A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia -- modern-day Iraq -- reveals striking new details about the roots of the Old Testament tale of Noah. It tells a similar story, complete with detailed instructions for building a giant round vessel known as a coracle -- as well as the key instruction that animals should enter "two by two."That the story of Noah had antecedents is not new. It is generally accepted that there are "competing" flood stories in the Near East that have some sort of relationship to each other. This has fascinated researchers for years and was, recently, the subject of an interesting book by William Ryan and Walter Pittman titled Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History that attempted to locate the source of the stories in the Black Sea. Literalistic Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that the flood story in Genesis is not unique and that Noah and his family may not represent real people or if they do, that the flood was a much more localized event (one of several?).
The tablet went on display at the British Museum on Friday, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could actually have sailed.
There are several points of argument against the idea that the flood story represents real events. The first is that there are so many similarities between the stories, from the promise to flood the world, to the rounding up of the animals, to the flood itself, the releasing of birds and the sacrifice, in which variously The Lord or the gods found the aroma of the sacrifice "pleasing."
The second primary argument is that, given that the flood is supposed to have occurred around 2348 B.C., there is a remarkable amount of amnesia concerning this event. Within a scant thousand years, there are thriving civilizations everywhere, and no one has ever heard of Noah or his sons. Their names do not show up on any stelae or in any stories. The Chinese don't have any stories that don't involve the flooding of the Yalu River and the Egyptians are busy building the pyramids, which may have started 250 years earlier than the flood date. For Noah and his sons to have restarted the human race, it is more than a tad peculiar that nobody remembers them.
Irving Finkel, the man who translated the table, agrees:
"I'm sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention," he said.This is true and the biblical story, like the Gilgamesh story, speak to the need to turn away from evil, that God punishes, that water is cleansing and that God will not forget or turn away from us forever.
He believes the tale was likely passed on to the Jews during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. And he doesn't think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it's more likely that a devastating real flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since.
"I don't think the ark existed -- but a lot of people do," he said. "It doesn't really matter. The Biblical version is a thing of itself and it has a vitality forever.