Who's Seen Noah's Ark?

By Toumey, Christopher P. | Natural History, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Who's Seen Noah's Ark?


Toumey, Christopher P., Natural History


The cast of characters includes Armenian peasants, British atheists, a French industrialist, and an American astronaut.

When astronaut James Irwin walked on the Moon in August 1971, he met God. "I felt His presence on the moon in the most immediate and overwhelming way. . . . I was relying on God rather than Houston," he later wrote. Irwin retired from the astronaut corps the next year, ultimately to seek that same spiritual experience in another high place: the summit of Ararat, or Aghri Dagh, a 17,000-foot mountain in Turkey near the border with the former Soviet Union. This peak, he believed, was where Noah had landed in his ark, as related in Genesis 8:4.

After years of fund-raising and planning, Irwin set out for Ararat in 1982, expecting to face "bears and leopards and poisonous snakes." But gravity proved more dangerous. That August he was knocked unconscious when he fell a hundred feet down the mountainside. He returned to Turkey the following month, but Turkish officials would not grant him permission to scale the peak. In 1983 he visited Ararat again, and a guide accompanying him reportedly spotted some wood protruding from the snow. But a blizzard forced them off the mountain before they could retrieve it. Twelve months later, Irwin reached the wood: it turned out to be an old pair of skis.

Kurdish guerrillas foiled another Irwin expedition in Turkey in 1985, and a year later, Turkish officials detained Irwin and his film crew and accused them of espionage for supposedly filming military areas along Turkey's borders with the Soviet Union and Iran. That year Irwin announced that he was giving up the search for good. The ark-hunting astronaut died of a heart attack in August 1991.

What should we think of Irwin's expeditions? In a way, they are the very stuff of romantic archeology: a journey to an exotic land to recover artifacts in the hopes that science would unlock the secrets of an ancient civilization. But Irwin also was part of a recent wave of conservative Christians whose ark-hunting expeditions follow a predictable pattern: First, legends, rumors, and hearsay cement a reigious conviction that the ark rests on Ararat. Then comes a dramatic search for the ark, involving dangers, thrills, and disasters. But in the end, credible proof always eludes the ark seekers.

"The narrative style of Hebrew Scripture lends itself to seekers of objective corroboration because the stories read as if they report actual events," says Jack Sasson, Kenan Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. "But," he emphasizes, "the Bible is a moral document, not a history. What Israel wanted most to communicate through its literature-its discovery of God and its consequent insights into ethical verities-is given in forms that largely elude the methods of historical inquiry."

Carol Meyers, a professor of biblical studies and archeology at Duke University and an editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, elaborates on this point: "People don't seem to understand the kind of narrative that we find in the Bible, in which ancient people communicated their truths by telling stories. The story of Noah teaches that the universe in which we live is moral, and that God punishes immorality."

Biblical archeologists as well as religionists have explored sites in the Near East, and some have made finds that corroborate certain details in biblical accounts. European archeologists and philologists of the late nineteenth century found that some Old Testament narratives in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles corresponded closely with related information in Egyptian and Assyrian accounts. This kind of independent confirmation of scriptural passages contributed to the growth of biblical archeology as a legitimate academic discipline.

In 1996, when archeologist Seymour Gitin, of the W F Albright Institute of Archeological Research, and Trude Dothan, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, were excavating a site at Tel Miqne in central Israel, they discovered a stone block with a Phoenician inscription that notes the dedication of a temple to a goddess by Achish, son of Padi and king of Ekron. …

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