By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
In America, almost every child is taught the story of Noah who, in response to a message from on-high, crafted a wooded ark and gathered the planet’s fauna to save them from destruction for sins known and unknown. We don’t teach kids that most ancient civilizations recount the same story of the Great Flood that swamped the planet but with their own cultural take on the topic. Now a recent archeological find from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) is creating a buzz that might change that. Found on a cuneiform tablet, the story of the Mesopotamian Noah differs only slightly from the Hebrew version of the legend. The Christian Bible tells the tale of Noah who gathers his family to build an ark shaped much like our modern-day boats, with one long keel and sides tapering at each end. The Bible details the blueprint straight from that chief engineer in the sky:
God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around.Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. (Genesis 5:32 NIV).
The ancient Mesopotamians have a different spin on the design though. According to a recently decoded 4000-year-old tablet, the design was circular and not cigar-shaped. And instead of cypress, the ark was made of woven rope with pitch applied to make it waterproof. And the Mesopotamians weren’t as community minded as the Hebrews, either. Only one survivor makes it out of the flood alive, along with all the 2-by-2 livestock instead of the family affair populating Noah’s craft.
There are some other differences in the tales. The Mesopotamian gods were angry at their human subjects because they made too much noise down here. The god of Israel was more concerned about all that violence in the Mid-East. Boy, was He prescient but His solution has met with mixed results.
The find is important because it points up the similarities in the ways ancient cultures viewed the world and coped with its unpredictable circumstances. Seeing themselves as pawns before angry gods and survivors of catastrophes beyond their control empowered these civilizations and brought disparate tribes together. Indeed, some scholars have opined that a function of ancient religion was to galvanize groups of humans with a common ancestry and belief system regardless of the effects of geography or political culture. The Flood Story seems have served that function many times over as it spread throughout the Fertile Crescent into Egypt and North Africa and beyond. You can read about flood stories around the world here. There are hundreds.
The find is a blow to Bible literalists however as it pokes a hole below the water line in Judeo-Christian exceptionalism. The Mesopotamian story predates the Biblical account by at least two millennium. Most Biblical scholars place the Great Flood at about the 9th Century BCE.
Regardless the archaeology confirms the power of myth in the ancient world and its lingering effects today.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor