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A Newly Deciphered Babylonian Tablet Details Blueprints for "Noah's Ark"

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We’ve known since at least 1872 that the Great Flood detailed in Genesis is a descendant of earlier flood myths from Mesopotamia. And there may be some credibility to the occurrence of at least some serious floods then, based on the facts that Mesopotamia is a giant flood plain and that there is some archeological evidence for a big flood around 5000 BC. But what we didn’t know until now is that those earlier flood myths also incorporated a boat onto which species of wild animals were sequestered to save them—two by two! This clearly shows, as if we didn’t know it already, that the Genesis story of Noah and the Ark isn’t true, but was simply an embroidery of earlier flood stories. (It will be interesting to see how Biblical literalists like Ken Ham react to this finding.)

This has all come to light since the recent deciphering of a clay cuneiform tablet first shown to curators at the British Museum in 1985, but not surrendered by its owner for translation until 2009. Now the remarkable results are detailed in a book by Irving Finkel, Assyriologist and “assistant keeper” of ancient writings at the British Museum. Finkel’s book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (released in the US on Jan 30, Kindle only; already available at Amazon UK in hardback, Kindle, and paperback—the last for a tad more than 8 pounds). Finkel’s article (see below) is very well written, so I suspect his book will be a good read.

First, here’s Finkel, who bears a remarkable resemblance to an aged Darwin with more hair. And here’s the “Ark tablet” that Finkel and the British Museum finally got hold of four years ago. It contains 600 cuneiform characters and is dated between 1900 and 1700 BC, which makes it roughly a millennium older than the book of Genesis. According to Finkel, Genesis was assembled between 597 and 538 BC during the Jewish exodus in Babylonia.

The remarkable story on this cellphone-sized tablet is detailed in two pieces in Sunday’s Telegraph: an interview with Finkel by science writer Tom Chivers: “Irving Finkel: reader of the lost Ark,“ and a piece written by Finkel himself, ”Noah’s Ark: The facts behind the flood.” There’s also a very positive review of Finkel’s book by James McConnachie in yesterday’s Sunday Times, but it’s not online. The two Telegraph pieces are must-reads.

Here’s a quick overview of what’s old and new; quotes from the articles are in italics:

  • We’ve known since 1872, from another cuneiform tablet that came to the British Museum, that there were Mesopotamian flood myths that long antedated the one in Genesis. Other tablets surfaced, and the flood story is given in Tablets XI and XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2000 BC.
  • A bit about cuneiform writing: it’s quite complex, with symbols that can stand for either words, syllables, grammatical phrases—and in more than one language. Finkel has handled so many of these tablets that he’s learned to recognize individual scribes:

Finkel has been doing this for so long, and “met” so many of the same scribes over and over again, that he gets a sense of them as people. The Babylonian schools were filled with the same mix of troublemakers, bored kids and swots as modern ones, he says, which you can tell from the recovered tablets from children learning to read and write. And when you read a really learned, intelligent, experienced scribe, “you can really see a brain there, a brain that’s clever and can see meaning. They were very sharp.”

I ask him if he has any favourites, if any of the writers become almost friends. “You get cleverness and intellect, but what you don’t get, usually, is personal stuff,” he says. “You don’t get private writing, you don’t get spontaneous love poetry. So one is filled with admiration for these minds, and sometimes you wish you could bloody well talk to this guy so he could explain what he means, but not a feeling that you’d like to go for a pint with him or something.”

Occasionally, though, he finds that a scribe has missed a line in a long, copied document, and they’ve tried to squeeze it in in the margin, with an asterisk to mark the spot: “The device is familiar, that’s like us. And it’s that sense of the guy going ‘oh s—’ – that’s the moment you think you might like to buy this guy a pint and calm him down.”

  • The boat described as the earlier Ark was a huge coracle: a shallow round boat made from coiled ropes of palm fiber. (Here is a coracle, in a photo from the 1920s.) Finkel describes it as being 230 feet in diameter (Chivers’s piece says 70 feet, but he must mean meters, since 70 meters is almost exactly 230 feet). The length of palm rope required for such a large boat would, says Finkel, stretch from London to Edinburgh. The new “Ark tablet” is quite detailed about the coracle’s construction:

Before the arrival of the Ark Tablet, hard facts for the boatbuilder were sparse. We have had to wait until now for the statistics of shape, size and dimensions, as well as everything to do with the matter of waterproofing. The information that has now become available could be turned into a printed set of specifications sufficient for any would-be ark-builder today.

Enki tells Atra-hasıs in a very practical way how to get his boat started; he is to draw out a plan of the round boat on the ground. The simplest way to do this would have been with a peg and a long string. The stage is thus set for building the world’s largest coracle, with a base area of 38,750sq ft, and a diameter of, near enough, 230ft. It works out to be the size of a Babylonian “field”, what we would call an acre. The walls, at about 20ft, would effectively inhibit an upright male giraffe from looking over at us.

Atra-hasıs’s coracle was to be made of rope, coiled into a gigantic basket. This rope was made of palm fibre, and vast quantities of it were going to be needed. Coiling the rope and weaving between the rows eventually produces a giant round floppy basket, which is then stiffened with a set of J-shaped wooden ribs. Stanchions, mentioned in lines 15-16, were a crucial element in the Ark’s construction and an innovation in response to Atra-hasıs’s special requirements, for they allow the introduction of an upper deck.

These stanchions could be placed in diverse arrangements; set flat on the interlocked square ends of the ribs, they would facilitate subdivision of the lower floor space into suitable areas for bulky or fatally incompatible animals. One striking peculiarity of Atra-hasıs’s reports is that he doesn’t mention either the deck or the roof explicitly, but within the specifications both deck and roof are implicit. (In line 45 Atra-hasıs goes up to the roof to pray.)

  • Finkel also notes that the tablet describes the boat as caulked with bitumen. Bitumen is a petroleum-like product, the fossilized and transformed remains of ancient microscopic creatures like diatoms. The Genesis Ark, too, was caulked with bitumen, something often overlooked by Biblical literalists. If the earth is only 6000-10,000 years old, where did that fossil caulk come from?
  • But the cool stuff is the recounting of two-by-two animals on the coracle. There couldn’t have been many species in a coracle that small, so we need a new science: Mesopotamian Baraminology: the science of determining which wild Middle Eastern animals could fit in Finkel’s finding of the animal story is spellbinding:

At first sight, the very broken lines 51–52 of the Ark Tablet looked unpromising. The surface, if not completely lost, is badly abraded in this part of the tablet. I needed, then, to bring every sophisticated technique of decipherment into play: polishing the magnifying glass, holding it steady, repeatedly moving the tablet under the light to get the slightest shadow of a worn-out wedge or two. Eventually the sign traces in line 51 could be seen to be “and the wild animal[s of the st]ep[pe]”.

What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next. My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with “sa” and “na”, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning “sana” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: “sana (or sanâ) adv. Two each, two by two.”

This is a very rare word among all our texts – when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences. To me, it is the world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.

For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible. (Another interesting matter: the Babylonian flood story in cuneiform is 1,000 years older than the Book of Genesis in Hebrew, but reading the two accounts together demonstrates their close, literary relationship. No firm explanation of how this might have really come about has previously been offered, but study of the circumstances in which the Judaeans exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II found themselves answers many crucial questions.)

There is a further consideration raised by these two lines in the Ark Tablet: they only mention wild animals. I imagine domestic livestock might well be taken for granted, especially if some of the animals were going to be part of their own food chain.

Well, of course there’s no way they could have fit the world’s 7-million-plus species (in pairs) on either the Genesis ark or a 230-foot-diameter coracle, so literalists must explain where the later species came from. The usual answer is “change” within a limited set of “kinds,” but this is in fact a disguised admission that evolution occurred! So what were taken on the Ark were a set “kinds” that split into all the species we know today. The fruitless study of what the “kinds” really comprised, and how many there were, is the subject of “baraminology,” which I mentioned above. It’s the world’s most useless (and, to a scientist, funniest) area of scholarly “research.”

The upshot is, of course, that the Ark story is fiction, which won’t surprise any of us. But when I debated some Biblical literalists in Arizona a while back, they all held firmly to the literalism of the Ark Story, and even had an answer to my question about “where did the caulk in the Ark come from?” (Answer: “We’re not sure that the word is accurately translated from the Hebrew.")

I haven’t done any Googling, but I suspect that Biblical literalists already have an answer to the striking similarity of the Genesis flood account to the Epic of Gilgamesh. But now the literalists have more work to do: explaining why the Bible, which is the word of God, gives a description of animals boarding the ark two by two (or seven by seven for the “clean” animals), yet that Bible describes similar (but not identical) things written in cuneiform a thousand years before God spoke. If you’re a literalist, you can say either that the cuneiform story—not the Bible—was really God’s word, or that it was wrong in its details and the Ark story is what God tells us. You’re screwed either way.

The solution, of course, is to recognize both documents as myths that may have embroidered real-life but smaller floods occurring thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia.

At any rate, have a look at Finkel’s book. Here’s the cover:

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous websiteversion of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.