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The real Noah’s Ark?

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Published: 10 January 2015 (GMT+10)
Ark-before-Noah
Fig. 1. Dr Irving Finkel’s new book in which he claims to have found the original Flood story.

Dr Irving Finkel is an Assyriologist at the British Museum in London and an expert in ancient cuneiform scripts. In recent months he has become something of a celebrity, following the publication of his book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood,1 and the Channel 4 documentary, The Real Noah’s Ark.2 The source of this media hype is his recent translation of a small Babylonian tablet, named the Ark Tablet. It is about the size of a mobile phone and has been dated to around 1750 BC.

According to Finkel, the Ark Tablet contains the original Flood story, upon which the biblical version was based centuries later. Moreover, he claims, this new tablet reveals that the real Noah’s Ark was not as described in Genesis. The Ark was round, he says, having a diameter of approximately 68m, and was constructed with ropes made from palm fibres and palm leaves. He believes it was a giant version of the guffas (circular coracles) commonly seen in Iraq up until the 1970s, and known from Assyrian carvings dating back to 850 BC.3 In the Channel 4 documentary, Tom Vosmer, a world-renowned maritime archaeologist, joined a group of boat builders who, using these same materials, constructed a mini version of Finkel’s Ark, having a diameter of just 13m (fig. 2). Vosmer expressed grave doubts as to whether this much smaller vessel would hold together in the water. One wonders, then, quite what would be the feasibility of something five times larger.

dailymail.co.ukArk-tablet
Fig. 2. Scaled down replica of the vessel Finkel believes is described in the Ark Tablet.

In contrast, the Ark described in Genesis has been shown to be a design which would have been particularly stable in rough seas and whose wooden structure could have withstood the bending stresses applied by the cargo and waves.4 Moreover, historical documents describe wooden vessels approaching the size of the Genesis specification, providing further confirmation of both its sea-worthiness and the ability of ancient peoples to construct it.5

Despite the absurdity of Finkel’s preferred Flood story, he freely ridicules the Genesis account. As is usual, however, he knocks a straw man, suggesting that Noah would have needed to take over a million species aboard the Ark. Most of the animals listed by Finkel, however, are insects, which very likely survived the Flood on floating vegetation mats. According to the Bible, the Flood wiped out land animals that breathed through nostrils. Insects breathe through tiny pores in their exoskeletons. The animals taken aboard the Ark probably included only birds, mammals and reptiles. Moreover not every species known today would have been required—only one pair of each kind of unclean animal and seven pairs of each kind of clean animal.6 Different species within each kind would have arisen in the centuries following the Flood.7 (Note that, because this would have been from sorting of existing genetic information and would not have required new genetic information, it gives no support to the idea of evolution.) Despite Finkel’s assertions to the contrary, there would have easily been enough room for all these animals, along with the food needed to sustain them for the duration of the Flood.8

The Genesis account—just revamped Babylonian myth?

According to Finkel, the biblical version of the Flood story was derived from Babylonian myths and incorporated into Jewish writings during the Babylonian exile, around the sixth century BC. Hence, in his view, the Ark Tablet was written over a thousand years before the Genesis text and is therefore the more authentic version. Moreover, consistent with liberal tradition, he argues that the biblical account was written by two different authors, ‘J’ and ‘P’. This latter claim is easily refuted as the symmetrical pattern evident in the Genesis narrative clearly points to a single author:9

A - Noah and his family: the only righteous people on earth (6:9–10)
B - God promises to destroy the earth and its inhabitants by a global Flood (6:11–22)
C - God instructs Noah, his family and the animals to enter the Ark (7:1–10)
D - The floodwaters come upon the earth (7:11–16)
E - The floodwaters rise and cover the earth (7:17–24)
F - God remembers Noah (8:1a)
E’ - The floodwaters recede from the earth (8:1b–5)
D’ - The floodwaters disappear and the earth is dry (8:6–14)
C’ - God instructs Noah, his family and the animals to leave the Ark and fill the earth (8:15–9:7)
B’ - God promises to never again destroy the earth and its inhabitants by a global flood (9:8–17)
A’ - Noah and his family: the only people on earth (9:18–19)

[Author’s note May 2021: this final section has been revised based on further information indicating a later date for the Nippur Flood tablet than originally claimed.]

It is difficult to see how it can be asserted that the biblical narrative was derived from the Babylonian version when another cuneiform tablet, possibly at least as old as Finkel’s Ark Tablet, provides an account so much closer to Genesis.10,11,12 The tablet in question was discovered at Nippur during an expedition by the University of Pennsylvania.13,14 Its text is shown below beside the biblical version.

(2) … I will loosen Gen. 7:11 – “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.”
(3) … it shall sweep away all men together; Gen. 6:13 – “I will destroy them with the earth.”
(4) … [l]ife before the deluge cometh forth; Gen. 6:17 – “But I will establish my covenant with you … ”
(5) … as many as there are, I will bring overthrow, destruction, annihilation Gen. 6:18 – “I will bring a flood of waters destruction, annihilation upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.”
(6) … Build a great ship and Gen. 6:14 – “Make yourself an ark … ”
(7) … total height shall be its structure. Gen. 6: 15 – “and its height 30 cubits.”
(8) … it shall be a houseboat carrying what has been saved of life. Gen. 6:16 – “Make a roof for the ark … and set the door of the ark in its side.”
(9) … with a strong deck cover (it).
(10) …. [The ship] which thou shalt make
(11) … [br]ing the beast of the field, the birds of heaven, Gen. 6:19 , 20 – “And of every living thing of of heaven, all flesh, you shall bring … into the ark … Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds … ”
(12) … instead of a number,
(13) … and the family … Gen. 6:18 – “ … you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.”

Of great significance is that this Nippur tablet appears monotheistic, with the singular pronoun, “I” being used in both lines 2 and 5. Moreover, it does not deviate from the biblical account in any way, with even the order of the narrative being similar. Its discoverer, Dr. Hermann Hilprecht, believed it to have been produced around 2100 BC13—a date considered plausible by Professors Robert Rogers15and Fritz Hommel.16 (although according to conventional modern chronology this period would now be understood to be closer to 1800 BC.) Other scholars assign the tablet to a later date: possibly 1700 BC,15 fifteenth century BC17 or even as late as 1000 BC.18 All these estimates, however, predate the exile by centuries, providing strong evidence that the original Genesis version existed well before the period when the Israelites became immersed in Babylonian culture.

Does Finkel’s Ark Tablet really specify a round vessel?

Finkel is adamant that the real Noah’s Ark was round. This is based primarily on his interpretation of the instructions given in lines 6 to 9 of the Ark Tablet:

Draw out the boat you will make on a circular plan; let her length and breadth be equal, let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high.

However, lines 13 to 17 continue:

I set in place thirty ribs which were … ten nindan long; I set up 3,600 stanchions within her … half a nindan high; I constructed her cabins above and below.

A ‘field’ is around 3,600m2.19

Hence, if circular, the Ark’s base would have had a diameter of

base

A ‘nindan’ is around 6m.19 So, if Finkel is correct, the Ark Tablet specifies a vessel with a base diameter of 67.7m and a height of 6m. This, however, clearly does not fit the facts. Firstly, “a circular plan” does not necessarily specify a circular base. Draftsmen often construct circles as an aid to drawing straight-sided shapes, and the Babylonians were undoubtedly familiar with such principles.20 Secondly, the tablet specifies that the “length and breadth be equal”, suggesting a square rather than a round base. Thirdly the ribs were 10 ‘nindan’ long, i.e. 60m. This is 7.7m short of what would be required for a base with a diameter of 67.7m. However it is the perfect length for a square base having an area of 3,600m2, as this would have sides of length

side

Fourthly, the Ark Tablet specifies a coating of bitumen on both the inside and outside surfaces of thickness one ‘finger’ (i.e. around 1.667cm = 0.01667m)21 and states that 28,800 ‘sutu’ (288m3)22 of bitumen were loaded into the kilns. A square-based design, 60m long x 60m wide x 6m high, would have a surface area of 8,640m2 including the base and roof; thus the volume of bitumen required would be

8,640 x 0.01667 x 2 = 288m3 i.e. 28,800 ‘sutu’.

Hence the volume of bitumen specified is, again, entirely consistent with a square-based vessel. In contrast, using Finkel’s envisaged Ark shape and his own calculations of its surface area, a bitumen volume of 29,296 ‘sutu’ would be required.23 Similar calculations relating to rope requirements also show the square based design to be more consistent with the data provided.24

Was the Gilgamesh Ark round?

Finkel also argues that the Ark described in the Epic of Gilgamesh had a circular base, rather than being a cube as is traditionally held. Lines 28 to 30 of the Gilgamesh Flood tablet read,

The boat that you are going to build, her dimensions should all correspond: her breadth and length should be the same.

Lines 57 to 59 continue,

On the fifth day I set in place her [outer] surface: one ‘acre’ was her area, ten rods each her sides stood high, ten rods each, the edges of her top were equal.

According to Finkel the word, “area”, is mistranslated and should read, “circle”; but if so then the dimensions would not “all correspond”. One ‘acre’ is again 3,600m2 and a ‘rod’ is 6m.19 So, an Ark with a round base of area one ‘acre’ and a height of 10 ‘rods’ would be 67.7m in diameter and 60m high. However, an Ark with a square base of area one ‘acre’ would have dimensions 60m x 60m x 60m—a cuboid with dimensions that do “all correspond”. Moreover, the use of the plural terms, “sides” and “edges”, seems inconsistent with a circular base. Such an Ark would have one continuous peripheral face and one continuous edge at the top. Hence, it would seem more reasonable to understand the Gilgamesh Ark to have been a cube—as has been held by the majority of scholars for many years. Either way, the design would be far less stable than the vessel described in Genesis, supporting the view that the biblical account is the true one.

References and notes

  1. Finkel, I., The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2014. Return to text.
  2. Channel 4, The Real Noah’s Ark: Secret History, UK, first broadcast 14 September 2014. Return to text.
  3. Agius, D.A., Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean, Koninklijke Brill NV, Netherlands, p. 130, 2008. Return to text.
  4. Hong, S.W. et al., Safety investigation of Noah’s Ark in a seaway, J. Creation 8(1):26–36, April 1994; creation.com/safety-investigation-of-noahs-ark-in-a-seaway. Return to text.
  5. Woodmorappe, J., Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study, Institute for Creation Research, USA, p. 50, 1996. Return to text.
  6. Batten, D., ed., The Creation Answers Book, 3rd ed., ch. 13, Creation Book Publishers, 2009. Return to text.
  7. Wieland, C., Darwin’s finches: Evidence supporting rapid post-Flood adaptation, Creation 14(3):22–23 June 1992. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 5. Return to text.
  9. Holding, J.P., Debunking the Documentary Hypothesis: a review of The Inspiration of the Pentateuch by M.W.J. Phelan, J. Creation 19(3):37–40 December 2005; creation.com/debunking-the-documentary-hypothesis. Return to text.
  10. Cooper, W.R., The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis, Creation Science Movement, UK, pp. 390 – 402, 2011. Note, however, that the date for the tablet of 2100 BC is disputed.Return to text.
  11. Statham, D.R., See also Statham, D.R., Genesis confirmed in clay: A review of The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis by Bill Cooper, J. Creation 27(1):39–41, April 2013. Return to text.
  12. Adamthwaite, M., Gilgamesh and the biblical Flood—part 2, J. Creation 28(3):80–85, 2014. Return to text.
  13. Hilprecht, H., The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, Series D; Researches and Treatises, Vol V, Fasciculus I; The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur, University of Pennsylvania, 1910; archive.org/stream/babylonianexped04archgoog#page/n12/mode/2up Return to text.
  14. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, CBS 13532; www.cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P268565, last accessed 12 November 2014. Return to text.
  15. Rogers, R.W., Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, 2nd ed., Wipf & Stock, USA, p. 108, 2005, first published 1926. Return to text.
  16. The Oldest Library in the World and the New Deluge Tablet, Expository Times 21(8):364–369, 1910. Return to text.
  17. Ref. 16, p. 368. Return to text.
  18. Barton and Gordon argue for the Middle Babylonian period which ended around 1000 BC. Lambert, W.G. and Millard, A.R., eds., Atra-hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood, Oxford University Press, p. 126, 1969. Return to text.
  19. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Mesopotamian_units_of_measurement, last accessed 17 November 2014. Return to text.
  20. In fact Finkel himself provides an illustration of a tablet showing a circle inscribed within a square. Return to text.
  21. Ref. 1, Appendix 3. Return to text.
  22. 1 sutu = 2,160 fingers3 = 0.01 m3 since 1 finger = 0.01667 m. See ref. 21. Return to text.
  23. Ref. 1, Appendix 3. Finkel’s Ark would have had a surface area of 8788.859m2 (31,639,880 fingers2) and, using his assumptions, a bitumen volume of 8788.859 x 0.01667 x 2 = 292.96m3, i.e. 29,296 sutu. Return to text.
  24. The Ark Tablet specifies a rope volume of 14,460 sutu. However, again using Finkel’s own calculations, for a coracle shaped vessel with a circular base, a rope volume of 14,648 sutu would be required, an error of 1.3%. Calculations for a square based vessel using similar assumptions indicate a rope volume of 8,640 x 0.01667 = 14,400 sutu, an error of only 0.4%. Return to text.

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