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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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Justin Poe - #16251

June 3rd 2010

cont….

I would be a little (tiny bit that is) more willing to embrace your theory IF there wasn’t NT backing of a literal flood. 

So, the burden of proof is on your side to convince others (the world) that not is Genesis completely shrouded in code language, but so is the NT, btw, which tells of the plan of salvation.


Martin Rizley - #16256

June 3rd 2010

Chris,  What you call an “ad hoc argument” is simply an observation about miraculous events that is solidly based on Scriptural teaching—namely, that miraculous events do not have to conform to the laws of physics as we experience them in daily life.  That fact should be obvious to anyone who reads the Bible and takes seriously its teaching.  The laws of physic says that when a meal is served and eaten by a great host of people, the food left over at the end of the meal will always be less in quantity than what was available at the beginning; but Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand inverted the laws of physics—the meal started out with only five loaves and two fish but ended with twelve basketloads of leftovers!  If someone who knew nothing about this miracle tried to estimate how much food was available at the beginning of the meal based on the number of people present, the amount of leftovers, etc., they would never guess that such a great feast began with only five loaves of bread and two fish!    My point is that science studies a very limited aspect of reality—it describes the observable; it never defines the limits of the possible.  (cont.)


John VanZwieten - #16257

June 3rd 2010

Justin Poe,

The NT only “completely backus up the OT literal reading of a global flood” if you assume that NT authors speaking of events from the OT are recounting events they thought of as history in the same sense you and I think of history—as opposed to NT authors recounting elements of inspired narratives from the OT and fitting them into their theological and/or prophetic points.

I realize both our modern way of thinking and our church training make it hard to think in those terms.  Perhaps a thouroughly postmodern generation will have an easier time of it?


Martin Rizley - #16262

June 3rd 2010

What is possible in a God-ruled world is whatever accords with God’s sovereign will.  Any Bible reader should know that—God’s will, not natural law, is the ultimate reality that determines what takes place.  That’s why we should never use “science” to sit in judgment on the biblical miracles to decide whether or not they really happened.  We simply need to take God’s Word for things.  You ask, “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.”  I’m not saying that God “erased” evidence after creating it; I’m saying that, theoretically, the flood could have destroyed all life on earth without destroying the physical environment of the earth itself—just as the flames of the fiery furnace destroyed the executioners, without singeing the garments of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  God can ‘target’ the effects of physical forces like fire and water in that way.  He could have made the floodwaters wipe out all living beings, while leaving the earth itself intact (cont.)


Martin Rizley - #16263

June 3rd 2010

I am not saying that’s what God did—for I do not agree with you that the physical evidence of the Flood is lacking, as you claim it is.  My point is this, even if I believed that the physical evidence of a global Flood were lacking, I don’t think that would give me any basis for denying that a global flood occurred, given the totally supernatural and miraculous nature of that event.    I would still believe that the Flood occurred in the way that Genesis describes, based on the reliability of God’s testimony and what I know of God’s infinite, miracle-working power.


Marshall - #16266

June 3rd 2010

Martin,

With the miracle of the loaves and fish, the multiplying of food is the miracle, so yes, if it was supernatural there may not be any way to explain it. However, where evidence is useful is not in explaining the process of the miracle, but confirming the result of the miracle.

The result should conform to what one would expect if the miracle happened. If someone claimed to miraculously feed people, yet the people were still hungry directly afterwards, that would be evidence against the miracle. If Jesus’ followers claimed he rose from the dead, yet the Romans presented his dead, decaying but identifiable body, that would have been evidence against the miracle. The necessary evidence should be present, though what is necessary and what is preserved to our day depends on the miracle (for a worldwide flood, the evidence should be inescapable).

I get really suspicious when someone claims extra miracles that cover up the first miracle. “I did feed them, and then I miraculously made them hungry again!” Or, “God did flood the entire planet, and then he miraculously removed all the evidence!” I don’t think that points to the kind of faith God calls us to.


Martin Rizley - #16277

June 3rd 2010

Marshall,  The purpose of the flood was “to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life.”  Was that result evident to confirm that the Flood had happened?  Yes, it most certainly was; after the flood, the only land-dwelling, air-breathing animals left on earth were those which came off the ark.  The flood narrative repeatedly states how “all flesh died that moved on the earth:  birds and cattle and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  It emphasizes the complete destruction of all living things; but it says nothing about the complete destruction of every surface feature on the earth.  It is naturally ASSUMED that the entire surface of the earth was destroyed because water voluminous enough to cover “all the high hills” would naturally have had a devastating effect on the landscape.  But we are not talking about a ‘natural event,’ but a supernatural one—so to assert dogmatically MORE about the effects of the flood than that which Scripture explicitly states seem to me unwise.  The Bible does not talk explicitly about how the Flood reshaped the surface of the earth—although we can certainly theorize in that regard.


Rich - #16282

June 3rd 2010

Martin Rizley:

You are failing to distinguish between the *cause* of the Flood waters (God’s supernatural activity) and the *behavior* of the Flood waters once produced.  Nothing in the Biblical story gives us any suggestion that the waters, once produced, behaved any differently from flood waters as we know them.  No unusual or supernatural properties are attributed to the waters, and in the story they don’t do anything other than what we would expect a global flood to do.  “The natural reading” that you constantly enjoin us to adopt is that the waters receded just as waters do today.  Thus, there is no reason, based on the Biblical narrative, to think that the after-effects of the Flood would not be discernible in the same way that we discern the effects of other deluges, by the methods of archaeology and geology.  If such a deluge occurred at about the time indicated by the Biblical genealogies, it should be possible to find confirmation of that fact.  And if no such confirmation could be found, anywhere in the world, that would be a strong argument against the occurrence of such a deluge.  Thus, once again (see my unanswered post on the “firmament” thread), your defense of the Bible is itself un-Biblical.


Martin Rizley - #16298

June 3rd 2010

Rich,  You would be the first to admit that God’s revelation of truth is not limited to what we find in the Bible; it is also found in the physical world around us.  If that is the case, then certain things follow:  (1)  If the Bible clearly teaches that there was a global deluge; and (2) if the evidence in the physical world does not seem to corroborate that biblical teaching (and I am not conceding that point, by the way!); then (3) we must consider the possibility that the waters of the Flood “behaved differently” than that of other floodwaters.  Certainly, the Bible does not teach that explcitly; but neither does it say anything to preclude that possibility.  The basic question, therefore, must always be, does the Bible itself teach that the flood was global in its extent and effects, by wiping out all land-dwelling, air-breathing life on earth?  If that’s what the Bible teaches, then we must ‘interpret’ the data of the natural world in light of that established fact.  I realize many are unwilling to ‘subject’ scientific conclusions to the scrutiny of Scripture in that way,  because they want to keep biblical truth and scientific truth in totally separate realms; but that is an untenable position, in my opinion.


Rich - #16310

June 3rd 2010

Martin:

You could just as easily, for your point (3), have written:  “We must consider the possibility that the Bible is just plain wrong.”  That would follow just as logically as the point 3 that you have.  And it would have the added advantage of not willfully manipulating the plain sense of the story.

I don’t hold to the TE doctrine of “separate realms”.  I believe that there are, at least potentially, places where faith and science can collide, forcing one to choose.  For example, I believe, against TEs, that one must choose between Darwin and Christian theology on the issue of teleology in the creative process.  Thus, if I thought that the Noah story was meant to be understood as an accurate chronicle of past event, and if I thought that rational inference from indubitable empirical facts showed that there could not have been a global flood at the time indicated, I would say that the Noah story, at least in its historical claims, was *false*.  And I would say that the writer of the story made the stupid mistake of tying bad human reasoning to inspired religious teaching.  But of course, I don’t believe that the writer made any such mistake, because I don’t read the Flood story as bad history, but as good myth.


Martin Rizley - #16328

June 3rd 2010

Rich,  I don’t consider it to be a ‘manipulation’ of Scripture to APPLY biblical truth about God and His infinite power to seemingly insurmountable problems that a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible creates.  The Sadducees had a hard time accepting literally the Bible’s teaching concerning the resurrection, because of alleged problems that this teaching raised from the standpoint of human logic.  “If the dead are raised to life,” they reasoned, “then a woman who has been married multiple times would find herself married to multiple husbands in the afterlife.” The Sadducees were hindered by this line of reasoning from believing in a literal day of resurrection.  Jesus repsonse?  They were failing to APPLY biblically revealed truth about God and HIs infinite power to the problem which seemed to demand an abandonment of Scripture’s literal sense.  “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God.”  Now, if God has shown in Scripture that He is able to mitigate the destructive effects of natural forces, then that truth about God may certainly used to offer possible solutions to alleged problems that would keep someone from believing in a global flood.


Dick Fischer - #16365

June 4th 2010

Hi Martin, you wrote:

“If the Bible clearly teaches that there was a global deluge ..”

Clearly, it does not.  You just need some more information to see that Genesis describes a local flood.  For example, the Genesis 6:4 “giants” are ancestral to the Num. 13:33 sons of Anak.  That means they survived the flood.

The Sumerians also had a pre-flood list of kings separating the post-flood kings with the phrase, “Then the flood swept thereover.”  The post-flood Sumerian civilization lasted for roughly 900 years until Sumer was destroyed ca. 2000 BC.  That means the Sumerians too were on both sides of the flood.  Flood survivors preclude a global flood.

A quick sturdy on Jewish-speak would be helpful.  “All” and “every” are used the same way we would say much, many or some.  Thus when the psalmist declares, “all my bones are out of joint”  (Psa. 22:14) we don’t have to wonder how 206 bones can get out of joint.


Rich - #16367

June 4th 2010

Martin:

Your last sentence contains your problematic assumption:  that God is worried about whether or not someone believes in a historical global Flood.  God couldn’t care less.  In fact, the Church couldn’t care less; the Flood is not mentioned in any of the Creeds.  If you took every reference to the Flood out of the Bible, from Genesis through revelation, the basic structure of Christian doctrine would remain identical.  Fall, Election, Prophecy, Incarnation, Atonement, Trinity, Providence, Final Judgment—all would remain exactly as they are.  You, like all YECs, make the constant mistake of pushing the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis as central to Christianity itself.  But they aren’t.  You only need some notion of creation and some notion of “fall”; the rest can safely be jettisoned.  I wouldn’t *want* to jettison those great stories, mind you; they’re powerful and instructive.  But the historicity of their details isn’t essential to Christian theology.  So why mangle the normal literary sense of the stories to try to preserve a historical truth that’s of no moment?


Bryan Hodge - #16382

June 4th 2010

Dick,

What do you make of the waters covering the mountain tops (7:20; 8:5)? I read the Mesopotamian accounts in Atra-hasis and GE as universal as well. Clearly, they are based on a massive flooding that occurred in history, but I don’t think we ought to try and correlate the mythological presentation of that flood with history itself, as though we know it. It’s simply better to suggest that the purpose of the flood narrative is not to recount the historical event, but to convey an extremely important theology in the Book of Genesis that counters the claims made in Atra-hasis and its ideological use of the event.

BTW, if I say that someone is a Neanderthal, I mean to make partial, not a complete connection. I would suggest the same with the Nephilim/Anakim.


Martin Rizley - #16414

June 4th 2010

Dick, 
I understand that the words “all,” “every,” “world,” often have a limited frame of reference in Scripture.  For example, when the Bible says that “all Jerusalem” went out to hear John the Baptist preach, it doesn’t mean that every single inhabitant of that city heard him.  The term “all” is used in a relative, rather than absolute sense.  The question is, when the Genesis narrative speaks of “all flesh” being wiped out by the Flood, are we to understand that expression in a relative or absolute sense?  To me, the strongest argument that it is to be taken in an absolute sense is what the Bible says afterward about the relationship of mankind to Noah’s three sons.  If you study both the biblical and secular records concerning the geographical distribution of the descendants of Noah described in Genesis 10, it is clear that the descendants of Ham, Shem, and Japheth spread out to areas as far away as northern Europe in the west to the Indian subcontinent in the east to north Africa and the Arabian peninsula in the south (cont.)


Martin Rizley - #16415

June 4th 2010

From there, they migrated even further.  Moreover, Paul’s statement that all human beings are “of one blood” (Acts 17) strongly suggests that Paul believed that all mankind was descended biologically from Noah and his sons, just as the Genesis record itself suggests.  What about the Sumerian records you mention? I am not familiar with those records, but as a general rule, I would be inclined to accept the accuracy of the biblical record over any other extant historical records we have from the ancient world.  If God is the Divine Author of every “jot and tittle” of the Old Testament, but was not at all involved in the authorship of the Sumerian records you mention,  which records are likely to be more trustworthy?  To me, the issue of divine authorship settles that question.  It should be pointed out that many ancient records conflict with each other.  An interesting article on the subject of ancient chronologies is found at the following website—http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/origins_archaeology/bcs011.html  It is a review a book by Peter James book called “Centuries of Darkness,” dealing with anomalies in ancient chronlogies.


Martin Rizley - #16422

June 4th 2010

Rich,    I don’t think Peter would have agreed that the historicity of the Flood was an issue of ‘no moment.’  He refers to the historical factuality of the Flood in the past as confirmation and proof of the certainty of Christ’s return in the future (2 Peter 3).  He speaks of the Flood as so extensive that it caused the pre-flood world to “perish,” with only eight people surviving.  Clearly, Peter believed that the Flood was an actual event of history, and he points to that event as a foreshadowing of what will take place at the return of Christ.  I would sooner believe that Peter was right, and that for some inexplicable reason, the physical world presents us with inexplicable anomalies that we will have to “wait for God” to explain, rather than to believe that Peter was wrong,and that a “world-destroying flood” never took place.  Btw, you speak as if the issue of the Flood were one which divided old/ young earth advocates.  But there are many who believe in an old earth (Francis Schaeffer, James Montgomery Boyce, Gleason Archer, etc.) who believe that the flood was global and that it wiped out all mankind except for the eight people aboard the ark.


Justin Poe - #16424

June 4th 2010

Dick Fisher - “A quick sturdy on Jewish-speak would be helpful.  “All” and “every” are used the same way we would say much, many or some.  Thus when the psalmist declares, “all my bones are out of joint”  (Psa. 22:14) we don’t have to wonder how 206 bones can get out of joint.”

Psalms is poetry and almost every single theologian, whether they are YEC, OEC, or TE will agree with that.  Up until 200 years ago, Genesis was regarded as history by just about every theologian….the use of the word “all” in both cases has no bearing on whether one is history or one is poetry.  All must be understood in the context.  I’m surprised you used a Psalm to illustrate your point.

I’m also not sure what version of the bible you used to get the word “giants” out of Gen 6:4 but the NASB, NIV, ASV, and ESV all say Nephilim.  If you study the word, that is not an actual race of people but those of mixed marriages.  So were there mixed marriages before and after the flood???  Um, ya there were and are.  So no problem there for a global flood theorist.


Justin Poe - #16425

June 4th 2010

cont…...

I’ll cont with one question for now, IF the flood that we read about in Genesis, in other words, Noah’s flood, was not a global flood, then why did God go through all the details in Genesis and put Noah through 120 years of building what at that time would have been an immense building feat?  Why not just tell Noah, “hey man, I’m going to destroy this localized area, head on foot, I’ll give you 120 years even to get out, and go to the other side of the mountains where you’ll be safe”.  Or maybe God wanted us to have a bunch of cute VBS stories to tell and amuse the kids of America with in the 21st century???


Dick Fischer - #16427

June 4th 2010

Hi Martin:

After the flood there followed a period of reconstitution for Noah’s descendants to build their numbers.  According to Jubilees this lasted until his death whereupon each clan was assigned a destination.  Noah was keenly aware of their warlike characteristics, demonstrated later by the frequent wars between the Assyrians, Elamites, Babylonians and Canaanites, and putting plenty of space between them seemed like a good idea.

What wasn’t spelled out in Genesis was that these lands were already inhabited by non-Semitic indigenous populations.  Assyria is a case in point.  Nineveh was excavated and from the change in pottery it was determined when it became occupied by Semites.  But Nineveh had existed as a city for a thousand years before Asshur discovered it and it was called “Ninua” from the beginning.

Sumer is another example of of non-Semitic populations living in an area that also became home to the Semitic Akkadians.

Then there is Africa, China, North and South America, Australia, etc.


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