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Noah's ark and the flood

Points of similarity between the
Babylonian and Noachian flood stories

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Comparing the stories

The Chaldean Flood Tablets from the city of Ur in what is now Southern Iraq contain a story that describes how the Bablylonian god Enlil had been bothered by the incessant noise generated by humans. He convinced the other gods to completely exterminate every person on Earth as well as land animals and birds with a great flood. One of the gods, Ea, went against the decision of the rest of the gods, and told a human, Ut-Napishtim, to build an ark to save a few humans, and some animals.

Excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh as translated by N. K. Sandars:

"You know the city Shurrupak, it stands on the banks of the Euphrates. That city grew old and the gods that were in it were old. There was Anu, lord of the firmament {earth}, their father, and warrior Enlil their counselor, Ninurta the helper, and Ennugi, watcher over canals; and with them also was Ea. In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, 'The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel {everyone talking at once}.' So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. Enlil did this, but Ea warned me in a dream. He whispered their words to my house of reeds, “Reed-house, reed-house! Wall, O wall, hearken reed-house, wall reflect; O man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat. These are the measurements of the barque {boat} as you shall build her: let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures." 1

The flood story from "The Epic of Galgamesh" 1,8 and the Hebrew story in Genesis are very similar with almost 20 major points in common. Their texts are obviously linked in some way. Either:

bulletGenesis was copied from an earlier Babylonian story, or

bullet The Galgamesh myth was copied from an earlier Hebrew story in Genesis, or

bulletBoth were copied from a common source that predates them both.

In both the Genesis and Gilgamesh stories:

bulletThe Genesis story describes how mankind had become obnoxious to God; they were hopelessly sinful and wicked. In the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy.

bullet The gods (or God)  decided to send a worldwide flood. This would have drowned all men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds.
 
bullet God (or one of the gods) knew of one righteous man, Ut-Napishtim or Noah.

bullet One of the gods (or God) ordered the hero to build a multi-story wooden ark (called a chest or box in the original Hebrew).

bulletThe ark would be sealed with pitch.
 
bulletThe ark would have many internal compartments

bulletIt would have a single door
 
bulletIt would have at least one window.

bulletThe ark was built and loaded with the hero, a few other humans, and samples from all species of other land animals. 

bulletA great rain covered the land with water.

bullet The mountains were submerged under water.
 
bulletThe ark landed on a mountain in the Middle East.
 
bulletThe hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was in the vicinity.
 
bulletThe first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return.

bullet The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice.

bullet God (or the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice.

bullet The hero was blessed.

bulletThe Babylonian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.

The were a number of details in which the two stories differed:

bullet Noah received his instructions directly from Yahweh; Ut-Napishtim received them indirectly during a dream.

bulletNoah's ark was 3 stories high and rectangular in shape. Two estimated dimensions are 547 x 91 ft. and 450 x 75 ft. The Babylonian ark was 6 stories high and square.

bulletUt-Napishtim invited additional people on board: a pilot and some skilled workmen.

bullet Noah's ark landed on Mt. Ararat; Ut-Napishtim's at on Mt. Nisir; these locations are both in the Middle East, and are located few hundred miles apart.
 
bullet In the Bible, some of the water emerged from beneath the oceans. The rains from above lasted for 40 days and nights. A 40 day interval often symbolized a period of judgment in the Hebrew Scriptures. 2 In the Babylonian account, the water came only in the form of rain, and lasted only 6 days.
 
bullet Noah released a raven once and a dove twice; Ut-Napishtim released three birds: a dove, swallow and raven.

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Significance of the two stories

bullet To conservative Christians, Genesis is inerrant: it is completely truthful and contained no error in its original auotgraph form. God inspired Moses to write the book and preserved him from including any errors. Thus the Noachian flood really happened exactly as stated in Genesis. The similarities between the Babylonian and Hebrew texts were probably caused by two factors:

bullet Both were accounts of the same worldwide flood. 

bullet The Genesis account is absolutely true and was written down during the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. The Babylonian account was written later; its author may have copied elements from the Hebrew story. 

Frank Lorey, an author at the Institute for Creation Research, wrote: "The Epic of Gilgamesh, then, contains the corrupted account as preserved and embellished by peoples who did not follow the God of the Hebrews." 7


bullet To liberal/progressive Christians, the flood story in Genesis were mainly written by three unknown authors:
bullet"J"  used Yahweh as the name of God, and wrote circa 848 BCE to 722 BCE. 

bullet"P" a priest who lived much later, sometime before 587 BCE.

bullet "R", an unknown redactor, who joined the writings of J and P and two other writers together. He added only one sentence of his own to the flood story.

This interleaving is shown elsewhere in this web site in color-coded text.

The story is a legend with spiritual significance. However there was no actual worldwide flood. The story is a myth, derived largely from the earlier Babylonian account. It was picked up by the ancient Israelites as an oral tradition and later written down by "J" and "P."


bullet To many Agnostics, Atheists, etc, the flood stories are pure myth. They describe events that never happened. The viciousness of the God or Gods who are said to be responsible for the flood is shown by the lack of concern for the men, women, children, youths, infants and newborns who allegedly died a terrible death by drowning. The myth shows how Gods are created by the minds of humans, rather than vice versa. The flood account gradually evolved from the original Babylonian version to the Hebrew version. The Babylonian version may have been a distorted record of an ancient flood which occurred when the Mediterranean Sea, backed by the Atlantic Ocean, partially emptied into the Black Sea circa 5600 BCE.

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Which Came First Noah or Ut-Napishtim?

The Babylonian tablets which contain the full story of the flood have been dated circa 650 BCE. However, portions of the story have been found on tablets from about 2000 BCE. A study of the language used in the tablets indicates that the story originated much earlier than 2000 BCE. 3 Variations of the original story have been found translated into other ancient languages. 4

Many conservative Christians believe that the flood occurred circa 2349 BCE, and that the account in Genesis was written by Moses circa 1450 BCE, shortly before his death. 5,8 Thus, the Babylonian text must be a corrupted version based on a Paganized adaptation of the true story in Genesis. Alternatively, it might be an independent attempt at describing the world-wide flood.

Liberal theologians, noting the different names used to refer to God, and the different writing styles throughout the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures), believe that Genesis was assembled over a 4 century interval, circa 950 to 540 BCE by authors from a variety of Hebrew traditions. 6 

J and P seem to have based their stories on two original stories from Mesopotamian sources, perhaps based on a massive series of floods in Ur and surrounding areas circa 2800 BCE which would be perceived by the local population as being very extensive; perhaps world wide. Alternatively, it may have been based on the catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea

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Related essays on this web site

bulletWho wrote the 5 books of Moses?

bulletWho wrote the book of Genesis?

bulletA possible source for the flood stories

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References

  1. Susan M. Pojer, "The great flood -- two different versions," HistoryTeacher.net, at: http://www.historyteacher.net/ This is a PDF file.
  2. Numbers 14:34
  3. Alexander Heidel, "The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels". Univ. of Chicago, Chicago IL (1949)
  4. Werner Keller, "The Bible as History", W. Morrow, New York, NY, (1956)
  5. Schofield Reference Bible. Genesis, chapters 6 to 9
  6. C.M. Laymon, ed., "The Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible", Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  7. Frank Lorey, Impact #285: The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh", Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA (1997) Online at: http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-285.htm 
  8. "Myths of the flood: The flood narrative from the Gilgamesh epic," at: http://www-relg-studies.scu.edu/netcours/rs011/restrict/
  9. Image of book cover N. K. Sandars, translator, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," Penguin. Various editions are available from Amazon.com at prices ranging from $6.33 plus shipping to $499 for the 1972 edition! Read reviews or order the year 1960 version of this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright 1999 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2014-FEB-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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