Noah’s Flood and its Predecessors

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 5, 2010 in Bible

flood story tabletAs if the scientific evidence against Noah’s Flood wasn’t clear enough,1 it’s also worth noting that the Genesis flood story was merely adapted from an earlier Mesopotamian flood myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh.2

The epic tells of Gilgamesh, a king who sets off on a journey and is told a story of a great worldwide flood. The similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh (tablet 11) and the later tale of Noah’s Flood (Genesis 6-9) are obvious.

In the Gilgamesh flood, the gods decide to destroy the earth with a worldwide flood. A righteous man is informed, and told to build a large, roofed boat with multiple decks and “make all living beings go up into the boat,” along with the man’s family. After a violent storm, the earth is covered in water, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. After the flood, the man releases one bird after another to see if it will come back or find a perch on dry land elsewhere. When the last bird does not return, the man knows the flood has abated, and offers a sacrifice to the gods. The gods smell the “sweet savor” and are pleased, and bless the man with a special promise.

In the Genesis flood, God decides to destroy the earth with a worldwide flood. A righteous man is informed, and told to build a large, roofed boat with multiple decks and make some of every creature go into the boat, along with the man’s family. After a violent storm, the earth is covered in water, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. After the flood, the man releases one bird after another to see if it will come back or find a perch on dry land elsewhere. When the last bird does not return, the man knows the flood has abated, and offers a sacrifice to God. God smells the “soothing aroma” and is pleased, and blesses the man with a special promise.

But the obvious similarity between the stories isn’t the only reason most scholars think the Genesis flood story was adapted from the Gilgamesh flood story.3 Consider also:

  • Floods were common in Mesopotamia, but Israel is generally dry. Stories of floods are probably first told by people who experience floods.
  • The Gilgamesh story was well known throughout the Ancient Near East; one fragment was even found in ancient Israel.
  • Babylonia was dominant at the time; Israel was a “backwater of sorts.” Usually, a dominant culture influences lesser ones with its own culture and myths.

In fact, even the Gilgamesh epic was adapted – in some parts word-for-word – from two earlier versions of the flood tale that contain many of the same elements: the Sumerian epic of Ziusudra and the Akkadian epic of Atra-hasis. ((Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic.))

  1. Plimer, Telling Lies for God: Reason versus Creationism. []
  2. Also, this post is adapted from Paul Tobin’s chapter in The Christian Delusion. []
  3. Gordon, The Bible and the Ancient Near East. []

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles June 5, 2010 at 6:31 am

The obvious answer for the Bible literalist:

This is just the sort of corroboration we have been wanting all along. That the story is told elsewhere makes it even more likely the Bible stories are true. But let’s say that you are right: one writer merely ‘borrowed’. What makes you so sure Gilgamesh was writing first? If there was any borrowing done, it was obviously the other way round.

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Justfinethanks June 5, 2010 at 6:44 am

I can’t freaking believe that there was a time in my life when “lots of cultures have flood stories” was proof enough for a worldwide flood for me.

You tell the story of Noah and the Ark to an eight year old retarded boy…

and he’s gonna have some questions.

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Michael June 5, 2010 at 7:12 am

Just wondering, but what were the dates of some of these other stories?

And how would one respond to the idea that some have found evidence of water being a few thousand feet up some of the mountains in that region?

I’m a Christian, but not sure what to think about the flood story, to be honest. Could have been local, or not at all and just a metaphor or a warning, or what have you. But I like solid answers and try to follow the evidence.

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Justfinethanks June 5, 2010 at 7:56 am

And how would one respond to the idea that some have found evidence of water being a few thousand feet up some of the mountains in that region?

I would respond by asking what region? Are you talking about Turkey? And what time in the past? If you are talking about ANY time in the past, then it’s not really significant since many modern geological features on land were underwater at some point.

Could have been local, or not at all and just a metaphor or a warning, or what have you.

Yes, that’s the response of the “sophisticated theologian.” It’s also another example of Christianity reinventing itself in response to secular scholarship and science.

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Yair June 5, 2010 at 8:04 am

Whoa, hold it. “the Genesis flood story was merely adapted from an earlier Mesopotamian flood myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh.” Really? I have no idea that this is the academic consensus, and would be interested to find out the arguments/proof. Are the above three points said evidence?

To the best of my knowledge, it is clear that the Jewish story is an adaptation of earlier flood stories *in general*, but tracing the exact lineage of stories is impossible. There is no way to tell if the flood story is an adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh or an independent offshoot, or even if it derives from more primary sources or is a later development of late sources/versions. Specifically,
1. Yes, but the Gilgamesh tale is a retelling of earlier ones. Why haven’t these created the Biblical flood story separately?
2. Well-known when? Is there evidence to suggest it was well-known at the time the Biblical story was woven? Were other flood stories also well-known at the time?
3. See above. Also, religious stories often live on, so it could reflect an earlier story from before the ascendancy of Babylon.

Michael: The earliest accounts seem to be the Eridu Genesis at the 18th century BCE . For comparison, the Biblical story was supposedly written “somewhere” between the 15th and 5th centuries (but probably not really written down before the 8th), and the earliest origins of Judaism at large may be as far off as the 16th century (associating them with the Hyksos).

One finds evidence of water up mountains in lots of places, it’s all explained much better through geology – which also says that no world flood ever occurred.

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Zak June 5, 2010 at 8:24 am

Michael,

I am curious how Christians go about claiming that the flood could have been local. I have heard WL Craig state this, and it just baffles me. As far as I can see, there is absolutely nothing in the flood story that suggests it would be local.

To quote Robert Ingersoll, “It is impossible to conceive of language that can more clearly convey the idea of a universal flood than that found in the inspired account. If the flood was only partial, why did God say he would ‘destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life from under heaven, and that every thing that is in the earth shall die’? Why did he say ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, and the creeping thing and the fowls of the air’? Why did he say ‘And every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth’? Would a partial, local flood have fulfilled these threats?”

The dates for the stories are as follows:
Ziasudra- 2900 BC
Gilgamesh- 2000-1500 BC
Noah- 600-400 BC
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_flood_myth
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziusudra#Sumerian_flood_myth

There is water on mountains all over the world because of precipitation.

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lukeprog June 5, 2010 at 8:25 am

Yair,

I gave a (very brief) account of the evidence in the post above.

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Lorkas June 5, 2010 at 9:36 am

And how would one respond to the idea that some have found evidence of water being a few thousand feet up some of the mountains in that region?

Well, depending how a mountain is formed, sometimes the land that currently makes up the mountain used to make up an ocean bed.

Mountain ranges form when 2 tectonic plates collide head-on, and the result is a folding-up of the plates. You can visualize it (sorta) by placing 2 pieces of paper next to each other on a really flat table, placing your finger in the middle of each paper, and pushing them together. It’s not a perfect analog for what happens in mountain formation, but it can give you the basic idea.

Lots of mountains form this way, such as the Himalayas. It’s no surprise to find shell fossils on Mount Everest when you understand how it’s possible for a mountain to be raised up from the ocean floor.

I’m a Christian, but not sure what to think about the flood story, to be honest.

Well, when I was still a Christian, I came to realize that there isn’t a way that it is a real description of a worldwide event unless God miraculously erased all of the evidence of it.

Not to mention there are so many logistical problems with the flood story that would each take a separate miracle to overcome. Not the least of which is the miraculous transportation of all animals over vast oceans to get to the ark in the first place and to return them to their appropriate locations.

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Charles June 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

Kangaroos are a problem.

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Reginald Selkirk June 5, 2010 at 10:26 am

Michael: And how would one respond to the idea that some have found evidence of water being a few thousand feet up some of the mountains in that region?

If I were that one I would respond: “You effing moron, learn something about geology. What amount of arrogance would drive you to believe that your opinions about geological phenomena are worth a bucket of luke warm spit if you haven’t properly educated yourself on the topic? Learn about uplift, and subsidence, and orogenesis and plate tectonics. Learn that geologists have rejected the possibility of a global flood since before Darwin published his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.”

And just to drive it all home, I would tell you to read Glenn Morton’s essay, Why I Left Young-earth Creationism.


But eventually, by 1994 I was through with young-earth creationism. Nothing that young-earth creationists had taught me about geology turned out to be true. I took a poll of my ICR graduate friends who have worked in the oil industry. I asked them one question.

“From your oil industry experience, did any fact that you were taught at ICR, which challenged current geological thinking, turn out in the long run to be true?”

That is a very simple question. One man, Steve Robertson, who worked for Shell grew real silent on the phone, sighed and softly said ‘No!’ A very close friend that I had hired at Arco, after hearing the question, exclaimed, “Wait a minute. There has to be one!” But he could not name one. I can not name one. No one else could either.

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Hermes June 5, 2010 at 10:38 am

I take the Genesis flood story as a moral and logical Rorschach test. That it shows up on the covers of children’s books is stunning.

Yet, I’ll give a pass — initially — to anyone who clearly hasn’t thought about it, and is simply parroting the story wrapped in a nice and fuzzy wrapper. Most people don’t examine their religious and (often) childhood beliefs. If someone says they have examined the story and think it is moral and logical and supported by evidence in reality, then I don’t have much pity or mercy.

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Andy Walters June 5, 2010 at 11:52 am

Luke,

Strictly speaking, your title

Noah’s Flood is Not a Hebrew Story

is false. It is a Hebrew story, regardless of its origins.

Just sayin’.

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lukeprog June 5, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Fair enough, Andy. Thanks.

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Lee A. P. June 5, 2010 at 1:09 pm

The Flood story is not an original Hebrew story.

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Jeff H June 5, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Don’t have much to say here (not that that’s ever stopped me before). Just wanna say that the Epic of Gilgamesh is an interesting story in itself. The flood account is only one small part of it. There’s a bunch of other interesting stories including gods making prostitutes to seduce a guy, a guy who is apparently one-third human and two-thirds divine (I’d like to hear the genetic explanation of THAT!) and someone trying to find the secret to everlasting life by swimming to the bottom of the ocean. Excellent mythology…makes the Hebrew myths seem just entirely substandard by comparison :D

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Rhys Wilkins June 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

Ha,

I remember I was listening to a lecture from a TTC course entitled “Origins of Ancient Great Civilizations”, the lecturer was talking about Mesopomatamian mythology, and the origins of the Epic of Gilamesh. He started describing a global flood myth which was part of the Epic, and I just kept thinking to myself “No WAY! Is this guy describing the Genesis Flood?” the more he said, the more the striking parallels became apparent. At the end I just simply thought “how could anyone think the Genesis flood is real after listening to this?”.

Just baffles me.

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Bill Maher June 6, 2010 at 4:53 am
cl June 6, 2010 at 7:02 am

Not a very persuasive post, IMO. I would be more skeptical of Noah’s flood if it appeared in isolation. Charles @1 hit the nail on the head, and I’m confused by Luke’s insinuation that the flood described in the Epic of Gilgamesh is problematic for Genesis 6. After all, just the other day we were discussing criteria for source criticism in the context of Ehrman / Craig, where ayer cited Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997):

If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased. [source]

To those who agree with that criterion generally, yet for some reason don’t apply that same criterion in this case, what gives?

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cl June 6, 2010 at 7:37 am

Luke,

It’s petty, but since others brought it up I’ll add that even reworded, your title is still false: Noah’s Flood IS originally a Hebrew story.

Lee A. P.‘s rewrite @14 is correct, however.

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Reginald Selkirk June 6, 2010 at 8:11 am

If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.

To those who agree with that criterion generally, yet for some reason don’t apply that same criterion in this case, what gives?

Because they are not the same message. A global flood reported in Babylon involving certain characters at a certain time, and killing everyone else is not the same as a global flood reported in Palestine caused by a certain deity and involving certain other characters at a certain other time, and killing everyone else, are not the same thing.

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cl June 6, 2010 at 8:25 am

Eh, why not, maybe he won’t respond with the ever-so-intellectual “go fuck yourself” this time…

A global flood reported in Babylon involving certain characters at a certain time, and killing everyone else is not the same as a global flood reported in Palestine caused by a certain deity and involving certain other characters at a certain other time, and killing everyone else, are not the same thing. (Reginald Selkirk)

From the OP:

In the Gilgamesh flood, the gods decide to destroy the earth with a worldwide flood. A righteous man is informed, and told to build a large, roofed boat with multiple decks and “make all living beings go up into the boat,” along with the man’s family. After a violent storm, the earth is covered in water, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. After the flood, the man releases one bird after another to see if it will come back or find a perch on dry land elsewhere. When the last bird does not return, the man knows the flood has abated, and offers a sacrifice to the gods. The gods smell the “sweet savor” and are pleased, and bless the man with a special promise.

In the Genesis flood, God decides to destroy the earth with a worldwide flood. A righteous man is informed, and told to build a large, roofed boat with multiple decks and make some of every creature go into the boat, along with the man’s family. After a violent storm, the earth is covered in water, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. After the flood, the man releases one bird after another to see if it will come back or find a perch on dry land elsewhere. When the last bird does not return, the man knows the flood has abated, and offers a sacrifice to God. God smells the “soothing aroma” and is pleased, and blesses the man with a special promise.

Apparently, Luke [and many others, including a significant subset of scholars] think the messages are “same” enough, and I agree. Now, I don’t know if you agree with Luke’s argument for Genesis being a burn, but presuming you do, the question arises: How can we on the one hand claim the messages are so similar that Genesis must be a burn, yet, on the other hand deny that the messages are similar enough to be describing the same event?

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Hermes June 6, 2010 at 8:54 am

Regardless of the source of the story, there was no global flood. What we’re talking about is archeology and myth studies to investigate a culture, not a historic event.

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Michael June 6, 2010 at 9:17 am

I have to agree with cl here. People discussing this stuff spend so much time discussing historical method, and how to use it. And then we have a number of ancient stories all from different areas and different cultures that seem to corroborate with each other about the some singular event, yet we say that each was adapted and stolen and reused. Why is this? It is surely possible that that indeed happened, but on what reasons would one hold this? I can’t think of any. The biblical flood never gives a date, nor does the flood of Gilgamesh, we add them in based on questionable timelines that are given in context, or even by other stories (as in the Bible). They all say that some deity/deities brought about a flood to destroy men, but saved a few good ones. This seems eerily similar to Bart Ehrmans’s line of reasoning that I have critiqued on my blog and Luke just critiqued earlier as well, in that we see multiple attestation, and say that a)they are similar so are derived from each other or b)they are similar but not exactly the same so they must be wrong since there are contradictions. But let’s take a look at what one would expect if a flood of this sort did in fact happen. 1) Numerous cultures from different areas would be expected to report the story in some manner. 2) They would be quite similar in content, though names may be different based on culture. 3) They may speak of different deities, die to religious differences. 4) We would not expect just one citing of the event, since it would have affected more than one group of people. 5) We would not expect the stories to be strikingly different as to be sure that they were speaking of different events. Is it ironic that all of these things are what we see? Why do we have to assume the worst, that the event in question is a myth that is strangely spoken of in different cultures and areas but with such striking resemblance? I can see of no reason, though I am open to hear any, as long as they don’t follow Ehrman’s critique’s of the Bible that is found in his popular work.

So my question is, why think these are not describing the same event? It seems plausible at face value that they could be, so what is there to make me think that that is not the case?

As for the “dissimilarity” that Reginald speaks of, if it was in fact a global flood, a global flood in Babylon would be a global flood in Palestine, or even if the “global” aspect was merely the entire known world of the time, its not like Babylon is in present day Germany, so it is not entirely inconceivable that a very large flood occurred in the Middle East, which both areas fall into. Second, the biblical story does not place Noah in Israel, but in Mesopotamia, as they had not yet left this area to go to the Promised Land, so I am not sure why you say that the biblical flood occurred in Palestine. I don’t believe either speaks of an actual date since dating was not kept like it is now. And while characters may have had different names, that does not mean that they could not have been the same person, as they seem to be doing very similar things in each story.

I certainly do not believe in a flood that covered the entire earth, and I am not sure about a local flood. But I do believe that real or not, all of these flood stories are not merely stolen myths, but independent stories/myths that all speak of the same event.

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 10:21 am

Fair enough.

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Hermes June 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

So my question is, why think these are not describing the same event? It seems plausible at face value that they could be, so what is there to make me think that that is not the case?

That’s fine, and there is some speculation based on some evidence that might be the case. But, regardless, it is not an actual world wide flood.

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Bram van Dijk June 6, 2010 at 11:33 pm

I always wonder about what the carnivorous species ate when they were on the ark. Did they eat all the dinosaur species?

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Rhys Wilkins June 7, 2010 at 6:31 pm

You know what is comical,

Going to Answers in Genesis and reading the desperate attempts of YECs to actually try and make the Flood story seem plausible. I always read their articles with Final Fantasy VIII music playing in the background, seems to set the appropriate mood ;)

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cl June 8, 2010 at 10:17 am

I have to agree with cl here. People discussing this stuff spend so much time discussing historical method, and how to use it. And then we have a number of ancient stories all from different areas and different cultures that seem to corroborate with each other about the some singular event, yet we say that each was adapted and stolen and reused. Why is this? (Michael)

IMHO, nobody likes cognitive dissonance, not even atheists, and especially not that subset of smarty-pants, oh-so-rational atheists who fancy themselves intellectually superior to their theist counterparts. Since the tendency towards intellectual obliviousness is a human trait, and all atheists are human, I am absolutely unsurprised to see atheists wallowing therein, especially those smarty-pants, oh-so-rational atheists who fancy themselves intellectually superior to their theist counterparts.

At any rate, thanks for support.

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Hermes June 8, 2010 at 10:30 am

Cl, already addressed, but if you insist on a jab, here’s looking at you kid.

To be explicit; It is not cognitive dissonance to say that the world was not flooded as described in either story, and at the same time that people can write stories about a flood that is based on real events. It’s called writing fiction.

The OT also has clear examples of borrowing stories based on a specific styles as well as previous stories. Gilgamesh is only one example. The Papyrus of Ani is another.

Why not admit it’s fiction or at least borrowed?

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cl June 9, 2010 at 10:41 am

Luke,

You’re probably working, but when you get a second, perhaps you could check the queue? I’ve noticed a few comments of mine that aren’t posting. In both cases, the comment contained more than one link, so I suspect that might have something to do with it.

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godless randall June 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm

of all the things about church i remember my uncle being super into the flood. i used to listen to him argue with people about it. friends in the living room or people on the street or other sits of that nature. people like to mock people for believing it but we all know that nobody knows. he had every Henry Morris book and anything else about it he could get. both sides. hell no i didn t agree with every single thing my uncle said but he sure knew what the fuck he was talking about

you and him could have a good discussion i bet

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Everything we learned was lies October 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Read the epic of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian stories of the flood, creation, and others. Only recently found – 1800′s and recently understood. Read Tablet X of the Epic of Gilgamesh and then compare to ECCLESIASTES 9:7-9. Herbews took the stories of the Babylonians while in captivity. They copied their stories (see and used them for their own. Christians then did the same. THIS HAS BEEN SHOWN BY SCHOLARS AND EVIDENCE FROM ARCHEOLOGICAL FINDINGS. It is one big lie that we live. We must go back to our roots and reestablish the truth, justice, moderation, and equality. Learn Ancient Greek and read pre-christian works and you will see the truth. Herakles, Dionysus, etc… were humans but seen as gods which were born of a human mother but had a god as their father. Jesus is the same story told over again and again. Put the stories you have learned in the context of history not the year 2010. Herakles raised people form the dead, performed miracles, etc. Dionysus was denied by others that he was a god. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Ancient sources were destroyed by Christians because they did not want you to know the truth. Voltaire was on the right track about religion but didn’t know about DNA or the Epic of Gilgamesh. From this we can deduce that we have the story wrong. Christians kill, Hebrews have stolen a land from others based on false pretenses and lies. The tradition now continues in Islam which suppresses women and cultures. The question is what do we do about it? People live with morals and values that are not based on religion everyday. The Ancients did the same. Why can’t we. One people, one moral code, one life. Enough is enough with war and death. Particular providence makes more sense. We are all the same. We are human beings. Know your past.

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