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An Anthropologist Looks at the Judeo-Christian Scriptures      

4.  The Flood Myth 

The Genesis Flood

The Genesis account tells the story of a major flood sent by God to cleans the world because of the sinfulness of humankind.  The motivation for the flood, human sinfulness, was a distinctive contribution of Hebrew culture, but the motif itself was already an ancient one in the Near East when the Hebrew account was finally written down.   The earliest version is from Sumer.  In it, Anu tires of the constant tumult and noise of the human population and angrily decides to destroy all humans.  Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, realizes that this is a grave error, since it is the toil of humans for the gods that permits the gods to live a life of liesure.  He takes it upon himself to inform the king of the city of Shurippak, one Ziusudra, of the impending flood and to tell him to build an ark so that he and his family will survive.  On the advise of Enki, Ziusudra tells his people that the gods are angry with him and that to save them he plans to build a ship and leave Erech so that the city will be safe.  Thus deceived, the people help Ziusudra build his ark and stock it with domestic animals.  But when the flood comes, it is Ziusudra who survives.  When the ark lands, he offers a sacrifice to the gods, and Anu, smelling the smoke of the burnt offering, realizes that some have survived.  Enki admits that it is he who saved Ziusudra and his family, but by that time Anu had realized the rashness of his having tried to kill their human servants.  In Anu's admission of his own error, we find an explanation for a Bible passage that has long perplexed those of the Judeo-Christian tradition which views God as perfect and unchanging--his recognition the the flood has done nothing to change the sinful nature of his creatures and his apparant change of heart about having sent the flood:  "And when Yahweh smelled the pleasing odor, Yahweh said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from yourth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done" (Genesis 8:21).  This verse is nothing more than a survival of the older version of the story, one told when the gods themselves were sometimes petty and impulsive and in which Anu did, indeed, realize that he had behaved foolishly.
Earlier Versions of the Flood Myth
The Flood myth has a very ancient history in the Near East.  Versions from Mesopotamia predate those found in the Bible and undoubtedly influenced it.  The following is the Babylonian Flood Myth.  It is particularly dramatic since it is told in the first person by Utnapushtim, the Babylonian precurser of  the biblical Noah.  The version that follows is dated to about 2,000 BCE, although it is believed to be a copy of an even earlier version.  Words in parentheses are for clarification; words in brackets are educated guesses about what damaged words were in the original text.
"Utnapushtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:
"I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter
And a secred of the gods will I tell thee;shurppak--a city which thou knowest,
[(And) which on Euphrates' [banks] is situated--
That city was ancient, (as were) the gods within it,
When their heart led the great gods to produce the flood.
[There] were Anu, their father,
Valiant Enlil, their counslor,
Ninurta, their assistant,
Ennuge, their irrigator.
Ninigiku-Ea was also present with them;
Their words he repeats to the reed-hut:
'Reed-hut, reed-hut! Wall, wall!
Reed-hut, hearken! Wall, reflect!
Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutut,Tear down (this) house, build a ship!
Give up possessions, seek thou life.
Forswear (worldly) goods and keep the sould alive!
Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things.
The ship that thou shalt build,
Her dimensions shall be to measure.Equal shall be her width and her length.
Like the Apsu thou shalt ceil her.
'I understood, and I said to Ea, my lord:
'[Behold], my lord, what thou hast thus ordered,
I will be honored to carry out.
[But what] shall I answer the city, the people and elders?
'Ea oopened his mouth to speak,
Saying to me, his servant"
'Thou shalt then thus speak unto them:
"I have learned that Enlil is hostile to me,
So that I cannot reside in your city,
Nor set my f[oo]t in Enlil's territory.
To the Deep I will therefore go down,
   To dwell with my lord Ea.
[But upon] you he will shower down abundance,
[The choicest] birds, the rarest fishes.
[The land shall have its fill] of harvest riches.
[He who at dusk orders] the husk-greens,
Will shower down upon you a rain of wheat.
"With the first glow of dawn,
The land was gathered [about me].
 (fragmentary line)
The little ones [carr]ied bitumen,
While the grown ones brought [all else] that was needful.
On the fifth day I laid her framework.
One (whole) acre was her floor space,
  Ten dozen cubits the height of each of her walls,
Ten dozen cubits each edge of the square deck.I laid out the contours (and) joined her together.
I provided her with six decks,
Dividing her (thus) into seven parts.
Her floor plan I divided into nine parts.
I hammered water-plugs into her.
I saw to the punting-poles and laid in supplies.
Six 'sar' (measures) of bitumen I poured into the furnace.
Three sar of asphalt [I also] poured inside.
Three sar of oil the basket-bearers carried,
Aside from the one sar of oil which the calking consumed,
And the two sar of oil [which] the boatman stowed away.
Bullocks I slaughtered for the [people],
And I killed sheep every day.
Must, red wine, oil, and white wine
[I gave the] workmen [to drink], as though river water,
That they might feast as on New Year's Day.
I op[ened...] ointment, applying (it) to my hand.
[On the sev]enth [day] the ship was completed.
[The launching] was very difficult,
So that they had to shift the floor planks above and below,
[Until] two-thirds of [the structure] [had g]one [into the water].
[Whatever I had] I laded upon her:
Whatever I had of silver I laded upon her;
Whatever I [had] of gold
I laded upon her;
Whatever I had of all the living beings I [laded] upon her.
All my family and kin I made go aboard the ship.
The beasts of the field, the wild creatures of the field,
    All the craftsmen I made go aboard.Shamash (the sun god) had set for me a stated time:
'When he who orders unease at night,
    Will shower down a rain of blight,
Board thou the ship and batten up the entrance!
'That stated time had arrived:
'He who orders unease at night, showers down      a rain of blight.
'I watched the appearance of the weather.
The weather was awesome to behold.I boarded the ship and battened up the entrance.
To batten down the (whole) ship, Puzur-Amurri, the      boatman,
I handed over the structure together with its contents.

(End of Part 1)

With the first glow of dawn,
A black cloud rose up from the horizon.
Inside it Adad (the storm god) thunders,
While Shullat and Hanish (the heralds) go in front,
Moving as heralds over hill and plain.
Erragal (god of the underworld) tears out the posts (of the world dam);
Forth comes Ninurta dn causes the dikes to follow.
The Anunnaki (gods of judgment) lift up the torches,
Setting the land ablaze with their glare.
Consternation over Adad reaches to the heavens,
Who turned to blackness all that had been light.
[That wide] land was shattered like [a pot]!
For one day the south-storm blew, [submerging the mountains],
Overtaking the [people] like a battle.
No one can see his fellow,
Nor can the people be recognized from heaven.
The gods were frightened by the deluge,
And, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu (the father of
   the other gods, who lived in the highest heaven).
The gods cowered like dogs
   Crouched against the outer wall.Ishtar (goddess of passion) cried out like a woman in travail,
The sweet-voiced mistress of the [gods] moans aloud:
'The olden days are alas turned to clay,
Because I bespoke evil in the Assembly of the gods.
How could I bespeak evil in the Assembly of the gods,
Ordering battle for the destruction of my people,
When it is I myself who give birth to my people!
Like the spawn of the fishes they fill the sea!
'The Anunnaki gods weep with her,
The gods, all humbled, sit and weep,
Their lips drawn tight, [...] one and all.
Six days and [six] nightsBlows the flood wind, as the south-storm sweeps the land.
When the seventh day arrived,
   The flood(-carrying) south-storm subsided in the battle,
Which it had fought like an army.
The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased.
I looked at the weather: stillness had set in,
And all of mankind had returned to clay.
The landscape was as level as a flat roof.
I opened a hatch, and light fell upon my face.
Bowing low,
I sat and wept,
Tears running down on my face.
I looked about for coast lines in the expanse of the sea:
In each of fourteen (regions)
   There emerged a region(-mountain).
On Mount Nisir* the ship came to a halt.
Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
   Allowing no motion.
One day, a second day, Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
   Allowing no motion.
A third day, a fourth day, Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
   Allowing no motion.
A fifth, and a sixth (day), Mount Nisir held the ship fast,
   Allowing no motion.
When the seventh day arrived,I sent forth and set free a dove,
The dove went forth, but came back;
Since no resting-place for it was visible, she turned round.
Then I sent forth and set free a swallow.
The swallow went forth, but came back;
Since no resting-place for it was visible, she turned round.
Then I sent forth and set free a raven.
The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished,
He eats, circles, caws, and turns not round.
Then I let out (all) to the four winds
   And offered a sacrifice.I pooured out a libation on the top of the mountain.
Seven and seven cult-vessels I set up,
Upon their pot-stands I heaped cane, cedarwood, and myrtle.
The gods smelled the savor,
The gods smelled the sweet savor,
The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer.
When at length as the great goddess (Ishtar) arrived,
She lifted up the great jewels which Anu had fashioned to her liking:
'Ye gods here, as surely as this lapis
   Upon my neck I shall not forget,
I shall be mindful of these days, forgetting (them) never.
Let the gods come to the offering,
For he, unreasoning, brought on the deluge
And my people consigned to destruction.
'When at length as Enlil arrived,
And saw the ship, Enlil was wroth,
He was filled with wrath over the Igigi (earth) gods:
'Has some living soul escaped?
   No man was to survive the destruction!
'Ninurta opened his mouth to speak,
   Saying to valiant Enlil (the king of the gods):
'Who, other than Ea (god of wisdom), can devise plans?
It is Ea alone who knows every matter.
'Ea opened his mouth to speak,
   Saying to valiant Enlil
'Thou wisest of gods, thou hero, How couldst thou, unreasoning, bring on the deluge?
On the sinner impose his sin,
   On the transgressor impose his transgression!
(Yet) be lenient, lest he be cut off,Be patient, lest he be dis[lodged]!
Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,
   Would that a lion had risen up to diminish mankind!
Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,
   Would that a wolf had risen up to diminish mankind!
Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,
   Would that a famine had risen up to l[ay low] mankind!
Instead of thy bringing on the deluge,
   Would that pestilence had risen up to smii[te down] mankind!
It was not I who disclosed the secret of the great gods.I let Atrahasis ("Exceeding Wise" = Utnapishtim) see a dream,
   And he perceived the secret of the gods.
Now then take counsel in regard to him!
'Thereupon Enlil went aboard the ship.
Holding me by the hand, he took me aboard.
He took my wife aboard and made (her) kneel by my side.
Standing between us, he touched our foreheads to bless us:
'Hitherto Utnapishtim has been but human.
Henceforth Utnapishtim and his wife shall be like unto us gods.
Utnapishtim shall reside far away, at the mouth of the rivers!
"Thus they took me and made me reside far away,
   At the mouth of the rivers.

The cause of the flood is not fully explained by the Akkadian myth, but it related to the gods (particularly Ishtar) being disturbed by mankind in some way. In older versions from Sumer, the disturbance was probably something like being too rowdy and making too much noise when Anu wanted to sleep, and this fits well with the reference to overpopulation being involved in this text.

An even earlier version of the flood myth comes from Sumer.  It is recorded on tablet 1 of a myth known as Atrahasis.  The relevant section, which reveals the cause of Enlil's anger with humankind, reads as follows:

600 years, less than 600, passed,
And the country was as noisy as a bellowing bull.
The god grew restless at their racket,
Ellil had to listen to their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
                          The noise of mankind has become too much,
                             I am losing sleep over their racket.
                       Give the order that suruppu-disease shall break out,
Now there was one Atrahasis
Whose ear was open to his god Enki.
He would speak with his god
And his god would speak with him.
Atrahasis made his voice heard
And spoke to his lord,
                            How long will the gods make us suffer?
                            Will they make us suffer illness forever?
Enki made his voice heard
And spoke to his servant:
                               Call the elders, the senior men!
                             Start an uprising in your own house,
                                 Let the heralds proclaim...
                            Let them make a loud noise in the land:
                                 Do not revere your gods,
                              Do not pray to your goddesses,
                             But search out the door of Namtara.
                            Bring as baked loaf into his presence.
                              May the flour offerings reach him.
                             May he be shamed by the presents
                                 And wipe away his hand.
Atrahasis took the order,
Gathered the elders to his door.
Atrahasis made his voice heard
And spoke to the elders:
                            I have called the elders, the senior men!
                             Start an uprising in your own house,
                                 Let the heralds proclaim...
                            Let them make a loud noise in the land:
                                 Do not revere your gods,
                              Do not pray to your goddesses,
                             But search out the door of Namtara.
                            Bring as baked loaf into his presence.
                              May the flour offerings reach him.
                             May he be shamed by the presents
                                 And wipe away his hand.
The elders listened to his speech;
They built a temple for Namtara in the city.
Heralds proclaimed...
They made a loud noise in the land.
They did not revere their god,
they did not pray to their goddess,
But searched out the door of Namtara,
Brought a baked loaf into his presence
The flour offerings reached him.
And he was shamed by the presents.
And wiped away his hand.
The suruppu-disease left them.
The gods went back to their regular offerings.
(translation by Stephanie Dalley)
Myths About the Flood Myth
The valley of Mesopotamia is dominated by two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphraties, and numerous smaller ones.  It was a land in which catestrophic floods were not unusual in ancient times, and it is unsurprising that stories about a major flood arose within the mythology of this area.  Such stories might simply reflect an understandable preocupation with flooding in an area where flood disasters were an important reality.

Although it is not necessary to suppose that the Mesopotamian flood myths were based on a single, major flood event, Sir Leonard Woolley created something of a controversy in 1929 when he announced that he had discovered evidence of the Biblical flood in his excavations at the Sumerian city of Ur.  What he had found was a 12 foot layer of silt that had been deposited by water all at one time about 3500 BCE.   They layers below and above this flood deposit both showed signs of human occupation, while the layer itself had no evidence of human materials other than a few burials that intruded into it from later times.  Woolley was convinced that this silt had been deposited by the great Flood of the Bible.  However, later evidence demonstrated that this particular flood was a local event--there was no equivalent deposit at other cities of the same time.  And the material he had found at Ur was also earlier than the time assigned by Sumerian and Biblcial accounts to the flood that they report.  The Sumerian King List clearly assign the great Flood to the more recent time of the last king who reigned in Shurippak about 2900 BCE.  So Woolley eventually recanted his first claim.  What he had found was evidence of a major flood at Ur, but not the flood that gave rise to the myth recounted in these documents.

Myths About the Flood Myth
Actually, the biblical flood story, like those of Mesopotamia, can be read as referring to entirely local events.  Contrary to the common literalist reading, Genesis 7:4 does not assert that the flood it describes was a world-wide event.  Rather, it simply states that the flood covered the eretz, the Hebrew word that can refer to land, territory, or the whole earth, and destroyed all living things on the 'adamah, the ground, the land, territory, country, or the whole earth.  Thus, the biblical flood story can be read as well as a story about a local event as it can as a story about a world-wide one.

There are a number of difficulties with a literalist interpretation of the Genesis flood myth.  For instance, a conservative estimate by biologists places the number of species in the Animal Kingdom at about 2 million species. (Some recent estimates go as high as 20 million, but I will follow the traditional textbook number to be conservative.) Clearly 2 million pairs of animals would be a tight squeeze in an Ark that Genesis describes as 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide by thirty cubits high, which (taking a cubit to be 18 inches) translates as 450 feet long by 75 feet by 45 feet). Deducting no space for interior decks, hallways, cages and bracing (or even the thickness of the exterior walls) this would amount to 1,508,750 cubic feet of space or just over 0.75 cubic feet per pair of animals (i.e., 0.375 cubic feet per animal!), not counting storage space for potable water or fodder for the animals.If we conservatively allow 30 percent of the space to have been taken up by wood construction (the hull, decks, bracing, etc, then the available space falls to 1.063,125 cubic feet or 0.25 cubic feet per animal.  Again, this assumes that no space is devoted to water or food for the animals for their year-long voyage. Also, Genesis 7:11-15 makes it clear that all the animals were boarded on the same day.  The boarding would have been an amazing feat, requiring a constant flow of 46.5 animals entering the ark each second for 24 hours! Imagine the logistics of sorting the cargo.  And think of the poor, slow moving tortoise dodging all those fast-moving feet. Perhaps the Bible left out a miracle or two in the story.  Creationists who take the story seriously and have tried to deal with this problem acknowledge that an ark of the stated size could not have held 4 million animals. Among other things, a wooden vessel of that size would not have been structurally strong enough to have supported the weight of that many animals.

To deal with the problem of fitting all kinds of animals into such a confined space, creationists have decided that the Biblical "kinds" were not the same as our modern "species" but were more likely categories such as a pair of generic "felines", "canids", "bovines", etc. This could reduce the number of passangers to a more reasonable figure between 15,000 and 30,000 animals (depending on the creationist one asks). This equation of "kinds" with "genus" or even "family" rather than "species" neatly solves the problem of cargo size. It also raises an interesting issue that I have never seen addressed by creationists: How did we get the contemporary 2 million species of today's world from the 15 to 30 thousand "kinds" of Noah's day. That's a tremendous amount of diversification in an amazingly short time (only about 4,500 years). So creationists who balk at the idea that modern species evolved from a single kind over a period of 4 billion years, must be willing to accept the idea (if they stop and think about it) that our current 2 million species evolved from, say 30,000 "kinds", in less than 5,000 years--that's 66.7 species evolving out of each original kind in 4,500 years to be more specific. Even Darwin would not have been so bold as to suggest that evolution could proceed that fast.  The bottom line is that creationists aren't really anti-evolutionist. In fact they outdo the secular brand of evolutionism, since their view entails a super-rapid form of the same process of diversification of many species out of single "kinds". Will the real evolutionist please stand up!
Literalists must resort to unrecorded miracles to account for the story.  In addition to the miracle necessary to load 4 million animals in 24 hours (or the miracle of evolving 2 million species out of 30,000 "kinds" in only 4,500 years), another miraculous increase in the tensile strength of wood would also have been necessary. Pretty soon we have to postulate so many unrecorded miracles to account for various "impossible" aspects of the story, that one wonders why God would not have simply used one miracle to save Noah and the animals from the Flood instead of going to all the trouble.
Then there's the problem of the size of the ark.  At 450 feet in length would still qualify as the largest wooden vessel ever to have been built? This must have made it the First Wonder of the World, and one that would only have been rivaled by the Great Pyramid, to Noah's neighbors back then for several reasons. First, he built a wooden ship like none that had ever been seen before or since. When he did so, his building techniques were complete innovations, since no shipbuilding tradition existed in his society for him to draw upon. Reed boats of about 20 foot lengths, useful only on local lakes and rivers were all that had been developed so far.  Why was his innovationary work never equaled? The only comparable sailing vessels were not built until the nineteenth century, and the longest of those maxed out at 350 feet in length. European shipbuilders were able to achieve this length only with the aid of steel straps, used to reinforce the structural strength of the ships, since wood is too flexible and not strong enough to support a vessel of this length without breaking up when subjected to wave motion. The vessels of this length could be seen to bend and curve as they travelled and they had to hug the shores to avoid storms at sea, and shipbuilders believe that longer vessels cannot be built out of wood because of the structural strength problem.
A Non-literalist Reading
Taken as a story that grew out of local flood experiences in ancient Mesopotamia, the various flood myths of this region and, later, of the Bible lend themselves much better to our scientific understanding of the ancient Near East.  The biblical story is merely one of many variations on the original Sumerian flood myth that developed over the millenia that civilization spread from Sumer through the ancient Semitic world.  Although it is conceivable that the earliest stories grew up to attest a particularly catestrophic event, one dated around 2900 BCE in southern Mesopotamia, even this need not have been the case.  The stories may simply have evolved out of concerns stimulated by the not infrequent occurrence of flooding in general.

     *Nisir is a mountain in Mesopotamia about 350 hundred miles south of the biblical "mountains of Ararat" in modern south-eastern Turkey.


Dalley, Stephany.  Myths From Mesopotamia:  Gilgamesh, The Flood, and Others.
Kramer, Samuel Noah.  1963.  The Sumerians. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1963.

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This page last updated on 15 January 1999.
Copyright © 1999, Richley H. Crapo.