Monday, January 27, 2014

A well-rounded Ark

Irving Finkel with the ancient clay tablet claimed to have
an early version of the instructions for Noah's Ark.
Credit: Sang Tan, AP.  Image source.
Four years ago, The Guardian reported on a small clay tablet, dated to 1850 BC, that appeared to contain instructions for the construction of a large vessel on which two of every kind of animal would be saved from a devastating flood.  The tablet is back in the news again this week, now that Irving Finkel, an expert on ancient Mesopotamian writings with the British Museum, is publishing a book about it, entitled The Ark Before Noah.

The tablet was originally found by Leonard Simmons shortly after World War II as he was serving in the Royal Air Force.  Its significance was not realized until his son, Douglas, took the tablet to Irving Finkel to be translated.  According to Finkel, the tablet tells of a god who commands a man named Atram-Hasis to build a large boat to save his family and some wild animals from a great flood.  The most curious aspect of the tale is that the boat is described as being "built with a circular design," with "its length and breadth be[ing] the same."

I haven't been able to find a complete transcription of the tablet online, so it is difficult to compare the tablet's narrative with the Genesis account.  However, the most striking difference, as noted by practically every news source, is the shape of the ark.  The tablet describes it as being distinctly circular, and while the Bible does not specify the exact shape, it gives a length-width ratio of 6:1, which is clearly not circular.  Finkel claims that the design is based on the ancient Mesopotamian coracles, which are small circular boats used in many ancient and modern cultures.

Irving Finkel makes it quite clear that he does not believe in a historical Noah's Ark or Flood.  He holds the popular view that the ark and flood "myth" was developed by ancient Mesopotamians, possibly by exaggeration of a smaller local flood, and that this story was picked up by the Hebrews during their exile in Babylon and incorporated into their own scriptures.  There is no doubt that the Babylonians had their own version of the Flood story, but that fact does not discredit the Genesis account as many people claim.  If Noah's Flood was an actual historical event as described in Genesis, then it would be expected that the story of the Flood would be passed down through the generations of all the nations, as they all trace their ancestry to Noah.  As the nations dispersed from Babel, their accounts of the Flood would inevitably differ over time in some details.  If the oral tradition that was passed to the Mesopotamians simply described a large boat, they would likely envision a larger version of the circular boats they were familiar with.

TalkOrigins has an impressive collection of flood stories from various cultures, while Answers in Genesis goes into detail about comparisons between the flood legends of certain cultures and the Genesis account, including those of the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, the Miao people, and the Biami.  There may be some doubt as to how much these stories were directly influenced by recent Christian missionaries, so take the accounts with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless, records of a man and his family surviving a worldwide flood by building a large boat are quite ubiquitous, and in my opinion, this only supports the credibility of the Genesis account.

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