The Babylonian Ark Tablet: A Thorn in the Side of Biblical Literalists

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Photo by Benjamin McMahon

The biblical story of Noah’s Ark has been in the news for the past few months, mostly because of the highly-publicized efforts of the young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis and its CEO Ken Ham to build a full-scale replica of the fabled boat in what has become a financially doomed project called the Ark Encounter.

Ancient flood myths have made headlines again, but this time the news is being made not by creationists vainly trying to bring their fantasies to life, but by a recent discovery of an ancient text that soundly discredits the notion that the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark is a primary-source historical account. The headline of the NBC News article reporting on this find reads “Babylonian Tale of Round Ark Draws Ire from Christian Circles” and begins as follows:

A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia is putting a new spin on the biblical tale of the flood and Noah’s Ark — and that’s causing consternation among some Christian fundamentalists.

The man who deciphered the clay tablet in question is Irving Finkel, a curator of the British Museum and a researcher of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. These small clay slabs (about the size of a cell phone) inscribed with logo grams represent one of the earliest writing mediums that historians and archaeologists know about. Finkel has deciphered one of these clay tablets, dating from the Old Babylonian era (1700-1900 BCE), and the fascinating results are detailed in Finkel’s new book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood.

At 4,000 years old, this “Ark Tablet” constitutes the earliest mention of a Mesopotamian flood myth that researchers have yet come across. It predates both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Akkadian Atrahasis epic. Finkel’s newly-translated tablet was inscribed a full millennium before the Bible’s flood story in the Book of Genesis, which was edited and put to parchment during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

The Babylonian Ark Tablet deciphered by Finkel contains a mixture of elements found in other versions of the story. But interestingly, the ark is depicted in this tablet as a round vessel. The tablet contains very detailed instructions on building a frame, coiling rope made from palm-fiber around the structure of the circular boat, and stiffening the ensemble with wooden ribs. Twenty lines of the tablet are devoted to very specific instructions on how to waterproof the boat using bitumen. The end result is a gufa or coracle, a boat that resembles a reed basket and which the Mesopotamians used on their rivers and were very familiar with. One is reminded of the ancient legend in which a reed basket was used to shuttle the infant Moses to safety. Apparently stories involving rivers, baskets caulked with pitch, and people getting rescued were popular tropes in Mesopotamian culture.

Another notable feature of the Babylonian Ark Tablet is that it contains the specific phrase “two by two,” which describes the procession of animals onto the ark. In his Telegraph article about the translation of the tablet, Finkel says this feature surprised him more than any other:

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.”

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. . . .

This tablet’s existence is highly problematic for Christian fundamentalists for obvious reasons. The text inscribed on the tablet closely echoes the Bible’s flood narrative, but it predates the Bible by a full millennium. The Epic of Gilgamesh also predates the Book of Genesis, but it does not feature the same level of fine detail that the Ark Tablet does. For example, although the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions “the seed of all living thing” as part of the ark’s manifest, there is no mention of specific animals or the manner in which they boarded Utnapishtim’s ark. Although Gilgamesh does mention “beasts and animals of the field” (Tablet XI, lines 81-86), the text does not contain the specific language we find in the Ark Tablet.

The Christian Fundamentalist Response

Believers in the literal truth of the biblical flood story have opted to “explain” the Babylonian Ark Tablet in two ways. They dogmatically deny its earlier date and they promote the fallacious assumption that any ancient story involving a global flood and an ark must support the historicity of the biblical narrative. In a recent article posted on his blog, Ken Ham offered a very predictable response to Finkel’s tablet:

I say it’s really the other way round! There are flood legends in cultures all over the world because there really was an actual global Flood—Noah’s Flood. As the account of the Flood was handed down (and particularly as people spread out around the world after the Tower of Babel), it was changed by many cultures. Yet many of these legends (including the Babylonian ones) have similar elements to the Bible’s account. Because the Bible is God’s inspired Word, it gives us the true account. The other flood legends are man’s changed versions of the event called Noah’s Flood, which occurred close to 4,400 years ago!

The problem with Ken Ham’s assertions is that nobody has discovered any text of the biblical Book of Genesis that is older than the Babylonian Ark Tablet. If believers in the Noachian flood abide by the logic of their own arguments, they would be obliged to admit that the Ark Tablet translated by Finkel more closely represents the real story. But such an admission still would not demonstrate the historical reality of any global flood or life-saving ark. Bible literalists like Ham are simply demonstrating their inability to distinguish mythology from history.

Many other creationists have followed Ken Ham in denying facts (in this case the historical primacy of the Ark Tablet), with creationist blogs citing it as proof that Genesis flood account is a true story, even though it is quite the opposite. Some Christian fundamentalists have gone farther. One of Ken Ham’s followers posted the following in a thread on Ken Ham’s Facebook page:

GOD’s word is true about how the ark was to be constructed. This is just another clever attempt from Satan to try to disprove or distort the existence of the ark. Ken is right about flood legends. I recommend Kent Hovind’s DVD series that explains some of the flood legends. It’s just another cultures [sic] version of Noah’s flood.

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The “clever attempt from Satan” argument is not a new suggestion. The same argument was employed centuries ago by the early Fathers of the Christian Church in attempting to defend the primacy and historicity of the Jesus mythology. When confronted with other myths that both predate and closely echo the Christian story, some of the early church fathers responded by proposing what has come to be called the “diabolical mimicry” hypothesis. According to this argument, all those other stories of god-men must have been fables planted by devils prior to the time of Jesus Christ to deter future skeptics from perceiving the truth of the Christian story. The early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 CE) famously used this argument both in his First Apology. Following are some excerpts from that work:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (First Apology, Chapter XXI).

But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets (First Apology, Chapter LIV).

This amusing apologetic “argument” boils down to a non-falsifiable assertion. When Ken Ham and his followers cannot show us any versions of the Genesis flood account that date prior to the Babylonian Ark Tablet, they must resort to an extraordinary claim that no one can disprove and is thus a worthless argument.

At the end of his recent debate with popular science educator Bill Nye, Ken Ham stated, “As far as the Word of God is concerned, no, no one is ever going to convince me that the Word of God is not true.” Ham’s response to the latest data that discredits the historicity of the Genesis story shows us that he really did mean what he said. Nothing is ever going to change Ken Ham’s mind.

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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One Response to The Babylonian Ark Tablet: A Thorn in the Side of Biblical Literalists

  1. Pat B says:

    Predating the bible does not mean predating the actual event. Guess you guys have to grasp whatever you can.

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