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Pete Enns
 on June 01, 2010

Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and the Flood

Pete Enns examines the Genesis flood story in light of the ancient Mesopotamian flood accounts.

Water rippling from rain

Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

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? 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

About the author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs.

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