The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel

I was intrigued by the title of this book, wondering if there was anything new to be said about the Ark.  By the end, I had discovered a great deal about the development of the myth and the transition from Mesopotamian legend to biblical account.

More than that, I had discovered what the Ark actually looked like – or at least how it was imagined perhaps 1,000 years before the biblical story of Noah was first written down.  If I had to construct a serviceable Ark, I feel that the guidelines provided by Irving Finkel would be invaluable.

Much of the subject matter of this book is obscure, technically challenging and way beyond what is familiar to most of us.  Fortunately, Irving Finkel proves himself to be a likeable guide to such matters as ancient Babylonian languages and cuneiform tablets.  He is undoubtedly an expert (Finkel is Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum) and potentially an obsessive, and yet his good-humoured enthusiasm and easy manner turn what could have been a dry and difficult academic text into a fresh and fascinating read.

The focus of the material is a clay tablet bearing an early account of the Ark story.  Atra-hasis (the biblical Noah in an earlier incarnation) is given precise instructions on how to build the boat that will save life.  It transpires that these god given instructions make an awful lot of sense, and that later ideas of what the Ark looked like are apparently based on a misunderstanding of the instructions.  The vessel that Finkel describes on the basis of the Ark Tablet turns out to be a practical boat – bigger, of course, but otherwise not too dissimilar to boats used until quite recently for fishing and trading along the River Euphrates.

Finkel’s scholarship is genuinely admirable.  Naturally, a certain amount of attentiveness is required of the reader.  And yet, “The Ark Before Noah” can be put down and gone back to whenever the reader needs a break (if only to digest the latest strand of the argument).  The book is well illustrated and provides a fascinating introduction both to cuneiform record keeping and to the early history and development of a familiar myth.  The ideas and information contained in the book stay with the reader.  This is a learning exercise, yes, but an entertaining, intriguing and rewarding one.

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