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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. skywatcher888

    How is it possible for an article about Mesopotamian myth not include any reference whatsoever to Gilgamesh, in which a similar story occurs? And what about the Atrahasis Epic? Granted, this is no scholarly article, but at least a passing reference to give people the opportunity to research further for themselves would be wise.

    February 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
    • j2inet

      Glad some one else noticed. I listened expecting to hear of Gilgamesh and was surprised when nothing came up.

      March 14, 2014 at 10:22 am |
  2. jodeyo

    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200004635
    Read in Noahs time.

    These writings cannot simply be "stories" because the lineage is a key prophetic ingredient.

    If one were to have faith in Jesus as a propitiatory sacrifice, who was accurately prophesied, over thousands of years by different bible writers, born specifically in the line of David, precisely timed, precisely performing righteous acts, then sacrificed as the new covenant, during the Passover, to the very hr of the very day...

    Modern Society is not all that. We still suffer and die just as much as people did 1000 yrs ago.
    Consider the fact that man just uncovered "monster lizards" (dinosaurs).
    That Black Holes exist and the Universe is expanding not shrinking.
    DNA has just been sequenced but we cannot even feed ourselves properly and the world is being ruined by this collective of a "modern society".

    The Bible teaches us that God calls us to him, we do not chase God down so that he can convince us that he actually exists.
    It also teaches us to prove to ourselves that these teachings are accurate by not just reading but with true meditation and application through acts of fine conduct that represent a reverent, awe-inspiring, patient and loving God.

    Please read the explanation (link) provided above and reply with your logical interpretation.
    What you understand is quite valuable and while this article was entertaining I respectfully disagree with its explanation of the years. When the years become a cheapened value that turns faithful righteous Noah into a fictional character. This logic would also turn Noah's predecessors into fictional characters and Jehovah into a good story teller that tricks millions of faithful ly dead into a gullible collective.

    February 27, 2014 at 10:52 am |
    • igaftr

      Many sciences have alredy proven the Noah Myth to be false. It never happened.

      February 27, 2014 at 10:59 am |
      • believerfred

        igaftr
        Actually science has not proven Noah a myth. Science has only explained what it can relative to natural laws that are currently known. Science says nothing about Noah period or the key truths in the story of Genesis. If you are addressing the possibility of a global flood that lifted Noah's ark science only comments are always clearly stated as being based on certain assumptions of known natural laws.

        February 27, 2014 at 11:13 am |
        • alwaysamuzed

          How about the scientific FACT that there is not enough water on Earth to cover all the land at once! It is simply NOT possible!

          Science has proven that there have been a number of large flood events in different geographic areas of the globe during different time periods.
          The story of "Noah's" flood is certainly a story about one of these local events, as it could not possibly be a true "global flood"!
          The people of Noah's time had no knowledge of the rest of the world, as they opnly knew about their small geographic area. To them, the flood probably "seemed" to be global for it was all they could see with their own eyes.

          March 11, 2014 at 2:52 pm |
        • G to the T

          "Science has only explained what it can relative to natural laws that are currently known."

          True – but any event that, well global, would leave indelible marks on the planet (think the meteor that helped kill the dino's, there's still a scar where it happened millions of years age). What we find is an amazing lack of evidence for any such global event. But unless you want to say "God magic'd all the water in and then magic'd all the water out and then removed all traces that it had occured from the face fo the earth" that's a statement of faith, but it is one that is at odds for what I would call a "good" god.

          April 23, 2014 at 11:02 am |
        • Dorian Mattar

          At that point why even have the flood? Why not have only the evil people simply disappear and spear all the animals?

          The entire thing is just a crock. lol

          April 23, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
  3. budshot

    ALL religious stories are copied from each other. And all of them were MADE UP. Most, to teach a lesson. Some to reach a political audience. Some just clumsily translated.

    But it is all MADE UP.

    February 26, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
    • abigchocoholic

      The non-religious know the bible stories are hand me downs and the religious, well, it doesn't really matter what you tell them, they are stuck in their state of delusion.

      February 26, 2014 at 10:39 pm |
    • micahdabica

      YOU are clearly the MASTER of all KNOWLEDGE and know every religion through thorough STUDY. WE should all listen to YOU because of your great INTELLIGENCE.

      March 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm |
      • In Santa We Trust

        Do you deny that many religions have similar stories and those from the same region are more similar? You provide no evidence that any religion is unique and no evidence that the god of any religion exists. Attempting to debunk criticism does not provide any evidence for the supernatural.

        March 5, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
  4. Marissa Alisa Martinez

    Reblogged this on Marissa Alisa Martinez and commented:
    We found the ark? Yeah, I'm a little unsure too.... :/

    February 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm |
  5. goldminor

    By the way, where is a picture of the ark that the headline says has been found. What on earth has happened to professionalism in journalism?

    February 23, 2014 at 6:43 pm |
  6. jfairweather

    What is truly fascinating to me is what has been discovered in the Black Sea – underwater dwellings that are thousands of years old.

    February 16, 2014 at 2:38 pm |
    • bentbike1

      in the 70's the found gopher wood on a mt in turkey along with photos of something sticking out of the ice more recently near were the ark was supposed to have landed they uncovered a complex that had pictographs of animals not native to the area this site dates back to the neolithic period

      February 17, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
      • igaftr

        which was then shown to be a hoax...the wood was old railroad ties.

        February 17, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
    • dougwhite659

      Hmmmmm...sounds sketchy since the people who supposedly dwelled in and built these alleged towns aren't noted in the lineage from Adam to Abraham.... I'm betting that God put these ruins at the bottom of the blacks e sometime after his 6-day creation job just to frustrate and confuse idol-worshiping scientists! (sarcasm)

      February 21, 2014 at 3:04 pm |
    • goldminor

      The Black Sea area could likely be the Garden of Eden. Consider that sea levels rose 400 feet approximately after the breakup of the ice sheets. That would have meant that almost all of the Black Sea would have been a fertile land that wwould have been well protected from the cold of the last glaciation. It would have been an excellent incubator for our early civilized ancestors. Then wehn the floods came the entire sheltered population would ahve had to flee to higher ground in all directions. The people cast asunder gradually lost the ability to communicate over time as shifts in language would have steadily grown. This line of reasoning is all hypothetical, but it has possibilties.

      February 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
  7. oldfoxbob

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/The-Mediterranean-Sea-Created-by-Massive-Flood-129359.shtml When something like this happens, even a cave man will talk about it and carry the story around for eons.

    February 15, 2014 at 6:52 pm |
  8. dippy2014

    I think the tale of Utnapishtim is 8,000 years old which would be the oldest account. Then there is the Babylonian account, The Epic of Gilgamesh, then The Biblical account of Noah. That would make a grand total of 4 accounts, including the Iraqi version. So, where you get there are only 2 accounts of the flood story, I have no idea.

    February 14, 2014 at 3:58 am |
    • dandintac

      There are a whole bunch of flood myths out there–far more than just four. It's typical that it's the "whole world" that is flooded, because for the people impacted, it WAS their whole world, and like everything else, it gets attributed to various gods.

      Floods are extremely common events, and we humans need lots and lots of water, we drink a lot, need to bath, wash our dishes and clothes, and wash away our waste. Compare us to cats, who don't even need to drink much, and can bathe just fine with their tongue. Yet when it floods, it hits us worse than other animals. It can destroy our crops, homes, herds, horses, wash away all our belongings–yet we have to live right next to the water because we need it so much. For a cat it's simple. A cat swims to safety or just dies. Humans are devastated in a far more complex and profound way.

      We have a love/hate relationship with water, and have only recently learned to control it to some degree. Therefore it has had a profound impact on human mythos. Water sustains and destroys–so naturally it must be the gods at work. This ancient thinking persists to this day.

      February 14, 2014 at 9:53 pm |
    • deisenberg

      The article actually indicated there were numerous versions of the flood story in various civilizations but that the canonical Bible contained two intertwined stories.

      February 14, 2014 at 10:53 pm |
  9. meatheist

    ♰ ♰ ♰Mydiverticulitis Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰

    February 11, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
    • cjeddie

      how did Noah return the Koala to Australia and the llamas to South America? Did he make an extra trip to drop them off?

      February 11, 2014 at 11:14 pm |
      • That Bald Dude

        FedEx?

        February 12, 2014 at 12:08 am |
      • meatheist

        After the waters receded the boat don't float. Must've used FEDEX.

        February 12, 2014 at 11:41 am |
    • 4morehorsemen

      I am glad that you have something to believe in–and a smart choice, too!

      February 12, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  10. bonza1982

    "(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.)"

    Hasn't this man read the Bible? Noah didn't only take 2 animals of everything. Certain ones it specifically says to take *7*. So he wouldn't be relegating them to extinction.

    February 11, 2014 at 2:04 am |
    • dandintac

      Irrelevant. They would all go extinct anyway, due to lack of food after landing and being let loose. The flood would have killed all vegetation, and the predators would quickly kill off all the rest before they had a chance to reproduce. Even if they escaped the predators, inbreeding would finish off any others.

      February 11, 2014 at 9:39 am |
      • bonza1982

        Again wrong. Plants can live underwater. We have a lake about an hour from us. For several years it will be dry, full of trees, etc., then we get a good rain and it will fill for maybe a year, then dry off again. The trees, etc., are still there. Plus, if Noah was commanded to take food along, don't ou think he would have been commanded to take aong enough to feed the animals until the ground was dry? When he released the dove, it came back with a piece of olive branch. (They don't build nests, but they do use stick in their courtship displays.) This showed that plants weren't covered by water any more, and had foliage. So no, they wouldn't have starved.

        As to inbreeding, again – no. If you have two entirely unlrelated individuals, for example, use a Golden Retriever and a bloodhound, and breed back and forth, parent to child, sibling to sibling, etc., back and forth, the gene pool will get mixed around. You can repeat breedings and produce offspring with slightly diffeent genes, as evidenced by the fact that some children will inherit a gene for a genetic disorder while their siblings don't.

        February 11, 2014 at 3:31 pm |
        • dandintac

          Plants cannot survive for a year under water–only for a brief period of time. The Olive branch is an obvious fiction, as is the rest of the story. Noah could not possibly have fit enough food on the ark to feed millions of animals for years. It's absurd to even consider that. Meat would have spoiled–even if smoked and salted, and the predators probably would not have eaten it that way anyway. Under no condition will two of each animal, even those as genetically diverse as possible, could restart a species. There's just not enough genetic diversity. The predators would still have killed off the herbivores. I can't believe people still believe this is a literally true story.

          This is one of the true horrors of religion–it allows people to believe in the millions what only lunatics could believe on their own.

          February 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm |
        • redzoa

          "As to inbreeding, again – no. If you have two entirely unlrelated individuals, for example, use a Golden Retriever and a bloodhound, and breed back and forth, parent to child, sibling to sibling, etc., back and forth, the gene pool will get mixed around. You can repeat breedings and produce offspring with slightly diffeent genes, as evidenced by the fact that some children will inherit a gene for a genetic disorder while their siblings don't."

          The problem is that you're starting with a maximum of 4 alleles for any particular gene in a founding population of 2. The resultant fixation of genes (due to genetic drift) rapidly removes variability from the ensuing population.

          Not sure what your genetics background is, but this image helps show the effect of small populations on allele fixation. The probability a parent will donate allele A or B to an offspring is 50% (disregarding some molecular mechanisms which may favor one or the other allele). However, just like flipping a coin, despite the 50/50 probability, we don't expect to see a perfect heads:tails ratio of 1:1 in the actual coin tosses. It's likely that we won't see the 50/50 probability until we've tossed the coin many, many times. In the context of population genetics, these early perturbations in actual allele representation become amplified in subsequent generations. What we see is that once a given allele gains a disproportionate representation, the other allele is quickly squeezed out of the population and the disproportionately represented allele becomes the only allele available within the population, i.e. that allele becomes "fixed." The founding "kinds" claim is simply contradicted by what we know about population genetics, particularly when this creationist claim requires "hyper-evolution" from the founding "kinds" pairs to account for observable present day biodiversity in such a short span of time.

          February 12, 2014 at 12:21 am |
        • thinkagain42

          I am not sure what is sillier, the concept that several thousand creatures evolved into millions in thousands of years or you attempting to actually defend such nonsense. There have been many flood stories and they all tend to be the same. Maybe because they were all made up by humans, who tend to think the same...

          February 13, 2014 at 3:36 am |
        • clouseau2

          The only way the Noah's Ark story works, as in much of the Bible, is by saying it was magic. The weight of the fresh water required would have sunk the boat. The weight of the food would have sunk the boat. The weight of the waste, which could not possibly be collected by a handful of people, would have sunk the boat. Let's not even start with the thousands of species of beetles, the species that need precise living environments, the species that cannot exist without a hive like structure. The fact that magically all the animals were transported to the exact place on the planet with no trace of them being any where else. The fact that ANYONE takes it seriously shows how comfortable people are with delusions.

          It makes perfect sense when you realize that the people writing these stories were just combining oral myths in order to try to find SOME explanation of a natural world that totally baffled them. It would not be many centuries later, when the scientific method started created a knowledge revolution, that mankind really started to understand natural disasters, the causes of famines, etc.

          February 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
    • boumar99

      You say, "Hasn't this man read the Bible?" But haven't you read the article? In the paragraph immediately before the one you cited about sacrifices and relegating some species to extinction, the author explicitly states that there were – according to the Bible – seven pairs of all "clean" animals. So, yes, he has read the Biblical flood story, and the whole premise of the paragraph you cited was based on his pointing out that "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,'" and that "that’s not exactly what the Bible says."

      February 13, 2014 at 11:12 pm |
  11. dandintac

    What happened to a major post I put up? It was about the appropriateness of ridicule in the face of ridiculous arguments.

    February 10, 2014 at 11:59 pm |
  12. Vic

    ♰ ♰ ♰ Jesus Christ Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰

    February 10, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
    • Steve

      ♰ ♰ ♰Aphrodite Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Venus Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Apollo Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Apollo Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Ares Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Mars Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Artemis Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Diana Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Athena Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Minerva Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Demeter Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Ceres Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Hades Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Pluto Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Hephaistos Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Vulcan Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Hera Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Juno Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Hermes Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Mercury Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Hestia Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Vesta Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Kronos Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Saturn Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Persephone Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Proserpina Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Poseidon Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Neptune Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Zeus Is Lord ♰ ♰ ♰
      ♰ ♰ ♰Jupiter Is Lord ♰ ♰

      February 10, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
      • suzanneshaps

        Ah ha ha ha ha. Good one.

        February 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
      • nonyabizz

        Vader is lord

        February 13, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
      • wilburw7

        Isaiah 45:5
        "I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God."

        March 20, 2014 at 9:17 am |
        • igaftr

          yes wilbur, your god is just one of the over 400 "one true" gods.

          March 20, 2014 at 9:24 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.