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'The Ark before Noah': new evidence for the shape of the ark
on 30 November 2014
In 'The Ark before Noah' Dr Finkel gives an enthralling and authoritative account of a 150 year old problem. His analysis is solidly based on his knowledge as an expert in cuneiform, and he successfully conveys his enthusiasm for the subject. Huge amounts of information are communicated in a deceptively easy style, covering not just the technicalities of flood texts but the whole range of Mesopotamian writing - business documents, court records, dreams and omens, educational primers, mathematics, myths and rituals and works of reference - a whole world now lying in innumerable fragments on museum shelves or still buried in Iraq. He take us through the many 'flood tablets' which have been identified since George Smith made his epoch-making identification in 1872, not just the nine main texts in Sumerian and Akkadian but the related sources in Genesis, the Qur'an and the Greco-Babylonian Berossus, then, conjuror-like, adds his own contribution, an unrecognised version of the Atrahasis myth, the so-called 'Ark Tablet', which gives new details of dimensions, design and construction methods. On this he founds a wholly original theory: in its original Babylonian conception the ark was a gigantic 'quffa', a huge circular coracle. Traces of this extraordinary idea survive in other tablets, and Dr Finkel is able to show how the design evolved from the early reed-boat of the Sumerian texts to the Babylonian circular ark, then to Utnapishti's cube and finally the rectangular box of Genesis 6-9. Necessarily this takes the discussion to the relationship with Genesis, and the author seeks to argue, again in my view convincingly, that we are not dealing with parallel, independent traditions but direct literary dependence, in which a version of the Utnapishti narrative in Gilgamesh XI was incorporated in Genesis at the time of the Babylonian Exile (597-538 BC). Here he has useful things to say about the crisis in Judaean history and its effects. There is a large measure of speculation in all this - maybe the author lets his enthusiasms run away with him at times - but there is nothing in the book that is not scholarly or worth considering. There is also valuable supporting material about the construction of coracle boats in Iraq, now alas a lost art, drawn from the pages of the Mariner's Mirror. This is a fascinating and rewarding investigation, and I thoroughly recommend it.