Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, an interesting exploration of the Near Eastern flood myth in its Mesopotamian context. Finkel’s book is deeply personal, unabashedly enthusiastic about its subject, and ultimately a little bit less than it could have been. Nevertheless, it offered compelling and fascinating insight into the development of the Flood myth and is an entertaining and informative read.
Finkel’s book is centered on the so-called “Ark Tablet,” a cuneiform text that Finkel, a cuneiform specialist at the British Museum, was the first to translate. Its owner brought the tablet to the British Museum a few years ago, and Finkel has done impressive work coaxing ever last bit of meaning out of the somewhat damaged piece of clay. The Ark Tablet provides sections of the famous Atrahasis Epic describing the building of the Ark in which Atra-hasis would ride out the Flood. There are three new revelations from the material contained on the Ark Tablet:
Based on the new material from the Ark Tablet, Finkel was able to review previously-known cuneiform accounts of the Flood and, according to him, solve several interesting dilemmas. According to Finkel, the Ark Tablet explains one of the most confusing aspects of the Flood legend recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The eleventh tablet of that epic incompletely adapts parts of the Atrahasis, which we know because the text has several editing errors. The Flood hero’s name is mistakenly given in its original form, Atra-hasis, a couple of times rather than the translated name of Utnapishtim. Additionally, when the editor rewrote the Atrahasis in the first person, since Utnapishtim is telling the tale in Gilgamesh 11, the editor neglected to turn all of the pronouns, causing the text to toggle between first and third person during the Flood hero’s speeches.
But the most unusual feature of the Gilgamesh 11 account is the shape of the Ark:
On the fifth day I set in place her exterior; it was an acre in area; its sides were ten gar high; ten gar also was the extent of its deck; I added a front-roof to it and closed it in. I built it in six stories, thus making seven floors in all; the interior of each I divided again into nine partitions. Beaks for water within I cut out. I selected a punting-pole and added all that was necessary. (adapted from William Muss Arnolt’s trans.)
If read literally, this implies that the Ark was a cube! Finkel says that the word conventionally translated as “acre” has another meaning: circle. According to him, this implies that the underlying text originally specified that the Ark was round, as in the Ark Tablet, but that the editors had attempted to adapt the older reading for a new audience. In trying to square the Ark, the editors of Gilgamesh 11 preserved the internal area—the math shows that both the round and cubic Arks had the same living space—but squaring the sides made the measurements for the bitumen needed to waterproof it come out wrong. The cubic Ark has another unusual feature: “The ship was completed. Waterproofing was heavy work, and I added tackling above and below, and after all was finished, the ship was covered (in bitumen) to two thirds of its height.” Traditionally, however, this line was translated as referring to the ship being launched and sinking into the water to two-thirds of its height, but Finkel makes a compelling argument that this makes no sense logically since the rains had not yet started and the ship had not yet been loaded with its precious cargo. In Finkel’s interpretation, the bitumen covering two-thirds of the cubic Ark is exactly equal to the amount needed to wholly cover a round Ark of the same measurements.
But according to Finkel, the round Ark was not the first of its kind. It was a translation of a still earlier Ark myth that had a rectangular Ark on the order of an ancient riverine vessel. Thus, he sees a progression from rectangle to circle to cube, and he presents a variety of cuneiform texts to demonstrate the transitions.
All of this is very interesting, and Finkel’s mastery of the cuneiform literature makes his explanations not only exceptionally clear but also compelling. He interweaves this discussion with his own experiences as a scholar of cuneiform, from his earliest lessons under the great W. G. Lambert to his excited romping through the British Museum to examine each new cuneiform discovery, such as the time that an assistant discovered in a shard the name of Nebuchadnezzar II’s chief eunuch, confirming that a biblical reference to him got the name right. I could have done without the extremely lengthy discussions of the intricacies of cuneiform, but I recognize why they’re in the book. I’m not going to understand cuneiform, and I confess that my eyes glazed over when trying to read about the differences in wedge strokes. (Perhaps eBooks are not up to the task of displaying special characters clearly enough. It was difficult to see the tiny little pictures on my e-reader.)
Having established a family tree of cuneiform Flood myths, Finkel devotes a section of the book to attempting to answer the question of how the Flood myth entered the Hebrew Bible. Here the book was perhaps at its weakest since Finkel is not an expert in early Judaism, though he is Jewish himself, and his explanation seems a bit superficial and less supported than it could have been. Finkel also claims that his explanation is unique in the literature, though I’d swear I had heard it before. However, not being an expert myself, I can’t recall just where.
Finkel believes that the Flood myth entered Judaism during the Babylonian Exile, when Jewish scholars attempted to create a set of texts that would define Jewish cultural identity against that of a fellow Semitic people with a similar language. Finkel suggests that the Jews borrowed Babylonian stories because they lacked a firm tradition of the earliest times and adapted these stories to monotheism. Therefore, we find Babylonian reflections in the creation account, in the Flood narrative, and in the story of the birth of Moses, which reflects that of the birth of Sargon. In defense of this view, Finkel adopts the Documentary Hypothesis, though this necessarily should complicate things: If there were a unified program of composition, how did the Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 end up combining two distinct and somewhat contradictory versions?
I’ll give him this, though: His explanation of the Tower of Babel narrative as being inspired by the exiled Jews’ misunderstanding of Nebuchadnezzar’s step-pyramid ziggurat in Babylon as an unfinished tower is a clever way of historicizing the Genesis narrative.
But to return to Finkel’s claims about the Flood myth: He doesn’t go into enough depth to really explain why he feels that the Flood story could only have come into Judaism during the Exile. For example, why couldn’t it have simply been remodeled from a pre-existing Flood myth during this period? Or why could it not have diffused before then? We know, for example, from fragments of material embedded in Homer’s Odyssey that the Greeks were almost certainly familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh around 800 BCE. And if scholars like Martin West (and I!) are right that these actually reflexes of a still older Argonautica through which Homer took over Gilgamesh motifs, this could push back awareness of Gilgamesh anywhere from the Greek Dark Ages to conceivably the sub-Mycenaean period. Why would the Jews, geographically closer and in more direct contact with other Near Eastern cultures than the Greeks, have lacked the same awareness of what was going on in Babylon?
Before this, we also know that the people of Ugarit in Syria had already absorbed and incorporated the Atrahasis story even before 1200 BCE, for it appears in a tablet found at Ras Shamra, and Finkel himself notes that this text is “a good example of how literature and learning was (sic) exported from the centre of the cuneiform world to important cities…”
Consider, too, the Persian Avesta, Fargard 2.21-43, where Ahura Mazda, taking the role of Ea, informs Yima the Good Shepherd of the coming destruction. It is quite obviously derivative of the Atrahasis story, down to the peculiar use of the “seed” of every plant and animal. However, here the Ark with six stories and nine partitions has become a walled compound of “nine streets, six in the middle part, three in the smallest,” though it retains “a door, and a window” like the “air hole” of the Mesopotamian Ark and the “window [Noah] had made in the ark” (Gen. 8:6) in the Hebrew account—however silly the idea of a city with one window might be. The Persian story was recorded around 500 BCE, give or take, but must draw on earlier originals.
In short, I would have liked to see Finkel expand his discussion to more thoroughly address questions of whether a Flood story would have been known in some form in Judea and Israel prior to the Babylonian Exile.
Finkel, however, did clear up a problem I’d been trying to work through by devoting an entire section to the question Atra-hasis asks Ea in the many versions of the Mesopotamian story. When Berossus summarized the Atrahasis for his Babyloniaca around 300 BCE, he included a sentence that has caused a great deal of translation trouble. In 1776, Jacob Bryant translated the question and answer session between Xisuthrus (Ziusudra), the Flood hero, and Kronos (Ea) the god appearing in George Syncellus’ quotation of Eusebius (quoting Alexander Polyhistor, quoting Berosus) this way: “Having asked the Deity, whither he was to sail? he was answered, ‘To the Gods:’ upon which he offered up a prayer for the good of mankind.” I. P. Cory plagiarized this verbatim for his influential Ancient Fragments (1828, 1832, and 1876), and through him hundreds of later writers have used this translation. However, Cory apparently realized there were issues with the translation, and he noted that the Armenian Eusebius gave the quotation differently: “He asked where he was to sail, and (Kronos) responded: ‘Make prayers to the Gods, and all will be well for mankind’” (my trans.). But this, too, seems to be a translator’s attempt to make sense of what the translator did not understand. More literally, the line should read: “If he was asked whither he intended to sail, he should say, ‘To the Gods, to pray for happiness for mankind’” (trans. John Jackson). Bryant, Cory, and the Armenian translator had difficulty understanding why Kronos would tell Xisuthrus to lie, so they amended the text to make it seem to make sense. But they didn’t have access to the Atrahasis or the Gilgamesh where the context revealed by the cuneiform text makes plain that Ea intended the Flood hero to tell a blatant lie to keep other humans from learning about the Flood:
“‘I will do, my lord, as thou hast commanded; I will observe and will fulfil the command. But what shall I answer to (the inquiries of) the city, the people, and the elders?’
It’s a cover story, and Berossus accurately summarizes it, noting the order to say the hero is sailing to a god’s home/to the gods, as well as the promise of blessings from the deity. However, before cuneiform had been deciphered, understanding this passage of Berossus posed something of a challenge since out of context it simply made no sense, and this apparently prompted many scholars like Bryant to assume there had been some corruption in the Greek text.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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