Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk
As Scott Franklin, producer of the forthcoming Russell Crowe epic Noah, has correctly pointed out, the story of the flood "is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps". Unsurprisingly then, people have always been keen to fill them in. The rabbis laid claim to secret information that Noah had been kept so busy feeding the animals in his care that he didn't get to bed for a year. Bishop Ussher, in the 17th century, calculated that the flood had taken place in 2349 BC. Expeditions continue to be made to the slopes of Mount Ararat, in a perennially optimistic quest for the Ark's remains. Even Hollywood producers like to insist that their elaborations of Genesis are true to the original narrative. "We didn't really deviate from the Bible," Franklin has boasted, "despite the six-armed angels."
- The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood
- by Irving Finkel
- Buy the book
- Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book
But was the story of the flood original to the Bible at all? We know that it was not. This first became apparent a century and a half ago, in a room above the secretary's office in the British Museum. It was there in 1872 that George Smith, a self-taught Assyriologist working among the thousands of ancient clay tablets brought back to Bloomsbury from Iraq, made a sensational discovery: a version of the flood story written in cuneiform. So overwhelmed was he by the implications of his find that he immediately leapt to his feet, ran around the room, and started taking off his clothes. His excitement, to the Christian elite of Victorian Britain, appeared only mildly overstated. When Smith presented his discovery at a public meeting shortly afterwards, both Gladstone, then prime minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury were in the audience. Everybody listening to him understood that a thrilling – and, to the devout, faintly alarming – vista of research had been opened up. "I believe," as Gladstone observed with studied ambivalence, "we shall be permitted to know a great deal more than our forefathers in respect of the earlyhistory of mankind."
And so it has proved. Over the years, cuneiform flood tablets have continued to turn up. Three distinct Mesopotamian incarnations of the myth have now been identified, one recorded in Sumerian and two in Akkadian. It has become clear that the tale of a universal flood was widespread in Mesopotamia for an entire millennium and a half before the hapless Judaeans, defeated in the early 6th century BC by Nebuchadnezzar, were dragged away from their smoking cities into exile, there to weep beside the rivers of Babylon. Now, courtesy of Irving Finkel, the British Museum's eminence grise of cuneiform studies, there comes a further clinching piece of evidence: a tablet that actually describes animals entering an ark "two by two". Not only that, but it offers startlingly precise specifications on how best to construct one. An ark, so the tablet instructs us, should properly be circular in shape, have an area of 3,600 metres, and be fashioned out of plant fibre. All those living in the Somerset Levels may wish to take note.
Although, disappointingly, spontaneous stripteases do not seem to have been a feature of his own find, Finkel's account of how he came by the tablet – featuring as it does an enigmatic collector who once starred as Doughnut in the 1970s children's show Here Come the Double Deckers – is wryly and entertainingly told. Even so, it does not take him long to broaden out his focus. The tablet, for much of the book, in effect plays the role of a MacGuffin. Finkel's real passion is less the story of the flood than the script in which it is written. "Cuneiform!" he declaims rhapsodically. "The world's oldest and hardest writing, older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than 3,000 years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!"
Finkel's excitement is entirely understandable. As his own and Smith's examples both demonstrate, the ability to decipher cuneiform is one that gives to those rare few possessed of it a heady privilege: the prospect of making remarkable discoveries in texts that have been unread for millennia. Such is Finkel's desperation to convey to those unversed in Sumerian or Akkadian just how thrilling this can be that he reaches for metaphor after metaphor. An undeciphered clay-tablet is described by him as variously a potato waiting to be harvested, a sponge to be squeezed as tightly as possible and a bombshell that might go off at any minute. The great achievement of his book is to demonstrate not only how challenging he found it as a young man to master cuneiform, but how richly rewarding the effort of his discipleship has been ever since. "I would go so far," he declares at one point, "to recommend Assyriology enthusiastically as a way of life". So might a rabbi enthuse about the Talmud.
Small wonder, then, that Finkel should confess to a strong sense of fellow-feeling with the ancient scribes whose tablets he has devoted his life to reading. Cuneiform, so he poetically declares, is "a magic bridge to a long-dead world populated by recognisable fellow humans". But it is hard not to wonder whether perhaps Finkel might be pushing the claims of kinship a bit far. "And those ancient peoples," he writes of the Babylonians, "writing their tablets, looking at their world, crawling between heaven and earth … like us." Well – up to a point. It is certainly the case, as Finkel points out, that Babylon was a metropolis with high-rises, bankers and immigrants; but it was at the same time very different from London or New York. Kingship was its heartbeat; fish-garbed priests played out cultic rituals in its streets; its scholars laid claim to a heritage that reached back to the first fashioning of the world out of mud. Above all, it was a city whose people consciously aimed to set the rest of mankind in their shadow. "They shall eat up your harvest and your food," as the prophet Jeremiah despairingly expresssed it. "They shall eat up your sons and your daughters; they shall eat up your flocks and your herds; they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees; your fortified cities in which you trust they shall destroy with the sword."
No one transported to a city such as Babylon could possibly fail to feel provincial. This, surely, is the context that best explains the biblical appropriation of the Mesopotamian flood myth. Finkel, following the Book of Daniel, has various Judaean exiles being taught cuneiform after induction into a "three-year teaching programme" – which, while perfectly plausible, hardly gets to grips with the likely dynamics of the transmission. The Judaeans were not graduate students in some Ivy League college, but the bewildered and embittered victims of superpower aggression.
By plundering the heritage of Babylon, they were at once paying homage to its cultural prestige, and annexing it to their own ends. Just as Christians and Muslims would subsequently transform the biblical figure of Noah into a prefiguring of their own respective theodicies, so the Judaeans transformed the myths of their Babylonian overlords into something that would end up as Jewish. In Mesopotamia, where it was the custom to erect buildings over the remains of levelled ruins, the ancient past literally provided the foundations of new temples. In a similar manner, its legends were made to serve the self-mythologisation of the Jews. Some details of the flood tablet discovered by Finkel – the animals going in two by two, for instance – were cannibalised; others – the specifications of the ark's measurements, and the detail that the great ship had been round – were not. This, for me, is the real fascination of his find: the light it sheds on how a despised and defeated people won a victory over their conquerors so remarkable that it now gets to be commemorated by Russell Crowe.