FOUR GUYS IN A BOAT:
COMPARING MESOPOTAMIAN & BIBLICAL FLOOD STORIES
Standard Babylonian story of the flood superseded earlier versions and became canonical after it was reworked by Sîn-leqi-unninni, the earlier Israelite flood story seems to have been reworked by the Priestly tradent and became canonical. (Of course, the preservation of the Yahwist’s account of the flood suggests that that earlier version already had a certain significance, as did the Middle Babylonian versions of Gilgamesh.)
Since the Gilgamesh epic preceded the biblical flood story by centuries, it is clear that the former can only have influenced the latter, if there was literary influence at all. Probably there was: The influence of the Mesopotamian story on the biblical one can be seen from the fact that flooding was part of natural conditions in Mesopotamia and not in Israel/Judah, and also the fact that the only place named in the biblical story is Ararat (Gen 8:4), probably equivalent with the region of Urartu in Asia Minor, which was on the western periphery of the Mesopotamian empires.
In describing this influence, a sensitive and precise literary interpreter must use words carefully. It was not that the Priestly author “borrowed” or “copied” the story from theBabylonian version, because the two end up having very different emphases, but rather the later biblical author was probably impressed by the Babylonian tradition and took it to be the authoritative shape of the story. He adopted that shape, but transposed it, bending it to his own purposes.
Some contrasts between the stories are apparent from the chart above. In the first place, there is difference that Genesis is essentially monotheistic. In the biblical story, Yahweh is both the one who destroys and the one who saves, whereas in Gilgamesh and other Mesopotamian versions, there is strife among the multiple gods. This creates greater complexity in the portrayal of Yahweh. It also means that unlike Enlil, Yahweh is portrayed as one whose purposes are not thwarted.
Another major difference concerns the reasons for the flood. The biblical flood is repeatedly attributed to moral wrongdoing, although the language (“evil,” “corruption”) is mostly very vague. The references to violence in Gen 6:11-13 points in one direction, while the unions between “sons of god” and “daughters of humans” in Gen 6:1-4 might lead one to think of sexual transgression. (Not coincidentally, these are assigned to separate sources.) In Gilgamesh, no motivation is given for the flood, because the point of the story is to close off from Gilgamesh the possibility of receiving Uta-napishti’s gift. In Atrahasis and other versions, the reason given is excessive noise made by the humans. Elsewhere in the story, “noise” indicates complaining about excessive work, and it could also refer to the general growth and striving of human civilization (cf. Gen 11), but it is not a moral reason. In fact, it is often argued that part of the point of the Mesopotamian stories is to reflect on the lot of humanity as subject to the whims of sometimes destructive and inscrutable gods.
Related to this last point, the Bible also describes Noah’s righteousness as the reason for his salvation. The Gilgamesh epic gives no explicit reason for Uta-napishti to be saved, although one could infer from Ea’s scolding of Enlil that Uta-napishti was guilty of nothing.
In general, the Gilgamesh epic seems more interested in its human characters, whereas the biblical flood story seems more interested in the character of God. Gilgamesh is the complex main character of the Babylonian story and the gods are mostly functionaries to advance the plot, while in the primeval stories in Genesis, God is the complex main character, and the human characters of the Noah story look flat by comparison.
Another difference is that although both stories end with a blessing on the hero, only the Bible frames the salvation in covenantal terms. This fits with the periodization of the biblical history according to covenants (primarily with Noah, Abraham, and David). And at the beginning of this new covenantal period, the biblical account focuses much more on the “new creation” aspects of the banishment of the flood: a division is re-established between the water and land, life flourishes again, Noah is told to “be fruitful and multiply” just as Adam was (Gen 1:28; 9:1). This theme is absent in Gilgamesh, where the flood is taken out of its setting in primordial history. Whether this would be true of other versions of the flood told in the Neo-Babylonian period is difficult to tell, since the surviving copies are incomplete.
In conclusion, literary context matters. The reader should note that neither the Gilgamesh flood story nor its counterpart from the book of Genesis is a self-contained whole. Each of them is only a single episode within a larger story. Partly for that reason, the flood functions somewhat differently in each context, despite the similarities of form and content. Gilgamesh goes on to attempt to overcome death in other ways, trying to stay awake for a week, or to retrieve an underwater plant that is supposed to grant immortality; but these methods fail. The epic closes with a translation of an ancient Sumerian poem in which Gilgamesh asks his friend Huwawa about the afterlife: one of the primary messages of Gilgamesh is that the real hope for eternal happiness is not in immortality, which is impossible, but in the ongoing mortuary care by one’s offspring. The final tablet closes with positive descriptions of the afterlife of men with many sons: the man with seven sons “sits on a throne among the junior deities” (XII.116). The biblical call to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:1, 7) might be an interesting echo of the importance of procreation, but by contrast, the Genesis flood story closes with covenantal promises: humankind is called to renounce improper bloodshed (9:5-6), and God in turn renounces the extreme measure of destroying the earth by flood (9:9-16). In the larger narrative structure of the book of Genesis and the Bible, the flood appears to be only one of the early attempts by God to deal with human wrongdoing (see also the banishment of Cain in Gen 4, and the scattering of the builders from Babel in Gen 11).
Excerpted from Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East by Christopher B. Hays. Forthcoming in fall of 2014 from Westminster John Knox Press.
The later biblical author was probably impressed by the Babylonian tradition and took it to be the authoritative shape of the story