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After G. Smith, the Babylonian deluge

04 April 2014

John Rogerson reads about the Ark Tablet

© irving finkel Collection

Ark? A guffa, depicted in a Churchman's Cigarettes card (from the book)

Ark? A guffa, depicted in a Churchman's Cigarettes card (from the book)

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the story of the flood
Irving Finkel
Hodder & Stoughton £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT706 )

IT HAS long been known that many peoples throughout the world have traditions about a primeval flood that destroyed the world or parts of it. It was traditionally believed that the existence of these stories confirmed the biblical account of a universal flood that overwhelmed the original creation.

Things changed in 1872, when George Smith of the British Museum announced the discovery of a Babylonian account of the flood which resembled the biblical story, particularly in the detail of birds being sent out to ascertain whether or not the flood had subsided. Since then, other flood stories from ancient Mesopotamia have been discovered and published, and experts have become familiar with flood heroes such as Ziasudra, Atra-hasis, and Utnapishtim.

In the book under review, Irving Finkel of the British Museum has published what he calls the Ark Tablet, written in Old Babylonian between 1900 and 1700 BC, and containing 60 lines of text. It contains no narrative, but, rather, direct speech of Atra-hasis and the god Enki, and may have been used in a kind of ancient street-theatre.

It has two particular features to which Dr Finkel draws attention: the ark that Atra-hasis builds is round, rather like a coracle; and the animals that are taken into the ark enter two by two, as in one of the biblical sources of the flood story. There is quite a lot of autobiographical material in the book about the author's career and how he became an Assyriologist. He charmingly admits that he could have presented his results in an article rather than a full-length book, but utilising the book format allows him to go into considerable detail about how the Ark Tablet relates to the other ancient Mesopotamian accounts.

There is also much material, together with illustrations and photographs, on boat types from Mesopotamia, including reed-built craft and coracles. The author also speculates, as have many before him, about the extent to which the writers of the Old Testament became aware of the Babylonian traditions of the flood, probably during the so-called Babylonian exile from the sixth century BC.

Although some of the author's claims about the significance of the Ark Tablet are probably exaggerated, readers will find in this book an engagingly written introduction to the flood stories of ancient Mesopotamia, traditions that undoubtedly had some influence on the outline of the biblical story, although not on its distinctive theology.

Canon John Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University.

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