Published on July 10, 2016
In 1948, a British pilot serving in Iraq acquired a clay tablet with an intriguing, 3,700 year-old inscription. The ancient writing tells the story of how the god Enki warns a Sumerian king named Atra-Hasis of a future flood that will destroy mankind; Enki gives him instructions for building a boat to save his family and livestock. If that sounds like a familiar tale, it’s because this was one of several ancient flood traditions that, centuries later, would inspire the biblical story of Noah. But the tablet’s inscription describes a boat very different from the traditional image of the Ark—it’s said to be circular and made of reeds. Is this nothing more than a fanciful myth? Or could such a reed boat have carried Atra-Hasis’ family of more than one hundred and his many animals? Join NOVA as a team of historians and expert boat builders investigates this fascinating flood legend and sets out to rebuild a tantalizing, ancient forerunner of the Ark.
Noah’s Ark (Hebrew: תיבת נח; Biblical Hebrew: Tevat Noaḥ) is the vessel in the Genesis flood narrative (Genesis chapters 6–9) by which God spares Noah, his family, and a remnant of all the world’s animals from the flood. According to Genesis, God gave Noah instructions for building the ark. Seven days before the deluge, God told Noah to enter the ark with his household and the animals. The story goes on to describe the ark being afloat throughout the flood and subsequent receding of the waters before it came to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. The story is repeated, with variations, in the Quran, where the ark appears as Safina Nuh (Arabic: سفينة نوح “Noah’s boat”). The Genesis flood narrative is similar to numerous other flood myths from a variety of cultures. The earliest known written flood myth is the Sumerian flood myth found in the Epic of Ziusudra. Searches for Noah’s Ark have been made from at least the time of Eusebius (c.275–339 CE) to the present day. There is no scientific evidence for a global flood, and despite many expeditions, no evidence of the ark has been found.
The ark: Genesis 6–9
The Hebrew word for the ark, teba, occurs twice in the Bible, in the flood narrative and in the Book of Exodus, where it refers to the basket in which Jochebed places the infant Moses. (The word for the ark of the covenant (Hebrew: אָרוֹן הַבְּרִית ʾĀrôn Habbərît, modern Hebrew pronunciation: Aron Habrit) is quite different). In both cases teba has a connection with salvation from waters. :21
Noah is warned of the coming flood and told to construct the ark. God spells out to Noah the dimensions of the vessel: 300 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width and 30 cubits in height (440 ×73 × 44 ft or 134 m × 22 m × 13 m, where the front is a golden ratio). It had three internal divisions (which are not actually called “decks”, although presumably this is what is intended), a door in the side, and a sohar, which may be either a roof or a skylight.
It is made of “gopher” wood, a word which does not appear elsewhere in the entire Bible, and is divided into qinnim, a word which always refers to birds’ nests elsewhere, leading some scholars to amend this to qanim, reeds, the material used for the boat of Atrahasis, the Babylonian flood-hero. God instructs Noah to kapar (smear) the ark with koper (pitch): in Hebrew the first of these words is a verb formed from the second, and, like “gopher”, it is a word found nowhere else in the Bible.
Noah is instructed to take on board his wife, his three sons, and his sons’ wives. He is also to take two of every living thing, and seven pairs of every clean creature and of every bird, together with sufficient food.