Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood
The biblical flood story (Genesis 6-9) has certainly taken a beating over the last two or three centuries. The problems began in earnest once geologists realized that a literal submersion of the entire earth in water is contradicted by clear scientific evidence.
Then, beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeologists found other flood stories from Israel’s neighbors that looked a lot like Genesis and were much older. Maybe the biblical story is just a plagiarized version of these older stories?
The scientific issues were addressed on this blog several months ago in a series of posts. I am going to focus on the theological issues raised by the older flood stories from Mesopotamia.
The stories known to us as the Atrahasis Epic (introduced last week) and the Gilgamesh Epic both include stories of a cataclysmic flood. The similarities between these stories and the biblical story are well known, striking, and incontrovertible.
First, let’s summarize Atrahasis. The version we have probably dates to about the seventeenth century BC, and it is a retelling of a story that is certainly older.
Part of this story recounts a flood. The gods had created humans to be their slave laborer. But they were becoming too noisy, and this disturbed the gods. The god Enlil decreed that humans should be destroyed in a flood. Atrahasis, through the help of the god Ea, escapes the wrath of Enlil by building a large boat in which to save humanity.
Some scholars argue that “noise” suggests rebellion against the gods for their forced labor. Humans failed to respect the distance the gods had put between them; they were not being what they were created to be. This notion of “obliterating boundaries” comes up in the biblical flood story but with important differences, which we will get to next week.
The Gilgamesh Epic is named after its main character Gilgamesh, a king of the Sumerian city of Uruk, a historical figure who ruled sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC.
The story itself “evolved” so to speak. The earliest copies of Gilgamesh are Sumerian and may be as old as the third millennium BC. Also, the earliest versions of this epic did not even include a flood story. That was added toward the end of the second millennium and was deliberately adopted from Atrahasis.
Adapting older stories is an important point for us to keep in mind as we think of the biblical flood story. The authors of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis (not to mention Enuma Elish) all transformed older Sumerian stories for their own time and purposes. This same pattern is at work in the biblical flood story. The biblical story is also a reworking of older, well-known themes for a fresh purpose.
Gilgamesh survives in twelve tablets, and the eleventh recounts the flood. After the death of his dear friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes a journey to find the secret of immortality. This quest leads him to track down the hero of this version of the flood story, Utnapishtim. Maybe he has the answer. Alas, Gilgamesh does not find the immortality he sought, but amid his conversations with Utnapishtim, the flood story is recounted to him in some detail.
There you have the basic outline of these two stories. Perhaps they may not seem to connect too closely with the biblical flood story. But combining the themes of Atrahasis/Gilgamesh and reading them side-by-side with Genesis is illuminating. The following summarizes the similarities:1
- a flood and building a huge boat by divine command;
- pitch seals the boat;
- the boat is built to precise dimensions (the biblical boat is much larger);
- clean and unclean animals come on board;
- a Noah figure and his family are saved (Gilgamesh includes some others);
- the boat comes to rest on a mountain;
- a raven and doves were sent out (Gilgamesh includes a swallow);
- animals will fear humans;
- the deity/deities smell the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards;
- a sign of an oath is given (lapis lazuli necklace for Gilgamesh).
These similarities suggest that the three stories are related in some way. As mentioned above, Gilgamesh seems to have a direct literary tie to Atrahasis. Some scholars also feel that the episode of the birds in Genesis 8:6-12 is dependent on Gilgamesh.
But for us, it is not necessary to ponder whether Genesis is dependent on these ancient Mesopotamian stories. The various flood stories simply share common ways of speaking about a horrible flood of some sort. It is a common scholarly view that either a severe local flood (around 2900 B.C.) or numerous local floods triggered these flood stories. Most biblical scholars understand these ancient stories as attempts to explain why such a thing could happen. The answer: the gods were angry.
The literary evidence from ancient Mesopotamia makes it very likely that Genesis 6-9 is Israel’s version of a common and much older ancient Near Eastern flood story. The similarities are clear, but the theology of the biblical story goes off in fresh directions. We will begin looking at that next week.
1. Translations of these stories are not hard to find. One convenient (and affordable) source is B. T. Arnold and B. E. Beyer, Readings from the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).