Ancient Cultures; Babylon; Continent: Asia, Europe

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel

  • It’s not vacation Bible school: it’s history
  • 445 pages (333 pages includes the interesting Epilogue, but excludes Appendices and Index)

This book may be among the best of 2015 for me, and I inhaled it. Not only does the topic capture my imagination, but author Finkel presents his expertise in an engaging, conversational style. It’s like having a beer with the British Museum’s Assistant Keeper and Assyriologist…his credentials exactly. Finkel says explicitly at the beginning of his book that he will make no case for whether or not a Great Flood actually happened. Perhaps this decision feels like a cop-out to you, but I’m not going to touch that one, either. There are more interesting observations to be made from the content presented in this work, frankly.

The thesis of Finkel’s book rests on the idea that the Old Testament story of Noah and his ark (or “Noh” in the Koran) comes from a more ancient tradition predating the collection of stories into the written book of Genesis. If you are already familiar with the flood episode in the Gilgamesh story, then the idea of some shared tradition with other cultures is not an unfamiliar one. But Utnapishti, who relates his flood adventure to Gilgamesh, isn’t the first protagonist with an ark, either, according to Finkel. In fact, Finkel supports his argument that Babylonian literature gives the world its first known, written flood story in cuneiform tablets.

Rethinking the Boat

A curious cuneiform tablet, the Ark Tablet, numbers among the primary resources critical to Finkel’s argument for a Babylonian ark. The Ark Tablet is unique among tablets and written records about an ancient flood in that it offers no narrative to speak of, just instructions for how to build an enormous ark. The Babylonian ark described here is not the classic wooden bark from Sunday school imagery: it’s a coracle.

A coracle is a round boat, made of reeds woven together and made watertight with the application of bitumen. Finkel points out that the marshes of southern Iraq (not all desert!) still see many large coracles carrying multiple people and even livestock. The coracle is easy to make from abundant materials and would have been known to ancient Assyrians and Babylonians (and, by extension, the Hebrew tribes conquered by them). Furthermore, the main drawback of a coracle is that it’s tough to steer – an irrelevant quality if all you have to do to save the world is to float for a period of time. Finkel’s coracle is definitely a break from the traditional Judeo-Christian depiction of the ark, but it has a certain logical appeal.

Finkel knows the coracle idea might be a little tough to swallow until you think about it, so he is careful to dissect the notions of different shapes. Check out his Appendix 3 if you want to see the math: it’s there, and he claims that it squares roughly with what modern Iraqis would do to build a coracle. I admit, I took his word for it and bagged on the math. I thought he had made his case by the time I got through the rest of his argument for a coracle-ark.

So How Did the Jews Get the Flood Story?

Finkel claims historians have largely “run away” from this question, settling on the idea of a single very ancient tradition that informed both the Judeo-Christian and Babylonian accounts, two separate threads. He rejects this theory as inadequate to explain the many detailed parallels in each version of the story in the Genesis account in the Bible and Gilgamesh XI. If a single, more ancient tale – an oral one, most likely – had been described by both cultures at an earlier point of separation, one would find more divergence in the accounts. Instead, he says one culture borrowed from the other, and the Assyrian tablets relating a flood story predate known written Hebrew literature.

Instead, Finkel devotes much of the book to making a case for the Judean Exile in Babylon as the time when Hebrew literature absorbed some Babylonian stories. The Exile is a historical fact: it is documented not only in the Bible’s Kings and Chronicles, but it also appears in Babylonian documents. Finkel points out that Judean intelligentsia were educated in Babylonian language and culture, so the stories of that culture would have been familiar to them. The presumption is that conquerors wouldn’t have bothered learning the language or traditions of their slaves.

However, the author proposes, the Exile and acculturation into their captors’ civilization would have made the Judean leadership keen to preserve their own culture and sense of identity. The story of the ark takes on a new rationale (wickedness of mankind, as opposed to the Babylonian gods just thinking the growing population of people were making too much noise). It gains a new protagonist, a righteous man. But, says Finkel, certain details carry over, like gathering animals two by two or sending out birds to ascertain whether or not the waters are receding. Maybe Finkel’s professional peers find this theory ridiculous – I’ve not looked at any professional journals of Assyriology – but I think he makes an interesting argument and, in the process, offers a window into the written culture of ancient Babylon.

Image Source: Mike Peel, 2010, through www.wikicommons.org. The Wikicommons description Peel provides at this site: “The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the most famous of all cuneiform tablets. It is the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world. Like Noah, Utnapishtim was forewarned and built an ark to house and preserve living things. After the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land. ME K 3375.” In the British Museum.

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