Science in Christian Perspective
The Bible and Science
A Time and a Place for Noah
Carol A. Hill*
17 El Arco Drive
Albuquerque, NM 87123
From: PSCF 53.1 (March 2001): 24-40. Responses: Nelson, Morton
This paper attempts to place Noah in real time and space. First, it is deduced from both biblical and archaeological evidence that Noah probably lived in Mesopotamia around 2900 B.C., in what archaeologists refer to as the Jemdet Nasr Period. Next, Noah's "world" is examined with respect to the geography, climate, irrigation, natural resources, agriculture, animal husbandry, cities, architecture, religion, pottery, textiles, luxuries, language, numbers, and writing of that time. The biblical Noah is then discussed in the context of the time and place in which he lived--how he was righteous in God's sight, why he built the ark, and how he could have obtained the materials (wood and pitch) for building the ark. It is argued that recent attempts to place Noah in the Mediterranean area much earlier in time make Noah a mythological, rather than a historical, person.
The story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6-9 has long been a subject of contention between biblical and secular scholars. Is the story a myth, as most secular scholars claim, or was Noah a real historical person who survived a great deluge? Using a "realistic approach," this paper places the biblical Noah in the context of real time and space. I used the same approach in my paper, "The Garden of Eden: A Modern Landscape," published in an earlier issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.1
The following discussion is based on two assumptions:
1. The Bible can be taken at face value; that is, the biblical writer was accurately recording historical events of ancient times. By taking the Bible at "face value," nothing is to be read into the Bible that is not explicitly stated in its original (autograph) text.
2. The scientific disciplines of geology, geography, and archaeology also accurately record the events of ancient times. The archaeology presented in this paper is the result of over a century and a half of fieldwork done in Mesopotamia by many archaeologists.
A Time for Noah
The Bible specifically dates Noah because it traces the genealogy of Adam to Abraham through the line of Seth (Gen. 5). Abraham is known to have lived about 2000-1900 B.C.2 Since the Bible states that Noah lived about 1,000 years before Abraham, it places Noah at ca. 3000 B.C. The Bible also follows the line of Cain (Gen. 4:16-24), but since this is not the covenant line, it does not mention specific time intervals between "generations" along Cain's line.
While a "generation" in the Bible does not necessarily mean a direct father-to-son descent,3 it is still notable that the Bible lists nine "generations" between Adam and Noah (with an average "generation" of about 120 years), but only seven "generations" between Adam (through Cain) and Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain (Gen. 4). This implies (assuming that the length of a "generation" in both genealogical lines is about 120 years) that these three descendants of Cain may have lived three or four hundred years before Noah. The importance of Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain to this discussion is that the Bible mentions their occupations, which can be linked to archaeological evidence.
"And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other, Zillah. And Adah bore Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe. And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah" (Gen. 4:19-22).
The word "father" in verses 20 and 21 of the King James Version implies that Jabal and Jubal were the first to practice these occupations in Mesopotamia. However, Speiser translates the word "father" as "ancestor," which alternately suggests that these men might have been only the first of their lineage to practice these professions.4 "Archaic" cuneiform texts from Uruk, dated at ~3100 B.C., may also be relevant to this discussion.5 The so-called "Professions List" text marks the first mention of a profession by the sign "gal," which means "big" or which may stand for the "head of."6 This may be a parallel idea for the Gen. 4:20-22 "professions list"-- that these three men were at the "head of" their trades, in terms of being one of the first or proficient at their trades.
The Uruk "Professions List" mentions the following occupations as being already established by ca. 3100-3000 B.C.: plowman (farmer), shepherd (sheep and goats), cowherd (cattle), fisherman (fish), smith (worker in metal), weaver (of textiles), and potter (maker of pottery). Since these occupations were already in existence by 3100 B.C., it implies that both Jabal and Tubal-cain must have lived (if they were the first) around or before this time.
Jabal, the "father" of such as dwell in tents and have cattle, is difficult to place time-wise in Mesopotamia. It is known that the domestication of cattle, sheep, and goats happened ~6500 B.C. in areas surrounding Mesopotamia,7 but when nomadic herding became "big business" in Mesopotamia--in that Jabal could have become the "head of" this trade--is not clear. It is known that nomads occupied the Negev in the Early Bronze Age (ca 3000 B.C.)8 (Fig. 1), and that these ancient nomads appear to have had a similar lifestyle to that of the modern-day Bedouin, who pitch their tents and move seasonally in order to provide grazing for their domesticated animals.
The musician occupation of Jubal also fits within this time frame. Sumerian characters representing harps have been found on stone tablets from late in the Uruk Period (~3100 B.C.; Table 1).9 These drawings depict a curved or bow-shaped harp with three strings, a resonator, and a neck. People also played vertical end-blown flutes (pipes) in ancient times. While good pictographs of flutes have been found on Mesopotamian cylinder seals only from the later Akkadian Period (2350-2150 B.C.; Table 1), it is probable that flutes existed long before this in Mesopotamia, since in ancient Egypt the instrument is attested to as early as the proto-dynastic period (ca 3000 B.C.).10 Following this reasoning, one can surmise that Jubal also probably lived around 3000 B.C. or before.
The most useful (to this discussion) of the three professions named in Gen. 4 is that of Tubal-cain: "he was an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron." The Bronze Age in southwestern Asia is known to have begun in the fourth millennium B.C., when copper began to be alloyed with either arsenic, antimony, or tin.11 The earliest sites contain mostly arsenical bronze, and occur with small numbers of iron artifacts. The generally recognized date for the beginning of the Bronze Age in the Near East is ca. 3300 B.C.;12 thus, Tubal-cain could have lived as early as 3300 B.C. if he was one of the first in Mesopotamia to craft bronze objects. If 300-400 years is subtracted from 3300 B.C. (based on the 120-year average biblical "generation" discussed above), this would place Noah as a historical person around 3000-2900 B.C.
Additional archaeological evidence exists for the time of Noah and the Flood in the form of Sumerian cuneiform texts known as the "Gilgamesh Epic" and "King List." Both documents attest to a great
Table 1. Archaeological Periods in Mesopotamia
flood survived by Ziusudra (or Utnapiötim or Atra-hasis, alternate Babylonian names for Noah), who was the "king" of the ancient city of Shuruppak in Mesopotamia (Fig. 1). Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the first dynasty of Uruk following the great flood,13 and is known to have been a real person who reigned in Mesopotamia around 2650 B.C.14 Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Flood happened sometime before 2650 B.C.--and perhaps at least two hundred years before, since Gilgamesh was supposedly the fifth king after the Flood.
It can be deduced [from archaeological evidence] that the Old Testament Genesis Flood most likely happened ca 2900 B.C. ± 100 years--or almost exactly when the Bible places it in time according to its genealogically-based chronology.
The Sumerian King List mentions ten antediluvian kings, with Ziusudra being the "king" who lived in Shuruppak just before the flood. The mention of Shuruppak is important because the ancient ruins of this city still exist today as the archaeological mound of Fara (also sometimes spelled Farah), which has been partially excavated in modern times. On the basis of pottery types, cylinder seals, and proto-cuneiform tablets found at Fara, it is known that this city was founded in the Jemdet Nasr Period, and that it was a significant urban center during this time.15 The Jemdet (also sometimes spelled "Jamdat" or "-amdat") Nasr Period dates from ca. 3100-2900 B.C. (Table 1), and was named after the archaeological site of that age (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Map of the Near East showing places mentioned in the text. Modern Cities are underlined. Cu indicates possible source to Mesopotamia. Arrows show the possible movement of timber from the mountain sources to the Euphrates. Short dashes from Sippar to Uruk denote past course of the Euphrates River at about 3000 B.C. Base map is from Oates.21
At Shuruppak (and also at Uruk), the last Jemdet Nasr remains are separated from the subsequent Early Dynastic I Period by clean, water-lain clay deposited by a flood. This flood clay is nearly five feet thick at Uruk,16 and two feet thick at Fara.17 If these deposits do represent Noah's Flood and the division between antediluvian and postdiluvian societies, then a date (the end of Jemdet Nasr time) is established for this historical event.18 Above these flood deposits, a new era of building and technology was established in southern Mesopotamia starting in the Early Dynastic I Period (Table 1).
From the above archaeological evidence, it can be deduced that the Old Testament Genesis Flood most likely happened ca. 2900 B.C. ± 100 years--or almost exactly when the Bible places it in time according to its genealogically-based chronology.
A Place for Noah
The Sumerian King List mentions Shuruppak as being the "home town" of Noah. The Bible also attests to Noah having lived in the area of Mesopotamia. The Garden of Eden was located in the land of the four rivers of Mesopotamia: Euphrates, Tigris, Pishon, and Gihon (Gen. 2:10-14). Cain went out from Eden and dwelt in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden (Gen. 4:16). The ark landed upon the mountains of Ararat (Armenia), located just north of Mesopotamia (Gen. 8:4). The names of some of Noah's descendants mentioned in Gen. 10 (e.g., Ophir, Havilah, Asshur) represent places bordering Mesopotamia, and Noah's descendant, Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-12), was the founder of Babel, Erech, and Calneh, all cities in the land of Shinar (the biblical counterpart of the cuneiform "Sumer").19 The "tower of Babel" was located on the plain of Shinar, and may have been the ziggurat of ancient Babylon. Finally, it was Noah's descendant, Abraham, who (almost 1,000 years later) left Mesopotamia (Ur) for the promised land of Canaan.
As mentioned above, the Sumerian King List designates Shuruppak as the place where Noah (Ziusudra) lived. The high mound of Fara (Shuruppak) covers about 120 hectares, has a very thick, pottery-shard density (over six feet in places), and dates from the Jemdet Nasr Period.20 There is no evidence for a settlement at ancient Shuruppak earlier than the Jemdet Nasr Period; therefore, if Noah did live at Shuruppak, he could not have lived there before about 3100 B.C.
The following section reconstructs what it was like to have lived in southern Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago during the Jemdet Nasr Period, since this is the most probable time context in which Noah should be considered as a historical person.
Geography. "Mesopotamia," which literally means the "land between the rivers," is the area located between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in what is now modern Iraq (Fig. 1). Southern Mesopotamia (below the latitude of Hit) included Sumer and Akkad, which together are referred to as Babylonia, while northern Mesopotamia was referred to as Assyria. Sumer (meaning "reedy land") occupied the southern, marshy part of a great alluvial plain, whereas Akkad occupied the northern part of the plain from about the latitudes of Baghdad to Babylon. North of the latitude of Hit, the alluvial plain ends and the two rivers become separated by a barren limestone plateau.21 This plateau confines the Euphrates to a narrow valley, but the Tigris passes through the plateau as a wide upland of plow land and pasture.
Southern Mesopotamia is almost completely flat and near sea level, the only elevated areas being occasional mounds on the plain that represent the remains of ancient Mesopotamian cities such as Shuruppak, Uruk, and Ur (Fig. 1). Below the latitude of modern An-Nasiriyah, however, no mounds can be seen, and between this latitude and the present Persian Gulf is a region of marshes and lakes. The reason for the absence of mounds below An-Nasiriyah may be because the Persian Gulf extended this far inland during ancient times. Geological evidence suggests that the water of the Gulf reached a maximum at about 3500 B.C., when it was approximately six to ten feet higher, and about 150 miles inland from where it is today.23
The Euphrates (meaning "that which makes fruitful") and Tigris (meaning "straight" or "arrow") receive their waters (either runoff or groundwater) from the mountains of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (Fig. 1). These mountains enclose the flat alluvial plain, and essentially marked the known "world" of the ancient Mesopotamians. From March to July, when the Tigris and Euphrates are in flood, about 4,000 square miles can become inundated and covered with an almost continuous sheet of water. When these rivers overflow their banks, a deposit of rich soil is left that promotes the fertility of the region.
The two rivers have constantly changed their courses over time. In particular, the Euphrates has continually migrated westward over the last 5,000 years. During Noah's time (3000-2900 B.C.), the Euphrates flowed from Sippar to Kish to Nippur to Shuruppak to Uruk24 (Fig. 1), and the mounds that now exist in this part of Mesopotamia were built along this ancient course of the river.
Climate. The climate of southern Mesopotamia is very hot and dry, with temperatures that can reach 120†+F in July and August, and with an average rainfall amounting to only a few inches per year. In summer, the rising hot air does not form clouds because of the lack of water vapor, a condition that helps to produce the hyper-arid climate. The only rain comes in winter (December through March) from intermittent storms brought in from the Mediterranean.25 During the time that Noah lived (ca 3000 B.C.), the climate may have been somewhat moister than it is today;26 however, there is no evidence to suggest that the basic features of a very hot and dry climate have been significantly different for the past 6,000 years.27
The prevailing wind is the shamal, or north wind, which comes from the mountains of Asia Minor (Turkey) and Kurdistan (northern Iraq), and which sweeps almost continuously down the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates from mid-June to mid-September, mitigating the great heat.28 The southerly and southeasterly sharqi is a dry, dusty wind which occurs from March to early June, and then again from late September through November.
Irrigation. Even as early as the Ubaid Period (Table 1), the occupants of southern Mesopotamia built canals to carry water from the rivers to any irrigable land. The irrigation canals built by the ancient Sumerians during Uruk and Jemdet Nasr time consisted of small, multiple, shifting channels, but by ca. 2500 B.C. (Early Dynastic III), the canals had become consolidated into larger and more permanent waterways.29 The canal system consisted of an intricate network of dikes, parallel and lateral canals, canals tapping water from the rivers, and also of reservoirs and weirs (small dams) to store the accumulated waters and to release them again in the correct season.30 A large labor force was necessary to keep the canal system functional. The southern Mesopotamian alluvial soil is so deep, soft, and yielding that it is easily eroded by floods. The canals are then filled and choked with this flood silt so as to be in need of constant re-excavation. Another important work was clearing the canals of reeds.
and the labor force involved in building them and keeping them functional, must
have been very familiar to Noah, since his livelihood and that of his extended
kin group depended on supplying Euphrates River water via
these canals to their crops.
Canals, and the labor force involved in building them and keeping them functional, must have been very familiar to Noah, since his livelihood and that of his extended kin group depended on supplying Euphrates River water via these canals to their crops. During the Jemdet Nasr Period, it has been documented that there was a closely spaced, linear grouping of large towns near Shuruppak along a constructed canal almost ten miles long. The length of this canal suggests that some form of cooperative, federative activity existed among the rulers of the cities along its waterway.31
Natural Resources. The natural resources of ancient Mesopotamia consisted of water (from the two rivers), clay (from the alluvial soil), bitumen (mainly from Hit), and reeds (from the marshlands). The area was almost completely lacking in rocks, metals, or high-quality wood. Clay was used for practically everything: clay bricks, clay pottery, clay sickles, clay tablets, clay seals, and even clay nails. Bitumen was used for cementing bricks, for caulking boats, and for other adhesive purposes. Bitumen was transported down river from Hit as flat, rectangular "cakes" on reed mats or in reed baskets.32 Reeds were used for a variety of purposes--to strengthen mud bricks, to build small reed boats, to roof houses, and to make baskets and mats.
Except for the resources mentioned above, everything else had to be imported into Mesopotamia from the surrounding highland areas. Known imports into Mesopotamia during Uruk and Jemdet Nasr time were metal, stone (including chert and alabaster), high-quality wood, and "exotic" luxury items such as gold, precious stones, and spices (as mentioned in Gen. 2:12). Items of export were grain, fish, animal hides, textiles, and pottery. The two rivers and connected canals were the vital arteries along which most trade flowed. Overland transportation was by donkey (onager), or (later) by camel.33
Jemdet Nasr-style pottery has been found at Tell Brak, suggesting that trade with that area was operative during the time period in which Noah may have lived.
Trade began in a big way in Mesopotamia during the "Late Uruk expansion" period.34 Uruk-style artifacts and architecture have been found as far away from southern Mesopotamia as southeastern Anatolia (Turkey), the northern Mesopotamian plains, and the Zagros Mountain valleys of Iran. Uruk colonies, such as the one at Tell Brak in northeast Syria (Fig. 1), were sent out from lowland Mesopotamia to establish themselves at critical junctures along trade routes.35 Jemdet Nasr-style pottery has been found at Tell Brak, suggesting that trade with that area was operative during the time period in which Noah may have lived.
Agriculture. Due to the severe climate characterized by long, hot summers without any rain, and low and extremely variable winter precipitation, agriculture was practical in southern Mesopotamia only near or next to the two rivers. The alluvial clay soil of Mesopotamia is fertile if supplied with water and then allowed to drain so that salts do not build up in the topsoil. In ancient Mesopotamia, cultivation was necessarily confined to cells fed by each canal, separated in many cases from the next cell by desert grazing. Most people lived the stationary life of the farmer, relying on oxen as draught animals for the cultivation of irrigated, salt-tolerant crops such as barley.36 Clay sickles are a common artifact of early (Uruk) Mesopotamian agricultural sites, but by Jemdet Nasr time, chert-bladed sickles hafted with bitumen were also being used.37 Metal hoes, picks, and celts (prehistoric axes) were also in use by this time, as were threshing sledges and harrows.
Jemdet Nasr inhabitants of Mesopotamia had a varied and nutritious diet. Meat came from sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, fish, shellfish, and some wild game (such as gazelles).38 Dairy products from these animals included milk, various cheeses, and ghee (clarified butter). Also, fowl such as pigeons (but not chickens) and small birds and their eggs were eaten. Common vegetables were onions, garlic, peas, and lentils. Common fruits were dates, pomegranates, olives, and figs. The staple food of most Mesopotamians was barley bread, onions, and fish, and the "national" drink was beer made from malted barley. Cereals (barley, emmer wheat, millet, sesame) consisted of roasted grains or that made into gruel or porridge. Cereal grains were also ground (on grindstones) into flour and made into various kinds of bread (both leavened and unleavened). Dome-type ovens (such as have been found at Fara39) were used for baking bread; other foods were cooked over an open flame or glowing coals. Wine was drunk, but mostly by the elite since grapevines were grown primarily in northern Mesopotamia and wine had to be imported into Sumer.40 Fish were dried, salted, or eaten fresh, and were both a staple and export food.
Animal Husbandry. Vast areas of land away from the two rivers and their associated system of canals provided pasture for flocks during much of the year. Animals were also grazed on fallow land, which had the added benefit of contributing manure as fertilizer to the land.41 A considerable number of cuneiform tablets from Uruk deal with the keeping of animal herds on the outskirts of the city. Of those tablets, twenty-eight deal with sheep, fourteen with goats, and two with cattle.42 "Archaic" texts from Fara (Shuruppak) also record the keeping of cattle, sheep, and goats during Jemdet Nasr time. Cuneiform signs on such tablets indicate juvenile or adult animals, sex of the animal, and whether the animals were "breeding" bulls or rams, and in the case of sheep, whether they were "wool sheep." Also, these tablets indicate whether the animals were to be sacrificed for temple worship and festivals, and whether they were part of the "royal herds." Sheep were mainly raised for their wool, and goats for their dairy products such as fermented buttermilk, yogurt, or curds. Every farming village had its flocks of sheep and goats, and these herds were probably one form of measuring wealth. Dogs had also been trained by this time; one Jemdet Nasr seal impression shows two dogs being led by a skirted, big-nosed, human figure who carries the dog leads in his flexed arms.43
Cities. Urban civilization first arose in southern Mesopotamia around 3400 B.C., expanding in late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr time. Cities served as nodal points for facilitating and regulating the exchange of goods (both local and long-distance trade), storing surplus food, and defensive purposes. They also served as political, economic, and religious centers. By late Uruk time, cuneiform texts reveal the existence of a rigid, hierarchical division of labor, duties, professions, offices, and titles. "School texts" indicate that some boys (at least those from the elite class) went to Sumerian scribal schools to study writing and mathematics.44
Uruk was probably the greatest of the fourth millennium cities. In that area of Babylonia, from ca. 3300 B.C. onward, there was a great increase in the number of settlements that could be considered populated enough to be cities. Tablet fragments from the late Uruk to Jemdet Nasr Periods list at least eighty-eight cities, or areas of cities, that existed then, with Shuruppak being one of them.45 Each urban center occupied about fifty hectares, while smaller towns and villages occupied much less space.46 Art from this period shows the pooling of community resources and the management and redistribution of goods to support an elite and to celebrate large community festivals.47 Sumerian art also shows beatings of those citizens who did not pay their taxes.
Each city with its few miles of surrounding and dependent villages was a political unit unto itself, having its own laws, constitution, ruler, and gods; i.e., it was a "city-state." The office of a Sumerian city ruler was hereditary, and his power was absolute. He was also the "representative" of the city god. The city-states of old Sumer, ruled by local dynasties, were constantly engaged in territorial conflicts, and Sumer is known to have pioneered advances in warfare technology.48 Cylinder seals from Uruk through Jemdet Nasr time show the binding, clubbing, stabbing, and sacrifice of captives.49
Shuruppak was one of the largest cities of Jemdet Nasr time.50 Undoubtedly, its position on the Euphrates River near the head of four water (canal) courses was at least partly responsible for its emergence and success. As one of the largest cities in Mesopotamia at that time, Shuruppak would have held a relatively large amount of power, and so would have Noah, the "king" of Shuruppak.
As one of the largest cities in Mesopotamia at that time, Shuruppak would have held a relatively large amount of power, and so would have Noah, the "king" of Shuruppak.
Architecture. The buildings of ancient Mesopotamia consisted of houses, public buildings, and temples. Simple huts were built of reeds plastered with mud, but some houses were built with clay bricks. Unbaked bricks were mould-made, and then sun dried on a layer of matting. Some of these bricks (either pierced or un-pierced) were then baked in a kiln. The temples were built by first raising a huge, flat-topped platform known as a ziggurat, which was essentially an artificial "mountain" of sun- baked brick. The temple was built on top of the ziggurat. Around the bases of the ziggurats were built street upon street of mud-brick houses.
Ziggurat temples were typical of Sumerian and Babylonian architecture for over thirty centuries, from the Ubaid Period almost to the time of Christ. Two types of brick were used in temple construction--baked and unbaked. The baked bricks were usually used for the exterior of the temple, while the unbaked ones were used where they would not be visible. Some temples were coated with a gypsum plaster or covered with small colored clay cones,51 and their facades were ornamented with niches and pilasters. Walls of the temple were thick, and the masonry good. Bonding of the bricks was accomplished by using bitumen and layers of reeds. The roofs of temples consisted of wood and reed matting with a layer of clay on top.52 The Sumerian cubit was the unit of linear measurement, and the temples were built from the outside in.53 Also, temples were always built so that their corners were oriented to the points of the compass.54 Precious objects (such as gold and jewelry) were sometimes placed under the foundation of a temple prior to its being built.
From the Ubaid Period onward, higher and more elaborate ziggurats were built. This was accomplished by piling one story upon another in a stair- step like pattern, with the volume of each story less that the one below it. At least thirty-three ziggurats in twenty-seven different cities are known from the Mesopotamian area (sometimes a city would have more than one ziggurat).55 During the Jemdet Nasr Period, ziggurats usually had only two or three stories, but in time they increased in both mass and height. The ultimate ziggurat was the one in Babylon, which at its zenith had seven stories (with a temple on top of the last story) and was 295 ft. high and 295 ft. square at its base.56 This temple was rebuilt and renovated a number of times. It is reported that Nebuchadnezzar (604-567 B.C.) covered the upper temple with blue enameled brick, and painted each of the seven stories a different color. All eight towers (seven stages and one temple) could be climbed by means of a spiral staircase, which ran around the outside of the temple.
The purpose of the ziggurat and temple tower was to be a link between heaven and earth--a "high place" or sanctuary, which was supposedly the habitation of a god or gods. The idea of a ziggurat was that the god could leave his or her dwelling place and descend down to man, or man could raise himself up to the level of the gods. Gen. 11:4 records this intention: And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. The temples were built for the worship of pagan deities.
Religion. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia were polytheistic and worshiped a pantheon of gods. At the head of this pantheon stood An, sky god; Enlil, wind or storm god; Enki, earth and water god; Utu, sun god; Nannar, moon god; and Inanna, mother goddess or "lady of heaven."57 While all of these (and other) gods were recognized and revered by the inhabitants of Sumer and Akkad, in addition each city had its own god and goddess whom they regarded as their special patrons and protectors.
The temple and temple priests played a central role in the life of the citizens of Mesopotamia. The cultivation of fields in the regions of a city was conducted largely under the supervision of the temple priests.58 The temple was also involved in trading matters and undoubtedly organized and financed a great amount of commerce.59 Temple priests may have also acted as "bankers" between private citizens engaged in commerce.
There were two elements to Sumerian religious worship: offerings and sacrifices.60 Offerings of food, drink, and oil were placed on tables before divine images, and a banquet was held to which human worshipers, the gods, and even the dead could attend. Sacrifices were made on special altars or on the roof of the temple by a qualified priest, who cut an animal's throat while reciting an incantation. As shown by pictures on cylinder seals, it was also the duty of the priest's attendants to execute or sacrifice captives.
While almost all Sumerian cities contained at least one temple, interestingly, no major temple complex has been found at Shuruppak, Noah's home city.
While almost all Sumerian cities contained at least one temple, interestingly, no major temple complex has been found at Shuruppak, Noah's home city.61 More will be said about this subject later.
Pottery. Archaeologists use pottery, cylinder seals (containing a particular style of cuneiform writing), and the carbon-14 method to date Mesopotamian artifacts and the sites where these artifacts occur. Most important of these techniques is the recognition of specific-age pottery types. For example, beveled-rim bowls are diagnostic for Uruk-age vessels. These occur in massive quantities at Uruk-age sites and were apparently mass-produced on a potter's wheel.62 Polychrome-painted bowls were their direct successors in the Jemdet Nasr Period. Both the Uruk beveled-rim bowls and the polychrome Jemdet Nasr bowls seem to have been made in standard sizes, perhaps because they were used as vessels for distributing rations to workers laboring on public works such as temples and canals.63
Pottery made in the Jemdet Nasr Period was wheel-made, but the firing was not well controlled, as can be seen in over-fired and soft pieces common to that age.64 Handles are usually pierced lugs, but simple loops also occur, as do twisted handles. Spouted jars were also a popular vessel of this time period. Types of clay used were either light red or light gray. The light-red clay and a burnished slip were used almost exclusively for polychrome ware. Paint was applied in geometric-designs; however, the aesthetic sense of this decoration was not highly developed, as overcrowded and unbalanced designs are a common feature of Jemdet Nasr pottery. Many jar types found at both Jemdet Nasr and Shuruppak (Fara) were painted plum-red all over, or from the shoulder of the bowl upwards.65
Textiles. Textile manufacturing was one of Mesopotamia's primary domestic and export industries, and a large amount of spindle-whorl artifacts attest to the importance of weaving and textiles in the life of the inhabitants. Linen (made from flax of the flax plant) and wool (mainly from sheep) were the principle fibers used in weaving. At first, flax was the primary material, but by the late fourth millennium a fundamental shift from flax to wool took place for the majority of textile production.66 Wool came to dominate flax because it was more efficient to produce than linen. Wool was the cloth of the common person, while linen became a luxury item fit for dressing kings and divine images (idols).
Spindle whorls were used to spin either flax or wool thread. Ground looms, bone and copper needles, awls, and weights were other implements used in textile production. Plucking of either wool or flax was done with a comb. Looms used during the late fourth millennium were horizontal ground looms, where two women weavers would crouch on either side of the loom.67 The warp was placed lengthwise in the loom and stretched between two poles.
Designs on cylinder seals from Jemdet Nasr time show bearded men with hair piled back into a bun, held in place by a headband. The majority of human figures are depicted naked, although some men are shown wearing "skirts" (long kilts) below the waist (probably made of fleece), but with their torsos bare.68 The women wore one-piece cloaks, which passed under the right arm and fastened at the left shoulder. They wore their hair in braids, dressed up on their heads.
Luxuries. Because the natural resources of Mesopotamia were limited, any "exotic" commodities had to be imported from beyond Mesopotamia. Among these imported items were high-quality wood, metals, stone, jewelry, and other luxury items.
By Jemdet Nasr time, beads were commonly worn as necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and girdles. Beads were made out of shell, bone, clay, rock crystal quartz, carnelian, lapis lazuli, agate, and alabaster (a white variety of gypsum). Chalcedony in any form was fancied by the ancients and has been found in Mesopotamia in archaeological levels dating from about 3500 B.C. onward.69
Also during Jemdet Nasr time, fine vases of porphyry, granite, and alabaster turn up in the archeological record; some of these vases were inlayed with shell, red jasper, and mother-of-pearl. Glass was used as a glaze for beads and other items, but glassware using the core technique did not make its appearance until about the middle of the second millennium B.C.70
Administrative texts from Uruk dating to Jemdet Nasr time give an account of metal objects that were imported into Mesopotamia. Metals used by the Mesopotamians were gold, silver, copper, and bronze. Gold appears suddenly in the archaeological record of Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period (ca 3500 B.C.), for example, at Uruk in layers underlying the White Temple.71 The gold that reached Mesopotamia was probably mined at Mahd adh Dhahab in Arabia, the closest gold mine to Mesopotamia.72 Gold occurs at Mahd adh Dhahab mostly as electrum (gold mixed with silver), so silver could have also come from this source.
Silver was used in Mesopotamia before 3000 B.C., but after ca. 3000 B.C. it became the standard currency, replacing barley Ö
Silver was used in Mesopotamia before 3000 B.C., but after ca. 3000 B.C. it became the standard currency, replacing barley, which had been the standard before this time. Mesopotamians recorded the price of everything from timber to barley in silver by weight in shekels (1 shekel = about one-third of an ounce).73 Beginning about 3000 B.C., silver was cast into "ring money." Ring money consisted of coiled silver, some of which resembled bedsprings and others of which resembled slender wire coils ranging from one to six shekels in weight. The largest silver coils weighed almost exactly sixty shekels, and the smallest from one-twelfth to two and one- half shekels.
Copper began to appear regularly in Mesopotamia beginning in the Uruk Period.74 Copper vessels are fairly numerous in graves of Jemdet Nasr time, and several flat bowls of copper have been excavated at Fara (Shuruppak).75 The source of copper for Mesopotamia was probably Anatolia (Turkey) (Fig. 1).76
Bronze began to be used extensively in Jemdet Nasr time, and the appearance of bronze at these sites signals the beginning of the "bronze age" in Mesopotamia.77 Bronze is copper alloyed with arsenic, antimony, or tin, usually in proportions of from 1:7 to 1:10--alloys which not only make bronze malleable like copper, but which also allow it to be cast from molds.78
Language. The language spoken in Mesopotamia before about 2500 B.C. was Sumerian--a very difficult and obtuse language that has no known relatives, living or dead.79 Sumerian tablets represent what most scholars believe is the world's oldest written language, probably predating Egyptian hieroglyphics by several hundred years. The Sumerian language flourished for at least 1,500 years, and even after it was eclipsed as a spoken language by other languages, it still continued to be studied and written by Babylonian scribes until the first century B.C. as a scholastic exercise (like Latin is today). Noah probably spoke Sumerian, since Sumerian is believed to have been the most likely language spoken in southern Mesopotamia in the Jemdet Nasr Period.80 Clay tablets found at Jemdet Nasr and Uruk display a semi-pictographic writing which probably represents the Sumerian language.81
The possibility that before ca. 2500 B.C. all of Mesopotamia spoke one language (Sumerian) may have been the foundation for the statement found in Gen. 11:1.
The possibility that before ca. 2500 B.C. all of Mesopotamia spoke one language (Sumerian) may have been the foundation for the statement found in Gen. 11:1: And the whole earth was of one language and one speech. After about 2500 B.C. (or about the time of Peleg and the tower of Babel), other languages such as Old Akkadian and Old Babylonian (Semitic languages), "overtook" the ancient Sumerian, and by 2000 B.C., it had become dead as a spoken language.82 The oldest historical indications of the Semitic language in Mesopotamia are the names of scribes found in the archives of Fara (Shuruppak) and Tell Abu Salabikh, dated to ca. 2600-2500 B.C.83
Numbers. Cuneiform writing arose in Mesopotamia around 3500-3100 B.C., primarily for the purpose of recording numbers and commodities. How certain signs and tokens used in this earliest writing for grain and field measurements came to represent abstract numbers is fundamental to the understanding of the development of mathematics.84 Exactly when this happened is not known, but certainly it had occurred by the end of the Uruk Period (Table 1). It is known that as early as the end of the fourth millennium, proto-literate Sumerian scribes had established a well-developed system of numbers and measures.85
Even as early as the Ubaid Period, Mesopotamian architects building temples were familiar with certain geometric principles. The square was one of the most important elements of Ubaid architectural design, and triangles also played a significant role. Types of triangles used in designing Ubaid temples included the 3:4:5 and 5:12:13 triangles, and the 1:2, 1:4, and 8:5 isosceles triangles.86 In this regard, it is intriguing that mathematics, particularly geometry, appears to have preceded the advent of writing. A 72-cm cubit (28.8 in) was the standard unit of linear measurement in Ubaid time, and precise multiples of this 72-cm cubit were used in laying out floor plans for temples and other buildings. Later cubit measurements used in the Near East were smaller: 52 cm (20 in), 45 cm (18 in), and 30 cm (12 in).87
The Mesopotamians were quite sophisticated in the mathematics they used. Besides geometry, their capacity to work with very large and very small numbers can be traced back to proto-literate (Uruk and Jemdet Nasr) time.88 Economic "archaic" tablets from Uruk show an advanced accounting system where cuneiform ledgers contain single entries, subtotals, and one final total.89 Weight and bulk of barley grains were connected to weights and measures in these accounting systems; also, Sumerian weights were used to weigh wool-fleece and other commodities. Later in time (<2500 B.C.), Mesopotamian scribes were the first to compile mathematical tables and to arrive at logarithms and exponential values from their calculations of compound interest. More than a thousand years before the time of the Greek scholar Pythagoras (~500 B.C.), the theorem attributed to him had been derived by Mesopotamian mathematicians.90 The Babylonians also ascertained the number for pi (), but interestingly, they did not have a special numerical sign for zero.
Proto-Sumerian inscriptions, such as those found at Uruk, used a sexagesimal numbering system. Along with the numbers 60 and 10 on which the sexagesimal system is based, the number 6 was also used in a special "bi-sexagesimal" system. Examples of the Mesopotamian sexagesimal system are still with us in the form of the 60-minute hour, the 60-second minute, and the 360† circle, with 60-minute degrees and 60-second minutes. The Sumerian sexagesimal numbering system (counting in 10's or 60's) is also a precursor of our own decimal system (counting only in 10's).
It has recently (in the 1970s and 1980s) been discovered that the Mesopotamian numbering system is not as straight forward as previously supposed.91 It is now known that the arithmetic values of the numeral cuneiform signs were changeable depending on the context involved. For example, even in a single text, the same Sumerian cuneiform number sign can be read either as ten or six, depending on the context.92 This discovery warrants the utmost caution in interpreting the true arithmetic value of numbers presented in the early chapters of Genesis, which were probably ultimately derived from the Mesopotamian cuneiform.
The ancient Semitic scribes who first wrote down the story of Genesis probably computed in sexagesimal units, since this was the system used at that time. Certain numbers such as sossos (60), neros (600), and saros (3600) are known to have occupied a special or sacred place in Babylonian mathematics and astronomy.93 The Sumerians believed that each of the gods was represented by a number; for example the number 60, sacred to the god An, was their basic unit of calculation.94 The same sacred view of certain numbers may also apply to Genesis; for example, Noah was 600 (60 x 10) when the Flood began (Gen. 7:6), and in Gen. 6:3, "the days of man shall be a hundred and twenty years" (60 x 2).
Mesopotamian numbers through the end of the patriarchal age should be viewed differently than later numbers in the Bible, which do have a solid historical and literal base.
What is especially significant about the Mesopotamian (and also early Hebrew) numbering system is that their concept of numbers was not the same as ours. Numbers and dates were not necessarily to be taken literally--sometimes they were to be taken symbolically.95 For example, Enoch's total years of 365 corresponds exactly to the days in a solar year and is surely related in some symbolic way to his unprecedented relationship with God.96 And the number 500, which was Noah's age at the birth of all three of his sons (Gen. 5:32), is plainly a round figure, as is his age of 600 at the onset of the Flood (Gen. 7:6). It is likely that Babylonian sexagesimal algebra, and the conversion between the sexagesimal system and later decimal-based systems, were factors affecting the biblical life spans recorded in the early chapters of Genesis.97
How the numbers of Genesis should be interpreted today in light of the Mesopotamian sexagesimal and symbolic numbering system is highly speculative. It can only be said that Mesopotamian numbers through the end of the patriarchal age should be viewed differently than later numbers in the Bible, which do have a solid historical and literal base.
Writing. The Mesopotamians were the first civilization in the world to develop writing. This process began ca. 3500 B.C., and arose primarily for the purpose of recording commodities. The method of writing was to impress chopped-off reeds into wet clay in order to indent a series of wedge-shaped marks or pictograms. These wedge-shaped writings became known as cuneiform (meaning "having the form of a wedge").
The basic elements of the earliest writing system included counters, bullae, cylinder seals, and clay tablets.98 Counters (tokens) were clay pieces, 1-3 cm in size, consisting of different shapes (cones, spheroids, discs, cylinders, pyramid-like tetrahedrons). Each configuration represented a particular kind of trade item; for example, cones represented grain, disks were animals, and a sphere with a pierced hole in it stood for a unit of land measure.99 Counters represented commodities that needed to be accounted for.
Bullae were "envelopes" of clay containing counters within them, which functioned essentially as shipping envelopes. Once a transaction was agreed upon, the envelope containing the counters was sealed and embossed on its exterior with a two- dimensional replica of the three-dimensional token shapes within. Opened bullae indicated the receipt of goods, and allowed for the checking the bullae's contents against the record written on the outside of the bullae. This accounting method thus prevented inventory from being stolen. Clay seals were also used on doorways as a means of controlling access to storerooms.100
Cylinder seals were used to seal clay bullae and left a negative impression or design when rolled over the clay. These designs marked a relationship between the seal owner and sealed object, and thus designated ownership and authorized a transaction by an official who had the right to bear and use the seal. The forms of these designs changed over the years, so different seals represent different ages. Along with pottery types and carbon-14 dating, cylinder seals are another method that archaeologists use for dating different archaeological periods in Mesopotamia. In Jemdet Nasr time, the tools of the seal cutter were the drill and cutting wheel.101
Clay tablets were the next step in the development of writing, making their appearance in the archaeological record at the end of the Uruk Period (~3100 B.C.). Clay tablets contained summary information on their surfaces and served as a means of cross checking the movement of goods. Clay tablets functioned as the "paperwork" of the day, recording transactions such as the issuance of rations, receipt of goods, and division of fields. Cylinder seal impressions are found on the earliest clay tablets, but eventually transaction information was conveyed solely by means of wedge-shaped characters (cuneiform) written directly on the tablets. Individual wedge marks denoted a certain amount of allotted grain (such as barley), and these wedge shapes originated from the same shapes, and had the same meaning, as the counters themselves.102
Seven sites in Iraq have yielded a wealth of cuneiform tablets: Jemdet Nasr, Nippur, Fara (Shuruppak), Umma, Uruk, Larsa, and Ur.103 Uruk and Jemdet Nasr tablets contain the earliest Mesopotamian script, which is termed either "archaic" or "proto-Sumerian" because it was the precursor to later Sumerian "real" writing. Archaeologists and philologists alike view the development of "real" writing at the end of the Uruk Period in Mesopotamia as one of the most momentous developments in human history.
We can by no means assume that all of the accounts and incidents mentioned in the book of Genesis were dependent on oral tradition before the time of Moses.
The writing system at Uruk appears to have developed with great rapidity. Out of more than 5,000 clay tablets found at this site (dating to ca. 3100 B.C.), 85% of all the texts are economic records, while only 15% are lexical (language) texts.104 After this, increasingly extensive use was made of the phonemic value of the cuneiform signs in order to write grammatical elements. Only 300-400 years after the first lexical texts, short dedicatory inscriptions begin to appear on items donated to the temples, and approximately six hundred years after the first lexical texts, literary, religious, and historic texts appear. It is only around 2500 B.C. that an old habit is abolished: from then on the signs--rather than occupying a random position in a text--begin to follow the sequence of the spoken language.105 Beginning at about 2500 B.C., the first royal inscriptions with long narratives of the king's deeds can be found on cuneiform clay tablets--such as the narrative known as the Gilagmesh Epic, believed to have been written around 2450 B.C. about a real king Gilagmesh who lived two hundred years earlier at around 2650 B.C. Antediluvian tradition in literary texts also appears on Tablet W-B 62 of the Sumerian King List, which has been dated to the end of the third millennium B.C.106
Thus, the period starting about 2500-2450 B.C. would have been the earliest that the first chapters of Genesis could have been written down. This first non-oral biblical text could have included the Creation Story to the Flood to about the time of Peleg and the tower of Babel. According to Speiser,107 the mention of Accad in Gen. 10:10 points to the early writing of Genesis, as that city--while important at one time--had lost its preeminence as far back as the end of the third millennium. Also, the mention of gold in Gen 2:11-12 fits with an early date, as by the Early Dynastic III Period (~2500 B.C.), the use of gold had increased significantly, as recorded by the gold-laden Royal Tombs of Ur. The Genesis writer obviously knew of gold being imported from Arabia (Havilah), and also of trade coming from the highlands of Iran along the Gihon (Karun) River (Gen. 2:13) (Fig. 1). It is likely that the Genesis writer was a Semitic scribe, as a good proportion of the scribes who wrote the early Sumerian literary tablets bear Semitic names.108
The importance of this discussion on writing (and numbers) to our understanding of the Bible is that we can by no means assume that all of the accounts and incidents mentioned in the book of Genesis were dependent on oral tradition before the time of Moses. On the contrary, there is evidence that these accounts were copied from written documents handed down from the earliest time of literary writing. In Genesis there are both historical and geographic aspects of the text that date to a more primitive age--"old words" which had disappeared from the living language before the time of Moses.109 A plausible scenario is that the descendants of Noah who were scribes wrote down the early portions of Genesis on cuneiform tablets, and these (or copies) were taken by Abraham from Ur to the promised land of Canaan. These texts (in some form or other) were then passed down to Abraham's descendants and copied by Moses. This could be why "old words," and possibly the sexagesimal numbering system, were retained in the Mosaic version of the Old Testament--the strict code of scribes was to meticulously copy texts word for word; they would not have been allowed to change even a single item of the original sacred writings.110 According to this view, Moses was the sacred "historian" author of Genesis, who bridged the period between the patriarchal age and the period of the law.
Who Was Noah?
First, Noah was probably a farmer--or at least he was the head of a clan of farmers. Gen. 5:29 states: "And he (Lamech) called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands because of the ground which the Lord has cursed." Also, Genesis 9:20 says: "And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard." Both of these verses imply that Noah was a farmer, or at least knew how to farm.
Second, Noah was probably a lineage head or one of the "elite" class. The Sumerian cuneiform tablets list Noah (Ziusudra) as the antediluvian "king" who lived in Shuruppak just before the great flood, but these tablets date from a later time when there were kings reigning in Mesopotamia (there is not a Sumerian word for "king" in Jemdet Nasr time, so a "kingship" type of rule may not have been set up yet).111 "Elites" in Jemdet Nasr time were considered to be the heads of geographically well-situated families who were able to mobilize consistently large supplies of agricultural labor through the ties of kinship.112 In any case, Noah had to have been a very wealthy man in order to have purchased the "gopher wood" and bitumen (pitch) needed for building the ark. Only a powerful and educated ruler would have had access to that amount of wealth, or would have been able to negotiate the necessary trade agreements to procure these items. Also, Noah would have had to have hired expert boat builders working under his direction in order to build the ark. Did Noah pay for the wood, bitumen, and laborers with trade goods (such as barley), or with silver ring money? The Bible does not say, but any of these are possibilities considering the currency of the time.
Third, Noah was a man of God. Gen. 6:8 says: "But Noah found grace in the eyes of God [literally, "won favor," not grace]."113 "These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God." The implication is that other men in Noah's time were wicked. This interpretation is reinforced by Gen. 6:5: "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Also, Gen. 6:11 says: "The earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with violence."
From the context of the Mesopotamian civilization that existed during the time in which Noah lived, how do these Bible passages make sense? There seems to have been constant warfare between neighbors of competing city-states, with rulers violently killing captives. There was stealing of other men's property so that an accounting system had to be set up. There was the beating of citizens who did not pay their due amount of barley (taxes) to support the temple system. And, there was worship in "high places" of false pagan gods and their images, rather than the worship of the true God. But Noah "walked with God." This phrase is applied in the Bible only to Enoch and Noah, and denotes the most confidential communication with a personal God-- a walking as it were by the side of God.114 It seems that Noah and his family were the only ones left from the godly line of Seth who were worshipping the true God rather than the false temple gods of the time. In this regard, it is important to again note that no temple compound has been found at Shuruppak (Fara), Noah's home city.
Noah passed down his worship of the true God to his sons and their wives and kept them apart from the sinful worship of false gods.
Noah was also a just man--perfect in his generations (age). "Ziusudra," the Sumerian name for Noah, means "the very wise one," and Ziusudra is introduced in the Sumerian narratives as a pious king.115 Noah may have been part of a federation cooperating in canal building. Noah was a comfort to others, as Gen. 5:29 states: "Noah shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands Ö" The "us" in this verse may refer to the people who lived under his jurisdiction--his extended family or kin group and also any others who worked for him tilling the ground. The implication is that Noah was a kind and benevolent man--not cruel, as were other city-state rulers of that time.
Finally, Noah passed down his worship of the true God to his sons and their wives and kept them apart from the sinful worship of false gods. That Noah's sons and daughter-in-laws were true children of the living God is evident from Gen. 7:13. "In the very same day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark." The worshippers of the true God were spared from the ravages of the Flood.
What had caused the people of Noah's day to become corrupt in God's judgment? Gen. 6:1-2 gives the reason: "And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God [i.e., the godly line of Seth] saw the daughters of men [i.e., the ungodly line of Cain] that they were fair, and they took them wives of all whom they chose." The godly line of Seth--the ones whom had been entrusted with carrying on the worship of the true God--had intermarried with women who worshipped pagan gods, and by doing this, their children had become part of the temple- worshipping culture.
Noah and the Ark
"Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark and shall pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shall make it of: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breath of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits" (Gen. 6:14-15).
Why did Noah make a giant boat, the ark? Because God instructed him to do so. God told Noah exactly how long, wide, and high to make the ark and how it was to be constructed--it should have a door in its side, a window, and it should contain three stories (Gen. 6:16). The Bible also says that the ark was made of "gopher wood" and caulked with pitch, both inside and out. But where and how did Noah get these materials? Shuruppak, Noah's home city, did not possess these natural resources. The date palm was the only large tree native to southern Mesopotamia, and this wood is of limited value as building material. For a boat the size of the ark, a source of high-quality timber was needed. Noah would have had to have imported both the wood and pitch (bitumen) needed for making the ark.
The bitumen would not have been that difficult to obtain. The center of bitumen production in Mesopotamia was (and still is) at Hit, located along the Euphrates River about eighty miles west of Baghdad (Fig. 1). Bitumen at Hit occurs in "lakes" where lines of hot springs are welling up along deep faults.116 Even today, bitumen is packaged into reed baskets at Hit and floated down the Euphrates in boats. Bitumen has been used in southern Mesopotamia since the Ubaid Period, but the bitumen industry only became well established by ca. 3000 B.C.--or by the time that Noah lived.
Obtaining high-quality wood would have been a far more difficult task, as timber would have had to have been imported from a great distance. Precious wood is known to have come into Mesopotamia from three main sources--from Elam (now western Iran), from the Amanus-Lebanon Mountains (now Syria), and from Anatolia (now western Turkey, near Carchemish) (Fig. 1). Sumerian trade was based mostly on shipping along the Euphrates River, and large numbers and types of boats are mentioned in Sumerian texts.117 Exactly what kind of timber was used for building the ark is not known, as "gopher wood" is an "old," pre-Hebraic word that has not been successfully translated by scholars, so that its botanical identification is uncertain.118 Probably the "gopher wood" of Gen. 6:14 was either cedar or cypress, with cedar perhaps being the best candidate, since cedar is a straight wood, ideal in the making of large boats.
It is known that trade had already become established with the Amanus Mountains by Jemdet Nasr time, and the transportation of cedar trunks up to 100 feet long from that area has been documented.119 The Lebanon-Amanus region was a rich source of timber to Mesopotamia in ancient times, and many Mesopotamian kings sent expeditions to fetch its famous cedars. To make the journey to Mesopotamia from the Amanus Mountains, the timber usually joined the Euphrates at Carchemish, Emar, or Habuba (Fig. 1).120 Or, if the timber came from the Anatolian highlands, it could have been shipped to the area of Malatya and then floated down the upper Euphrates. The export of timber into Mesopotamia could help explain the Uruk-Jemdet Nasr "enclaves" (colonies or trading posts) found along the banks of the upper Euphrates in both Syria and southern Turkey,121 and it could also help explain the deforestation of these areas beginning in Uruk time.122 Wood cut down in mountain forests could have been moved across the snow in winter, or by ox-cart along wagon roads to a suitable trading enclave on the Euphrates River or one of its tributaries. Then it could have been consolidated into larger rafts and floated down the Euphrates River to Sumer at the time of the spring flood.123
A major difficulty from an archaeological perspective is the stated size of the ark in Gen. 6:15. Large riverboats did go up and down the Euphrates in ancient times, but documented vessels were not nearly as large as the ark is claimed to have been. Small boats made of reeds and caulked with bitumen were common as a means of travel from Ubaid times onwards, and small sailing craft (probably with sails made of linen) were also used on the rivers and along the Persian Gulf by the fourth millennium B.C.124 It is recorded that Pharaoh Snefru (ca 2600 B.C.) had a ship constructed of Lebanon cedars, which was about 100 cubits long (~170 feet long, using the Egyptian cubit).125 But the ark was supposedly much bigger than this and was built three hundred or so years before this time.
If one supposes a 72-cm Sumerian cubit (28.8 in), which could have been the Mesopotamian unit of linear dimension still used in Noah's time, then this would have made the ark 700 ft long, 120 ft wide, and 70 ft high--in length, more than two football fields placed end to end, or almost the tonnage of the Titanic. Using a 45-cm cubit (18 in), as specified in a King James Version footnote, it would have been 450 ft long, 75 ft wide, and 45 ft wide. If the given dimensions apply to the whole boat, and not just to its maximum dimensions, then the ark can be visualized as a rectangular barge or cargo ship, three stories high, and possibly having a flat bottom as is characteristic of river boats.
Either cubit value puts the ark beyond the shipbuilding technology of Jemdet Nasr time. Also, the size of wooden ships is limited to about 300 feet due to their inherent-strength instability above this size.126 Two possible explanations for this dilemma present themselves. First, it may be that the dimensions of the ark given in Gen. 6 are of symbolic nature, the symbolism of which is now lost in antiquity. Second, it may be that the dimensions of the ark were never converted from a sexagesimal system into a decimal-based numbering system. If one arbitrarily divides the ark dimensions by either ten or six, one comes up with a size more compatible with boats known to have existed in Jemdet Nasr time. This is not to say that the Bible is wrong. It is to suggest that the autograph (original) documents were correct, but that the original numbers of Gen. 6 are not part of a numerical system that we recognize today.
The above discussion can be applied to two recently proposed theories concerning Noah and the Genesis Flood. It is the hypothesis of Morton127 that Noah's Flood was an event that occurred in the Mediterranean basin when it was a desiccated desert--"the Mediterranean Flood," as Morton calls it. The problem with Morton's hypothesis is two-fold. First, the Bible says that Noah lived in Mesopotamia, not in the Mediterranean area. The place is wrong, but the timing is even more wrong! The geological flooding of the Mediterranean basin with seawater happened in Late Miocene time.128 Not even hominids existed in the Late Miocene (~10-6 million years ago), let alone a man who had the technology to build a boat the size of the ark.
Another theory that has recently become popular with the press is that of Ryan and Pitman, who hypothesize that Noah's Flood was an actual deluge that took place around 5600 B.C. in the area of the Black Sea.129 These authors propose that an inundation of the Black Sea may have been the source of the ancient Sumerian (Gilgamesh Epic) and biblical (Genesis) flood stories, and they also propose that a change from hunter-gatherer societies to farming may have been catalyzed by a great migration of peoples to escape the Black Sea flood. Very recently, undersea explorers have discovered beneath the Black Sea a Neolithic site (approximately 12 feet by 45 feet, and containing stone tools) that existed by a freshwater lake before the inundation of the Black Sea area with seawater.130 Despite the popularity of Ryan and Pitman's theory, it faces the same problems (albeit less so) as Morton's: it puts the Noachian Flood in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Noah lived in Mesopotamia, not in the area of the Black Sea. And could prehistoric humans--barely out of the Stone Age--have constructed a boat the size of the ark? With what--stone tools?
It was only about 3000 B.C.--within the framework of the first civilization in the world with the technology to do so--that Noah's ark could have been built. The theories of Morton and Ryan and Pitman put Noah into the realm of mythology, not history. One has to understand history before one can understand the Bible, as God has always interacted with men and women in real history.
1C. A. Hill, "The Garden of Eden: A Modern Landscape," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52, no. 1 (2000): 31-46.
2M. C. Tenney, ed., The Zonderman Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zonderman, 1975), 23.
3H. Ross, The Genesis Question (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998), 108-10.
4E. A. Speiser, Genesis: Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 1 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 34.
5By the archaeological term "archaic," it is meant Late Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, and Early Dynastic I pre-literate times.
6H. J. Nissen, "The Emergence of Writing in the Ancient Near East," Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 10, no. 4 (1985): 360.
7J. Zarins, "Early Pastoral Nomadism and the Settlement of Lower Mesopotamia," American School of Oriental Research 280 (1990): 31-5.
8S. A. Rosen, "Finding Evidence of Ancient Nomads," Biblical Archaeology Review 14, no. 5 (1988): 50.
9S. Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 12 (London: McMillian, 1980), 196.
10Ibid., vol. 1, 774.
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Carol A. Hill is a consulting geologist who has authored the books, Cave Minerals of the World, Geology of Carlsbad Cavern, and Geology of the Delaware Basin. She has been an ASA member since 1984 and a member of the ASA Affiliation of Geologists since its foundation. Carol and her husband Alan are members of Heights Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have two children and three grandchildren.