FOUR GUYS IN A BOAT:
COMPARING MESOPOTAMIAN & BIBLICAL FLOOD STORIES
Mesopotamian Flood Stories
Flood stories had a very long history in Mesopotamia. A flood marks a new period of history in the Sumerian Kinglist (2000-1700 BCE), which names eight kings who ruled before “the Flood swept over.” This is also implicitly true of the Lagash Kinglist (also from the early 2nd millennium), since it begins its story of the world immediately after the flood. The so-called “Eridu Genesis” (ca. 1600 BCE) is a Sumerian composition that describes the creation of humanity and the decision of the gods to destroy it. In it, Ziusudra king of Shuruppak is warned by the god Enki about the coming flood. He builds a boat, and a terrible storm floods the country for seven days and seven nights. Afterward, he sacrifices to the gods and is dubbed “the preserver of small animals and the seed of humankind.” (It is not clear what the Sumerians thought becameof the large animals!)
The Babylonian story of Atrahasis (first half of 2nd millennium) is certainly the most famous Mesopotamian flood story apart from the one in Gilgamesh, and comparing it to the biblical story bears fruit as well. As with Eridu Genesis, it is more than a flood story. It begins with a “theogony,” a story about the creation of the gods. In this case, one group of gods creates another group of gods to do their work. When the newer gods also tire of the labor, they rebel, and humanity is created to do the work instead. However, the noise from the humans annoys the god Enlil, and so he rouses the gods to destroy humankind. Enlil is known as a destroyer of humankind. When plague and drought do not succeed, flood is tried next. As in Eridu Genesis, Enki warns a human (here named Atrahasis) about the flood, and the construction of the ark to preserve life and the post-flood sacrifice ensue in a very similar fashion. Therefore even in the fragmentary literary remains that have survived, we can see the emergence of a standard form for the Flood story in Mesopotamia.
When plague and drought do not succeed, flood is tried next
The Flood in the Gilgamesh Epic
The list of examples is intended to emphasize that when one speaks of Mesopotamian influence on the Bible, it is not as if the incorporation of older Mesopotamian stories was something that only biblical authors did; instead it was a pervasive part of scribal culture in the ancient Near East. This is true not only of the flood stories, but of the Gilgamesh stories as well. Gilgamesh had a very complicated history of composition and compilation. The earliest stories about Gilgamesh were written in the third millennium BCE in Sumerian; five such stories have survived, but each as an individual composition. In the Old Babylonian period, those stories were combined to form a lengthier epic, and the whole in turn was propagated more widely than any other ancient story—copies or fragments have been discovered from the Bronze Age in Syria, Anatolia, and Palestine (at Megiddo). Scribes used it as a practice text to learn to copy, and it was translated into foreign languages such as Hittite and Hurrian.
Despite all the copies of Gilgamesh that have been found from the Bronze Age, it is not clear that the flood story was part of it at that stage, since none of the (fragmentary) Gilgamesh tablets in Old Babylonian or Middle Babylonian contain it. It is likely, herefore, that the flood story was incorporated into it during the Kassite period (i.e., 13th-12th centuries BCE). A legendary scribe named Sîn-leqi-unninni was later credited as the ultimate author of the Standard Babylonian version of the epic. That version took the somewhat variable Middle Babylonian versions of the epic, and, with great literary genius, transformed them into a “canonical” form—that is, one that became fairly standard and was copied extensively. In the process, the author likely added a new prologue and the flood account, and adjusted other details as well.
The evident evolution of the Gilgamesh epic formed the basis for a very significant defense of the Documentary Hypothesis of the formation of the Pentateuch. Jeffrey Tigay showed that
“[m]any of the phenomena presumed to have taken place in the development of biblical literature demonstrably occurred in the development of Gilgamesh.” Although not all of these phenomena identified by Tigay can be demonstrated here, they warrant enumerating at some length:…the origin of the epic in unconnected tales about the hero, their collection and transmission into an integrated series of episodes illustrating themes that the author sought to highlight, and the enhancement of the series by the addition of further material originally unrelated to the hero. In the course of this development, one can see the early malleability of the materials, permitting easy integration, reinterpretation, and revision of the elements, and the increasing reluctance of later editors to tamper with their sources when adding their own contributions, so that the latest additions to the epic are less well integrated. (Tigay, 21)
In sum, Gilgamesh provides a good example of the way that other ancient literature helps bring into focus not only the meaning of biblical texts, but also how they were composed.
Like the authors of the Pentateuch, the author of Gilgamesh used source material. Parts of the Gilgamesh flood story are borrowed almost directly from Atrahasis; most strikingly, the hero of the flood in Gilgamesh, who is named Uta-napishti, is called Atrahasis in XI.49 and 197! Another marker of the flood story as an insertion is that it calls Uta-napishti’s wife his “woman” (sinnishtu in Akkadian) whereas the rest of the epic calls her his “spouse” (marḫitu). Similar distinctions are used by biblical scholars to identify sources in the Bible (see below).
Despite the literary relationship between the flood stories in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, the story functions entirely differently in each case. In Atrahasis (and in Eridu Genesis), the flood story is about a struggle between gods and humans in which a single figure helps to preserve life on earth through wisdom and heroism. In Gilgamesh, such cosmic concerns are not in view. As noted above, in the introduction to the text, the latter parts of the epic revolve around Gilgamesh’s quest for “eternal life” after the death of his friend. There is also a profoundly existential angle as Gilgamesh comes to terms with mortality and his failures to overcome it, but the universal themes are grounded in individual experience. In Gilgamesh XI, the flood story is merely Uta-napishti’s recounting of how he personally won eternal life. The details of the flood are rendered incidental, and the whole story is probably repeated only due to its entertainment value and cultural popularity.
The Biblical Flood Story and its Sources
The complexity of the flood story in Genesis is comparable to that of Gilgamesh. The story may seem unified on a cursory reading, but it is usually recognized to be a composite of more than one source. In the Genesis 6:1-9:17, “sources” within the text can be laid out side-by-side revealing two nearly continuous accounts of the flood.
Above: Julius Wellhausen who proposed the original source theory. Right: Layers of sources in the Pentateuch (R. E. Friedman)
Sources in the Five Books of Moses
The dominant theory about the formation of the book of Genesis is that its earliest literary layer is a version of Israel’s epic traditions compiled by an author called the Yahwist (abbreviated “J”), because he used the name “Yahweh” for God (the divine name Yahweh is translated “the Lord” in the passage above; it appears repeatedly in the J passages). There is also thought to be a separate version of the epic tradition by an author called the Elohist (“E”), because he used the Hebrew term “Elohim,” meaning “God,” instead of the divine name. However, E is the least well preserved Pentateuchal source, and there is no E version of the flood. So, in the case of the flood story, the J source is the earliest version, and it was later augmented. The additions to the J story are attributed to a Priestly writer (P), who was careful not to use the name Yahweh because in the overall shape of the Pentateuchal story that he was revising, the divine name was not revealed until Exodus 3. Therefore, P used “God” instead of “Yahweh” for texts that he composed, but he was conservative enough as a copyist not to remove the divine name from the Yahwist’s earlier stories.
There are other reasons to conclude that two different versions of the flood story are combined in Genesis. There are numerous “doublets” in the story, in which a single thing is narrated twice; for example, why is the reason for the Flood given twice in slightly different terms (6:6-7 [J]; 6:11-12 [P])? There are also disagreements between the sources; for example, in the P story, Noah is told to put “two of every kind” on the ark (6:20), whereas in J, it is seven pairs (7:2). Furthermore, in J the flood is said to last forty days (7:4, 12; 8:6), whereas P suggests that the flood lasts 150 days (7:24; 8:3). (Other examples are noted in the chart below.)
There have been consistent efforts over time to harmonize the two stories, but the best and most straightforward way to explain the whole set of data is to say that two stories have been combined. Thus in both Mesopotamia and Judah, the flood stories had deeper roots in the culture but were incorporated into its present narrative context at a relatively later date.
A final question is how the Priestly author worked: The sources as they are presented above presume that there was once a complete Yahwistic story of the flood, and a complete Priestly story of the flood, and that these two were harmonized by a redactor. There are other ways to conceive of the story’s formation, but an intelligent analysis of the options depends on an awareness of the form of a typical flood story. The key elements of that form as it appears in Genesis and Gilgamesh are presented here:
There is no overlooking the striking and numerous similarities of detail and structure between the two texts. The two clearly have the same overall structure, and the differences can be explained by reference to the unique purposes of each (see below). Interestingly, the chart shows that it is only when the passages attributed to J and P are combined that the fit is as close as it is. This is why scholars generally now conclude that there was only “one epic source [of the flood story, i.e., J] which has been reworked by a later priestly editor”. This is more economical than assuming that two complete earlier versions existed and were combined, and that for some reason the redactor who combined them sometimes preserved doublets and sometimes cut out whole sections of each story. So in sum, the Yahwistic story, which is usually assumed to have been written down in the 10th or 9th century, would have been reworked by a Priestly tradent, probably in the postexilic period.
It is usually thought that the Priestly author worked after the Babylonian Exile, and it makes particular sense in this case since Judeans in exile would have been exposed to Babylonian culture at the imperial court. In much the same way that the
Stories were combined to form a lengthier epic