The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

Old Babylonian flood tablet describes how to build a circular ark

The so-called Ark Tablet, recently translated by Irving Finkel, is an Old Babylonian (1900-1700 B.C.E.) account of the flood in which the god Enki instructs Atrahasis—the Babylonian Noah—on how to build an ark. The twist? This Babylonian ark would have been circular.

We all know the story of Noah’s Ark. Ever since George Smith’s 1872 translation of Babylonian texts similar to the Biblical Deluge (see “George Smith’s Other Find” below), we’ve also known about echoes of the Genesis narrative in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian texts. A recently translated Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1700 B.C.E.) tablet has literally reshaped our vision of the Babylonian vessel used to weather the storm and builds bridges across the floodwaters dividing the Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts of the flood.

The Babylonian Flood Tradition

Babylonian flood traditions have been familiar material for BAR readers since the early days of our magazine. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s 1978 feature “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood” introduced the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic:

The Babylonian flood stories contain many details which also occur in the flood story in Genesis. Such details in the story as the building of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is intimately related to the Babylonian flood stories and is indeed part of the same “flood” tradition. However, while there are great similarities between the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories, there are also very fundamental differences, and it is just as important that we focus on these fundamental differences as on the similarities.

The Babylonian accounts differ from each other. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood, and for his good deed, he is granted immortality (and subsequently, Gilgamesh’s envy). Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East. Memories of an antediluvian (pre-flood) period were preserved throughout Mesopotamia: The Sumerian king list includes antediluvian kings, and reliefs of antediluvian sages known as apkallu figures (winged genies) lined the walls of Assyrian palaces and remain one of the most iconic forms of Mesopotamian art to this day.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 

How to Build an Ark

The Ark Tablet describes a gufa or coracle--a round boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Unlike the boat shown above, Atrahasis's gufa would have had a base area over 35,000 square feet, with 20-foot-high walls. Picture from Atlantic Ship Model.

With such a well-documented Mesopotamian flood tradition, why is this newly translated cuneiform tablet making waves in our understanding of the Babylonian flood myth? The so-called “Ark Tablet”—a cell-phone sized piece of clay inscribed on both sides—is essentially an ark builder’s how-to guide, according to its translator, British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. Enki gives Atrahasis instructions on how to build an ark, but the resulting boat isn’t what you’d expect. According to Irving Finkel, this boat was round. In an article in The Telegraph, Finkel writes:

The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs— the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki—was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”

The text describes the construction of a coracle or gufa, a traditional basket-like boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Of course, this is no average coracle—Atrahasis is to build a boat with a diameter of close to 230 feet across and 20-foot-high walls. The boat is made out of a massive quantity of palm-fiber rope, sealed with bitumen. This isn’t exactly the same ark that Noah built—or Utnapishtim, for that matter:

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI, 54-65

On the fifth day I laid out her exterior. It was a field in area, its walls were each 10 times 12 cubits in height, the sides of its top were of equal length, 10 times It cubits each. I laid out its (interior) structure and drew a picture of it (?). I provided it with six decks, thus dividing it into seven (levels). The inside of it I divided into nine (compartments). I drove plugs (to keep out) water in its middle part. I saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 (units) of raw bitumen I poured into the bitumen kiln, three times 3,600 (units of) pitch …into it…

Genesis 6:14-15

Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

 

The Animals Went in Two by Two

This reconstruction accompanied the Telegraph article by Finkel. Photo: Stuart Patience @ Heart Agency

At first glance, it would seem that the Ark Tablet, while extremely descriptive in its instructions—it features twenty lines just describing the waterproofing of the vessel—is describing an ark narrative that differs more from Noah’s than its other Babylonian counterparts. However, according to his Telegraph article, Finkel was shocked by the rare cuneiform signs sana in the passage describing the animals on the boat. Sana is listed in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary as “Two each, two by two.” Compare this with the Biblical text:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”

The cuneiform wedges were pressed into Babylonian Ark Tablet a full millennium before the Genesis narrative was written down, but the two bear a strong thematic resemblance in their treatment of the animals. However, this tablet describes how to build an ark, and the resulting vessel couldn’t be much more different from the Biblical boat. Would a round gufa-style boat weather the Deluge? Irving Finkel points out that a pointed ship may be easier to sail to a particular destination, but Atrahasis’s ark had nowhere to go—it merely needed to support its human and animal occupants for the duration of the flood. He told The Guardian:

In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.

Click here to read his account in The Telegraph.

Learn more about Irving Finkel’s book The Ark Before Noah.
 


 
The harshness of the curse of Ham, his son Canaan and their descendants after the ark narrative has been a source of scholarly debate for millennia. A new reading of the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q180-4Q181 provides a fresh perspective on Canaan’s transgression.
 


 

George Smith’s Other Find: The Babylonian Flood Tablet

Originally published as the sidebar to “The Genesis of Genesis” by Victor Hurowitz in Bible Review‘s anniversary issue. Click here to read the full article in the BAS Library.

The Babylonian Flood Tablet translated by George Smith in the mid/late 19th century. The British Museum.

In 1866, George Smith, a British bank-note engraver, wrote a letter to the famed Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, asking if he might have a look at the fragments and casts of Assyrian inscriptions in the back rooms of the British Museum. Rawlinson agreed—thus initiating what would become an unusually fruitful friendship between an eager amateur and the man who had deciphered cuneiform.

Smith so impressed Rawlinson that the latter hired him in 1867 to help catalogue the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions, including those excavated by Austen Henry Layard at Kyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in the 1840s and 1850s.

In the accompanying article, Victor Hurowitz describes one of Smith’s most significant discoveries: the Babylonian poem Enūma Eliš. But Smith’s most famous “find” in the British Museum store rooms was undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its dramatic account of a Great Deluge that threatened to wipe out humankind.

In his popular book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, Smith described the discovery: “I soon found half of a curious tablet which had evidently contained originally six columns of text; two of these (the third and fourth) were still nearly perfect; two others (the second and fifth) were imperfect, about half remaining, while the remaining columns (the first and sixth) were entirely lost. On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean [Babylonian] account of the Deluge.”

According to a later source, Smith then “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” The British Museum has dubbed Smith’s Tablet 11, shown, “the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.”

After he calmed down, Smith scoured the museum’s holdings for further fragments, and soon found that his Flood tablet was the 11th tablet in a 12-tablet epic poem. On December 3, 1872, he presented his findings to the newly founded British Society of Biblical Archaeology and speculated that more of these tablet fragments remained buried in the sands of Nineveh.

Soon after, Edwin Arnold, owner of London’s Daily Telegraph, proposed that his paper sponsor renewed excavations at Nineveh, with Smith at the helm. Smith, and the museum, agreed.

Smith later wrote, “Soon after I commenced excavating at Kouyunjik, on the site of the palace of Assurbanipal, I found a new fragment of the Chaldean account of the Deluge belonging to the first column of the tablet, relating the command to build and fill an ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story.”
 


 
Which finds made our top 10 Biblical archaeology discoveries of 2014? Find out >>
 


 
The copies of the Gilgamesh Epic discovered by Layard and Smith came from the world-class library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). The tales of Gilgamesh, the bold warrior-king of Uruk, are much older, however; many of them date back to the Sumerian period (third millennium B.C.E.). In the Old Babylonian Period (early second millennium B.C.E.), the various adventures of Gilgamesh were strung together in a cohesive narrative, which was rewritten many times. By the 12th century B.C.E., an 11-tablet version of the epic had emerged. In the eighth century B.C.E., a 12th tablet describing the death of Gilgamesh was added to the series.

The Flood story does not number among the original Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh. Rather, it was inserted into the narrative in about the 12th century, and thus appears only in the 11- and 12-tablet versions of the tale (called the Standard Babylonian versions).

 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 

According to the tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, a disconsolate Gilgamesh searches for ways to live forever. His quest leads him, on Tablet 11, to the immortal Utnapishtim—often referred to as the Mesopotamian Noah, because he saved his family from a devastating worldwide Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he, too, was once a mere a mortal and a king, of Shuruppak-on-the-Euphrates. In his day, five of the gods plotted to send a Flood to destroy humankind. One of the gods, Ea, surreptitiously informed the king, whispering, “Quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life … Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.” Utnapishtim finishes the ship and loads his family and animals just in time: “Ninurta opened the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. A deadly silence spread through the sky and what had been bright now turned to darkness. The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war … For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. The land could be seen, just water on all sides, as flat as a roof. There was no life at all.” The boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim sends out a dove, which flies right back, having failed to find land; he sends a swallow with similar results. Finally, he sends a raven, which never returns. The waters have begun to recede.

The gods convene and offer Utnapishtim and his family immortality. Having heard this tale, Gilgamesh recognizes he has little chance of being offered the same, and he returns home to Uruk to die.—Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt

Passages from Gilgamesh come from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).
 


 
This Bible History Daily article was originally published on January 29, 2014.
 


 

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  • BAS says

    So complicated !! Concept about God is much more simplier nowadays then it was in ancient times !! Just because we have the contininuous strive to implement novelties in our lives, this fact sometimes leaves the bare truth untouched. We are God’s incarnates, since God created men in his image, but we belong to Satan and his disciples, since we have sinned and grew old. No remedy for this yet

  • Fernando says

    I strongly recommend to read the full book from Dr Irving Finkel. I bought it near last Christmas and it was worth reading. Even with a skeptic view, Dr. Finkel do not try to answer the Flood existence, in fact he considers that a flood event really happened, if global or not this is another question.
    The core elements from Genesis are present on different Akkadian, Sumerian and Babylonian flood stories and this in my opinion is an external validation source for the Bible flood.

  • judy says

    Pbs did a show.. in search of noahs ark.. in 2015 I think which proved that the ark was indeed the round style common for the time and still being used in much smaller sizes. It also showed the long shelter built in the center of the round boat of reeds. They slipped into a part of country restricted in order to see a very LARGE building structure made entirely of grasses twisted and woven tightly to produce supports for the rest of differently woven coverings. It was how they knew it was possible that a round basket style boat would have been possible. The structure they created based on the ancient tablet proved it was possible. It also explained based on the ancient instructions and other writings that the long structure was in the center of the round boat. They recreated this large structure that floated down the water. The huge problem was the sealant on the outside could not be reproduced since they were trying to make it from a different mud. They could not reproduce the boat in Iran using the materials of what would have been the original area. Instead they had to do it in another safer country. And since the finished boat had to be launched instead of waiting for a flood the method they had worked out came to a screeching halt as one side broke sending one side of the boat into the water before they were ready. They managed to salvage it however. And eventually did float this gigantic basket down the water. Pbs reran the film last year. But its available on DVD And for download on different places on the internet.
    So no one is stupid or a idiot for believing these ancient accounts of different so called myths with different names. How many hundreds of names are there for God based on different cultures over the centuries. Even the so called king James version of the bible has several names. So why does Noah have to be just one name. It’s possible that each sect could be referring to the same individual but using a different name.
    The bible most people are familiar with today is still just an interpretation of man. Man who is not always accurate. Who is capable of making an error when copying a word. Is that not why there are editors and proof readers for published books and newspapers. We all know that one misspelled word can create an entirely different meaning to a sentence. Even our languages in todays world are so different in how they are converted to English and vice versa. Spanish and French assign sex to words. Pencil is feminine pen is masculine. So the accepted king James version is one man’s interpretation. Before written words there have always been oral stories handed down generation to generation. Native Americans have had a deep spiritual connection with the land around them. And their many legends and stories their history was an oral one taught to children long before ever being written down. There’s Celtics and the original tribes of new Zealand that relied on oral histories and what we call myths now. The book of genesis can be seen in different cultures as having similar stories in different cultures. For a person to say it is stupid to believe that noahs ark was round based on one man’s interpretation of genesis is small minded in my opinion. Keeping in mind too that various interpretations of the bible and Jewish Torahs and Catholic teachings etc were also used as a way to keep control over large populations of people. The writings of Paul especially come to mind.
    Living in the state that has the embarrassing noahs ark theme park is what makes me sensitive to people that say well the king James version says it was this way so thats the only way it can be. Obviously their version of the ark is wrong. But what upsets so many is the way the people in charge of this theme park are both brainwashing and confusing our youth. They completely ignore science. They have men and dinosaurs living together. Telling the kids that come through that science is wrong. That geology is wrong. Their personal interpretations are the only thing to be believed even though the majority of what they are showing in the exhibits are proven as wrong. Even the ark is wrong as well. But mixing up things millions of years apart as existing in the same timeline and shoving these down the throats of young minds the way they do is totally unacceptable. It’s in the same vein as denying the holocaust ever happened and teaching that thought as gospel. Their entire reasoning for throwing out proven science is based entirely on God having created the world in 6 days. So therefore dinosaurs and man all lives together in the garden of Eden. But i seem to remember that in referring to the second coming of Jesus the messiah that there’s some sort of reference to therea no way of predicting the time that God’s time and man’s time is different. That a day could be a thousand years. Could be. Could be more or could be less. So then if Gods time is different in the end then how many thousands of years could a day had been during creation. You can’t say that God is infinity and then say God is finite in same breath. The entire story of Gods creating the planet in 6 days is one of those stories thats different and similar going from culture to culture. So telling the school children that misguided adults take to this ark amusement park by the busloads that science that geology is all a lie should not be allowed. It’s too confusing for the young. Jesus told stories as a way of teaching. As examples. They weren’t meant as literal facts. So why is it not possible to have different names in different cultures in different times all telling of the same event. and using the instructions given in that clay modern man was able to recreate a round basket of different levels that was capable of floating like the smaller versions and capable of housing a large amount of animals.

    • Rob says

      Hi Judy,

      By reading what you’ve written it appears you haven’t done your homework. I’m sure that may come across sounding harsh but it isn’t meant to be. I was an atheist and found the whole idea of a God that we’ve never seen or heard from on par with Santa Claus. I had gone to church many many times growing up and never actually heard the Gospel in the messages preached; they always seemed to be very works based; ie…how to be a good person, good child, good husband, good wife and so on. Then when I was 19 years old I ran smack dab into the real Jesus so to speak in the scripture. What He claimed about Himself…the Good News (Gospel) of what He came to do and why. He claimed to be YHWH Himself…it’s why the ruling members of the Sanhedrin wanted to kill Him…because He being a mere man was claiming to be the Almighty Covenant God of Israel and the very creator Himself. That led me to devour everything I could in the Bible. I research the overwhelming evidence on just how accurately the bible has come down to us through the ages; especially regarding what we call the Old Testament today. To use a modern day practice as an analogy; it was like taking a photocopy in todays terms. Now in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament you do see different words and phrases used in some extent copies but NOTHING that changes the meaning or understanding of what was actually written. You mentioned something in your note that it was one mans interpretation; that simply isn’t true…far from it. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek it was done by a group of 70 scholars and that’s why it is called the “Septuagint” If you’re really hungry to understand there a couple of very good exhaustive books; Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Both men were hard core Atheists and made it their mission to disprove Christianity, the Bible and Judaism. What ended up happening caused them to surrender to Jesus and become born again. Jesus is not a myth…He is exactly what He claimed to be…He is God incarnate. He said that He and He alone is the only means of Salvation. He claimed to be “The Way, the Truth and the Life” and “Nobody would come to the Father except through Him” Salvation is given by no other name and He is the exclusive way but He invites everyone to come to Him that they may be saved. He is amazing!!! He said Heaven and Earth will pass away but His words will never pass away. It’s the same Jesus who validated the entire Old Testament, the Noah Flood, the Six literal Days of creation. He didn’t just tell good stories on how to be moral. There are many amazing and moral people that will NEVER enter in Heaven because they refused Him, Jesus, when faced with the Gospel. Whether anyone believes it or not we will all, every single one of us, stand before Him, kneel and acknowledge that He is LORD and He alone. He said that the Father put all judgement into His hands. The very hands that His creation pierced and put Him on a cross, the most torturous method of killing at the time. It still is one of the most agonizing forms of heinous torture. He did that so that He could pay the price for all those who would accept the free gift. In a nutshell…we’re separated from Him and He wants us back…no matter how broken we are He wants us…because He knows that He is the only means of life and He can heal anything. I dare you to disprove Him; you won’t be able to at all…you will literally have to make a choice, believe what He claimed or don’t. Jesus doesn’t allow any middle ground to people once they encounter Him; we’re either for Him or against Him. I chose to be accept His claims and my life has never been the same since. He said that He came to give life and give it more abundantly. He also gave the reason why people don’t choose Him; because we love darkness more than the light. He said He was the Light of the world; in essence He was saying that we love everything else more than Him and that we don’t want to follow Him because we’d rather be our own God…we don’t anyone telling us what to do. God just mean Power, Authority, Might… When you read things in light of that definition it makes sense. We want to be our own authority, power and might. That’s all a lie. He said “Who the Son of Man (Jesus) sets free will be free indeed” Chose life (Jesus) Judy…you’ll never ever be the same. I’m not one of “those” people…He isn’t a fairy tale…He’s coming back and every eye will see Him. Even if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime we will meet Him face to face; the question is…”Who’s team will you be on; His or your own?”

      • grace says

        WOW. I am speechless… and in tears

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