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Comparitive Flood Stories Essay, Research Paper

Comparative Flood Stories

Most comparisons between Genesis and ancient Creation or Flood stories can be classified as comparative religious studies. They generally involve one text isolated from its original historical context (e.g., the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish or the Flood tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic) and one related biblical narrative. On the basis of currently available evidence, their earliest-known written form can be dated only to the first half of the first millenium B.C.

William Shea of Andrews University has pointed out that by using isolated, solitary Creation or Flood stories, that we neglect a large amount of other literary critcism which can be very helpful to our understanding. The Genesis flood account is often taken and interpreted outside of the context in which it was written. A proper understanding of other Ancient Near East flood narratives provides a foundation for proper interpretation of the Genesis Flood narrative.

There are three main flood narratives, The Sumerian creation-flood story, the Babylonian creation-flood story, and the Hebrew Genesis flood story. Here is an overview of the content of each of these narratives.


The texts to this compilation were, until recently, separated into three different accounts. They have since been put into one.

This portion of the text is during the antediluvian period of the narrative. It recites the birth goddess Nimtur?s remedy for the nomadic and uncultured condition of mankind. She gave instructions for the building of the antediluvian cities not only as centers of culture and civilization, but especially for the worship of the gods, including herself.

“May they come and build cities and cult-places,

that I may cool myself in their shade;

may they lay the bricks for the cult-cities in pure spots, and

may they found places for divination in pure spots.”

She gave directions for purification, and cries for quarter,

the things that cool (divine) wrath.

She perfected divine service and the august offices,

she said to the (surrounding) regions:

“Let me institute peace there”

The following is a summary of the initial creation:

?When An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga [Nintur]

fashioned the darkheaded (people)

they had made the small animals (that come up) from (out of)

the earth come up from the earth in abundance,

and had let there be, as befits (it), gazelles,

(wild) donkeys, and fourfooted beasts in the desert”

The god of wisdom, and Nintur were active in creation. It is obvious that this is referring to Sumerians, as they named themselves, ?the dark-headed people? in history. This seems to indicate that this part of the text was preceded by a creation account.

Shea also believes that the previous missing section is related to ?the development of man?s plight?. In a text from Ur, we find a reference to a time when there was neither agriculture nor weaving of cloth. Despite the obvious danger of this type of poverty, the people lived safely, as there were no dangerous animals and man had no opponent.

The next legible section of the text, according to scholars, discusses the establishment of kingship, which was believed to be a gift from the gods. As the chief agent responsible for carrying out the gods’ commands, the king directed the construction of cities and provided cult places and services for the gods. He also guided the people in the irrigation and growth of crops. Each city received half-bushel baskets from the harvest. Nintur assigned a patron deity to each of the five cities.

The next portion contains the end of the list of kings who reigned in these cities.

III. The Flood Story

The great noise from the increasing human population prevented the gods from sleeping. Angered by this noise the god Enlil decided to eradicate mankind. Nintur mourned, but Enki foiled the plan by warning Ziusudra, the last king of Shuruppak:

“May you heed my advice:

By our hand a flood will sweep over (the cities of)

the half-bushel baskets, and the country.

The decision that mankind is to be destroyed has been made,

a verdict, a command by the assembly, cannot be revoked.

An order of An and Enlil is not known

ever to have been countermanded.

Their kingship, their term, has been uprooted,

they must bethink themselves (of that)”

The remainder of Enki’s advice is missing. But parallels in other Flood stories indicate that Enki instructed Ziusudra to build an ark and load it with his family and the animals. The text resumes with the storm:

All evil winds, all stormy winds gathered into one

and with them, the Flood was sweeping over (the cities of)

the half-bushel baskets for seven days and seven nights.

After the flood had swept over the country,

after the evil wind had tossed the big boat about on great waters

the sun came out spreading light over heaven and earth

The final scene records a speech by Enki who apparently obtained the agreement of the gods to accept the survival of Ziusudra and his family. When Ziusudra sacrificed to An and Enlil, they responded by offering him immortality and an eternal home:

And An and Enlil did well by him,

were granting him life like a god’s,

were making lasting breath of life, like a god’s,

descend into him.

That day they made Ziusudra,

preserver as king of the name of the small animals

and the seed of mankind,

live toward the east over the mountains in Mount Tilmun


T. Jacobsen was the scholar who synthesized the text of these fragments into a coherent story. He has selected three main themes to explain the significance of this text. In the first theme the culture that developed from Nintur’s directions is considered to be superior to man’s nomadic state. In the third theme Jacobsen holds that the Flood story was well preserved and known in the ancient world because it is a story of survival rather than one of destruction.

The second theme is important for our literary critical study. For the section of the Eridu Genesis, which deals with the antediluvian kings and their cities, Jacobsen has noted:

In style this section is clearly modeled on the great Sumerian King list and its formulaic language and arrangement. As to its import one is somewhat at a loss. . . . the closest one can come is probably to credit the inclusion of this section in the tale to pure historical interest on the part of its composer .

Since similar passages in Genesis also can be viewed historically, Jacobsen’s conclusion about this section of the Eridu Genesis is significant for comparative purposes.

Next, Jacobsen compares the Eridu Genesis with the biblical parallel found in Gen 1-9. The threefold divisions of both narratives obviously correspond. The first two sections deal with Creation and the antediluvians, especially through lists of the leading figures of that period. Both conclude with a story of the Flood.

Jacobsen has further noted that both sources have arranged these main segments along a linear time line, rather than grouping them around a folk hero as is more common in such literature. This arrangement allows the successive events to relate logically to each other as cause and effect. Such arrangements in literary compositions from the ancient world are so unusual that Jacobsen was compelled to suggest a new designation:

. . . [this arrangement] is very much the way a historian arranges his data, and since the data here are mythological we may assign both traditions to a new and separate genre as mytho-historical accounts

Also relevant is their particular attention to chronology:

In both [traditions] we are given precise figures for respectively the length of reigns and the lifespans of the persons listed, and in both traditions the figures given are extraordinarily large. . . . This interest in numbers is very curious, for it is characteristic of myths and folktales that they are not concerned with time at all (18).

Jacobsen believes that “interest in numbers of years belongs elsewhere, to the style of chronicles and historiography” His best analogy for this literary style is in historical documents such as the royal annals which have provided further confirmation for categorizing the Eridu Genesis in the mytho-historical literary genre.

?Jacobsen’s study offers valuable contrasts. In the Eridu Genesis man’s lot improved from his original wretched state while in the biblical account man’s condition, along with his environment, worsened through his sinfulness which led to the Flood. This element of moral judgment is both absent in the Sumerian story and conveys a more pessimistic view of man’s nature. Jacobsen urges caution in interpreting myths and their relationships because myths are fluid, relative and changeable in different cultural contexts, thus prohibiting easy generalizations.


I. Texts

The Atra-hasis Epic is named after its human hero who served as the Babylonian Noah. Several whole and partial copies of the cuneiform tablets comprising this series are known. All tablets and fragments have been edited together in a definitive edition of the textual series by W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard.

II. Creation

The commencement of the Atra-hasis Epic is set in a time before the creation of man, a time when Enlil forced the younger gods to dig rivers and canals. After forty years the junior gods rebelled, burned their work tools, and marched on the house of Enlil:

“Let us confront the chamberlin,

That he may relieve us of our heavy work.

The counsellor of the gods, the hero,

Come, let us unnerve him in his dwelling!”

Awakened and warned by a servant, Enlil called an assembly of the gods to deal with the situation. To satisfy the younger gods, Enki proposed that man should be created to be drudges. They agreed to this suggestion and summoned Nintu, the mother goddess, to cooperate with Enki in the project. Made from clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god (We-ila), man would be a mixture of the divine and human. We-ila’s identity and nature remain obscure, and perhaps his name is a deliberate distortion of the word for man, awilum.

Enki opened his mouth

And addressed the great gods,

“On the first, seventh, and fifteenth day of the month

I will make a purifying bath.

Let one god be slaughtered

So that all the gods may be cleansed in a dipping.

Let Nintu mix clay,

That god and man

May be thoroughly mixed in the clay”.

These instructions were then carried out, as is related in an almost word-for-word repetition of the instructions.

Purifying baths for the god to be sacrificed took place on the 1st, 7th, and 15th days of the lunar month. Though they were not exactly chronological weeks, these quarters of the moon are relatively close in length. The god’s execution and the Creation of man apparently followed directly after the purifying bath on the 15th day of the month. This places man’s creation at the end of one lunar quarter or ”week.” Similarly the biblical creation of man took place on the 6th day of a 7-day week.

Sabattu appears to have been the day in which We-ila was killed and his blood mixed with clay. This was the great initiating point in man’s creation, though more steps in this process remained to be accomplished. The clay/blood mixture ensured that man would be a combination of the divine and human. In a sense, therefore, man was created on sabattu. In Genesis man was created on the day before ?abbat, but this difference is much less important than the over-arching connection between sabattu/?abbat and the creation of man. It is unlikely that such a specific linkage occurred in both accounts by chance. Both accounts can be traced to the same basic conception, which was known to both cultures.

Therefore ?the idea of the link between Sabbath and the Creation of man can now be found in an extra-biblical source from the first half of the second millennium BC, and as is commonly believed by some, many elements in this type of story undoubtedly derived from still older written or oral traditions. From the biblical point of view the differences involved in the Babylonian account would have been introduced by gradual corruption from polytheistic conceptions?.

The second phase in the process of Creation involved Enki, Nintu, and some assistant birth goddesses who broke bits of clay from the central stock and formed these pieces into inert statuettes of seven men and seven women. These were located adjacent to the birth ”bricks,” the place of parturition for Babylonian women in labor. The womb broke open in the 10th month and mankind was born. At this point Nintu diverges to give advice on marriage and obstetrics. Evidently the reading of this story served as a good-luck omen at the time of childbirth.

III. Antediluvian Life

The next major segment of the Atra-hasis Epic concentrates upon antediluvian adversities. Before 1200 years had passed, Enlil brought a plague to reduce the population and squelch their noise. Enki circumvented this plan by instructing Atra-hasis to offer sacrifice to Namtara, the goddess of the plague. This Atra-hasis and the people did, and the effects of the plague were averted.

After another 1200 noisy years, Enlil developed another plan to reduce the human population by starvation through drought and famine:

“The noise of mankind (has become too intense for me),

(With their uproar) I am deprived of sleep.

Cut off supplies for the peoples,

Let there be a scarcity of plant-life to satisfy their hunger.

Adad should withold his rain,

And below, the flood should not come up from the abyss.

Let the wind blow and parch the ground,

Let the clouds thicken but not release a downpour,

Let the fields diminish their yields”.

Again Enki instructed Atra-hasis to lead the people in offering sacrifice to Adad, the storm god. Thus satisfied, Adad yielded his rains and the fields bore grain.

The third plan also involved drought and famine. Frustrated by his failures, Enlil added the extra insurance of posting divine guards at every level of heaven and earth to prevent water from reaching the fields. There is no indication of another 1200-year interval, and it seems somewhat unlikely because this episode is cast in different terms than the first two.

The black fields became white,

The broad plain was choked with salt.

For one year they ate couch grass;

For the second year they suffered the itch.

The third year came

(And) their features (were altered) by hunger

(Their faces) were encrusted, like malt,

(And they were living) on the verge of death.

Although the tablets at the end of this episode are badly damaged, it appears that Enki removed the bar, which held back the subterranean waters. Man was thus saved from drought and famine. Dissatisfied with Enki’s attempt to explain away his interference, Enlil determined to use water ? which had been a savior ? to eradicate mankind. The gods in council agreed to Enlil’s plan.

IV. The Flood

This portion begins with Atra-hasis communing with his divine protector Enki through the walls of his house. Enki told Atra-hasis to tear down these walls and use them to construct a boat in which to save himself, his family, and some of the animals:

Reed wall, observe all my words!

“Destroy your house, build a boat,

Spurn property and save life.

The boat which you build . . . .

Roof it over like Apsu,

So that the sun shall not see inside it.

Let it be roofed over above and below.

The tackle should be very strong,

Let the pitch be tough, and so give (the boat) strength”.

Atra-hasis then informed his people that he would be forced to leave because his god Enki was disputing with Enlil.

There is a damaged portion of the tablets that contains the story of the building of the ark and the collection and loading of the animals which follows. Atra-hasis’ family went aboard the boat while he attended a farewell banquet with his people. Overcome with horror at the prospect of the destruction ahead, he was unable to eat. The storm came and Atra-hasis entered the ark. He sealed its door, cut its hawser and set sail.

The next clear section of text describes the reactions of the gods to the Flood. Enki was distraught, and Nintu mourned and wept at the destruction of mankind. The destroyed agriculture deprived the gods of food and drink. They concluded that the Flood was not a very good idea.

At this point there is another gap, but the story resumes as Atra-hasis promptly reinstituted offerings for the gods. Given the mental and physical condition of the gods, it was a religiously astute procedure. Meanwhile, Enlil was enraged upon hearing that some humans had escaped the Flood:

(The warrior Enlil) saw the vessel,

And was filled with anger at the Igigi (gods),

“All we great Anunnaki (gods)

Decided together on an oath.

Where did life escape?

How did man survive in the destruction?”.

Enki received the blame, but in further negotiations in the divine council Enlil was cajoled into accepting the existence of mankind on earth. To limit the population and maintain the noise at a tolerable level, the gods agreed that some classes of women, e.g., priestesses, would not bear children. Any further details have been lost in damage to the tablet copies.

This focus upon human reproduction provides a direct link between the first and last main sections of the Atra-hasis Epic. The Creation story ends on the note of assistance to women who were to bear children. The Flood story ends with an explanation for women who would not bear children or who were to lose their children.

The book of Genesis has a similar link. At Creation Adam and Eve were told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The same instructions were repeated to Noah’s family as they left the ark (Gen. 9:1). The more negative biblical note (which comes the closest to the statements at the end of the Atrahasis Flood story) occurs in the sentence upon Eve regarding the greater difficulty of childbirth after the fall (Gen. 3:16). Since no moral fall is present in Mesopotamian texts, this biblical negative side of childbearing appears to have been transposed to follow the Flood story. Atra-hasis’ “curse” upon the Babylonian Eves differs in content.

V. Comparisons

Comparisons can now be drawn between the contents of the two Creation-Flood stories: the Atra-hasis Epic and the Eridu Genesis.

While comparisons between individual segments are possible, it is difficult to compare the Creation stories of the Eridu Genesis and the Atra-hasis Epic, because that portion of the Eridu Genesis is missing and its contents can only be inferred from later passages. Both Flood stories are somewhat fragmentary but appear to be relatively close in content.

The greatest difference comes in the middle segment dealing with antediluvian life. The Sumerian source ? the Eridu Genesis ? provides a relatively optimistic view of this period, and its duration is framed in a long chronology. In contrast, the Semitic source ? the Atra-hasis Epic ? takes a more pessimistic view of man’s physical environment and frames its duration in a short chronology.


I. Comparisons

Now lets look at a comparison of Gen 1-9 with the Creation-Flood stories discussed above with the approach being that of literary form and though. Each of the three main elements in the accounts can be compared individually with its counterpart in Genesis.

II. The Creation Story

It is difficult, if not impossible to compare the Creation narratives of Gen. 1-2 with the Eridu Genesis, because the latter portion is badly damaged. The main comparison therefore must come between Atra-hasis and Genesis.

In Atra-hasis several gods were involved in the project of Creation. When the lesser gods rebelled against Enlil after forty years of labor, man was created to remedy the conflict. The book of Genesis describes creation as the sole and undisputed work of the sovereign God Yahweh who rested from his work of creating, not from dredging rivers and canals. All the earth was fitted for man during the same week in which he was created.

There are also similarities. There is a similarity between the Sabbath and the sabbat (as touched on previously). Further comparison can be made between other aspects, e.g., the substance from which man was made. Both were formed essentially from the same material ? dust of the ground, or clay, and in both cases an element of the divine was incorporated into man at his creation. The modes were different, but a similar purpose was served.

Both accounts emphasize the creation of woman at the same time as man’s creation. In both cases male and female were made from the same material, but in the biblical account the Creation of woman was mediated through a part taken from man. The Creation story in the Eridu Genesis is more fragmentary, but we can infer that the animals were created with man. General parallels can be drawn between Atra-hasis and Gen 1, Gen 2A, and Gen. 2B. Both tell the story of man’s creation in more than one segment. This parallelism extends to the smaller units of the story. In Atra-hasis the divine council decided to make man, and the way in which Enki and Nintu were to accomplish this task was outlined specifically. This was repeated almost verbatim in the story of their accomplishment of the task.

Such repetition in Atra-hasis is another example of the writing style that is also found in Gen. 1-2. It is very noticable in the Gen 1 account of the acts of Creation on the first six days.

The Flood

It is difficult to get a proper comparison, because the Atra-hasis and Eridu extant copies are limited. The easiest comparison to the Biblical flood story is that of the Gilgamesh Epic. On the following page is a flood comparison chart that should be useful.

Biblical Genesis Eridu Genesis Atra-hasis Epic

1. The Flood was brought upon mankind by a decision of the God/gods + + +

2. This information was relayed to the Flood hero by God/a god + + +

3. The Flood hero was selected because he was righteous or a devotee of the gods + + +

4. The purpose of the Flood was to destroy mankind in general + + +

5. The Flood hero was given instructions on how to build his boat for escape + ? +

6. After completing the boat, the hero took his family and animals aboard + + +

7. The boat was caulked with pitch + ? +

8. The boat was roofed over in such a way that it limited the amount of sunlight admitted to it + + +

9. A special period of 7 days occurred just before or right at the beginning of the Flood + + +

10. Upon exiting from the boat the hero sacrificed to God/gods and his sacrifice was accepted + + +

It is obvious from this comparison chart that there is an astounding number of similarities between these different Creation/Flood accounts. It is important also to realize that the majority of this paper has dealt with the similarities and not many of the contrasts of the narrative accounts. Also, while there may be differences, there is no reason to think each is speaking of a different flood, but rather of the same flood, interpreted through each group?s ?own theology and worldview? As we enter into our study of the Biblical Genesis account of the flood, this understanding of other literature at the time, helps us make sense of the authorial intent. I think it is clear after looking at the similarities that the author had a theological purpose rather than a scientific one. Many times we interpret this portion of Genesis haphazardly. If we spend a little time to get familiar with critical scholarship , our own hermaneutical method would prove more honest and compelling.


footnotes included

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