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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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Chris Massey - #15824

June 1st 2010

Hi Pete,

Great article! Maybe you’re going to address this in your next post, but I’m curious to know when the Genesis flood account was written. Is it, like Genesis 2, part of the early monarchic Jewish literature, or does it show signs of post-exilic authorship? Or is it some of both - a combination of two different versions from two different periods?


Norm - #15836

June 1st 2010

I think an interesting interpretation of the Genesis flood is presented by the Jews themselves in the Book of Enoch section called the “Dream Visions” in which animals become representative of various peoples of the Nations with the Jews depicting Bulls and sheep. The Jews certainly did not interpret the flood as an earth covering one in that ancient interpretation as they localized it. You can also start to gather how they interpreted it theologically and applied it quite differently than the ancient pagans did and that the Flood becomes a judgment precursor of the final sentence imposed upon Israel at the time of the Messiah (Dan 9:26).

I find it also interesting that Enoch seems to pick up more Hellenized mythology in contrast to Genesis use of the older myths. We see this in the understanding of the underworld in greater detail compared to the older idea simply of sheol, the pit, the grave or the return to dust. IMO the Jews never seemed to have a problem of incorporating aspects of foreign mythological details and reworking them to present their own theological perspective.


Scott Mapes - #15898

June 1st 2010

The incorporation of mythological history (if I may coin such a phrase) was indeed standard practice for the Ancient Near East.  When we insist that the biblical historians had to have abided by the disciplines of modern historical research, for whatever reason, we commit a grave hermeneutical error.  The theological truth of Genesis stands firm, in spite of the incomplete understandings the writers would have had, both historicaly and scientifically.


Chris - #15901

June 1st 2010

I wrestle with this understanding of scripture, and this method of showing the “common ancestry” of the Bible with other pieces of ancient literature. This analysis is certainly logical and explanatory, but I’m left wondering why we should believe the Bible to be “God Breathed” and inspired if it’s account of human origin is simply another nation’s adaptation of an ancient myth. Does this perspective understand inspiration to mean that God directed the shaping and re-casting of these ancient myths to reflect his truth in some way? It is true that the Bible’s accounts seem to be much more dignified than other ancient religions. But still, this greatly deflates the notion of special revelation and leaves something much less convincing and convicting.

I’m really wrestling with these questions of how to understand inspiration in light of this perspective. I’d appreciate some thoughtful responses. Thanks.


Mike - #15918

June 1st 2010

Pete,

I am curious to know what your take on the Exodus account. Where does archaeology square with the reality of actual history taking place? Does archaeology negate the possibility of literal history or support it? In light of archaeology how do you interpret the Exodus story? I am just starting to investigate this myself and know you are far more well versed in this area than I. I would appreciate your take on the situation.


eddy - #15952

June 2nd 2010

“but I’m left wondering why we should believe the Bible to be “God Breathed” and inspired if it’s account of human origin is simply another nation’s adaptation of an ancient myth.”

For that, Dr. Enns provides the answer: “The various flood stories simply share common ways of speaking about a horrible flood of some sort.”

We do know, from the Genesis narrative, also confirmed by Jesus and Apostles, that it wasn’t a local flood as Dr. Enns and other modern biblical scholars suggests. It was an historical global flood.


Bryan Hodge - #15954

June 2nd 2010

Chris, I think Dr. Enns puts it well here:

“Taking the extrabiblical evidence into account, I question how much value there is in posing the choice of Genesis as either myth or history. This distinction seems to be a modern invention. It presupposes—without stating explicitly—that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth. So, the argument goes, if Genesis is myth, then it is not “of God.” Conversely, if Genesis is history, only then is it something worthy of the name “Bible.” Again, it is interesting to me that both sides of the liberal/conservative debate share at least to a certain extent these kinds of assumptions. The liberal might answer, “Yes, it is myth, and this proves it is not inspired, and who cares anyway?” The conservative might answer, “Well, since we know that the Bible is God’s word, we know it can’t be myth.” And so great effort is expended to drive as much distance as possible between the Bible and any ancient Near Eastern literature that poses problems” (I&I, 49)


eddy - #15955

June 2nd 2010

“I’m really wrestling with these questions of how to understand inspiration in light of this perspective.”
 
I believe it will take a writer to be “breathed with the Holy Spirit” to write an accurate narrative of the events which concerns Him to be significantly important that happened historically in the far distant past or will happen in the far distant future.

We can consider bible writers were Holy Spirit inspired primarily because what they say of the future has been proved to come true. We just believe, and it is easy to believe,  that if what they said of the future unfolds to be true, perhaps, what they said about the past is also true.


dopderbeck - #15976

June 2nd 2010

Chris (#15901)—you’re asking a big and important question about the meaning of the “inspiration” of scripture.  There are a variety of perspectives on how the “human” and “divine” aspects of scripture relate.  There is no single simple answer.  It’s ok to feel a bit of tension here.  I’d suggest Pete’s book “Inspiration and Incarnation.”  For a good survey of evangelical perspectives, check out Vincent Bacote, ed., “Evangelicals and Scripture.”  Other books I’ve found helpful:  John Goldingay, “Models for Scripture”; Telford Work, “Living and Active”; Donald Bloesh, “Holy Scripture”; Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Divine Discourse,” ; N.T. Wright, “The Last Word”; Paul Achtemeier, “Inspiration and Authority”; Kenton Sparks, “God’s Word in Human Words.”


Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa - #15992

June 2nd 2010

What I think is missing from this analysis is the fact that scholars have pointed out that there is no such thing as *one* story of the flood in Genesis.  There are actually two of them which are intermixed in one text.  For instance, one story says that some pairs (male and female) of animal species actually survived, while the other one says that all pairs of animal species survived.  One of them says that Noah used a dove to see if waters subsided, in the other one he uses ravens, and so on.  I follow Richard Elliot Friendman’s work regarding this matter.


HornSpiel - #15993

June 2nd 2010

Pete,
Thanks for addressing this issue once again. A few comments and questions from one who is not quite comfortable with your views.

The similarities between these stories and the biblical story are… incontrovertible.
I am uneasy about this word. It implies there is no controversy. Is there none? Are the similarities accepted by scholars of all theological persuasions? Great,  say so. Are there some who disagree? I don’t know if there are, but this phrase would discount their views.

The version [of Atrahasis] we have ... is a retelling of a story that is certainly older.
How can you be so certain? You don’t need to go into detail but a one sentence explanation of why you used an absolute term like this would be helpful.

[The flood story]  was added toward the end of the second millennium and was deliberately adopted from Atrahasis.
Wow this is an immense bite to swallow. Again an explanation of this assertion would be appreciated.


Bryan Hodge - #16111

June 3rd 2010

Hornspiel,

If I can address your questions from my point of view,

1. I don’t know any Genesis scholar who would dispute what Dr. Enns has said here. This is all very common knowledge and analysis among scholars in Hebrew Bible. I would suggest looking at the accounts by getting a hold of COS (i.e., “The Context of Scripture” ed. Hallo and Younger).

2. Atra-hasis, which is missing some of its flood account, is based on an earlier tradition, some of which can be seen in the Eridu Genesis, which is an earlier Sumerian version.

3. Again, I don’t know any scholar that would dispute that the 11the Tablet of GE was a later addition, borrowed from the earlier flood story found in Atra-hasis. For a development of GE, you can read Jeffrey Tigay’s book, “The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic.”


Karl A - #16113

June 3rd 2010

Does anyone know why the comments field does not show up on the latest Os Guinness post?  That’s weird.


penman - #16116

June 3rd 2010

To support dopderbeck’s response to Chris: if biblical writers borrowed & adapted material from existing Ancient Near Eastern traditions, that need not compromise the Bible as divinely inspired. What would presumably have happened is that God guided the biblical writers to select & shape the material so that it became a vehicle for effectively communicating His message. Hence (e.g.) the bold, blazing monotheism of creation & flood accounts in Genesis. If the biblical writers had merely done a scissors & paste job with ANE sources, we’d have got all the Pagan polytheism too. But we don’t.

As for the remaining similarities: C.S.Lewis once said you could go in two directions here. You could say, “So much the worse for the Bible. All those horrid affinities with Pagan stuff.” Or you could say, “So much the better for the Pagans. There was truth as well as error in their worldview.”


J Green - #16155

June 3rd 2010

“The similarities between these stories and the biblical story are… incontrovertible.
I am uneasy about this word. It implies there is no controversy. Is there none? Are the similarities accepted by scholars of all theological persuasions?”

Hornspiel, I believe you are missing Peter’s point.  The similarities between the biblical flood account, and the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh flood accounts are evident to anyone who reads them.  Peter then goes on to detail some of the similarities; boat sealed with pitch, animals brought on board, birds sent out, boat landing on mountain…

These similarities are not a matter of scholarly debate or acceptance - they are so evident that even a child could point them out.

These ancient accounts are available online and you can read them for yourself.

What this means with regard to our understanding biblical inspiration is of course, a matter of debate, but the fact that the similarities in detail do exist is unquestionable (incontrovertable).


Martin Rizley - #16194

June 3rd 2010

It is sad to see people trying to determine the extent of the flood by appealing to ‘science,’ instead of looking carefully at what the biblical text says.  There is something methodologically backwards in this approach.  If the flood was a miraculous event, then we have no way of knowing from science itself what the after effects of a miraculous flood must look like; for the study of natural processes can throw little light on supernatural events.  Who says that a miraculous global flood MUST destroy every geological feature on earth?  Daniel’s three friends were immersed in flames and came out unscathed, while others were consumed by the heat of those flames.  If the entire world were engulfed in water, who is to say to what extent such event must devastate the surface of the planet?  If God has said nothing in Scripture about what the after effects of a miraculous flood MUST look like, then we have no basis for rejecting belief in a global flood on the basis of science.  Both old and young earth creationists have affirmed belief in a global flood, btw.


Chris Massey - #16197

June 3rd 2010

Martin,

Why should we believe that God would go to such great lengths to hide his tracks? He destroys the earth with a flood but then erases (or prevents) all evidence of such an event? It’s as though he’s trying to trick us into disbelief.

The approach advocated by Dr. Enns makes far more sense. The only reason you resort to your ad hoc explanation is because you are unwilling to recognize that the Bible may contain narratives that are not historical. That is a faith position that is unsupported by what we know of ANE and Jewish literature.


John VanZwieten - #16214

June 3rd 2010

Martin has a good point.  Maybe the global flood was just a dense layer of cloud over most of the earth.  If the clouds are the waters above the firmament, then openning the heavens maybe was just the clouds dropping down through the firmament to earth.  You can drown on a tablespoon of water, so God could use just the right density of cloud and just the right dewpoint to whipe out all animals and humans without messing up the ancient-looking geological formations he had planted there some generations earlier.

There is, of couse, the problem of how all the animals got where they are so fast eminating from one ark, but of course God could miraculously transport them to Australia or South America or Antarctica—or even maybe the clouds froze into giant land-bridges that enabled just the right animals to quickly run to their assigned places.

Hey, if the furnace thing worked out for Daniel, who’s to say it couldn’t have been like that.  Maybe it was even a bit of that super-dense cloud in the furnace with Daniel keeping him cool.

Please, people, stop appealing to science on a science-and-faith blog!


Dick Fischer - #16229

June 3rd 2010

Good article, Pete.

One commonality is the phrase, “fountains of the deep” (Gen. 7:11; 8:2) that has been a   contributor to the global flood idea.

“Fountains of the deep” points to irrigation. The Hebrew word for “deep” can mean the sea, a river, or canal. And “fountains” to the Sumerians and Akkadians applies to their irrigation systems.

In the Atrahasis epic, a period of drought preceded the rain. During the waiting period, the weather was hot and dry. No water flowed in the canals. The fields were parched. The phrases “fountains of the deep” or “fountain of the deep” appears four times. In all instances, fountain(s) pertains to “fields,” as in this example:

  Be[low] the fountain of the deep was stopped, [that the  
              flood rose not at the source].
              The field diminished [its fertility]. 

The fields were directly affected by the drought, not receiving the “flood” of water that normally flowed through the canals, dikes, and levies used for irrigation. In the parallel Gilgamesh account, “Ninurta” was the lord of the wells and irrigation works. This vital network of canals was decimated by the flood and the “fountains of the deep” were “broken up.”


Justin Poe - #16250

June 3rd 2010

Chris,

This is not a true statement, for me at least….“The only reason you resort to your ad hoc explanation is because you are unwilling to recognize that the Bible may contain narratives that are not historical. That is a faith position that is unsupported by what we know of ANE and Jewish literature.”

Again, I am STILL waiting for somebody to address why the NT completely backs up the OT literal reading of a global flood and a literal ANE.  So, for the Christian who thinks about this long and hard, and I’m not saying Martin didn’t do that, one has to address and then either come up with a logical explanation or a twisted man made explanation for the literal interpretation of a global flood in the NT.  I’m not one to argue with Peter and Paul at this point.


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