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Why Modern Christian Scholarship Accepts Precedents for the Flood — Geeky Version

This is the fifth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first three posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8
4) Click here for a discussion on God repenting and the animals being wiped out

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.

The Gilgamesh Epic

(a) The story itself

Dating to around 2200 BCE, and possibly earlier, this story is part of a tale within a great epic about a famous and might hero of the ancient days searching for immortality after the loss of a friend (himself sent by the gods).  The Gilgamesh Epic has already paralleled Genesis in that Gilgamesh is himself the equivalent of a Nephilim, and for some scholars who hold that the sons of God are mortal tyrant kings, this also describes Gilgamesh.  After having annoyed the gods through his immoral behavior that flirts with causing chaos (Gilgamesh claims ‘first night’ rights to sleep with all of the women in his kingdom on their wedding nights to their husbands), the gods send a ‘supervisor’ to watch over Gilgamesh.  The first half of the epic are various ‘adventures’ the two have together.  After his friend dies, the second half begins and Gilgamesh searches for eternal life due to his grief over his friend’s death.  On his search, he encounters Utnapishtum, the only mortal ever to be granted eternal life.  Utnapishtum tells his tale of how he lived during the ancient Flood.  The following account comes from the WBC (Gen 6:9 Form/Structure/Setting):

The translation of Gilgamesh Tablet 11 by E. A. Speiser ANET, 93- 95 goes as follows (ellipses or …… sections refer to passages on the tablet to broken to be decipherable):

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

The Flood tablet in the Gilgamesh Epic

“Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar- Tutu,
Tear down (this) house, build a ship!
Give up possessions, seek thou life.
Forswear (worldly) goods and keep the soul alive!
Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things.
The ship that thou shalt build,
Her dimensions shall be to measure.
Equal shall be her width and her length.
Like the Apsu thou shalt ceil her.”
I understood, and I said to Ea, my lord:
“[Behold], my lord, what thou hast thus ordered,
I will be honored to carry out
The little ones [carr] ied bitumen,
While the grown ones brought [all else] that was needful.
On the fifth day I laid her framework.
One (whole) acre was her floor space,
Ten dozen cubits the height of each of her walls,
Ten dozen cubits each edge of the square deck.
I laid out the contours (and) joined her together.
I provided her with six decks,
Dividing her (thus) into seven parts.
Her floor plan I divided into nine parts.
I hammered water- plugs into her.
I saw to the punting- poles and laid in supplies.
Six sar [measures] of bitumen I poured into the furnace,
Three sar of asphalt [I also] poured inside.
Three sar of oil the basket- bearers carried,
Aside from the one sar of oil which the caulking consumed,
And the two sar of oil [which] the boatman stowed away.
Bullocks I slaughtered for the [people],
And I killed sheep every day.
Must, red wine, oil, and white wine
[I gave the] workmen [to drink], as though river water,
That they might feast as on New Year’s Day…………
[Whatever I had] I laded upon her:
Whatever I had of silver I laded upon her;
Whatever I [had] of gold I laded upon her;
Whatever I had of all the living beings I [laded] upon her.
All my family and kin I made go aboard the ship.
The beasts of the field, the wild creatures of the field,
All the craftsmen I made go aboard.
Shamash had set for me a stated time:
“When he who orders unease at night,
Will shower down a rain of blight,
Board thou the ship and batten up the entrance!”
That stated time had arrived:
“He who orders unease at night, showers down a rain of blight.”
I watched the appearance of the weather.
The weather was awesome to behold.
I boarded the ship and battened up the entrance.
To batten down the (whole) ship, to Puzur- Amurri, the boatman,
I handed over the structure together with its contents.
With the first glow of dawn,
A black cloud rose up from the horizon.
Inside it Adad thunders,
While Shullat and Hanish go in front,
Moving as heralds over hill and plain.
Erragal tears out the posts;
Forth comes Ninurta and causes the dikes to follow.
The Anunnaki lift up the torches,
Setting the land ablaze with their glare.
Consternation over Adad reaches to the heavens,
Who turned to blackness all that had been light.
[The wide] land was shattered like [a pot]!
For one day the south- storm [blew],
Gathering speed as it blew, [submerging the mountains],
Overtaking the [people] like a battle.
No one can see his fellow,
Nor can the people be recognized from heaven.
The gods were frightened by the deluge,
And, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu.
The gods cowered like dogs
Crouched against the outer wall.
The gods, all humbled, sit and weep,
Their lips drawn tight, […] one and all
Six days and [six] nights
Blows the flood wind, as the south- storm sweeps the land.
When the seventh day arrived,
The flood (- carrying) south- storm subsided in the battle,
Which it had fought like an army.
The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased.
I looked at the weather; stillness had set in,
And all of mankind had returned to clay.
The landscape was as level as a flat roof.
I opened a hatch, and light fell upon my face.
Bowing low, I sat and wept,
Tears running down on my face.
I looked about for coast lines in the expanse of the sea:
In each of fourteen (regions)
There emerged a region (- mountain).
On Mount Nisir the ship came to a halt.
Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
Allowing no motion.
One day, a second day, Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
Allowing no motion.
When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth, but came back;
Since no resting- place for it was visible, she turned round.
Then I sent forth and set free a swallow.
The swallow went forth, but came back;
Since no resting- place for it was visible, she turned round.
Then I sent forth and set free a raven.
The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished,
He eats, circles, caws, and turns not round.
Then I let out (all) to the four winds
And offered a sacrifice.
I poured out a libation on the top of the mountain.
Seven and seven cult- vessels I set up,
Upon their pot- stands I heaped cane, cedarwood, and myrtle.
The gods smelled the savor,
The gods smelled the sweet savor,
The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer.
When at length as the great goddess arrives,
She lifted up the great jewels which Anu had fashioned to her liking:
“Ye gods here, as surely as this lapis
Upon my neck I shall not forget,
I shall be mindful of these days, forgetting (them) never.
Let the gods come to the offering;
[But] let not Enlil come to the offering
For he, unreasoning, brought on the deluge
And my people consigned to destruction.”
When at length as Enlil arrived,
And saw the ship, Enlil was wroth,
He was filled with wrath over the Igigi gods:
“Has some living soul escaped?
No man was to survive the destruction.!”
Ninurta opened his mouth to speak,
Saying to valiant Enlil:
“Who, other than Ea, can devise plans?
It is Ea alone who knows every matter”
Ea opened his mouth to speak,
“It was not I who disclosed the secret of the great gods.
I let Atrahasis see a dream,
And he perceived the secret of the gods.
Now then take counsel in regard to him!”
Thereupon Enlil went aboard the ship.
Holding me by the hand, he took me aboard.
He took my wife aboard and made (her) kneel by my side.
Standing between us, he touched our foreheads to bless us:
“Hitherto Utnapishtim has been but human.
Henceforth Utnapishtim and his wife shall be like unto us gods.
Utnapishtim shall reside far away, at the mouth of the rivers

(b) It’s applicability to Noah and the Flood

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

Gilgamesh Source:

Much more ink than is necessary has been spilled on this topic.  The jump to conclusion some secularists make that the Gilgamesh Epic, which clear mirrors Gen 6-9 to an incredibly close degree, invalidates Genesis by making the latter a copy has been (easily) refuted as lazy scholarship.  What we have instead is a clearly older tale, that clearly derives from the same tradition as Noah’s Ark and the Flood.  This points to a shared tradition.  If you wish to believe that shared tradition goes back to history, this is easily done.  If you wish instead to believe that the shared tradition is literary and mythological, but divorced from history, this is equally acceptable from the data.

What can’t be derived from the data is that one ‘invalidates’ the other.  There are many other Flood myths from the ancient near east, though none nearly so close as these two.  As evangelicals, the differences pop out as well.  In Mesopotamia the gods respond to the cacophonous noise of the mortals and send a Flood to ‘just get them to shut up’.  One god goes behind the backs of the others and saves humanity, knowing that the other gods will suffer from the lack of (noisy) sacrifices the mortals make for the gods.  The human survives and makes a sacrifice, reminding the other gods how wrong they were to kill of the very creatures that feed and worship them.  Moses, by contrast, with only God, makes God the punisher and savior, and in total control of the events.  This is Moses’ constant theme of taking other cultures’ versions of history, and (as Paul says in Rom 1:21-27) correcting their pagan interpretations that miss the point–namely, that God is one, God is our God, meaning that God is the only god and creator and master of all.  The Flood narrative is now not about tricksters and immortality.  It’s about the power and wisdom, and the only rational response to such a being–submission, fear, and trusting one’s life to his better judgment and direction–that can be made.

(c) How Genesis tips Gilgamesh (and other Flood narratives) on it’s head

The similarities are obvious and ample.  To deny that Moses relied on or knew the Mesopotamian Flood narrative is foolishness.  There are too many similarities both broadly and in the details.  The question, given that Moses had to have known the story, is how his version differs.  These points are most salient on this topic:

Flood Noah Gilgamesh

Mesopotamian vs. Biblical Theological Differences

In fact, this last point is quite central to the narrative.  Watching the events of the Flood and meditating on them, we should be overcome by emotion as a very terrible death is suffered by humans and animals alike.  It is a terrible, horrific, sad event.  But Noah is emotionless to the tragedy.  No reaction at all is described for him.  Only one thing matters: His obedience.  As Wenham states, “Who he was and what he felt are irrelevant” (Wenham, WBC, Excursus on Gilgamesh).  This is another example of what we’ve seen before–that the Bible is interested in only some topics, and we need to avoid asking questions of it that it is not itself asking or interested in.  The prime example of this today is the, I’m sorry, clumsy attempts to weave the Flood into scientific reasoning and posit a global, worldwide Flood.  This is entirely alien to the text, misses the point of what the Bible is trying to teach us in the Flood narrative (the very heart of how we should be in covenant relationship with God), and even misses the point that the Bible’s ‘world’ was the ancient near east.  China and the Grand Canyon could not be less relevant to a Christian’s approach to the Flood narrative and what God is trying to tell us in it.

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

Boating scene. Around 3000 BCE Mesopotamia.

For the Hebrews in the exodus generation, who lived in tents for 40 years, in the desert before entering Israel, God was trying to communicate through the ancient legend of the Flood what he was also trying to communicate to them through his miracles–the message was one and the same.  God’s revelation to this generation was fully loaded on all levels–both in their practical lives, and in the mythologies, songs, and tales they told around fires at night.  God wanted the exodus generation, just as our own, to understand that:

1) The gods they worshipped for 400 years while in Egypt were at war with chaos, but YHWH was lord and sovereign over all, even chaos itself.
2) The gods they worshipped were amoral, essentially humans with great powers and immortality1, but unlike these gods, YHWH was not at war with humans, nor did he make them to serve and worship him.  Instead, he wanted them to trust him (be righteous, or moral), and love him, just as he loved them (and us).
3) Human action and heroism is irrelevant before the sovereign power of God.  Noah is given none of the credit for his survival.  Not even his righteousness is credited with his life being spared (a point clarified in the Hebrew, but sometimes mistranslated in English to imply he earned his salvation).

(e) Summary

There is nothing to be gained by Christians denying the dependence of the Biblical account of the Flood on the far more ancient, legendary account of the Mesopotamian Flood.  This old-fashioned view is absent in the theologies of modern evangelical scholarship.  None of the theological meaning or credibility of the Genesis account is under threat by this dependence, and the similarities are overwhelming.

Just as the generation in which Genesis was written was shown miracles and given teachings unlike any generation before or since (except Jesus’), so too God revealed through Moses, the author of Genesis, that the legends and stories that they knew were in line and agreed with the revelation of God’s actions in the exodus and deliverance from Egypt.  That is, YHWH is unique and different from the other gods.  He is moral, and he is powerful beyond measure.  Universally, without exception, the other gods of the ancient near east world were described as partaking in the same ‘sins’ mortals did, and they were also described as having weaknesses.  YHWH was a ‘new’ type of God, one who revealed his desire for humanity and a direction they could take towards happiness and fulfilment.  This was a message of trusting their lives to him.  In his remoulding and clarification of the legends the exodus generation knew well, he revealed this character of himself, and his desire for relationship with us, in a narrative consistent with the miracles he performed for them in the exodus.

This summary is the stance of, I believe without exception, all of the modern commentaries on Genesis.  To deny the Mesopotamian origin of the Flood narrative is to live considerably out of alignment with the Christians who translate our Bible for us, and who teach and minister to us.