Comment on Flood of Floods

Early Bronze Age Sumer, prior to 2000 BCE:

During the last two centuries, literary sources of the Hebrew Bible have been recovered by archaeologists investigating the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Jordan and other regions of ancient settlement.  Evidence now shows that the classical Book of Genesis, for example, reworked narratives that were composed much earlier in the Bronze Age (cir. 3100- cir. 1100 BC).   The Genesis story of Noah’s Flood is a case in point.  

Noah’s literary precedents reach back to the birthplace of clay brick writing, Sumer (then called Kur-gal, meaning “great land,” “great mountain,” and “great temple”).  In the Sumerian versions of the flood story recovered to date, the irritable thunderer is not the Bible’s YHWH but a similarly displeased spirit of land and wind, Enlil of Nippur, whose plan to drown all people is not self-executing.  Enlil's order requires implementation by other gods, and one of them, Enki the Wise of Eridu, the friendly god of water, leaks the weather forecast with survival instructions to a Sumerian priest-king named Ziu-su-dra (“the long lived one”) or, in Akkadian language, Atra-hasis (“the extra wise one”).  The good Sumerian heeds Enki’s intelligence.  He shelters himself, his family and his food supply in the floating warehouse that is the prototype for Noah’s ark.  Everybody else dies. 

This Early Bronze Age myth from Eridu, where “the kingship first descended from heaven,” was retold much later during the Middle Bronze Age in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.  In the long and tumultuous interim, Eridu had silted up, Enki had moved upstream to Uruk, Uruk then had been conquered by Sargon’s Akkadian Empire, Akkad in turn had been overthrown by the third dynasty of Ur, and Ur’s empire had toppled, whether through climate change or central government planning, giving rise to Hammurabi’s Old Babylon.  

The Babylonian deluge story is ironic.  Its focal character is not the flood survivor but the legendary builder of Uruk’s once-defensive walls, King Gilgamesh of Uruk.  His quest for survival is delusional.  He desperately wants to avoid death, but he is dead by the time that he meets anybody who claims to be immortal.  This claimant, Ud-zi Faraway (or Utnapishtim the Distant), in life had been a prophet of Enki who was launched into the sea in a sealed box by supporters of Enlil.  They tried to end a famine by ridding the city of him.  Now he greets new arrivals off the boat of the ferryman of the dead, and that is how Gilgamesh meets him.  Gilgamesh is washed up.  His animal skin is thrown into the sea, and he is freshly clothed for existence underground.  Heroic fantasies in a shadow simulation of Uruk are all that remains for him.  Death has transformed him into myth, like his friend Enkidu before him.

This Babylonian tall tale circulated widely and begat famous offspring.  Ud-zi inspired Odysseus in the Greek Iron Age (before 600 BC), and then Noah in Persian classical times (cir. 458 BC).  The literary origin of the Biblical account is remarkably clear. Noah, the common prophet and ancestor of everybody in the world after the flood, curses his Hamitic descendants to servitude under his Semitic descendants (Genesis 9).  The curse falls on the slaves and taxpayers of the Persian Empire including Akkadians, Babylonians, Philistines, Canaanites, and some Assyrians (Genesis 10).  The favored masters include Jews, their Arab cousins, and other supporters of Persian rule.  

This part of Genesis was composed after Persia’s Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and restored the abandoned temple of Babylon’s god Marduk (cir. 539 BC). The mythic images of Cyrus were the flood and grape vines. (See the prophetic dreams of Astyages in Book 1 of the Histories of Herodotus.)  Noah’s story probably was written, perhaps with the Book of Exodus, in about 458 BC, when the scribe Ezra was commissioned by Persia’s King Artaxerxes to establish a Jewish temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 7).  At that time Artaxerxes was suppressing an Egyptian revolt.  Jews were gathering in Jerusalem from Babylon and Egypt.  The Jerusalem temple reconstruction project was modeled on Babylon's.  Babylonian myth was adapted for the occasion, but the connection then was forgotten for 2300 years. While Babylonian literature lay buried in the sands, the authorship of Genesis was ascribed to Moses.

Similarities among the old flood stories are remarkable, but so are differences. In the Sumerian legend, humans originally are created as immortal.  Death is created for them by the gods only later, and this concept of original immortality is moralized in Genesis, where Adam’s disobedience turns him back into dust (Genesis 3).  In Babylonian Gilgamesh, however, mortality existed from the beginning, and death is unavoidable, except in the shadow world of heroic fame.  

One universal flood is the apparent subject in these myths, and also in the narrative of the genocidal Nūḥ composed a thousand years after Genesis (see Qur’an 71.26-28), but the stories are hardly alike.  Revisions did not arise over time because later writers could access better historical research about the flood, nor did the revisers keep forgetting more of the facts.  Changes occurred partly because language changed but mainly because empires changed.  Sumer fell, Babylon fell, Persia fell, and after each trauma the resilient story found re-employment in the culture of a new regime.   

Kings and priests controlled literary records until Gutenberg’s machine escaped their custody in northern Europe at the beginning of modernity.   They kept this control in order to force the dead to work for them.  Premodern myth says “then,” or “long ago,” or “way back in the beginning,” when it usually means now and tomorrow and forever.  Premodern myth typically is institutional allegory (Sumerian Flood, Genesis, Qur’an) or parody thereof (Gilgamesh).  Cultural affiliation determines whether it is true, or only a fantasy.  Proponents embrace it with belief, tolerance or hypocrisy, as the case may be.  Opponents, if they get the chance, destroy it, transform it to serve their own purposes, or exploit its entertainment potential.

The flood myth survived in Jewish temple literature because Ezra, or one associated with him, saw how to reemploy a myth from Babylon.   It survived in India, in the story of King Manu, due to similar reuse for the Vedic priesthood.  Perhaps Plutarch’s account of Osiris, Ovid’s story of Deucalion, Chaucer’s Canterbury tale of the miller, Melville’s Moby Dick, and even Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle remain afloat in today’s vast sea of stories because Enki the Wise always has known when to jump ship to the counterculture.   

Questions for reflection:

1.     Find three points of similarity and three points of difference between the flood stories in Gilgamesh and Genesis. Briefly describe each of these points.

2.     Does it matter, or should it matter, that the Biblical flood story was preceded by much older stories? 

3.     Find three points of similarity and three points of difference between Noah of Genesis and Nūḥ of the Qur’an.  Does it matter, or should it matter, that the Arabic story was preceded by stories from Persia and Iraq?



Suggested further readings:


Homer, The Odyssey


“Deucalion and Pyrrha” from Ovid, Metamorphosis


King Manu and the Flood, from Matsya Purana


“The Tale of the Miller” from Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales


Shipwrights’ pageant and Mariners’ Pageant from The York Corpus Christi Plays