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. ellie2112

    I don't believe Dorian Mattar is even real no I do not believe there ever was a Dorian Mattar. All fake. Funny thing man came from monkeys but there is still monkeys.

    September 2, 2014 at 11:14 pm |
    • LaBella

      He's all over the place.

      September 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm |
      • Dorian Mattar

        Yes, isn't that amazing? The POWER of the WWW. I wonder why Jesus doesn't use it... Hum... Oh yeah, he works in mysterious ways! LMAO

        September 2, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
        • LaBella

          Elle should also take two seconds to learn that it is apes, not monkeys, that are our common ancestor. Gee. The net is HARD.

          September 2, 2014 at 11:43 pm |
        • Dorian Mattar

          Yes, Chimps to be precise. How difficult is it to do a search for evidence, evolution and biologists?

          Some people never learn... and I thought the newer generation knew how to use a computer!

          September 2, 2014 at 11:46 pm |
        • believerfred

          Yep, do the research 96% of our DNA is chimp yet only 50% of our DNA is shared with the banana. Evolution has confirmed the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Science and religion keep walking around that tree God put right in the middle of the garden. That tree of knowledge was a banana tree and it had a peel that caught Eve's desire. Even Darwin had man on a branch of the tree.

          September 3, 2014 at 12:06 am |
    • Dorian Mattar

      Did you come up with all that by yourself? Man, you are one smart cookie!

      But hey, did you even wonder why there are still europeans? Shouldn't there be just Americans and no europeans according to your little hypothesis? There are still monkeys, because NOT ALL OF THEM move from Africa, just like NOT all europeans moved from Europe!

      Is that so difficult to understand?

      And so strange, I responded back to you right away, and yet your jesus only speaks to you in your head.

      Do you think we can get a transcript from your conversations? Cause I'm sure this conversation is being saved to a massive server farm and can be viewed by thousands of people simultaneously, you know, just like with your jesus.

      Grow up.

      September 2, 2014 at 11:30 pm |
  2. Dorian Mattar

    Nobody is saying that there hasn't been floods in the world, just not a GLOBAL flood that reached to the top of the tallest mountain and killed every human and animal except those in some stupid boat.

    September 2, 2014 at 3:23 pm |
  3. robinoid2

    I would like to point out a misunderstanding between the supposed two different versions of Noah's Ark within the Bible. The pairs of animals were to be kept alive for reproduction, the 7 pairs were likely for either food or sacrifices. Also the 40 days and 150 days do not mean the same thing. The earth was flooded for 150 days, meaning that's how long the water was on the earth before dry ground appeared again. the 40 days was how long the rain came down. The raven and the dove aren't contradictions either. Noah sent out both the first time and only the dove the next two times. These aren't two stories.

    September 2, 2014 at 3:26 am |
    • Dorian Mattar

      You are making assumptions! Nowhere in the bible does it state that the other 7 are for food and sacrifices. and why would a god require sacrifices? LMAO!!!

      The flood is an exaggerated fairy tale.

      September 2, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
  4. Science Works


    July 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm |
  5. idiotusmaximus

    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......

    Just goes to show you that the bible is just a bunch of fairy tales that have been handed down through the ages...I mean come on bible people even the name Jesus is not a name used in the middle east....and if you're honest when you read John, Mark ,Mathieu and Luke you have to notice they all have different stories...that happens when there is no evidence of any of it ever happening.....I'm sure the stories attributed to Homer were far different from what was finally past down in writing.

    July 14, 2014 at 9:57 am |
  6. 19covenant19

    Great MIRACLES have been discovered in the Book of TORAH, GENESIS, DEUTERONOMY, and in the PSALMS.
    It will change the World forever!


    June 22, 2014 at 6:37 am |
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