The Genesis Flood and the Other Flood Legends of the Ancient Near East

The biblical Flood story of Genesis associated with Noah originated in Mesopotamia and is “part of the larger matrix of ancient near Eastern myth and epic” (1). It was a story told and spread far and wide in the ancient world. These flood legends probably have a basis in reality, perhaps in the various floods of the region. According to Norman Cohn,

“Right down to the first half of the present century large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia and is now Iraq were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows in spring, the Tigris and the Euphrates could burst their banks; then the country would be submerged under hundreds of miles of lake. In ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that there had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again. In the famous Sumerian king-list the kings are even divided into two categories, ante-diluvian and post-diluvian” (2).

There is some archaeological evidence to support this view. Excavations indicate that around 2800 BCE the ancient Sumerian city of Shurrupak was laid waste by a flood. The Genesis Flood legend is a part of this ancient context. There are several versions of the Babylonian Flood dating from around 1800 BCE (roughly a thousand years earlier before the Genesis story was composed). Most scholars agree that the biblical version(s) is descended from the Babylonian account, probably through oral traditions handed down via elders, travelers, bards, and scribes (3). Old Testament scholar Peter Enns writes that biblical scholars began finding “flood stories from Israel’s neighbors that looked a lot like Genesis and were much older… The similarities between these stories and the biblical story are well known, striking, and incontrovertible” (4).

The Sumerian Flood Legend

The Sumerian account of the Great Flood is the earliest of the flood stories. This text provides an account of the creation and of organization of life: man is created first, then plants, and then animals. The Supreme God Enlil speaks to an assembly of gods and informs them how he established divine laws, kingship (by sending it down from heaven to Earth), five Sumerian cities that he each gives a ruler, and the irrigation on which Sumer depended. The text also tells of how the gods send a flood to wipe out humanity. But one man, the pious king Ziusudra, is selected to save “the seed of mankind.” Ziusudra hears of the impending doom through the voice of a god, which is that a flood will sweep over the cities and mankind will perish. He is therefore commanded to build a giant boat. The Babylonian account depicts the flood as follows,

All the destructive winds [and] gales were present,
The storm swept over the capitals.
After the storm had swept the country for seven days and seven nights
And the destructive winds had rocked the huge boat in the high water,
The Sun came out, illuminating the earth and sky,
Ziusdra made an opening in the huge boat.
The king Ziusdra
Prostrated himself before the Sun god,
The king slaughtered a large number of bulls and sheep.

Once the storm passed, Ziusdra says a prayer of gratitude and makes an offering to the gods Anu and Enki. Ziusudra is further blessed with divinity and prostrates himself before the highest gods, who grant him eternal life as a reward for having saved “the seed of mankind.” Ziusdra is then settled in a supernatural realm called Dilmun. It is accepted that this Sumerian/Babylonian version of the Flood narrative had the political purpose of strengthening the established order, with the king being central. The story teaches that the king’s rule has been sanctioned by the gods and the people are to observe and promote the divine laws.

The Gilgamesh Epic Legend

There is another flood account called the Gilgamesh Epic that speaks of how king Gilgamesh, grieved at the death of his friend Enkidu, is motivated to conquer death and travels to the wise Utnapishtim for advice. Evidently, Utnapishtim is unable to help Gilgamesh but recommends he conquers Sleep, the younger brother of Death, by staying awake for a week. Gilgamesh is unable to do this and then comes to realize how death awaits all people. The Gilgamesh Epic also contains a flood story. Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh that a council of gods decided to eliminate humanity, but fortunately the god Ea warns Utnapishtim. Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a large boat of tar and pitch to house his family, food, and animals,

Ea, the Prince, was under oath with them
so he repeated their talk to the reed house:
‘Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall!
O man of Šuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutu [i.e., Ut-napištim]
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make [the seed of] all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.
Roof it over like the Apsu.’

And so Utnapishtim and his carpenters made themselves busy building a boat with six decks, seven levels, and nine compartments. When completed, Utnapishtim loaded the boat with his goods,

Whatever I had I loaded on it:
whatever silver I had I loaded on it,
whatever gold I had I loaded on it.
All the living beings that I had I loaded on it,
I had all my kith and kin go up into the boat,
all the beasts and animals of the field and the craftsmen I had go up.

The gods then flooded the world. This was “frightful to behold!” and it even frightened the gods. But when the waters abated after six days and seven nights, Utnapishtim opens up a vent in his boat and looks out of it. He sees the expanse of the sea and seven days later releases a dove. This dove could not find anything but water and so returned to the boat. Utnapishtim then sent out a swallow but the outcome is the same. Finally, he sent out a raven. The raven saw that the waters had receded, so it circled and did not return. Utnapishtim subsequently makes a sacrifice to the gods who “smelled the sweet savor, and collected like flies over a sacrifice.” The gods regretted their decision and agreed never to try to destroy humanity again. Utnapishtim was then rewarded with eternal life and is taken to settle at the Mouth of the Rivers.

The Atrahasis Epic

There is a flood legend called the Atrahasis Epic dating to 1635 BCE, although the original text may have been composed a century or two earlier.

According to this epic, humans were created out of clay and the flesh and blood of a slain god. They were created as servants and slaves of the gods. But humans had become so numerous on the Earth that their noise began disturbing the peace of the gods. This angered the chief deity Enlil who wanted to sleep but was kept awake by the noise. Enlil persuaded the gods to send a plague as punishment. This worked but 1200 years later the human population had recovered and made much noise again. This time rain was withheld, but still the problem continued. After yet another 1200 years Enlil was being kept awake again. The gods then decided to withhold rain for six years which caused starvation. Neighbors killed one another and parents killed and ate their children.

Yet despite the efforts of the gods, it is because of Enki that humanity managed to survive these ordeals. Whenever Enlil and the gods conjured up a plan to destroy humanity, Enki would somehow thwart it. He had a devotee called Atrahasis who was a mythical king. Every time the gods threatened a major catastrophe, Atrahasis prayed for help and Enki would respond. With the assistance of Enki, humanity managed to survive and continue multiplying. But Enlil finally decides to send a flood that would destroy humanity for good. Enki yet again throws a spanner into the works and informs Atrahasis of this plan.

Enki passes on the information to the wall of the reed hut where Atrahasis lives. The instruction is for Atrahasis to build a boat. Atrahasis obeys and fills the vessel with gold, silver, animals, and birds. For seven days and nights, the boat withholds against the storm before coming to rest on a mountain. When Atrahasis peeks out of his boat, the land appears to be flattened like a roof and all the human beings had been turned into clay. Atrahasis waits another week on the mountaintop and then sends out a dove to find land. The dove finds no land and returns. Atrahasis then sends out a swallow but again with no luck. Finally, he sends a raven that discovers land and stays away. When Atrahasis comes out of the boat, he sacrifices a sheep and burns incense to the gods. But Enlil is enraged that humans had managed to survive. Humanity had indeed survived but the problem of overpopulation remained. But Enki came up with a solution: some women would be barren, some would have their babies snatched away by demons, and some would be forbidden to marry out of religious commitments.

The message of the Atrahasis Epic is clear: the gods are tyrants who cannot even see their plans to an intended end. The chief god Enlil, the mastermind behind these attempts to destroy, is particularly portrayed badly.

The Genesis Flood Legend and the Other Flood Stories 

The composition of the Genesis account dates to around 570 BCE and shares many similarities to these other flood legends. The similarities suggest that the authors of these various legends drew on a common tradition when writing their accounts. In all of the stories, there is a god who warns a selected figure of an impending flood that will wipe out humanity. The selected figure is saved because a god is impressed by his piety. Ziusudra is saved because of his piety, Atrahasis for being a devotee, and Noah for his righteousness.

All the figures are recipients of warning. Ea warns Utnapishtim, Enki warns Atrahasis, the gods warn Ziusdra, and God warns Noah. These figures are instructed or advised to build a boat to ride out the flood. Further, when the flood abates, the vessels of Atrahasis and Noah find themselves resting atop a mountain. From atop the mountain they send out a bird or series of birds in search of land.

We also read that Atrahasis and Utnapishtim made sacrifices to the gods after the flood abated; similarly, Noah builds an altar to God and taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds he makes sacrifices of burnt offerings on it (Gen. 8:20). Additional similarities include tar being used to seal the boat, the boat is built to precise dimensions, limitations being imposed on humans, and God and the gods being reconciled to humanity. Enns writes that,

“These similarities suggest that the three stories are related in some way. As mentioned above, Gilgamesh seems to have a direct literary tie to Atrahasis. Some scholars also feel that the episode of the birds in Genesis 8:6-12 is dependent on Gilgamesh” (5).

We also need to acknowledge that there are differences in certain details between the Genesis account and the other legends. We see this in matters of length and the reason for the flood. In one story, the flood lasts for seven days, but in the Genesis story it is forty or 150 days. The reason for the flood is different. In the Babylonian story, the god Enlil sends the flood to destroy humans because they are too numerous and noisy, whereas in the Genesis story Yahweh sends the flood to destroy humans because they are evil. There are many gods involved in the Babylonian Flood story but one God in the biblical story.

But the differences certainly do not override the similarities suggesting shared legends stemming from an older family of stories; As Ronald Hendel notes,

“Yet in spite of these differences, many of the details of plot, character, conflict, and setting are strikingly similar. The similarities—in conjunction with the closeness of the two cultures—indicate that the Flood story in Genesis descends from an older family of stories” (6).

Enns seems to agree writing that “the differences do not justify minimizing the similarities” (7).

References

1. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. The Book of “Genesis”: A Biography. Princeton University Press.. p. 26.

2. Cohn, Norman. 1996. Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought. Yale University Press. p. 1.

3. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. Ibid. p. 26. 

4. Enns, Peter. 2010. The Second Creation Story and “Atrahasis”. Available.

5. Enns, Peter. 2010. Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and the Flood. Available.

6. Hendel, Ronald. 2012. Ibid. p. 28-29.

7. Enns, Peter. 2010. Ibid. 

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