Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, has translated a 3,700-year old Babylonian cuneiform tablet that gives precise and detailed instructions for constructing an ark and, to everyone’s surprise, the shape of the ark is circular, not the regular boat shape that we have grown up with. This ark was designed to be like a giant round basket, 3,600 square meters in area, or about two-thirds the size of a football (i.e., soccer) pitch. That’s pretty big but still would be pretty crowded with all the animals.
If you think about it, that makes sense. The ark was not meant to be a cruise ship going from place to place so it had no need for the streamlined design of a normal boat. All it had to do was float while the flooding persisted and a raft-shape makes more sense.
However Finkel is certain that the ark was never built. So what was the point of these detailed instructions?
The tablet gives a version of the ark story far older than the biblical accounts, and Finkel believes the explanation of how “holy writ appears on this piece of Weetabix”, is that the writers of the Bible drew on ancient accounts encountered by Hebrew scholars during the Babylonian exile.
Texts about a great flood and the order by God to the one just man to build a boat and save himself, his family, and all the animals, clearly older than the Bible story, were first found in the Middle East in the 19th century. They caused both consternation and wild excitement, including an expedition to find the broken part of one tablet in a mountain of shattered clay fragments.
However, the tablet studied by Finkel is unique, the only one with precise instructions on how to build the ark – and the crucial detail that it should be circular. He believes the data on its exact dimensions, the two kinds of bitumen, and the precise amount of rope needed, are evidence not that the vessel once existed, but of a storyteller adding convincing details for an audience that knew all about boat-building.
Finkel also says that when the information in the tablet is compared with maps of that area from that time, it shows that the ark was far from Mount Ararat. This will be bad news for the Ararat tourism industry which regularly announces the ‘discovery’ of a wood fragment supposedly from the ark which results in droves of believers flocking there.
I have written before about the difficulties that Ken Ham is having raising money to build his giant replica ark for his new theme park. It should have been completed this spring but has not even started. That’s lucky for him because he can now change his design according to the new precise directions for building it. I am not sure that a giant basket has the same visual impact as a boat, though. It will look merely like a branch office of the Longaberger basket company whose headquarters in Ohio can be seen on the right.
But Darren Aronofsky’s big budget film Noah is out of luck. It releases on March 28, so it is too late for even the best CGI retro-engineering to save it.