Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Worst Myth Ever

When comparing the flood account from the Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI to that of the Genesis flood, I took a few paragraphs at the outset to establish that the two accounts are roughly contemporary: they were written and edited within a couple hundred years of one another.

The reason this is important is that secular historians commenting on tales of the miraculous reliably resort to the “primitive man” argument: the notion that in times past, men could believe in miracles because they were ignorant of the laws of nature, and therefore wrote about unusual — even impossible — events uncritically and unselfconsciously.

Insulting and Inaccurate

As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, this is both an insulting and an inaccurate characterization of the ancients:
“When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancĂ©e was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point — that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that.”
— from Miracles
Lewis is right on the money there. Neither educated Hebrews nor educated Chaldeans — and the writers of both flood accounts were unquestionably highly educated men — were gullible or scientifically ignorant. Both nations built impressive and sophisticated civilizations. The Babylonian contributions to science, art, music, architecture, medicine, and so on were probably more substantial in certain respects than the Hebrew contributions, but Israel under Solomon hit a high-water mark that was not to be sniffed at. To suggest that the authors of Genesis or the Epic of Gilgamesh were ignorant of the genre in which they were writing, or that they could not distinguish myth from history, is itself a historically ignorant statement. Both writers did what they did deliberately. Moreover — and this is critical — they did it, historically speaking, around the same time.

Why would intelligent, educated people write myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh? For the same reason Shakespeare wrote plays: people read and loved them. They addressed the human condition obliquely, in an entertaining and illuminating way. There was a market for such things. They were hugely popular. The writers of transparently mythological accounts like the Gilgamesh flood story never intended for second that their work be read literally; that was not its purpose. So they made little or no effort to make their narratives plausible; rather, they made them enjoyable, fantastical and compelling. Read the Gilgamesh account. It’s a great yarn.

An Embarrassment of Detail

On the other hand, the writer of the Genesis account takes unquestionable pains to make everything he says as credible as possible given the extraordinary things about which he is writing. His narrative is chock-full of details that his myth-writing counterpart in Akkad either skims over or omits entirely: the motivation for the flood; the numbers and types of animals to be taken aboard the ark; how God sent these animals to Noah; the exact dates of departure and all relevant dates thereafter; Noah’s age at the time of the flood; the depth to which the waters covered the earth; what died and what didn’t; how long it took the waters to abate; the date upon which Noah and his children came out of the ark; and the consequences of Noah’s sacrifice. As well, there is an extended postscript to the Genesis story in which we get some sense of how the earth became repopulated and how the various races came to be. The Genesis account goes on significantly longer than its mythological counterpart, and perhaps this is the reason: its writer is looking to make his story as accurate as possible because the events he describes really happened.

To a historian, credibility matters. To a writer of myths, it doesn’t.

Frankly, if the author of Genesis was trying to write a popular myth like the Epic of Gilgamesh, he is a complete failure. The Genesis flood story is the most labored, earnest, pedantic myth on record; the worst myth ever. It’s so un-myth-like there are still people looking for Noah’s ark today.

But enough setup. Let’s look at some specifics.

Part Three: Plausibility Analysis

Fantastical Elements in Gilgamesh

What makes the Genesis flood account unpalatable to many is the belief that a global flood cannot be fitted into the existing secular scientific view of our world’s history. But if you accept the idea of a creator God involved with his creation, there is nothing particularly outrageous about the Genesis account itself. At very least we must acknowledge that the writer makes a serious effort to provide his readers with sufficient details and necessary explanations to make his account of humanity’s survival through Noah as plausible as possible. One may or may not believe the account, but there is no question the writer is attempting a historical narrative. There is nothing frivolous or gratuitous about what happens in Genesis.

Contrast this with the Gilgamesh epic. In myth-land anything can happen and anything does. It is not just that the gods rain down baked loaves of bread, or that they turn people into gods. Even the human aspects of the story are quite preposterous:
  • Could a reed house have sufficient material in it to be pulled down and turned into a gigantic cubic boat the height of an eighteen storey apartment and the width and breadth of a field? Maybe, if it too was a multi-storey palace the size of a football field, but there is no indication of that in the Gilgamesh narrative.
  • Could a giant cubic boat be built in a single day, even by huge numbers of volunteers? During WWII, once riveting was discovered, the Richmond shipyard is said to have turned out a ship a day. But that was a fine-tuned, dedicated wartime facility at its peak, not a group of drunken amateurs in a backyard.
  • Could a great big top-heavy cube-shaped hotel stay afloat in a storm so scary even the gods cringe? I’ll leave that one to the reader.
  • Could six days and seven nights of wind and flooding be sufficient to immerse, then flatten, an entire inland region? Flatten, yes. Immerse, perhaps, provided we are talking about a relatively small area. But could seven days be enough to dry it all up so you could walk on it? Not a chance.
Mob Psychology

Most importantly, would a whole group of relatives and neighbors uniformly accept the word of a local man about a coming flood for which there is zero available evidence? I would say not. There is a major problem with the psychology of Atrahasis’ neighbors in the Gilgamesh account. They buy right in to his far-fetched story. This is not just unlikely, I would argue it’s impossible. It’s unprecedented.

Look at modern history: NOBODY ever believes the end is coming. Every time Florida has a hurricane, police run door to door trying to get homeowners to leave before they lose everything and die doing it, even though hurricanes blow through Florida destroying homes and property every couple of years. Why? Because nobody believes this particular catastrophe will happen to them. It will happen to someone else. During all the years it took Noah to build his ark, not a single person was touched by the evidence of his faith and believed his message of coming judgment. Why? Because they all thought he was a loon. As Jesus himself put it:
“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. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot — they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”
This is believable, credible, historical mob psychology. It is how people observably, repeatedly, historically behave when confronted with news of a coming disaster. The Gilgamesh account is not.

Anything and Everything

But whether it is the psychology of his protagonists or the mechanics of his building program, in telling his story, Sin-liqe-unninni is not trying to make any of its details believable because he is not reporting history. He is making up a good fantastical yarn for readers of fiction. So why not make his “ark” a cube 180 feet tall? It sounds impressive and cool. By way of contrast, while Noah built his ark, we read that “God waited patiently” to judge the world. He had to wait, not just because he was gracious and gave the world opportunity to repent, but because the story is historical, and it takes a long while to build a big boat.

So why does Sin-liqe-unninni have his vessel built in a day? The fun part of the story is the big storm, and he wants to get to it. So he does. In writing myth, he is not obligated to regale us with a litany of credible construction details. It doesn’t fit the genre.

In a myth, anything can happen. In the Gilgamesh flood myth, that’s exactly what we get: anything and everything.

Details, Details

In reporting history, however, realistic details matter.

In Genesis, we get a boat that could actually float made from logical quantities of the same material from which ancient peoples have always made boats. Further, we get a reasonable number of years to construct it. People have built scale models and full-size models of Noah’s ark. Nobody builds Atrahasis’ cube. Not even its original readers took his description seriously.

In Genesis, the writer makes a reasonable effort to rationalize the unprecedented size of the flood for us. Not only does it rain for a full forty days, but “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” There are three separate major sources of water. This fact is repeated in case we didn’t get it the first time. I’m not saying we have the information to fully understand these statements, but we cannot claim the writer of Genesis is ignorant of the need to make a logical case for the sheer volume of water he describes being unleashed.

In Genesis, the writer provides a reasonable time period for the flood to subside and a great wind to aid in drying out the world. Noah and his ark are floating for five full months before coming to land on the Ararat range, and then they sit there for two and a half months watching the tops of the mountains slowly appear around them. We get 15 full verses of detail about the process of leaving the ark. It is not a perfunctory thing. Raven, dove, dove, dove … yawn. As a child reading the story, I found this bit a little boring. It went on too long for my taste. Well, guess what: it went on too long for Noah’s too, but the story is written as a historical account, and things take the time they take.

In reporting history, details matter. The writer of Genesis gives us chapters of credible details.

Liars, Pawns and Truthtellers

You may choose to believe the Genesis flood story. Or not. Many do not. What you cannot reasonably do is claim that the story is intentionally mythological. It is not. Not at all. We know what myths look like. We even know what myths from the same period look like. Moreover, we know what myths from the same period about the exact same subject matter look like too.

The two genres are distinct. The accounts are nothing alike.

Genesis is written as history, as if the writer believed the story actually happened and is fully documenting it for his audience in order that they would believe it too. Its writer may have been a liar, he may have been a gullible pawn of another liar … or he may have been telling the truth.

The one thing he wasn’t was a successful writer of myths.

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