Tonight is the final night of my church’s Vacation Bible School. We’ve been studying the story of Noah. We have some incredibly imaginative and creative members – I wish you should see the way they have transformed our auditorium and vestibule into an ark!
The Book of Genesis is not the only ancient account of a great flood. Other cultures, particularly in the region of Mesopotamia, also have flood stories. One of the most famous accounts of a flood is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which apparently preserves an even earlier flood story found in the Epic of Atrahasis.
Both of these accounts predate the record found in Genesis, leading some critics to conclude that Genesis borrowed from these prior accounts. And indeed, there are many features shared by all of these stories:
- Divine judgment
- Divine judgment by a flood
- Warnings given to one family
- The construction of a large boat
- The use of birds for reconnaissance
- Sacrifices offered by the survivors
At first glance these similarities are striking. However, once it is granted that there is going to be a ancient flood, most of these details are fairly predictable. Ancient people believed in deities; a boat would be the only way to escape a deluge; birds would be the logical choice for scouting; and sacrifices would be the normal course of action for devout survivors.
In fact, if you read the ancient non-biblical flood accounts, what is far more striking is how different the Genesis account is at every important point. To illustrate, here is a section of the Epic of Atrahasis:
Twelve hundred years had not gone by;
the land had expanded and the people had multiplied.
The land was bellowing like wild oxen,
and the god was disturbed by their uproar.
Enlil heard their noise and addressed the great gods:
“The noise of humankind is too loud for me,
with all their uproar I cannot go to sleep.”
There are two important observations to draw here. First, the pagan flood accounts are polytheistic. There are multiple gods involved, and they are often working at cross purposes with each other. Second, the reason for divine judgment is that “humankind is too loud.” People are too noisy, and they are keeping the gods awake! And so the gods attempt a series of efforts (disease and drought) to quiet humanity, culminating in a flood.
Enlil opened his mouth to speak
and addressed the assembly of all the gods:
“Come now, let us all take an oath to bring a flood.”
Anu swore first, Enlil swore, his sons swore with him. . . .
Enki opened his mouth and addressed the gods his brothers:
“Why will you bind me with an oath? Am I to lay hands on my own people?. . . .
Am I to give birth to a flood? That is the task of Enlil…”
As you can see, one of the gods, Enki, objects to this plan, and – as you might have guessed – decides to warn the hero, Atrahasis, to build a boat to escape.
By contrast, the Genesis account is striking in its sobriety. The key differences are staggering:
- There is only one God.
- The reason for divine judgment is utter human wickedness and brutality. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually…Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:5, 11).
- God is heartbroken over the sinfulness of humanity. “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).
- The one true God sees a human who is the exception, and determines to save him. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8).
The contrast between the nature of God and the nature of humanity could not be more profound. In the ancient accounts, the gods are petty, conniving, and capricious. And human beings are mere annoyances. In the Genesis account, there is one God of absolute holiness, and human beings are those made in God’s image (making the sinfulness of humanity all the more tragic and perverse).
The vastly different views of deity are compelling. In the Genesis account, God is completely sovereign, in control of every aspect of the flood.
- “For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:4).
- “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground” (Genesis 7:23).
- “And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1).
By contrast, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods are frightened by their own flood!
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
“The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!”
It only makes sense that the pagan gods were terrified by the flood. In ancient mythology, the gods were part of the natural world (sun gods, moon gods, etc). So a cataclysm in nature would terrify gods who are part of that natural order. But the God of the Bible is separate from creation as the Creator, and since He is distinct from the natural order, He is in total control of the natural order.
That’s why the account of the flood in Genesis is the mirror image of the account of creation. In creation, God separates “the waters” above and below (Genesis 1:6, 9). And in the flood, God does the reverse, unleashing the waters above and below (Genesis 7:11).
Because its view of God is much higher than that of pagan stories, Genesis’s view of humanity is also much higher. After all, in Genesis mankind is made in God’s image. This is why God expresses such remorse about humanity’s plunge into brutality, and it also why God is determined to save a remnant in the form of Noah and his family.
There is another important difference that I should also mention. In Gilgamesh, the hero (Utanapushtim) becomes a god at the end of the story:
Enlil went up inside the boat
and, grasping my hand, made me go up.
He had my wife go up and kneel by my side.
He touched our forehead and, standing between us, he
“Previously Utanapishtim was a human being.
But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us,
At the end of the Genesis account, Noah gets drunk.
In pagan religions, the view of humanity lurched between the extremes of slavery and deity. In Genesis, humanity is made in God’s image, but also capable of incredible failure.
For all of these reasons, it is unreasonable to think that Genesis “borrowed” from these ancient accounts. Instead, as Kenneth Mathews summarizes the point:
Comparing the Babylonian versions and Genesis, A. Heidel in his classic study concluded, “The skeleton is the same in both cases, but the flesh and blood and, above all, the animating spirit are different.” Although the flood stories share in a general framework, it is speculative to say any more than that the pagan stories and Genesis arise from a common memory of the ancient deluge (Genesis 1-11:26. Vol. 1A. The New American Commentary, p. 101).
And all of this illustrates how crucially distinct the view of God and humanity is in the Judeo-Christian tradition from any other belief system.