Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 2
Last week we looked at the similarities between the biblical flood story and two older Mesopotamian versions, Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. This week we will focus on some of the theological distinctives of the biblical story.
Like all ancient flood stories, the version in Genesis is trying to say something distinct. The Israelites were making a point about God, not simply relaying meteorological information. It is important to keep in mind both the similarities and differences between the biblical and other ancient flood stories. The distinct elements of Genesis carry forward its theological message, all the while working within the familiar conventions of the time.
Perhaps what is most distinct about the Genesis story is the reason given for the flood. In Atrahasis the reason is the mass human rebellion against the slave labor to which the gods had subjected humanity.
The biblical flood story gives a different reason for the flood, and it seems to be two-fold: (1) the curious incident in Genesis 6:1-4 where the “sons of God” cohabit with the “daughters of man,” and (2) the universal wickedness mentioned in 6:5.
Genesis 6:1-4 is a curious passage indeed. There have been numerous attempts throughout the history of biblical interpretation to make sense of it. The big question is, who are these “sons of God”?
Some have argued that the passage refers to tyrannical rulers, since ancient kings were often accorded some divine status and the Hebrew elohim can sometimes mean “rulers” not just “God/gods.” This view has been popular among Jewish interpreters for much of the last 2000 years.
Others say “sons of God” references the godly line of Seth (see 4:26) and the “daughters of man” are the line of Cain. This view was popular among Christians throughout much of church history, especially through the influence of St. Augustine.
In recent generations, however, our growing knowledge of ancient Near Eastern mythology suggests a third option. Surprisingly, this is the oldest view of the three, dominant until Augustine: the “sons of god” are divine beings (alluded to in the “let us” of Genesis 1:26), perhaps angels. These divine beings were cohabiting with human women, i.e., “daughters of man.”
Such divine/human cohabitation is a common theme in ancient mythologies, and biblical scholars typically see these verses as a nod to this theme—and another indication of how Genesis 1-11 as a whole reflects ancient sensibilities.
What, then, is the theological point of this episode? Divine and human creatures occupy different space in the created order; they are different types of beings with different realms. Cohabitation between them obliterates the boundaries established at creation. In other words, cohabitation was an act of rebellion, but not against slave labor as we see in Atrahasis. It was an “anti-creation” move. It willfully injected dis-order/chaos, into the created order. God responds in kind by bringing the full force of chaos back to the created order: the waters of chaos collapse back onto the inhabited world.
Genesis 6:5 explicitly cites the cause for the flood as human wickedness. Human rebellion, which began in the Garden1, had continued escalating to an intolerable point. Humans had persistently departed from their assigned role: being faithful image-bearers, earthly representatives of God’s rule, obedient to God’s commands. Now they had come to a place where “the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (6:5).
To use later biblical language, humanity was created to be “holy,” i.e., set apart for a God-given purpose. Beginning with Adam and Eve, humans chose to ignore this “set apart” identity, and so, as the story goes, God had had enough and decided to wipe the slate clean and start over. This meant, as mentioned above, a reintroduction of the chaos waters followed by the restoration of order through Noah and his family.
The pre-flood world was a failure because the most God-like of God’s creation, humans, had become agents of chaos rather than order—and even the divine realm contributed to the dysfunction. Creation had become chaotic, its very opposite. So God begins again. Noah (blameless and righteous, 6:9), is the new man, the new “Adam.” The flood story is about a new creation, and so a new humanity who, one might hope, would learn from past mistakes and get it right.
When seen from this perspective, the flood is not a divine fit or an overreaction. Within the theological logic of Genesis—leaving aside the perennial moral questions the flood raises—the flood is the proper response to the undoing of creation since the time of Adam and its punctuation by the “inter-species” cohabitation of 6:1-4.
The biblical flood story must be understood in the context of what humans were created to be. He formed the first man from dust and breathed life into him, rather than forming him out of the blood of the slain god Kingu. Humanity is the chief of creation, not a class of slaves so the gods can be in repose.
Humanity was to serve God as caretakers of his creation, as creatures made in his “image” and “likeness,” normally concepts that describe kings in the ancient world, not humanity in general. Humanity was to subdue the earth and rule over it (1:28), which also has very clear royal overtones.
Also, the language in 2:15 is that of “working” and “caring” for the land, which echoes the priestly task of caring for the temple.2 Humans enjoyed a royal and priestly status. Their downfall, and the cause of the flood, was in their failure to live up to this high and honored status. Though made in the image of God, they chose their own path. What had been “very good” (1:31) was now “only evil all the time” (6:5).
The Israelites adapted the well-known ancient Near Eastern flood motif. The similarities are clear and universally accepted by biblical scholars. But Israel did not just copy a story—instead it made it its own. The old story—with its ancient ways of thinking about the cosmos—became a new vehicle for talking about their God and what made him different.
The truth of the biblical flood story is not found in how accurately it reports actual geological events. It is found in the theological message understood in its ancient setting.
Enn's series continues here.
1. Some ancient Jewish interpreters blamed Cain’s murder of Abel for the flood (for example, the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon 10:3-4), and the delay in punishment was due to God’s mercy. The precise reasons for the flood have been a debated point in the history of interpretation, and this is not the place to work that out. The immediate cause in 6:5 is the incurable “badness” of humanity (a good translation of the Hebrew ra`, also sometimes translated “evil” or “wickedness”).
2. On this, see John H. Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 1:31.