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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. fcwedd

    All of these flood stories around the world. Variations? Sure. But ultimately the same thing.

    What does this tell me? It tells me that there was probably a flood.

    April 7, 2014 at 12:46 am |
    • redzoa

      Seeing as how most civilizations resided along or in close proximity to oceans and rivers, that flood stories are common is not particularly strong evidence of a global flood. Furthermore, seeing as how the flood myth is directly contradicted by basic physics and geology, there is simply no concordant physical evidence supporting the global flood myth of genesis. How many oil/mineral companies employ creationist "flood geology" to locate reserves/deposits? Answer: zero. One might wonder why these profit-driven enterprises would adopt the allegedly fatally-flawed mainstream science . . .

      April 7, 2014 at 1:35 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        well said!

        April 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm |
      • winethief

        Yeah but ... good casting on the dude with the beard. Wonder who is agent is?

        April 7, 2014 at 11:03 pm |
    • dylanesq

      Exactly. We also need to realize what exactly determined the concept of the 'world', millennia ago. When I was a kid in the small market town of Kirkbymoorside, N.Yorks,UK we could climb the moor behind the churchyard and, as far as we were concerned, see our whole 'world'. The larger the fantasy about what that world contained the more far fetched, and hence unproveable, the stories became.

      April 9, 2014 at 5:24 pm |
  2. fcwedd

    For those who claim that it's impossible to carry that many animals:

    If you were told to gather, ship, and feed a pair of elephants and giraffes, what would you do? Would you grab the largest you could find? Nope! Probably not. You would probably grab the babies.

    Noah probably did the same thing. He probably chose to take baby animals due to weight / feed requirements.

    April 7, 2014 at 12:45 am |
    • redzoa

      So, your argument is that Noah trekked to the ends of the earth to collect the requisite "kinds" babies? Most likely, as you continue this argument or reference the various creationist sources, at some point, you'll invoke some divine intervention to deliver the thousands upon thousands of "kinds" with similar magical interventions to explain their survival and maintenance during their stay on the ark (e.g. magical suspended animation), after their departure (e.g. why the cat kinds didn't kill and eat and rodent kinds), and during the long, long migrations back to their original homelands (e.g. how the Australian marsupials swam across the ocean). But in appealing to supernatural explanations, which can explain anything and everything, such explanations effectively explain nothing. Better to just admit that belief in the flood myth is simply an exercise of faith in direct contradiction to all available evidence.

      April 7, 2014 at 1:28 am |
    • samsjmail

      lol. "probably"

      Nothing in that story is probable. He went to India and got two baby Indian elephants, then he went to Africa, and got two baby African elephants. Yeah, that's "probable."

      April 9, 2014 at 10:27 am |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      BWHAHAHAHAHAHA...very funny. There are over 43,000 species of spiders. I guess he took those babies too.

      What's really funny, is that after the ark supposedly found dry land, Noah is said to have started sacrificing animals to his god!

      Doooohhhh!

      April 9, 2014 at 2:25 pm |
    • G to the T

      "If you were told to gather, ship, and feed a pair of elephants and giraffes, what would you do? "

      I'd remind God that one breeding pair isn't enough to grow a healthy population from.

      April 23, 2014 at 11:06 am |
  3. idiotusmaximus

    Noah's Ark discovery raises flood of questions.................

    News flash...there is no such thing as NOAH's ARK.....oh yeah and believe it or not they are STILL LOOKING FOR BETHLEHEM...the one the religious are selling as Bethlehem isn't!

    April 1, 2014 at 10:26 am |
    • orionsaint

      I love how people of faith like to debunk science, but when science is used to show the age of this socalled biblical find, they're 100% behind science, but when science shows the real age of the earth and helps prove evolution. It's suddenly bogus to them.

      April 5, 2014 at 5:16 pm |
    • dylanesq

      Agreed though there is still a provable possibility that what was referred to as a 'flood' may have been because when the huge volcanic blast destroyed Santorini, in the Eastern Mediterranean, the ensuing tsunami , it is postulated, could have blasted out the 'plug' of land at the head of the Bosphorus ( at Constantinople / Istanbul) and flooded the huge bowl of land that became the Black Sea. Underwater exploration in that sea suggests evidence of flat and flooded farmland and cultivation.This would go along with the suggested location of the mystical ark on mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. I also heard that Arab potentates collected mysterious animals from other parts of their known word. These animals were supposedly shown in the exotic gardens of paradise of yore. Perhaps Noah, if he existed, was tasked to save these creatures ! None of these thoughts, however, deal with what might have stimulated the preplanning, timing and execution of such a feat !

      April 9, 2014 at 5:38 pm |
  4. Jill

    hohoho

    March 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Francis

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

    March 22, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
    • Francis

      ow big was the ark? 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, 30 cubits tall. A cubit was the length of a man's arm from his elbow to his fingertips, so about 18 inches.
      This means the ark was about the length of four and a half football fields (450 feet), 75 feet wide and three stories tall (45 feet.)

      Multiplying out the length times the width gives about 33,750 square feet per floor, or about 101,250 square feet in total –
      more than the floor space in 20 regulation-sized basketball courts or roughly the available volume of more than 550 modern railroad stock cars

      March 22, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
      • Francis

        What animals were on the ark? Seven pairs of each kind of clean animal and two pairs of each kind of other animals were taken on the ark,
        Gen. 6:19-20; 7:2-3. "Clean" means that the animals were acceptable for sacrifice to God. It wasn't until AFTER Noah and his family left the ark that using animals for food was permissible for mankind,
        Gen. 9:3. "Clean" animals are also permissible for human food purposes.

        March 22, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
        • Francis

          Noah (/ˈnoʊ.ə/[1]) or Noé or Noach, (Hebrew: נֹחַ,‎ נוֹחַ, Modern Noaẖ Tiberian Nōăḥ; Syriac: ܢܘܚ Nukh; Ancient Greek: Νῶε) was the tenth and last of the pre-flood Patriarchs.
          The story of Noah's Ark is told in the Hebrew Bible in the Genesis flood narrative. Besides the book of Genesis, Noah is also mentioned in 1st Chronicles, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke,
          the book of Hebrews and the 1st and 2nd Epistles of Peter. He was the subject of much elaboration in later Abrahamic traditions.

          March 22, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
      • midwest rail

        Four and a half football fields would be 1,350 feet.

        March 22, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
      • observer

        Francis,

        Your erroneous math was a waste of time. The ark that supposedly held (possibly) MILLIONS of animals and a year's supply of food for ALL of them, was smaller than some of today's cruise ships.

        March 27, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
      • mickinmd

        "This means the ark was about the length of four and a half football fields (450 feet), 75 feet wide and three stories tall (45 feet.)..."

        You're confusing feet and yards. You're right about 450 ft but that's the equivalent of only 1.5 football fields – 1.25 fields if you include the endzones. I've worked on the USS Caloosahatchee, a Navy freighter, in a shipyard to increase it's length from 480 to 680 feet. It's also wider and taller than the numbers you give. And it doesn't come close to being able to carry two of every animal on earth – not to mention the fact that populations of most animals less than 16 genetically diverse individuals can't sustain the species. And how did the American rattlesnake, Australian kangaroo, South American llama, Southern African chimpanzee, Polar Bear, etc. get to the Middle East to climb on board? If God transported them to the Middle East, why didn't he simply put them in suspended animation and then bring them back after the flood?

        The story of the Ark was borrowed from the older Epic of Gilgamesh right down to releasing a bird to check for land.

        March 30, 2014 at 7:54 am |
  6. Doris

    Wilburrr: "It disagrees with the word of God so why are you calling the word of God. Hmm? "

    perhaps you missed the "(eyeroll)"

    I supposed you have a point, although one would think the examination for dating would have detected such a case. To not test that or ignore such a difference would be foolish as well as finding such and not reporting it.

    March 20, 2014 at 9:28 am |
    • Doris

      (this is a reply to Wilbur, just below)

      March 20, 2014 at 9:29 am |
    • wilburw7

      YOU wrote :"one would think the examination for dating would have detected such a case."

      You can't date the chipping away of something. They are guessing.

      March 20, 2014 at 9:48 am |
      • the0g0to0the0t

        "You can’t date the chipping away of something. They are guessing"

        Acutally – yes, you can. Any object will develop a patina over time. If the patina in the marks doesn't match the ones on the rest of the piece you can be quite certain that it was added at a later date. You can often even ascertain how much later based on the relative deposition of the patina.

        Sooooo... who's guessing here?

        March 20, 2014 at 1:58 pm |
        • wilburw7

          I agree you can see some age in the chipping but it is not accurate enough to narrow it down enough. That would not be as accurate as carbon dating for example. the date they are giving is from carbon dating, not the chipping. They are assuming the chipping took place at the same time. They are guessing.

          March 22, 2014 at 4:42 am |
  7. wilburw7

    How does anyone know that the tablet was not created blank a thousand years before someone carved lettering on it?

    March 20, 2014 at 7:18 am |
    • Doris

      Of course it was Wilburrrrrr. It was just one of God's pages out of one of his first pads of Post-It notes... (eyeroll)

      March 20, 2014 at 9:00 am |
      • wilburw7

        It disagrees with the word of God so why are you calling the word of God. Hmm? You missed the point I was making. The tablet could have been made a 1,000 years before someone wrote on it. The person could have written on it after they read the bible and then wrote it down wrong. I hope that clears it up for you.

        March 20, 2014 at 9:15 am |
        • pmmarion

          Sorry Wiiilllllbuuuur... When a clay tablet is made it only has a very short time in which to be written on. Once clay is exposed to the air it starts to dry (you know like adobe). So you hypothesis that the tablet was made 1000 years before doesn't hold water. (and neither do clay tablets). lol

          April 6, 2014 at 4:04 pm |
    • evinar

      Look up what 'patina' is. That's really all that needs to be said for this comment.

      March 22, 2014 at 12:46 am |
      • wilburw7

        Why are some rocks really smooth?

        March 24, 2014 at 12:15 am |
  8. groovinslow

    Dr. Irving Finkel is the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of Middle East in the British Museum. He has a PhD in Assyriology from the University of Birmingham. Yet you seem to question his credentials as a "scholar" simply because you don't like what he has to say?

    You also call him an atheist and demand something "more concrete". First, why is he an atheist? Second, he literally has 4000 year old evidence that is written in stone. What could be more concrete than that?

    March 18, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
    • groovinslow

      Sorry, this was a reply to Jade9000 below.

      March 18, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
  9. hearthetruthonline2014

    online at http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    http://HearTheTruth.imgur.com

    March 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm |
  10. jade9000

    This "scholar" says they still have 130,000 tablets at the British Museum that have not yet been translated. I think they had better finish translating those tablets before sharing "news" that supposedly alters the bible. I'm tired of atheists constantly trying to disprove God with nothing concrete. Like someone else says, who's to say this little tablet has the truth over the Bible? Noone.

    March 17, 2014 at 1:51 pm |
    • benignsimplicity2014

      Why does someone have to be an "atheist" just because their religious conviction is different than Christianity? Religion is religion and I recommend that you understand what an atheist actually is.

      March 17, 2014 at 9:03 pm |
  11. curtgustafson

    The line “the animals, they came on, they came on by twosies twosies” is from a children's song.

    March 17, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  12. curtgustafson

    It would have been nice to have an explanation of why the author thinks there is more than one Biblical story of the flood. I think he just didn't read very carefully since it says the rain lasted for 40 days and then it took 150 days for the water to recede. When the primordial floodgates were opened it rained. He sent out both a raven and a dove. What is so hard to understand about that? I get it that he doesn't believe in God or the Bible but he could still be a little more thorough in his research if he's going to write about it.

    March 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
  13. devilsadvocate01

    How sad they portray this story as a finding of Noah's ark, as if someone found a real artifact from that ridiculous fairy tale. So they might have found an earlier version of the fairy tale. This proves what?

    March 16, 2014 at 6:13 pm |
  14. rscalzo

    Oddest part was they found "Carnival Cruise Line " on the side.

    March 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
  15. shawbrooke

    Christians are used to hearing people's analysis and opinions on things archaeological used against people of faith. The smart look at the data and look at the source and motives of those analyzing and providing opinions. Ho hum.

    I'd say that the fact that many cultures have a flood story is an indication that there was a flood somewhere way back there in human civilizations. The event was catastrophic enough to be remembered, so must have been major. Why exactly the tablet is presumed to be correct and the Bible wrong beats me. Bet that sometime another tablet or other writing will be discovered, or better translations available, etc etc. Ho hum.

    March 14, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
    • speediejoe

      LOL. An even earlier version is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is, I believe, the oldest known written story ever discovered, but i could be wrong. In that version, there are many gods, some capricious and uncaring about mankind. Some do care about mankind. It actually is a more reasonable story because the God as portrayed in the Bible story is a complete moron. LOL In the Bible story, God creates man. Then he regrets making man and sends the flood to destroy evil. Then he regrets sending the flood and promises not to do it again. And the whole think is a complete failure anyway since it fails to rid the world of evil, which was the reason he supposedly sent the flood.

      In any case, generally speaking, an earlier version of a story is usually more accurate. Thus, if any of these stories are true, it would seem that the oldest, the one with many gods, would have to be the true one. And it makes more sense anyway, the Bible story has a complete moron for a God.

      I don't doubt that there might have been some fairly large flood that spawned perhaps the original version of that flood story, whoever first wrote the original version. But, floods happen to everybody, and so it makes a good backdrop for a story. In any case, we know from archeology that no worldwide flood as depicted in the Bible ever happened. Its a stupid myth, that is all. Time to join the 21st century

      March 14, 2014 at 6:18 pm |
      • curtgustafson

        You might want to be careful about calling God a moron. I'm sure he has a similar opinion of you. But he created you so he knows what he's talking about. Btw, it never says he regretted the flood, only that he promises never to do it again.

        March 17, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  16. straightandnarrow

    I always appreciate that CNN is bringing these types of discussions to the forefront. With the Noah movie coming out so soon I look forward to seeing more of these types of articles!

    I am also excited for this find because it once agains brings to light that a Flood took place that was beyond the normal floods of the day and that multiple cultures reported this event. This bit of evidence of the Flood is exciting and it'll be interesting to see what many in the faith & science community can do with these findings.

    As is the case with all of these discoveries, they are subject to both the interpretation and predispositions of the person discovering it. The same goes with this article. The author from the get-go is accepting certain things as fact, slips in his own predispositions about the flood and culminates it all in the bold statement:

    "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."

    I am not familiar with any version of Christianity or Judaism (perhaps even Islam) which would hold to this idea of faith. In fact, the Apostle Peter even said as much in 2 Peter 1:16. The idea that we give the Bible authority is foreign to Christianity. As Rich Mullins so famously sang, "I did not make it, though it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man."

    The author also slips in that most scholars agree there were two floods along with a whole host of other things like the Flood being theological and not historical. That may be true of the scholars in Yale Divinity, but definitely not throughout the rest of scholarship. The author asked about the 40/150 days "contradiction,' but it's clear from the text (in both Hebrew and English) that it rained for 40 days and the water was on the earth for 150. He also stated there are two floods because one was caused by rain the other from "waters of the deep." Why couldn't it be both? Finally, bringing up the birds is just poor exegesis (common throughout this article) since the text implies a progression of releasing not an either/or.

    I appreciate CNN always giving room to a host of beliefs and I appreciate the author of this article for articulating his. Sadly, with 6,000 plus comments he probably won't read it, but regardless the above had to be said.

    March 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm |
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      March 11, 2014 at 8:02 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Wrong. There was no flood. All flood leave silt layers. There is no silt layer anywhere that corresponds to this event, and there is not enough water on the planet to deposit a vessel on Mt. Ararat. Your assertions about "scholars" are made up lies. You have no poll of scholars. Is your deity so inept she needs you to lie for her ? The story was taken almost literally from the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

      March 11, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Wrong. There was no flood. All floods leave silt layers. There is no silt layer anywhere that corresponds to this event, and there is not enough water on the planet to deposit a vessel on Mt. Ararat. Your as'sertions about "scholars" are made up lies. You have no poll of scholars. Is your deity so inept she needs you to lie for her ? The story was taken almost literally from the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

      March 11, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
  17. mickinmd

    The fact is that it wa NOT the "ancient Israelites" – the nation of Israel had been long destroyed when the southern, small nation of Judah was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 576 B.C. and its prominent citizens and their servants and follows exiled to Babylon. In Babylon is where the proto-Jews heard the Garden of Eden story – the word "Eden" means "Garden" in the Sumerian language spoken in Babylon. There they also learned the Epic of Gilgamesh which is what is described in this article where the flood story originates.

    March 1, 2014 at 7:16 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.