Defining the Jews

Irving Finkel proposes a theory that accounts for the birth of the Hebrew Bible and how the story of Noah and the Flood came to be in it.

Irving Finkel holds the tablet telling the tale of the Flood. (photo credit: DALE CHERRY / COURTESY HODDER & STOUGHTON)
Irving Finkel holds the tablet telling the tale of the Flood.
SOMEHOW, IRVING FINKEL seems suited to the role of a time traveler.
Granted, his flowing white beard and long hair tied at the back into a ponytail is not quite in the modern image of the title character of the BBC’s long-running television sci-fi series Dr. Who, but every day, the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures at the British Museum immerses himself in cuneiform writings, which illuminate more than 3,000 years of civilization in the Near East, mostly in the fertile lands of the Tigris and Euphrates.
And what wonders do these voices from the past have to say? Tales of the gods? Stories of great battles and the rise and fall of empires? Not as a rule. When an eccentric collector came to the museum and showed Finkel a clay tablet the size of a cell phone he had inherited from his father, who had been stationed in the Middle East during World War II, “it looked for all the world like a business letter, like most tablets,” he tells The Jerusalem Report recently in Jerusalem.
But this impression vanished when Finkel read the opening words. “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-hasis…” He realized at once he was holding a Flood story in his hands. What he did not realize was that this would be just the start of a journey that would end in a new and promising theory that accounts for the birth of the Hebrew Bible, and suggests how and why the Jews have survived while the other peoples of the period have not.
Ever since 19th-century archeologist and British Museum employee George Smith found inscribed on a cuneiform tablet, excavated at the Assyrian capital Nineveh, the tale of a worldwide flood and an ark that saved selected men and beasts, Noah has had to contend with rivals for the title of the rescuer of life on Earth.
Smith’s hero was a man called Utnapishti – his heroics were part of the Assyrian Gilgamesh epic. The inscription is about 2,800 years old, but draws on earlier models.
An earlier Flood tale, dated to around 1,600 BCE, is in the Sumerian language. A King Ziusudra is the central character. Atrahasis is the Akkadian Noah, and the various tablets uncovered at different sites telling his story mostly date from this period, though some are slightly later.
Finkel was eager to decipher this new discovery, but it was years before the owner finally let him translate it. It was not easy – the reverse of the clay tablet was cracked, and the text either lost or eroded. It took him years of patient study, but he found a surprising detail previously unknown in the Babylonian Flood literature – the ark was round: a giant coracle. And that was not all.
“Instead of just telling him to build the ark and get on with it, in fact, you have a set of building specifications, and that is what is new. Its round shape was not only plausible but also rather sensible. All the craft had to do was to bob up and down until the waters went down.” The amounts of the materials required by the round ark as listed in the tablet were remarkably precise. The length of the rope stated there, for example, was within one percent of what boat builders worked out would have been required by a full scale version. “This was not arbitrary, but the result of proper calculation,” notes Finkel.
In fact, a scaled-down ark was constructed for a documentary film on the basis of the recorded measurements and materials – and it worked.
THIS SPURRED Finkel to reevaluate some of the other Atrahasis accounts, and he found the word “circle” associated with the ark in these texts. Contrary to what had been thought, the round ark, likely envisaged from the real-life coracles that plied the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at the time (they remained in use well into the 20th century) may have been a common feature of Babylonian Flood stories.
And Finkel’s persistent efforts found a startling link with Noah – a rare expression incised in the clay referring to the animals entering the Ark and meaning “two by two.”
This match with the Hebrew Bible is unique in the cuneiform records.
When the text became widely known to the public earlier this year with the publication of “The Ark Before Noah,” the round ark caused something of a sensation, though not as great as Smith’s discovery occasioned – his findings were announced to an audience that included British prime minister William Gladstone and leading churchmen.
However, two other aspects of the book drew less attention. Firstly, Finkel wrote it in an attempt to rekindle the popular enthusiasm for all things archaeological that characterized mid-19th century Britain, though it was not his original intention.
“I first wrote an academic treatment,” he relates, “and the publishers said I should make it a bit more readable and rewrite it with the aim not only of describing what was in this tablet, but also the whole subject of ancient Babylonian script and languages, how we understand them and the people who wrote them, and what we do in museums and why.
“I was actually quite peeved, so I went home in rather a gloom.”
He rewrote part of it and sent it back with the comment: “I suppose this is the kind of nonsense you want.” The publishers did indeed want this “nonsense” and “The Ark Before Noah” more than lived up to their expectations.
Finkel soon came round. “I found it very liberating. Normally, one writes about Assyriology for a highly critical audience of colleagues. I tried not to be overdramatic, and I wrote what I really think – the popular reaction has touched me.”
He regrets the passing of the golden age of high public interest in archaeology, but believes part of the reason for this lies in his discipline, which has become very specialized and inward-looking. “Any kind of synthetic writing for a more general audience is always undermined by the feeling of what one’s colleagues will say.”
ANOTHER PART of the problem is the collapse of popular interest in the Bible. “In Britain, people of 30 or younger have never read the Bible at all. Lack of familiarity with the Bible is a crucial matter, especially in museum work, and it is paralleled to some extent by the eclipse of classical literature and mythology.”
How does the Noah story fit in with the new tablet and other cuneiform writings on the Flood? The thrust of the Atrahasis narratives is that the gods wanted to destroy man because he was making too much noise – one god revealed the plan to Atrahasis by the ruse of speaking to the reed wall between him and the man, hence the opening words of the tablet. The Hebrew Bible, though, makes it clear that the Flood is a punishment for wrongdoing.
Yet, Finkel believes there are too many similarities between the tales of Noah and his Mesopotamian rivals for these stories to have evolved over the years from a separate origin.
His book regards the shared occurrence of birds released to seek land (doves and ravens feature also in the Utnapishti account) as conclusive evidence for literary borrowing.
And the Babylonian versions came first.
Differences within the Hebrew text, states Finkel, reflect earlier distinct cuneiform versions of the Flood story.
This conclusion is not new. What has gone relatively unexplained hitherto is why tales in cuneiform should have been adopted and adapted wholesale into the Hebrew sacred texts. Finkel has a surprising, yet convincing, theory that says the trigger was the impact of Babylon and its cuneiform writings on the captive Judeans after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 by King Nebuchadnezzar.
“The Judeans were refugees, they came from a backwater,” Finkel asserts.
“The impact of Babylon must have been overpowering. As far as they knew, they were going to be there forever.” The Judean leaders thought that they were in extreme danger of extinction, the fate that had befallen the northern kingdom of Israel a century before.
It was at this moment, claims Finkel, that the Hebrew Bible was born. There was a need for an accepted and convincing text that would explain to the Judeans how they had ended up far from home, with everything that they held dear in ruins, yet with a future as a people, with an existing divine plan that had been in place from the beginning of the world.
The Judeans would have come with records of their own, of course, which could be used as the basis of compiling an agreed text. But they had nothing to deal with the period from the creation of the world to the journey of Abraham from Mesopotamia westwards to Canaan.
THE BABYLONIANS g ave t hem t hat. T he Book of Daniel is explicit on the point. “Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans… They were to be educated for three years, so at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court.”
The Judeans, therefore, would have been taught the Babylonian Flood narratives as preserved in the cuneiform writings, but when transferring them to their own history, gave it the twist that the disaster was brought about by the Creator of the Universe through man’s violence, with salvation coming thanks to the righteous Noah. “So we have,” Finkel adds, “an explanation as to how these stories could move from cuneiform into Hebrew, a mechanism by which it was possible.”
The resulting Hebrew Bible defined the Judeans, uniquely among all previous religious literature, “as a people whose existence was predicated on Scripture.
First it defined their history, and then their existence,” Finkel says. “The Babylonian captivity created Jews out of Judeans.”
Its effects went further than that, according to Finkel. “In Babylon during the period of Nebuchadnezzar and after, the local academies spent a lot of time writing commentaries on texts where the meanings were not clear.” This was often the case in a writing system that represented different languages. Further adding to its complexity, all cuneiform signs had more than one sound value and all sounds could be represented by more than one cuneiform sign.
The resulting close textual analysis and word play inspired the methods used by the commentators on the Babylonian Talmud, the descendants of the exiles. “All the methods, which the rabbis used in the Talmud to expound texts, are predicated on the academies of Babylon: the Talmudic philological devices or exegeses are a direct inheritance from them.” Finkel thoughtfully supplies some examples of native Babylonian commentary in “The Ark Before Noah.”
Finkel, now in his early 60s, comes across in his book as a man who lives, breathes and eats cuneiform – he even wears a yellow tie well speckled with wedge-writing. From boyhood, he was fascinated by what he terms “dead and ‘difficult’ writing”, but was more interested in ancient Chinese or ancient Egyptian. A chance lecture by an Assyriologist, which enabled him to spot that Babylonian shared with Hebrew the use of a three-consonant root, set him on his vocation.
But his interests go well beyond worlds long gone.
Quite apart from his more scholarly publications, including one on ancient board games, he is the author of several well-received books for children and young adults.
He also founded “The Great Diary Project,” a London-based initiative designed to rescue and preserve the private diaries of ordinary people for study by historians, and which already has collected more than 2,000 such documents.
There is no doubting the love and intensity that Finkel brings to his work. He writes about giving the coracle ark tablet “the full squeeze treatment” to bring out every last vestige of meaning. Even the lay reader will thrill to the spectacle of scholarly passion in all its glory – something most specialists keep well cloaked behind the jargon of their profession.
He concludes his book with another impressive parallel between the Biblical ark (also likely inspired by another type of Babylonian boat design, a riverine barge) and the coracle – despite their different shapes, their base area is almost identical. To his mind, “this reinforces the linear descent from cuneiform into Hebrew, the tracing of which represents the core of the present work.”
And, in proposing the idea that the key for the birth and survival of the Jewish people as a distinct nation was its exposure to the writings of another civilization, Finkel suggests that culture may be enriched and enhanced, not harmed, by close encounters with the cultures of others.