Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood

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June 1, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Notes

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).


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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norm - #16794

June 6th 2010

Bryan,

I think we first need to identify the type of literature that we’re dealing with from Gen 1-11.  Trying to apply a literal narrative to literature that has many similar literary characteristics of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation may be ignoring a Hebrew pointer to the discerning reader. From research it appears that there was indeed a huge flood upon the land (Iraq) around 2900 BC so the story appears based upon a true occurrence and the Jews believed their origins and history were tied into it. The question is how to filter the symbolic from the literal which I believe is a lost Hebrew art form not yet fully appreciated and embraced by us modern’s. 

As an example “Har” as a hill or mountain can be either a temple designation or a literal hill upon which worship was performed or it could simply imply a physical descriptor depending upon the context.  The point I’m making though is to keep in mind that destroying the “High Hills” is a common depiction used by the Jews to denote Judgment upon God’s covenant people which is actually what is going on here in the Flood account.

continued


norm - #16795

June 6th 2010

Since it seems the Jewish writer or redactors (800 -400 BC) took the ANE flood story and reworked them for their purpose I believe it is particularly important to focus in on the theological rationale from their perspective.

Also IMO physically the “hills”  where the ark rested would have needed to have been accessible from the flood plain of Iraq. In Jeremiah when speaking about Babylon the same Hebrew word is used to describe a kingdom with the same name which some translations render Armenia (2Ki 19:37, Isa 37:38) but that translation may be misleading because we simply are not sure.

Jer 51:27 Lift ye up an ensign in the land, … Summon against it the kingdoms of ARARAT, Minni, and Ashkenaz,

continued


norm - #16796

June 6th 2010

Concerning the birds not finding rest on the Land. The raven symbolizes an unclean bird while the Dove represented a clean bird to the Jews and this event may signify that only the clean bird could find Rest in the Land which makes sense from the Jewish perspective (remember the dove coming upon Christ).

It’s also important to realize that in no way should the Hebrew word “erets” designate the global word “earth” but should be simply “land” in the flood account. These cosmic terms are Hebrew symbols that are patterns used over and over in scripture to tell their story. That is why if one learns to understand Revelation, Ezekiel and Daniel they will naturally start seeing things differently in Genesis 1-11, but those symbolic books are not ones that many learn to master as many shy away from them.


Bryan Hodge - #16799

June 6th 2010

Norm,

Thanks. I agree with most of your assessment. The issue I would take is reading into the textual details, most of which are taken directly from AH and GE. GE clearly speaks of the flood, which we both agree is most likely a massive local flood upon which the myth is based, in cosmic terms as well. Utnapishtim can see the sides of the world because it has become flattened with water covering the mountains. I didn’t quite understand how you were interpreting this. The ark in Genesis lands on the Urartu chain. The boat in GE lands on another mountain. My question was concerning how it is possible for a boat to rest on a mountain top if the flood is depicted as local. You seem to indicate that the mountains are symbolic, but then physical as well. Are you suggesting that the hills upon which it rested were small, but the larger mountains to which the narrative refers are symbols of cultic sites/temples? I think this would be interesting, since there would be possibly a connection to the tower built later (although the emphasis is on the city in Hebrew).


Bryan Hodge - #16800

June 6th 2010

(cont.)

The problem is that the interpretation of har seems to import one that is gained from the Deuteronomistic history. The word har, however, is always used to speak of a geographical location in Genesis. The only two instances of cult worship on these physical mountains is accomplished by Abraham and Jacob to God, rather than pagans to idols. This is not to mention that seeing the flood as only a judgment upon Israel seems to ignore the condemnation of Cain’s line, i.e., the non-Israelite line before the flood, and the line of Canaan, the non-Israelite line after the flood. Or are you saying that the entire Ancient Near East, or at least all of Mesopotamia, had divine revelation and were being judged for disobeying it?


Bryan Hodge - #16801

June 6th 2010

I should also mention that the mountain upon which Noah sacrifices is obviously depicted as a cult center/garden sanctuary as well, as in the other ANE accounts.


norm - #16816

June 6th 2010

Bryan,

There is no doubt that the Genesis flood account is possibly the most challenging interpretive dilemma we face in scriptures besides Gen 1 itself. I think what I try to do is start with the big picture and try to work out the details little by little. Because of the mythic and cosmic language we are always in jeopardy of over stating what was actually meant. If we refer to some ancient Jewish interpretations of the flood story I think it helps us to start seeing how they viewed the flood. Jubilees (circa 150 BC) sees the ark resting in Ararat or Urartu hills which would be the head waters of the Tigris river in northern Iraq.

Jub 5:28 And the ark went and rested on the top of Lubar, one of the mountains of Ararat.

continued


norm - #16817

June 6th 2010

If we read it literally it can make sense to a degree but it may also possibly hold some theological symbolism that escapes us or perhaps it’s a little of both. These various possibilities are what make the Flood story such a challenge. I do think we need to be extremely careful to recognize that “har” is often possibly over stated as mountain when it simply means hill not really telling us how high it was. If my hunch is correct that the language is apocalyptic in nature then all bets are off as it is in interpreting Revelation.

I think archeology has demonstrated that ancient Ziggurat worship which is a reflection of man building hills/mountains themselves which goes back beyond Abraham in the ANE. Also we always need to keep in mind that Genesis was written from the perspective of the first Temple Jew perspective so we need to keep a look out for that influence.

Take a look at this site and notice the pictures of what a “high place” looked like in ancient UR.

“The ziggurats were simulated mountains, and many people in the ancient Near East continued to worship in ‘high places’. In Israel, these ‘high places’ were on top of mountains”

http://www.bible-archaeology.info/ziggurats.htm


norm - #16818

June 6th 2010

Yes I do believe the Tower of Babel is connected to the Flood account due to their building it with fired bricks and using pitch to water proof it and trying to attain the lofty heights on their own. Its judgment time again.

I don’t think the flood was necessarily a judgment on Cain as their progeny was already judged and driven from the “land” away from God’s face and presence. If one will notice Cain’s progeny did not have long lives applied to them which means they were considered dead to God yet Seth’s and Shem’s progeny are attributed with special long lives denoting them as the bearers of the “seed” of Eve for redemption. They were not to intermarry with Gentiles and pollute the lineage of Messiah which is what brought judgment upon them. Intermarriage with Gentiles was only forbidden to Israel or the seed lineage and that is one of the ways we know that the flood is a judgment primarily on Israel’s lineage. Consider Ezra 9 for an example of that restriction. Also Jubilees 5:17 makes it apparent that Israel was under consideration at the flood in the Jewish view.


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