In 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).