A Library at Nineveh
SOME of the ancients were far wiser and had more ingenuity than many persons today are inclined to attribute to them. A notable illustration of this is the library established at Nineveh by the Assyrian monarch Ashurbanipal. Though existing over two and a half millenniums ago, this library had features much like those found in modern libraries today.
Beginning in 1845 C.E., excavations eventually brought to light about 22,000 clay tablets and texts from the library of Ashurbanipal. Some of these tablets are as small as one inch square. Others measure up to fifteen inches by eight and a half inches. Many of the tablets formed a numbered series, with repeated “catch lines” to link them up with one another. Evidently to conserve library space, the tablets were at times inscribed with very minute writing that apparently was read with a magnifying lens of crystal. This reminds one of microfilm found in modern libraries.
A wide variety of subjects was accessible to the reader. Today material from the library of Ashurbanipal is viewed as the principal source of information for the history of the Assyrian Empire and its kings. In addition to incantations, prayers and hymns, the thousands of cuneiform writings include treatises on history, geography, astronomy and medicine. Also available were mathematical tables, grammars and dictionaries of the Sumerian and Assyrian languages, as well as interlinear translations into Assyrian of Sumerian writings.
One section of Ashurbanipal’s library contained letters. This included both private correspondence and that addressed to the king and high officials.
Many of the tablets found in the library were business documents involving contracts, sales and loans. These give evidence of the precautions taken to avoid fraud. The tablets were encased in clay envelopes, with seals of the persons making the contract and their witnesses repeated on the outside. Thus anyone trying to tamper with the tablet inside had to destroy the exterior envelope. Even if someone could reproduce the external seals, a new exterior envelope would shrink as it dried. Eventually the already dry, hard tablet within would cause the new envelope to crack and break. This would reveal that someone had tampered with the tablet.
The tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library were numbered and cataloged, thus facilitating the finding of a tablet or a series of tablets. The inscriptions on the larger works suggest that the library was open to all who could read.
King Ashurbanipal evidently found delight in the literary works available to him. One of his inscriptions reads, in part: “I read the beautiful clay tablets from Sumer and the obscure Akkadian writing which is hard to master. I had my joy in the reading of inscriptions on stone from the time before the flood.”—Light from the Ancient Past (1946), Jack Finegan, p. 181.
The inscriptions “from the time before the flood” may have been written before a local flood of considerable proportions or could have been accounts professing to relate events prior to the global Flood. There is no proof that the Assyrians possessed any genuine pre-Flood records. The only writings regarding a flood actually found in Ashurbanipal’s library were those of the Babylonian flood account.
There are a number of similarities between this Babylonian account and that found in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. These similarities include the building of a vessel for survival and the preservation of human and animal life. However, the Babylonian account is filled with mythological and polytheistic elements. For example, concerning the effect of the deluge on the gods, it states: “The gods were frightened by the deluge, and, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu. The gods cowered like dogs crouched against the outer wall. . . . The gods, all humbled, sit and weep.”
Commenting on the similarities of the Babylonian and the Biblical accounts, Professor Merrill F. Unger observes:
“The most widely accepted explanation is that the Hebrew borrowed from the Babylonian account. To the conservative student, this is incredible. The superlative loftiness of the monotheistic account in the light of the utter crudity of the Babylonian tradition renders this view not only extremely unlikely but practically impossible, especially as the theory cannot be proved. . . . The likely explanation is that both the Hebrew and Babylonian accounts go back to a common source of fact, which originated in an actual occurrence. . . . The memory of this great event persisted in tradition. The Babylonians received it in a completely corrupted and distorted form. Genesis portrays it as it actually occurred.”—Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 373.
Even the aspect about the gods’ being frightened could be a distortion of fact. The Genesis record reveals that angelic sons of God, contrary to the divine will respecting them, came to the earth before the Flood and began living as husbands with women. The offspring of these unions were known as “Nephilim” or “Fellers.” (Gen. 6:1-13) Whereas the Flood forced the disobedient angels to leave the earth, their mighty offspring, the “Nephilim,” were left to die in the waters of the Deluge. Accordingly, the Babylonian flood account may allude to the effect that the Deluge had on the disobedient angels and their offspring.
While Ashurbanipal and others found pleasure in the library at Nineveh, for persons today, with the exception of scholars in Assyriology, much of the material is of limited interest and value. However, another ancient library consisting of but sixty-six books has caused individuals even in this twentieth century to change their lives for the better. This collection of books is the Bible. It deserves far more than passing interest. True, the records engraved on stone and inscribed on clay tablets, prisms and cylinders may be much older than the most ancient extant Bible manuscript (written on perishable materials), but the Holy Scriptures alone present a living message.