There's More than One Ancient Flood Story
"WTF (Why the Flood)?" Part Two: I remember feeling duped when I finally heard that the Noah story was just one of many ancient flood stories.
AN ANCIENT FLOOD STORY
And now, a story.
A long, long time ago there lived a righteous man. But when God looked down at humanity all he could see was wickedness and evil. This made God very angry. Such deterioration of the human race left God feeling like the only viable option was a reset. A do-over. A complete and utter destruction of humans.
God’s plan was to use an enormous flood to overtake the earth, covering even the highest mountain tops. The waters would wash away all living creatures, giving God a blank slate to start over.
And yet, there was that one guy, still. The aforementioned righteous man who stood out from the rest. God decided to preserve the man and his family, and so to him was given the task of building a massive boat that would protect him from the flood. He was told to put animals in the boat, some gold and silver, as well as his family and friends.
God gave this man very specific instructions about how to build this boat: 120 cubits long, by 120 cubits wide, by 120 cubits deep (essentially a huge cube). The man went about the task of building this giant boat and upon finishing it a relentless, unending storm began. The man put his family in the boat, every kind of animals, some of the best craftsmen including a ship captain and a navigator, gold and silver, and they prepared themselves for what was to come.
It rained nonstop for seven days and seven nights, flooding the entire earth. Throughout the storm the crew was unbelievably brave and courageous and navigated their giant boat through the most turbulent waters imaginable until one day the storm died down.
At that point the righteous man opened a window and, delighted by the storm’s end, sent out a bird to see if land was nearby. First he sent out a swallow who flew out and back. No land yet. Then the boat came to rest on a mountaintop so he sent out a dove who also flew out and came back. Then finally the man sent out a raven who flew away but this time did not come back, indicating the flood waters had finally receded.
Eventually the man, along with his friends and family, exited their ark and, upon dry land, the righteous man presented a sacrifice to give thanks and praise to God. This pleased God and God said to the man two things:
I will never do that again.
I will give you the breath of the gods. You will have the life of a god and you will become immortal. You and your wife will live in a special place and spend the rest of your days in eternal bliss.
THE BABYLONIAN’S FLOOD MYTH
Perhaps you noticed some familiar things from that story? While it sorta sounds like Noah and the Flood, it is actually the classic tale of Utnapishtim and the Great Deluge from the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gligamesh.
One of several ancient Mesopotamian flood myths, this Babylonian story was written about 1000 years earlier than the story found in Genesis of Noah and the Ark. (We can even go back further in to the annals of history by a few hundred more years and read the Sumerian flood story of Ziusudra, one that predates the Epic of Gilgamesh and shares many similar themes as well.)
According to the Babylonians, Gilgamesh sought to live forever. In his quest he learned of Utnapishtim who it had been said was given the gift of eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim and when he found him Utnapishtim recounts the story of the great flood and how he came to have eternal life
Utnapishtim said he was warned by the god Ea that the gods had decided, at the request of the god Enlil, to destroy humanity through a great flood. Their rationale? Humanity had become very violent and evil (and also, because they were too noisy. True story.) While the gods tried to control the population through drought and famine, when such measures failed they decide to wipe the slate clean via a flood. But Ea warns Utnapishtim and tells him to build a giant sea-craft that could save him and his family as well as every kind of animal.
Utnapishtim spoke of a flood so great and intense that the gods themselves were cowering in fear. Yet thanks to the bravery, skill, and courage of Utnapishtim and his crew, and thanks to the giant cube boat that Ea told them how to build, they survived.
Out of gratitude for being saved, the surviving humans offered a sacrifice to the gods which, as it turned out, was the right call to make because the gods were allegedly starving—having not eaten since the flood started (again, true story). Smelling the BBQ happening down below, the gods came to Utnapishtim’s camp and there the god Ea blessed him and his wife with the breath of the gods, granting them life everlasting.
ONE EVENT, MANY VARIATIONS
If you’re like I was a decade ago, you might’ve gone most of your life not knowing that other civilizations had mythical narratives about a worldwide flood.
When I learned about Utnapishtim’s flood story, and just how eerily similar it was to the Genesis flood story, I recall feeling duped. Bamboozled. Like, how was this not talked about more? Was it ignorance? Or perhaps a concentrated effort to ignore how the story of Noah and his ark was just one such story in a longer history of various cultures describing a world-resetting, human-destroying, god-initiated flood?
Archaeological research surmises that millennia ago, perhaps in the 3-4,000 BC range, there were what seems to be several devastating floods in the ancient near east region. Nothing to indicate that the flood was global (as the stories suggest), but certainly ones that caused enough damage and chaos that hundreds of years later people were surely still talking about it. Plus, if you think about it, there were no satellites. No internet. No way of knowing what was going on on the other side of the mountain ranges—let alone the other side of the globe. So if there was a devastating flood that knocked out your world, you would very likely assume it knocked out the world.
Returning to our post from last week, keep in mind that for ancient civilizations the most important thing with these stories, these myths, was not “how did it actually happen,” but “what does it truly mean?” Civilizations like the Sumerians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians each developed over time a different reason for why, years and years and years ago, a great flood wiped out most of creation. Plus, remember that we are dealing with a time in human history when everything that happened in the natural world was understood to be directly linked to the gods. (Which, to be fair, perhaps our modern minds haven’t evolved all that much. When terrible catastrophes like tsunamis or earthquakes strike, don’t many of us still aim our questions toward the heavens, demanding why God did this, or let that horrible thing happen?)
To the ancient minds, if there was a flood that destroyed life as they knew it, then obviously it was at the hands of the gods.
But that raises more questions such as, why?
Why did the gods decide to do such a thing?
Enter, the myth. The story to be told and retold as a way of preserving the memory of why something so tragic once befall our ancestors, and how it is we might avoid a similar destiny for ourselves.
The story of Utnapishtim (from the Epic of Gilgamesh) was how the ancient Babylonians gave meaning to an alleged historical event known as the Great Deluge. Almost 1000 years later, the nation of Israel—while deeply entrenched in the process of becoming, and actively working out what they believed was a special calling by Yahweh—created their own version of the Myth of the Great Deluge (Noah and his ark). It was a powerful way for them to paint the picture for how their God was different from the other gods. We’ll explore this more next week.
In their book, “Genesis for Normal People,” authors Pete Enns and Jared Byas write the following about the ancient Flood Myths:
“In the case of the flood story, Genesis looks so much like these other stories, especially Gilgamesh, that some sort of borrowing is not a far-fetched idea—the biblical writer (or writers) may very well have taken some specific ideas from Gilgamesh and tweaked them for this story.
All of this reminds us that “reporting the facts of history” is not what is going on here in the various flood stories of the ancient world, even though a massive flood is the likely historical event that lies behind all of them. For ancient peoples, including the Israelites, the point was to use the flood as a platform to talk about how they saw the world and their place in it. For the Israelites it became a way of talking about their God—what makes him different from all the other gods, and therefore why he alone is worthy of their devotion.”
WE’RE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO FIGURE THINGS OUT
One thing that comes up for me in reading stories like Noah and the flood is all the ways that humans have, throughout time, wrestled in earnest to understand God, and understand their place in the world.
Contrary to what some theobros would have you believe on Twitter, I don’t think God is obvious. I don’t think things relating to the Divine Realm are clear. I think trying to discern something like the Will of God, or, the nature of the Creator of the Cosmos, can be super confusing and difficult.
More so, I think it has always been this way.
Part of what it means to me to be a Christian is to stand in a long line of people who have diligently sought to understand how a particular vision of God fits within the culture around them. The ancient Israelites believed they had something unique to offer the world: an insight in to Yahweh, the One True God. They even discerned a unique vocational calling to be a kind of Light to the world: reveal the character of Yahweh by being a blessing to all other nations in the process.
So at the very least, in the story of Noah and the flood found in Genesis 6-9, I see an effort made by our spiritual ancestors to try and explain why they believed in and followed the God that they did.
And I see a desire to tell themselves, one another, and the world around them why their God was so different from the others.
Next week we will unpack some of the changes the Israelites made to the ancient flood myths, and what that might mean about how they believed Yahweh to be different, and what meaning they assigned to the Great Flood.
See you then.