About the Round Noah’s Ark

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

The news outlets have been reporting that the original prototype for Noah’s Ark was, in fact, round, and not the way it appears in the Torah.  In this article, I would like to suggest what might be the best approach from a Torah perspective to handle this and a number of other questions that news stories such as these bring up.

Although the Sinaitic revelation dates back to about 3300 and some odd years ago, the traditions, laws and events in the Torah date back much further.

We see this in the fact that the Talmud tells us that Abraham observed the Mitzvos of the Torah, at least in some form.  We also see that Noach brought animals on board his ark that were both pure and impure.  Since the laws of Kashruth date only to 3300 years ago, how could this be?

The answer is that the traditions laws and events date back to the earliest of times.

The sages of the Talmud record a tradition that there was a Divine communication to Adam, and it was modified to Noah about what was expected of mankind (Tractate Sanhedrin 56a; See also Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 and in some editions 8:4.)

This communication asserts that there are certain values and behavioral norms that G-d demands of all of mankind.The communication, according to the Talmud, boils down to seven laws.. The seven rules are:

• Believe in the One G-d.

• Do not curse G-d.

• Do not murder.

• Do not steal.
• Do not engage in forbidden sexual unions.

• Do not eat the limb of a live animal.

• Create a system of laws where decency can thrive.

Where are these laws found? Is there a record of these laws anywhere in the historical record aside from the Jewish texts? Can the influence of the Noachide code be detected in ancient civilizations and societies?

Yes. In the Sumerian city of Ur, Ur-Nammu the king (circa 2050 BCE) established a moral and legal code that contained within it most of these laws. [1] One hundred and twenty five years later, we find many of these laws within the code of Bilalama, king of the Amorite city of Eshnunna (1925 BCE). Sixty five years later, we see them in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar, ruler of Isin (1860 BCE). We see their influence on the code of Hammurabi of Babylonia (1700 BCE) and in the Assyrian laws in the city of Assur (1350 BCE). [For an excellent study of these texts see J. Pritchard, Ancient Near East Texts, Princeton, 1955 pp. 159-198; 412-430.]

We can further observe the influence of these laws in Egyptian didactic literature, especially the Book of the Dead wherein the “negative confession” is stated: “In the presence of Osiris and his court convened in the “Hall of Two Truths” the dead man professes, “I have not done evil… I have not blasphemed a god… I have not killed… I have not stolen… I have not committed adultery.”

These sources bear much similarity to the Noachide code in the Talmud, and it is quite logical to understand that the differences are attributable to the combination of “telephone game” transmissional changes along with a difficulty in understanding the deeper religious concepts that originally accompanied these teachings.

By the same token, the events and incidents recorded in the pre-Sinaitic Torah traditions were also subjected to “telephone game” errors when they entered into the traditions and texts of other cultures.  Thus, the “round ark” could very easily have come from these transmissional errors of the pre-Sinaitic events and traditions.

It is this author’s feeling that whenever such news items are reported, they should be accompanied with this explanation, as just posting such articles without providing readers with a Torah frame of reference could, chalila, lead to errors.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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3 thoughts on “About the Round Noah’s Ark

  • January 26, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Rabbi Hoffman,

    I largely agree with your piece. But I do not feel a need for intellectual gymnastics to account for differences between the Torah and other Near Eastern texts.

    The Torah was composed for our ancestors, who were residents of the Near East, in the language and reflecting the culture of the region. Variants and differences are not terribly disturbing to me; so there were multiple traditions on the shape of Noach’s Ark. Not a big deal. More significantly: The echoes of local culture help illustrate the true antiquity and indigenous nature of our tradition. Rather than countering our roots, it helps support our connection to the Land and our tradition.

    David Cheifetz

  • January 29, 2014 at 8:21 am

    I don’t feel a need to insist that the details recorded in the Chumash are accurate, whereas other traditions which differ must be wrong. As the Meforshim tell us, the Torah is not a history book. The stories that are related are culturally and/or morally significant to us as a People. The details are not.

  • January 29, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Yashar Koach on dealing with this topic and attempting to find a resolution with our mesorah. However, I find the concept of ‘telephone’ deeply disturbing. Firstly, when the nations of the world offere their excuses for their non-observance of the mitzvot (Avoda Zara 2b) they do not mention that they lost the correct mesorah or did not know which mitzvot they were supposed to keep (which means that Chazal did not believe that the non-Jewish nations had lost their mesorah because of “telephone game”).
    Secondly, if the non-Jews forgot the mesorah in the few centuries (or less) between the mabul and the date of this tablet, how can we assume that our mesorah has remained accurate over 3500 years? Since we believe that we have not forgotten the mitzvot, shouldn’t we assume that they also did not?
    Thirdly, isn’t there a concept that Providence ensures that the Jewish people have the correct mitzvot? Is there no parallel Providence for the non-Jewish nations? Would Hashem really let them destroy the world and themselves because they forgot such basic mitzvot?

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