Noah’s Ark legend still holds water

Hollywood blockbuster tackles a story that always intrigues, writes Dan Buckley.

IT is hard to know which is the more challenging: The sight of a burly eco-warrior in the form of Russell Crowe battling to save mankind in the film Noah or the biblical account of the Great Flood which reveals a vengeful and angry God bent on destruction.

The story of Noah’s Ark is told in the Book of Genesis. Before God sends a great flood to destroy the world and cleanse it of its wickedness, he decides to give mankind one last chance and commands Noah to build a huge wooden ark.

Once Noah finished building the ark, God said, he should take into it his wife, his three sons and their wives, and a male and female of every kind of “unclean” air-breathing land animal. He should also take seven pairs of ritually “clean” animals and birds. And he should take enough food for the people and the animals.

Larry Stone, author of Noah: The Real Story, reminds us that the Bible does not record any words spoken by Noah before the flood. However, the Koran, which tells essentially the same story, says Noah preached to anyone who would listen, warning them of the coming flood: “O my people! Worship God! You have no other god but Him. I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful day!” Jewish legend says that for 120 years Noah urged people to change their wicked ways, to no avail.

Genesis describes how the animals were put on board: “And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life. So those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.”

According to Genesis 8:4, the flood killed nearly everything on earth until the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in present-day Turkey.

The story of Noah was likely rooted in catastrophic floods towards the end of the last Ice Age. Creation narratives from Egypt to Scandinavia involve tidal floods purging, and remaking the earth. Flood tales have also been recorded in India, New Guinea, Australia, and across the Americas.

One of the most compelling is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which dates back nearly 5,000 years and is thought to be perhaps the oldest written tale on Earth. In it, there is an account of the great sage Utnapishtim, who is warned of an imminent flood to be unleashed by wrathful gods. He builds a vast round boat, reinforced with tar and pitch, which carries his relatives, grains, and animals. After enduring days of storms, Utnapishtim, like Noah in Genesis, releases a bird in search of dry land.

Archaeologists suggest there was a historical deluge between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago that hit lands ranging from the Black Sea to the flood plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In The Ark Before Noah, Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, reveals how decoding the symbols on a 4,000-year-old piece of clay enable a new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark story.

Finkel’s real-life detective story began with a chance encounter and the arrival at the museum in 2008 of a single, small Babylonian cuneiform tablet — the palm-sized clay rectangles on which our ancestors created the first documents.

It had been brought in by a member of the public and this particular tablet proved to be of great importance. Not only does it date from about 1850BC, but it is a copy of the Babylonian Story of the Flood, a myth from ancient Mesopotamia revealing, among other things, instructions for building a large boat to survive a flood.

Although mostly depicted as an oblong shape, the original Noah’s Ark was a giant round vessel, according to a script on the 3,700-year-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London. Translated by Finkel, the tablet turned out to be a detailed instruction manual for building an ark with palm-fibre ropes, wooden ribs, and hot tar to make it waterproof.

A round boat makes perfect sense, of course. After all, the ark wasn’t going anywhere. “Being round isn’t a problem”, Finkel writes in a blog post on the British Museum’s website. “All it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: A cosmic lifeboat.”

But could it have actually happened or is the whole story of the Great Flood and the superhero Noah a fairytale for adults? Scientists at the University of Leicester have discovered that Noah’s Ark could have carried 70,000 animals without sinking if built to the dimensions listed in the Bible.

Students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Leicester studied the exact dimensions of the ark, set out in Genesis 6:13-22.

According to the Bible, God instructed Noah to build a boat of gopher wood and to make it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. That would make the ark around 144m long.

Using the dimensions, the Archimedes principal of buoyancy, and approximate animal weights, they were astonished to find out that the ark would have floated.

And from floating to flying — the film Noah premiered here last week. Russell Crowe made a flying visit to the Savoy Cinema on O’Connell St last Saturday for the premiere after meeting up with Ronan Keating for a pint of Guinness at the old-style Kehoe’s pub on South Anne St.

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