Parashat Noach / פרשת נח – A Great Flood: Atra-hasis, Gilgamesh, and Genesis 6

This post was originally presented as a paper in my class on The Bible and the Ancient Near East at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.  The paper was entitled, A Great Flood: Atra-hasis, Gilgamesh and Genesis that is available on academia.edu.

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This post will examine the Great Flood accounts of Mesopotamia, namely Atrahasis and Gilgamesh in light of their presentation and also in comparison to the Biblical Great Flood story in Genesis 6 of this week’s parasha Noach. The Mesopotamian flood accounts and the Genesis account of Noah will be examined to decipher correlations and differences and further examined to see how these accounts fit into Ancient Near Eastern literary history.

Atra-hasis

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The flood story of Atrahasis focused on the flood being sent to force the “workers”, the non-divine/non-immortal peoples to be quiet and not disturb the “elders”. After various plagues do not quiet the “workers” as the “elders” desire them there is a plan to kill off all of the “workers” via a flood (I:355-60). Ea-Enki warns Atra-hasis of the impending flood and instructs him to build a barge to save himself and others (III, i:18-48). After seven days the flooding ceased. Enlil, one of the elders, was furious that Atra-hasis had survived the flood and the plan to destroy humanity had failed (III, vi:5-10). Being that humanity was not silenced by the flood and Atrahasis and others survived in the barge, the divine assembly decided to control the growth of humanity and their “noisiness” by making some women infertile, sending “demons” to kill babies and also having women take on celibacy as priestesses (III, vii: 1-8).

In contrast to what we will see in the flood account in Gilgamesh, in the Atra-hasis flood story does not conclude with reward for the hero, but the divine assembly whose plan to destroy all life in the flood finds an alternate way to control humanity with the aforementioned making women sterile, babies dying and celibate priestesses.

Gilgamesh

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The flood story of Gilgamesh begins with the divine assembly deciding to flood the earth. Ea, the divine patron of fresh water, was opposed to flooding the earth and secretly warned Utpanishtim. Utpanishtim is told to build a barge and take samples of living creatures with him to save them also (Tablet XI, col. i:7-40). Utpanishtim built the barge in seven days and loaded it with his gold and silver, his family, his animals, wild beasts and the craftspeople that built the barge (Tablet XI, col. ii:58-94). For six days and seven nights the flood took place (Tablet XI, col. iii:96-144). After waiting seven days after the end of the rain and wind, Utpanishtim left the barge and prepared a sacrifice to the divine assembly. At first Enlil was angry that all of humanity was not destroyed in the flood but in council with Ea and the rest of the divine council decided that Utpanishtim showed great wisdom to defeat the plan to destroy humanity in the flood and, therefore, made Utpanishtim and his wife immortal (Tablet XI, col. iii:145-98).

The Gilgamesh flood account demonstrates the cultural need to understand how to properly interact with the gods and also the important answer to how to attain immortality, the ever present need to find a way to defeat death (Kuo & Redding, 2014, Gilgamesh, Epic of). Utpanishtim showed Gilgamesh that he was able to become immortal by his outsmarting the plans of the divine assembly.

Similarities and Differences to Genesis 6

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The similarities lie in all three accounts feature a great flood, a hero that creates a barge or ark and that they and those on the ark with them survive the flood. These parallels caused Hill (2009), to put forward that the three flood accounts demonstrate at minimum a common ancient literary source for the flood stories or even more that they are based on a historical event in Mesopotamian history (p. 81).

As to differences one of the most important is in the Genesis account, God allowed many years to pass (up to 100) before the flood to allow for humanity to change their wicked ways, whereas in both Atrahasis and Gilgamesh the timing of the flood was at most seven days. God also directly told Noah to prepare for the flood and build the ark (Gen 6:13-16), whereas in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh accounts they were informed indirectly of the divine council’s plan to flood the earth. The direct action to save Noah in the Genesis account was seen as an important difference in the flood stories by Sarna (1989) in his commentary on Genesis (p. 48). The Genesis flood was for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:12) in contrast to the seven-day flood of Atrahasis and the six-day flood of Gilgamesh. The Genesis flood account contrasts with Atra-hasis and Gilgamesh in that the Genesis account reflects Biblical monotheism whereas the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh reflect the polytheism of the Mesopotamian world (Elwell & Beitzel, 1988, p. 800).

Comparing Biblical Texts with Ancient Near Eastern Texts

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As to the Genesis flood the comparison with other ANE texts is important in showing that as the Biblical account puts forward that the whole world was affected by the flood:

“All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.” (Genesis 7:23, Tanakh)

it would be understandable for there to be flood accounts from many cultures given the global nature of the flood per the Genesis account. Along with bolstering the Biblical texts, the comparing of the Bible with ANE texts also allows for more understanding of the cultural back- ground of the Biblical texts given that much of early Biblical history took place in Mesopotamia where Abraham came from and also with the Babylonian exile, important development of Jewish life took place and was developed in Babylon.

Conclusion

Noah's Ark

This post examined the great flood accounts of Mesopotamia, namely Atra-hasis and Gilgamesh in light of their presentation and also in comparison to the Biblical flood story in Genesis. The Mesopotamian flood accounts and the Genesis account of Noah were examined to decipher correlations and differences and further examined to see how these accounts fit into Ancient Near Eastern literary history. This examination highlighted the similarities and contrasted between the Mesopotamian flood accounts with the Genesis account of Noah to better understand the development of Ancient Near Eastern thought and religious practice.


References

Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Hill, A. E. (2009). A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Kuo, J. C., & Redding, J. D. (2012, 2013, 2014). Gilgamesh, Epic of. In J. D. Barry, L. Wentz, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair-Wolcott, R. Klippenstein, D. Bomar, … D. R. Brown (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Matthews, V. H., & Benjamin, D. C. (2006). Old Testament parallels: Laws and stories from the ancient Near East [Kindle Mac].

Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.