    ....

    February 9, 2014 at 4:42 pm |
    • Vic

      I love apple pie, my absolute favorite.

      February 9, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
      • Science Works

        How about BS pie Vic ?

        ID is not science !

        How Bill Nye Won the Debate

        Posted on February 4, 2014 * Leave a comment

        Creationism

        NCSE

        Science

        Young-earth creationism

        http://ncse.com/blog/2014/02/how-bill-nye-won-debate-0015369

        February 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm |
      • Science Works

        OR fred and Austin ?

        February 9, 2014 at 5:56 pm |
      • Science Works

        WoW – Vic and the Ham-sters a0re here too ?\

        Mammoth Remains, What Do They Really Indicate By Robert Helfinstine (Ham stuff – ICR) ?

        OR

        University of Copenhagen. "A 'smoking gun' on Ice Age megafauna extinctions." ScienceDaily. 5 February 2014.

        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140205133252.htm

        February 10, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  6. Fred

    If Noah saved animals by keeping only one (or even a few) of each gender then one of the few animals he must have saved was the Cheetah as that is one of few animals with a narrow enough gene pool. Pretty much all of the other animals must have saved themselves in much greater numbers because we see little evidence of narrow gene pools in most species.

    February 9, 2014 at 4:28 pm |
  7. doomsheep

    Something about the design of the Ark has puzzled me for a long time. There was only one door & one window. The one window was shut 99.999% of the story. No one bothered to look out said window until the rains had stopped. Also there was no upper deck for anyone to walk out on when the rains finally ended. Lastly there was no way to control the ship no sail or propulsion. This to me does not sound like any barge or sailing ship I can think of. HOWEVER what it DOES sound like is a rocket of some sort. What if you atheists are right the flood was a myth HOWEVER the story was not.what if From Adam to Noah Man was living on Mars. What if to them Earth was a place not a planet? So they would have gone from Earth to Earth.

    February 9, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
    • bonza1982

      All the ark had to do was float. It didn't have to go anywhere. So it didn't nead a prow or steering mechanism. Who said it only had one window?

      February 11, 2014 at 11:47 pm |
  8. igaftr

    There have been many local floods throughout history. None of them however killed all the other life on the planet as the myth is the bible tells it.

    February 9, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
    • doomsheep

      I wonder. 10,000 years from now will someone like you debating The Myth of the World Trade Center attack? Telling how this was a world wide myth because no one tells it the same way?

      February 9, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
      • OTOH

        doomsheep,

        Perhaps so. A real (purportedly totally smart and powerful) god should be able to do better at communicating, though.

        February 9, 2014 at 3:13 pm |
        • Charlie

          God communicates perfectly, then there are those who simply reject what he says because of their own reasoning. He tells us to lean not to our own understanding but to trust in and believe him, otherwise you may be deceived and not even realize it. Then when you build on a foundation that is a deception, your whole belief is a lie and you won't even know it.

          February 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
        • igaftr

          Charlie
          That's not what god said.
          God clearly wants us to die in glorious battle so that we can get into Valhalla when we die.

          February 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
  9. Claire

    Without going through all the comments or entering the religion/no religion debate, these ancient cataclysms find their way into myth because a) verbal communication was the norm way back and embellishing of stories is inevitable; and b) people have always, and will always, need to believe they can control such natural cataclysms. Believing that you're being punished is a way of controlling the situation; i.e., if I do better next time, it won't happen again. Enter rainbow and all is well. I happen to subscribe to the theory that a breach in the Mediterranean sent a catastrophic flood into the Black Sea. Evidence in the Black Sea suggests this - the "two shoreline" discovery.

    February 9, 2014 at 12:20 pm |
  10. shamgar50

    Read a few science books. If need be, have mommy or daddy explain them to you.

    February 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
    • Jason

      Who is this addressed to? The author??

      February 9, 2014 at 10:10 am |
  11. Joop

    It is another example of religions copying previous religions' stories and incorporating them into their own. The Jesus story is copied from the Egyptian Osyris stories as we now know.

    February 8, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
  12. Tatiana Covington

    It's just a fairy tale.

    February 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
  13. Realityblowz

    Look up "Mithra". Predates Jesus and the bible by thousands of years. Carbon dating has proven it due to the rocks that it was carved in. Was crucified, rose 3 days later. Sound familiar. How about when Mithra was a baby, being found floating in a woven basket floating down the river Nile. That one sounds familar too. The old testament sounds nasty too. Kill every man woman and child for God? No thanks. How about Bhuddism? It sounds more peaceful.

    February 8, 2014 at 2:02 pm |
    • Jason

      Call it "Bhuddism" one more time...

      February 9, 2014 at 10:09 am |
    • Mark Branstern

      You don't carbon rocks, you idiot.

      February 9, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
  14. Lukegc

    Anyone plug creationscience.com/onlinebook yet? Best collection of scientific evidence for supporting creation and the flood. Read or forever be considered an ignorant lazy flaming trollingo. Understand and join the paradigm shift that is the realization of truth.

    February 8, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  15. heehee

    Wouldn't it be nice if the majority of the posts were concerned with exchanging information about the cultural history of flood myths, archaeological evidence for actual floods in historical times, the history of religion in general (among other things)?

    In other words, if curiosity, the search for truth, and evidence were valued?

    February 8, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
  16. Wootings

    Essentially nothing in the Bible is original...everything in there was stolen from other, older religions. Even the trick with the fish and bread, and miraculous birth and rising from the dead. And, as pointed out here, the ark story.

    The Bible is nothing more than the world's most popular work of plagiarism.

    February 8, 2014 at 10:40 am |
    • Mike

      Well, calling it plagiarism is a little harsh. The Hebrew rabbis and scholars were chronicling stories that were circulating at the time and had meaning for their people. They didn't say they wrote it. The Grimm brothers did not write the fables they published. They were collecting folk stories. But then, perhaps you weren't being literal. 😉

      February 8, 2014 at 11:28 am |
    • Jason

      Thank for this, Mike.

      It's hard to find a story in ancient and medieval literature that ISN'T "plargiarized," where it be Chaucer, Beowulf, or the 1001 Nights.

      I'd recommend you to look up Michael Witzel's "Origin of World Mythologies" that talks about things like this.

      February 9, 2014 at 10:11 am |
  17. RedDucati

    I had to stop reading after I finished the sentence about the shape of the craft being the one major difference. So what's the whole "sole survivor" part, a mere footnote muttered under someone's breath 4,000 years ago? Organized religion was nothing more than a means of control back then and clearly nothing's changed in the interim.
    I said "organized" religion!

    February 8, 2014 at 9:57 am |
    • SDCinNS

      Um.. ya. The apostles (who were all put to death) really were controlling! Paul went from being a very influential Pharisee to a much maligned, itinerant, oft beaten, usually hungry, occasional speaker. He must have missed the "you're in control" lesson?

      February 8, 2014 at 10:18 am |
      • OTOH

        "The apostles (who were all put to death)..."

        The fates, and even the ident'ities, of most of the 'apostles' are unknown or unverified. Legends about them abound, however.

        February 8, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  18. pfosper

    Nice to see Murdie, I mean Sam bo, working hard to throw bluster around. It must have worked when she was a child

    February 8, 2014 at 9:54 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Still lusting after Sam, I see!

      February 8, 2014 at 10:11 am |
      • sam stone

        i see that faith/hhari/bethany still does not have the courage to stick to one screen name

        February 9, 2014 at 5:47 am |
        • truthprevails1

          No...it has a new one now-Bob.

          February 9, 2014 at 5:48 am |
      • sam stone

        she probably feels it will be a bigger settlement when that big, big, big, big, big, fvcking big lawsuit finally pays off. i am certain it's about to come.....annnnnyyyy day now.....just like jeebus, annnnnyyyyyy day now

        February 9, 2014 at 5:50 am |
  19. pfosper

    Dorothy, all your games to avoid me fail miserably. You sped a great deal of energy running away from me. Yet, My arguments are overwhelming. You cannot escape truth, can you, honey?

    Keep trying.

    February 8, 2014 at 9:52 am |
  20. wayne kopperdahl

    Fiction was the best back then.

    February 8, 2014 at 9:16 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.