Sizing Up The Ark


Avi Steinberg compares the biblical story of Noah’s ark with the earliest known accounts of the narrative, traced to Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. Though the theology of the accounts differs, “in both traditions, the introduction of realistic technology, including detailed specs, is a key element of the story”:

As Irving Finkel, a British scholar, has shown, the attention to technical detail in the various Mesopotamian flood sagas is impressive. In his gem of a book, “The Ark Before Noah,” Finkel … recounts his own shock and delight upon determining that the boat measurements given in some of the Babylonian flood sagas were not fanciful—even if they were incredibly odd—and that these blueprint dimensions were, indeed, intended to be plausible. Finkel reveals that the life-saving vessel in some of the Babylonian flood sagas was a coracle, a bowl made of coiled palm-fibre rope and coated with bitumen for waterproofing—in other words, an oversized basket used as a light paddle boat. … Regarding the length of rope necessary for constructing the Mesopotamian ark, Finkel, after many steps … leaves us with the following equation:

Length of Rope = 31,639,880 fingers cubed / 1 finger squared = 31,639,880 fingers = 527km

In other words, the length of rope that Atrahasis, Noah’s precursor, needed to coil in order to make his coracle-style ark was roughly a half marathon longer than the distance between Philadelphia and Boston. And then he needed to weave this rope into a coil and waterproof it. It was undoubtedly a gigantic ship—and easily the world’s biggest basket ever—but, as Finkel writes, it does appear that “real data and proper calculation have been injected into the Atrahasis story.” To its earliest readers, plausibility was key to the story’s meaning.

(Image of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat by Simon de Myle, 1570, via Wikimedia Commons)