FLOOD TABLETS & ANCIENT ARKS:
REVIEW OF IRVING FINKEL'S THE ARK BEFORE NOAH
~ Ronald Veenker ~
In 1872, George Smith, a young engraver turned British Museum curator, discovered what he thought might be an important cuneiform tablet among the more than 130,000 such tablets and fragments housed in the bowels of the great building. Smith waited, quite anxious and impatient, for a conservator to return from holiday and clean off the salt deposits so he could decipher its contents. When at last he got a good look at the writing, he jumped up and down exclaiming, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion!” He had discovered the ancient Babylonian flood story upon which Noah’s biblical narrative was based. So excited was he that he ran around the room undressing himself.
For scholars of the Hebrew Bible, everything had changed. The news reached the press and soon Smith’s discovery was the talk of London’s polite society. A meeting was arranged for him to explain his find to intellectual leaders including Prime Minister Gladstone and the Most Rev. Chas. T. Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury. Many in the Church of England were uneasy wondering just how this tablet might affect the faith of clergy and laity alike. Noah’s story, it now appeared, was neither original nor unique.
And, indeed, that inscription, which formed the majority of the eleventh tablet of the famous Gilgamesh Epic, did cause controversy and debate among biblical scholars and assyriologists regarding the biblical flood story. For more than a hundred years, reams have been published about the relationship between the Israelite culture and that of its Mesopotamian neighbors, about Noah’s flood and that of the Babylonian hero Utnapishtim.
Throughout the twentieth century scholars found and joined fragments of this Gilgamesh flood story and discovered still another flood tale that was difficult to piece together. It was not until 1956, that there was enough textual evidence to identify the Epic of Atrahasis which had its own version of the Great Flood. The Gilgamesh and Atrahasis stories had variants enough to show that they were not copied from the same source, but the basic structure of their narrative was identical.
Late Breaking News from Mesopotamia
An ironic observation shared among archeologists and assyriologists is that the “most important Mesopotamian discoveries now take place not in Iraq but in the basement of the British Museum.” However, the irony has shown itself a double-edged sword. The year is 1985, the scene, the ground floor of the British Museum. Enters one Douglas Simmonds, well-known television actor, carrying a Mesopotamian clay tablet from OUTSIDE the museum’s collection. Simmond’s father, an RAF officer in the Near East during WWII, had brought back an assortment of tablets, seal cylinders and other artifacts. Irving Finkel, current curator of the tablet collection, saw the first lines of text and recognized it as part of the flood story. While Finkel trembled with excitement, Simmonds gruffly snatched the tablet back and departed since he had not received a translation of the entire text on first glance. George Smith had to wait several weeks to get a look at his tablet in 1872; Irving Finkel waited more than two decades before Simmonds found his way back to Room 56, the Mesopotamian Gallery. Then, in 2009, Finkel spotted Douglas staring at an exhibit entitled “Nebuchadnezzar’s East India House.” Finally, Mr. Simmonds entrusted the tablet to Dr. Finkel and the real excitement began. While it was even more than he had expected after the first quick glance twenty-four years earlier, Finkel managed to control himself and remain fully dressed when he realized that he had in his hand a complete description of the plans for the Babylonian ark! How this new Ark Tablet further changes the situation we will see shortly, but first a quick review of the interplay among all the flood narratives.
The Near Eastern flood traditions are many, but that original discovery by Smith in 1872 is still the main literary tradition linking cuneiform stories and the material we find in the biblical book of Genesis. While the tablet Smith discovered is from the seventh century BCE it is based on an Old Babylonian epic from 1900-1700 BCE. The Epic of Atrahasis mentioned above has a much more modest flood story and, though it holds many literary motives in common with Gilgamesh XI, it is most likely from another source.
There are Two Biblical Flood Stories
The authors of the biblical flood traditions without a doubt had access to these Mesopotamian sources for their renditions. At this point we must remind the reader that there are two biblical flood narratives interwoven into one story in Genesis 6-9. Scholars of the 19th century chose the labels “J” and “P” as for each, “J” standing for the word “Jehovah (more properly Yahweh),” God’s personal name in this narrative, and “P” for the so-called priestly writer whose focus was quite different from that of “J.” The “J” source contains (1) no description of the ark, (2) the command to bring 7 pairs of clean animals and only 1 pair of unclean, (3) only rain as the source for the inundation, (4) the dispatching of reconnaissance birds, (5) no landing spot for the ark, (6) sacrifices, promise of God, the rainbow. The “P” source is longer than the “J” and contains (1) a description of the ark, (2) the command to bring one pair of all living things, (3) dual sources for the flood waters, i.e., rain from above and “fountains of the deep,” (4) but no dispatching of birds to search for land, (5) depositing the ark on the mountains of Ararat.
While the Gilgamesh Epic does not reveal the gods’ motivation for Utnapishtim’s flood, according to the Bible God plans his deluge because of the wickedness of human beings. Noah is chosen because he was a just and perfect man, but Utnapishtim/Atrahasis’ election is a mystery. Notice carefully that the Babylonian flood hero announces the coming disaster to his neighbors while Noah neither warns anyone nor does God instruct him to do so. In the biblical version, Yahweh simply warns Noah who builds the ark and, behold, the rain begins to fall. While Noah’s ark is a rectangular box (sort of), Utnapishtim’s is a cube! The most compelling evidence of a literary connection between the biblical “J” source and Gilgamesh XI is the dispatching of birds to seek land while the waters recede, and, as well, the gods making a promise to the surviving hero that there will be no more such disasters.
But what about the missing element in the biblical narrative? Why does Noah not warn his neighbors or plead with them to repent in hopes that God will withhold the deluge? Surely the biblical authors would have known the story of Utnapishtim weeping upon viewing the aftermath of the deluge (Gilgamesh Epic XI: 136-37). Similarly the Old Babylonian flood hero Atrahasis was so distraught over the impending disaster that “he could not sit, could not crouch, for his heart was broken and he was vomiting gall” (III ii 45-47). They had most likely heard that Atrahasis, on behalf of all human beings, begged his god Ea to remove their disease, plague and pestilence (Assyrian Recension rev iv 25-28). Where are the righteous Noah and his God Yahweh at this point in the biblical story? The Mesopotamian versions are pointing to a glaring moral shortcoming of the Genesis accounts. Indeed there was reason for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be concerned about the cherished beliefs of his flock in Anglican pews around the world.
For scholars of the Hebrew Bible, everything had changed.
Irving Finkel’s Ark Tablet
Now then, what is the Ark Tablet and how does it contribute to our understanding of all the flood stories? The terra cotta colored tablet is about the size of an iPhone 5 and contains 60 lines of cuneiform writing. It is easy to see how Finkel identified it so quickly on his first glance. It begins with the lines known to us from all versions: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, Reed wall! Atrahasis …” These are the words spoken by the god Ea who is warning the flood hero to take measures to escape. The first five lines contain text known well from Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. Then come all of the new details about the design and construction of this ark, which is not a cube, not a rectangular box, but round … yes, I said round. Atrahasis provides us with fewer than ten lines pertaining to ark building, Gilgamesh, a dozen plus. The ark tablet describes in detail a round basket shaped vessel the size of half a football field. But Finkel’s tablet, because of it detailed instructions, helps us better understand the language of the other versions of ark building which are fragmentary. But a ROUND ark? It makes sense from a number of standpoints. First, round boats made of reed rope and caulked with pitch have been known on the Tigris and Euphrates for millennia. They were still in use up through the middle of the last century. They are called “coracles” and are even found in Sennacherib’s palace reliefs from Nineveh. Coracles are steered with punting poles like Venetian gondolas. However, our new Ark, huge and round, did not have to be steered anywhere; it only had to stay afloat and survive the tempest.
Not only does the Ark Tablet give us the most complete and detailed view of the ark’s construction as well as clarifying broken and obscure passages in the Atrahasis story, but it also sheds new light on the ark’s landing spot. Some of the vocabulary describing the wood that was used for the ribs on the ark is also found in the world’s oldest usable map, The Babylonian Map of the World. This map shows the cities of Mesopotamia and the Euphrates River surrounded by the ocean. On the edges of the ocean are found eight triangles or nagû representing mountains. The very special word describing the wooden ribs of the ark (parsiktu) is found on the world map at the 4th nagû representing the Urartu (Hebrew Ararat) mountains. So the Ark Tablet not only clarifies the obscure details of the World Map, but it agrees with the biblical location of the ark’s final resting place. So the Gilgamesh tradition that the ark landed on Mt. Nisir and the Mt. Nipur site of the Koran have turned to be much less likely according to the Finkel’s newest tablet.
But just what is the Ark Tablet? It is not a portion of any of the known flood stories such as Gilgamesh or Atrahasis. It has no real narrative, as do all the flood traditions nor is there any “mythological” content — it is, rather, practical and realistic. A very different genre from other flood traditions. A storyteller would not want to bore an audience with all these technical specifications. Thus, Prof. Finkel, after considering several possibilities, concludes that the material derives from an actual classroom investigation. The “specs” contained in the tablet are not only practical but mathematically accurate. We have copious examples of “scribal school” tablets from Mesopotamian sites. The young scholars worked on all sorts of problems: “the number of bricks in a wall, the quantity of barley to feed a gang of workmen.” So, it seems that the students heard the teacher say one day, “Okay, boys, we are going to design a coracle, the world’s largest coracle! Now then, what would be the surface area? How many miles of rope… etc., etc.” Teachers then, as now, had to work to keep their assignments fresh and new to maintain student interest.
The Rest of the Story
This has not been a traditional, academic book review; rather, I have told you a story about a book. But there is much, much more to this book than I have put before you. Briefly, there are fourteen chapters and four appendices. Including notes, bibliography and the index there are 421 pages. And all of this in honor of a 60-line tablet. It is quite a story. Finkel’s scholarship is impeccable; after all, he is one of the world’s foremost assyriologists. Moreover, his charming, whimsical narrative takes us through many engaging chapters of his own life and career related to the Ark Tablet. There is a helpful introduction to cuneiform writing, a brief survey of Mesopotamian literary genre, how Israelite scribes learned cuneiform reading and writing, how to build a coracle written with a specialist in marine construction, and much more. I enjoyed reading Dr. Finkel’s opus immensely and highly recommend it to all biblical and ancient studies aficionados.
Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. Hardcover: $22.00, Kindle ed. $12.00.