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Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

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June 22, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood, Part 3

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

This is the third part of a series. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

When we place the biblical flood story and the other versions side-by-side, the polemical nature of the biblical flood story is clear. But we shouldn’t conclude too much from this.

Yes, the biblical story is a distinct piece of theology. It offers a very different view of God and the role of humanity. But that does not mean that the biblical story is of a “higher order” than the extra-biblical stories from a historical or scientific point of view.

It is virtually certain that one or more local floods in Mesopotamia—perhaps around 3000 B.C. according to some scholars—provide the historical basis for all the flood stories that come from that area. But the geological record, at least as interpreted by mainstream scientists, discounts any notion of a “worldwide” flood that killed every single creature on earth, save a few (Genesis 6:7; 7:21-23), a few thousand years ago.

Of course, for the ancient writer of Genesis, the world was a much smaller, flatter place. Perhaps what he and other ancient writers wrote reflects how they perceived the world. The “earth” was what they saw when they walked outside—a vast stretch of flat land with mountains off in the distance. When a devastating flood came and swept away everything in its path, it seemed like “the whole earth” to the ancient writer. If you think about it, one should actually expect ancient writers to use “worldwide” language given their state of knowledge.

To interpret the Genesis flood as a complete global catastrophe is a modern imposition onto an ancient story. Ancients simply did not think of the earth in that way. This is where “Flood Geology” gets off on the wrong foot. Apart from the well-documented scientific problems with this approach, it expects a worldview that Genesis is not prepared to deliver.

But what about the dozens of flood stories found throughout the ancient world, not only in Mesopotamia? Might that support the notion of a “global” flood, not merely a local one?

The presence of flood stories from various time periods in other parts of the ancient world (e.g., Asian, European, Mayan) does not support a global flood, as some Christian apologists try to argue. These stories simply reflect the ubiquity of floods in antiquity and the devastation that massive ones would bring. The fact that the world flood stories are so different from each other reflects how each culture told the story of their local floods in their own way.

That fact that the biblical version is strikingly similar to the Mesopotamian versions, as we have seen, reflects the cultural connections between these peoples. The differences between them reflect their different theologies. The Israelite version is a statement of theological independence from the older stories of the superpower nations around them. The common medium of a well-known flood story was used by the Israelites for its own purpose.

For both contextual and scientific reasons, the biblical flood story is clearly not a statement of vital historical information. It is a powerful expression of theological identity among the other peoples of the world.

I understand this does not satisfy everyone. Some feel that for the flood story to have any theological value for readers today, it must be historical in nature. I hope this is not the case. If the flood story’s theological value depends on all of the earth’s population being wiped out a few thousand years ago, we have a problem. We will have erected an impassable obstruction between the present state of knowledge, scientific and biblical, and any hope of a viable Christian faith that is connected to the Bible.

A position that claims the necessity of historicity throughout Genesis is not the default position of faith. It is an hypothesis, as much as any other, only without much explanatory force given the current state of knowledge.

That hypothesis is based on certain assumption. (1) A truth–speaking God would be concerned with history primarily throughout every portion of the Bible. (2) A revealing God would not lean on older Mesopotamian stories but provide Israel with fresh information. (3) The fact that subsequent biblical writers assume the historical nature of the flood as presented in Genesis should settle the matter for us, too.

These assumptions are unwarranted, and I think entirely indefensible. (1) God seems to like stories as much as history. (2) God speaks in ways that are necessarily rooted in the cultural moment. (3) Later biblical writers, even in the New Testament, were also ancient peoples, and so we should expect them to speak in those terms.

To nip in the bud a predictable objection: the slippery slope argument does not hold here. To say that the flood story is fundamentally more story than history does not mean that the crucifixion and resurrection are also unhistorical. Genesis and the Gospels are different types of literature written at very different times for very different reasons. Failing to make such basic genre distinction is perhaps at the root of some of the conflict over Genesis.

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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Justin Poe - #18559

June 23rd 2010

Hornspiel “the documentary evidence of parallel flood stories—that btw God providentially allowed to survive and come to light in our day.”

You do realize that some of these parallel flood stories espouse a global catastrophic world ending flood right?  And some included forms of the exact same names.  So maybe, just maybe, God allowed these to survive to shed further proof on what really did happen…a worldwide catastrophic flood.

HornSpiel - #18562

June 23rd 2010

So maybe, just maybe, God allowed these to survive to shed further proof on what really did happen…a worldwide catastrophic flood.

Maybe, if not for the overwhelming geological/physical evidence against it. Therefore, that these stories are evidence of a widespread local flood, is the only plausible conclusion.

Even the language using a very literal approach does not demand a world-wide flood. For example Hugh Ross, who accepts a local flood.

Norwegian Shooter - #18569

June 23rd 2010

HornSpiel: I’m not familiar with any words written directly by God. Can you tell me?

Justing Poe: “Once one small piece of historical writing is twisted to become mythology, most of scripture must become the same way to accommodate the theory.”

You’re absolutely right. In this small way, I could be called an accommodationist. However, Saul of Tarsus was a Jew. He just thought Gentiles didn’t need to cut their newborns’ shmekls or keep milk and meat separate.

John VanZwieten - #18572

June 23rd 2010

Justin wrote:

Once one small piece of historical writing is twisted to become mythology, most of scripture must become the same way to accommodate the theory.

First of all, this is a blatent non sequitor.  Understanding some portions of scripture in a particular way never require “most of scripture” to be understood in the same way.

Secondly, you beg the question.  Let’s turn it around:
Once one small piece of mythological writing is twisted to become history, most of scriptures stories must become the same way to accommodate the theory.  So all the parables and other stories Jesus told must be viewed as history.

It doesn’t hold together as logic either way.

HornSpiel - #18588

June 23rd 2010


Exodus tells us that God carved the 10 commandments directly in the stone tablets, at least that is what I understand.

Other than that, perhaps the handwriting on the wall in Daniel.
מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin)

HornSpiel - #18591

June 23rd 2010

John, your comment is well taken.

Not long ago I was talking with someone at church who was wondering if Jesus’ parables might not be historical—that , for instance, the prodigal son might not have actually existed.  In other words, he had been so inculcated into the literalistic approach, he was unable to discern that some biblical stories are simply stories.

Ironically, the parable of the prodigal son would lose some of its force if it were actually based on an historical event. Couched in the culture of the day, Jesus is teaching that God is a Father with compassion beyond human expectation.

Justin Poe - #18604

June 23rd 2010

The parable analogy doesn’t hold water.  There are many instances in Scripture when Jesus tells a parable that Scripture says, “And Jesus told this parable…....”  It’s spelled right out for us so there is no debate on the issue.

Justin Poe - #18605

June 23rd 2010

Let me continue since I didn’t give an example:

“He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; ” 

“All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. “

“Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”

These are three small short examples from Matthew 13 in the NAS.  Hardly even debatable that these were clarified as stories from the outset.  If you can find a verse stating that Genesis 1-3 is mythology, along with a localized flood, I’ll join the ranks.

HornSpiel - #18627

June 24th 2010

Justin, I respect your position. It is consistent with your conception of the inspiration of Scripture. You also see the way in which Jesus and the apostles refer to Genesis as unassailable proof that it is to be read as history. I too once accepted that point of view.

However the testimony of the Book of God’s creation has pointed me in another direction. I admit it has forced me to change my views on inspiration and to see more humanness in Jesus and the biblical writers. I believe it is God who has led me in this change and I believe it is good. But I certainly do not want you to “join the ranks” by my words, but because God leads you.

What I would hope is that you could respect my position as well. We cam’t both be right on this and we can both be wrong. But is it an essential of the faith?

As far as Paul quoting or using Genesis. Paul may very well have understood all of Genesis as literal history. But he always uses it primarily to illustrate spiritual truths. For instance: How can one man’s sacrifice save all of humanity. Well it was one man who was responsible for us getting into this mess. The central message is clear no matter how you or I interpret Genesis.

eddy - #18640

June 24th 2010


Of course we are entitled to respect you as a person who believes in theistic evolution and an errant Bible as much as we are entitled to respect Muslims as persons who believe in Islam and their stance on an errant Bible.

And how can I be so sure that the literalistic approach I espouse is truly the most faithful way to interpret Scripture, you ask?

To be honest, this question took me by suprise. I have always took the natural approach of reading Scriptures, and wherever it explicitly speak about something I have always understood what the Scriptures intend to teach at that point. Now, if you believes the Scriptures, or God for that matter, does not intend us to teach us to believe, or erred, that there was an historical global flood, that is your prerogative.

John VanZwieten - #18642

June 24th 2010

Good one, Eddy - you manage to slur a Christian brother as well as millions of devout Muslims in just one sentence.

HornSpiel - #18649

June 24th 2010

I have always took the natural approach of reading Scriptures

Let me ask you, where did you get your natural approach? Natural for most people means, I’m afraid, reading the text without questioning ones presuppositions. It is actually a form of blindness to ones own prejudices. As has been stated many times on this site, the literalistic approach espoused by fundamentalists is actually viewing the Scriptures with modern sensibilities.

When one realizes myth and story is fundamental to tribal cultures, that all tribal cultures have creation stories, then it is possible rather amazingly divine and beautiful. to realize that what we have in Genesis is exactly that. . God is communicating to His people, not only in language thy understand, but using the discourse form in which such truths need to be communicated.

This is apart from the fact that they would not have had the intellectual framework to understand evolution if were revealed to them on the spot.

I believe that he onus is on us, who come after, to work to understand what God means, not to simplistically read it in the easy “natural” way. I try to take seriously the historical-grammatical method. And I believe in this I am.

Justin Poe - #18845

June 24th 2010

Question for you John:  Are devout Muslims going to heaven???  I’m curious to know your answer on this one.

John VanZwieten - #18951

June 25th 2010


Does one “go to heaven” based on faith in the saving work of Christ and submission to His Lordship, or is it based on one’s religious affiliation?

romey - #18961

June 25th 2010

Interesting topic. I have a few questions hopefully Dr Enns can answer

What indicators are in the book of Genesis itself that the first eleven chapters are to be read as myth?

Is is possible that the other Mesopotamian myths are just written bastardizations of the true historical events that the Bible accurately records? Could there have been a long oral history that preserved these stories, which different cultures and religions interpreted differently, with them being put into written form at different points in time?

Couldn’t one say that the gospels “breathe the same air” as the Babylonian and Egyptian resurrected God myths? If ancients have the penchant for mixing myth and history, what makes the gospel genre special in that it actually records verifiable history? Couldn’t the resurrection and other miracles just be the ancients’ worldview on display?

Justin Poe - #18966

June 25th 2010

John, the answer would be the former, certainly not one’s religious affiliation.  Care to explain to the rest of us how Muslims believe that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven since they don’t even believe that Jesus was God, simply a prophet?

But it doesn’t surprise me that you wouldn’t answer my question.  To do so would go against Biologos.

John VanZwieten - #18996

June 25th 2010


Do you know for a fact that no Muslims anywhere have faith in the saving work of Christ and are submitted to His Lordship?

Do you think that there aren’t any people, even Christians, who disagree that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, even if they themselves are trusting Christ to save them?  Or maybe for you, trusting Christ and submitting to His Lordship aren’t enough—there is also a list of particular beliefs you must hold.

Just to clarify, I don’t represent Biologos in any way, nor am I bound in any way by what Biologos believes or teaches.  The reason I wouldn’t answer your question is that it was poorly constructed, probably in order to “pigeon-hole” me.

John VanZwieten - #19001

June 25th 2010


Good questions. 

You might start by reviewing the characteristics of the genre of mythic literature here.  Read through the 6 characterstics of myth genre and check off the ones that describe Genesis 1-11.  Then take a couple of the gospels and go through the same process.

No doubt Dr. Enns could offer more from Genesis, and has in numerous posts and scholarly articles available on this site.

Justin Poe - #19010

June 25th 2010

John, it’s amazing that you don’t know what Scripture says concerning the way to heaven.  Trusting and submitting to Christ is the ONLY way.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man comes to the Father except BY ME.”  His words.

A Muslim would never believe this.  And if a “professing” Christian stated that there were other means to heaven except through Christ, then I would have every right to question their faith at that point.  You have a relativistic view of this when you say: “Do you think that there aren’t any people, even Christians, who disagree that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, even if they themselves are trusting Christ to save them?”  It’s the Bono mentality of religion…or the little bumper sticker that says “coexist” in all the cute little religious symbols.

Justin Poe - #19013

June 25th 2010

Also, I have a feeling that Romey’s questions were rhetorical in his mind.  It’s obvious what he wants to get you to say.  He was actually pigeon holing Enns in a corner more so then I was you, and yes that is what I was doing John, because the only answer to my question is a resounding NO. 

Here’s what romey wants you to say, (and for the record, I think he is right)

1.  No

2.  Yes

3.  Yes (and if you answered Yes to number 2, you can then only answer yes to number 3 and remain logical in your argument).  So why is the resurrection of Christ not a play on Greek god-mythology??? It could be you know.  There’s tons of extra biblical support for the Greed religion from their own writings.

Lastly I apologize if I misrepresented you being associated with Biologos.

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