The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth, Pt 1

enlil-wifeMost people are completely unaware of the rich background of story and myth which is the setting of the Bible and especially books like Genesis. In the synagogue reading cycle, this week is Genesis 6:9 – 11:32, the story of Noah, Babel, the table of nations, and the genealogy up to Abraham. It is a fitting week to deal with the Noah story and the Mesopotamian mythological background which is so remarkably parallel with it.

Perhaps one reason synagogues and churches rarely discuss the mythological backdrop of the flood story is the potential controversy. How do we deal with the fact that the Bible’s account of the flood is not the oldest written record of the event? What are we to make of the remarkable similarities between Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian myths and the Biblical flood story.

One approach has been to pretend the precursors to the Genesis flood story do not exist. This is a relatively easy thing to do, since the average Jewish or Christian worshipper is not likely to ever find out about Atrahasis or Utnapishtim.

Perhaps the surest guide, the most capable and impressive handler of the data, is the early nineteenth century Italian Jewish scholar, Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), in his Genesis, Volume Two, Noah to Abraham. For a modern commentary which handles this data very well, consult John Walton’s Genesis commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series.

What if I told you that the following similarities exist between the Sumerian/Babylonian/Assyrian account of the great flood and the Noah story?

(1) There is a divine decision to destroy all humankind and living creatures.

(2) One man, his family, and animals brought on board are saved through a divine instruction to build a vessel.

(3) The pouring out of the waters is described in similar terms.

(4) The vessel of salvation is grounded on a mountain top as the flood begins to recede.

(5) The man sends out birds to determine if there is dry ground.

(6) After the flood, the man offers sacrifices and gives thanks to God (the gods).

This list is adapted from Cassuto’s commentary. He notes nineteen other remarkable similarities, including the following very specific examples: Noah is the tenth generation as is the hero in the Mesopotamian stories, Noah’s age at flood time is 600 and the Mesopotamian hero is 600 periods of 60 years old, and the animals are said in the Bible and in the myths to come on their own accord.

Historical Background of the Mesopotamian Myths
The oldest civilization leaving written records is Sumeria (until the rise of Babylon around 1730 B.C.E.). In the Gilgamesh epic, which in parts dates back to Sumer, we read about a flood remarkably like the Biblical account.

The Sumerians called the flood the amaru. Their stories passed into Babylonian accounts and then through the Hittites and Hurrians to influence stories of the Greeks and Romans. Many speculate that flood stories came into early Native American cultures from some primitive version passed down through migrations from Asia in the distant past.

The flood story is all over the world.

Cassuto notes that the Egyptian account is very different (perhaps since floods of the Nile are central to Egyptian religion and so flood has a different connotation in Egyptian religion). Also the stories of Persia, India, and China are quite different.

The oldest flood story of Mesopotamia is a Sumerian tablet found at Nippur in 1914. It tells of Ziusudra, the hero who survived a flood and was elevated to divine immortality. The stone tablets are fragmentary and very little of the story is recoverable.

Yet Assyrian tablets, retelling the story of Gilgamesh, which passed from Sumeria through Babylonia and into these Assyrian (Akkadian) accounts, contain a much more complete version of the flood story (which I will summarize below). We now possess some accounts from Old Babylonia (c. 1700 B.C.E.) and Sumer (before 2000 B.C.E.) reflecting earlier versions of the Gilgamesh epic. The flood hero in these stories is called Utnapishtim.

A separate story, the Epic of Atrahasis, is highly related, with Atrahasis being a variant name for Utnapishtim.

A Summary of the Flood Story in Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh, having lost his close friend, Enkidu, turns his desire to immortality. He does not want to experience the dark, mindless existence of sheol (the netherworld, the Greek Hades). He knows of a man who has become god-like and immortal, who survived the great flood. Gilgamesh journeys to meet Utnapishtim and learn from him the secret of immortality.

Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood. He wants Gilgamesh to know that his immortality was something granted by the gods and is not achievable by Gilgamesh.

In the council of the gods, it was decided to destroy humankind and all living creatures on earth. It was in Enlil’s heart to do this. Enlil was one of the chief gods of Sumeria.

Ea, another powerful god also known as Enki in Sumerian, wanted to save his beloved Utnapishtim. He did not wish to rebel against Enlil, so he whispered to the walls of the hut in which Utnapishtim was sleeping a warning about the flood and instructions to build a giant structure to float in the deluge (the dimensions are much larger in the Mesopotamian account).

Utnapishtim built the huge vessel, animals came to him, and he received warning from one of the gods when the time was right to enter the vessel and ride out the flood.

The storm god Adad unleashed a great storm on the earth and was aided by Irragal, Ninurta, and Anunnaki in causing the waters to flood in a wrathful deluge that ended all life. Other gods, such as the goddess Istar, were terrified and fled to the highest heaven to escape this killing flood.

The rain came six days and nights and abated on the seventh day. The flood receded six days and nights. The great vessel became lodged on Mt. Nitzir. On the seventh day, Utnapishtim sent out a dove to see if there was dry land. The dove returned. He then sent a swallow and it returned. Finally he sent out a raven, which did not return and he knew there was enough dry land to exit the vessel.

Utnapishtim made an offering to the gods. They came hungrily like flies and swarmed around his offering. A dispute broke out. Enlil sensed that is was Ea who caused the saved people and animal to live. Ea argued for Utnapishtim’s life and Enlil touched the hero’s forehead and said, “Hitherto Utnapishtim was a man, but now Utnapishtim and his wife shall be like us, the gods.”

I will say more tomorrow, including what are the differences between the myth and the Biblical account and what the relationship might be. Possibly I will also summarize a similar account called the Atrahasis Epic. Finally, later this week, I will include some commentary and thought on the Noah story.

So, being enlightened about the Mesopotamian flood stories, go and read Genesis 6-9.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth, Pt 1

  1. tnnonline says:

    Excellent blog. It is time that we not be ignorant of ANE mythology, but are able to discuss the comparisons and contrasts between it and the Bible.

    Ironically enough, my lead article for October addresses this exact same issue of the Flood narratives, but with a little more application.

  2. peterygwendyta says:

    Very interesting blog. I have heard and read some of this before while I was at Bible College years ago. But it will be interesting to here your take on it.


  3. judahgabriel says:

    >> “This is a relatively easy thing to do, since the average Jewish or Christian worshipper is not likely to ever find out about Atrahasis or Utnapishtim.”

    I think this “ignorance is bliss” approach is working far less in the 21st century than it did in previous ages. In the Age of Information, we’re practically bombarded with information. I’ve seen televised documentaries on ANE flood myths at least 5 times in the few years. And atheists have regularly pointed me to such myths as evidence of the Bible’s fallibility; with the internet, information is just a click away. IMO, it’s better for Messiah’s followers to be aware of these issues and directly address them.

    John McKee’s got some great material on Noah’s flood account and its ANE contemporaries.

    • tnnonline says:

      I remember when the Jewish Study Bible was released in late 2003, and many people I knew in Messianic circles had to have a copy. They were totally shocked when reading things like JEDP wrote the Torah, the Israelites adapting Ancient Near Eastern mythology, and claims like the Book of Esther being a fictitious novella. Of course, this could have been in any liberal Christian study Bible as well.

      Judah is right: we are going to have to consider these things in the future, and not just hide under our beds or run off to ArtScroll when we need an answer.

  4. jroush81 says:

    just an interesting additional tidbit:

    In Latter-day Saint thoelogy, the archangel Gabriel lived in his mortal life as the patriarch Noah. Cabriel and Noah are regarded as the same individual; Noah being his mortal name and Gabriel being his heavenly name.

  5. rebyosh says:

    Hey Derek,

    Any topics related to the Ancient Near East (ANE) are obviously close to my heart being that I have a degree in ANE Civs. Just to clarify your comment:

    “The oldest civilization leaving written records is Sumeria (until the rise of Babylon around 1730 B.C.E.).”

    I am not sure what your qualifier means in the perentheses. Sumeria IS the oldest civilization leaving written records predating Babylon. And the language to follow Sumerian is Akkadian – which became the lingua franca for a few centuries. In fact, Akkadian words also find their way into the Bible.

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  7. msmarko says:

    I think this is important, but it must (often) be approached slowly and carefully because people need their beliefs.

    Wasn’t it Solomon who is credited with saying “There is nothing new under the sun”? And, so, this presaged the current age of rediscoveries. To discover that Judaism appears to be “derivative”, as we say in the art world, should not send anyone running into the arms of a dissociative disorder, or more seriously, terror and confusion. Trust that you are alive. In a way we were warned. This has all been bigger than us since the beginning and so to be made aware of that fact in this way is actually not such a big deal, even if WE are what is bigger than us.

    I think that Judaism must change in the face of these discoveries but in what way is up to the individual. The rabbis will not admit the challenge to the validity of their orthodoxy. Many of them have fallen in with the Christians who reconstruct their ignorance and wield it like a club. I have personally witnessed rabbis say that all these things are just fabrications planted by G-D to test faith.

    I, myself must look for the clearest understanding. I believe that this is good for the human race. Ignorance is preferable to some and I respect that, but don’t expect me to want to mix my water with theirs.


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  9. Pingback: Noah Resources « The Drama of Scripture

  10. Very interesting, but just a thought, couldn’t the God as we know be the same god to make the Mesopotamia stories? Just a thought.

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