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Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood

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June 1, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins
Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Flood

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

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.


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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Dick Fischer - #16429

June 4th 2010

Hi Justin:

In Genesis 41:41, 47, Pharaoh set Joseph “over all the land of Egypt,” and there were seven plentiful years. “And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt ...” (Gen. 41:48). We can assume that during the seven years the resident Egyptians ate some food. It is doubtful they could have found a way to save it all.

“And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn ...” (Gen. 41:57). That is to say the nearby countries adjacent to Egypt came to buy corn.

There were seven years of bountiful harvest followed by seven lean years. Food was stored up during the first seven years so enough would be available for the following seven. They were so efficient that even surrounding countries could trade for their grain.

The same measure of common sense we can apply to these passages may also be applied to the Genesis narrative, which does not mandate a world-wide catastrophe because “all flesh died.”

Dick Fischer - #16433

June 4th 2010

And Justin you also wrote,

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”.

What, when and where questions are much easier than why questions.  You know that don’t you?

Nevertheless, I’ll give you my opinion.

From extra-biblical evidence we gather that Ziusudra (Noah) was king at Shuruppak until the flood.  The judgment of the flood was intended upon Adam’s descendants who had become sinful, polytheistic and idol worshippers.  The king of the city doesn’t just stroll out of town with his three sons and their wives without causing some attention and likely being followed by the very ones for whom the flood was intended.

R Hampton - #16442

June 4th 2010

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

What many Christians fail to realize is that at the time of Noah, only a small portion of humanity had received Special Revelation. The aboriginal Australians, the Mesoamericans, et al., were not of the chosen, so Salvation was never within reach. Only God’s people (and all the animals the depended upon to survive) were sent a flood as punishment for wasting God’s gift. Of those, only eight were worthy of being saved. Yet across the globe, humans in the tens of thousands continued to live in ignorance. Even so, Noah’s family truly was mankind’s second chance. The sacrifice of Jesus that granted salvation to rest of humanity would not have been possible had God judged Noah unworthy.

Justin Poe - #16470

June 4th 2010

R. Hampton in 16442….

And where do you get that idea from?  Where’s the proof, the evidence in Scripture or anywhere for any of what you just posted????

Sounds like you are advocating a souless, made in the image of animal society, not the one advocated in Scripture.

Justin Poe - #16471

June 4th 2010

Dick, again, where in Scripture does it say that the judgment was intended ONLY for Adam’s descendants? 

So, is Paul telling us when he makes a direct correlation in the NT that Christ will judge mankind with fire next time, and not water, as he did in Genesis, that it will only be for a select few of Adam’s descendants and not all of mankind?

R Hampton - #16484

June 4th 2010

Justin Poe,
Mankind originated in Africa and has had a continuous presence ever since. Humans have lived in Australia, continuously, for upwards of 60,000 years. Mankind has been in the Americas for more than 20,000 years ago (e.g. the Meadowcroft, Pennsylvania population predates the more well known migration 13,000 years ago). There were never wiped out by a flood. Archeological evidence corroborates and DNA analysis excludes the possibility that their ancestors were middle-easterners circa 4000 BC. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/

Natural revelation and Special revelation can not contradict, so any apparent problems can be attributed to a failure to understand one or the other or both.

R Hampton - #16485

June 4th 2010

Thomas Aquinas’s writings on Nature in relation to God and Revelation are fundament to Catholic theology:

Now, from what has been said it is evident that the teaching of the Christian faith deals with creatures so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God, and so far as error concerning them leads to error about God. And so they are viewed in a different light by that doctrine and by human philosophy. For human philosophy considers them as they are, so that the different parts of philosophy are found to correspond to the different genera of things. The Christian faith, however, does not consider them as such; thus, it regards fire not as fire, but as representing the sublimity of God, and as being directed to Him in any way at all. For as it is said: “Full of the glory of the Lord is His work. Did the Lord not make the saints declare all His wonderful works?” (Sirach 42: 16-17)

...Hence, imperfection is not to be imputed to the teaching of the faith if it omits many properties of things, such as the figure of the heaven and the quality of its motion.


Dick Fischer - #16503

June 4th 2010

Hi Justin, you wrote:

Dick, again, where in Scripture does it say that the judgment was intended ONLY for Adam’s descendants?

Rom. 5:13b: “...sin is not imputed where there is no law.”  Judgment was upon those who were sinful and accountable. Those not under the moral law were not the target of the flood.

Justin also wrote:  So, is Paul telling us when he makes a direct correlation in the NT that Christ will judge mankind with fire next time, and not water, as he did in Genesis, that it will only be for a select few of Adam’s descendants and not all of mankind?

Adam was the beginning of the old covenant.  Christ ended the old covenant and began the new covenant (Heb. 8:13).  Christ made all men accountable and eliglible either for the kingdom or for destruction.

norm - #16505

June 5th 2010

Actually Justin, Christ did judge the Jews (Descendants of Adam the law/commandment) by “fire” in destroying the “elements” (ordinances, rules) in putting away the Law. The Temple, priesthood and animal sacrifices were demolished according to His prophecy against Adam’s offspring (Israel) who rebelled against God and Christ His Son. The flood was therefore used to remind the Jews of their previous history with rebellion against God and its consequences. Christ would now be the ark for all the Jews and Peters animals (Gentiles) to come into for deliverance from the flood of destruction.

Luk 17:26-27 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  (27)  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the FLOOD CAME AND DESTROYED THEM ALL.

Dan 9:26 And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come SHALL DESTROY THE CITY AND THE SANCTUARY.

Rich - #16525

June 5th 2010


It doesn’t logically follow that “Peter” believed that the Flood was an item of actual history.  I could easily refer to episodes described in *Great Expectations* or *Crime and Punishment*, as if they described actual past events, to drive home some moral point that I’m trying to make to someone.  All that matters for such applications is that the story referred to be well-known to the speaker’s audience.

But let’s say that “Peter” (who, by the way, I don’t believe for a minute was the disciple Peter)definitely believed that the Flood was an item of actual history.  So what?  That just tells us that a certain first-century Christian interpreted the Flood story in a certain way.  Why should the interpretation of an unknown first-century Christian writer be taken as authoritative?  Did this writer know Hebrew?  Had he studied the rabbinic traditions?  Did he know anything about the literary conventions of several centuries earlier?  Or was he just another vulgar literalist preacher? 

And who cares what Schaeffer, Archer or Boyce have to say about Genesis?  They’re just dandruff on the shoulders of real Biblical scholarship.  When are you going to start reading some of the big boys?

Martin Rizley - #16591

June 5th 2010

R Hampton,  You write, “Natural revelation and Special revelation cannot contradict, so any apparent problems can be attributed to a failure to understand one or the other or both.” 
On this website, however, it is ALWAYS assumed that the church has misinterpreted special revelation; it is NEVER that the modern ‘scientific consensus’ might possibly be wrong about general revelation, for failing to take into account God’s miraculous interventions in history, which are known to ‘mimic’ at times the results of natural processes.  The idea that God would create anything with an appearance of age for reasons is dismissed with a wave of the hand for philosophical/religious reasons.  But what if God did, for reason not yet known, accelerate the rate of radioactive decay in the past?  What if God intervened miraculously to “tweek” the human genome after the Flood in order to create genetic diversity in the human race and to hinder thereby the spread of life-threatening diseases which could extinguish the race?  These possibilities are never considered by scientists, who develop all of their theories on the basis of strict naturalism.

Martin Rizley - #16595

June 5th 2010

R Hampton,  As I see it, Christianity requires us to hold to a distinctively Christian view of what science is, a view that the secularist will never accept.  From a Christian perspective, science is and will always be a studied description of the observable, NEVER a delimiting of the possible.  That is, science is only really science when it occupies itself with describing observable processes in the natural world which are repeatable and demonstrable under controlled conditions, in order to determine God’s ordinary way of upholding the universe by His providence.  Science never has the right to dictate to God how He may act in the physical world, nor may science be used to delimit the possible ways in which He has acted in the physical world in the past.  When science is used in that way, it ceases to be science.  That is the problem I see with the perspective expressed by many on this website; they assume that if God ordinarily acts in a certain way in the natural world, we can assume that is how He has always acted at every moment in the past, and on that basis, we can form dogmatic theories about the past in order to undermine the biblical view of history.  That is not science, but an illegitimate use of science.

Justin Poe - #16607

June 5th 2010


Kudos on your last post.  What your advocating is a uniformitarianism application to God.  If one believes the literal 6 day creation, the geological strata can still be explained by those verses.  For example, we have parts all over the world where there are miles and miles of strata beneath the fossil layers that contain no fossils whatsoever….in Australia there is a section in the Western part of the country that has a 22 mile deep strata underneath their fossil layer…now why is that?  The creationist explanation is just as valid as the evolutionists.  When God separated the land (or literally created the land) after the earth had been formed in water, water would have rushed off the land depositing miles of strata free of fossils because no life had been created yet….a perfectly valid explanation in light of what Scripture tells us.

Norm - #16610

June 5th 2010

I would like to point out that in the Flood account it is stated that the High Hills and mountains were covered. If we get away from Hebrew judgment language we miss the intended inference of the flood destroying false worship centers of paganism that constantly dogged the chosen people. The Hebrew word (har) is translated both hill or mountain and I’ll list some verses that shed light on how this was simply judgment language concerning the chosen peoples falling into pagan worship practices.

Covering the hills was from the writer’s standpoint a recognition that these false places of worship had been dealt with by the hand of God. Mountains or hills did not need to be true mountains but often were simply temples or Ziggurats and in fact we find out that at Babel they tried to build a worship center by waterproofing the bricks by firing them and using pitch to avoid the destruction of the flood again.  Notice below the judgment language incorporating HIGH HILL’s.


Norm - #16611

June 5th 2010

1Ki 14:22-23 KJV And Judah did evil in the sight of the LORD, and THEY PROVOKED HIM TO JEALOUSY WITH THEIR SINS which they had committed, above all that their fathers had done.  (23)  For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every HIGH HILL, and under every green tree.

Isa 30:25 KJV And there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every HIGH HILL, rivers and streams of waters IN THE DAY OF THE GREAT SLAUGHTER, when the towers fall.

Jer 2:20 KJV For OF OLD TIME I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst, I will not transgress; when upon every HIGH HILL and under every green tree thou wanderest, PLAYING THE HARLOT.

Jer 17:1-2 KJV The SIN OF JUDAH is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars;  (2)  Whilst their children remember their altars and their groves by the green trees upon the HIGH HILLS.

Eze 17:22 ASV Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: I will also take of the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I will plant it upon a HIGH AND LOFTY MOUNTAIN:


Norm - #16612

June 5th 2010

At the time of Christ it was prophesied that the one true mountain would extend above all other forms of worship. One simply must learn the language of the Bible to keep these stories in the proper framework.

Mic 4:1-2 KJV But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD SHALL BE ESTABLISHED IN THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAINS, and it shall be EXALTED ABOVE THE HILLS; and people shall flow unto it.  (2)  And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to THE MOUNTAIN OF THE LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, …

Luk 3:4-5 ASV as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.  (5)  Every valley shall be filled, And EVERY MOUNTAIN AND HILL SHALL BE BROUGHT LOW;

Joh 4:21 ASV Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when NEITHER IN THIS MOUNTAIN, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father.

Rev 21:10 ASV And he carried me away in the Spirit to A MOUNTAIN GREAT AND HIGH, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,

douglas erickson - #16625

June 5th 2010

Martin Rizley - #16415

the issue of the biblical chronologies is a crucial linchpin for the YEC view, in that, using this dating scheme (like Jonathan Sarfati does, as an example) is, in their view, the only possible dating method of any historical event. The entire YEC argument rests on the chronologies: if there are gaps, omissions, discrepancies, etc. in the biblical chronologies, the entire YEC artifice collapses.

So, for example, we see that Matthew’s list of Jesus’ family omits names that are found in Kings and Chronicles. If your a strict time-line genealogy adherent, this is a problem.

Luke includes a name “Cainen” that Genesis omits: the strict chronologist must answer the question, “is this a mistake in the text, or did one or the other authors omit a name?”

Luke 3
the son of Cainan,
    the son of Arphaxad,

Genesis 11
When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. 13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

A careful reader of the text will note numerous, random inconsistencies in both the first and second testaments.

Darren - #16637

June 5th 2010

Justin Poe,

With regard t fossils, might I suggest you watch this.

Bryan Hodge - #16763

June 6th 2010


What would you make of the Ark resting on top of the Urartu mountain chain (8:4), and what does the covering of the mountains, and the boat resting on Mount Numush, mean in GE, a polytheistic myth? Why do the first birds find no rest of land, and why is the flood described in cosmic terms? I think if we miss the cosmic focus of the flood, we miss the theology the author seeks to convey with it. As I said before, there is no need to try and square the details of mythic description with the actual event.

Dick Fischer - #16789

June 6th 2010

Hi Douglas:

Cainan is recorded in Jubilees. He discovered a forbidden astrological inscription and transcribed it.  Cainan is dutifully recorded in Luke 3:36, but missing from the Masoretic Text from which a large part of our English language Bible has been derived.

Cainan is included in the Septuagint:

Gen. 11:12-13: “And Arphaxad lived an hundred and thirty-five years, and begot Cainan. 13 And Arphaxad lived after he had begotten Cainan, four hundred years, and begot sons and daughters, and died. And Cainan lived a hundred and thirty years and begot Salah; and Canaan lived after he had begotten Salah three hundred and thirty years, and begot sons and daughters, and died.”

Likely some Hebrew scribe broke for lunch or took a short nap and when he returned he dropped a line or two. Remember, the Septuagint was the text quoted by the gospel writers, the MT wasn’t compiled until about 700 AD..

For Justin and Martin, read my article, Young-Earth Creationism: A Literal Mistake.


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