Bad reporting of a flood myth


Bad Arcaheology logo

By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

A rather interesting discovery – a Babylonian account of the design of the ship used by Atraḫasīs to rescue animals from the universal deluge – was reported in The Guardian for 1 January 2010. It details the translation of a tablet collected in the Middle East by an amateur, Leonard Simmons, some time between 1945 and 1948. When his son Daniel took it to the British Museum, it was recognised as part of the Babylonian flood story by Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East there. It’s a good story by Maev Kennedy, interesting in shedding light on the Babylonian flood myth.

Replica of Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark was not circular: Atraḫasīs’s was!

So why on earth did the headline writer have to spoil the whole thing by giving her piece the title Relic reveals Noah’s ark was circular? It does no such thing. It tells us about the Babylonian version of the Mesopotamian myth of a universal flood sent by the gods to destroy humanity, which the exiled Jews learned during their time in Babylon. Later, it became incorporated into their own mythology as the familiar tale of Genesis VI to VIII. In Genesis, Yahweh specifically instructs Noah to build a vessel “300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high” (Genesis VI.15). So, Noah’s Ark was not circular. Atraḫasīs’s Ark was. The writers of Genesis changed the details to make it sound more like a bigger version of the type of sea-going vessel they were familiar with, rather than a reed raft such as would have been suitable for the River Tigris.

Does the headline writer really have such little regard for the abilities of the newspaper’s readership to understand what the article is actually saying? Has The Guardian descended into tabloid style attention-grabbing headlines that bear no relationship to the story? Or is it that the discovery might be used to prop up the increasingly untenable view that Genesis contains worthwhile historical reportage?

8 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Quite why would a guardian reader confuse an account of a circular vessel made from reeds with an accounty of a ocean going vessel built from wood – I’d give the average guardian reader enough intelligence to distinguish between the two. But the interesting thing is that there is yet another account of a devastating flood that was escaped people who constructed of a large live aboard vessel.

    Not only is there such an account, but there are accounts from many many diverse people groups from many continents – whether that be the Americas, Australasia the middle or far East, all from the ancient world and by people who probably had no knowledge of each other let alone a common language or contact.

    In the quest for academic rigour and being someone who has had a long science based education, someone who is a sceptic and who reads documents critically, its unclear to me how this article “props up an increasingly untenable view”, or what evidence there is to support a view that the earlier Genesis Document was updated possible 1000yrs after authorship to accommodate an account that must have been a few thousand years old by the time of writing in 1700BC.

    I’d say however that it lends yet more evidence that culturally diverse ancient civilisations all hold that a catastophic event took place; which account of the dozens known to exist is correct is a different question, but a grass reed boat Vs a wooden boat isn’t hard to assess if the purpose was to withstand a truly catastophic world event.

    The more one attempts to dismember the Genesis account the more one finds it withstands scruitiny. In Al gore’s words “an inconvienient truth”

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    1. The Noachian flood fable is negated by the lack of a world-wide sediment layer, which would have been the result of a world-wide flood. Not to mention the lack of sufficient water on the planet to “cover even the high mountains.”

      Other problems, with the boat itself and with the insurmountable problem of all the fauna and flora in the world, are addressed in detail in “Creation/Evolution Journal,” Volume 4, Number 1:

      http://ncse.com/cej/4/1/impossible-voyage-noahs-ark

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  2. What a bizarre comment from “les”!

    This has nothing to do with “intelligence” or “god”: it’s all about how we read evidence.

    But, for what it’s worth, “god” is a human construct, bound by human conventions, defined in all-too-human terms and used as an excuse by humans to justify their prejudices. So given that les’s “god” is a figment of his own imagination, I would never presume to think of myself as more intelligent than any other human being.

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  3. Since Abraham was from Ur before he moved to Canaan, I’m sure it was part of his history and was always known to the Jews. Please give them some credit also for their history never got lost and buried in the sand for thousands of years. They kept it close to the vest.

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  4. I stumbled onto this page while Googling for round reed rafts. May I make the point that this Mesopotamian mega-flood may have been been a Cyclone ? From the Gilgamesh epic, it came from the South, with a storm surge, lots of wind and rain, then ‘blew out’ after a week.

    ( IIRC, the Gulf gets a couple of small ones each decade, but a millennial ‘Perfect Storm’ would be the stuff of Legend. ;- )

    Modestly, the ‘Gilgamesh Storm’ only flooded the low land between the mountains, while the raft carried family, domestic and field animals, plus the construction team (carpenters, reed workers etc) and their kin.

    Surely, you could assemble a raft to carry such for several weeks in a week or two. It’s only when you must drown the world for six months to make a better story that the logistics become Noachian.

    Never mind the kangaroos, there’s that small matter of a zillion species of butterflies, not to mention umpteen grumpy snakes, many lethally venomous…

    Oh, and a Noachian barge, as traditionally described, would likely ‘hog’ then break its back and sink in the first long swell…

    D’uh…

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