Posts Tagged ‘Genesis flood’


Was the Genesis flood narrative copied from Mesopotamian myths?

June 1, 2011

The Challenge

By the end of the 19th century archaeology had discovered many Mesopotamian texts containing creation and flood narratives remarkably similar to those in the Bible.

Critical scholars came to believe that the Biblical narratives had simply been copied from earlier Mesopotamian myths.[1] [2]The Biblical flood narrative in particular is still considered by some scholars to have been borrowed from the Mesopotamian story.[3] [4]

The Facts

Later scholarship noted significant differences between the Biblical and Mesopotamian narratives;[5] the Mesopotamian creation narratives were now viewed as parallels to the Genesis narrative.[6]  Still later it was the Genesis and Babylonian accounts shared an earlier Mesopotamian source, whether literary or oral.[7] [8] [9]

Scholarly Views

Kitchen (Assyriologist), note that Assyrologists have abandoned the idea of Genesis 1-11 being borrowed from Assyrian and Babylonian texts.[10] Millard (Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages), observes there is no evidence for direct literary borrowing.[11] [12] This is the majority view of current scholarship. [13]  [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20]

At least early as 1872, it was suggested that the similarities between the Genesis and Mesopotamian flood narratives are due to the texts describing the same genuine historical event. [21]

In the early 20th century, critical scholar Hermann Gunkel observed that this was supported by the curious description (in both the Genesis account and the earlier Mesopotamian accounts), of the Ark being driven upstream, contrary to expectation.[22]  This explanation remains well represented in scholarship. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]

[1] ‘Some argued that many Hebrew ideas actually originated in Mesopotamia and were borrowed by Israel.’, Chavalas, ‘Mesopotamia and the Bible’, p. 32 (2003).

[2] ‘The idea of Babylonian primacy was perfected by Delitzsch in 1902-1903. In his lectures, he argued that Israel could only be studied in light of Babylonia, and in fact Israelite civilization was derived from Babylonia.’, ibid., p. 32.

[3] ‘Since this portion of the biblical narrative postdates the Mesopotamian traditions (the final form of this portion of Genesis is usually dated to the fifth century B.C.E, although its oral or written sources may be dated as much as six hundred years earlier), it is conceivable, if not likely, that the biblical writer has borrowed and adapted Mesopotamian flood traditions.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums’, p. 25 (2008).

[4] ‘It is commonly accepted that parts of Genesis 1–11 show literary dependence, either directly or indirectly, on Mesopotamian literary tradition.187 The best test case would be the flood story in Genesis 69.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[5] ‘As scholars studied the significant differences and omissions between the accounts, they concluded that neither the Mesopotamian nor the biblical author borrowed from the other.’, Couch, ‘The Fundamentals for the Twenty-First Century: Examining the Crucial Issues of the Christian Faith’, p. 177 (2000).

[6] ‘Nevertheless, it adds much that is significant for the Near Eastern mythological horizon, and perhaps even provides a number of interesting parallels to the motifs of the biblical paradise story as told in the second and third chapters of Genesis.’, Kramer, ‘Sumerian Myths and Epic Tales’, in Pritchard (ed.), ‘Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament’, p. 37 (1950).

[7] ‘The similarities in broad outline and in certain points of detail between the Gilgamesh and the Genesis and the Gilgamesh versions are too striking to be accidental. Both probably derive from a common older Mesopotamian tradition, fragments of which are preserved in the Sumerian version.’, Davidson, ‘Genesis 1-11’, Cambridge Bible Commentaries p. 65 (1973).

[8] ‘It is undoubtedly borrowed from a common religious tradition of flood accounts.’, Brueggemnann, ‘Genesis’, p. 73 (1982).

[9] ‘Although the differences between the two stories may be too great to support a theory of direct literary dependence, most scholars are convinced that the biblical flood narrative is to some degree dependent upon ancient Mesopotamian flood narratives.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost treasures of the Bible: understanding the Bible through archaeological’, p. 21 (2008).

[10]Thus most Assyriologists have long since rejected the idea of any direct link between Gen. 1-11 and Enuma Elish, and nothing else better can be found between Gen. 1-11 and any other Mesopotamian fragments.’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 424 (2003); his footnote reads ‘Assyriologists generally reject any genetic relationship between Gen. 1-2 and the Mesopotamian data because of the considerable differences; see (eg.) J.V. Kinnier-Wilson. In D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Nelson, 1958), 14; W. G. Lambert, JTS. n.s., 16 (1965): 287-300, esp. 289. 291, 293-99. and in ISF, 96-113, with addenda; A. R. Millard, TynB 18 (1967): 3-4.7. 16-18, and in ISIF 114-28; T. Jacobsen, in JBL 100 (198 1): 513-29, and translation, both now in ISIF 129-42, plus 160-66.’, ibid., p. 591.

[11]However, it has yet to be shown that there was borrowing, even indirectly. Differences between the Babylonian and the Hebrew traditions can be found in factual details of the Flood narrative (form of the Ark; duration of the Flood, the identity of the birds and their dispatch) and are most obvious in the ethical and religious concepts of the whole of each composition. All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion that cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing. If there was borrowing then it can have extended only as far as the “historical” framework, and not included intention or interpretation.’, Millard, ‘A New Babylonian “Genesis” Story’, in  Hess & Tsumura (eds.), ‘I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary Approaches to Genesis 1-11’, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study, volume 4, p. 127 (1994).

[12] ‘The two accounts undoubtedly describe the same Flood, the two schemes relate the same sequence of events. If judgment is to be passed as to the priority of one tradition over the other, Genesis inevitably wins for its probability in terms of meteorology, geophysics, and timing alone.’, ibid., pp. 127-128.

[13] ‘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. P.D. Miller also admits that ‘there were Mesopotamian models that anticipate the structure of Genesis 1-11 as a whole.’, Tsumura, ‘Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood’, in ibid., p. 47.

[14] ‘With Genesis 1-11 we seem to be working more with shared motifs and basic plotlines that originated in Mesopotamia rather than with actually known texts directed [sic] borrowed into Israel.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[15] ‘The Bible’s accounts of the creation of the world, the creation of humankind, and the flood were not borrowed from these, but neither are they unique in every respect.’, Arnold & Beyer (eds.), ‘Readings from the ancient Near East: primary sources for Old Testament study’, p. 13 (2002).

[16] ‘The details are not exact and most scholars deny any direct literary dependence but it would seem that both stories emerge from a common tradition or milieu.’, Moyise, ‘Introduction to Biblical Studies’, p. 33 (2004).

[17] ‘The Biblical flood of Noah in the book of Genesis 6-9 shares continuity with the other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, but is probably not directly dependent on any of them.’, Snell, ‘A Companion to the Ancient Near East’, p. 256 (2005).

[18] ‘But after a careful study of the two, Alexander Heidel has concluded that “no incontrovertible evidence can for the present be produced” in favor of biblical dependence on the Babylonian materials. His conclusion regarding the flood accounts is similar.’, Niehaus, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology’, p. 22 (2008).

[19] Text

[20] ‘Many who have done thorough linguistic and literary analysis (e.g., A. Heidel, A.R. Millard, D. Damrosch) conclude that literary dependence cannot be demonstrated. Here, as in most of the parallels in the primeval history, it is considered more likely that Mesopotamian and biblical traditions are based on a common source. Some understand this common source to be a piece of more ancient literature, while others consider it the actual event.’, Hill & Walton, ‘A Survey of the Old Testament’, p. (2010).

[21] ‘Among many theorists, George Smith in 1872 [33] famously linked the great Biblical Flood of the book Genesis to an historical event, probably of the 3rd millennium BC, which deposited a 50-cm- sediment-layer in the Mesopotamian lowland.’, Haigh & Křeček, ‘Environmental Reconstruction in Headwater Areas’, p. 14 (2000).

[22] ‘The most characteristic element of the Babylonian account seems to be that the Ark, driven from the South inland against the current of the rivers, was stranded in the northern mountains. This element is so remarkable that it could only have been stimulated by a corresponding natural phenomenon. E. Suss (25ff.) suspects that a violent earthquake in the Persian Gulf may have been the cause. A powerful cyclone from the South, associated with voluminous rain and horrible darkness, drove the destructive waters far into the inhabited land. This event must have taken place in a very ancient time. The news of the terrible catastrophe was preserved through all times. This theory is certainly very plausible.’, Gunkel ‘Genesis’ (1910), Biddle (trans.), p. 77 (1997 English ed.).

[23] ‘This suggests that we are not dealing with a literary dependence or even a tradition dependence as much as we are dealing with two literary perspectives on a single actual event.‘, Walton, ‘Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels’, p. 40 (1994).

[24] ‘The story may have arisen from a specific historical flood that took place in parts of southern Mesopotamia around 2900.’, Tigay, ‘The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic’, p. 214 (2002).

[25] ‘Could not stories be shared by the Bible and surrounding cultures because they are both based on a historical event? Both Scripture and Mesopotamian literature mention a flood because there indeed was a flood.’, Hamilton, ‘Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy’, p. 66(2005).

[26] ‘However, there are more options than simply concluding that the Bible borrowed from Babylon. An equally plausible explanation is that both traditions go back to a real event.’, Longman, ‘How to read Genesis’, pp. 86-87 (2005).

[27] ‘On the basis of substantial historical evidence, coupled with many parallel words and phrases, what reasonable conclusions could we make? Here are just three: 1. There is a likelihood that a flood event actually happened. Why would the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Hebrews invent such a story unless there was some historical basis? 2. considering the parallel accounts are describing a historical event in the region of southern Mesopotamia about 2900 B.C., then Genesis also is describing the same historical, regional flood, and not a global deluge. 3. A regional flood would have brought judgment to those in the region. Judgment would have been specific to the sinful Adamite population, those answerable to God, rather than a universal pronouncement upon all mankind everywhere.’, Fischer, ‘Historical Genesis: from Adam to Abraham’, p. 140 (2008).


The Biblical Flood Narrative: does the text indicate a local or global flood?

April 17, 2011

There are three possible interpretations of the Genesis flood:

  • Anthropologically global, geographically global: all humans everywhere in the earth affected, the entire earth covered with water
  • Anthropologically global, geographically local: all humans on the earth affected, but only a local area of the earth covered with water because all the humans were localized
  • Anthropologically local, geographically local: only humans within the area of the flood affected, and only a local area of the earth covered with water

An argument will be made here for the third of these interpretations, on the basis of the Biblical text.

The Language Used

The language used to describe the flood does appear to refer to a global event, but can apply locally, as the following examples show.

  • ‘all flesh’: Psalm 145:21, Isaiah 40:5; 66:23, Jeremiah 45:5, Ezekiel 20:48; 21:4, Joel 2:28
  •  ‘the face of the earth’: Genesis 4:14; 41:56, Exodus 10:5, Numbers 11:31; 22:5, 11, Isaiah 23:17, Jeremiah 25:26, Ezekiel 34:5; 38:20
  • ‘The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the wild beasts, all the things that creep on the ground’: Ezekiel 38:20

Equivalent phrases are also used non-literally.

  • Deuteronomy 2:25, ‘all people under heaven’
  • 1 Kings 18:10, ‘every nation and kingdom’
  • Ezekiel 38:20, ‘The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the wild beasts, all the things that creep on the ground, and all people who live on the face of the earth’
  • Daniel 4:1; 5:19; 6:24, ‘all peoples, nations, and language groups’

The People Judged

The judgment of the flood came as a direct result of the sins of the covenant community, the people who knew God and His commandments, and who were called by His name.[1]

On the principle that God judges and punishes only those who are enlightened by His law and choose to disobey it,[2]  the flood could only have destroyed those who had been enlightened by God’s law and chose to break it. This validates the view that God destroyed only the enlightened people in the earth by means of a local flood, while unenlightened people elsewhere in the earth were unaffected by the flood.

The Human Survivors

A well known problem for the geographically and anthropologically global interpretation of the flood, is the survival of the Nephilim.[3] The flood narrative itself tells us that the Nephilim ‘were on the earth in those days (and also after this)’ (Genesis 6:4).  This is recognized by standard commentaries as an explicit statement that the Nephilim survived the flood.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

The Animals Saved

Animals designated using the Hebrew words basar, behema, hayya, nephesh, op, remes, and sippor are used to describe the animals which were taken aboard (the common theme is land based oxygen breathing animals with blood).[10] Animals designated using the Hebrew words sheres and yequm (the common theme is sea creatures, swarming creatures, insects, reptiles, rodents, and amphibians), are not in the list of animals taken aboard.[11] This limited list of animals saved demonstrates that not all species were preserved in the Ark, which suggests a local flood and also suggests that the animals saved were only those immediately local to Noah.

The Floodwater Depth

After the waters had been receding for 150 days (Genesis  8:2-3), the Ark ran aground on the 17th day of the seventh month even though  the tops of the mountains were not seen until much later, on the 1st day of the tenth month (Genesis 8:4-5). This proves that the floodwater was only 20 feet above the mountains (Genesis 7:20), in the area local to Noah, and could not have covered all the mountains in the earth.

The Early Expositors

Two first century interpreters of the flood narrative, the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher Philo[12] and the Jewish historian Josephus,[13] both interpreted the flood as local.

[1] Genesis 6:2, ‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose.’.

[2] Romans 2:12, ‘For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law’; 4:15, ‘where there is no law there is no transgression either’; 5:13,’there is no accounting for sin when there is no law’, 1 John 3:4, ‘sin is lawlessness’.

[3] ‘The bald allusion to the Nephilim (lit. fallen ones) in Gen 6:3 (‘The Nephilim were on the earth in those days … ’) fits uneasily into a context that has always presented a challenge to exegetes.’, Coxon, ‘Nephilim’, in Toorn, Becking & Horst (eds.), ‘Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible’, p. 618 (2nd rev. ed. 1999).

[4] ‘In Genesis 6, the Nephilim are connected with the multiplication of humanity on the face of the earth (v 1) and with the evil of humanity which brings about God’s judgment in the form of the flood (vv 5–7). Verse 4 includes a reference to later (postdiluvian) Nephilim. The majority of the spies who were sent by Joshua to spy out Canaan reported giants whom they called Nephilim, and who are designated in the account as the sons of Anak (Num 13:33).’, Hess, ‘Nephilim’, in Freedman (ed.), ‘Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 4, p. 1072 (1996).

[5] ‘From Numbers 13 we learn that the Anakites are said to be descendants of the “Nephilim.” If the Nephilim of Num 13:33 and Gen 6:4 are taken as the same group, the verse indicates that the Nephilim and their descendants survived the flood.’, Matthews, ‘New American Commentary’, p. 336 (2001).

[6]It is not clear why or how the Nephilim survived the Flood to become the original ‘Canaanites; probably a duality of older oral traditions can be detected in the clash between these two texts.’, Hendel, ‘Nephilim’, in Metzger & Coogan (eds.), ‘The Oxford guide to people & places of the Bible’, p. 217 (2004).

[7] ‘The nephilim of Num 13.33 are the people whom the men saw when they were sent to spy out the land of Canaan while Israel was in the wilderness. These beings described as giganteV in LXX present the reader with the problem of how giants survived the Flood, in contrast to the Watcher tradition that conveys that all the giants were physically killed.’, Wright, ‘The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6.1-4 in Early Jewish Literature‘, p. 81 (2005).

[8] ‘Thus, within the Flood narrative itself, the sole continuity of life between pre-Flood and post-Flood is represented by Noath and the others in the ark. Beyond the Flood narrative proper, however, there are implicit pointers in a different direction. One issue is the presence of “the Nephilim” both before the Flood (Gen. 6:4) and subsequently in the land of Canaan as reported by Israel’s spies (Num. 13:33). Indeed, there is a note in the text of Genesis 6:4 which expliciitly points to the continuity of Nephilim pre-and post-Flood: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterwards” (my italics), a note which of course poses the problem rather than resolves it.’, Barton & Wilkinson, ‘Reading Genesis After Darwin’, p. 12 (2009).

[9] ‘Although in Numbers 13 the inhabitants of Canaan are considered enemies of the Israelites, both the use and co-ordination (LXX) or derivation of the designation (MT) in an allusion to Genesis 6 betrays an assumption that one or more of the Nephilim must have escaped the great deluge.’, Auffarth & Stuckenbruck, ‘The Fall of the Angels’, p. 92 (2004).

[10]All these words refer to birds and mammals, though some can be used a little more broadly. We see a high correlation between this list and the list of soulish animals God created on the fifth and sixth creation days, animals that held significance in the preparation of Earth for humankind. Clearly, the survival of these creatures would be important to the restoration and survival of human society after the Flood. Nothing in the Genesis text compels us to conclude that Noah’s passengers included anything other than birds and mammals.’, Ross, ‘The Genesis Question: Scientific advances and the accuracy of Genesis’, p. 167 (2001).

[11] ‘While sheres can refer to small mammals, most often it is used for small nonsoulish animals. Likewise, yequm can refer to all animals or just those that merely subsist.’, ibid., p. 167.

[12] ‘Since the deluge of that time was no trifling infliction of water, but an immense and boundless overflow, extending almost beyond the pillars of Hercules and the great Mediterranean Sea, since the whole earth and all the spaces of the mountains were covered with water; and it is scarcely likely that such a vast space could have been cleared by a wind, but rather, as I have said, it must have been done by some invisible and divine virtue.’, Philo, ‘Questions and Answers on Genesis’, II.29, in Yonge, ‘The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged’, p. 824 (1996); Philo however seems to have believed that the flood was anthropologically universal, though not geographically universal.

[13] ‘Hieronymus the Egyptian, also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them, where he speaks thus:— (95)“There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses, the legislator of the Jews wrote.”’, Josephus, ‘Antiquities’, 1.94-95, in Whiston, ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (updated ed. 1987).