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Narrative Arks The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood

By Irving Finkel (Hodder & Stoughton 421pp £25)

Among the British Museum’s prodigious collection of cuneiform tablets and fragments, strangely parallel experiences befell two scholars. First, in the 1870s, George Smith identified two prebiblical accounts of a hero divinely commissioned to build an ark and so save the denizens of the world from a cosmic flood. Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time ‘after more than 2,000 years of oblivion’, he rushed around, tearing off his clothes in a state of ecstasy resembling St Francis’s embrace of his vocation. Less demonstratively, over a hundred years later in 1985, Irving Finkel was ‘more than taken aback’ when he discovered a fragment of one of the earliest versions of the flood story among bric-a-brac gathered by an English airman in Iraq during the Second World War. Finkel, like Smith, has a beard worthy of a Victorian or perhaps a biblical patriarch. His book explores even stranger parallels between Noah and the much earlier Mesopotamian ark builders.

Finkel’s find, which dates from at least 1,200 years before the earliest supposed recording of the Noah story, contains two stunning revelations for biblical studies. Astonishingly, it includes a phrase (about the animals entering the ark) plausibly translatable as ‘two by two’. So one of the striking features of the Bible story unanticipated in previously discovered Mesopotamian fragments turns out to be traceable to the same culture of origin. Moreover, Finkel’s text refers to ‘clean’ animals – and therefore, by implication, to a distinction from ‘unclean’ ones. As far as I am aware, this is the first evidence that this Jewish form of fastidiousness was prefigured in earlier foibles or scruples. Three conclusions are irresistible. First, that the flood story generated extraordinarily tenacious traditions. Second, that the tale probably originated in a world of real observation in ancient Mesopotamia, where vast, destructive floods were frequent, and not – as archaeological sensationalists have claimed – in some supposed folk memory of the effects of global warming after the Younger Dryas (or the ‘Big Freeze’, a period of cold climatic conditions some 12,000 years ago). Finally, Finkel’s tablet strengthens the already persuasive case that the Bible version derives from Mesopotamian archetypes. Finkel regards the issue as definitively resolved. Sceptics will wriggle their way round his evidence by clinging

Coracles in use, Iraq, 1920s to the possibility of a fusion of Mesopotamian and Hebrew stories of independent origins; but I think reasonable critics will aver that he is right.

In the course of his investigation Finkel sheds much light on philological and literary problems of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, but one revelation dwarfs all others: in the earliest surviving description, the ark was round. The text is unambiguous on this point and includes detailed instructions for building a giant coracle out of more than 300 kilometres of coiled palm fibres, strengthening the structure with wooden ribs and decking, and coating everything in a waterproof mixture of pitch and lard. Finkel’s painstaking and lively investigation of coracle-weaving traditions on the Euphrates makes the concept intelligible. He also clears up a puzzle in the flood story that forms part of Gilgamesh, where the gods seem to ordain an obviously unwieldy square ark; a round shape, like a square, is as broad as it is long and really the Gilgamesh scribe intended a circle (or was perhaps himself deceived into squaring it). With a vivid eye for what life was like in the Euphrates valley 4,000 years and more ago, Finkel argues – riskily but plausibly – that his tablet represents a fragment from the script or record of a dramatised version of the story for court performance, and that the arithmetical precision of the calculations involved in determining the ark’s dimensions and assembling the materials for its construction derives from ancient Mesopotamian schoolroom exercises. There are other remarkable scholarly insights to admire. Finkel argues convincingly that the British Museum’s famous Babylonian world map contains an allusion to the resting place of the ark. His image of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king from 704 to 681 BC, engaged in the first hunt for relics of the foundered vessel is brilliant.

Finkel is almost as revelatory about himself as he is about the Bible text and the early history of civilisation. We see him wandering around the Study Room at the Museum, poking readers in the ribs and questioning them impishly about how he can help with their work. He complements his Victorian beard with Edwardian, or at least Wodehousian, humour. His only personal experience with boats, he assures us, occurred when he misdirected a paddle and ‘thwacked’ his sister Angela. The flood story ‘would make a corking opera’. The lions who guard the back doors of the British Museum, Finkel quips, are there to keep visitors in. He ‘could say’ that the arithmetical sections of the book, which tried his competence, relied ‘on partnership with my friend Mark Wilson but actually I just asked him a few stupid questions’. Some readers will jib, but I enjoyed most of these jolly frivolities.

Sedulous editing might have streamlined the book, which repetitions and irrelevant f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 5

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