The Biblical Narrative (Gen. 6:5–9:17)
As punishment for the corruption and injustice rife on earth, God decided to bring a universal inundation to wipe out civilization. Alone of humankind, a blameless and righteous man named
, together with his family, was to be saved. God informed him of His decision and gave him detailed instructions for the building of an ark and its provisioning (see
*Ark of Noah
). Noah was to take aboard the members of his family, together with male and female representatives of the animals, birds, and creeping things. When all the preparations were completed, the flood waters inundated the earth, blotting out all earthly existence, and lifting the ark above the highest mountain peaks. Then the rains ceased, the waters subsided and the ark came to rest on the mountains of
. Noah waited forty days and then sent out a raven, which, however, returned to the ark. Seven days later he released a dove, which came back bearing an olive leaf. After a further delay of seven days, he again dispatched the dove which did not return, and Noah knew it was safe to disembark. This he did on receiving instructions from God, and he thereupon offered sacrifices to Him. God, in turn, promised to restore the rhythm of the times and seasons and undertook never again to destroy humankind, setting his (war) bow in the sky as an everlasting symbol of this promise. He blessed Noah, his offspring, and everything on earth.
Legends of a great inundation submerging much or all of the earth's surface are found in the traditions of a number of peoples. They are especially common among the Indians of the Western Hemisphere, the Aborigines of Australia, and the islanders of the Central and Southern Pacific, and also abound in the southern regions of Asia. Chinese and Japanese versions exist, but with the deluge circumscribed in extent. A few legends are found in Europe; that of Iceland depicts a flood of catastrophic proportions produced by blood gushing from the wounds of a giant. However, the accounts closest to that of the Bible are those emanating from southern Mesopotamia. The ancient Greek flood stories also may have been influenced by the earlier Mesopotamian diluvial traditions. There are no grounds for assuming that all or most of
the widespread legends are related. It is apparent that many of them are rooted ultimately in man's fear, based on terrifying experiences, of being annihilated by violently surging water. Most of them developed quite naturally from memories of unusually disastrous floods. The alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia was vulnerable to widespread flooding. In the Old Babylonian period in particular, catastrophic flooding was frequent, so that the myth of the ancient flood (abūbu) had special significance (Cole and Gash apud George, 509). Ancient memory blended with contemporary experience to produce tales of universal inundation. None of the flood accounts has received wider distribution than the biblical story. At the time it was incorporated into Jewish traditions, however, it was already countless centuries old. The earliest extant version of this tradition is known from a Sumerian clay tablet discovered at Nippur, the holy city of ancient Sumer. Unfortunately, only the lower third of the tablet has survived. Since the publication of the text by Arno Poebel in 1914, no additional fragments of the Sumerian flood story have come to light. Although the Sumerian text is badly broken, enough remains to give inklings of the content of the missing portions. The text, now known as "The Eridu Genesis" (COS I, 513–15) as a whole seems to provide a general history of humankind, in which the main episode is the deluge. Among the subjects touched are the creation of humans, the rise of kingship, and the establishment of cities. One of the deities declares his intentions of saving humankind from a destruction decreed by the gods. The coming of the flood is made known to King Ziusudra, who was noted for his receptiveness to divine revelations: "A flood will sweep over the temples. The decision, the declaration of the assembly of the gods, is to destroy the seed of humankind." The next section of the composition is missing but most likely contained instructions for Ziusudra to build an immense ship by which he might rescue himself from a watery grave. The lacuna is followed by a description of the inundation and the eventual reappearance of Utu the sun god, to whom Ziusudra offers sacrifices: "All the tempests attacked as one, very powerful. Simultaneously the deluge sweeps over the temples, After the flood had swept over the land for seven days and seven nights and the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the expansive waters, Utu the sun god who illumines heaven and earth came out. Ziusudra opened a window of the ship and heroic Utu shone into the great vessel. Before Utu, King Ziusudra prostrated himself; the king kills a steer and slaughters a sheep." Again there is a gap in the text, after which it is told that the king was granted eternal life and given a place of abode in a land called Dilmun, where the sun god rises. There the hero was to share immortality with his gods. The hero's name survived as Xisuthros in the flood story as retold in Greek by the Babylonian priest Berossus in the third century B.C.E.
The Sumerian account inspired a similar history of humankind written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian on three clay tablets, dated to around 1700 B.C.E., with fragments of two other versions inscribed about a thousand years later. The composition is now called the Epic of Atrahasis (COS I, 450–53) after its hero, whose name means "Exceeding Wise."
The first tablet begins in primordial times when the lesser gods were so burdened with toil that they engaged in the first-ever documented work-stoppage, and demonstrated against the great god Enlil. The dispute was resolved when it was decided that the midwife of the gods, Mami (also known as Nintu, Belet-ili, and Aruru), would create humans to work in place of the gods. One of the lesser gods was sacrificed and from an admixture of earth with his blood and flesh, humankind was brought into being. The second tablet relates that the world's population had increased so substantially that humans had become a nuisance to the head of the pantheon, Enlil. Provoked by the disruption of celestial serenity, Enlil announced before a divine convocation his intention to retaliate against human beings with a series of plagues, including a drought and famine. Obviously not satisfied with the results of these measures, the chief god then decided to destroy humanity by means of a flood. Humankind had a friend, however, in the wise god Enki (= Ea), who was permitted to be in charge of the inundation. The third tablet relates how Enki warned King Atrahasis. He spoke to the wall of the monarch's residence, rather than directly to the ruler, perhaps to avoid the appearance of revealing the gods' secrets to a human. Atrahasis was told to destroy his house and build a ship by which he would be able to save his life. Although much of the tablet is broken, the building of the ship, the loading of the animals, and the flood itself are documented. The gods ultimately decide that a more effective method of population control than a great flood is to create categories of women who cannot bear, and demonic baby-snatchers.
Parallels between the Epic of Atrahasis and the biblical Flood narrative may be cited, but even greater similarities to the Genesis account are present in another Babylonian epic whose hero bears the name Gilgamesh. (Thanks to the biblical similarities, the publication of this work in the late 19th century created a great stir in religious circles.) This epic skillfully and creatively blends several borrowed Sumerian literary motifs into what has come to be regarded as one of the masterpieces of world literature. lt most likely came into existence around the beginning of the second millennium. Important sections written in classical (or Old) Babylonian are extant today, as are later rescensions extending over a millennium.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is divided into eleven tablets to which a twelfth, consisting of a literal translation from a Sumerian source, has been added. The fragments so far pieced together leave relatively few gaps in the epic. Tablet XI, in which the immortalized hero of the flood, usually called Utanapishtim ("He-Found-Life"), though occasionally also Atrahasis, relates the story of the flood to his mortal descendant Gilgamesh, is virtually intact, thus providing the most complete version of the deluge story in cuneiform script, The flood narrative in the Gilgamesh Epic is not part of a history of the world, as is the case in the epics of Ziusudra and Atrahasis.
It is introduced rather as a story told to a hero obsessed with his quest for immortality.
Much of the epic is devoted to the heroic expeditions of Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. These episodes lead ultimately to the central theme, viz., the inevitability of death. Enkidu's demise by divine decree, after the two adventurers had insulted the gods, brings Gilgamesh face to face with the one factor before which every person must yield. He then devotes himself completely to seeking a way to escape the destiny of all flesh. It is this confrontation with death that impels Gilgamesh to make his way to the person who was the Babylonian counterpart of the biblical Noah, a man named Utanapishtim, who, with his wife, had been blessed by the gods with immortality after surviving the diluvial catastrophe. From him Gilgamesh hopes to gain the secret of eternal life. After an arduous and perilous journey, Gilgamesh reaches the distant Utanapishtim and asks how he had obtained life without end. In reply, the ancient man recounts in detail the story of the deluge.
Utanapishtim relates to Gilgamesh how he was residing in Shuruppak, an urban center on the bank of the Euphrates, when he was warned of an impending disaster. For no stated reason, the gods, under the leadership of the warlike Enlil, felt compelled to bring a deluge of proportions sufficient to wipe out the human race. However, the god Ea, counterpart of the Sumerian Enki, made known the supernal counsel by speaking to the wall of the reed house in which Utanapishtim lived. Utanapishtim was told to tear down his house and build a ship, into which he must bring representatives of all living creatures, The boat was to be equal in width and length, with a covering over the top. At once, Utanapishtim confessed his desire to comply with the god's wishes, but also asked how he should explain his actions to the people of his community. Ea advised him to say that he has learned that he was to be the object of Enlil's hatred and, lest his presence in their midst bring disaster upon them, he must go into exile, journeying to Ea's dwelling-place in the marshlands near the Persian Gulf. (Cf. the explanation given by Jonah to his shipmates (Jonah 1:10) that his sea voyage is in flight from YHWH.) It was by this ruse that Utanapishtim obtained the assistance of the people of Shuruppak in constructing the ship. The finished vessel, a perfect cube of 120 cubits, had seven levels, each divided into nine compartments. Supplies were loaded onto it, including whatever silver and gold Utanapishtim had in his possession. His family and relatives came aboard and animals, craftsmen, and a boatman joined the company. When all was ready, the onset of the tempest was heralded by an evening of rain, Utanapishtim studied the storm apprehensively, then entered the ship and closed the door. At daybreak on the following morning, a black cloud rose from the horizon and subsequently darkness enveloped the landscape. The storm raged so fiercely that even the gods cowered in fear. For six days and nights the tempest assailed the earth, but on the seventh day it ceased and the tossing sea grew calm. Utanapishtim opened a window, and upon seeing the scene of death, wept. After the storm, the ship approached a peak called Mount Nimush (or Nisir) as it emerged from the subsiding water. The ship ran aground and could not free itself from its resting place. Six days elapsed and on the seventh day, Utanapishtim tested the situation by releasing a dove, It flew away and then returned without finding a place to land. A swallow was next let loose, but with the same result. Subsequently, a raven was released and did not return, for the water had abated. Utanapishtim interpreted this as a sign that the flood was over, He prepared a sacrificial offering "on top of the mountain", and burned incense to the gods, who, attracted by the sweet odor, "gathered like flies." Enlil arrived later than the others and was filled with rage when he saw that mortals had survived, but Ea soothed his wrath, explaining that it was through a dream that Utanapishtim had learned the secret plan of the gods, Thereupon Enlil boarded the ship, took the man and his wife on board, and, touching their foreheads as they knelt on either side of him, formally conferred immortality on them.
The Biblical-Mesopotamian Parallels
No parallels between the biblical and extra-canonical accounts are more remarkable and impressive than those between Utanapishtim's story and that of Genesis. At the same time, there are important and basic differences between the two sources.
In the Genesis story the flood marks a turning point in history. While this does not figure in the Gilgamesh Epic, the concept is apparent in other Mesopotamian sources, which divide epochs into "before the flood" and "after the flood" (cf. Ps. 29:10; see
and Hallo in Bibliography.). In both accounts the flood is a result of divine decision and one individual, a deity's favorite, is chosen to be saved by constructing a large vessel, whose dimensions, together with building instructions, are divinely communicated. In each case the vessel is calked inside and out with a tar-like substance to render it seaworthy. Animals and birds are taken aboard in both narratives. Both traditions describe the utter devastation of the flood, and both have the ship coming to rest on a mountain peak, with the hero shortly thereafter sending forth birds to determine if the earth was again hospitable. Finally, in both narratives the hero offers sacrifices on emerging from his vessel, and receives a divine blessing.
In spite of these unmistakable and striking parallels, many details are not shared by the two accounts. Some of the dissimilarities are obviously due to the fundamental difference in religious orientation. The Book of Genesis is essentially monotheistic, while the Gilgamesh Epic and its predecessors are consistently polytheistic in outlook. Utanapishtim is elevated to the status of a god, while Noah remains human. In further contrast, the God of the Bible establishes a covenant with all humankind after the deluge, a concept alien to Mesopotamia.
While Noah is not identified with a particular city, Utanapishtim is said to be a citizen of Shuruppak. The former is told
explicitly and directly that the flood will come, while Utanapishtim must deduce the course of events from a carefully worded warning obliquely delivered to the wall of a reed hut. Furthermore, Ea's warning is given without the knowledge of Enlil, who had insisted on destroying all humankind without exception. In the monotheistic framework of the Bible, however, the author of the Flood intentionally provides for a surviving remnant, though unlike the Babylonian version in which a considerable number of people were spared (Utanapishtim's relatives and a crew), in the Genesis story only Noah and his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law enter the ark. The ships in which Noah and his Babylonian counterpart ride out the storm differ considerably in size and shape, the craft of Utanapishtim having a displacement about five times that of Noah's vessel. It is highly significant that the Mesopotamian hero needed a boatman to navigate his ship, while that of Noah needed neither rudder nor sail nor any other navigational aid. The building of an ark, rather than a ship, is intended to attribute Noah's deliverance solely to the will of God, and not to any human skill.
In the Gilgamesh Epic there is no indication of when the deluge began and ended, but in one of the sections of the biblical account precise dates are given. As for the duration of the storm, the accounts are widely divergent: six days in the Gilgamesh Epic as against forty according to one of the figures in Genesis, and no fewer than 150 according to another. The site at which the biblical ark came to rest after the Flood is identified as Ararat, a range northeast of Lake Van near the 40th parallel. Utanapishtim's ship, however, grounded far to the south on Mount Nimush/Nisir, near the 35th parallel. From the latter vessel a dove, a swallow, and a raven, in that order, were released, whereas Noah first turned a raven loose and then twice sent out a dove.
In Genesis there is no doubt that the reason for the Flood is divine punishment for human injustice, lawlessness, and social unrighteousness, and that the salvation of Noah is solely conditioned by his moral worthiness. The same notion is not fully articulated in the Gilgamesh epic, but is, nonetheless, implicit in the god Ea's criticism of the god Enlil. Ea insists that only sinners should suffer for their crimes, whereas the flood caused by Enlil had punished the innocent as well. (Gilg XI, 181–95). The situation in the Mesopotamian narratives, however, is not at all clear in respect to the choice of the hero, whose deliverance involved the deception of one god by another.
Sacrifice is significant in both stories to the point of striking verbal similarity. According to Genesis 8:21, YHWH smelled the pleasing odor of the sacrifice, while Gilgamesh XI, 161 reads: "The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor." The writer continues with "the gods gathered likes flies around the sacrificer," a formulation that the biblical writer could hardly have tolerated." Nor could he have described the biblical god in terms of a swarm of hungry flies. At the same time, the biblical story goes so far as to credit sacrifice with maintaining what would later be called the world (olam) a view still held, if attenuated in the Mishnah (Avot 1:2).
While it is clear that the biblical account is dependent on the much earlier Mesopotamian material, the numerous differences between the two versions may be due either to Israelite reworking of earlier sources or to an intermediary recension. The text was widely known even outside Mesopotamia, including Akkadian fragments from
in upper Syria,
in Israel and Hattušaš, the Hittite capital in Turkey. Hattušaš has also yielded Hittite and Hurrian adaptations.
When the deluge story became part of the Hebrew repertory, it was developed in more than a single tradition. Subsequently the products were carefully interwoven, but without eliminating some contradictions and duplications. The biblical narrative emerges, nonetheless, as a consistent moral indictment of the human race, designed to reveal the character of Israel's God and His ethical demands. It is this aspect of the Genesis diluvial presentation which makes it significantly different from its Mesopotamian analogues.