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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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