The Ark Before Noah - Book review

by Credo Quia Absurdum

I have just finished this fascinating book by Irving Finkel, an Assyriologist working at the British Museum, and one of the world’s foremost experts in reading the cuneiform tablets written in the languages of ancient Mesopotamia.  Here are a few thoughts.

I listened to the audiobook version, read by the author, which was absolutely delightful – his infectious enthusiasm for his subject really comes over, and his dry wit is very entertaining.

The principle subject of the book is a cuneiform tablet that came into his possession in 2008, on which is written one of many variations of the ancient Mesopotamian flood story.  The principle thing that excited him were that the tablet contained detailed plans for the construction of the “ark” – from which it appears that in this version the boat constructed to save all the animals was a giant coracle - a round craft made from reeds and bitumen - which was the type of craft favoured by the marsh Arabs of southern Mesopotamia until relatively modern times.  There was a recent Channel 4 documentary in which Finkel, with the help of boat builders recreated a version of this ancient craft.

How the circular boat of early legend morphed into the rectangular boat of the bible – of very similar capacity, and very clearly from the same tradition, is discussed in the later part of the book.

The other major finding that excited Finkel was that the tablet mentions the animals going in two by two, which does not occur in any other extant Babylonian version of the flood myth and until now was thought to be a Hebrew addition to the story.

In telling story of his ark tablet, he fills in lots of fascinating background detail about ancient writing systems, literacy in the ancient world, boat building, 1970s children’s TV, and the way the flood myth came down to us via the Bible.

Ever since George Smith translated the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in 1872 it has been known that the biblical flood story was borrowed from earlier sources.  It is only the willingly ignorant who believe that the bible story of the flood is real history.

Finkel’s account of how the flood story gets into the bible is interesting and goes something like this:

The ancient people of Judah were an insignificant nation, but one who occupied a strategically important area between the great kingdoms of Assyria/Babylon and Egypt.  Hence they were often subjects of the greater powers in the North.  In about 600 BC and the thirty years following many of the most capable of the Judean people were taken into exile in Babylon.  Instead of this being the disaster portrayed in the bible, Finkel argues that this was the start of Jewish identity and indeed the making of the Jewish people.

In Babylon the cleverest of them were educated in the learning of the Babylonians (Finkel cites the early chapters of Daniel as a convincing account of this) but to maintain their distinct national identity they collected together their oral traditions, and added some borrowed myths, and edited these together to create an imagined history of the Jewish people from the beginning of time – which have become the documents that form the Torah and other parts of the Old Testament of the modern bible.

This exposes the history recounted in the bible before about 600 BC as mostly mythology, based on oral stories and fragmentary documents passed down through the generations, and borrowings from other traditions, and probably about as “true” as any of the ancient Greek or Roman myths.

For example, it is well known that there is no archaeological evidence for the 40 year wilderness journey that is recounted in Exodus; not surprising, as the whole story was made up by the Judean literati in exile – it is quite possible that they even borrowed the Moses in the basket story from the legend of King Sargon, who in Babylonian legend was born secretly to a high priestess and, like Moses, was hidden in a basket set afloat in the river.

How odd it is that people in the modern world, who have no good excuse for not knowing these findings of modern scholarship, still cling to the notion that the bible stories are reliable history.  They are happy to reject as mythological the stories of other ancient peoples; the Greeks, the Romans, and more modern stories such as Mohammed’s night journey, or Joseph Smith’s golden plates, but refuse to see that the stories from the bible are clearly cut from the same cloth.

Irving Finkel’s excellent, entertaining and informative book should be required reading for all Christadelphians!

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