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

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

Literary Theme
. Many suggestions for a unifying theme of Genesis 1–11 as a whole [rather than of P or J, as proposed by von Rad (1962: 1.163),1 Brueggemann (1972: 397–414; 1968: 156–81), etc.], which Clines rightly distinguishes from “a recurrent motif in the primeval history” (1994: 291), have been made, such as the “spread of sin,” “creation-uncreation-recreation,” and so on. Clines suggests the following two possible themes for Genesis 1–11, one negative or pessimistic, and the other positive or optimistic:

1. Mankind tends to destroy what God has made good.
2. God’s grace never fails to deliver man from the consequences of his sin.

But he prefers the latter theme to the former, “if the patriarchal history. unfolds the fulfillment of the blessing promise” (Gn 12:2–3) (1994: 304–5). On the other hand, Oden explains the theme differently: "Rather than an ascending cacophony of wickedness, Genesis 1–11 is a collection of several instances of the human propensity to trespass upon the divine sphere" (1981: 211).

The Flood Story

As Heidel commented,
The most remarkable parallels between the Old Testament and the entire corpus of cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia . . . are found in the deluge accounts of the Babylonians and Assyrians, on the one hand, and the Hebrews, on the other (1949: 244).
After 40 years the situation remains the same, with even more information about the story of the Flood being available from ancient Mesopotamia, though in recent years literatures from ancient Syria, especially from Ugarit and Ebla,2 have been providing enormous amounts of material in other topics for comparative studies.

Mesopotamian Flood Stories. (a) “Gilgamesh “ XI.3 About 120 years ago, in 1872, George Smith of the British Museum read the paper “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge” before the Society of Biblical Archaeology. There for the first time he presented a translation and a discussion of a number of fragments of the “Gilgamesh Epic,” especially of tablet XI, where the Flood story is narrated. This was so similar to the Biblical Flood story that it created immediate enthusiasm for studies in parallels between the two stories (Heidel 1949: 1ff). Certainly, as Millard says, "No Babylonian text provides so close a parallel to Genesis as does the Flood story of Gilgamesh XI" (1994: 123).

Thorough comparisons have been made between the Flood stories of Genesis and the “Gilgamesh Epic,” tablet XI, and their interrelationship and priority have been discussed. Heidel discusses the problem of dependence and summarizes three main possibilities that have been suggested: (1) the Babylonians borrowed from the Hebrew account, (2) the Hebrew account is dependent on the Babylonian, (3) both are descended from a common original. The first explanation, according to him, finds “little favor among scholars today,” while "the arguments which have been advanced in support of [the second view] are quite indecisive."

As for the third way of explanation, Heidel thinks that "for the present, at least, this explanation can be proved as little as the rest" (1949: 260–67).

According to Lambert, who is extremely careful with regard to the Mesopotamian influence on the Genesis Creation story and does not admit the Hebrew borrowing from the Babylonian “Creation” story, “Enuma elish,” too easily,
the flood remains the clearest case of dependence of Genesis on Mesopotamian legend. While flood stories as such do not have to be connected, the episode of the birds in Genesis 8:6–12 is so close to the parallel passage in the XIth tablet of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic that no doubt exists (1994: 101).
Thus, Lambert holds the second position with regard to the problem of dependence.

(b) Earlier Mesopotamian Flood Stories. The “Gilgamesh Epic,” as is well known, is a seventh-century neo-Assyrian copy of an older original, and the Flood story built into it was taken from a much older independent story of the Flood (Tigay 1982: chap. 12). We now have several Old Babylonian versions (17th century BC) of the Flood story, the “Atra-Hasis Epic,” as well as the Sumerian Flood story,4 thus pushing the Mesopotamian Flood tradition back at least 1, 000 years earlier than “Gilgamesh” XI. From Ugarit, a 14th-century copy of the Flood story, "the only version of the Babylonian Flood story found outside Mesopotamia so far", has been unearthed (Lambert and Millard 1969: 131–33).

The Flood itself is also mentioned in other Mesopotamian literature such as the Sumerian King List, which lists kings both from before the Flood and from after the Flood, thus dividing the history into two eras, pre- and post-Flood.5 The King List, after giving a summary of the antediluvian era as “five cities were they; eight kings reigned there 241,200 years” (col. i 36–38), refers to the Flood:
The Flood swept thereover. After the Flood had swept thereover, when the kingship was lowered from heaven the kingship was in Kish (col. i 39–42) (Jacobsen 1939: 77).
Lambert and Millard note other allusions to the Flood in eight cuneiform texts and the mentions of antediluvian kings in texts such as “a list of seven sages,” omens, and incantations (1969: 25–27).

Similarities and Differences. Thus the Flood tradition has a long history in ancient Mesopotamia, and it is not simply enough to compare the Flood story in “Gilgamesh” XI and the Genesis story on literary grounds. It is essential to place each of the Mesopotamian stories in the history of Flood traditions before its historical interdependence and priority are discussed in relationship with the Genesis account. Recent comparison is therefore made in terms of the Flood traditions behind the literature, assuming that “the essential narrative is identical” in both Mesopotamian and Hebrew traditions. Cassuto in his commentary lists 19 parallels and 16 differences (1964: 16–23). Kitchen, who unlike Cassuto had access to Lambert and Millard’s 1969 Atra-Hasis, lists seven similarities and nine differences.

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 (1977: 28–29).

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. “Atra-H asþs” 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 (Gn 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 “Atra-Hasis “ (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 “Atra-Hasis” but simply and naturally through the survivors themselves in Genesis (1977: 29–30).

The Problem of Dependence. As Lambert and Millard note,
It is obvious that the differences are too great to encourage belief in direct connection between “Atra-Hasis” and Genesis, but just as obviously there is some kind of involvement in the historical traditions generally of the two peoples.
After suggesting “one possible explanation” of such involvement, namely the westward movement of these traditions during the Amarna period (ca. 1400 BC), Lambert and Millard simply conclude that “the question is very complex” (1969: 24).

To this problem of dependence, Wenham explains that there are basically three approaches: (1) minimalists, (2) maximalists, (3) somewhere between:
1. The minimalists argue that the differences between the Mesopotamian and the Biblical accounts are too great to suppose dependence of the latter on the former. Both must be independent developments of an earlier common tradition.
2. Maximalists argue that the Genesis editor was in fact familiar with Mesopotamian traditions in something like their present form.... The writer seems to be aware of other ancient Near Eastern ideas and to be deliberately opposing or commenting on them.
3. The truth lies somewhere between the minimalist and maximalist positions (1987: 163).
Kitchen holds that:
it is fair to say that the Mesopotamians had a flood-tradition in common, which existed and was transmitted in several versions.
Therefore it is out of place to talk of "borrowing the Hebrew from the Babylonian (or Sumerian) or vice-versa."

Kitchen explains that
parallel traditions about some ancient event in common Mesopotamian memory would be a simpler and more satisfying answer.
He then notes that Genesis 6:9–8:22, whose 60 verses “might be roughly equal to 120 lines of Sumerian or Akkadian text,” was
probably the simplest and shortest of all the ancient versions, possibly originating as early as they, and was certainly not a secondary elaboration of them (1977: 30).
Similarities among these traditions seemingly show that at least for the ancient Mesopotamians, the Flood was a once-and-for-all cosmic event that happened a long time ago. Kitchen explains it thus:
The Sumerians and Babylonians of ca. 2000/1800 BC believed so firmly in the former historical occurrence of such a Flood that they inserted it into the Sumerian King List (1977: 30).
Literary Unity. Wenham lists 17 points in common between the Genesis account and the Mesopotamian traditions, the “Atra-Hasis Epic,” the Ras Shamra version, the epic of “Gilgamesh” tablet XI, and the Sumerian “Eridu Genesis” version. According to him,
These lists underline the very close parallels between the Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts of the flood.
He notes that
this is particularly striking in the case of the combined (J + P) version of the Flood in Genesis.... It is strange that two accounts of the Flood so different as J and P, circulating in ancient Israel, should have been combined to give our present story which has many more resemblances to the “Gilgamesh” version than the postulated sources.
Therefore, Wenham suggests two alternatives as assumptions, preferring the second to the first:
(1) The J and P versions of the Flood story were in their original form much closer to each other than the relics of these sources now suggest. (2) Only one source was used by the writer of Genesis, a source presumably similar to the Mesopotamian Flood story (1994: 443; 1987: 163–64).

Thus, the J and P distinction is illusory, at least in the Flood story. The recent emphasis on the literary unity of the story by Andersen (“chiasmus”) (1974:123–26),Wenham (“palistrophe”) (1994: 431–32), Anderson (1994), and Longacre (1976) is noteworthy, despite Emerton’s dissent (1987; 1988).6

Recommended Resources for Further Study

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


Andersen, F.I.
1974 The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew. Janua Linguarum, Series Practica 231. The Hague: Mouton.

Anderson, B. W.
1994 From Analysis to Synthesis. Pp. 416–35 in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood, ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Brueggemann, W.
1972 The Kerygma of the Priestly Writers. Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 84: 397–414.
1968 David and His Theologian. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30: 156–81.

Cassuto, U.
1964 A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two: From Noah to Abraham. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Craigie, P.C.
1983 Ugarit and Old Testament. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

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

Emerton, J.A.
1987 An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis: Part I. Vetus Testamentum 37: 401–20.
1988 An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis: Part II. Vetus Testamentum 38: 1–21.

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

Jacobsen, T.
1939 The Sumerian King List (Assyriological Studies 11). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Lambert, W.G.
1994 A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis. Pp. 96–113 in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood, ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

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

Longacre, R.E.
1976 The Discourse Structure of the Flood Narrative. Pp. 235–62 in Society of Biblical Literature 1976: Seminar Papers, ed. G. MacRae. Missoula: Scholars.

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

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

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.

Tigay, J.H.
1982 The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tsumura, D.T.
1988 “The Deluge” (mabbûl) in Psalm 29:10. Ugarit-Forschungen 20: 351–55.

von Rad, G.
1962 Old Testament Theology. New York: Harper & Row.

Wenham, G.J.
1987 Genesis 1–15. Word Biblical Commentary 1. Waco, TX: Word.
1994 The Coherence of the Flood Narrative. Pp. 436–47 in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood, ed. R.S. Hess and D.T. Tsumura. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.


1. Von Rad discusses “the growth of sin” depicted by the Jahwist and explains thus:
God punished these outbreaks of sin with increasingly severe judgments. Nevertheless there is also to be seen... a saving and sustaining activity on the part of God.... As sin waxed, grace waxed the more.
2. For a useful introduction to these materials, see Craigie 1983, which has a section on Ebla (chap. 6).
3. For English translations of the Flood story in the “Gilgamesh Epic,” tablet XI, see Speiser 1969: 93–95; Heidel 1949: 80–88.
4. See M. Civil’s translation and discussion of this story in Lambert and Millard 1969: 138–45.
5. For the Biblical tradition, see Tsumura 1988.
6. Emerton in these articles criticizes five attempts to defend the unity of the Flood narrative against those who believe it to be composed out of two sources, i.e., the attempts of Umberto Cassuto, Eduard Nielsen, F. I. Andersen, G. J. Wenham, and Y. T. Radday.


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