Book review: The Ark Before Noah, by Irving Finkel

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

The Ark Before Noah
by Irving Finkel
Hodder & Stoughton

The ark didn't look boxy, with a raised prow and a wide gangplank for the animals. It is more likely to have been circular, made out of massive reeds waterproofed with bitumen. These are the craft that until recently were rowed up and down the Euphrates.

How to build one without perishing is one of the many delightful features of this account of the Flood story. (The answer is that you get your servants to do the work, organising a feast for them as the floodwaters rise.)

A decipherer of Mesopotamian clay tablets at the British Museum, Irving Finkel is also a comparative philologist, an amateur mathematician and, above all, a gifted detective and a charming expounder of mysteries. He also writes like a dream.

In 1985, a clay tablet inscribed in cuneiform script was brought into the British Museum. The Ark Tablet, as Finkel calls it, was written in Akkadian, a Sumerian dialect. It gave details of the Flood significantly different from those in the Old Testament and other accounts.

Finkel can't tell us whether Noah, who was probably called Atrahasis, actually survived a flood, but he does, intriguingly, list the animals of southern Mesopotamia that he might have taken with him. (Wild boar, known as sah api, would have been present, as would the humble dormouse, for which three different names existed in Akkadian.)

Finkel also suggests that the compilers of the Old Testament, written in Hebrew, came across the story after learning cuneiform script while in exile in Babylon. This contradicts the notion that the Bible is of sacred inspiration, but I find it wholly convincing.

All societies retell stories of catastrophe and Atrahasis' is one of the best. It differs from the Bible's account in not having an angry God eager to chastise; Atrahasis gets news of the impending waters because he listens to a voice outside his wall of reeds telling him to expect the worst. Those who lived in Mesopotamia were in many respects like us. They could see how fragile all life was and they wanted to know whether it was possible to sail away in the event of disaster.

Atrahasis got the message: be clever, listen to your voices, survive. A message of this terrific book is that we too, modern as we may consider ourselves, should do the same.

The Observer