Another Precursor to the Flood Story Found

Yet another precursor to the Biblical flood story has been found, this one dating to about 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. It predates even the Gilgamesh epic and contains a story of an ancient God ordering the building of a round ark, complete with two of every animal.

A recently deciphered 4,000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — reveals striking new details about the roots of the Old Testament tale of Noah. It tells a similar story, complete with detailed instructions for building a giant round vessel known as a coracle — as well as the key instruction that animals should enter “two by two.”

The tablet went on display at the British Museum on Friday, and soon engineers will follow the ancient instructions to see whether the vessel could actually have sailed.

It’s also the subject of a new book, “The Ark Before Noah,” by Irving Finkel, the museum’s assistant keeper of the Middle East and the man who translated the tablet…

The flood story recurs in later Mesopotamian writings including the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” These versions lack the technical instructions — cut out, Finkel believes, because they got in the way of the storytelling…

“I’m sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention,” he said.

He believes the tale was likely passed on to the Jews during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. And he doesn’t think the tablet provides evidence the ark described in the Bible existed. He said it’s more likely that a devastating real flood made its way into folk memory, and has remained there ever since.

Which was already obvious with all of the other flood myths that were common in the Ancient Near East, but it’s good to have one more document that supports that conclusion.

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  • Trebuchet

    With no propulsion, a round ark probably makes better sense than a boat-shaped one anyhow. Sort of an ark of arcs.

  • I may have commented this before, but I think there are two theories of the Flood that are most likely to be the truth:


    One is that the whole ‘flood’ story-thing started when, during a particularly bad flood, somewhere in Mesopotamia, Grandpa (sitting on the roof along with the family and the goats) said:
“Pah!* Call this a flood? I my day we had floods that’d make this flood look like a drought!!”


    The other is a variation on the old Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen Sketch.

    You know how it goes: four elderly, successful men are sitting in comfy chairs reminiscing about how hard it was in their youth… but with this version ending:

    ‘Our flood were so high that all t’mountains were covered wi’ water, and all we ‘ad were t’single match to hang onto, an’ we all drowned.

    But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe yer’.

    They fade out all saying “Nope”, “Nope”..


    The rest is HistoryLies.


* If it were, instead, Egypt, it would be the same, only Grandpa would have of course said “Ptah!”

  • sc_72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73

    It is fascinating to examine how an important myth like this develops over time, but as far as “good to have one more document that supports that conclusion.” goes, the number of documents is meaningless. Most people who are secular or who are at least not fundamentalists know that the Noah story is a myth; those who believe it to be historical see all evidence to the contrary as part of a conspiracy. If they don’t believe in evolution or global warning, all the evidence in the world (including the textual evidence right there in the Bible that at least two stories were grafted together, sometimes with the seams in plain view) will not cause them to budge. Noah was a historical person, the whole world was flooded because God got really mad at all sin in the world and also at the giant off spring of lusty male angels and the fair daughters of men, all the world’s people descend from Noah’s sons (with the children of Ham cursed to be servants), etc. etc. The more evidence you present, the more they are convinced that Satan really wants to hush up these “truths” that scientists are blind to, because they can only be seen with the eyes of faith.

  • So, is there some way of graphing this shit so that we can know where the line of “Divinely Inspired Revelation” intersects with the line of “Divinely Inspired Plagiarism”–and, if there is, do we call that point, “Divinely Delusional Bullshit”?

    @ sc_72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73:

    I’m just curious; is that a family name? The reason I ask is that I knew some folks from Kansas, back in the day and they were 72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73’s (although, I must admit, that I’m not sure if they spelled it the same way). Well, if they were your people, I just want you to know that they were very nice folks who used to have us over for cocktails and bar-b-q.

  • I find it interesting that the stories date back to around 2000 BCE. That was when Thira, a huge volcano in the southern Aegean, erupted in a catastrophic explosion. The blast was so big that it completely destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete, 70 miles to the south. It was also very likely the reality upon which the story of Atlantis was based.

    It would be fascinating to know if the Middle Eastern stories of a sudden, devastating flood might have come from an eruption-spawned tsunami that flooded the Euphrates River basin.

  • Scr… Archivist

    It may be closer to 1700 BCE. That’s the date given in this Guardian story from four years ago. Although they say that this copy is a few centuries younger than the oldest known account.

    This article has more details and quotes from the text. It’s also not from Fox.

  • Gregory

    I think that won’t work for the Euphrates and Tigris. The Mediterranean is on the wrong side.

  • sc_72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73


    Actually I’m part of the 72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73 clan. You’re thinking of 72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef74. that was the family that supplied Charlie Brown with his pal “5”.

    For some reason when I log in with Google to make a comment I am assigned that user name. I haven’t bothered to look at fixing this, because what does it matter what I’m called?

  • mobius

    And I can hear the fundamentalists now…


  • Anyway I don’t think that one needs one gigantic Flood (with a capital F) to start the myth. Prople need water and enough early civilisations (e.g. Indus, Mesopotamian, Nile etc) started next to rivers to make floods a commonplace.

  • people not prople

  • otrame

    I remember very clearly a youth pastor explaining that the story of the ark must be true because Israel is a desert so where would they have gotten the idea of a flood so deep it covered everything. I remember thinking “Um…They had imaginations?”. (Mind you, I was still a Christian in those days. The innerrant Bible was a fringe idea then). Then several years later I heard about Gilgamesh. Of course we also got the “flood stories all over the world” idea too. That also seemed pretty easy to explain without recourse to the supernatural when you considered that all the old civilizations were along big rivers. I guess I was never meant to be religious. I was as gullible as the next person when I was a kid, but I still tended to think of reasons why something supposedly supernatural might have a natural explanation.

    You know, the Nova episode about the Bermuda Triangle taught me more critical thinking in an hour than I had been taught in the 20-some years before it was broadcast. I consider that show the tipping point for me. I had decided long before that that I was an atheist, but I still tended to accept “cool” sounding stories presented as fact without really thinking about it. That Nova changed that for me.

  • Very cool. If one is into Mesopotamian literature Genesis will never impress you again. The Sumerian stuff has in depth descriptions of antediluvian dynasties. As for what inspired the Flood motif while it’s fun to speculate about Thera and the Black Sea, the Tigris and the Euphrates flood all the time. Having a “great flood” in a forgotten time is not a great stretch of anyone’s imagination.

  • where would they have gotten the idea of a flood so deep it covered everything

    Where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet, or on the Nile delta?

  • Drew

    I don’t understand what all the sudden hoopla around this is. I thought it had been pretty well established that most primitive cultures had a worldwide flood myth.

    Sometimes the hero built some sort of ship, sometimes the hero hid in a hole, sometimes the hero rode out the storm inside of a tree. Usually the hero was given a message by (one of the) god(s), and brought animals with him.

    Further I had thought that it was pretty clear anthropologically speaking why this was: Nearly all settlements of primitive cultures were situated on the banks of a body of water (lakes or rivers), and nearly all bodies of water periodically flood. It’s not a far leap from that to mythologize a flood that just didn’t stop.

    Though it should also be noted that there were hypotheses by so-called ‘alternative historians’ (also referred to as ‘pseudo-historians’) that the myth was based upon Atlantis sinking into the ocean. And still others who use the similarity of flood stories to suggest not that the story is true, but that there was an advanced civilization predating our history that spread out its own mythologies (In this case “advanced” refers to having oceanic navigation abilities and knowledge of astronomy). Still others suggest that the flood is a metaphor for the precession of the equinoxes. [It should be obvious that I don’t myself put much stock into these hypotheses but I do find them fun to read and bring up from time to time]

  • roggg

    Doesn’t this non-biblical corroboration from independent sources simply confirm the obvious truth of a global flood? 😉

  • D. C. Sessions

    Isn’t it amazing how many copyright infringers popped up so soon after Noah? All of those ancient ripoffs of The One True Flood Account!

  • @8:

    Thanks for clearing that up.

    Consider yourself lucky. Not only is “democommie” not my real name, that ol’ duffer in the photo ISN’T me, either. I am a barely legal, incredibly hot, blonde with huge, natural breasts. True story.

  • suttkus

    People tell stories of what they know made fantastic.

    The Norse lived near glaciers and told of how the world was once entirely covered by ice. Australian aborigines saw seasonal fires, and told stories of how the world was once covered in fire. Lots of humanity lives in flood planes, so stories of world-covering floods are common. None of this is special. British mythology is full of “The biggest boar ever!” stories. People who live near lions tell stories about REALLY big lions.

    What you fear, made fantastic, is the stuff of heroic tales. Always has been. We need no specific impressive flood to inspire these stories, anymore than we need a specific “it got really icy” to explain the Norse creation myth.

  • Michael Heath

    Any way you look at it, the Bible’s flood story is false.

    If the proponent argues for a global flood, we can show evidence convincingly falsifying this idiotic notion.

    If the proponent argues the story is true but refers instead to a local flood, we can point to the language showing the entire earth was referenced.

    If the proponent begs for mercy and asserts we should read it within the eyes of the local tribesmen, once again God impotently fails to clearly communicate, we can then point to the end of the flood story that has God asserting he would never send such a flood again. In fact we’ve had countless floods like that.

  • Michael Heath,

    If the proponent argues the story is true but refers instead to a local flood, we can point to the language showing the entire earth was referenced.

    Actually you cannot. The Hebrew word eh’-rets translated as earth (and often took, though unnecessarily so, to mean the whole earth) can also mean earth (as in soil–just like we use it) land as in dry land, and, important for this question, land as in a region. For example

    The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.(Gen 2:11-13)

    In all cases the word land is the same word often translated as earth in the story of Noah.

    Don’t bother saying it. Yes, I know: i) pointing out legitimate alternative definitions for the Hebrew (or Greek) is not fair play. ii) Christians must accept the translations that are most advantageous to their opponents. iii) Even though the alternative definitions are legit and examples provided this simply proves once again that you can make the bible say whatever you want it to say. (And my personal favorite) iv) If I, Michael Heath, were God, I would make sure my inspired word contained no ambiguities either in the original language or in any vernacular, ergo no god.

  • magistramarla

    Gregory @ #5

    Exactly my thoughts.

    When I taught my students about Greek, Roman and a little bit about Egyptian mythology, I told them that often there is a tiny grain of truth in the story, which has been embellished over the years.

    We would look at myths that way, and then use what we could find about the history of that culture to try to figure out how such a story might have gotten started.

    I would start with Theseus and the Minotaur. The archaeology shows that the Minoans and the Athenians traded. We would look at a picture showing the outline of the palace at Knossos. (Looks like a labyrinth).

    I would ask the students to imagine being a young Athenian who went to dinner in the palace after watching a ceremony involving men wearing masks of bulls. The young man asks to go to the restroom, gets lost in the corridors, feels an earthquake and hears the resulting noises. I asked them what story that young person might have told upon returning to Athens? Each myth that we read would get this treatment.

    We would read the Greek flood myth, the myths about Isis, and we would read Plato’s account of Atlantis, along with the history of what happened on Thera. I would also mention Gilgamesh, and then let the students draw their own conclusions. A few of my brighter students would pick up on the possibility that the Noah story just might fit in with this group of flood stories. I loved sowing those seeds of doubt in the minds of Texas teens!

    I’ve always thought that the eruption of Thera might be behind many of those stories. I’ve visited Santorini, and that caldera is breathtaking. Seeing it in person, and then visiting the palace of Knossos on Crete really made this theory make even more sense to me. My son-in-law laughed at me for blissing out while walking around the palace. It is amazing!

  • thascius

    @5-Most historians date the Thera eruption to between 1650 and 1500 BCE. As the Sumerian flood stories are thought to have been around as early as 2000 BCE it wouldn’t have been the inspiration for that, though it may very well have been the “real Atlantis.”

  • cjcolucci

    I’m not going to argue with Heddle’s Hebrew, and I certainly don’t want to discourage people who try to read their religious texts and form their religious beliefs in ways that minimize conflict with reality, but if we try to read the Noah’s Ark flood story as an account of a local flood, in the “land” of wherever, it just isn’t much of a story. A world-wide flood wiping out all the sinners, now that’s a story of Biblical proportions.

  • dhall

    One possible explanation was posited by two geologists awhile ago–Ryan and Pitman–when they discovered evidence that there was a catastrophic event c. 5600 BCE, when, as sea levels rose, the Mediterranean broke through the shallows at the upper end of the Bosporus and transformed the large freshwater lake there into the Black Sea. The evidence suggests that it was a fairly rapid transformation, not a gradual change, and any people living around it would have been compelled to evacuate, as the shoreline would have been pushed outward by as much as a mile a day. This might account for some of the Indo-European migrations out of that region, as the now-saltwater sea could not be used for irrigation, and might account for the varied garbled stories of a great flood found among the Sumerians c. 3500 BCE and the later Gilgamesh chapter, as well as the Old Testament version, and the versions found among the people who traveled west and south as well. There have been further studies along what was once the shore of the freshwater lake but is now submerged, and signs of human habitation have been found. I’m not saying it is the source of the stories, and Ryan and Pitman also say it is but a possible explanation. The suggestion that it was merely a riverine flood doesn’t fit as well, however, as that just isn’t catastrophic enough, or rare enough to have been preserved in tales.

  • Michael Heath


    You fail to respond to my entire post but instead cherry-picked it, avoiding the inconvenient part. If you are correct on a local flood is being described, then God lied using your own framing. Genesis 9 (RSV):

    11 I [God] establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

    Instead we’ve had many such floods. So God lied either way. A global flood didn’t happen. We’ve had many local floods since this story so he broke his promise.

    In addition I do not accept your pointing out “the land” refers only to a local region since there are many other absolute words framed around that word. For example, God doesn’t describe killing some men, but all men except Noah’s family. God promises to kill all animals except what Noah saves. So on an so on over and over again in Genesis. This isn’t about one word, but the absolute words around that one word.

    I’m not constraining you to inconvenient definition of the land, all the other words around it demand we do so.

    Heddle writes:

    (And my personal favorite) iv) If I, Michael Heath, were God, I would make sure my inspired word contained no ambiguities either in the original language or in any vernacular, ergo no god.

    This is a strawman and also misrepresents my arguments. I’ve never claimed the many failures for the biblical god to clearly communicate means there’s no god. That’s an idiotic conclusion to make.

    In addition you’ve never actually confronted the failure of the Bible’s god to clearly communicate. And let’s put this in proper context. This god promises to punish some for all eternity, yet can’t even validate his existence to us, his nature to us, or what he demands of us. None of these have been established, with the latter, his supposed demands, ending up being an incoherent contradictory set of narratives and edict as we see in the flood story. So your joking about an inconvenient fact, which you assert here once again*, is fine if you can overcome the complete inability of the biblical god to communicate. But you haven’t overcome that, so it’s bad form to ridicule that which you can’t overcome while still holding to the same seemingly indefensible position.

    And why did God limit himself to one shot to communicate with us via the original text of the Bible, and when he failed miserably to get that right, not go to Rev. 2 or use other avenues to communicate with us?

    *If an inerrant Bible inspired by God is true, then why is the clear language in the original text describing a global flood actually describing a global flood? Or if the Bible is actually describing a local flood as you assert in spite of all the language describing it as a global flood, than why is God promising not to bring floods to that area again as we read from the above passage when we know many have occurred since then? In either case God fails miserably to clearly communicate, not contradict himself, and asserts facts we can falsify are obviously not true – no global flood, floods have occurred since Noah’s supposed flood.

  • meg

    It’s been a while since I studied/read Mesopotamian history, but my recollection is that there was regular flooding in the area, but that the Tigris and Euphrates did not have the same regularity with the flooding the way the Nile does, and sometimes was hardly of any use, and sometimes did cause floods beyond what the people could cope with.

    There is certainly evidence in Babylon of flooding – if I remember correctly there’s a tomb relief somewhere that depicts a destructive flood.

    There’s also some dispute about exactly WHERE the coastline was 5000 years ago. I think some believe it receded, but if it went the other way, that could be the cause of a communal memory?

    @2richardlguru – that made me laugh – thank you, I needed that this morning.

  • lpetrich

    Recent Cosmic Impacts on Earth – Do Global Myths Reflect an Ancient Disaster? Archeologist Bruce Masse proposes that Noah’s Flood and several other flood legends were inspired by an impact in the Indian Ocean, one that produced Burckle Crater there. From various features of various flood legends there, he concludes that this disaster happened in 2807 BCE.

  • I love Irving Finkel, he confirms exactly to the stereotype of the eccentric professor so passionately involved in their studies that they don’t realize they are wearing odd shoes.

    I also love the fact that he didn’t think it necessary to check that his terms of reference would be globally accessible (read Americanized) . Who knew that Weetabix weren’t a global phenomena!

    However, if anyone believes that coracles are unsinkable, I have a pair of children’s sized jeans from the late ’70s covered in river mud that prove otherwise, and a London landmark for sale.

  • “However, if anyone believes that coracles are unsinkable, I have a pair of children’s sized jeans from the late ’70s covered in river mud that prove otherwise, and a London landmark for sale.”

    I don’t think that the premise was their unsinkability but, rather, their seaworthiness, compared to a prowed vessel if both lack motive power.

    I can imagine that a trip in a coracle would be living hell for anyone who suffers motion sickness.