The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Mar 17, 2015 - History - 480 pages

When a small, peculiar, palm-sized clay tablet made its way to the desk of Irving Finkel, Assyriologist and Assistant Keeper at the British Museum, Finkel could hardly believe his luck. What he discovered was a missing piece in the story of Noah and the Ark. In this captivating, absorbing work of scholarship, Finkel, a world authority on ancient Mesopotamia, leads the reader on a detective hunt for the prototype of Noah's Ark—from cuneiform wedges to bundles of reeds, from ancient Babylon to modern Iraq, Finkel reveals new information on the origin of the Babylonian Flood story which pre-dates the biblical deluge, including the surprising size and shape of the boat itself, and even where it came to rest. New to this edition, Finkel puts the “Ark Tablet” to the test in building a modern version of the ship. Throughout, The Ark Before Noahtakes us on an adventurous voyage of discovery, opening the door to an enthralling world of ancient voices and historical lore.

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THE ARK BEFORE NOAH: Decoding the Story of the Flood

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The ubiquitous tale of the Great Flood was not new to the writers of Genesis. Finkel, the assistant keeper of ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and culture at the British Museum, offers some ... Read full review

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Chapter Three
Words and People

I have been happily reading cuneiform tablets every day now for about forty-five years. (As Arlo Guthrie would say: I''m not proud. Or tired. I could read them for another forty-five years.) During such prolonged exposure an impression gradually but unavoidably begins to take shape about the long-dead individuals who actually wrote these documents. We can handle their handiwork and read their words and ideas, but, I find myself asking, can one grasp at identity within these crowds of ghostly people for whom, as the poet put it, ''dust was their sustenance and clay their food?'' The question finally crystallises into a single, and I think important, problem: were ancient Mesopotamians like us or not?

Scholars and historians like to stress the remoteness of ancient culture, and there is an unspoken consensus that the greater the distance from us in time the scanter the traces of recognisable kinship. As a result of this outlook the past comes to confer a sort of ''cardboardisation'' on our predecessors, whose rigidity increases exponentially in jumps the further back you go in time. As a result the Victorians seem to have lived exclusively in a flurry about sexual intercourse; the Romans worried all day about toilets and under-floor heating, and the Egyptians walked about in profile with their hands in front of them pondering funerary arrangements, the ultimate men of cardboard. And before all these were the cavemen, grunting or painting, reminiscing wistfully about life back up in the trees. As a result of this tacit process Antiquity, and to some extent all pre-modern time, is led to populate itself with shallow and spineless puppets, denuded of complexity or corruption and all the other characteristics that we take for granted in our fellow man, which we comfortably describe as ''human''. It is easiest and perhaps also comforting to believe that we, now, are the real human beings, and those who came before us were less advanced, less evolved and very probably less intelligent; they were certainly not individuals whom we would recognise, in different garb, as typical passengers on the bus home.

After decades among the tablets I have become very doubtful that this wall of detachment from individuals who come out of the past is appropriate. We are, for one thing, talking only of the last five thousand years, a mere dollop in Time terms, in which snail processes like evolution or biological development have no measurable part. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled at Babylon from 605-562 bc, ascending to the throne 2,618 years before this book was brought into being.

How can one actually visualise that interval of time clearly in order to bring the ancient king closer? If thirty-five individuals in a line live for seventy-five years each in historical sequence, the result is a straight run of 2,625 years. Thus a chain like a cinema queue of no more than thirty-five cradle-to grave lives divides us from people who lived and breathed when Nebuchadnezzar was king. This is not, after all, unimaginable remoteness in time past. And we can hardly flatter ourselves that ''we'' are any more intelligent than, say, Babylonians who practised mathematical astronomy for a living. There wereMesopotamian geniuses and Mesopotamian numbskulls walking about at the same time.

This issue, whether ancient writers can be accessible and familiar as human beings, affects very seriously how we interpret their writings. I am reluctant to settle for the faraway and unattainable nature of the ancient Mesopotamian mind, the remoteness of which has often been stressed, particularly with regard to religion. In my view humankind shares a common form of starting ''software'' which is merely given a veneer by local characteristics and traditions, and I argue that this applies to the ancient populations of the Middle East exactly as it does to the world today. The environment in which an individual exists will contribute formative, possibly dominating pressures; the more enclosed the community the more conformist the individual will be, but, evaluated from a broad perspective, such differences are largely cosmetic, social and in some sense superficial. Take Pride and Prejudice. In their outer wrapping, the characters within it do look a bit odd from a very contemporary perspective, with their social mannerisms, codes of behaviour and religious practice, but their motives, behaviour and humanity are in every way familiar. So it must be as one vaults backwards in time, and so it is with Shakespeare and Chaucer, and the Vindolanda tablets in demotic Latin, and Aristophanes, and there we are, bc already. One species in myriad disguises. In my estimation the old cuneiform writers have to be inspected with the right end of the telescope, the one that brings them closer.

If tablet writings are to provide an answer to the question of how accessible Mespotamians were, it must be granted, of course, that they will always give incomplete information. Far from everyone had a voice. And then a high proportion of our cuneiform documents is official, formulaic and hidebound by tradition, rarely innovative and often manipulative. Assyrian military campaigns, for example, are portrayed on stately prisms of clay as a matter of unimpeded triumph, with huge booty and minimal loss of Assyrian life; such accounts require the same necessary reading between the lines that historians must apply to modern journalism.

The most informative documents will be those of the everyday world, which, ought to be impulsive, informal and unselfconscious in comparison. There are two cuneiform categories among these which are undoubtedly the most helpful from this point of view: letters and proverbs.

Huge numbers of private letters survive, for they come in a particularly durable, fit-in-the-hand size and are not as readily broken as larger tablets. These letters, often exchanged by merchants who were irritated with one another about slow delivery or overdue payment, sometimes allow us to eavesdrop. Flattery- (I am so worried about you! -!) alternates with irony- (Are you not my brother? - spiced with?), wheedling or threats, and the timeless claim that the letter is in the post occurs endlessly -: I have already sent you my tablet!

Letters can give us a remarkable picture of people going about their lives, preoccupied with ''money'' and mortgages, worried about business, sickness or the lack of a son. From our over-the-shoulder vantage point can come a moment of closeness to an individual, or a sense of fellowship with the harassed - or crafty - person ''at the other end''.

How did cuneiform letters function? The operation was cumbersome and of a slower-paced world. Letters despatched to colleague or foe usually went to a different town as otherwise it would have been simpler to go and talk. The message had to be dictated to a trained scribe, carried from A to B, and read aloud by the recipient''s own scribe when it finally arrived. This is explicit from the words that open almost every example: ''To So-and-so speak! Thus says So-and-so . . .'' and in the actual Akkadian word for letter, u-ne-dukku, loaned from the Sumerian u- ne-dug, ''say to him!'' Since fluent letter dictation is beyond most people today I think we must imagine a merchant starting off, ''Tell that cheat . . .''; no, wait a minute; ''May the Sun God bless you etc. - ha! curse more like . . . o.k. o.k.; here we go: When I saw your tablet . . .'' The scribe, experienced and patient on a stool, would jot down the main points as they emerged and then produce a finished letter on a proper-looking tablet. Outside on a wall it would dry in the warm air, and then go into a runner''s ''post-bag'' for delivery.

The sender knows the background: usually we don''t. He gets his answer: again, usually we don''t.
Those who read other people''s correspondence must harvest everything possible: spelling, word forms, grammar and idiom, sign use and handwriting. Squeezing the sponge involves more than the extraction of clear facts; also crucial is inferring, with varying degrees of probability, a good deal more: What led to the letter; what light might it throw on trade, social conditions, crime and immorality, not to mention the person of the writer himself? Such inferences derive from knowledge of contemporary documents seasoned with common sense.

There is an additional useful factor, the Sherlock Holmes principle that, we are told, he wrote up in a magazine called The Book of Life:

''From a drop of water'', said the writer, ''a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.''
A. Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

In my experience, this Niagara principle is of considerable value to the Assyriologist. A good case of this is Babylonian surgery. References to surgical practice of any kind are rare in the medical texts. Cataracts were dealt with using a knife and there is a text where infection is released from the chest cavity by some kind of inter-rib incision. But, in comparison with Egyptian medicine across the sands where the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus gives astonishing procedural treatments for injuries and wounds, Babylonian doctors do not measure up. This seems curious. The mighty Assyrian army was constantly in the field. A deterrent clause in an Assyrian political treaty focuses on the reality of battle wounds, with a glimpse of emergency treatment, possibly even self-applied: If your enemy stabs you, let there be a lack of honey, oil, ginger or cedar resin to

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