A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – January 2015 (1)


The Ark Before Noah – Irving Finkel

Irrespective of whether you are a believer or not (and even the most hard-bitten fundamentalist would have to recognise that there are stories in the Bible’s Old Testament that stretch credulity) the story of Noah and his ark has a certain universal charm. The story raises many questions. Was there a cataclysmic flood? If so, what happened? And is the story one that belongs to the Jewish folk tradition or does it have (pardon the pun) an earlier genesis?

Irving Finkel, a curator of cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum and judging by his photo straight out of central casting for the type of individual who spends the best part of their life in darkened rooms poring over tablets, tries to shed some light on these questions in this rather odd and, to me, ultimately unsatisfactory book.

After a long preamble about cuneiform – the style of writing adopted by the Mesopotamians – we learn that it has been known in academic circles that the story of a great flood had been knocking around for over a millennium before the likely date of the production of the book of Genesis. We owe this discovery to one George Smith who in 1872 deciphered a clay tablet which indicated that the ancient Babylonians were aware of and pondering over the story of a great flood sent as a form of divine retribution. So excited was Smith by his discovery that he ran around the museum tearing off his clothes – not the sort of behaviour one expects at the BM but it takes all sorts!

Finkel’s contribution to our knowledge comes from his decipherment of a clay tablet brought to him by Douglas Simmonds from his father’s collection.

It was only in 2009 that Finkel was able to complete his analysis. What he had before him was a tablet containing a 60 line instruction manual on how to build an ark dating from around 1750 BCE and in the form of a dialogue between the god Enki and the Babylonian equivalent of Noah, Atrahasis. It is possible that the tablet was an aide memoire for a story-teller or possibly even part of a play.

The major revelation is that the ark is round in shape – pretty much like a large coracle which makes sense as it was a common form of vessel on the Euphrates. The key requisite of the ark was that it was stable as it had to survive the flood, not actually go from A to B. Coracles are very stable and very difficult to capsize. The other major discovery in the tablet is the phrase, echoed in the Bible, that the animals went in two by two.

Was there a flood? Floods were the lifeblood of Mesopotamia and it is easy to conceive that there may have been a big ‘un at some point. The ancient Greeks also had a cataclysmic flood in their folk history. Finkel is a bit elusive on this point commenting that excavations at Ur revealed beneath 10 feet of mud a more ancient settlement and the phrase “before the Deluge” was in usage in Akkadian, one of the Mesopotamian languages.

The account that appears in the Bible is likely to have been a cannibalised version of the Mesopotamian story picked up by Jewish exiles when they were exiled in Babylon.

There was enough in this book to keep the reader interested but I finished it thinking that with a less indulgent editor it could have been shorter and punchier.


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