A Review of The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the story of the flood
Reed, wall, Reed wall!
Atrahasis pay heed to my advice,
That you may live forever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn possessions and save life!
-Opening lines of the Ark Tablet
It’s been known since the 19th century that there are striking parallels between the Ark story contained in the Bible and a narrative episode included in the Mesopotamian story of the Epic of King Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, a hero Utnapishti is tasked with saving both human and animal life from a destructive flood (for which somewhat surprisingly, no reason is given) by the god Ea. Like Noah, Utnapishti builds a boat, fills it with animals, and finds himself lodged on the top of a mountain. What’s more, just like Noah, Utnapishti sends out birds on three test flights to establish that the flood waters were receding:
I brought out a dove, setting it free;
Off went the dove but then it returned;
No perch was available for it and it came back to me.
I brought out a swallow, setting it free;
Off went the swallow but then it returned;
No perch was available for it and it came back to me.
I brought out a raven, setting it free;
Off went the raven and it saw the waters receding;
It was eating, bobbing up and down; it did not come back to me.
Gilgamesh XI: 148-56 (cited in The Ark Before Noah).
(Cf. Gen 8:6-12).
It’s quite possible that the story in Genesis borrowed directly from the Gilgamesh Epic. As the Ark Before Noah explains however, Gilgamesh is not the only Mesopotamian flood story we have. In fact, there are two other versions, which themselves inspired later versions of the Gilgamesh story: the Sumerian Flood Story, and the Atrahasis Epic. These two stories are both preserved in fragments of tablets from different periods, which scholars must piece together in order to reconstruct their narratives.
The Ark Before Noah, written by Irving Finkel (Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum), describes the author’s discovery and interpretation of what he calls the “Ark Tablet” – an early and relatively complete version of the Atrahasis story dating from 1900-1700 BCE that sheds new light on the biblical flood story and its Mesopotamian roots. The book also provides plenty of fascinating background about cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus or wedge), the Sumerian and Akkadian languages it was used to write down (Assyrian and Babylonian were northern and southern dialects of Akkadian), and the culture and religion of ancient Mesopotamia. It’s a readable and engaging book, with a lot of historical material interspersed with interesting anecdotes from Finkel’s career as well as examples of his dry sense of humour. Here’s a summary of some of the key points.
The Atrahasis story
The Atrahasis Epic tells the story of how life was saved from a destructive flood sent by the gods. According to Atrahasis, humans had originally been created as workforce for the gods, but as death had yet to be invented their numbers soon began to grow out of control. Frustrated by the noise (“the noise of mankind has become too intense for me, with their uproar I am deprived of sleep”), the god Enlil decided to wipe mankind out in three separate attempts: first, by sending a plague; second, by withholding rain to cause a famine; and third by sending a devastating flood. Each of these attempts is however thwarted by the god Ea (or Enki), on the third occasion by warning the hero Atrahasis to construct a great boat to save the lives of his family and a pair of each of the animals (the Ark Tablet in fact tells us that the animals boarded specifically “two by two” as in the Noah a story: a detail that had not been preserved on other Atrahasis fragments). Ultimately, Atrahasis succeeds, and the gods are sufficiently pleased by Enki’s intervention that they decide to reward him and his family with immortality (death is however introduced for the rest of mankind to keep a cap on their future numbers).
Finkel describes clear parallels between the Atrahasis story and the story recorded in the 11th tablet of the finalised Gilgamesh Epic, which tell us that the latter almost certainly borrowed from the former. The most notable correspondence is that in Gilgamesh Utnapishti assembles his ark-building workforce to gather by “Atrahasis’s gate” (just as the old Babylonian Atrahasis story tells us that “Atrahasis received the command, he assembled the elders to his gate”). The name Atrahasis from the original story does not belong in the new text, but seems to have slipped in by mistake – a clear sign of borrowing.
[Incidentally, while some of Utnapishti’s artisans are taken aboard to safety, Atrahasis’s workforce are drowned in the flood. Atrahasis’s farewell and thanksgiving feast for his workers are poignantly described in the Ark Tablet].
What shape was the ark?
Most of us have a clear mental image of what an ark is supposed to look like. It’s supposed to look something like this:
However as Finkel explains, the Ark Tablet tells us that in fact the Atrahasis ark was circular. Enki’s instructions to Atrahasis in the Ark Tablet are to “Draw out the boat that you will make, on a circular plan, let her length and breadth be equal”, and the detailed descriptions that follow describe a coracle of the kind that was used in Mesopotamia up until recent times. Coracles are circular rafts used for carrying people and cargo downriver, and their use in ancient times in Babylon is attested in the Greek historian Herodotus (who tells us how they were used ark-like to transport livestock). They also had their uses in warfare, and are included in military scenes sculpted into the walls of palaces in Assyria. The evidence for the Atrahasis ark being a giant coracle looks convincing. Finkel shows how the many details the Ark Tablet provides of how Atrahasis’s ark was to be built, closely match early twentieth century accounts of how coracles were put together in Iraq. The idea of a super-coracle also makes sense – it wasn’t as if the ark was supposed to go anywhere. It just had to float to survive the flood.
The vessel in the Gilgamesh Epic on the other hand has traditionally been thought of as being cuboid (a somewhat impractical sounding ship with a square base and six decks). This would raise the question of how or why the shape was changed. Finkel however suggests that Utnapishti’s ark may however have been circular as well. According to Finkel, the line in Gilgamesh “One acre was her area, ten rods each her sides stood high” could also be translated as “One acre was her circle, ten rods each her sides stood high”. This sounds plausible seeing as the descriptions of the arks in Gilgamesh and the ark tablet otherwise correspond quite closely.
Where did the ark come to rest?
It’s also common knowledge that the ark came to rest on Mt Ararat (now in modern Turkey). Indeed Noah’s ark has been ‘found’ there a couple of times. However, being pedantic, the Bible actually says that the ark came to rest in the mountains (plural) of Ararat:
“At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” (Gen 8:3-5).
Thus, the text refers to a range rather than an individual mountain (much as we might talk about the Alps or the Rockies). It is not clear whether the modern name Ararat comes from it being identified early on as a plausible place for Noah’s ark to have landed or somewhere else (the mountain’s Armenian name is Massis).
Finkel provides interesting evidence suggesting that the landing of the ark in this region may also be a borrowing from Mesopotamian myths. The British Museum has in its collection an ancient Babylonian map of the world. The world is shown as a flat disk rimmed by mountains that are filled with exotic, mythical creatures. One of the descriptions of these mountains tells us that one can find there remains of a vessel that looks like it comes straight out of the Atrahasis story, suggesting that this may plausibly be identified as the resting place of the legendary ark of Atrahasis. These mountains must be reached by travelling through Urartu (a region northeast of Mesopotamia whose name of course sounds tantalizingly similar to Ararat). The landing of Noah’s ark in Ararat could therefore be a shift in its location from somewhere beyond Urartu to somewhere in Urartu. As Finkel illustrates in more detail in the book, this wouldn’t be the only time that the ark’s final resting place had been moved.
Where did the biblical account come from?
Tablets describing the Atrahasis myth predate the biblical account by many hundreds of years. It’s also on the only myth that probably influenced biblical stories. The story of the Akkadian King Sargon being floated downriver in basket as a baby has similarities with the tale of Moses in Exodus. The Babylonians also had their own version of the Great Ages of Man (heroes with exceptional longevity), which bares some similarity to the long ages of characters such as Adam, Enoch and Methuselah in the early chapters of Genesis. So exactly how would the Hebrew authors of the Bible have come into contact with these tales? Finkel speculates about they might have been encountered during the Babylonian exile of 586-538BCE. The Book of Daniel set in the court of Nebuchadnezzar II, but put in its present form in the 2nd century BCE, describes how Hebrews were brought into royal service and taught Babylonian language and literature – which is to say they would have had to learn to read and write cuneiform (Dan 1:3-5). If such a process of attempting to assimilate the Jewish intelligentsia did occur, then it would be an important point of contact with Babylonian stories that could have inspired the biblical stories. Finkel points out we have school textbooks that include the Sargon Legend, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Great Ages of Man. Trainee court officials would thus have very probably have had to study these tales in the classroom. The verses in Daniel are controversial evidence since, as Finkel acknowledges, Daniel was written many hundreds of years after the exile, but the idea doesn’t sound too improbable. It’s also worth noting that some scholars also suggest that the court tales in Daniel may have been composed earlier than the apocalyptic materials in the rest of the book (possibly in the late Persian period, 450-333 BCE).
Overall the book is a really good read, and there are many details and facts that I have not been able to cover in this review. Irving Finkel is a patient and diligent scholar who explains his subject well and carefully sets out his thesis. Anyone interested in ancient history would enjoy it. Highly recommended.
[Thank you so much to Peter for taking the time to do this. An excellent and informative review. The book seems to be getting really good reviews from what I can see. If anyone else wants to submit any book reviews or similar, please let me know.]