But forget all those images of a long vessel with a pointy bow — the original Noah’s Ark, new research suggests, was round.
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.”
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.
It’s also the subject of a new book, “The Ark Before Noah,” by Irving Finkel, the museum’s assistant keeper of the Middle East and the man who translated the tablet.
Finkel got hold of it a few years ago, when a man brought in a damaged tablet his father had acquired in the Middle East after World War II. It was light brown, about the size of a mobile phone and covered in the jagged cuneiform script of the ancient Mesopotamians.
It turned out, Finkel said Friday, to be “one of the most important human documents ever discovered.”
“It was really a heart-stopping moment — the discovery that the boat was to be a round boat,” said Finkel, who sports a long gray beard, a ponytail and boundless enthusiasm for his subject. “That was a real surprise.”
And yet, Finkel said, a round boat makes sense. Coracles were widely used as river taxis in ancient Iraq and are perfectly designed to bob along on raging floodwaters.
“It’s a perfect thing,” Finkel said. “It never sinks, it’s light to carry.”
Other experts said Finkel wasn’t simply indulging in book-promotion hype. David Owen, professor of ancient Near Eastern studies at Cornell University, said the British Museum curator had made “an extraordinary discovery.”
Elizabeth Stone, an expert on the antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia at New York’s Stony Brook University, said it made sense that ancient Mesopotamians would depict their mythological ark as round.
“People are going to envision the boat however people envision boats where they are,” she said. “Coracles are not unusual things to have had in Mesopotamia.”
The tablet records a Mesopotamian god’s instructions for building a giant vessel — two-thirds the size of a soccer field in area — made of rope, reinforced with wooden ribs and coated in bitumen.
Finkel said that on paper (or stone) the boat-building orders appear sound, but he doesn’t yet know whether it would have floated. A television documentary due to be broadcast later this year will follow attempts to build the ark according to the ancient manual.
The flood story recurs in later Mesopotamian writings including the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” These versions lack the technical instructions — cut out, Finkel believes, because they got in the way of the storytelling.
“It would be like a Bond movie where instead of having this great sexy red car that comes on, somebody starts to tell you about how many horsepower it’s got and the pressure of the tires and the capacity of the boot (trunk),” he said. “No one cares about that. They want the car chase.”
Finkel is aware his discovery may cause consternation among believers in the Biblical story. When 19th-century British Museum scholars first learned from cuneiform tablets that the Babylonians had a flood myth, they were disturbed by its striking similarities to the story of Noah.
“Already in 1872 people were writing about it in a worried way — What does it mean that Holy Writ appears on this piece of Weetabix?” he joked, referring to a cereal similar in shape to the tablet.
Finkel has no doubts.
“I’m sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention,” he said.
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.
“The idea that floods are caused by sin is happily still alive among us,” he added, pointing out a local councilor in England who made headlines recently for saying Britain’s recent storms were caused by the legalization of gay marriage.
“Had I known it, it would have gone in the preface of the book,” Finkel said.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
Excellent article! TGO
Source: FMT, Erik M Gan
FMT LETTER: From Erik M Gan, via e-mail
While I don’t set out to belittle or ridicule the faith beliefs of others, particularly in conservative, hypersensitive Malaysia, I do realise that any form of commentary that denounces religion invariably opens itself (and its writer) to a fair amount of backlash. Having said that, I do hope that this article will stimulate healthy discussion and allow the concept of religion to be discussed and analysed within the public sphere just as we would discuss and examine any other topic.
I would like to direct your attention to my first point, that religion doesn’t teach us anything about good or evil that we do not already know. “How could this be when religion teaches us the fundamentals about what is right and what is wrong?” You may already be murmuring to yourselves to which I would say give yourselves a bit more credit. I doubt even the most devout Christians or Muslims or Hindus would argue that without continual reference to their respective religious texts, they would be incapable of differentiating between what is morally right and what is morally wrong.
We evolved from collectivist cultures at the expense of individualistic ones and along the way we also internalised basic notions of morality and co-dependence that helped our ancestors survive long before any of them had even heard of self-proclaiming prophets. Indeed it was the Nobel-laureate Steven Weinberg who said in a speech from 1999 in Washington DC that “with or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for a good person to do evil things, that takes religion.”
A bold statement no doubt, but also a common sense one the more you think about it. After all, it must be down to more than just coincidence when you consider that the major religions of the world, particularly those that trace their roots to Abraham, explicate the same universal values (kindness, patience, compassion for your fellow human being) at the heart of their religious texts, be it the Quran or the Bible or the Torah. Would it then be so fallacious to assume that the values in these texts are not exclusively religious but rather universal and humanist in nature? What we are then left with are the discrepancies between religions – not the core human values a great number of them seem to reciprocally extol but the differences in the religious texts which make quite clear that passage into heaven is dependent more on personal worship than on wholesomeness of deed.
To elucidate my point I’d like to present to the reader the same question that the late journalist Christopher Hitchens often posed to his audience during his “crusade” against religion. Are you sufficiently prepared? This is how it goes: “Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.” Ponder the question for a moment, let it sink in fully and then consider the alternative: Think of an evil or horrible act that could only be performed by a religious person. I doubt you’d have to hesitate for long before coming up with an example for the latter. The crux of the argument is that religion is man-made and because of this fact, human beings do not derive morality from religion but rather it is religion that appropriates these moral values from human beings.
Expounding upon my first point that religion does not have anything new to teach us about right and wrong, I would venture even further and suggest that apart from having no exclusive moral insight to offer, religion also brings along with it the institutionalisation of archaic and inexcusable beliefs that have no relevance whatsoever in the 21st century. It is here where I must step in and inform the reader that I am going to move away from a macroscopic criticism of religion to a more culturally grounded and geographically localised one.
I say without a hint of irony that I was indoctrinated into the Catholic faith and remained passably devout for a number of years before, for the lack of a better phrase, “I saw the light.” For me personally, the first warning bells began going off when my religious teachers would exhibit signs of discomfort when continually posed with the question “Why does God, who is so omnipotent and powerful, allow such evil to exist in the world?” The common regurgitated answer that those of you familiar with the basic notion of the Christ God would hear is “God works in mysterious ways.”
Now I cannot speak for everyone, but to my knowledge that statement is meant to comfort or at least put people at ease but I could not help but be outraged by the recreant explanations of my religious superiors. When I poked the beast further and began questioning the legitimacy of religion and even God himself (religion is after all patriarchal) my educators would often respond in a defensive and sometimes standoffish manner.
This has largely been the case when I question the religious beliefs of others and it led me to a rather startling realisation – the only other time I’d encountered such hostility in a discussion was when people generally had something to hide or had done something wrong and were reluctant to own up to it. If the religious are so secure about their beliefs and convictions shouldn’t they be more than willing to entertain perfectly legitimate questions from the rest of us uninformed, naïve folk?
The problem with religion is that it makes such outlandish truth claims without the requisite amount of rationality to back those claims up. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan condenses my circumspections towards religion in a rather punchy quote when he states: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The evidence in question has to be even more extraordinary if it wants to justify religion’s blatantly homophobic and misogynist proclivities.
To pluck an example from personal experience, there was once an activity during my Sunday school class at my then church in Subang Jaya (I should really name drop because the church in question should be ashamed of itself but I refrain from calling it out because I doubt that it is the only church which holds this particular view) in which my peers and I were divided into groups and asked to come up with a list of what was sinful in the eyes of God, and what was not. Now during the discussion segment of the class it was revealed that almost every group had listed homosexuality as an affront towards the creator.
Herein lies my main grouse with religion: It is all fine and well when someone tells me that they subscribe to a particular religion because it gives them comfort and a purpose in life. After all who am I to tell them that what they believe in makes no sense to me if it gives them a reassuring sense of comfort and hope as they try to navigate through life? Indeed I have the privilege of knowing a great number of devoutly religious friends and I can testify to the fact that our discussions, which were sometimes rather heated, often served to solidify our friendships and imbued us with a newfound respect for each others beliefs and non-beliefs.
I do however have a monumental problem with religion when it infringes upon the rights and liberties of otherwise innocent people. To be told that the act of loving a person of the same sex is a sin punishable by eternal damnation is something I simply cannot tolerate no matter how gently or nicely this ridiculous understanding is put across. It is not just persons of differing sexual orientations that religion marginalises but also persons who happen to be born female. I’ll discount the Old Testament for it has proven time and time again to be so morally backward that even those of the faith squirm when asked to defend it. I feel jumping on the bandwagon to condemn it would be shiftless to the point of being unethical. I will however direct your attention to the book of Ephesians, chapter five, verses 22-23, which calls for the servitude of a woman to her husband because he is the head of the family just like Christ is the head of the church.
Which sensible person would actually believe that being born male due to sheer coincidence of birth automatically gives you greater dominion over those born female? I can already sense the religious apologists constructing their counter arguments, almost invariably revolving around the issue of contextually misquoting their holy book but I’d like to ask them the following question: If you accuse those opposed to your brand of theology of misquoting scripture, then why do you teach scripture to children in the most literal sense and force unto them such reprehensible understandings about the world they live in? Leading on from that point, why would you base your understandings of the world and those who populate it on a text so open to misinterpretation, internally inconsistent and self-contradicting that it is oftentimes misquoted and misunderstood?
I am aware that the past few hundred words have been devoted to a broadside against Christianity but this is merely because I can only speak from the socio-cultural factors that have shaped my personal experience. That being said, I am perfectly aware that there is a trend of intolerance that manifests itself in the scriptures of Abrahamic faith. When applied to the broader context of Malaysian society, I challenge my Muslim readers (and those who believe in a similarly Abrahamic God) to illustrate an example where the topic of homosexuality was not condemned but rather treated with acceptance and respect during one of their religious classes.
This goes to show that these religions, irrespective of name or denomination, perpetuate the same antiquated prejudices within the societies that embrace it. Take a moment to deliberate if the religious justification of female subordination and homophobic intolerance has any place in the first world society we consider ourselves a part of and then tell me again that a case against religion is not worth making.
You may be wondering where I’m going with this thinly veiled, sacrilegious rhetoric. After all, if you buy into the glossy public image of this country you won’t hesitate to believe that we are living harmoniously in spite of our various races and religions. You will also believe that we are a concordant, secular democracy that favors intellectual debate over direct confrontation. I do agree with the notion that we are a democracy, but a fledgling one at best and certainly not secular at all. In this country where nation and religion are so intrinsically tied to our understandings of self and others, I feel it is essential to point out the problems that come along with theological beliefs.
One of the ways to elevate democratic expression is to be open to the concept of a public sphere where topics such as religion can be discussed without being diluted or toned down. Are we really going to sacrifice our democratic right to reasonable inquiry just because we’re told that the subject of religion is “sensitive” and likely to offend? In fact we should be ashamed if our ostensibly progressive society is not mature enough to disagree about such matters in a constructive and level headed way. Religion has occupied a privileged position in public discourse for far too long and it is this writer’s view that not only is its elevated position unwarranted, but that it should also be subject to the same degree of scrutiny as any other topic.
To surmise I must accentuate that I do not claim to hate religion. I must however confess to a fervent hatred of totalitarianism in all its ways, shapes, and forms. Therefore, it is religious totalitarianism that I cannot help but speak out against. If there are those who claim to be religious solely for the purpose of personal and spiritual well-being then I would be the first to submit humbly that I find nothing wrong or malicious with their point of view. However, I would suggest that they keep their beliefs to themselves, refrain from teaching hatred to children too young to form independent, informed opinions of their societies, and perhaps most of all, to stop using their doctrine to justify homophobic, misogynistic and bigoted understandings of the world. If they can agree to all that then more power to them and – excuse me for borrowing the term – surely goodness and mercy will follow them all the days of their lives.
Dave Allen, in a few short moments, makes a mockery of the Bible, Adam and Eve, and the entire basis for Christianity. TGO
Right you are again… TGO