Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel (Book Review #82 of 2015)

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood
I enjoy works by practitioners of their craft over journalistic accounts of those crafts and the practioners' discoveries. I suppose most practitioners too eccentric to be good writers, but Irving Finkel does a decent job he; apparently moonlights as a fiction author. He's a committed philologist and Assyriologist living his childhood dream of working in the British Museum and is one of the world's foremost experts on Akkadian/Sumerian/Babylonian cuneiform. I listened to Gerald Davis' "new" translation of Gilgamesh before this book; that and Genesis 5-11 are prerequisites. I take particular interest in this book as Answers in Genesis is building a life-size replica of the biblically-described ark not too far from where I live.

The first 1/3 of the book deals with the development and history of language and its translation. Writing was invented in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BC. The earliest clay tablets from around that time have yet to be translated. Gilgamesh and other works are quite difficult to translate, and Finkel gives plenty of details of his own discoveries regarding the Ark tablet he uncovered that will make one appreciate the difficulties of translating ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible. (One also shudders at the invaluable history that ISIS has destroyed in Syria and Iraq, never again to be recovered.)

Interestingly, cuneiform cannot be written with the left hand, which perhaps helps explain the aversion to left-handedness that exists in many cultures there today. Clay tables with errors are remarkably uncommon and Finkel details how they dealt with errors. Akkadian became the dominant language in Mesopotamia until it was replaced by Aramaic at about 1,000 B.C. It's important to remember that what we have on clay or paper is not the sum of ancient thought, knowledge, or philosophy-- it's only a window, at best, and much still remains untranslated.

Finkel's office came into possession of several cuneiform tablets donated from an antiquities collector, and on a small "mobile phone-sized" tablet Finkel found lines matching up with Utnapishtim's account of building the ark that he dates around 1,750 BC. Finkel feigns no modesty in calling this "one of the most important documents ever discovered," and translating and filling in the blanks are Finkel's devotion. The way in which this is done is interesting but I noted that Finkel falls into a couple of exegetical fallacies along the way (more on that later).

The flood narrative was first recorded around 2,000 BC and the non-biblical account comes down to us in three forms: One Sumerian and two Akkadian on nine known tablets from the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian periods. Finkel's table is composed in the literary Akkadian style. In deciphering certain unusual words, Finkel consults lexicons created by other Assyriologists finding definitions from limited other tablets. Finkel's headline discovery is that the boat described in his tablet is round and held together by hundreds of kilometer of rope. In this way, it resembled a larger version of the vessels that were used in the rivers of Mesopotamia.

I note one exegetical fallacy in Finkel's quest to interpret the text, and that is to look for meaning of a word in a different semantic field. Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are all Semitic languages with similar grammar and shared root words. But the meaning of words in those languages evolved over time, as words do in every language. At one point, Finkel reaches for the Arabic word meaning "basket" to show a similarity in sound with a word on his tablet which he says gives further evidence for the round basket-like boat he is interpreting from his text. So, he's reaching for a word dating after 600 AD in one language to determine the meaning of a word written in another language 2,000 years before! Surely someone would correct him in his fallacious reasoning here, but apparently not.

Finkel's lack of cross-checking his work with others also comes across in his putting forth a "new" theory about when the Old Testament, including and especially Genesis, was written. This stems from Finkel's second exciting discovery- the words meaning "two by two" which were either missing or illegible in previously discovered tablets, which match the biblical account of animals coming onto the ark in pairs. Finkel uses this fact and the date of when the Genesis account could have been recorded, if indeed by Moses (~1400 BC during the exodus from Egypt), to state that the Hebrew flood account MUST have been copied from the Babylonians. Finkel proposes that the entirety of the Torah was written whole cloth in Babylonian times with Jews borrowing everything from monotheism (Marduk) to the flood account (Gilgamesh) and rewriting it to establish an independent and seemingly superior account for national interest.

This "new" hypothesis, not theory, is neither new nor supported by evidence nor is it accepted by scholars, for good reason. Many scholars already believe that the Torah and Talmud as we have them today were compiled by Hebrew scribes around 500-600 BC during the 70-year Babylonian exile, that is not new. But no one believes the Hebrews made up their traditions out of whole cloth as they had a tradition of language and literacy and brought with them both scrolls and oral tradition from Israel. Hence, there were scribes who could read and write the Hebrew text that scholars believe they had the capability of writing. (Finkel even cites the this bringing of scrolls as authoritative, undermining his own argument.)

Most scholars believe all the separate pieces were compiled and redacted into a single collection, with the more liberal/skeptical scholars arguing for a greater amount of redaction than others. Finkel is claiming that there was little or nothing to be redacted, everything needed to be written for the first time-- where the Hebrews had oral traditions about creation and the flood, their scholarly leaders deemed them inadequate to explain their exile predicament and insufficient to keep Hebrews patriotically devoted to rebuilding their homeland. Daniel and his friends, for example, were attending Babylonian schools and would have been well-schooled in their languages and literature; it was likely among these, claims Finkel, that the Hebrew Bible was written. Finkel either ignores or omits that the Book of Daniel (9:1) records Daniel's reading of Hebrew scrolls (Jeremiah) predating the exile. Jeremiah, like Isaiah and Ezkiel (also predating the exile) quotes from or alludes to Genesis 1-11, and Isaiah refers to Noah.

It is also problematic that Finkel accepts one of several versions of the Documentary Hypothesis without explaining its background and how that hypothesis has evolved in the last two hundred years. For a description and critique of the hypothesis, as well as a plausible Tablet Model that Finkel does not mention, see this link:

The Documentary Hypothesis, ironically, can be used against Finkel's argument about how Genesis was written as scholars subscribing to the hypothesis believe the 3 or 4 traditions (depending on which form of the hypothesis they endorse) were written down before the exile. As pointed out by others critiquing Finkel's work, many of these texts (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, which was studied by Daniel during the exile) refer to Genesis and mention the flood. Finkel is either ignorant of or omits the Tablet Model, that the "toledoth" found in Genesis may indicate multiple tablets as part of a single narrative -- a view I find more plausible given Finkel's own research on the various tablets related to Gilgamesh.

Given the historical problems with Finkel's hypothesis, I find it unlikely that the Hebrews also borrowed Genesis 1-3 from Babylonian accounts. Major parts of Genesis 1-11 seem clearly written as a polemic against alternative creation, flood, and geneological accounts in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Gilgamesh epic is polytheistic, Babylon believed it descended from heaven as a divine city (rather than being the source of God's judgement of languages--Babel), and the biblical account clearly contrasts with these and its stories are much less fantastic than Gilgamesh. If we believe that Moses had something to do with the writing of these accounts (as Exodus says and Jesus as well as Jews in his day claimed) then it stands to reason he would have been aware of these competing accounts, having been raised in Pharoah's household and likely literate in many languages and having encountered stories from ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such that he could have been conscious of them writing ~1400 BC. Finkel argues that these accounts clash because of a concerted effort of Hebrew scribes, but the evidence of historical dates is against him, as well as the lack of the ability of anyone to concertedly write so well and so subtly a polemic (even many commentaries written on Genesis today miss the polemic aspects).

Finkel's descriptions of the difficulty of translating and interpreting are the main thing I gleaned from this book. He points out that several parts of Genesis 6-9 contain Hebrew words not used elsewhere, illustrating the difficulties of translators. The ark's rectangular measurements are a problem for him, and he believes it was intentionally written not to be round. But I think given that ships built for centuries around the world tend to be rectangular in shape rather than round make the measurements unproblematic; why would the Hebrew scribes be so desirous to not let their boat be round if it's a good model? If the ark was round and Hebrew scholars have simply misinterpreted the ancient measurements all these years then that would still not have any implications for the veracity or meaning of the overall account.  

Another interesting aspect of The Ark Before Noah is the evidence that people have been searching for Noah's ark for millennia and its pieces sold and used as amulets similar to how supposed pieces of Jesus' cross became marketable all through the Middle Ages. Finkel also notes tablets that indicate the Assyrian king Sennacherib searched for the ark. Sennacherib's seige of Jerusalem is recorded in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. After an angel wipes out 185,000 of his soldiers, Sennacherib returns to Ninevah where he is murdered by his sons while praying in a temple (Isaiah 37:37-38). Finkel reports that one of the Assyrian tablets confirms this account of his death, with the detail that Sennacherib was praying to a plank of Noah's ark. Finkel describes various recorded attempts to find the ark through history.

In all, I give this 3 stars out of 5. Finkel's exegetical stretches and eagerness to trumpet his own work without examining critiques of others is problematic for me. I enjoyed his passion for his craft and he gave me a greater appreciation for linguistics and interpretation.

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