Flood Myths of the Ancient Near East and Biblical accounts of The Flood

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2020. All rights reserved.


In discussing this topic I deal with the following areas. First, I will discuss the sources of the account in Genesis since it is relevant whether we are reading one story or two (Moberly 2009: 103). The presence of more than one source in the Biblical account would suggest, at the very least, that a variety of influences on its formation are possible. Secondly, I will outline the different Babylonian stories, their interrelation and chronology. I will then discuss the points of similarity and difference between the Babylonian and Biblical accounts and the evidence for an influence of the former on the latter. It should be noted here that although the essay is dealing with the Flood myths it will be necessary to make some reference also to the Creation stories because an understanding of the Flood narratives depends on knowing the Creation narratives. This should become apparent when I deal with the underlying theological assumptions. Finally, I will discuss the underlying theology and how the stories have been used to describe the relationship between God(s) and humankind. Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Flood Myths of the Ancient Near East and Biblical accounts of The Flood

The evidence that the Pentateuch contains more than one written source (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis) is reviewed in detail by G.I. Davies (Davies 2001). The idea has its origins in the work of a group of mainly German theologians in the 19th Century and, although often referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, owes its formulation to the work of a number of people including H Hupfeld, A. Knobel, and the Dutchman, A Kuenen as well as Graf and Wellhausen. It began with the observation that Genesis has not one but two different accounts of creation, which differ in the order of events and the names used for God as well as other details, such as the creation of man and woman. The general principles on which the hypothesis rests include repeated accounts of the same action or story, the occurrence of statements or commands that are incompatible or inconsistent with each other, differences in vocabulary and style between accounts, for example, the use of different names for God, and differing viewpoints on matters of religion (Davies 2001:16). There has been much debate surrounding the number of written sources and their date of composition but the hypothesis as formulated by Graf and Wellhausen proposes four sources, namely, J (for Yahwistic since it uses the name YHWH for God whereas the other sources refer to God as Elohim) written in Judah in the 9th Century BCE; E (for Elohistic) written in the 8th Century BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel; D (for Deuteronomic) written in 7th Century Judah and P (for Priestly because of the prominent part given to priesthood and ritual in its later parts) written in 5th Century Babylon. It is almost certainly the case that the oral traditions on which the various written sources are based are much older, probably going back to the second millennium BCE (van Wolde 1995: 4). For our purposes in thinking about the Flood Narratives and the stories of creation the relevant sources are thought to be J and P.

Apart from the fact that the presence of more than one source in the Biblical accounts of the Flood adds some weight to the idea that a link with other, non-biblical sources is at least possible, it is also important when we come to interpret the significance of these stories. Van Wolde (1995:132-140) has drawn attention to the different theology of the sources J and P. For example, the fact that God as Yahweh is portrayed as one who is directly involved with his creation, who has regrets and feels pain in his heart, whereas the Elohim of P pays no attention to personal feelings and contacts but is more concerned with the whole of creation. For van Wolde, Yahweh represents the relational or immanent side of God whereas the term Elohim stands for God in himself, the transcendent God. The ideas about God and his relationship with humankind are, I believe, important when it comes to assessing the differences between the Mesopotamian myths and the Biblical accounts.

Unlike the creation stories where J and P exist as two separate accounts, in the Flood narrative, the two sources are interwoven to present a single overall account. At the beginning, Genesis 6:5-8, Yahweh gives the reason for the flood while at the same time expressing his regret. There then follows a long block from P where Elohim again outlines the reasons for the flood and gives Noah instructions about building the ark, what to do with his family and the animals. In 7: 1-5 and 7-10 Yahweh appears again with a repetition of instructions for preparation which differ in their detail, for example, in the numbers of animals, now differentiated into clean and unclean, and the arrangements for Noah’s family. Other variations include the duration of the rains and the flood. There are also differences in the reasons for the choice of Noah. According to Noort (1999: 27) in the J version the declaration of Noah as suitable by Yahweh has nothing to do with Noah’s merits, he was simply the right man, whereas in the P version Noah is chosen because of his righteousness (although in modern translations such as the New Revised Standard Version these differences in the language of Genesis 6:8 and 7:1 seem to have been lost).  The repetitions and differing details in the accounts are associated with the use of different names for God supporting the view that they represent two different sources.

Turning now to the Mesopotamian accounts, these were widely distributed in the ancient world. They were written in Akkadian, which was the diplomatic language of the Ancient East and the oral tradition is likely to have been widely distributed along caravan routes by merchants. Daley (1989:xvi-xvii) makes the point that there are several written versions of the story and that the oral tradition and the written accounts probably continued to evolve in parallel. Fragments of tablets have been found in Anatolia and Syria-Palestine, for example at Megiddo in Canaan and Emar in Syria (Kovacs 1985:xxi and xxiii). The potential for interaction with the Biblical accounts is, therefore, considerable. The dating of the legends is covered in detail by authors such as Dalley (1989), Kovacs (1985), and Noort (1999). My understanding of the arguments is that the oldest Sumerian legends were transcribed into Akkadian in around 1600 BCE, the written Atra-Hasis legend dates from around 1650 BCE and the Gilgamesh Tablets from around 1200 BCE (Noort, 1999:5). Earlier versions of Gilgamesh without the Flood story appear in Sumerian texts but the incorporation of the Flood epic in Tablet XI of the standard version of Gilgamesh was later and the consensus is that it was taken from the myth of Atra-Hasis. Gilgamesh is essentially about death and humankind’s pursuit of immortality and the Flood story in Gilgamesh is a form of digression in which Gilgamesh meets Utanapishtim, the survivor of the Flood and the only human being to have attained immortality. Because of the likely derivation of the Gilgamesh Flood story from Atra-Hasis, when comparing the Mesopotamian myths and the Biblical accounts of the Flood in this essay I will refer to both  Atra-Hasis and the Gilgamesh epic.

A summary of the Atra-Hasis epic is provided by Lambert and Millard (1969:8-13) and by Moran and Hendel (2002:33-45) and of Gilgamesh by Kovacs (1989). The story begins when only the gods lived in the universe. The three senior gods Anu, Enlil and Enki agree their spheres of influence, Anu going up to heaven, Enlil remaining on earth and Enki going to the body of water believed to lie under the earth. Because only the gods lived in the universe, they had to toil for their own food and labour digging canals and rivers. This work was given to a group of lesser gods, the Iggi, by Enlil. However, the Iggi found the work oppressive and revolted because the work was too much and so, at Anu’s suggestion, man was created from the clay of the earth mixed with the blood of a slain god to take over the labour. There then arose the problem that the numbers of men on earth increased so much that their noise disturbed the rest of the gods (specifically Enlil). A series of plagues and then a drought and famine instituted by Enlil failed to reduce the numbers and solve the problem. In escaping these attempts mankind was helped by the god Enki. The idea of a flood to wipe out mankind was then conceived by Enlil but again Enki helps by warning the man Atra-Hasis (Utanapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic) by whispering through the wall of his reed hut. He is instructed to build a reed boat coated with pitch and to load it with his family, possessions, animals and birds. The flood lasted seven days and nights (here the Gilgamesh epic inserts the detail of the sending out of three birds to see if the flood had subsided). After the flood, on disembarking, Atra-Hasis made an offering to placate the gods. The problem of limiting the numbers of humans in the future was solved instead by limiting the life span of humans, increasing infant mortality and having some of the women forgo marriage.

Van Wolde (1996) has provided a detailed comparison of the Gilgamesh and Atra-Hasis epics and the Genesis accounts of the Flood. In all three stories the gods or God play an important role in allowing the flood to come upon the earth. In all three there is a human hero (Utanapishtim, Atra-Hasis and Noah) who saves the animals and his family by building a boat. In both the Babylonian accounts and the Genesis account birds are sent out to see if the waters are subsiding (in Genesis a raven, a dove and then another dove; in Atra-Hasis and Gilgamesh a dove and swallow and a raven (see Kovacs 1989: 102)). At the end of the flood in all accounts a sacrifice is offered to the gods or to God. These similarities plus the fact that, whereas catastrophic unpredictable floods were common in the Mesopotamian region, they were not native to Palestine (Noort 1999: 7) and the inclusion of details in the Genesis account such as the use of pitch to seal the boats which would have been unusual in Palestine but standard practice in Babylon (Noort 1991:9), provide evidence for a derivation of the Genesis accounts from the earlier Babylonian myths. 

There are, however, important differences between the accounts as well, which are relevant to the use to which the legends have been put. In Genesis there is one God (either Yahweh or Elohim). In the Mesopotamian myths there are multiple gods and the reasons for the Flood are that human beings are making too much noise and disturbing the sleep of the gods. In the Gilgamesh epic Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh that before the Flood men were immortal and the reason for the Flood in these myths is to control over-population by humans. After the Flood has subsided these problems of noise and overpopulation are solved in Atra-Hasis by putting limits on procreation (more children are allowed to die and women become less fertile, those in the service of the gods also remaining as virgins) and in Gilgamesh by instituting death and abolishing immortality. By contrast, in the Genesis account the reason given for the Flood is not overpopulation or the immortality of man but the bad behaviour of human beings and the corruption of creation. In the Priestly account in Genesis the description of the Flood is a reversal of the description of the Creation where the waters that covered the face of the earth are separated to allow the dry land and then life to appear. The mortality of humankind and the limitation of life span have already been established in Genesis 3:22 and 6:3 and after the Flood Noah and his sons are instructed ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ (Genesis 9:1). Other differences in detail include the fact that in the Biblical account the duration of the rains and the Flood vary in J and P.

Although the accounts have much in common and it seems likely that the Genesis account is an adaptation of what was a widespread story in the ancient world, it has been put to a different use in the Bible since the underlying theology in Genesis is quite different from that in the Mesopotamian myths. In the polytheistic world of Babylon humankind was created simply for the convenience of the gods, to perform a function. The subsequent success of humans in their increasing numbers was seen as a threat and the ideas behind the story are to explain the reasons for death and the finite span of human life. The motive seems to be the control of overpopulation by humankind. It would seem that the gods are otherwise indifferent to human beings since even the reason give for the reversal of the Flood has more to do with the fact that the gods are missing the smell of sacrifices (this seems to be their only source of regret) than any concern for the future of creation. In Babylon the world of humans is there for the use and convenience of the gods. The underlying theme in Genesis could not be more different since here we have a single God, who creates and delights in Creation. ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). God creates humankind in his own image (Genesis 1:26) and blesses them with the instruction to be fruitful and multiply. In the J account of the Flood Yahweh surveys creation and sees the evil created by human beings and is dismayed by it. It is with regret that he decides to destroy what he has been created and he acts more from sorrow that from anger (Genesis 6: 6-7) and this differs from the Atra-Hasis and Gilgamesh epics where the gods only express regret afterwards when they see how the decision has affected them (see above). The problem for the writers of Genesis is to reconcile their belief in a monotheistic god who is the creator and sustainer of all things with the decision to destroy creation he has made (for the description of the Flood in the Priestly version is a reversal of the Creation story). The solution is to invoke God’s grace and the survival of a remnant in the form of Noah and his family. God’s grace is seen in the covenant with creation not to destroy it again and his instruction to Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply. For a detailed discussion see van Wolde (1996), Noort (1998) and Moberly (2009). This tension between God’s authority and power on the one hand and his love and promises to the people of Israel on the other, despite their disobedience, is a recurring dilemma throughout the later prophetic writings in the Bible. In Genesis, it seems likely that the Hebrews have retold a common story in the ancient world retaining many of the details but with a reshaping of it to fit their own beliefs about the nature of God, humankind and the problem of sin.


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Davies, G.I. (2001), Introduction to the Pentateuch. In J. Barton and J. Middiman (eds.) The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foster, B.R. (1997), Atra-Hasis. In W.W. Hallo  and K.L.Younger (eds), The Context of Scripture Volume I Canonical Compositions from the Ancient World. Brill:Leiden.

Foster, B.R. (1997), Gilgamesh. In W.W. Hallo  and K.L.Younger (eds), The Context of Scripture Volume I Canonical Compositions from the Ancient World. Brill:Leiden.

Kovacs, Maureen Gallery (1989), The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lambert, W.G. and A.R. Millard (1969), Atra-Hasis The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Moberly, R.W.L (2009), The Theology of the Book of Genesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moran, W.L. (2002) (edited by Hendel R.S.), The Most Magic Work. Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature. Washington DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America.

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Noort, E. (1998), The Stories of the Great Flood: Notes on Gen 6:5 - 9:17 in its Context of the Ancient Near East. In Martinez, F.C. and G.P. Luttikhuizen (eds), Interpretations of the Flood. Brill: Leiden.

van Wolde, E (1996), Stories of the Beginning. Genesis 1-11 and Other Creation Stories. London: SCM Press.