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Which came first, Noah or the ark?

04 April 2014

As Noah sets sail on the big screen this weekend, Irving Finkel tells how a small stone tablet brought into the British Museum provides an earlier version of the story

British Museum

Reeding and writing: Dr Irving Finkel examines the broken tablet

Reeding and writing: Dr Irving Finkel examines the broken tablet

ONE of the duties of a curator in the British Museum is to give opinions on objects brought in for identification by visitors. This is a pleasant and often interesting task; for you never know what might come through the door. For me, the most outstanding example of this took place in 1985.

Douglas Simmonds brought in a small collection of antiquities that he had, long before, received from his father for doing well in his school exams. One of these objects was a cuneiform tablet.

It was complete - although not without areas of damage. It was about the size of a mobile phone, and was covered all over with well-written cuneiform signs. I recognised it at once as a hitherto unknown manuscript of the Babylonian flood story.

Identification was instant from the first line, in direct speech: "Wall! Wall! Reed wall! Reed wall!" These four words of Babylonian reflect the famous moment when the god Enki, defying obligatory silence, resolved to inform the man Atra-hasis of the divine parliamentary decree that the world - and all who live in it - should perish in a great flood.

Written in about 1750 BC, this tablet is among the earliest of the cuneiform flood manuscripts that we have. The story was of great importance in Ancient Mesopotamian thinking, and fundamental to two great contemporary literary compositions: the story of Atra-hasis, represented by the Simmons tablet; and the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the boat-builder, now called Utnapishtim, recounts the whole story to the hero in Gilgamesh Tablet XI.

This classic Gilgamesh XI version has been known to the public, and worried clergymen, since 1872, when the Assyriologist George Smith announced that he had deciphered a large piece of Assyrian cuneiform from the Royal Library at Nineveh - disturbingly familiar to anyone with knowledge of the book of Genesis.

At that time, many were troubled by the close parallel between the twin narratives in cuneiform Babylonian and alphabetic Hebrew; for the parallels in sequence and detail are undeniable, and demand assessment as a literary phenomenon.


THE Simmonds tablet, as I read further, contained surprises of a quite unexpected nature. The instructions to build the lifeboat stipulated in clear language the shape: the Babylonian ark was to be round.

Previous views on this matter have varied - depending on one's reading - between a bizarre, multi-level cube like a floating block of flats (Gilgamesh XI); a long and narrow, coffin-shaped type (Genesis); and a curvaceous half-watermelon with a little house in the middle and a ladder (nursery Victoriana). On this tablet, however, the solution to combating the waters of destruction was of a wholly different order.

On reflection, the idea made good sense; for a round boat must be a coracle, and we know that the ancient Mesopotamians made and used coracles, and such craft had plied the Euphrates and Tigris rivers ever since - up, indeed, until about the middle of the 20th century.

A coracle would make good practical sense, too, in that, being rounded and waterproofed, it would never sink, and would safeguard its precious cargo until the waters subsided, and it came to rest on terra firma. Some Babylonian poet, therefore, thinking hard about what sort of boat could fulfil that fateful and famous role, identified the humble coracle - familiar to everybody, and taken thoroughly for granted - as the best candidate.


THE job to be done, however, was no shuffle across the river with a huddle of sheep, or a couple of workmen. What was needed was a coracle of unparalleled dimension. The god Enki, therefore, came up with the specifications: the area of the base had to be 3600 square metres, and the height of the sides six metres. Transposed into meaningful terms, this means an ark that would cover about half the size of a football pitch.

The Simmonds tablet does not stop there. The giant coracle was to be made by coiling date-palm pith into a giant floppy basket, each coil sewn to the one above, and then stiffened by inset wooden ribs that ran from the upper inside edge down to the base, where they interlocked to create a strong floor. The deck was to have many cabins, and the whole was to be covered with waterproofing layers of bitumen, mixed with lard and other material.

There had to be, unlike a conventional coracle, a roof; for otherwise the water would get in everywhere. With the materials, too, exact measurements were given: Enki's estimate of the required pith rope came to 14,430 Babylonian sutu-measures - the equivalent of about 527 kilometres: roughly the distance from London to Edinburgh.

What is extraordinary is that the given dimensions of the vessel and the thickness of the rope (about one-finger thickness) allow a modern mathematician to work out how much rope would really be needed to build a coracle of that size. The answer is: virtually the same.

The great measurements, in other words, are not mythological exaggerations, or poetic expressions of immensity, but accurate measurements in proportion to one another, as if the vessel were actually going to be built, inserted into the middle of a rattling good mythological story.


IF, IN the middle of the second millennium BC, about the time when the lawgiver Hammurabi was on the throne, ancient Babylonians thought that the life-saving ark was a huge, round coracle, where are we with our rival ark-types?

The first point is that the troublesome and improbable cubic-plan ark of the Epic of Gilgamesh now emerges as a mere illusion; for the Assyrian editor-scribes who were responsible, working with Old Babylonian originals, much like the Simmonds tablet itself, misunderstood the drift of their ancient texts, and managed to convert a circular ground-plan into a square one.

The shape of the nursery ark, to me, is a mystery. As with the Tower of Babel, all that artists (and toymakers) have ever had to play with are clear descriptions in Genesis; but, when it came to representing Noah's vessel, the careful example of Brueghel was rejected. (As for the Hebrew oblong ark, I offer an explanation in The Ark Before Noah which is too long to summarise here.)

Having delivered all that the ark-builder needs to know, the Simmonds tablet included one further unexpected textual nugget: in the broken description of the loading of Atra-hasis's boat, before the door is sealed, the text describes the animals as going aboard "two by two".

This telling phrase, indissolubly linked with the ark in Judaeo-Christian tradition, has not previously been found in cuneiform, and its occurrence here brings the cuneiform tradition one step nearer to that of the Bible.


GLOBALLY speaking, there are abundant flood-stories of varying length and complexity, but these are not of concern. Crucial is the understanding that our own story of the flood certainly originated in the land of the two rivers, located in a river-fed landscape where flooding, benevolent or otherwise, was a fact of life.

Mesopotamians half-remembered a time, long before writing, when their towns and settlements had been swept away by uncontrollable waters all the way down to the Persian Gulf. This memory was a telling factor in their psychology, and the deep-seated myth grew up to accommodate the reality that, at any time, the same thing might happen again, eventually achieving a more permanent status within the literary traditions of the schools.

Eventually, we encounter a direct narrative continuum from Babylonian into Hebrew, and thence into Greek, Arabic, and elsewhere. Importantly, the earliest cuneiform witnesses to the flood narrative precede the Hebrew version by more than a millennium. How was it that this potent story could transfer itself from the one to the other?

We are dealing here, it must be emphasised, with literary matters, the transference of wording, and narrative across languages - a phenomenon that can only reflect literacy, and the use of written sources. I have argued that this textual process can only have taken place during the Babylonian exile, whereby the expatriate Judaeans found themselves transferred en bloc to a new and bewildering life in the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II.


A HARDLY considered line from the beginning of the book of Daniel brings illumination here; for we are expressly told that Ashpenaz, the King's major-domo, was to select a group of bright young immigrants for training in the "literature and language of the Chaldaeans".

This can refer only to Babylonian cuneiform language and literature; for the incoming Judaeans knew both Hebrew and Aramaic already, and their future employment as high officials confirms the picture, because all legal and judicial matters at that time were transacted in cuneiform.

The book of Daniel cannot be followed blindly in all particulars, but its early sections give a realistic sense of the Babylonian court, and the process of acculturation behind such a teaching programme makes a lot of sense. Babylonification of the intellectual élite would help to diminish restlessness and the likelihood of trouble among the great mass of their fellow Judaeans.

The traditional picture of all tears and no music which the Psalmist has bestowed on us can have nothing to do with the true processes of adjustment and adoption which played out among them. Our non-biblical sources are patchy, but the understanding that at least some of the new arrivals became literate in cuneiform writing and literature has substantial implications. Primary among them is to clarify the first realistic mechanism that could enable the flood story to become part of the biblical heritage.

The flood, as we have seen, was embedded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and we can see that cuneiform school texts of the exilic period included that work on the curriculum. We can reasonably propose, therefore, that Daniel and his classmates would have read this very text in class, and copied out extracts from it as their studies progressed.


THERE are other strongly Babylonian motifs in the Hebrew whose presence can be explained in the same way. The great ages of the antediluvian kings in cuneiform tradition lie behind the similar ages attributed to the ancestors of Noah, while the story of Moses in the bulrushes derives directly from a similar tradition once told about Sargon I, King of Akkad. Both cuneiform narratives are likewise found on contemporary curricular school texts.

The book of Genesis would be unrecognisable were the Babylonian literary component to be experimentally extracted. My argument is that the Judaean poets and compilers took over certain strong traditional local narratives to bolster their own accounts of the beginnings of things, to set the scene for the massive biblical structure in which their extraordinary history was to be unfolded, and thus understood.

Perhaps there was a shortfall about such "early" matters within their own tradition. It is more likely that the power of Babylonian narrative - now within their grasp - struck them, too. The flood story in particular has irresistible dramatic appeal: one hero in the hot seat, with full responsibility for saving the world, and almost no time to do it in.

It is no wonder that a film Noah is being released in the UK today; for the whole story is pure Hollywood: the planning of the flood, the choosing of the defiant hero, building the ark, surviving the deluge, and, finally, landing on the mountain to start all over again. Whatis so significant, however, is that adoption also involved adaptation.

Although the Epic of Gilgamesh discloses no reason why the world should be destroyed, the gods decided on annihilation in the story of Atra-hasis because mankind was so noisy. Closer reading suggests a more profound - although non-explicit - idea under the surface: first creation had overlooked the necessity for barrenness, disease, and death in the world, and the real problem was over-population, a matter carefully attended to after the flood.

Be that as it may, in its Hebrew reincarnation the whole was put on a different and more significant theological footing: it was universal sin that led to such dire punishment, and it was the example of a single upright man that sufficed to avert the complete cessation of life. The literary narrative was recycled with a new message.


Dr Irving Finkel is a curator for cuneiform in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. He is the author of The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the story of the flood (Hodder & Stoughton £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50 - Use code CT706 ).

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