Noah’s flood and God’s covenant with man

In the history of biblical archaeology, as it developed during the Victorian era, no episode is more remarkable that the discovery made by George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. On a clay tablet from the royal library of Nineveh he deciphered a much older Mesopotamian version of the flood story familiar from the Bible.

His discovery aroused the widest interest. The Daily Telegraph, then the world’s largest circulating newspaper, paid to send young Smith out to Mesopotamia to continue his investigations among the ruins of the library.

And what could be more amazing – miraculous even in the minds of many evangelicals then and since – was that he immediately laid his hands on further fragments of the same tablets.

This was hailed as an example of science supporting the Bible. Though it hard to imagine that anyone’s faith or moral outlook would be altered simply by the discovery of a Mesopotamian myth that influenced the Bible.


But the myth of a universal flood it transpired, as the myths of the world became better known, was found everywhere. In Greek myth for instance there was the story of Deucalion. There were geologists, too, who sought to find evidence of this universal catastrophe. This was easy enough to do. The geological record is filled with cataclysms, some local, some of much wider, even global extent.

But during his investigations in Mesopotamia in the 1920s, Sir Leonard Woolley found evidence of a more localised flood, perhaps in the third millennium BC. This he described in some fascinating pages of Ur of the Chaldees. But he found no evidence of an ark.

Other searchers were not put off. Countless expeditions have set off into the mountains around Ararat in search of the remains of the Ark, and some very strange stories have emerged. The credulity of many Christians was easily manipulated by local hoaxers and Russian rogues.

This book, however, presents a very different and very interesting story. Irving Finkel is also a scholar on the British Museum staff. One day a visitor showed him a clay tablet which his father had picked up in Iraq in the 1950s. When eventually Finkel came to translate it he got the shock of his life, or rather several shocks.

It was a carefully written account, not of the flood, but of the instruction that the high god Enki gave to the Noah figure of the day Atrahasïs to build an Ark. This was not in the form familiar from the Bible, but a huge coracle (the round skin covered boat still used in Iraq) about 230 feet wide and 29 feet high. Into this he was to gather the animals of the steppes.

Finkel was stalled for a time over a word ‘šanâ’ that followed next, but this eventually turned out to mean ‘two by two’, a startling echo of Genesis. This Akkadian version is a thousand years older than that the Bible. The ideas of Genesis were derived it seems from Mesopotamian myth at the time of the Babylonian captivity. 

But the form of the Ark, I suspect, arose later from the misunderstood shipbuilding techniques of the Phoenicians, as the Jews were not sailors. In any case as described in the Bible the Ark would not have been sea-worthy, but would have broken its back and sunk.


But this insight into the story of the Ark should not mask from us that it is not the flood, however it may be conceived, that was of central interest to the ancient authors. It was the covenant of God with mankind which the rainbow at its end symbolises that was important.

The world was ever filled with catastrophes – we are living through some these days – but these were not as important as the relationship of humanity with the experience of the divine which the covenant represented.

Darren Aronofsky’s already controversial film Noah, starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson, opens 
in cinemas worldwide in April.