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The Ark Before Noah

Decoding the Story of the Flood

Irving Finkel

(London Times)

In 1985, a man entered the British Museum with an ancient Babylonian clay tablet. He wanted an explanation of the tiny, wedge-shaped - or 'cuneiform' - writing that covered the surfaces. Irving Finkel, the curator of the museum's vast collection of such tablets, quickly realised the electric importance of the find: here, inscribed on a slab of mud about the size of a mobile phone, was an alternative version of the story of Noah's flood.

It was a modern echo of the most famous moment in the history of cuneiform. When the first 'Babylonian flood' tablet turned up, in 1872, the then British Museum curator, George Smith, was so overcome with excitement that he unconsciously started tearing off his clothes. Smith's tablet offered up a detailed story of a great, animal-bearing ark that rode out a divine flood - and it dated back to the 7th century BC. The notion, in the Victorian era, that a Babylonian ark might predate Noah's was international news.

Finkel was never going to receive a shock like Smith's, but when his visitor departed, mysteriously refusing to leave his tablet for further examination, he was left 'wobbly with desire' to read the rest. He remained in that state for 24 years. Then, in 2009, he spotted the man at a British Museum exhibition. He was Douglas Simmons, the son of an RAF veteran who had collected Near Eastern curiosities. This time, he let Finkel hold onto the tablet.

This book reveals what the new ark tablet says, and what that in turn reveals about how the Jews acquired the flood story. It is a serious book, but rarely a heavy one: in a sprightly, good-humoured way, Finkel communicates the thrill of true scholarship.

The new ark tablet dates from 1900-1700BC, from the Old Babylonian period, meaning it was written roughly 1,000 years before Genesis was compiled. Cuneiform is fabulously ancient - the oldest of all writing systems - and fabulously difficult. It was used for more than 3,000 years by Sumerians and Babylonians, and had mostly died out by the time of the Romans. You can see why. Its 600 signs can stand for words, or syllables or bits of grammar, in one of two languages. All signs can have more than one sound value, and all sounds can be represented by more than one sign. And there is no such helpful nicety as a gap between words.

Phew. Or, as Finkel puts it, 'What a challenge! What an adventure!' It took him weeks, 'in fits and starts, with groans and expletives', to puzzle out what the 60 lines on the tablet said. When he finished, he 'looked up, blinking in the sudden light'. Speaking discreetly through a wall of reeds, the god Ea was urging Atrahasis, the Babylonian Noah, to build an ark - and describing precisely how to do it. 'Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atrahasis, pay heed to my advice, That you may live for ever!? Destroy your house, build a boat; Spurn property and save life!'

Finkel's first revelation is that the ark was round: 'On a circular plan; Let her length and breadth be equal.' The second is that it was a Mesopotamian coracle made of coiled palm-fibre basketry-work, made waterproof by a coating of natural asphalt, or bitumen. The third is the size: the ark was the area of half a football pitch, with 6m high sides - enough to 'effectively inhibit an upright male giraffe from looking over at us'.

Some readers may blink here, and wonder if this really is 'of colossal importance for the history of the flood story both in cuneiform and biblical Hebrew'. Still, Finkel describes interpreting a tablet as being like 'squeezing a bath sponge: the more determined the grip the greater the yield'. And his grip, here, is iron.

He turns to a wonderful 1930s description, for instance, of how Iraqis built palm-rope coracles on the very same rivers of Mesopotamia, using techniques that apparently scarcely changed in 4,000 years - though they have been abandoned in the 80 years since, inevitably. He uses ancient Babylonian mathematics (thankfully relegated to an appendix) to show how the measurements given in the ark tablet add up to a realistic description of a scaled-up coracle, and not just some mythical giant vessel. He imaginatively restores broken lines on the tablet to reveal - nearly falling off his chair as he does so - the key words 'two by two', previously thought to have been a Hebrew innovation.

And it is not just the ark that we must re-imagine. Finkel notes, almost in passing, that Moses was abandoned on the Nile not in any 'basket' (how could that work?) but, of course, in a basketry-work coracle, again sealed with bitumen.

Finkel's bigger historical idea, however, concerns the compilation of the first books of the Bible. Most scholars now agree that it came together in the first millennium, based on older sources, but otherwise who wrote or edited which bits and precisely when is disputed at white heat. Finkel agrees with those who believe Genesis was put together during the Jewish Exile in Babylon, between 597BC and 538BC, when the Jews most urgently needed a written history of their own. In his hands, the ark tablet becomes that rare thing: new evidence. He uses it to show precisely how the Jews borrowed from Babylonian sources, arguing that the brightest exiled Jews were sent to study cuneiform in the court schools of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. His evidence is right there in the boxes of the British Museum, where the old, broken tablets prove that the flood story was indeed on the Babylonian curriculum. So that was where the Jews picked up the already ancient story of the great flood: at school.

This book does more than change the way we imagine the ark, or understand the sources of a Bible story, however. It rescues cuneiform from its dusty place in the museum basement. The ark tablet is roughly as distant from, say, the time of Hadrian's Wall, as Hadrian is from us. But it feels fresh and exciting here.

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