Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 2

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June 8, 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, 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.

Notes

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.


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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whoschad - #17001

June 8th 2010

And now the challenge: Explaining this to the congregations.


Norm - #17018

June 8th 2010

Pete,

I think your basic assumptions are correct on the theme of the flood’s purpose but I’m not certain you have identified some of the important details correctly. 

What should be clear is that the “daughters of men” refers to the lineage derived from Adam/Seth by the usage of the Hebrew “aw-dawm” denoting an Israelite lineage. Their intermarriage is a pollution of the chosen offspring of Eve whom bears the “seed” of the coming Messiah. Some simple research bears out that “aw-dawm” is used to identify Jewish lineage contrasted to Gentiles throughout OT scripture.  There are other Hebrew terms which signify general mankind but “aw-dawm” is reserved for Israel.  So we know from this that the “sons of Elohim” must refer to mankind outside of Israel perhaps those same folks that Cain was afraid would kill him. We also should note how the usage of Elohim and YHWH denote specific applications within these stories. YHWH (Jehovah) points to a Jewish application while Elohim (God) indicates a broader universal application including the nations. Notice in this narrative how the two terms are used back and forth for different implications.

continued


Norm - #17019

June 8th 2010

This judgment is first and foremost a Jewish judgment according to ancient Hebrew thought and tradition. A reading of second Temple Jubilees and Enoch accounts of the flood helps illustrate this point. Intermarriage by the Jews was a continual problem as evidenced even as late as Ezra 9 and often seen early on even in Abraham’s immediate offspring. IMO Genesis was written from the perspective of the late first Temple Jews and that is why this theme is first described here in Gen 6 as it denotes that the story is about their origins from Adam and not humanity at large. The flood account is a Covenant judgment upon those who first called upon the Lord (YHWH Gen 4:26) which is verified by Gen 9. However through God’s chosen people (Israel) it would of course have implications for all nations just as it did with the coming of Messiah. In fact the flood account appears to point just as much toward Messianic prophecy as it does to history which again reflects the intent of the authors from the late first Temple era. 

Gen 9:13 KJV I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of A COVENANT between me and the earth.

Continued


Norm - #17021

June 8th 2010

I believe if we try to attribute this Jewish story as implicating all humanity from Adam we are getting away from the correct Jewish narrative and may bring further confusion to the debate over it. The flood was a local flood that destroyed the land of the Adam/Sethites who had started to multiply but they tainted the lineage through intermarriage and that’s the primary theme IMO. If we now revert back to the idea that Adam was the origination of all mankind then we have played into the hands of the literalist again not withstanding the full Jewish character of the story that is then set aside. Humanity was to be ultimately blessed through Covenant Israel but the origins and flood stories are their historic beginnings primarily as seen through their eyes.


Norm - #17020

June 8th 2010

I believe if we try to attribute this Jewish story as implicating all humanity from Adam we are getting away from the correct Jewish narrative and may bring further confusion to the debate over it. The flood was a local flood that destroyed the land of the Adam/Sethites who had started to multiply but they tainted the lineage through intermarriage and that’s the primary theme IMO. If we now revert back to the idea that Adam was the origination of all mankind then we have played into the hands of the literalist again not withstanding the full Jewish character of the story that is then set aside. Humanity was to be ultimately blessed through Covenant Israel but the origins and flood stories are their historic beginnings primarily as seen through their eyes.


Nathan - #17025

June 8th 2010

Norm,

Much of your argument here is based on the claim: “Some simple research bears out that “aw-dawm” is used to identify Jewish lineage contrasted to Gentiles throughout OT scripture.”  This is lexicographically untenable.  There are numerous places in the OT where ‘adam simply refers to mankind in general and makes no distinction as to lineage.  In fact, I don’t even know of a single place in the OT where the distinction you are suggesting could be clearly demonstrated.  Further, the word ‘adam appears in in Iron Age Hebrew inscriptions in contexts where the distinction you are proposing is unthinkable (Lachish 4:4-5; Silwan 2:2).  It is also common in Phoenician, where it goes without saying that your distinction doesn’t hold.  You would have to bring weighty evidence to argue for a special “Biblical” Hebrew as opposed to Iron Age Hebrew (i.e. Classical Hebrew) definition for ‘adam.


Norm - #17026

June 8th 2010

Nathan,

I think this is much easier to illustrate than you are aware of.  Take a look at Gen 6:4 and notice how the translators use men to denote two separate words that they translate as “men”. 

Gen 6:4 KJV There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of MEN (aw-dawm), and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, MEN (eesh) of renown.

“Eesh” as man may be used for Jews but I’m finding it hard to locate where “aw-dawm” is used without a Jewish application in mind.


Jer 49:18 KJV As in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighbour cities thereof, saith the LORD, no man (eesh) shall abide there, neither shall a son of man (aw-dawm) dwell in it.

Eze 11:2 KJV Then said he unto me, Son of man (aw-dawm), these are the men (eesh) that devise mischief, and give wicked counsel in this city:

Son of man/adam surely references a Jewish intention there should be no doubt. Context requires some work which requires moving away from a sterile literal approach. We can argue with the literalist all day concerning Gen 1-3 as they will attempt to use the context argument for not accepting the bigger picture context.


Norm - #17029

June 8th 2010

Daniel,

Here are some interesting facts on the usage of aw-dawm from strongs number H120.
It is used 95 times in the five books of the Torah

35 times in Genesis
14 times in Exodus
15 times in Leviticus
24 times in Numbers
7 times in Deuteronomy

The translation as “man” in the OT in the KJV is found 1829 times with 541 of those times being aw-dawm.

Daniel if you would like why don’t you pick one of those 541 times that aw-dawm is used and let’s examine the context that surrounds it and see if we can rule out any implication to Israel.


Nathan - #17032

June 8th 2010

Norm,

I don’t follow your reasoning.  You might be confusing sense and referent.  Just because the referent, Ezekiel for example, happens to be Jewish, doesn’t mean that calling him a “son of ‘adam” means you are calling him a Jewish person.  It means you are calling him a “human.”  It is highly illegitimate to conclude on the basis of Ezekiel being called a “human” (‘adam) that every time the bible calls someone a human (‘adam), it means they are a Jewish person.

Perhaps you could address the meaning of ‘adam in lines 4-5 of Lachish 4: ‘l dbr byt hrpd ‘yn shm ‘dm.  Does this mean only that there were no “Jews” at Beth-HRPD, or does it mean that no one was there.  If the latter (and I have never heard anyone suggest the former), on what basis would you posit a special distinction used for this Hebrew word in Biblical texts as opposed to contemporary extra-biblical texts?  Or how about Silwan 2: ‘rwr h’dm ‘shr ypth ‘t t’t.  Does this mean “cursed in the Jew who opens this [grave],” or “cursed is anyone who opens this [grave]?

There is a reason that the lexica do not list the distinction you are trying to make in their entries for ‘adam.  It is proper lexicography, not “sterile literalism.”


Nathan - #17033

June 8th 2010

Norm,

I don’t know why you would want to restrict the search to the Torah, but if you insist, how about the use in Deut 4:28.  V. 27 says that God will scatter them among the foreign nations.  V. 28 says that “there,” i.e. among the foreign nations, they will serve gods that are the work of the hands of ‘adam.  The ‘adam, here, are the people of the foreign nations where they are going into exile.


R Hampton - #17034

June 8th 2010

“This judgment is first and foremost a Jewish judgment according to ancient Hebrew thought and tradition”

I agree, and it’s a crucial distinction. Gentiles did not know God as the Jews for they lacked Special Revelation. Thus their life was inconsequential; it did not matter if they died in a flood or continued to live safely half-a-world away. Unlike the Jews, they had nothing to lose. Therefore a local flood was more than sufficient to destroy all but eight of the chosen people.


davey - #17035

June 8th 2010

It may be that the Jews (and other peoples) had ideas about humans (and angels) disturbing the order of things leading to everything going bananas. But, it doesn’t appear obvious that what they identified as the order of things is binding on us. Or that anything in the universe as we now think of it works quite like they thought.


Norm - #17036

June 8th 2010

Daniel,

Are you sure you want to use Deut 4:28?  You do realize that this is an important indictment against the Jews in that they will become corrupted in the Nations and will become idol worshipers themselves by making idols of wood, stone ect. This indictment is definitely against Israel as it is THEIR HANDS THAT WILL MAKE THESE IDOLS which is what verse 28 reaffirms against them.

Deu 4:23 KJV Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
25 When thou shalt beget children, and children’s children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke him to anger:

28 And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s (aw-dawm’s) hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.

continued


Norm - #17038

June 8th 2010

This is the same indictment that Paul makes against Israel in Romans 1 in which he recounts Deut 4’s prophecy as having been fulfilled by the Jews when they corrupted their knowledge of God and turned to idol making bringing reproach in the Nations to God’s people of faith.

Rom 1:21-23 KJV Because that, when THEY KNEW GOD, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  (22)  Professing themselves to be wise, THEY BECAME FOOLS,  (23)  And CHANGED THE GLORY OF THE UNCORRUPTIBLE GOD INTO AN IMAGE MADE LIKE TO CORRUPTIBLE MAN, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Next


Norm - #17042

June 8th 2010

Daniel,

Let’s keep our focus upon OT scripture for the moment and see if you can make your case there after all there are 540 more uses that you can bring forth.  Once we exhaust these then you can make your case externaly.


Nathan - #17044

June 8th 2010

Norm,

You are misinterpreting Deut 4.  The indictment in Deut 4:23-5 is that they will make idols in the land of Israel and then be expelled from the land.  The punishment vv. 27-28 is that they will be expelled to foreign lands and THERE (v. 28) serve the gods there.  Nothing in context suggests that the Israelites are involved in the making of idols in the foreign lands.  The context suggests the opposite.  Once they get to the foreign lands, they serve the gods that are THERE.

Excluding synchronic evidence, by the way, is lexicographically illegitimate, and so I would not consider Iron age Hebrew inscriptions to be “external data” for the semantics of words in Classical Hebrew.  Why do you?

If you want another biblical example where your distinctions don’t work, try Job 36:25.

By the way, why do you keep calling me Daniel?


Bryan Hodge - #17045

June 8th 2010

Great post, Dr. Enns. I think Atra-hasis has an even closer connection in regard to anti-creational sins and the reason why Enlil is killing off humanity; but overall you hit on themes that many scholars seem to miss for some reason. Very nice.


Chris Massey - #17050

June 8th 2010

Pete,

Thanks for another great article.

Do you think it’s valid to assume that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 refers to the same legend as the “watchers” in 1 Enoch? The parallels seem pretty striking. They look down from heaven and lust after the daughters of men. They take wives from the daughters of men and have children by them. The children are a race of giants. These giants began to cause all kinds of evil in the world.

Also, do you think this is what Paul is referring to in 1 Cor. 11:10 when he says that women need to wear head coverings “because of the angels”?


Norm - #17055

June 8th 2010

Daniel,

Job has “aw-dawm” 26 times and (YHWH God of Israel) 32 times which ties Israel explicitly to Job. “Eesh” is used 42 times and “en-oshe” is used 18 times. So these two verses use all three terms in conjunction together in regard to men or man. Do you have a good explanation for why the Hebrew would use three different term’s for man here? The Jews were extremely exact and specific in their word usage and the terms bring context. Again I’m looking for a usage in the OT that refutes my premise and not one that is ambiguous and probably supports my premise instead of refuting it.  Since Job has Jewish terminology in regards to YHWH then it should not be surprising to find references to the Jews (aw-dawm) within.

Job 36:24-25 KJV Remember that thou magnify his work, which MEN (eesh) behold.  Every MAN (aw-dawm)  may see it; MAN (en-oshe) may behold it afar off.

Take a look at how Job defines “en-oshe”  and “gheh-ber” which are other words that denote “man”.

Job 4:17 KJV Shall MORTAL MAN (en-oshe) be more just than God? shall a man (gheh-ber) be more pure than his maker?

Job 10:5 KJV Are thy days as the days of MAN (en-oshe)? are thy years as MAN’S (gheh-ber) days,


Nathan - #17059

June 8th 2010

Norm.

“Do you have a good explanation for why the Hebrew would use three different term’s for man here?”

Yes, poetic parallelism.

“The Jews were extremely exact and specific in their word usage and the terms bring context.”

Are you claiming that a special lexicographical procedure should be used when investigating the semantics of words used by Jews?  I would question this assumption.


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