Most 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.