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Babylonian tablet details plans for building an alternate version of Noah's ark

On Friday, January 24, Maev Kennedy of The Guardian reported that a 3,700-year-old Babylonian clay tablet that is on display at the British Museum in London, England describes plans that could have been used to build an ark that would have served the same function as the one featured in the Old Testament story of Noah.

Russell Crowe gets some practice for his role of Noah in an upcoming film at the Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The tablet gives precise instructions about how to build a large circular vessel based on a boat design that was commonly used by the ancient Babylonians. The plans are very different from the specifications God gave to Noah in Genesis 6: 14-16, but Dr. Irving Finkel, an archaeologist who works for the British Museum as their assistant keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, believes that the plans helped inspire the story in the Bible.

According to Kennedy, "While every child's toy and biblical illustration – and the latest film version, due for release later this month and starring Russell Crowe as Noah – shows a big pointy-ended wooden boat, the Babylonian tablet gives what Finkel is convinced is the original version of the story.

"The ark is a huge circular coracle, 3,600 square meters in dimension or two-thirds the size of a football pitch, made like a giant rope basket strengthened with wooden ribs, and waterproofed with bitumen inside and out. This was a giant version of a craft which the Babylonians knew very well, Finkel pointed out, in daily use up to the late 20th century to transport people and animals across rivers."

In the book of Genesis, Noah's ark is described as being approximately 450 feet long by 75 feet wide by 45 feet high with three decks and a door in the side. It was made out of gopher wood (translated sometimes as cyprus) and covered in pitch. Finkel feels that the round design given on the tablet makes more sense.

In another Guardian article written by Kennedy, Finkel explained why the round shape is more logical to him.

According to Kennedy, "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," said Finkel. "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."

Finkel does not believe that the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis chapters six through eight actually happened, but he still considers the tablet to be an extremely important discovery because it provides evidence for an earlier story of a worldwide flood that predates the Old Testament account. He feels that the writers of the Hebrew Torah drew on stories the ancient Hebrews learned during the Babylonian exile for their flood account.

In an interview that was published by Haaretz on Saturday, January 25, Finkel said the tablet tells a story with some interesting parallels to the Bible account.

According to Haaretz, "As Finkel describes it, "when the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humor, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark."

Wikipedia summarizes a different version of the story of Atra-hasis. In that account, his vessel was cube-shaped and described as being basically a more elaborate version of Noah's ark. The description of a gigantic coracle may represent an earlier tradition.

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