• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, June 03, 2024

    Noah adaptations p02:
    Origins of the flood story

    Michelangelo's "The Deluge" (1508-11) from the Sistine Chapel ceiling

    For many people it's a surprise to learn that the biblical story of Noah is itself something of an adaptation. Archaeologists have unearthed an evolving flood story tradition from the ancient near east written on cuneiform tablets. Even allowing for a very conservative date for the writing of Genesis – i.e. if written by Moses roughly around the time of Ramesses II (13th century BCE) – it goes back hundreds of years before Genesis was written. There are at least three different key phases in this evolution,1 but each features remarkable similarities with the Noah story.

    An evolving tradition?

    Of course there are a number of ways of interpreting this data. The author of Genesis (and personally I don't think it was Moses, but more on that in a future post) might have come across these earlier stories and decided to adapt them for his own purposes, or it might be that (as a literal dating of Noah places him earlier than any of these texts) all these documents are referring to an earlier event, but unsurprisingly the details have changed in some of them over the centuries.

    It's worth saying that flood stories have turned up all over the world, with over 300 stories where "the near-destruction of humanity results from a great flood".2 Obviously floods were not uncommon, and could be catastrophic, and clearly those best placed to survive them would have been those with boats, so this widespread phenomenon is perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, there's a particular  pattern here where a divine presence sent a flood to drastically reduce the human population, but a particular man was chosen to survive as well as those close to him. After the waters subside "the broken bond between the gods and humanity was restored... by a sacrifice of ark animals offered by the flood hero".3

    Moreover, these three main phases all relate to the Ancient Near East and whereas many of that 300 are almost entirely different and not so soundly attested to, these contain notable similarities and have been preserved on a variety of clay tablets which have been carbon dated back to pre-biblical times.
    When we look closely at these accounts, including the one in Genesis, we can see the evolution of the story from the oldest of these three traditions through to the Noah story, which is the most familiar to most people today. 

    The Epic of Ziusudur

    The Epic of Ziusudur, also known as the "Sumerian Deluge" or "Eridu Genesis" survives in a third of clay tablet from the seventeenth century BCE, though there are indications that the original version dates from sometime before 2000 BCE and that even this is dependent on earlier incarnations. Despite the fragmented nature of this tablet, the basic story survives: Following the creation of humans and animals, the gods send a deluge, but Ziusudur is warned, builds a boat, and when the sun appears again he offers an animal sacrifice to the gods.4

    The Atrahasis Epic

    The Atrahasis Epic is thought to date back to around 1750 BCE,5 and its "basic elements...closely resemble those of Ziusudra".6 Humans are created, now from clay, the gods send a deluge only this time the chosen survivor is Atrahasis along with his family and the animals. Like Ziusudur's story the flood lasts for seven days. Moreover where lines are missing in the Epic of Ziusudur, the Atrahasis fills in the gaps. It's explicitly stated that the animals are taken aboard and there are details about how the boat is to be constructed.

    Recently, a further clay tablet containing a version of the Atrahasis epic re-surfaced which provides some interesting additional details. The main talking point that emerged from the newly translated tablet was that it seemed to indicate that Atrahasis's vessel was a round coracle, rather than the typical ark shape (significantly longer than it was wide, with a bow and a stern).7 However, of greater interest for the present study is that the gods' words to Atrahasis specifically instruct him to "Destroy your house, build a boat".8To those of us with brick houses today, and probably those in cities even then the instruction to destroy the house seems odd, but Finkel argues that Atrahasis's "house is made of reeds, strong and willowy, that can easily be recycled to a plait a lifeboat if that is what is needed".9 Such reed houses and reed boat were still common in southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), until the latter part of the 20th century particularly in the marshy region near where the Tigris and the Euphrates merge.10

    The suggestion to recycle is probably driven more by urgency than by environmental concern. Nevertheless, by the time of the biblical account -- where an enormous amount of time is available to build the ark -- the command to recycle has disappeared.

    The Gilgamesh Epic

    Finally, there is the Gilgamesh Epic, "arguably the first great work of world literature",11 dating somewhere from the second millennium BCE, though essentially the flood stories are only found in the most complete version dated 650BCE. "The  account in Gilgamesh has clearly drawn heavily upon Atrahasis... and there is evidence of dependence in terms of phraseology, content and structure".12 Perhaps the biggest indicator of this is that the story of the flood forms only one part of the epic (tablet 11) and is set in the distant past.

    Like Genesis, the epic as a whole is not about the flood hero. Instead the story is about a ruler, Gilgamesh, and the ark survivor is now called Utnapishtim (apart from one occasion where the author tellingly reverts to calling him Atrahasis), who enters the scene relatively late in proceedings (tablet 10 of 12). Attempting to learn the secret of Utnapishtim's immortality, Gilgamesh sets out to find him and only then does Utnapishtim reluctantly disclose his story of being granted eternal life after surviving the flood. The flood narrative has become a sidebar to the main story. Most of the Atrahasis Epic remains intact, but now when the boat lands it does so on a mountain, and a dove, a swallow and a raven are dispatched to determine if there is any dry land. 

    However, Gilgamesh does introduce one further element to the story: environmental concern. Both within the flood narrative itself, and in the rest of the Gilgamesh Epic, the poem carries a sense that human activity is endangering the balance of nature. Gilgamesh is attempting to shore up his kingdom by strengthening the city at the expense of the countryside and other elements of nature. This threatens the gods, who are not unlike nature spirits. so "when he goes to extremes by destroying the Cedar Forest, he activates, unawares, the retaliation of Nature".13

    This environmental concern also explains the gods rather Malthusian thinking behind their previous attempt to cull human numbers with a flood. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's "In Our Time" Gilgamesh expert/translator Andrew George explained:
    ...there is the idea of a view of ecology or the environment in which human beings do not, as in the Bible, have dominion over the Earth, they’re actually part of a world which is very carefully balanced and there are opportunities for them to endanger this balance by cutting down cedar forest, by growing too fast in numbers...14
    This idea is also picked up by Martin Puchner who finds Gilgamesh concerned "more with population control and the relation between humans and their environment".15 

    Mark Sentesy takes things further. For him "the  Epic of  Gigamesh represents an  important ecological  event: the  emergence of  the culture  of the   Anthropocene" (which he defines as "the planetary impact of human beings").16 In his efforts to stabilise the flow of food and water, Gilgamesh throws Ishtar out of the city, "the goddess who most of all embodied his culture’s  experience  of nature".17 This represents "a turning point...a break with nature".18 

    So these ideas of depleting resources, deforestation and overpopulation, some of which obviously crop up in Aronofsky's Noah (2014), go back more than three thousand years, such that they precede the more typical date given for the final text of Genesis.

    How do these relate to Genesis?

    As I mentioned above, the traditional view was that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis. While opinions vary as to which Pharaohs are the ones referred to in Exodus even the earliest would have been written after the Babylonian and Sumerian accounts had been recorded. For those who ascribe to Mosaic authorship I will leave it to you to reconcile the evidence.

    The more standard position within scholarship on the Hebrew Bible (including most conservative scholars) is that the Pentateuch / Tanakh was compiled in the post-exilic period (Persian Period), i.e. sometime after 539 BCE with some going later even  than that. If this is true then it seems most likely that the Babylonian version of the flood story went through a process of adaptation until they became the Noah story we have today. 

    That "process of adaptation" will be what I go into in my next post on the subject, before latter posts look at how the Noah story itself has been adapted, particularly in film.  

    1 - A fourth document, Book 2 of Berossus' "Babyloniaca", is sometimes added to these discussions as it to hales from the Ancient Near East and bears similar features to the Noah story, but we know it only from quotations in the work of other authors (such as Josephus and Syncellus) and the time frame (3rd century BCE) seems to be considerably after Genesis found its final form.
    2 - Bailey, Lloyd R. (1989) Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) p.6 counting the stories discussed in Theodor Herzl Gaster, (1969) Myth, legend, and custom in the Old Testament; a comparative study with chapters from Sir James G. Frazer's Folklore in the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row), pp.82-131.
    3 - Stavrakopoulou, Francesca (2021) God: An Anatomy (London: Picador), p.213.
    4 - Lendering, Jona (2020) "The Great Flood" on Livius. Last updated 12th October 2020. Originally created in 2007. https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/ 
    5 - Finkel, Irving (2014) The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, (London: Hodder), p.104.
    6 - Collins, Matthew A. (2017) "An Ongoing Tradition: Aronofsky's Noah as 21st-Century Rewritten Scripture" in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch and Jon Morgan (eds) Noah as Antihero (Abingdon/New York: Routledge) p.10.
    7 - Finkel p.123-56.
    8 - Finkel p.115.
    9 - Finkel p.118
    10 - Finkel p.116-8
    11 - Puchner, Martin (2022) Literature for a Changing Planet,  (New Jersey: Princeton University Press) p.14.
    12 - Collins p.10
    13 - Sharif, Azad, Birzo Abdulkadir and Mohammad Ismail Saeed (2019) "Nature’s Retaliation in the Sumerian Epic Gilgamesh: An Ecocritical Study" in Journal of the University of Garmian. Vol 6 (2), pp. 396-403. p.403.
    14 - Andrew George speaking in the extra material for the podcast section of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time programme. Episode titled "Epic of Gilgamesh", originally broadcast (and then released as a podcast) 3rd Nov 2016.
    (Andrew George)
    15 - Puchner, p.18.
     [A summary of this part of his argument is available online at https://lithub.com/martin-puchner-on-the-climate-lessons-from-the-epic-of-gilgamesh/]
    16 - Sentesy, Mark (2022) "The Ecological Predicament of the Epic of Gilgamesh". Unpublished. October. pp1-2. Available online - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/364185309_The_Ecological_Predicament_of_the_Epic_of_Gilgamesh.
    17 - Sentesy, p.5
    18 - Sentesy, p.1



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