Noah’s Flood: Competing Visions of a Mesopotamian Tradition

December of 1872 marked a watershed in biblical studies. At a highly publicized lecture for the Society for Biblical Archaeology, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone in attendance, an Assyriologist named George Smith revealed the startling contents of a tablet he had recently discovered. The tablet, one of 25,000 or so that had been excavated from the ruins of ancient Nineveh and sent back to the British Museum in London, told the story of a universal flood that sounded very much like the tale of Noah’s Ark that every churchgoer is familiar with. The tablet turned out to be one of twelve that made up the now-famous Gilgamesh Epic.

The Gilgamesh Epic, as many readers undoubtedly know, is an epic poem about the adventures and exploits of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. It originated as a collection of Sumerian tales around the year 2100 BCE and became the most significant work of literature in ancient Mesopotamia (Tigay, p. 10). Tablet XI — the one discovered by Smith — describes an encounter with a man named Utnapishtim, who recounts to Gilgamesh the story of how the god Ea instructed him to build a boat and fill it with animals in order to survive a flood that was meant to wipe out humankind. (For convenience, I shall refer to the Gilgamesh Epic as GE from here on.)

As many people with an interest in biblical studies are aware, the flood story in GE predates Genesis by many centuries and is itself borrowed from an earlier Sumerian work called Atrahasis. A Canaanite version has been found among the Ugaritic texts of Ras Shamra. The same flood story was retold in Greek by the Babylonian priest Berossus, and localized Greek versions of the story also existed. But just how similar is the story in Genesis to its antecedents? 

Really similar. Really, really similar. Every story beat and even numerous extraneous details are the same. For example:

Gilgamesh Epic Tablet 11Genesis 6–9
The gods decide to destroy mankind.Yahweh decides to destroy mankind.
Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat and take aboard specimens of all animals.Yahweh instructs Noah to build an ark and take aboard one or seven pairs of all animals.
Ea gives precise dimensions for a boat with a roof.Yahweh* gives precise dimensions for an ark with a roof.
Utnapishtim builds the boat and coats it with pitch.Noah builds the ark and coats it with pitch.
After Utnapishtim, his family, the craftsmen, and the animals board, a great rain storm comes.After Noah, his family, and the animals board, the rain begins to fall.
The rain lasts for seven days.The rain lasts for forty days.
The boat comes to rest on a mountain.The ark comes to rest in some mountains.
Utnapishtim sends out a dove, a swallow and a raven to find dry land.Noah sends out a raven and a dove to find dry land.
Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice whose odor attracts and mollifies the gods.Noah offers a sacrifice whose odor pleases Yahweh.
The gods no longer wish to destroy mankind with a flood.Yahweh resolves never to destroy all mankind with a flood again.
Ea proposes new rules for punishing individual wrongdoers.Yahweh* establishes new rules for punishing individual wrongdoers.

 (*For simplicity’s sake, I am being consistent in calling the deity of the canonical text “Yahweh” even though the text switches between that name and “Elohim”.)

Etching by L. Friedrich after W. Kaulbach

Genesis’s Duelling Diluvian Duo

My previous article on the flood story focused on the formation of the Genesis story as a composite of two flood stories — one by the so-called Yahwist, and one by the Priestly writer. Many scholars also agree that the Yahwist version was earlier, and that the Priestly version is a rewrite of that Yahwist story that was originally intended to stand alone as a separate composition. (For some examples, see Carr 1994, Petersen 2007, Lemche 2012, and Wöhrle 2016.) While it is not uncommon to find parallel stories by the Yahwist and Priestly writers appearing separately in Genesis, the final editor had no choice but to combine the two flood stories into one, since, as Jean-Louis Ska pithily observes, “The universe could only be destroyed once, and it was therefore difficult to relate the event two times.” (Ska, p. 65)

It follows, then, that the Yahwist version is directly dependant on earlier Mesopotamian flood traditions, particularly GE; and, not surprisingly, it seems to follow those traditions more closely than the Priestly version, retaining details such as the birds and the concluding sacrifice that the Priestly version omits or alters.¹

In fact, it is because the Yahwist hews so closely to the Mesopotamian tradition that the Priestly writer was compelled to rewrite and correct the story. As Niels Peter Lemche and David L. Petersen have highlighted in recent papers, the earlier Israelite flood tale lacks logical consistency with its new biblical context in certain places, and it presents a view of the Israelite deity that is not entirely flattering. Let’s take a look at some of the elements of the Yahwist’s flood story that the Priestly author was compelled to correct.

Dissent Among the Deities

J: Yahweh saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. … So Yahweh said, “I will blot out from the ground the men I have created … for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen. 6:5, 7)
P: Elohim saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And Elohim said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to corrupt them along with the earth.” (Gen. 6:12–13)

In both GE and Atrahasis, the story is set in motion by a disagreement among the gods. Enlil decides to exterminate mankind with the approval of the majority of the other gods. This punishment is clearly disproportionate and immoral, so Ea, in his wisdom, dissents and secretly warns the hero Utnapishtim to build a boat in order to save his family and the animals. One problem with the Yahwist’s retelling is that it makes a single god, Yahweh, responsible both for the decision to eradicate humans and the counter-decision to save them. Lemche describes it thusly:

The Mesopotamian writers enjoy the luxury of having many gods to play with in their narratives. Therefore, Enlil may decide to exterminate humans, but another god may make the opposite decision to spare humanity. In the biblical version, it is the same God who must make the decision to exterminate the people while preserving them. It clearly creates problems for the logic of the biblical version of the Flood account and clearly shows that the Flood account has its place in a polytheistic environment where there is an opportunity to play the actors off against each other. In this context, the biblical God becomes just an indecisive protagonist who creates a deluge without really knowing what good it will do.

(Lemche, p. 69, translation mine)

It is debatable whether the Priestly writer really solves this problem. However, he provides a new motivation for the flood that contrasts with the Yahwist’s focus on the “evil of men”. Peterson observes:

For [P’s] predecessor, the rationale depended exclusively on error prone humans. For P, the problem is broader. He writes, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.” (Gen 6:11–12). This is an indictment befitting a flood that will destroy all flesh. The priestly writer makes the crime fit the punishment, and, in so doing, revises in a consequential way both the ancient Near Eastern and earlier Israelite versions. … Here we find a priestly thinker providing a theodicy, an apology on behalf of the deity who sent the flood.

(Petersen, p. 32)

In making this change, the Priestly author radically alters the nature of the flood. It is no longer a mere rainstorm that drowns everyone as we find in GE and the Yahwist version. It is an undoing of creation itself, as Petersen further explains.

The word mabbul, typically translated “flood,” actually means something quite different from a flash flood. Rather, according to Ps 29:10, mabbul refers to the waters over which Yahweh is enthroned, and, by appeal to Northwest Semitic mythology, to waters the deity had conquered. … This is no thunderstorm. It is the virtual reversion of the created order to its pre-created state.

(Ibid.)

Unlike the Yahwist, the Priestly author describes the water as coming from the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep — the waters that were held back when Elohim first created the earth and the firmament.

Mezzotint with etching, artist unknown

The Fundamental Futility of the Flood

The resolution of the Genesis flood story faces a similar problem. In GE, the realization by a furious Enlil that humanity has survived the flood leads to a teaching moment by Ea, who scolds Enlil for recklessly using collective punishment when every person should be held accountable for his own crimes.

Let the sinner atone for his crime, let the criminal suffer his punishment! Be gentle, do not steal; show patience [———]² 

The Yahwist, however, ends his flood story without any real lesson having been learned:

Yahweh said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of men, for the inclination of the heart of man is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Gen. 8:21)

Renowned Old Testament scholar David Clines puts his finger on the problem in a recent paper:

It is rarely recognized that the reason given by the narrative for the sending of the Flood (6.5) appears toward the end of the narrative as the reason why another Flood will not be sent (8.21). The wording is slightly different, but the sense seems to be identical. 

[…] This is a powerful theological statement. It … lets slip the fact that, according to the Flood narrative itself, the Flood changed nothing. The Flood was therefore pointless.

(Clines, pp. 8–9)

Lemche again points out that the repositioning of the tale in a monotheistic setting has contributed to the problem:

In … the Bible’s version of the legend of the flood, such a rewriting is necessitated by a changed image of God, wherein one God must bear the burden that, in the Mesopotamian tradition, is distributed among several gods. This entails a large number of changes, the most serious of which is that the account of the Flood seems to be meaningless. After all, God or Yahweh brings the Flood upon the earth because some men are scoundrels; but when it’s all over, God just states that they did not get better from it.

(Lemche, p. 72, translation mine)

Petersen believes that several changes by the Priestly writer are an attempt to resolve this unsatisfactory conclusion.

For the earliest Israelite author, the flood was not a particularly successful event. It accomplished essentially nothing. It is this judgment that so angered the priestly writer.

The Priestly author presents the end of the flood as a new creation and repeats the command originally given during the first creation in Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

He also uses the end of the flood as the occasion for the first covenant, which is established between Elohim and all earthly creatures. These covenants, of course, are a signature element of the Priestly narrative that runs through the Pentateuch.

Interestingly, the Priestly author also takes a cue from the Mesopotamian versions and uses the end of the flood as an opportunity to establish new rules about individuals being punished for their own crimes, just as Ea did in GE. (Though it should be noted that Genesis does not preserve the entirety of the Yahwist’s version, so it’s possible that it originally contained this as well.)

The Entry into the Ark, etching, artist unknown

The Status of Noah

Recent scholarship has shown that the earliest version of the Yahwist text had no flood story. (See Dershowitz in the bibliography below.) The original Noah was a “man of the soil” (9:20) who invented wine and brought relief to the land that Yahweh had cursed (5:29). This curse, instituted by Yahweh in Genesis 3:17–19, very likely took the form of a famine. (Interestingly, in Atrahasis, Enlil also curses the land with a famine prior to the flood.) 

The character of Noah was little changed by the addition of the Yahwist flood story. All we are told is that Noah found favour with Yahweh, for reasons that are not explained. He falls short even of the example set by Utnapishtim, whose attentiveness to Ea is emphasized by the text of GE.

This was unacceptable for the hero of the Priestly flood story. His Noah is a superlative man, righteous and blameless among his generation (6:9).³ He is an exception from the corruption of all flesh, apparently unlike the Yahwist Noah (to whom 8:21 surely applies). Furthermore, the statement that “Noah walked with the Elohim” (6:9) is thought by some scholars to mean that immortality was conferred upon Noah in the original Priestly version, since the same writer had used the same words just once, when writing about Enoch: “Enoch walked with the Elohim” (5:24). This may be another cue taken from the Mesopotamian version, since in that story, Enlil makes Utnapishtim and his wife immortal, and they are sent to dwell far off in Dilmun, the Mesopotamian Eden where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.


Footnotes

  1. Although most scholars assign the raven and dove to the Yahwist, there are actually good reasons to assign the dove to the Priestly writer that won’t be addressed here.
  2. There is a lacuna in the text here. 
  3. However, the Priestly author fails to tell us what the rest of Noah’s family has done to deserve saving.

Bibliography

14 thoughts on “Noah’s Flood: Competing Visions of a Mesopotamian Tradition

  1. Excellent analysis. Takes the often told story of the merging of two narratives, relates them in time and context, and explains the editorial problems facing the authors, especially the later one. I have added this to my collection of references on the Flood

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  2. This was great, thanks for posting. Any idea how Ea would have been pronounced? I’m wondering if perhaps it is pronounced as “Yah,” an alternative form of Yehovaha.

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  3. This story has more holes in it that a full wheel of Swiss cheese. For example, Noah releases a dove (raven, whatever) and after a time it returns with a fresh olive tree leaf, so Noah knows there is dry land nearby. Where did this leaf come from? All Olive trees have been submerged in brackish water for close to a year then. All of their leaves and olive seeds will have turned to mush. Since the ark landed on Mount Ararat, one has to ask, was the olive tree growing there because there are no olive tree growing on the summit of Mount Ararat today. Whatever happened to simple revelations (Noah . . . sail north for two days and you will find dry land.)

    So, Noah lands, disperses the wild animals but what does he do to pen his flocks and shelter from the mountaintop chill? He and his sons are wood workers, not stone masons so where can they find some wood that isn’t waterlogged and ruined. Gopher wood would be idea! Yeah, they would have dismantled the ark and used the materials to build shelters and pens and burned the scrap, so why are people still looking for the remains of Noah’s Ark? What remains?

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    • The people looking for the ark aren’t even looking in the right place, since modern-day Mt. Ararat in Turkey is not the same as the “mountains of Ararat” of Genesis, which were in modern-day Armenia and northeastern Iraq (the land called Urartu in other texts).

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  4. I recently read Bernard Batto’s “Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition”. It’s a bit older (first published in 1992), but I suspect he influenced Peterson and others in your bibliography.

    Batto concludes that the J flood narrative was strongly based on some form of the Atrahasis myth, with God’s creative energy shown as irrigation of a desert, with an originally imperfect creation gradually improved through stages of rebellion and compromise, and (plausibly) with the initiation of mortality. Batto then sees the P flood narrative as a creative rewrite based on the Enuma Elish, not just in Genesis 1 (where the parallels are obvious), but also in the flood story as a recapitualization of that creation. In both cases, P holds that there is no improvement of creation necessary. In both cases, P shows God’s creative energy not as irrigation, but as the creation of dry ground from a chaotic flood of Tehom (the Deep), along with using “wind” or “breath” to subdue the waters (Genesis 8:1-2), which parallels Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat using the same tool in Enuma Elish. Batto gives plenty of other parallels, some stronger than others, and interprets the parting of the Red Sea using the same mythic lens.

    Anyway, I was curious if you’d read it, and what you thought of his conclusions.

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    • I’m afraid I haven’t read Batto’s book, so I can’t give an opinion. That’s a pretty interesting take on the creation story, though. I’ll keep an eye out for the book.

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  5. I wonder if the GE story was too important to leave out. Just like Gen 1 is a commentary on how Yahweh isn’t the sky or such because that was the competing religion they had to have a Flood story. This was the best theological solution the could come up with.

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  6. It’s interesting that the Flood wasn’t originally in the Yahwist story, because the sheer pointlessness of it in the narrative works really well with the “Yahweh as a boy” hypothesis. If he was prepubescent when he first created Man, he’d be a sullen teenager given to fits of rage when he sets out to destroy his creation.

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  7. I have nothing to add except to say this is my favorite blog, indeed possibly my favorite website on the internet. Keep up the good work.

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