Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Did Noah’s Ark look like a floating bowl?

Recently, some newspapers and magazines have featured articles about a newly translated Cuneiform tablet. The Tablet was translated by Irving Finkel at the British museum who determined that it contains instructions about building a round, reed boat. In Finkel’s translation, the Sumerian king, Atram-Hasis, is instructed by the Deity

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save life! Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same.

This is a very interesting discovery and it might cause us to rethink the way that the story of Noah has often been depicted. Most artwork is of an ocean going vessel, and the description here sounds much more like a floating disc still used in some parts of the world till this day. The picture above is from India, but similar boats are used in Iraq and Iran.

The problem, however, is that most of the newspaper headlines have read something like “Ancient Babylonian Tablet Says Noah’s Ark Was Round.” Actually, this tablet says nothing about Noah’s Ark. It does provide us with another flood narrative from the Ancient Near East, the Epic of Gilgamesh being the most celebrated of these. But it says nothing about Noah, has no direct bearing on the Bible nor does it provide evidence for a worldwide flood as narrated in Genesis.

This is an example of the misuse of the archaeology and Bible. The press realizes that in order to get your attention you will be more interested in the article if the headlines claim that the artifact “confirms” the Bible. The problem, however, is that some people will read the headline and then interpret the information in the article through the headline. This means that although the tablet does not mention Noah, some readers will interpret the tablet that way since the thought was put in their minds by the headline. This is irresponsible and it cheapens the serious work of archeologist and biblical scholars. And there has been a lot of this going on over the last few years. I am thinking here of the supposed discovery of Noah’s Ark in Turkey that was announced a few months ago and then found to be a fraud.

So what can we learn from the tablet? Well, the Bible does not exist in a vacuum. As every first year seminary student learns, other creation and flood stories exist in the Ancient Near East besides the ones found in Genesis. Many of the stories in the Bible, particularly in Genesis, have contact points with other cultures. This tablet, although not about Noah, may provide further insight into the way the ancients thought about human interaction with the divine. It may even teach us more about flood narratives in that world. But it will not rewrite Genesis.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so quick to believe everything they hear or read. One reason why this sort of yellow journalism may be attractive to some Christians is because it provides them with "evidence" for their faith. It helps to “prove” that there really was a worldwide flood. But as we have seen, this tablet does nothing of the sort. Faith is not something that is based on evidence but what we need when lack evidence or proof. It is when we have little to no proof or assurance that faith is required most.

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