The Great Flood: mythological story about a great destruction that once befell the earth. There are several variants; the Biblical version is the most famous. The possibility that there is a historical event behind the story (a local flood in southern Babylonia in the twenty-eighth century BCE) cannot be excluded.
The famous story about the Great Flood is best known from the Bible (Genesis 6-9). It has always been known that there were similar stories from Greece and Rome (like the ones by Apollodorus, Ovid, and Hyginus), but in the nineteenth century, several texts from ancient Iraq were added. The first discovery was Tablet XI of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš (in 1872), the second the Sumerian original, now called the Eridu Genesis (1914), and the third the Epic of Atrahasis (1956). It is now clear that the Biblical account stays close to a Babylonian model.
Genesis 6-9 and its Source
This can best be recognized when we scrutinize the Biblical Flood Story and reconstruct the original text. Throughout the Biblical book of Genesis (and in fact the entire Torah) discrepancies and doublets can be recognized. For example, at the very beginning, there are two Creation stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2), and in the story of the Great Flood, we can find several contradictions:
- animals enter the Ark in couples (6.19-20, 7.9, 7.15) and in sevenfolds (7.2-3)
- the waters of the Flood are from below the earth (7.10) and by rain (7.4, 7.12)
- Noah and his family twice enter the Ark (7.13 and 7.7)
- the Flood lasts one year (7.11 with 8.13); the Flood lasts forty days (7.17)
As early as the eighteenth century, it was proposed that the author of the Torah had used at least two sources. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, this idea, called the Documentary Hypothesis, was elaborated, but no two scholars have agreed upon the exact attribution of every verse, and by the end of the twentieth century, most scholars returned to more modest ambitions. However, the idea that the story of the Great Flood is based on two sources remains more or less agreed-upon.
A possible, perhaps even likely, reconstruction of these two sources can be found here. What matters is the original text, the older of the two sources, which is sometimes called “Priestly”. This is the text in which the animals enter the Ark two by two and in which the Flood is caused by primordial waters – the waters that were separated when God made the firmament (Genesis 1.6-7).
The Priestly Text began – or may have began, according to many scholars – with the First Creation Story (Genesis 1), continued with the names of the incredibly long-lived descendants of Adam and Eve, and stories about human sin that made God decide to destroy the greater part of mankind.
The Flood story itself is well-known: Noah builds an Ark, boards the ship with seven relatives, survives the Flood, lands at a mountain top in a country named Ararat, sends out birds from the Ark to check if there is dry land, sacrifices, and concludes a Covenant with God, in which God promises that mankind will never be destroyed again and live forever. (The final anecdote, in which Noah gets drunk, is an addition to this story, not from the Priestly Text.) The entire story is interlaced with precise chronological indications, which enable us to establish that the day on which God “remembered Noah” (Genesis 8.1) is the Day of Atonement.
This pattern is similar to stories from Babylonia. The main difference is, of course, that in those texts, we encounter more than one God. However, the similarities are striking: in texts like the Eridu Genesis, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Epic of Gilgameš, we read how the gods created earth and man, encounter the names of the first people (who are incredibly old), and read about the decision to destroy mankind. One man is ordered to build an Ark, survives the Flood, lands at a mountain called Nisir or Nimuš, leaves out birds from the Ark, sacrifices, and obtains immortality.
The same pattern can be found in the Greek texts. Generally speaking, the parallels between the Priestly Text and the texts from Babylonia are closer: several times, the author of Genesis actually quotes a Babylonian model. But on two points, the Bible and the Greek texts resemble each other more: these two versions refer to giants in the section immediately preceding the decision to destroy mankind, and in the end, the survivor does not obtain immortality, but many children.
The parallels are remarkable, and even when there are differences, they are not what they appear to be. For example, the Biblical Ararat Mountains – plural! – is not at odds with the Mount Nimuš/Nisir from the Epic of Gilgameš. The Hebrew word “Ararat” refers to the country directly north and northeast of Mesopotamia,note a region that is also known as Urartu or Gordyene (Kurdistan), where we can indeed find a Mount Nisir.note
The similarities are easy to explain: it was a good story, and people must have told and retold it very often. In fact, we must imagine the written texts as exceptional – the main tradition was, no doubt, oral. Still, there are too many verbal similarities to say that there was no written tradition at all. We can follow the development of the story for more than two millennia. It started in Sumer.
|Date||3d millennium BCE||c.1640 BCE||c.1100 BCE||c.1000-500 BCE||278 BCE||c.700 BCE?||c.600 CE|
|Warning||Vision||Dream||Indirect order||Direct order||Dream||?||Direct order|
|Reason||Noise?||Noise||?||Sin, giants||?||Sin, giants||Sin|
|Cause||Stormflood||Rain||Stormflood||Rain, fountains||–||Rain, waves||“from the valley”|
|Period||7 days||7 days||7 days||150/40 days||“quickly”||9 days||?|
|Birds||?||?||raven, dove, swallow||doves/raven||“several”||none||–|
|Fate||Eternal life||Eternal life||Eternal life||3 sons||Eternal life||3 grandsons||–|