Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: Part III

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Excerpt Until recently, the Creation and the Flood have often been treated as separate units. One of the reasons for this may be that initially discovered ancient Mesopotamian documents provided either a Creation myth without the Flood story... Continue reading

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This article was first published in a 4 part series, starting in the Winter 1996 issue of Bible and Spade.


Creation and Flood

Until recently, the Creation and the Flood
have often been treated as separate units. One of the reasons for this may be that initially discovered ancient Mesopotamian documents provided either a Creation myth without the Flood story (“Enuma elish” and others) or the Flood story without a Creation motif (“Gilgamesh Epic,” tablet XI), all in seventh-century neo-Assyrian copies from the Nineveh of Ashurbanipal’s time.1 Therefore, scholars were busy comparing Genesis 1 with “Enuma elish,” and Genesis 6–8 with “Gilgamesh” XI, without integrating these two sections of Genesis.

However, we now have some evidence that the “continuous narrative of the first era of human existence” in the ancient Near East covered both the Creation and the Flood, as Millard (1994: 116) and others have noted. For example, the “Atra-Hasis Epic” from the Old Babylonian Period (ca. 1630 BC), which Lambert and Millard presented in 1969 in a thorough study, with the text and its translation,2 covers the history of man from his creation to the Flood. This history was widely known in ancient Mesopotamia, and a similar tradition with the same overall structure was known in the early second millennium BC.

Recently Jacobsen suggested the existence of a Sumerian version of such a tradition. According to him, the Sumerian Deluge Tablet from Nippur,
which gives not only an account of the Flood but also a list of five cities before the Flood like those in the Sumerian King List,3 may be combined with another Sumerian fragment from Ur and a later bilingual fragment from Nineveh. This combined text, which he names the “Eridu Genesis” (1994: 129–30),4 comprises: (1) the creation of man, (2) the institution of kingship, (3) the founding of the first cities and (4) the great Flood. While Jacobsen’s reconstruction of two Sumerian fragmentary texts (ca. 1600 BC) and one Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual fragment (ca. 600 BC) from three different places remains hypothetical, it seems that an overall tradition linking Creation, early kings, and the Flood existed in Babylonia from early times (Millard 1994:125).

Comparative Approach.
Biblical scholars have accepted the view that a similar tradition, which links Creation and the Flood, is also reflected in the overall literary structure of Genesis 1–11. Coats, following Clark, notes that in the Sumerian King List and the 'Atra-Hasis Epic', "various narrative elements are set together in something of the same series as the OT primeval saga" (1983: 38).

According to Clark, "in his total outline P is influenced by the King List tradition which had now (in some editions) incorporated the flood narrative."

As for “J,” he proposes that "J is basically dependent on the tradition of the Atrahasis epic for his outline of the primeval history including the sequence of creation, repeated sin, punishment, and divine grace culminating in the flood" (1971:187–88).

It is not so simple, however, to divide the Mesopotamian traditions exactly between the King List, “priestly” tradition, and the “Atra-Hasis” “epic” tradition. In fact the latter played important roles in the priestly tradition. For example, it is reported that a Babylonian incantation priest cited a part of the “Atra-Hasis Epic” to advise a late-Assyrian king on a drought (Lambert and Millard 1969: 27–28).5

A number of scholars have made a thorough study of “Atra-Hasis” and its relevance to Genesis research.6 For example, Kikawada, who abandons the source analysis of Genesis, studied the structural similarities between “Atra-Hasis” and Genesis 1–11 as a whole. According to him, both compositions used the same literary convention, “a five point outline,” consisting of (1) creation: man, (2) first threat, (3) second threat, (4) final threat: flood, (5) resolution,

narrating primeval history up to the time of a great flood, followed by a solution to the problem that persisted throughout the pre-flood history,
namely “increase of population.” While “Atra-Hasis” gives “the urban solution,” birth control, to this problem of population growth, “Genesis offers dispersion, the nomadic way.” Kikawada, following Kilmer’s view of “over-population,” (1972) suggests that “Genesis 1–11 may be a polemic

against urban life and its solution to over-population, birth control” (1975: 12–13). Similarly, Moran and Frymer Kensky hold that Genesis 9:1ff. is “a conscious rejection” of the “Atra-Hasis Epic” (Moran 1971; Frymer-Kensky 1977).

However, Oden rejects the overpopulation hypothesis. He holds that "the primary theme of Atrahasis is the development and then the maintenance of the boundary between the gods and humans" (1981:200). According to him, the key to the interpretation of the “Atra-Hasis Epic” is in the human activity, indicated by the “noise” and the “tumult” that “rob Enlil of sleep and prompt him to command the plague, droughts, and then the flood.” The “crime” was that of
scheming humans noisily planning ways to alter the divinely established order so that their status might become something more than workers for the gods (1981: 204).7Oden therefore holds that the Tower of Babel tale (Gn 11:1–9), in which human aspirations to divine status are so transparent, seems to be “the visual equivalent of the auditory assault of Atrahasis” (1981: 210–11).

Whether overpopulation or the guilt of man brought the Flood is still a lively issue in interpreting the epic, as Moran recently pointed out (1987). The similarities between the Genesis account and the “Atra-Hasis Epic” do not support the idea that Genesis is a direct borrowing from the Mesopotamian but do indicate that Mesopotamian materials could have served as models for Genesis 1–11, as Jacobsen holds (1994:141). P.D. Miller also admits that "there were Mesopotamian models that anticipate the structure of Genesis 1–11 as a whole" (1994:150).

K.A. Kitchen notes a similar outline, namely “creation-flood-later times,” and a common theme, namely “creation, crisis, continuance of man,” of the “primeval proto-history” in the “Atra-Hasis Epic,” the Sumerian Flood story, and the Sumerian King List, as well as in the Genesis account. He recognizes here
a common literary heritage, formulated in each case in Mesopotamia in the early 2nd millennium BC (1977: 31).
However, there are also many differences between the Mesopotamian traditions and the Genesis account, in addition to the basic concepts of divine-human relationship. According to Jacobsen, the P source of Genesis has a rather pessimistic view of existence, introducing moral judgment on man’s sinfulness, while the “Eridu Genesis” holds “an affirmative and optimistic view” (1994:142). Whether the Genesis viewpoint is pessimistic or not, however, depends on the way scholars treat Genesis 1–11 as a literary whole, a subject to which I will return later.

Jacobsen takes the “Eridu Genesis,” as well as the Biblical account (P), neither as a history nor as a myth; he assigns them to a “mytho-historical” genre, since they both have a chronological arrangement along a line of time, with a chain of cause and effect, and show interest in numbers and chronology (1994: 140–141). Miller is supportive of Jacobsen’s view, since the “Eridu Genesis” and “the full shape of Genesis 1–11” (not just the P account) share both “substantial content with typical myths of the ancient Near East” and “features that remind one more of historical chronicles (1994: 148).”

Before discussing the theme of primeval protohistory, I should like to turn our attention to the other literary aspect, namely the structure of Genesis 1–11 as a whole.

Literary Structure. Not only does comparative evidence point to the adequacy of treating both the Creation and the Flood
together as a unified literary work, but the recent emphasis on the holistic approach8 to “the text in its final form”9 or “the text as it stands” (Oden 1981: 211) leads us to investigate the literary theme and structure of Genesis 1–11 as a whole. Before one seeks the theme of Genesis 1–11, one must decide its structure. For this, the toledot*-formula of Genesis is indicative of the narrative structure in the mind of the author/editor. Thompson’s recent study of the toledot-structure of Genesis is in this regard very important, though his view of a sharp break between Genesis 1–4 and Genesis 5ff. (“The Book of the Toledoth of Adam”) is rather overemphasized (1987: chap. 3). Thompson’s view was most recently challenged by Hess, who argued that “the literary form of Genesis 1–2 is intended to parallel the genealogical doublets of chaps. 4–5 and 10–11” (1990: 150, n. 23).

The major problem in deciding the theme and structure of Genesis 1–11 is determining the precise terminus of the “primeval history.” The following suggestions have been made.

Creation ­> Flood (1:1–9:29).
In the light of the literary structure of “Creation-Rebellion-Flood” in the “Atra-Hasis Epic,” some scholars have suggested that the primeval history in Genesis stretches from the creation story through the end of the Flood story, namely Genesis 1–9, rather than Genesis 1–11.10 Since the end of chap. 9 follows up the description of Noah in 5:31 and completes the full description of him in the same manner that the other nine patriarchs are described in chap. 5, it is likely that the Flood story in chaps. 6–9 is meant to be a part of a larger literary unit that begins at 5:1, that is, “The Book of the Toledot of Adam.” The Flood story is, so to speak, a detailed description of Noah and his life inserted into the framework of the genealogy of Genesis 5.11

Creation ­> Babel (1:1–11:9). J.M. Sasson recently explained the Tower of Babel story as “a clue to the redactional structuring” of Genesis 1–11. According to him, Genesis 1:1–11:9 is divided into two parts, “from Creation to Noah (10 generations)” and “from the Flood to Abram (10 generations)”; just as the Nephilim story (6:1–8) serves as a concluding remark for the first part, the Babel story (11:1–9) comes at the end of the second part (1994: 456). This division at the end of 6:8 accords with the Biblical toledot-structure; up to that verse the section is “The Book of the Toledot of Adam,” while the section after 6:9 is “The Toledot of Noah.” Coats also thinks that the primeval saga ends with the tale about the tower, since the tale “binds off the series of narratives about the people of the world” (1983: 36). For a different reason, Oden also considers the conclusion of the primeval history to be Genesis 11:1–9, where “human aspirations to divine status are so transparent” (1981: 211).

However, the end of the second part, 11:9, does not accord with the end of “The Toledot of Noah” (9:29), though 6:8 does accord with the end of “The Toledot of Adam.” Also, in Sasson’s scheme, the reason for placing Abram in the tenth generation is not clearly demonstrated, since his structure lacks both the genealogical list (11:10–26) and the toledot of Terah (11:27ff.), which refer to Abram himself. Before these sections Abram’s name does not even appear.

Creation ­> Terah (1:1–11:26)
.12 Some recognize the “Creation-list Flood-list” pattern in Genesis 1–11 and note that just as Noah is the tenth generation from Adam in the first list, the genealogy in Genesis 5:1–32, so Abram is the tenth generation from Noah in the second list (11:10–26). According to Malamat,
the ante-and postdiluvian lines (i.e., of Adam and of Shem, respectively), symmetrically arranged to a ten-generation depth, are undoubtedly the product of intentional harmonization and in imitation of the concrete genealogical model (1994:188).
Thus the ten-generation scheme of the ancient Near Eastern genealogies might be taken as a formulaic pattern for the Genesis account of the primeval history.

Nevertheless, in the toledot of Shem, 11:10–26, there are only nine patriarchs listed with a full description, though Abram, the tenth one, is referred to as one of the Terah’s sons. Also, strictly speaking, the genealogy in Genesis 11:10–26 does not follow the same pattern as that in Genesis 5. In fact, in the second list there is no description of the death of the patriarchs, while all ten individuals of the first list have after the life span the final comment, “and he died” (cf. 9:29 for Noah) or “and he was not” (v. 24 for Enoch).

Creation ­> Abram (1:1–11:32). The phrase and he died
appears together with the life-span for the description of Terah in 11:32 for the first time since it appeared with Noah in 9:29. This might well suggest that 11:32 is the terminus of the primeval history. This position seems to be supported by Y.T. Radday’s analysis of Genesis based on the computerized statistics, according to which Genesis 5:1–32 and 11:10–32 stand out as “very distinct” within Genesis.13 Thompson notes that 11:27–32 is a genealogical entry that is expanded with an extended narrative and serves with 11:10–26 as a “link” between the tradition of Genesis 1:1–11:9 and the traditions about Abra(ha)m (Thompson 1987: 83).

Creation ­> Abraham’s Call (1:1–12:3). According to von Rad,
The story of the Tower of Babel ends without grace, and therefore ...the main question which the primeval history raises for the reader is that of the further relationship of God to the nations (1962:1.163).

the end of the Biblical primeval history is ... not the story of the Tower of Babel; it is the call of Abraham in Genesis. XII. 1–3: indeed, because of this welding of primeval history and saving history, the whole of Israel’s saving history is properly to be understood with reference to the unsolved problem of Jahweh’s relationship to the nations (1962: 164).14

Thus, von Rad set the terminus of the primeval history at Genesis 12:3 for theological reasons.

However, from the literary point of view, Genesis 12:1–3 is better taken as a “link” between Genesis 1–11 and the following story of the patriarchs. This is what Parunak calls a “transitional technique” A/aB, which is used to link the Patriarchal story (B) with the primeval history (A), by recapitulating the universal relationship of God with the nations at the beginning (a) of the new section, in this case, 12:1ff. (B)(1983).

Thus, Genesis 1–11 seems to have been written with the historical purpose of introducing Abram on the stage, and hence its narrative continues "from the stories of origins on down into later times, that is, to the present, the time when the narrative came into being."

Hence Miller concludes: "The sense of a single story from the creation to the present may have existed in Mesopotamia as well as Israel" (1994:151).

Kitchen, who believes that "each component in the population of early second millennium Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Babylonians, Western Semites) contributed its formulation of inherited traditions", namely a common literary heritage, concludes that "whenever it reached its present form within the entire book of Genesis, that unit Genesis 1–11 best finds its literary origins in the early second millennium BC" (1977: 35).

Recommended Resources for Further Study

The Myth of
Natural Origins 
1996 Issues of
Bible and Spade
Genesis Record


Anderson, B.W.
1994 From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Pp. 416–35 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Clark, W.M.
1971 The Flood and the Structure of the Pre-Patriarchal History. Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 83.

Clines, D.J.A.
1994 Theme in Genesis 1–11. Pp. 285–309 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Coats, G.W.
1983 Genesis, With an Introduction to Narrative Literature (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature 1). Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Dalley, S.
1991 Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frymer-Kensky, T.
1977 The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1–9. Biblical Archaeologist 40: 147–55.

Gordon, C.H.
1965 The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations. New York: Norton.

Greenberg, M.
1983 Ezekiel 1–20, Anchor Bible 22. New York: Doubleday.

Heidel, A.
1949 The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (2nd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1963 The Babylonian Genesis (3rd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hess, R.S.
1990 Genesis 1–2 in Its Literary Context. Tyndale Bulletin 41.

Jacobsen, T.
1939 The Sumerian King List (Assyriological Studies 11). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1994 The Eridu Genesis. Pp. 129–42 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Kikawada, I.M.
1975 Literary Convention of the primaeval History. Annual of the Japanese Biblical Institute 1: 3–21.

Kilmer, A.D.
1972 The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in Mythology. Orientalia 41:160–77.

Kitchen, K.A.
1977 The Bible in Its World. Exeter: Paternoster.

Lambert, W.G.; and Millard, A.R.
1969 Atra-H asis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Oxford: Clarendon.

Livingstone, A.
1986 Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars. Oxford: Clarendon.

Malamat, A.
1994 King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and Biblical Genealogies. Pp. 183–99 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Millard, A.R.
1994 A New Babylonian “Genesis” Story. Pp. 114–28 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Miller, P.D., Jr.
1994 Eridu, Dannu, and Babel: A Study in Comparative Mythology. Pp. 143–68 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Moran, W.L.
1971 Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Biblica 52: 51–61.
1987 Some Considerations of Form and Interpretation in Atra-Hasis. Pp. 251–55 in Language, Literature, and History: Philological and Historical Studies Presented to Erica Reiner, ed. F. Rochberg-Halton, American Oriental Series 67. New Haven CT: American Oriental Society.

Oden, R.A.
1981 Divine Aspirations in Atrahasis and in Genesis 1–11. Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93.

Parunak, H. van D.
1983 Transitional Techniques in the Bible. Journal of Biblical Literature 102: 525–48.

Radday, Y.T., et al.
1985 Genesis: An Authorship Study in Computer Assisted Statistical Linguistics (Analecta Biblica 103). Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Sasson, J.M.
1994 The “Tower of Babel” as a Clue to the Redactional Structuring of the Primeval History (Genesis 1:1–11:9). Pp. 448–57 in “I Studied Inscriptions Before the Flood,” ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Speiser, E.A.
1969 Creation Myths and Epics. Pp. 60–99 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, T.L.
1987 The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel, 1: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1–23, JSOT Supplement 55. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

von Rad, G.
1962 Old Testament Theology. New York: Harper & Row.
1972 Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed. (Old Testament Library). Philadelphia: Westminster.

Weiss, M.
1984 The Bible from Within: The Method of Total Interpretation. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Wenham, G.J.
1988 Genesis: An Authorship Study and Current Pentateuchal Criticism. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42: 3–18.


a. toledot is the Hebrew word for “generations.”­Ed.
1. The best introductions to these Mesopotamian stories are still Heidel 1949 and 1963. See also Speiser’s translations of “The Creation Epic” (“Enuma elish”) and “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (1969:60–99) and the most recent translations by Dalley (1991: 109–20 [“Gilgamesh” XI]; 233–74 [“Enuma elish”]).
2. See also Dalley 1991: 9–35.
3. For a critical edition of the text, see Jacobsen 1939: 69ff.
4. See Miller 1994: 144–46 for the appropriateness of the label “Eridu
5. For other examples, see Livingstone 1986, chap. 4, “Works in Standard Babylonian explaining state rituals in terms of myths.” Note also C.H. Gordon’s view that the genealogies of Genesis which are usually attributed to P, “should not be detached from the narrative,” as indicated by Homeric epic (1965: 284).
6. Oden (1981:197–98) gives “a fairly comprehensive list” of studies in “Atra-Hasis” and its relevance to the Old Testament.
7. He summarizes three views of the “noise” of humans, on pp. 206–207:
a. G. Pettinato: the noise of their rebellious activity. Human rebellion consisted of not submitting to the divinely established order, and this lack of submission made the gods, particularly Enlil, restless.
b. A.D. Kilmer, also Moran: behind the noise made by humans lay simply the problem of too many humans. In other words, the epic deals with the problem of overpopulation.
c. Von Soden: the crime that occasioned the Flood was not simply human rebellion, as Pettinato argued, but more precisely the human tendency to reach ever higher to approach ever closer to the gods.
8. E.g., Greenberg 1983:18–27; Weiss
9. Cf
. Clines 1994.
10. Eg., Clark 1971: 205–206.
11. In Thompson’s terminology, it is “an expanded genealogical narrative” (1987: 83).
12. eg
., Anderson 1994.
13. Wenham 1988:13. Wenham notes here the observations made by Y.T. Radday et al. (1985).
14. Later, however, in his commentary on Genesis, he ends his discussion of the Biblical primeval history with 12:9 as a “transitional paragraph” like 6:5–8 (1972:165).


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