The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth, Pt 2

exopol_K_1dIn Part 1, I presented the famous Sumerian/Babylonian/Assyrian flood story which passed down over more than a thousand years through Babylonian poets into the new Assyrian empire, where it has come to us through the results of archaeological exploration. As I said, this flood story is part of an epic which developed over time. And it is not the only flood story in Mesopotamia. Yet the other major example is really the same story, the Atrahasis Epic, told with a few different details. The Egyptians, for whom the annual floods of the Nile were the source of life, have a different flood tradition, as do India, Persia, and China.

The idea is at first disturbing: the Noah story in Genesis is related in some way to pre-existing Mesopotamian mythology?

It raises questions about how the Torah was written, especially the parts of Genesis that are before the patriarchs. Assuming, as I do, that Moses is largely the voice behind the Torah, how did he know about the creation story, the flood, the ancient genealogies, and the Babel story?

The simple assumption, and it is merely an assumption though many take it as a point of faith, is that God downloaded these stories into Moses’ brain either word for word or very near to it. After all, Moses was talking with God for a very long time up there on Sinai.

We are especially prone to believe in the “divine downloading” theory when it comes to the early part of Genesis. These stories reach back into what must seem a time unknowable by man. Surely direct divine revelation is all that could account for such knowledge.

Yet when we read other parts of the Torah and the Bible, we easily see the hand of the human authors. Why is it any less likely that Genesis 1-11 is a story passed along by very human means with the same invisible divine oversight that brought us the rest of the Bible?

Umberto Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Vol. 2, Noah to Abraham, 1949, Magnes Press) peels back a layer and shows us a possible source that is pre-Mosaic and yet Israelite (by Israelite, we could mean from even before Abraham’s time, but passed down through the patriarchs).

Here are a few hints (see Cassuto for more) of a poetic tradition older than Genesis which lies behind the Noah story:

(1) The story in Genesis has some poetic lines which could be original, but which could also be evidence of an oral or written poetic form that predated Genesis. all the fountains of the great deep burst forth / and the windows of heaven were opened . . . the fountains of the deep were closed / and the rain of the heavens was restrained.

(2) The use of words in archaic forms which do not normally occur in classical Hebrew. gopher (the kind of wood used), kopher (related to kaphar, but used here to mean pitch), tzohar (possibly meaning window), mabbul (flood), yekoom (living flesh), etc.

(3) References in the Prophets and the Writings that suggest a broader story or a tradition widely known in an outside of Israel. Ezekiel 14:14, 20 for example uses Noah, Danel, and Job as examples of righteousness from the ancient past (note that this is Danel of Mesopotamian legend and not Daniel of Biblical fame). In Psalm 29:10 we read of God sitting enthroned above the flood (mabbul), which could be a reference to an earlier poetic form of the flood story or could be a reflection on the Genesis account. Ezekiel 22:4 speaks of a land not rained on in the day of indignation. Some scholars, including some Talmudic sages, see this as a reference to Israel and the idea that the land was not included in the flood (Zebahim 113a-b).

(4) In Talmudic and Midrashic literature, there are further stories about the days of Noah. Cassuto feels it possible, though I would have to say unlikely, that these could reflect some continuation of ancient Israelite traditions still passed on orally. It is more likely that Talmudic and midrashic sages drew elements from the flood myths of Babylon and adapted them (it helps to remember the Talmud was written in Babylon).

A Possible Path from History to Myth to Genesis
Of course we are dealing with educated conjecture. Yet we are looking for a theory which explains how the Noah story came to be in the Bible while it has remarkable similarities to Mesopotamian flood myths.

In tomorrow’s post, we will consider some differences between the Biblical story and the Mesopotamian myths. The differences are not just significant, they are central to understanding the theology of the Torah. The Torah does not simply accept the myths of the pagan cultures.

One key difference is that the hero in Genesis is Noah, and not Utnapishtim. And Noah is a mortal man, not someone still living at the mouths of rivers until the end of time.

If we consider how the Genesis story comes about, here are some possibilities.

(a) There is no relationship between the Noah story and the myths. The similarities are coincidental.

(b) The Noah story is a pious retelling and complete fabrication loosely based on the myths.

(c) The great flood of Mesopotamia happened and stories were passed down in various cultures. Moses received the Noah story directly from God without knowledge of the myths and the similarities are due to historical fact.

(d) The great flood of Mesopotamia happened and the stories passed through different cultures. The Mesopotamian versions represent corruptions based on their pantheon of deities and their ideas about the role of humankind. The Genesis version comes through the patriarchs from an ancient epic poem and contains a purer version of what happened.

(e) The great flood of Mesopotamia happened and the stories passed through different cultures. The Mesopotamian versions represent their ideas about the who, what, and when of the flood while the Israelites possessed a different tradition leading up to Abraham through Noah and Shem.

I think apart from faith in the authority of Genesis, option (e) is the least we should hold to from the evidence. Given a predisposition to believe the authority of Torah and Genesis, I choose (d).

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.

14 Responses to The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth, Pt 2

  1. dansangelflew says:

    this is fascinating! thank you. I choose options c, and d. Thank you so much for sharing Derek.

  2. peterygwendyta says:

    I would have to agree with you Derek and say D. I remember reading a number of years back that the Inca’s and Mayan’s also had similar stories about a world wide flood.

  3. sidefall says:

    Derek, have you come across a 2005 book called “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament” by Peter Enns – I haven’t read it but it’s on my list and believe it is very good. Amongst other things, it compares similarities between the Torah and other ancient literature. Sadly, it cost the author his job at a theological school as it was judged to be outside their doctrinal basis.

    • tnnonline says:

      I have a number of publications by Peter Enns in my library, and this book is on my list. My OT prof at Asbury Seminary recalled to me the events that led to his being canned–all he said was that where Enns taught was hyper-conservative.

      Another publication that just got released is The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt, produced by Zondervan. I ordered my copy yesterday.

      The key is to always see where the Biblical message is subversive to the mythology.

    • I have Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation. I have not read it yet, but will. I am reviewing Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words for the Kesher journal soon. Reading Enns’ book should be a nice follow-up. Thanks for the link and for making his material known to Messianic Jewish Musings readers. So much great stuff to read and contemplate about the Bible!

  4. tiqun says:


    thank you for your comment, and i am sorry for not answering sooner, i’ve been away for a couple days to visit my family in germany. yes, i am the writer of the weamarta blog. do you speak/read french? i wanted to blog in english so as to interact more easily with others, but on the other hand, friends and family said they’d like to read and most of them don’t speak english. so i started in french, and soon hopefully in german, too. people here are interested in messianic (torah observant) judaism, as well as in the hebrew roots of the christian faith, so i started teaching an intro course to biblical hebrew, and hold a tiny conference on hebrew an hebrew thought next Shabbes at the local mennonite church.

    already a while back you sent me an email (answering one i sent you), recommending Joshua Heschel as well as the book The New Testament and the People of God when i asked you for bibliography. now i managed to get one of Heschel’s book and will start reading that, alongside Brad Young’s books. thank you!

    may i ask you how you are, as well as your family? i hope and pray that everything is going well for you!


  5. Chaya (tiqun):

    Great to hear from you. I want to learn French so I can read what you are writing. I took two years in High School and I know almost nothing except what my French teacher used to say at least once every week in class, “Fermer le grande bouche motere” (forgive my spelling).

    I think it is very significant that you have a Messianic Jewish blog in French and soon to be in German. I’d love to help you, from time to time, publicize it. Perhaps I could have you guest blog from time to time in three languages. Pick on of your blog posts and send it to me in all three languages (French, German, English) and I will run it. We can get the word out about your work so people can turn their French-speaking and German-speaking friends on to it.

    My family is well. I have 8 kids and the oldest is now away to college. My youngest is 18 months old. Thank God we are all healthy and our home is happy and well.

    For those who would like to see a Messianic Jewish blog in French, try this link:

    Derek Leman

  6. tnnonline says:

    Writing a review is a possibility, but what would be more probable is me writing another article about the Tanach and ancient mythology, perhaps in more broad terms than just focusing on the Gilgamesh Epic or Baal Cycle. This would involve consultation with Oswalt, Enns, Kitchen, and others who fall outside of the critical tradition. It would also involve some application on what to do next when someone watches History Channel or picks up that publication at the mega bookstore.

    • tnnonline (J.K.):

      I will want to read and write about your article when it comes out. So do let me know. Thanks for studying this area and making your wisdom available to all of us. I appreciate your work.

  7. tnnonline says:

    Thanks, Derek.

    I am going to be very careful in addressing issues regarding ANE background to the Tanach. As I do most of my teaching on the NT, I know how Messianic people get very nervous when you bring in Greek and Roman background materials, such as the likely use of prosopopoeia in Romans 7. Multiply that nervousness out about tenfold when it comes to anything other than Hebrew being the “pure language” and the history of Genesis arriving to us by any means other than letter-for-letter Divine dictation. (Even R.K. Harrison advocated that Moses used sources for the Pentateuch, like clay tablets.)

  8. Pingback: The Noah Story and Mesopotamian Myth « Biblical Paths

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  10. Pingback: Noah Resources « The Drama of Scripture

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