October 18, 2018

The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton, Part 2- Propositions 7 & 8

The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate
by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton
Part 2- Propositions 7&8

We are blogging through the book: The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton.  Today we will look at Part 2- Background: Ancient Near Eastern Texts- Proposition 7: Ancient Mesopotamia Also Has Stories of a Worldwide Flood, and Proposition 8: The Biblical Flood Account Shares Similarities and Differences with Ancient Near Eastern Flood Accounts.  Every serious student of the Bible is aware that there are other flood stories from the Ancient Near East.  The debate has always been about their significance and relationship to the biblical story.

Eridu Genesis

The Eridu Genesis is an ancient Sumerian Text which describes the creation of the world, the invention of all ancient cities and the Great Flood that swept across the land. The Eridu Genesis, which is believed to have been composed circa 2,300 BCE, is the earliest known account of the Great Flood.  The story begins with the god Enki (also known as Ea) warning Ziusudra, king of Shuruppak of a coming flood being brought about by the gods Anu and Enlil, who are angered that mankind is too noisy.  Enki counsels Ziusudra to build an ark.  The flood lasts seven days and seven nights and after the waters recede Ziusudra offers sacrifice to the gods, who then make him immortal.  The flood is also mentioned in the Sumerian Kings List, which divides the kings into pre- and post-flood dynasties.

The Akkadian version of the story is known as the Atrahasis Epic, named after the hero, Atrahasis, who is comparable to Noah.  The god Enlil decides to wipe out humanity because they have grown too populous and noisy.  The god Enki decides to defy Enlil and help Atrahasis and warns him to build an ark and place animals as well as his family in it.

The best known Babylonian version of the flood story is found in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic.  Gilgamesh is the Priest-King of the city of Uruk. He is a tyrannical king who works his people to death and takes what he wants from them. He kills the young men at will and uses the women as he pleases. The people of Uruk cry out to the gods for help so that they can have peace.   The gods hear them and instruct Anu, the goddess of creation, to make a twin for Gilgamesh, someone who is strong enough to stand up to him and who will ultimately save him. Anu makes Enkidu, a hairy wild man who lives in the wilderness with the animals.  The two meet in the streets of Uruk and a great fight breaks out between them. Gilgamesh is triumphant but his encounter with Enkidu changes him. They become companions.

They go on an epic journey together.  Gilgamesh catches the eye of Ishtar. She tells him to become her lover, promising great riches and rewards in return. Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar, telling her he is aware of her reputation as a scornful lover.  Ishtar is outraged and convinces her father, Anu, to punish Gilgamesh. The gods decide that one of the heroes must die for their behavior. They choose Enkidu. Enkidu falls ill and suffers for twelve days before finally dying. Gilgamesh is shattered. He has witnessed death and is now terrified of his own mortality. He seeks to escape it.  Gilgamesh decides to seek out Utnapishtim, the one human granted immortality by the gods.  Gilgamesh eventually finds Utnapishtim, who tells him the story of the flood.  The gods are angry because humans are too noisy and one god warns Utnapishtim, who builds an ark.  Eventually, the storm ends and the waters recede leaving the ark on Mount Nimush (or Nisir).  Utnapishtim releases 3 birds; a dove who finds no perch, a swallow who finds no perch, and finally a raven who did not return.  Utnapishtim offers sacrifice and is rewarded immortality, but tells Gilgamesh that was a special circumstance.  Chastened and humbled Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and becomes a better king.

The following table summarizes the 3 Babylonian/Sumerian stories, the biblical story, along with one by Berossus who was a Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer, a Greek version, and the flood story that appears in the Quran.

Similarities in the ANE flood stories and the biblical one from this source:

  1. A divine decision is made to send a punishing Flood;
  2. One chosen man is told to save self, family and creatures by building a boat;
  3. A great Flood destroys the rest of the people;
  4. The boat grounds on a mountain;
  5. Birds are sent forth to determine availability of habitable land;
  6. The hero sacrifices to deity;
  7. Mankind is renewed upon earth.

Particularly noticeable in the comparative differences between the ANE accounts and the biblical one is the dramatic difference in the depiction of the divine realm—what the gods are like as well as how they administer the cosmos:

  1. The Mesopotamian gods’ tire of the noisiness of mankind, while in Genesis, God sees the corruption and universal wickedness of mankind.
  2. The Mesopotamian assembly of gods is at pains to conceal their Flood plan entirely from mankind (this is not evident in Genesis at all).
  3. In the Mesopotamian epics, the saving of the hero is entirely by the deceit of one god, while in Genesis, God from the first tells Noah plainly that judgment is coming, and he alone has been judged faithful and so must build a boat.
  4. The size and type of craft in “Gilgamesh” is a vast cube, perhaps even a great floating ziggurat, while that in Genesis has far more the proportions of a real craft.
  5. The duration of the Flood differs in the Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts. “Atrahasis” has seven days and seven nights of storm and tempest, as does the Sumerian version; “Gilgamesh” has six (or seven) days and nights, with subsidence of the waters beginning on the seventh day; none of the Mesopotamian narratives gives any idea of how long the Floodwaters took to subside thereafter. In contrast, Genesis has an entirely consistent, more detailed time-scale. After seven days’ warning, the storm and floods rage for 40 days, then the waters stay for 150 days before beginning to sink, and further intervals follow until the earth is dry a year and ten days from the time the cataclysm began (Gen 7:11; 8:14).
  6. In the Mesopotamian versions, the inhabitants of the boat include also a pilot and craftsmen, etc.; in Genesis one finds only Noah and his immediate family.
  7. The details of sending out birds differ entirely in “Gilgamesh,” Berossus, and Genesis 8:7ff.; this is lost in “Atrahasis “ (if ever it was present).
  8. The Mesopotamian hero leaves the boat of his own accord and then offers a sacrifice to win the acceptance of the gods. By contrast, Noah stays in the boat until God summons him forth and then presents what is virtually a sacrifice of thanksgiving, following which divine blessing is expressed without regret.
  9. Replenishment of the land or earth is partly through renewed divine activity in “Atrahasis” but simply and naturally through the survivors themselves in Genesis.

The Mesopotamian gods administered by means of a divine council, and that concept is not entirely foreign to biblical thinking (Job 1-2, 1 Kings 22, Isaiah 6).  But the divine council in the bible is not a community of peers; Yahweh stands alone as the sole divine agent.  Walton and Longman note that the gods in the ANE were motivated by what they call the “Great Symbiosis”.  The gods created people because they were tired of menial labor to meet their own needs.  Once people were created to serve this way it became necessary for the gods to provide the people with rain and protection from calamities so the people could provide sacrifice or sustenance for the gods.  It was a codependent relationship, whereas Yahweh needed nothing and his provision flowed from his grace.  The idea of a Great Symbiosis is constantly refuted in the Old Testament and has no role in the interpretation of the flood.

It sounds strange to modern ears that the ANE gods wanted to destroy mankind because they were too noisy, but the Akkadian words translated as noise also carry the ideas of:

  • Outcry or complaints for hard work
  • Hubris or rebellion
  • Continuing petitions for relief
  • Impious, irreverent, insolent, or wicked behavior
  • Violent behavior
  • Inevitable increase in noise from overpopulation
  • Partying
  • Disruption of order.

So there is some similarity there to Yahweh bringing the flood to restore cosmic order disrupted by the moral deprivations of human behavior.

Sumerian Depiction of Ark and Flood

As far as the extent of the flood, the Mesopotamian accounts are mostly vague.  Utnapishtim sees distant shores so maybe not all land totally submerged.  Atrahasis indicated total destruction was called for by the gods and Gilgamesh observes after the flood, “all the people turned to clay”.  As we discussed last time, the biblical account describes worldwide extent and all humans but Noah and his family are drowned as well as “every creature that had the breath of life”.  The length of the flood in the ANE accounts are seven days and nights while the biblical account has 40 days and 40 nights of rain and flooding lasting a year, probably hyperbole signifying the massive scope of the cataclysm.

The ANE heroes are portrayed as royal lineage while the biblical account is reserved about Noah, and he is silent in the flood account; indicating the text makes him a bit player and Yahweh the main actor.  In the Genesis account, Noah is not portrayed as interacting with other people; it isn’t until 2nd Temple accounts that Noah is shown making lengthy and impassioned speeches; which is where the New Testament picks it up (2 Peter 2:5).  Walton and Longman note that it is from our modern culture we assume the population was skeptical; the ancients would have more likely readily accepted the announcement of an impending flood and would have clamored to get onboard rather than ridiculing Noah; contrary to almost all modern preaching on the subject.

The cosmic mechanisms of the flood in the Mesopotamian accounts do not include the two large bodies of water—the water above the firmament and the waters beneath the earth.  Walton and Longman conclude that the flood is not presented as a cosmic event of the same proportion or magnitude as found in the description of Genesis.

Walton and Longman conclude that it is better to explain the similarities and differences between the biblical and Mesopotamian flood traditions not in terms of borrowing but rather in terms of Mesopotamia and Israel floating in the same cultural river.  That makes much more sense than the biblical skeptic’s charge that Israel simply adopted or borrowed the Babylonian story.  Walton and Longman believe the origin of the story goes way back to a period before the invention of writing, and therefore, the advent of literature.  I agree, and we will explore this notion in more detail when we get to Proposition 14.  The flood happened in the distant past, and stories about the flood were thus passed down orally for generations from those who descended from the time the flood actually occurred.  The similarities in the telling of the flood story between Eridu Genesis, Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and the biblical account may be explained not necessarily by literary borrowing  but by the fact that this story has been passed down from generation to generation by those who float in the same cultural river.

Another way to think about the similarities and differences is to acknowledge that the Israelites are embedded in an ancient near east culture and that God speaks to them there.  God gives them revelation that transcends the culture, but He speaks to them within the culture.  This is not a matter of imposing the ancient near east on the Bible (the Bible IS an ANE literary document after all); rather, it involves the acknowledgement that they are within the ancient near east.  It’s our responsibility to understand the flood story within its original context.

The flood account is a good example of misunderstanding what the text is actually saying when trying to read the narrative from our modern cultural river.  We have to read it as an ancient text in order to fully appreciate the purpose of the narrative. Otherwise we are distracted by our modern questions we bring to the text and fail to understand the authoritative teaching the biblical author was inspired to present.

Comments

  1. StuartB says:

    So a text written around 2300 BCE from a city founded around 5400 BCE, describing or story-telling events that happened somewhere in between those dates…

    Is it fair to say that The Eridu Genesis might have been written centuries, maybe millennia, after most of what it talked about? From oral traditions and tellings and retellings?

    Do we know roughly when this writing style was developed, both the written language as well as the medium?

    • StuartB says:

      Meanwhile, Genesis/Torah written roughly 600-400 BCE…

      • Mike the Geologist says:

        “Is it fair to say that The Eridu Genesis might have been written centuries, maybe millennia, after most of what it talked about? From oral traditions and tellings and retellings?”

        To the best of our knowledge the Sumerians invented writing about 3100 BCE. Walton and Longman think the story itself predates any written records and was transmitted orally for a long time. The Genesis account may have taken its final written form post-exile, but W&L think that there is a long oral tradition behind its story as well. When we get to Propostion 14, we will discuss the idea that maybe that oral tradition goes all the way back to the post-Pleistocene wet period.

        • Mike the Geologist says:

          Stuart: Check out Alice C. Linsley’s website “Just Genesis” and her theories about who Noah was and where he lived: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/search?q=Noah%27s+Flood

          She thinks he was a Proto-Saharan and the flood took place in the Sahara’s wet period. The pictures of the reed boats are fascinating.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I still think the “thousand-year flood” in the Tigris-Euphrates valley is a more likely origin. Would have covered Mesopotamia from horizon to horizon for several days, and seems to fit the original Sumerian version of the Flood better.

            • Adam Tauno Williams says:

              This sounds like an excellent grounds for a denominational schism! 🙂

            • Mike the Geologist says:

              Or its a mash-up of older and newer (to them) stories. Or, as Stephen suggests below, it is simply literature constructed to make a rhetorical/theological point.

          • StuartB says:

            Ok that link is interesting. Noah was a King?

            Does that mean he might have basically forced his subjects to create a giant craft so him and his family and possessions could escape a flood?

            Would not surprise me. That would be typical of other ANE leaders. When the writers of Genesis claimed Noah as one of their own, that story wouldn’t work.

          • She blogged about Aronofsky’s Noah… and didn’t even mention the rock people. I am disappoint.

            http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/03/noah-hollywood-version.html

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          When we get to Propostion 14, we will discuss the idea that maybe that oral tradition goes all the way back to the post-Pleistocene wet period.

          At which point, it remains a thing of Wonder — an oral tradition dating back to the end of the Ice Age.

          Like the four-river configuration described for the Garden of Eden; the only one of those in the area (and maybe the entire world) is on the floor of the current Persian Gulf, and has not been above sea level since the last Ice Age.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        More like “edited into its final form” than “written”.

        My own understanding is that writing (“Phonecian chicken scratches”) would have reached the Jews around the time of King David (about 1000 BC) and the Old Stories (which had previously existed as oral tradition) would have first been written down around then.

        Then in the 7th Century BC the Babylonians/Chaldeans rolled over both Jewish kingdoms and most of the Jews wound up in Babylon; in the process, many of the written Torah/proto-Tanakh would have been destroyed or lost. So the Jews had to reconstruct Torah/Tanakh from memory and surviving fragments; in the process, the editing acquired a more Mesopotamian style and metaphors from the goyisha culture surrounding them (and which they would have been as familiar with as their own traditions).

        And once established as the final version, preserved in copying from then on.

        Result? God’s Word dictated word-for-word in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe 🙂

        Aside regarding CE/BCE:

        “Common Era”? WHOSE “Common”?
        Whoever came up with that one was trying WAY too hard to Offend Nobody, with the usual results.

        A variant of CE/BCE I heard once made a lot more sense. “CE” stood for “Christian Era”, identifying the specific CALENDAR used to measure the year.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Good thing they took those cave paintings literally, eh?

  2. john barry says:

    I feel a little awkward talking about the great flood. I think what I have gleamed from the informative articles nicely done by the G Man is that everyone talks about the weather but only Gods do anything about it.

    Young Bill Cosby routine , God talking to Noah, giving him all the details and instructions, that we all know. At the end God asked Noah “any questions”. Noah question “What is a cubit”.

    I think Noah moved to Seattle Wa. and feels completely at home. There are two periods of heavy rain in Seattle, January to June and July to Dec. I asked a young girl in Seattle when does it quit raining , she said I don’t know , I am only 12 years old.

    I had an Aunt who believed strongly and passed on knowledge , wisdom and understanding in the oral tradition. Around 12 I realized it was the Oral Roberts tradition she was following that was mainly talk, unfortunately most of the talk was about money.

  3. Stephen says:

    Having thoroughly imbibed historical critical scholarship I just think it’s a mistake to try to link these common ANE myths back to some prehistoric event. This is sophisticated literature here. I think making this a historical issue diminishes what was a truly remarkable accomplishment. The sophisticated thinkers and composers of Genesis took common ANE mythological repertoire and shaped it, in many ways demythologizing it, and created a cosmic account revealing their view of humanity’s place in creation. The Flood is not some exaggerated account of some dimly remembered historical event but an act of the imagination, an account of the uncreating of the cosmos. Astonishing, meaningful literature. Literature, not history.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      At which point, the Faithful turn you into a pile of rocks FOR DOUBTING GAWD’S WORD!!! SCRIPTURE!!! SCRIPTURE!!! SCRIPTURE!!!

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I just think it’s a mistake to try to link these common
      > ANE myths back to some prehistoric event

      +1,000

      Historicism is a wide express lane for driving AROUND the point.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      I kind of like the romantic notion of a dimly remembered event passed down around the campfire from the dawn of civilization. But you are right, it isn’t strictly necessary.

      • StuartB says:

        Yeah, that idea is beautiful. I love that.

      • StuartB says:

        Yeah, that idea is beautiful. I love that.

        Posted twice due to moderation lol.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I remember what Sci-Fi Catholic said regarding End Times choreographies:

          “It should at least pass the Cool Test. Since we don’t know for certain, our speculations should at least be Cool.”

      • Stephen says:

        Mike, I remember as a child reading an astronomy book which claimed that ancient man thought that the stars were the distant campfires of travelers like himself, wandering across the prehistoric world. I have no idea whether that’s true or not nor does it matter. I’m 58 years old now and that beautiful and moving image has stayed with me across a lifetime.

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          The thought that there were probably six thousand generations between the first hominid to utter an adjective (an intellectual feat that dwarves any subsequent one) and the advent of writing causes me a severe sense of vertigo. My imagination pitches, sways, and falls headlong into such a chasm of time.

    • Robert F says:

      I agree, Stephen.

  4. The gods hear them and instruct Anu, the goddess of creation, to make a twin for Gilgamesh, someone who is strong enough to stand up to him and who will ultimately save him. Anu makes Enkidu, a hairy wild man who lives in the wilderness with the animals. The two meet in the streets of Uruk and a great fight breaks out between them. Gilgamesh is triumphant but his encounter with Enkidu changes him. They become companions.

    They go on an epic journey together. Gilgamesh catches the eye of Ishtar. She tells him to become her lover, promising great riches and rewards in return. Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar, telling her he is aware of her reputation as a scornful lover. Ishtar is outraged and convinces her father, Anu, to punish Gilgamesh.

    Is this a typo or was Anu both a goddess and Ishtar’s father?

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