Professor Alan Millard reviews a recent book that has hit the headlines
In 1985 a man came to the British Museum with a Babylonian clay tablet, which his father had acquired in Iraq in the 1940s. The museum’s specialist was astonished as he read the cuneiform signs: it was part of a Babylonian story of the ﬂood!
Alas, the owner would not leave the tablet for study. The expert, Irving Finkel, was bereft! Not until 2009 was he allowed to examine it at leisure. In this book he enthusiastically describes his patient decipherment and growing understanding of a text written almost 4,000 years ago.
After relating the first discovery of a Babylonian flood story in 1872, then jumping to the appearance of the new tablet, Finkel explains how cuneiform writing works and the range of texts now available. He then summarises previously-known Babylonian flood stories, each one damaged and incomplete. The Sumerian flood story (1900 – 1600 BC); Atrahasis (1900 – 1600 BC, 1300 BC & 800 – 600 BC); The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet 11 (800 – 600 BC); Berossos (200 BC); Genesis (100 BC) and Koran (AD 650). The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11, contains the often-quoted Babylonian flood story.
Comparisons between each of these and the Genesis account run through the following chapters. In six pages Finkel presents his translation of the new text, which he calls The Ark Tablet, copied between 1900 and 1700BC. Although the back is damaged, the sense is clear. A god clandestinely instructs Atrahasis (Ut-napishtim in Gilgamesh 11) to demolish his house and to build a boat, with precise measurements. Atrahasis tells how he accomplished his task, listing many elements, ending with instructions to seal the door after he has boarded.
The tablet, small enough to hold in the hand, is not part of an historical inscription, but is an extract from a longer story or an exercise in imagining the conversations and computations; perhaps the work of a student or even a playwright. Here is the novelty: the vessel was to be round! It was a coracle, built of reed bundles bound together, waterproofed with bitumen, about 70 metres in diameter, strengthened with ribs, probably having a deck and cabins. Going back to previously known tablets, Finkel has demonstrated that they, too, described a circular craft, but the Gilgamesh version had misrepresented it as an unseaworthy cube. The Ark Tablet prescribes a ground plan of 14,400 square cubits, close to the 15,000 square cubits of the ark in Genesis!
Coracles have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers since time immemorial. The descriptions of several travellers illustrate their use in the 19th and 20th centuries and some explain their construction. They allow Finkel to take the reader through the construction process described in The Ark Tablet. He supplies a lengthy technical appendix in which, with the aid of mathematician Mark Wilson, he proves the specifications are realistic, although actual fabrication seems impossible.
It is noteworthy that Genesis never calls the ark a ship or boat, whereas the Babylonian texts use such terms. The vessel was a container, not a ship for a voyage! In the Bible, the Hebrew word for ‘ark’ is only applied to Noah’s vessel and to baby Moses’s basket. Linguists treat it as a loanword from Egyptian, where it means ‘box’. Finkel proposes a Babylonian origin in a partly similar word connected with boats, but there are difficulties: one basic letter differs and the Babylonian word occurs on only one tablet, where its meaning is not clear – so he tries to explain the obscure Hebrew word by a more obscure Babylonian one!
Two by two
The Ark Tablet astounded Finkel by adding a new element to the Babylonian account: animals were to enter the boat in pairs! After recognizing the word in this tablet, he saw it could also be reconstructed in the broken Old Babylonian Atrahasis tablet, which the reviewer published in 1965.
Similarities between the Babylonian texts and Genesis have been discussed ever since 1872. The Ark Tablet’s revelations reinvigorate them, bringing Finkel the opportunity to draw on his extensive knowledge of Babylonian texts, and his unrivalled ability to read and interpret them, in a comparative study.
What depends on what?
Following some biblical scholars, he discerns two sources amalgamated in Genesis 6 and 7, seeing, for example, inconsistencies in numbers of animals (pairs in 6:19, 20; sevens in 7:2, 3) and takes for granted that the biblical text is dependent upon the Babylonian. He finds those sources ‘reflect distinct cuneiform versions of the flood story’. Therefore he asks when and how the biblical writers would have met them and concludes that Judaeans in Babylon, taught ‘the literature and language of the Chaldeans’ (Daniel 1.4), could read cuneiform tablets. Exiles concerned to save their national identity composed the Old Testament and adapted Babylonian traditions to fit their purposes, including a list of long-lived antediluvian leaders and the flood story. Another Babylonian tablet discloses apparent monotheistic tendencies by identifying various gods as aspects of the chief god Marduk, so Finkel proposes that such theological currents may have precipitated statements of the distinct Judaean belief in one God alone.
The Ark Tablet adds, he thinks, to the case for dependence with its pairs of animals and its vessel’s dimensions. If Genesis drew on Babylonian legends, when did that happen? Taking the oblong shape of Noah’s wooden ark as a development of the cube in the seventh-century Gilgamesh version is part of Finkel’s case. Yet he has to assume unknown variations to the existing Babylonian versions to explain other differences, so any changes could have occurred much earlier. Despite his strong case for the era of the Exile, the Babylonian texts are inconclusive.
Some commentators take the Genesis flood narrative as a polemic against the Babylonian polytheistic legend. As Finkel notes, there is a strong contrast between the many Babylonian deities, whimsical and often at loggerheads, and the one self-consistent God of Genesis. Those who believe the Hebrew account is the original will have to assume the oblong wooden ark, which was perhaps better suited to a different region of the Near East, was re-imagined as an enormous reed coracle in Babylonia with approximately the same floor area as Noah’s ark. Although no copy of Genesis made before about 200BC survives, that does not exclude a much earlier origin for its contents. Accordingly, the extant Hebrew and Babylonian reports might be seen as deriving from a common ancestor.
Where the ark came to rest
Engaging incidents in Finkel’s work keep the reader’s interest alive. When he gave a volunteer a box of odd fragments to sort, she found a strange one which he saw fitted into the famous Babylonian Map of the World and suggests that the ark rested in the region of Mount Ararat! However, other Babylonian tales placed it nearer to Iraq, in the mountains to the east or north, while Genesis simply says ‘in the mountains of Ararat’ which could suit any of the locations. Noteworthy is another Assyriologist’s discovery of a tablet in the British Museum naming a high official of Nebuchadnezzar who is named with others in Jeremiah 39, which Finkel characterised as ‘amazing… in quietly proving that one named individual mentioned in the Bible who was not a king really did exist’. In fact, other Jeremiah names are known from Babylonian tablets, too.
Experts will discuss details of the cuneiform tablet while biblical scholars assess its significance for years to come. Intelligibly explaining technical aspects, The Ark before Noah relates a new discovery brilliantly, sharing the excitement of a leading expert as he disentangles part of one version of an ancient story.
This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, check out our on-line version of the paper www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.