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?