Sunday, January 19, 2014

The story of Noah and the flood outside the Bible

In the year 1872 one George Smith, a bank­note engraver turned assistant in the British Museum, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at far-distant Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). Human behaviour, according to this new discovery, prompted the gods of Babylon to wipe out mankind through death by water, and, as in the Bible, the survival of all living things was effected at the last minute by a single man. ...

The story of a flood that destroyed the world, in which human and animal life was saved from extinction by a hero with a boat, is almost universal in the world’s treasury of traditional literature. Many scholars have tried to collect all the specimens in a butterfly net, to pin them out and docket them for family, genus and species. Flood stories in the broadest sense have been documented in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Syria, Europe, India, New Guinea, Central America, North America, Australia and South America. ...

People have long been concerned with the question of whether there really was a flood, and been on the lookout for evidence to support the story, and I imagine all Mesopotamian archaeologists have kept the Flood at the back of their mind. In the years 1928 and 1929 important discoveries were made on sites in Iraq that were taken to be evidence of the biblical Flood itself. At Ur, excavation beneath the Royal Cemetery disclosed more than 10ft of empty mud, below which earlier settlement material came to light. A similar discovery was made at the site of Kish in southern Iraq. To both teams it seemed inescapable that here was evidence of the biblical Flood itself. ...

The Ark Tablet, like many documents of its period, is designed to fit comfortably in the reader’s hand; it is much the same size and weight as a contemporary mobile phone.

The tablet was written during the Old Babylonian period, broadly 1900–1700BC. ...

What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next. My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with “sa” and “na”, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning “sana” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: “sana (or sanâ) adv. Two each, two by two.”

This is a very rare word among all our texts – when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences. To me, it is the world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.

For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible.
--British Museum curator Irving Finkel, The Telegraph, on multiple attestations of a major event. HT: JM