Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Flood Myth-takes

It is often said today that the flood account in Genesis is spiritual truth taught in the form of myth. Confronted with the claims of secular scientists about the age of the earth and of humanity, many Christians have beaten a hasty retreat from reading Genesis literally into reading it more like one of Jesus’ parables: it means something important, sure — just not quite what it says.

I say meh to that.

You can get lots of spiritual truth out of parables by reading them allegorically. You won’t get much out of Genesis reading it that way. It presents as history, not myth. The only Christians who can call Genesis mythological with a straight face are Christians who have never read an actual mythological account, or if they did, failed to notice the obvious differences between the writing styles of myth and history.

So read an actual flood myth. I dare you. It’s a whole ’nuther ball of wax.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Yesterday I began comparing the Epic of Gilgamesh flood account with that of the book of Genesis. Written and edited within a few centuries of one another, these two remarkably similar flood stories highlight the differences between the brazenly mythic and the fundamentally historical.

As mentioned yesterday, my method will be to quote extensively from the less familiar Gilgamesh account (English translation available in full here), then highlight the differences and similarities between the two flood stories, then draw a few conclusions.

I trust this may be as much fun for one or two of you as it is for me …

Part One: The Gilgamesh Text (continued)

The Moral Component

Unlike the Genesis flood, there is no particular moral component to the Gilgamesh account. The closest we come to a reason for the carnage the gods inflict upon the city of Shuruppak and the surrounding area is that “The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood.” Enlil, the Sage of the Gods, has a grudge against certain lesser “gods” who dwell there and determines to destroy everyone in their city along with them. However, having inflicted the flood, even these “gods” quickly lose their nerve in the face of the resulting horrors:
“The ... land shattered like a ... pot.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
‘The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!’ ”
There is no question of man’s sinfulness or God’s holiness to be dealt with. This is just one of those things that gods do, then later regret. It’s so brutal, pointless and random it puts one in mind of the philosophy of materialistic determinism.

Compare this to the Genesis account:
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
Like the gods of Gilgamesh, God’s heart also moved him to flood the world, but the writer of Genesis is at pains to see that his readers understand the moral implications of the events he describes. The Genesis flood did not just happen. It was a direct consequence of the ongoing, unrepented sin of mankind. The events of the Gilgamesh flood may be similar to Genesis, but their implications could not be more distinct.

Miraculous Bread

In the Gilgamesh account there are many more than eight people to be preserved. Unlike Noah’s ark, which was lifted by the rising flood waters, Atrahasis’ floating hotel must be launched with great difficulty into the Euphrates, an event that is bound to draw public attention. The gods who favor Atrahasis and his relatives therefore decide to distract the elders of the city of Shuruppak so that the lucky chosen few can make their escape. The distraction they provide takes the form of fowl, fishes, wheat and “loaves of bread” falling from heaven. Presumably the men of the city will be so enraptured with their heavenly bounty that they won’t notice the rising water levels and a large number of their citizens not-so-discreetly departing:
“Shamash had set a stated time:
‘In the morning I will let loaves of bread shower down,
and in the evening a rain of wheat!
Go inside the boat, seal the entry!’
That stated time had arrived.
In the morning he let loaves of bread shower down,
and in the evening a rain of wheat.”
In the Bible, the Israelites in the wilderness also lived on the “bread of heaven” in the form of manna, but the “bread” they received from their God is described much more plausibly and realistically than the table-ready bounty of the Gilgamesh version:
“And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.”
This was not literal bread, and it was certainly not a shower of loaves fresh from some heavenly bakery. It was a mysterious substance that God caused to fall in large quantities around the Israelite camp. It melted as the sun grew hot each day, and would not last more than 24 hours except on the Sabbath day. It was “bread” in the sense that it was edible, not that it was a grain of any sort. If the Israelites wanted to eat it baked or boiled, they had to do that themselves.

When the writer of Exodus records this part of his story, he gives us plenty of real-world details a reader might be curious about if he had never seen such a thing. What the manna looked like. How it was gathered. What you could and couldn’t do with it. He likely anticipates some of his readers are going to find the manna story difficult to believe, thus he provides as much information as possible. You can believe this account or not, that’s not the issue. The point is that though God performed a genuine miracle repeatedly, the manna is not presented as some kind of magic trick. It is indeed symbolic, but it is not mere allegory. It is firmly located in the real world, claiming to be historic. Both Jesus and the New Testament writers reference this incident as if it actually occurred: “the fathers ate, and died.”

The Gilgamesh account, on the other hand, is unabashedly mythical. “Loaves of bread” shower down, and a “rain of wheat”. So both stories involve the miraculous, but the style of the miracle is quite different: one is essentially natural but mysterious, the other merely fantastical.

Part Two: Similarities and Differences with Genesis

The Common Elements

There are a significant number of commonalities between the two stories:
  • a man warned by a divine being about a coming flood;
  • the building of a great boat to save some subset of humanity, including his relatives;
  • the boat’s specific measurements;
  • the boat coming to rest on a mountain (Mt. Nimush rather than the Ararat range);
  • the savior of mankind sending out both a raven and a dove to look for land; and
  • a post-flood sacrifice to God or the gods.
While one or two of these commonalities are understandable in any flood story (the requirement for a large boat, for instance), the raven and dove are specific enough details that it is incredibly unlikely they would ever be conceived by two independent authors writing at different times and places about different local floods.

The Differences

There are also significant differences:
  • multiple gods squabbling over petty grudges, rather than one God righteously judging sin;
  • the Gilgamesh flood is local, not global;
  • the Gilgamesh ark is constructed from a single reed house;
  • the Gilgamesh ark is of very odd and unseaworthy dimensions;
  • the Gilgamesh ark is constructed by a large group of relatives and workmen with impossible speed;
  • the citizens in the Gilgamesh story believe Atrahasis without question and help him build;
  • in the Gilgamesh story, many more than eight people saved, though most are related to Atrahasis;
  • the Gilgamesh ark is launched directly into a river;
  • the rain in the Gilgamesh account falls for seven days rather than forty, and it only takes seven days for the land to dry up after the flood rather than 150; and
  • Atrahasis and his wife are rewarded for their service by becoming gods.
To that last point, by way of contrast, Noah gets drunk. I find that a tremendously plausible detail.

There are quite a few differences between the accounts, but I think they are also readily understandable. If the Gilgamesh story diverged from the Noahic account over a period of well over 1,000 years among people with vastly different religious beliefs and cultural touchstones (not to mention the absence of God’s active preservation of the original narrative), it is fairly easy to see how the story might in the retelling become encrusted with variant details like these that would bring it more in line with local traditions, history and worldviews, or perhaps even become merged with local flood stories and quasi-historical characters.

I’d like to devote at least one more post to this topic, though probably not tomorrow.


  1. You obviously (if not as a profession) have discovered your field of interest (biblical study) that has your undivided attention and holds your interest. By sharing that I think that your readers (at least this one) benefit from your presenting your results and conclusions.

    In my opinion though your approach presents somewhat of a problem since it is so totally presented in isolation from (valid) modern day research. Interpretation of any historical trends, stories, facts, etc. must include whatever knowledge has been verifiably produced up to our times, which obviously includes the modern science based views of evolution, planetary and cosmic history, etc.. By not seriously engaging those as well, preferably in a forum discussion with qualified scientists and/or presentation of valid research, your biblical claims become less tenable. And that is, of course, because you are really placing restraints on God himself and not permitting him to have had a plan of an evolutionary approach that is revealing itself to man as man awakens to his greater realities. God is, and must of course be, reconcilable with whatever our physical reality turns out to be. He is automatically and eternally relevant with regard to the moral principles and lessons conveyed in the Bible since, clearly, humanities societal and interpersonal problems would be solved perfectly if those principles were applied perfectly. This, however, does not include Christ preempting a discussion about the Biblical flood by ignoring modern relevant research and conclusions. My biblical interpretation is that just because Christ did mention a time before Noah that he did not mean to preempt and void research results to be obtained 2000 years later. His plans, as it appears to me, are certainly much bigger and less local than that even though he means for us to obtain an additional moral lesson from the flood story.

    1. Let's say you have considerably more confidence in neo-Darwinian theorists than I do. I'm old enough to have watched the accepted "scientific" story change three or four times already. The only thing these various revisers of Darwin have in common is that they equally reject the biblical account and believe they have found the "final" answer.

    2. I have actually participated and followed in the forums of these scientists, e g., in the Cornell U forum on evolution which was just as populated by creationist scientists presenting and discussing their data as it was by nonreligious scientists presenting and defending their views. It was surprising how many views there actually were of a directed evolution based on concrete scientific arguments rather than a random one. One can definitely learn from those types of investigations and discussions. It became also clear that, obviously, the interpretation of your data strongly depended on your personal religious convictions. Something that caused some acrymony there. The important thing was that scientists with religious views simply presented evolutionary ideas and data not at conflict with religion. In other words they had input to the Bible story adding clarification, data, and ideas not conflicting with biblical integrity and not necessarily conflicting with the idea of natural evolution.

    3. The book The Devil’s Delusion is a good summary of some of the serious conceptual problems with the evolutionistic view of origins. And conveniently, it was written not by any Christian, but by David Berlinski, a Jewish agnostic. Here’s an intro.

    4. Yes, straightforward Darwinian evolution is under debate and not
      taken for granted. Now epigenetic changes brought about by adaptation to environmental stress is coming into play, which is similar to evolution but more on a DNA level. A lot of these things are being sorted out. Of course I am not in a position to have the answer but my opinion is that carbon dating is correct and if you can't explain dinosaur bones, etc., then your position is suspect. Consequently the creationist is forced down the road of directed evolution.

    5. Carbon dating makes the following five assumptions:

      1. The rate of C-14 decay (half-life) has always been the same.
      2. The C-14/C-12 ratio in the Biosphere (equilibrium) has remained constant.
      3. The specimen was in equilibrium with the Biosphere when buried.
      4. The specimen had not gained any carbon since it was buried.
      5. Today, we can measure the correct C-14/C-12 ratio in the specimen.

      1, 3 and 5 seem reasonable assumptions. 2 is less nailed-down, and 4 follows from 2. If the C-14/C-12 ratio in the biosphere has not remained uniform (and there's lots about a worldwide flood that could potentially change it), the accuracy of the dating process for material over 4,000 years old goes right out the window.

      Now, I understand evolutionists using assumptions that support their theory. What else would they do? And I'm happy to concede anything that they have actually scientifically demonstrated. However, I'm not prepared to announce that carbon dating is 100% accurate and that the early chapters of Genesis must be declared mythical on the basis of somebody's unsubstantiated uniformitarian assumption.

      I'm quite okay with having my position on that viewed as suspect. I've seen too many "sure things" in science turn out not to be quite as "sure" as everybody once thought.

    6. You may recall the controversy concerning the carbon dating of the shroud of Turin which placed it's origin in the middle ages. In the meantime it turned out that the sample supplied had come from a questionable part of the cloth since it possibly was exposed to a fire which would distort results. So yes, carbon dating can have issues but not of the order of age of the dinosaur, etc , compared to biblical times. Also, there are of course other methods of dating that support the carbon dating like sediment layer analysis with one establishingg a meteoric extinction event, and so on. So I don't agree with your argument. You may want to get access to the Christian evolution forum at Cornell U to find out what they are currently arguing. I am not sure it's still accessible to the public. I recall Cornell eventually only permitting access by academics.