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Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 2

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June 8, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 2

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

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.

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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Nathan - #17060

June 8th 2010

“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.”

I’ve given you two.  Given the fact that the modern lexicons do not recognize the distinctions you are positing, I would think the burden is on you to provide a single place where it is clear that ‘adam means “Jewish person.”  Let me be clear.  It is necessary to distinguish sense and referent.  It is not enough for you to show me places where ‘adam refers to Jewish people.  You must show me places were it unambiguously means “Jewish person.”  I imagine 100% of my uses of the term “guy” in the past year referred to Americans.  That does not mean that by the word “guy,” I meant “American.”  This is a crucial distinction.  You have provided no examples that contradict the generally accepted defintion of ‘adam as man/human.  Even if you could find such an example, it would not mean that it has that meaning in every other case.

Nathan - #17061

June 8th 2010

“Since Job has Jewish terminology in regards to YHWH then it should not be surprising to find references to the Jews (aw-dawm) within. “

Could you point out an unambiguous reference to ‘adam meaning “Jews” in Job?

Norm, we can keep going back and forth on this, but the problem here is that we disagree on the proper methods of lexicography (as well as on basic exegesis of the texts discussed so far).  I advocate normal lexicographical procedure.  You seem to be advocating a special procedure for biblical “Jewish” words.  The modern lexicons side with me against you.  The lexicons can of course be questioned, but their margin of error decreases with the frequency of the word, and as we all know, ‘adam is by no means rare.

So for anyone still reading, you should know that what Norm is proposing is lexicographically idiosyncratic; it is NOT supported by modern research in the Hebrew language.

Norm - #17063

June 8th 2010


In our world it’s called the preponderance of the evidence. The evidence points much more strongly to my proposition than it does to yours. Anyone who has dealt with Genesis realizes that many of the issues that are becoming apparent are not conventional historically for various reasons even among scholars. Genesis is composed of highly symbolic literature and if we held to your hermeneutic approach we should all naturally still be biblical literalist and YEC. 

I have demonstrated that your two examples are not helpful to your cause and that is why I rest my premise on the proposition that you will not be able to find in all the OT an example that refutes my principle. If it was errant it should be easily refuted with all the examples available and yet it isn’t. That’s called a demonstration of the plausible and when coupled with ancient literature which supports it the evidence starts to become overwhelming.  Also one need to keep in mind that it hasn’t been demonstrated that Israel meant Adam to represent humanity as that is a presupposition that needs to be proved. Mine is easier to prove through Hebrew theology and yours rest upon modern suppositions that are continually falling by the wayside.

Norm - #17064

June 8th 2010


Concerning the construction of Hebrew literature being precise and exact in construction, I would refer you to Genesis commentators such as Humberto Cassuto, Henri Blocher and Bruce Waltke upon the artistic and exactness of the creative structure of Genesis as an example.

Nathan - #17065

June 8th 2010


This discussion is getting tedious.  The point is sufficiently proven by the lexica.  Why dispute modern lexicography?

But, since I have allowed myself to be drawn into this discussion here are some more examples for you.

Josh 14:15 Arba is the greatest ‘adam among the Anaqim.

Isa 31:3 Egypt is ‘adam, and not god. 

Jonah 3:7,8 ‘adam (man) and beast in Nineveh fast and repent.

2 Chron 32:19 the gods of the nations (‘ammey) are the work of the hands of ‘adam.  The reference is to the non-Judean peoples that Sennacherib has already destroyed.

Conclusion: The Anaqim, Egyptians, Assyrians, and the non-Judean “nations” are properly defined as “’adam” (humans).

I could go on, but is it really necessary?

Norm - #17066

June 8th 2010


Also since you believe you own the high ground scholarship wise I will grant that to you. I don’t know of too many scholars that would be willing to journey forth where some of us are seeing these issues lead us. May I remind of Bruce Walke’s recent missteps into the Evolution foray? However I’m not alone in my analysis as I’ve ran across others out there such as Dick Fischer who tends toward the same recognition. I’ve seen other scholars dabble with it also but they know when to pull in their horns without taking it too far.

This point is very plausible and I would say much more in line with conventional Hebrew theology than what is out there today. It solves the problem of Adam and Eve because Israel believed they were their covenant forebears. ANE studies are good but they can get one off base if we think that the Jews were writing about general humanity primarily in early Genesis. This modern idea would have gone over like a lead balloon in their culture and worldview.  This site is frequented by many who believe evolution is a reality and mine not yours is the Hebrew understanding that allows for this actuality without having to jump through hoops exegetically.  That is unless one is a literalist.

Nathan - #17067

June 8th 2010

Just for fun I’ll throw in two more examples:

Num 19:11-13 the body of a dead ‘adam causes impurity.  Doesn’t matter if the person is an Israelite or not.
Josh 11:14 The Israelites plundered Canaanites cities but killed the ‘adam in them. 

So the Canaanites can be added to what Biblical Hebrew refers to with the word ‘adam.

Care to comment on how these examples effect the tenability of your definition of ‘adam?

HornSpiel - #17086

June 9th 2010

Nice post Pete,

I appreciate the insight that the flood story is integrally connected to the creation narrative through the water motif. I wonder if that was an original contribution the Jewish version, or if it is part of the inherited imagery of ANE creation/flood narratives.

Also I was surprised that you supported the the “sons of god” are divine beings interpretation, because that seems to also be the literalist approach as well. But of course you do not take it literally, I suppose.

To comment on Norm’s assertions:

I just do not see why these stories should not be considered universal in application, that is, about the creation of humankind not Israel. The development of Hebrew lineage is the subject of chapters Gen. 12 ff.  not 1-11.

I think the discussion has veered from the most fruitful avenue, which would be the theological issues that follow from the compositional hypothesis.proposed by Dr Enns. Or how they would be affected if a different exegesis is followed (a la Norm).

norm - #17092

June 9th 2010

Pete has opened the door previously with his Adam as Israel idea which I happen to agree with so my discussion is a natural outflow of that analysis.  However I do agree with you to an extent about the universal application of the flood narrative. I believe it is simply an apocalyptic type of narrative that may have more to do with Israel and its present and future than with its historic past. The universal nature is that it ties the neighboring nations into the discussion through symbolism and metaphor. However I think most folks would agree that the idea that around 3000-2500 BC all the ANE nations arose from Noah and his three sons is not reality so there is something else obviously going on there.

As I stated in my first post I agree with some of Pete’s basic assumptions but this is a rich field to mine and can keep us all at work for a while. I would highly encourage folks to read the metaphorical flood commentary of Enoch and also the one in Jubilees to get a pragmatic idea of how the Jews applied the story. The Jews understood that the story was not reality and they played around with it in various methods. They weren’t as unsophisticated as we often make them out to be.

Norm - #17100

June 9th 2010


First we need to keep in mind that the Jews ultimately were not a purebred race so the discussion of “adam” as man needs to be kept in the realm of faith in the one true God or more importantly a “covenant man”.  The term is just one of several in the OT used to describe man and the optimum idea behind “adam” is one who has faith in their God. So if we find it used outside of the Jew’s then it should illustrate one with a faith in YHWH. So with that established let’s look at your examples.

Num 19:11-13 does not confirm for you either direction who the body of the dead “man” is and it could be a dead fellow Jew; the burden is on you to “prove” it could be a Gentile outsider under consideration.

Jos 11:14 … but every MAN THEY SMOTE with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, neither left they any to breathe.

“but every man (ADAM) SMOTE THEM with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them,”
We probably have a minor translation issue above because the emphasis is changed simply by having the “adam” being the one who smote and destroyed “them”.


Norm - #17101

June 9th 2010

Josh 14:15 again this possibly goes back to the idea that “adam” represents/denotes faithful man to the God of Israel and not generic mankind (gentiles) at large.

Isa 31:3 Here Egypt is compared to the faithful man in contrast to a mighty God. Just as their horses is flesh and not Spirit so they (Egypt) have no power to provide relief to Israel.

Jonah 3:7,8 If you remember Jonah went to evangelize the people of Nineveh and they repented. It seems that there was faithful and Gentile under consideration because “beast” represents the Gentile. Beast do not repent with sackcloth and ashes.  King Nebuchadnezzar received the mind of the “beast” when he denied the glory of his kingdom to God but was restored to the mind of a “man” when he came to his senses. 

2Ch 32:19 I think you have not looked at this verse closely enough. Elohim is used twice in that verse not a foreign god. Makes much better sense when we read it as these speaking against Israel.

2Ch 32:19 And they spake against the God of Jerusalem, as against the “God” of the people of the Land, which were the work of the hands of “adam”.


Norm - #17102

June 9th 2010

Again the most obscure usages of “aw-dawm” when defined as the faithful “covenant man” of God is a contrast to the other usages of Hebrew terms for “man” that render Generic and mortal mankind. That is the essence of how “adam” should be taken IMHO. This goes to my point that Adam is not the story of all mankind but of faithful man just as the faith man today bears the name Christian and is in a special covenant relationship with God through Christ. It was the same with the Adamite faithful as it simply denotes the faithful seeker of God.

Gen 4:25-26 And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: … (26)  And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; … THEN BEGAN MEN TO CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD.

Nathan - #17106

June 9th 2010


Hornspiel is quite right that this topic has gotten way off track, but since you insist.

Num 19:11-13: the priestly ideology is clearly that contact with any human corpse causes defilement.  to claim that only contact with a Jewish corpse causes defilement is special pleading.

Jos 11:14 anyone who has taken intro to biblical hebrew knows that your proposed translation is impossible since ‘adam is marked by ‘t (the definite direct object marker) as the object of the smiting.

Josh 14:15 there is no reason to identify Arba as a “faithful believer,” another example of special pleading.

Isa 31:3 really?  You think Egypt is being described as a faithful covenant man?  “Woe to you who go down to Egypt for help ... [since] the Egyptians are faithful covenant keepers, not God” (Isa 31:1-3).  There is nothing in context that supports this bizarre reading. 

Jonah 3:7, 8 - don’t know what to say about this one other than that it only fits your definition since you changed it ad hoc and without evidence from ‘adam=Jew to ‘adam=faithful believer.

2Chron 32:19 - you have misunderstood this verse.  the speaker, Sennacherib’s servant, compares Yahweh to the gods of the other nations (vv. 17-19).  couldn’t be clearer.

Norm - #17108

June 9th 2010


With all due respect I’m simply replying to your responses so if this is tedious then by all means excuse yourself.

Robert Byers - #17115

June 9th 2010

I am a biblical creationist.
Nothing is more solid in written and oral history of dispersed mankind then that a great flood destroyed life on earth. All peoples who have records of their history and these records from the past agree on this. China, Indians in the new world, Greeks, Sumerians and everyone else.
just as one would expect if it was a true event and so important everyone remembered it despite wandering about. Its a great collection of witnesses.
If it wasn’t true and there were only a few accounts of a great flood then critics could rightly say If it was true why would such a event not be remembered by all peoples. Good point.
Good point for us. Everyone does remember.
To reject mankinds witness on this is a first deed for Noah flood deniers.
God’s word also records, in better detail, this great flood.
The earth itself shows the results of a great flood by dispersed sediment and landforms showing great chaos.

John VanZwieten - #17117

June 10th 2010

Robert Byers,

You might check out this section of the Biologos “Questions” section:


It covers many of the points you make in the above post.

Chris Massey - #17124

June 10th 2010


If you take the time to read any geology by people who are not creation scientists, you’ll discover fairly quickly that what you’ve said about the earth showing evidence of a universal flood is simply not true.

Have you considered that the existence of flood stories in diverse cultures around the world may be due to the fact that floods are extremely common?

aberg - #17165

June 10th 2010

As Chris suggests, two books you might be interested in are:

1. Davis Young (a former Young Earth Creationist): The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth

2. Donald Prothero: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Dan - #17177

June 10th 2010

Thanks for the article Dr. Enns.  I follow your line of reasoning with the “sons of God.”  I recently gave a message on Gen 2-11, which was a challenge to keep under 30 minutes   After pondering these chapters, though, it seemed like the big picture for the church today revolved around the beginnings of humanity as a roller-coaster ride, with alternating stories of hope and despair. Is humanity going to make it, or not?  Within these stories is a hope sprung from the promised seed that would crush the serpent, but each possibility falls short. Cain? no. Seth? no. Noah? no…and so on.

Your article has caused me to do some reflection on how Jesus, the “second adam” and “promised seed,” brings order between the physical and spiritual realm, as is illustrated in his casting out of demons in the new testament.

Robert Byers - #17434

June 14th 2010

John VanZwieten 17117#
Read it but I know those answer attempts.
Old criticisms of Genesis are met very well these days by creationists and new criticisms need to sharpen up.

Chris Massey 17124
he evidence in geology for the great flood is any data there is in geology. Below the k-p line, for me, all sedimentary rock is from the flood deposits. likewise the other great rock stories.
Oh yes there is great evidence for water covering 80% of present dry land. geology admits it but parcels it out in time and events. yet all agree water in powerful actions covered this much land at least. Its just not accurate to say there is no evidence for water covering the whole earth.

No as I said the powerful agreement in oral/written history of everyone trumps ideas of endless frightened humans of floods. In reality floods would never bother anyone since they were understood and adapted too.
They would never include flood stories in anything except the great one at the beginning.
the powerful witness of a universal flood from mankind, as it would be if true, is over whelming in persuasiveness on a general historical fact.

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