Ancient History & Civilisation


Babylon and Bible Floods

The human species,

according to the best theory I can form of it,

is composed of two distinct races,

the men who borrow, and the men who lend.

Charles Lamb

Since the wonderful moment when my life as a British Museum cuneiformist began (2 September 1979), I have given innumerable public gallery talks about clay tablets and what is written on them, and very often found myself in front of George Smith’s Flood Tablet stressing its remarkable closeness to the Genesis Account. Each time I have exhorted tolerant listeners to go home and compare the two together by reading them one after the other. Whether any of these victims ever did this I do not know, but no reader of this book should need such encouragement, for it has now become a pressing – if not unavoidable – matter to clarify what results from such a comparison.

So far we have examined the literary evidence for the Flood Story in ancient Mesopotamia over two millennia, and established that it is an ancient story deeply set within Mesopotamian culture. Since George Smith’s brilliant discovery in the nineteenth century it has been widely known that there are strong links between the Genesis narrative and the seventh-century BC text of Gilgamesh XI. At the same time it has been widely acknowledged that the cuneiform tradition as known in the case of Atra-hasīs at least is of greater antiquity than the biblical, for the earliest cuneiform flood stories that we have go back at least to the eighteenth century BC. Two tasks now lie ahead of us. The first is to demonstrate the literary dependence of the Hebrew text on cuneiform flood tradition; the second – assuming that demonstration to be convincing – is to explain how it was that materials from Babylonian cuneiform could have passed into biblical Hebrew.

The Ark Tablet, being new and full of surprises, has so far acted as the springboard for this investigation, but it does not support us all the way, for its sixty lines end just before the waters come, and we need to look at the Flood Story from start to finish in order to evaluate the relationship between Cuneiform and Hebrew. Also, the other pre-Gilgamesh flood sources at our disposal, all of which have made regular appearances in previous chapters, do not cover anything like the whole story or this crucial part, but only the announcement of the Flood, and in part, the building of the Ark. Thus comparison of the Babylon and Hebrew traditions relies almost as heavily on Gilgamesh XI now as in Smith’s day, when the issue of such a connection first came to attention.

Here, then, the Flood Story in Gilgamesh (Tablet XI: 8–167), bolstered where possible from our other cuneiform flood tablets, is summarised to see how it really overlaps with Genesis. The argument, therefore, is not that the Genesis narrative is translated from, or directly derived from, the Assyrian version of Gilgamesh that we now have. The comparison illustrates strong connections between the traditions in topic and ideas, and establishes that the Hebrew text reflects an antecedent version or versions of the Flood Story in cuneiform that must itself have been strongly related to Gilgamesh XI, while not being identical.

As we have already seen in Chapter 10 with regard to the birds and animals, the Hebrew text of Genesis can be seen to have been forged out of separate literary strands according to the Documentary Hypothesis, and this line of approach is again useful in any assessment of the relationship between the cuneiform and Hebrew texts. In quoting Genesis passages here we can consider separately the traditions represented by the background biblical sources known as J and P.

This is not the first time that such a comparison has been made, but the new material presented here calls for a fresh look. Within the context of this book the following nine sections seem to me to address the salient issues regarding the connection between cuneiform and Hebrew tradition:

1. Why the Flood and Who the Hero?

Gilgamesh XI gives no reason for the Flood. Utnapishti simply explains to Gilgamesh what the important gods have decided but their motive – of paramount interest to us – was evidently irrelevant. Utnapishti, though traditionally a king, does not seem like one to me. We have no insight into his moral or personal qualities (Gilgamesh XI: 8–18). Similarly, in the Atrahasis tradition we know virtually nothing of the hero’s qualifications or qualities, though we do see that the flood was the gods’ third attempt to destroy Man, a noisy, over-abundant and expendable irritant.

In Genesis 6, in contrast, the Flood is explicitly punishment for sinful behaviour, with Noah, son of Lamech, selected for the role of saviour because he was a just and perfect man. The theme is clear in both sources J and P.

This encapsulates a significant contrast between the Babylonian plot and its Judaean recycling, underpinning the importation of Babylonian narrative into the Hebrew Bible. The cuneiform version is vested only in the convenience of the gods, the biblical is preoccupied with human morality; man, the highest creation, had disgusted his creator by his wicked behaviour. In Gilgamesh, the most significant narrative of Mesopotamian literature, it is striking that no reason for the destruction is given at all.

2. Breaking the News

In Gilgamesh XI, the god Ea, although sworn to secrecy, divulges to Utnapishti what is going to happen and what he must do, by whispering the famous Flood Story speech through the reeds. He thus dispenses with the dream-message approach that is an important feature in the Atrahasis story (although, intriguingly, the dream is acknowledged as having played its part later in the Gilgamesh story).

In Atrahasis much more is made of the messages, to good narrative and dramatic effect, but the Gilgamesh version, preserving the famous speech, pares it down to advance the plot.

There is no counterpart to this very Mesopotamian motif in the Judean text. In Genesis 6, God, not having to disguise or account for his actions to anyone, just tells Noah.

3. Ark-building

Once Utnapishti’s Ark, thanks to Smith’s discovery, floated onto the scene, its odd cubic shape and marvellous indoor facilities provided a strong contrast to what was at Noah’s disposal, and to some writers the very difference indicates that this comparison reveals little more than that ‘people in floods have boats’. These are the two received Gilgamesh descriptions:

The boat that you are going to build,

Her dimensions should all correspond;

Her breadth and length should be the same;

Cover her with a roof like the Apsû.

Gilgamesh XI: 28–31

Ten nindan each her sides stood high.

Ten rods each, the edges of her top were equal

I gave her six decks

I divided her into seven parts

I divided her interior into nine.

Gilgamesh XI: 59–63

Genesis 6, source P, gives all the details within one brief – but memorable – section:

14Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

Genesis source J omits this.

As shown in Chapter 8 (summarised in Chapter 14, with the textual evidence in Appendix 2), the apparently asymmetrical procession from circle to square in these two passages represents a single line of transmission: the Gilgamesh cubic Ark is a distortion of the original round coracle, and the Judaean oblong version an adapation of that. What is important for the appraisal of textual connection is that a case which seems to mitigate against a shared origin does the opposite.

4. Utnapishti’s Cover Story and the Omens

Utnapishti accepts his building instructions but, apprehensive about ‘the city, the crowd and elders’, needs a cover story to explain to everybody why he is building the boat. Ominous bizarre rainfalls of birds, fishes and bread-cakes will be the sign that the Flood is about to come (Gilgamesh XI: 32–47). Later in Gilgamesh the Sun God warns that the ominous rain is imminent. Atrahasis contains the anxieties and the same ominous motif. Later this ‘cover story’ motif is preserved in the Greek of Berossus (see Chapter 5).

In the Bible there is no counterpart to either plot component, especially ‘Babylonian’ in the emphasis on omens, and an important element within the cuneiform build-up to the climax of the Flood. The passage was doubtless included in the compilers’ sources for Genesis and understandably expunged.

5. The Ark is Stocked

The details of what went on board the Arks – and their differences – has been taken up in Chapter 10, and the troubling disparity between the animal requirements imposed on Noah in Genesis 6 is shown to reflect differences between Hebrew sources J and P. Most important for the present discussion is the new contribution from the Ark Tablet, in which lines 51–2, written over a thousand years before the text of Genesis, speak of the wild animals going up into the boat ‘two by two’. This small two-by-two speck of gold indicates how, when you are dealing with cuneiform matters, a bombshell with new implications can go off at any moment.

6. The Flood Cometh

At this juncture, by the way, the Gilgamesh Epic gives us some of the most powerful writing in cuneiform. Utnapishti’s deluge saw a catastrophic storm, rain and waters sweeping over everything; it lasted for six days and seven nights. Everything died (‘turned to clay’). Calm returned on the seventh day (Gilgamesh XI: 97–135).

Genesis sources J and P are surprisingly individual in the information they give us:

J: time only vague: after seven days, forty days of rain; everything dies.

P: gives exact date in terms of Noah’s life: 2/17/600; all fountains of the great deep burst forth, and windows of the heavens were opened. Flood rose for 150 days; all mountains covered. Everything dies. Fountains and windows closed; waters take 150 days to go down. Flood ends 1/1/601.

7. The Ark Landeth

Mesopotamian and biblical traditions about the landing of the Ark are compared in detail below in Chapter 12.

8. Test Flights

The shared occurrence of birds released to seek land has been consistently viewed since George Smith as one of the most compelling pieces of evidence to link the Babylonian and Hebrew narratives. Here is the passage from Gilgamesh:

I brought out a dove, setting it free;

Off went the dove but then it returned;

No perch was available for it and it came back to me.

I brought out a swallow, setting it free;

Off went the swallow but then it returned;

No perch was available for it and it came back to me.

I brought out a raven, setting it free;

Off went the raven and it saw the waters receding;

It was eating, bobbing up and down; it did not come back to me.

Gilgamesh XI: 148–56

The Hebrew equivalent, which corresponds so closely to the Gilgamesh passage, is found only in Genesis source J:

 … sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

Here particularly, it seems to me, the parallels between the two traditions are overwhelming, and can only be explained by literary borrowing. Differences in detail – such as the species or order of the birds – are of an altogether different order: it is the whole literary episode which is so telling.

In the Koran Nuh spent five or six months aboard the Ark, at the end of which he sent out a raven. But the raven stopped to feast on carrion, and so Noah cursed it and sent out the dove, which has been known ever since as the friend of mankind.

9. Sacrifices and Promises

Utnapishti – moved, shaken and relieved – did the right thing straightaway:

I brought out an offering and sacrificed to the four corners of the earth,

I strewed incense on the ziggurat of the mountain;

Seven flasks and seven I set in position,

Below them I heaped up (sweet) reed, cedar and myrtle.

The gods smelled the savour,

The gods smelled the sweet savour,

The gods gathered like flies around him making the sacrifice.

As soon as Belet-ili arrived,

She lifted aloft the great flies that Anu had made when he wooed (her):

‘O gods, let these be lapis lazuli (beads) around my neck, so that I remember these days and never forget them!’

Gilgamesh XI: 157–67

In Genesis Noah, too, responds thankfully with sacrifice, but both J and P are more concerned with the divine promise that destruction will never be inflicted on the human race, and it is only source P that tells us of the great rainbow sign that everyone has known of since childhood:

12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Source P

An articulated, reassuring promise does not come to Utnapishti, but the Metropolitan Museum in New York has a Late Babylonian cuneiform tablet with a version of a non-flood part of the Atrahasis story (in which the flood hero is mentioned by his original Sumerian name, Ziusudra), which does articulate the same sort of idea:

Henceforth let no flood be brought about,

But let the people last forever.

Spar and Lambert 2005: 199


The implications of comparing Babylonian and biblical flood accounts here are clear; the unfolded parallels between the stories demonstrate that they are closely connected textually and sequentially; the finished Hebrew is assuredly dependent on pre-existing Mesopotamian Flood Story literature. To what extent can we focus closer on this relationship?

We know from the texts investigated in this book that different versions of the Flood Story circulated on clay tablets in ancient Babylonia at different periods. We also know that the Flood-and-Ark Story was central to two long-running and quite distinct compositions: the Atrahasis story (circulating with free variations) and the Epic of Gilgamesh (apparently in more stable form). We can suspect, too, that there were many more cuneiform flood accounts to be found in the first millennium BC than are now available to us.

The separated-out contributions from sources J and P reflect more than disentangled fragments trickling down from earlier traditions: as received, each represents a structured text with its own traditions but with large and significant omissions:

Genesis source J (short version)

1. No ark description

2. J1 seven pairs of clean; one pair of unclean; seven pairs of birds J2 one pair of clean; one pair of unclean; one pair of birds; one pair of creepers

3. Rain only

4. Flight tests: raven, dove, dove, dove

5. No landing spot mentioned

Genesis source P (long version)

1. Ark description

2. One pair of every kind of living thing

3. Fountains of deep and rain

4. No flight tests

5. Landing spot: mountains of Ararat

6. Sacrifices; promise; rainbow

The fact that J contributes nothing at all about the Ark itself must mean that the Ark coverage was somehow ‘better’ or more appropriate in P’s version, and taken over completely; it cannot be taken that J omitted the principal component of the story, but merely that nothing on that subject was taken from J. Perhaps J’s source included more technical details about boat-building than suited the biblical narrative, much as the abundant coracle hard data in the Ark Tablet over which we have been labouring was reduced to a succinct line or two in first-millennium BC Gilgamesh. The reverse situation applies with the equally crucial flight tests, apparently omitted by P, probably due to J’s having a fuller or more suitable version that was taken up en bloc.

Source J is itself an amalgam of two quite separate animal number traditions, as we have seen in the previous chapter. The ‘original’ idea was surely one male and one female of every species, as found in P. J is closer to Old Babylonian Atrahasis in including birds which (as far as we can see) do not occur in the other cuneiform sources. Only the Ark Tablet attests to the two-by-two tradition in cuneiform, but now we know it was there in Babylon.

J mentions only rain but P, closer to Gilgamesh XI, describes flood and rain, and here again it is likely that two background traditions are involved. J’s source, rather than having no mountain landing at all, more likely presented an unfamiliar Babylonian name, while the resonance of mountainous Ararat in the far north offered by P made its choice obvious to a Judaean. We can go no further here.

The Hebrew text as we have it is a highly moulded literary production formed out of parts of two primary and different strands of Hebrew flood literature. These two sources, having been woven together, are no longer complete, but can be comprehended as distinct once they are ‘resuscitated’. Omissions and editorial processes do not disguise that J and P were not identical.

In my view these very differences are likely to reflect distinct cuneiform versions of the Flood Story. These varying background tablet versions almost certainly recounted the Babylonian Atrahasis story rather than that of Gilgamesh. The classic biblical story of Noah and the Flood in Hebrew thus preserves for us the shadowy ghosts of what we can think of as ‘Cuneiform Tradition J’ and ‘Cuneiform Tradition P’.

How it was possible for Hebrew redactors to convert those tricky impressed wedges to elegant inked Hebrew is the subject of the following chapter.

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