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Why Modern Christian Scholarship Accepts Precedents for the Flood — Coffee Break Version

This is the fifth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first four posts, click here for a discussion on :

1) The Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) The New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) The Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8
4) God repenting and the animals being wiped out in the Flood

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.


The Gilgamesh Epic

(a) Near-universal consensus of it’s influence

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

The Flood tablet in the Gilgamesh Epic
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh

Conservative evangelical scholars all but universally agree that the Mesopotamian Flood epic, which in its most famous form is known as part of the Gilgamesh Epic1, was known to Moses, who wrote Genesis, and the exodus generation he was part of.  Some Christians have been led to believe that ‘admitting’ that there were Flood stories before the Biblical one somehow undercuts or invalidates the Biblical version, as if it’s a copy or variation and therefore untrue.  Evangelical scholarship roundly rejects such a notion, as the leap in logic from ‘there are other versions of the Flood story’ all the way to ‘therefore the Biblical account is false’ contain all kinds of false assumptions.

Furthermore, nearly all conservative scholars state the Flood narrative cannot be properly understood without acknowledging it’s predecessor(s).  This is because much of the point of the Biblical version is how it flips the Mesopotamian version on its head to teach the power of YHWH.


(b) The story itself

Dating in its earliest textual form to no later than 2200 BCE, and possibly earlier, this Flood story predates Moses’ Genesis account by at least 1000 years.  The story is part of a tale within a great epic about a famous and mighty hero of the ancient days, named Gilgamesh.  After having annoyed the gods through his immoral behaviour, the gods send a ‘supervisor’ to watch over Gilgamesh, who become friends.  The first half of the epic is various ‘adventures’ the two have together.  After his friend dies, the second half begins and Gilgamesh begins to think about his own mortality and searches for eternal life.  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.  For purposes of showing this story’s near-universal acceptance by conservative Biblical scholars, I’ll quote from the conservative Archaeological Study Bible to the tell the story:

“In this epic, Gilgamesh searches for a man named Utnapishtum (the equivalent of the Biblical Noah), whose story is then recounted. When one of the highest gods, Enlil, becomes annoyed by the cacophony of noise coming from human beings, he decides to inundate and destroy them all in a catastrophic deluge. Enki, the god of waters, reveals Enlil’s intent to the mortal Utnapishtum, directing him to construct an enormous boat and load it with pairs of animals. Instructed not to reveal the reason for this mystifying building project, Utnapishtum is further commanded at a critical point to take his wife on board with him. For seven harried days and nights Utnapishtum and his wife are tossed about in this vessel as floodwaters engulf the earth. When the waters finally subside, the boat lodges atop a tall mountain. Utnapishtum sends out a dove, a swallow and a raven, the last of which fails to return, apparently having located nourishment. The man then disembarks and offers lavish sacrifices to the gods, who in turn bestow eternal life upon him and his wife for having safeguarded the future of humans and animals” (Archaeological Study Bible Notes, Gen 6 note).


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

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

Gilgamesh Source: http://ghiasi.org/2010/12/pre-historic-civilization-beneath-the-persian-gulf/

Just from this cursory reading alone, it would take some fancy intellectual twists to try and claim the Genesis account does not share some literary background with the Mesopotamian Flood narrative.  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 an 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.  The Mesopotamian story differs from the Bible in that:

(1) In Mesopotamia the gods respond to the cacophonous noise of the mortals and send a Flood to ‘just get them to shut up’.
(2) 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.
(3) 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.

Genesis, by contrast, makes God the punisher and savior, and in total control of the events.  Moses does this often, taking other cultures’ versions of history (Creation, Nephilim, etc.), and (as Paul says in Rom 1:21-27) correcting their pagan interpretations.  This means 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 of God, 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.


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

While the similarities between the Mesopotamian and Biblical Floods are undeniable, the differences are what matters.  The chart below shows 4 crucial differences which all point towards Moses’ account in Genesis:

Flood Noah Gilgamesh

Mesopotamian vs. Biblical Theological Differences


The last (4th) point is crucial to understanding the context behind Genesis’ inclusion of the Flood narrative.  We must remember that the Flood narrative was more than a thousand years old when Genesis was written, and that all of the Hebrews who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership knew some variation on this story that was close to the Mesopotamian account told above.  God, through Moses, made one of his most elaborate revelations to humanity ever in the exodus generation, and much of his actions were designed to convince the Hebrews that none of the gods they worshipped were as powerful as he.  When he revealed this to Moses through his writing of Genesis, one of the revelations was that of the Flood narrative’s shifting to what God meant humanity to understand from the Flood.  Rather than the amoral theology of a human hero (reminiscent of the Nephilim) outwitting the gods and gaining immortality, the same story, down to the birds leaving the ark at the end, was told to downplay the human element to nothingness (Noah’s reactions are never described, nor does he ever speak in the Flood narrative.  He is essentially a ‘cardboard cutout’ witnessing the events, selected because of his immense trust in God).  Instead, the morality of the story is emphasized, and the dominion of God over forces that overpower the gods was made key.

Gilgamesh Mespotamia Flood Noah Ark

Boating scene. Around 3000 BCE Mesopotamia.
Source: http://www.newsnfo.co.uk/pages/Ancient%20desendents.htm

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 immortality2, 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).

A modern version of this is seen in many of the Disney versions of fairy tales.  For example, the original story of the Little Mermaid, in which she dies in the end, while on land with feet, is about not leaving your home because you don’t belong anywhere else but there.  Disney tells the same plot in their version, but completely shifts the meaning to now mean that you should follow your dreams and move beyond your home, to be rewarded with a better life elsewhere.  Like the Flood account, the plot stays the same, but shifts in different parts can completely reverse the moral of the story.


(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 is the fifth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first four posts, click here for a discussion on :

1) The Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) The New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) The Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8
4) God repenting and the animals being wiped out in the Flood

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.