Tuesday, March 05, 2019

A Tale of Two Floods

Scratched into twelve clay tablets in cunieform script, the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to be the oldest written story in existence. Well, parts of it anyway. It recounts the adventures of a quasi-historical king of Uruk believed to have ruled around 2700 B.C. Tablet XI of the Epic contains one of three surviving Babylonian flood stories, each of which has a number of elements in common with the Genesis flood account.

The Gilgamesh account is only one of many flood myths found in various ancient cultures around the world. Christians who discover the spate of other flood stories in circulation are alternately reassured and disconcerted: reassured because one might reasonably expect a genuine historical event to wind up recorded in more than a single place, even if grossly distorted by time, miscommunication and cultural baggage; disconcerted because not a few of these flood stories are alleged to be older than the story in Genesis.

Should we be reassured or concerned? Let’s consider.

Local or Global?

Local floods happen all the time. We should not be surprised that all sorts of cultures have stories about epic-sized floods. And this is in fact what many critics of Genesis argue: that these local tales are local spins on local disasters, not historical records of a worldwide flood. The Christian rightly points out that’s all well and good; there are indeed local floods, and some flood myths likely sprung from those events. The Chinese flood stories are almost certainly of this sort. But if two cultures separated by great distances each have ancient flood stories with large numbers of unusual elements in common, one of two conclusions seems inevitable. Either: (1) the stories share a common source and were introduced into one or both cultures after their development; or (2) the stories are independent reports of a common history that involved something very like the Genesis flood.

The Gilgamesh tale has a remarkable number of elements in common with the Genesis flood account; so many, in fact, as to make a common source for these two flood stories a near certainty. Babylon, the nexus of the Gilgamesh saga, is 900 miles from Jerusalem, the home of the written Hebrew account now preserved for us in Genesis. That’s far from an impassable distance. Whole armies made the trip repeatedly in ancient times, not to mention thousands of captive slaves. For that matter, the nation of Israel itself originated in Ur of the Chaldees, less than 200 miles downriver from ancient Babylon, in the person of its patriarch Abraham.

Times, Dates and Details

Please note that if, as seems inevitable, there was a common source for the two flood stories, it is quite unimportant whether the Hebrew or ancient Akkadian account was written down first. The Bible does not claim to be the only account of the things it describes; rather, it claims to be the truthful account. It is possible godly Hebrews in Ur prior to Abraham preserved the story accurately, either orally or in writing, and that multiple slowly-corrupted versions spread simultaneously throughout Babylonia and elsewhere. It is also possible that there were nothing but corrupted written narratives in circulation until Moses, carried along by the Holy Spirit, was given the definitive version.

The flood portion of Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh is not thought to be quite as old as the rest of the story. It appears to have been added by a later editor, and recalls a similar tale in the 18th century B.C. Epic of Atra-Hasis, in some places word-for-word. (Incidentally, it’s interesting to see that ancient Babylonian texts get the same sort of working-over from the higher critics that ancient Hebrew texts receive, though of course the stakes with the Babylonian texts are considerably lower.)

Now, dating ancient literature is not my area of expertise. I’ll leave that to the scholars. Andrew George says the “standard” Akkadian version includes an extended version of the flood story edited by a priest named Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 B.C. If we take George’s word for it, that makes the earliest versions of the story roughly contemporary with the earliest posited sources for the book of Genesis, and the Sin-liqe-unninni version roughly contemporary with the earliest edited versions of Genesis we know and love.

Contemporary and Comparable

In summary then, though likely written and edited 900 miles and a couple of centuries apart, the Genesis flood account and the Atra-Hasis/Gilgamesh accounts: (i) are still roughly contemporary, and (ii) contain enough similarities to make it worth setting them side-by-side to see how they compare. You can read the entire English text of the Gilgamesh flood story here if you are interested. The part that relates to the flood is not much longer than a standard chapter of Genesis.

In order to compare the two stories, I’m going to quote extensively from the less-familiar Gilgamesh account while making a few incidental observations. Then I’m going to lay out in brief the similarities and differences between the two; and finally attempt to draw some conclusions about the relative plausibility of the two tales.

So how does the Gilgamesh flood story stack up alongside the Hebrew account?

Part One: The Gilgamesh Text

Houses and Houseboats

The Gilgamesh story is written more or less in the first person from the perspective of a Noah-analogue, Atrahasis the son of Ubartutu, who lives in the city of Shuruppak on the Euphrates River. One day, a friendly member of the pantheon of local gods, Ea the Clever Prince, warns him to tear down his reed house and build a boat:
“Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall!
O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.”
Atrahasis’ “ark” is built from a single home — it must have been a whopper of a house — and “all living beings” are to go into it for protection. Context demands we read “all living beings” here as “all kinds of living beings”. It quickly becomes clear most will die in the coming flood. Ea can only contrive to save Atrahasis’ “kith and kin”, his extended family, neighbors and hired workers.

This “ark” is oddly shaped indeed: “its length must correspond to its width,” and its dimensions are “a field in area.” Even more bizarre is its height, which is 120 cubits (approximately 18 stories tall, more like a floating tower than a boat). How you would navigate such a thing is not discussed, let alone in a storm, assuming it would stay afloat at all. This box-ship has six decks and seven levels, or roughly thirty foot ceilings, which in that day would have served no purpose whatsoever. In comparison, Noah’s ark was specced out at 300 cubits long, 50 wide and 30 high, much more nautical in design and functionally practical.

If modern critics question the size and shape of Noah’s ark, they would have a field day with the Gilgamesh cube-ship. But of course the Gilgamesh “ark” is described in a context so whimsical and far-fetched that nobody today takes it seriously.

Block Party

Unlike the Genesis ark, which was constructed over as many as 75 years by Noah, his sons and (perhaps) a few paid laborers, the whole neighborhood immediately gets involved in building the Gilgamesh box-ship:
“… the land assembled around me —
the carpenter carried his hatchet,
the reed worker carried his (flattening) stone,
... the men ...
The child carried the pitch,
the weak brought whatever else was needed.”
In the Gilgamesh version, the apathy and denial Noah encountered is nowhere to be seen. Noah’s neighbors were unmoved by his testimony that judgment was coming, carried on with their lives as normal, and left Noah to his task. As Jesus put it:
“[T]hey were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away.”
In contrast, the Gilgamesh neighbors do not doubt the coming doom of their world for a moment. The soon-to-be-flooded-out locals buy right in, though they seem oddly unconcerned about the coming destruction, and not terribly put out by losing everything. Instead, they all set about ‘partying like it’s 1999’ while building their “ark”. The writer compares it to a New Year’s Festival: “I gave the workmen [?] ale, beer, oil, and wine, as if it were river water.”

The Noah-analogue in the Gilgamesh epic even loads up his boat with silver and gold. Why not? I suppose any newly rebuilt society requires some form of currency.

This “ark” comes together rather quickly compared to Noah’s version:
“On the fifth day I laid out her exterior ...
The boat was finished by sunset.”
Say what? That is impressive work. Some kind of world record, I suspect. Perhaps the large number of volunteers helped. When they weren’t all hitting the ale, beer and wine, that is.

In Summary

There is much more to be said about these two stories, and I hope to do some of that tomorrow. But maybe I could sum up my observations to date this way:
  • The stories have far too much in common to be anything but derived from the same original source; it is impossible that they developed independently.
  • One is presented as myth, while the other presents as history.
When you set Genesis alongside a contemporary mythological retelling of almost exactly the same material, it becomes instantly obvious how absurd it is to claim these chapters of Genesis were intended to convey spiritual truth by means of an extended parable. They were not. They are either a fraud presented to us as history, or they are the truth of God.


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Photo of Tablet XI courtesy Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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