The Flood Story in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context
Biblical Mesopotamian Geography
Most of the story of Noah takes place in Mesopotamia, “the land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates. After the flood, which covers the entire world, Noah’s ark comes to rest near the sources of both rivers, “on the mountains of Urartu” (עַל הָרֵי אֲרָרָט; Gen 8:4) in modern-day eastern Turkey.
Additionally, Nimrod’s primary cities include Babylon (Gen 10:10), whose name receives a Hebrew folk etymology (bavel derived from balal, “confounded”) at the end of story of the “Tower of Babel” (Gen 11:1–9). Uruk (Hebrew Erech) and Akkad, two other constituents of Nimrod’s kingdom, are both well-attested in records from Mesopotamia, although Akkad’s precise location is still unknown. Many of these records are written in a language known as “the language of the land of Akkad” to the ancients, or Akkadian, to moderns.
Finally, Terah and his family, including the patriarch-to-be Abram, begin their journey in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” the ancient city of Ur, in modern-day southern Iraq, and follow the Euphrates north to Harran, also in eastern Turkey (Gen 11:31).
The Torah’s Connection with Mesopotamia and Its Culture
Through these geographic features, the Torah situates Israel’s origins in Mesopotamia, as do the opening lines of Joshua’s farewell to the people:
יהושע כד:ב ...בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַנָּהָ֗ר יָשְׁב֤וּ אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם תֶּ֛רַח אֲבִ֥י אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַאֲבִ֣י נָח֑וֹר…
Josh 24:2 ...In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the River Euphrates...
Modern discoveries of the written remains of Mesopotamian civilization further the Bible’s narrative claim of a Mesopotamian connection. They do not, of course, provide extra-biblical confirmation that Abram lived at Ur or that Noah’s ark landed in Urartu. Instead, these discoveries expose extensive, deeper connections between the Torah and the culture that dominated the Near East for most of Israel’s early history. The flood story offers a prime example of this kind of connection and how attending to it is crucial to properly appreciating the Torah’s message.
The Flood Story in Context 1 – Noah and Utnapishtim
Famously, the flood story’s Mesopotamian connections first came to light with George Smith’s 1872 decipherment of parts of the eleventh tablet of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In this tablet, Utnapishtim, the survivor of the flood, tells his story to Gilgamesh, hero of the epic. Utnapishtim’s account parallels not only the Bible’s general plot line— people’s survival of a divinely ordained flood—but also the Bible’s details, such as the construction of a vessel that ultimately lands on a mountain, the use of birds to determine the flood’s end, and the offering of sacrifices upon survival.
The use of one unusual word even suggests that the biblical account is familiar with the Mesopotamian one: to caulk his ark, Noah is told to use pitch (Gen 6:14), Hebrew kofer, cognate to Akkadian kupru, which is what Utnapishtim uses. This the only time that the word kofer means “pitch” in the Bible; the native Hebrew word for “pitch” is zefet, which is what Moses’s mother uses to waterproof the vessel she builds for her son (Exod 2:3). The word kofer, then, is borrowed directly from Akkadian, and provides the strongest evidence for the Mesopotamian origin of the entire biblical account.
The Flood Story in Context 2 – Noah and Atrahasis
Since Smith’s sensational discoveries, Assyriologists, scholars of ancient Mesopotamia (including Assyria), have learned that the flood narrative is not original to the Gilgamesh Epic. Stories about Gilgamesh circulated for nearly a millennium before the flood story was added and the “standard” version of the epic was composed. The eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic that Smith discovered incorporates a once-independent, older work of literature (dating the mid-second millennium BCE), known as the Epic of Atrahasis, after the survivor of the flood in this work. This story begins “when the gods, instead of men, bore the loads,” and describes the creation of lesser gods, then humans, to do this work, and the gods’ problems once humans are created. The flood is the gods’ final attempt to solve the unforeseen results of the creation of humanity.
For readers of the biblical flood story, the discovery of this borrowing and the recovery of the original are important because the independent story provides much deeper, contextual connections to the Bible’s account. This is because, as the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky observes, “the Atrahasis Epic presents the flood story in a context comparable to that of Genesis, that of a Primeval History.” The cycle of creation, destruction and re-creation drives the plot in the Atrahasis Epic, just as it does in the Genesis accounts of creation and the flood. In contrast, the flood account in the Epic of Gilgamesh remains subordinate to the main storyline and, as a result, does not tell us much beyond the story of the flood itself.
Why a Flood? Comparing the Atrahasis Story to the Noah Story
Building on her own contextual observation, Frymer-Kensky relies on the Atrahasis Epic to illuminate two aspects of the biblical account: the pre-flood problem and the post-flood solution. By examining these points in each story, Frymer-Kensky uncovers a deep contrast between the two stories’ underlying core values.
In the Atrahasis Epic, the gods face the problem of human overpopulation, expressed in poetic terms as “the noise of mankind” that keeps the gods from sleeping. After the flood, the gods institute three measures to curb the human population and prevent the problem from recurring. This “new world order” includes human infertility (“women who do not bear”), infant mortality (in the form of a baby-snatching demon) and social institutions that forbade certain women from marrying.
The biblical account, on the other hand, “is emphatically not about overpopulation.”  In fact, God’s instruction to Noah and his family after the flood, “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:1), suggests that the Bible “consciously rejected the underlying theme of the Atrahasis Epic.” Instead, the problem is human wickedness (Gen 6:5) or lawlessness (hamas) that corrupts the earth, which must, as a result be destroyed (Gen 6:11–13).
Thus, the post-diluvian fresh start brings with it not only God’s own promises against another flood (Gen 8:21–22, 9:8–17) and God’s hope for repopulation (Gen 9:1), but also two prohibitions: live animals may not be eaten and murder is prohibited (Gen 9:1–7). By restricting violence against animals and outlawing violence between humans, both of these prohibitions address the pre-flood problem of humanity’s wickedness. In other words, to prevent the flood, law, here represented by these two prohibitions, must replace lawlessness. In this same spirit, the rabbinic tradition of “the Seven Noahide laws,” attributes God’s basic laws for all humans, Jews and gentiles, to this post-flood moment.
The Relationship Between the Human and the Divine: Appreciating the Torah in Context
Underlying these narrative contrasts between Genesis 1–9 and the Atrahasis Epic are fundamentally different conceptions of the relationship between humans and the divine realm. In the Atrahasis Epic, humans are tolerated but must be strictly contained. In the Bible, God views human population as a blessing, and goes so far as to enter a covenant with all of humanity. God’s post-flood instructions are an additional sign of this generally positive view: God trusts that humans will follow the rules.
This fundamentally different worldview – in effect, what makes the Bible biblical– emerges only when we trace the Genesis flood story’s origins back to the Mesopotamian literary tradition. True to its admitted roots “beyond the River,” the Bible has incorporated this tradition into its version of the world’s earliest beginnings. At the same time, the Genesis account stakes a clear claim in direct opposition to this very same literary tradition. Humans – for all their noise, and even their “evil devisings” (Gen 8:21) – are valuable in God’s eyes, and can even be parties to a covenant with God.
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October 19, 2014
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Prof. Shalom E. Holtz is professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Neo-Babylonian Court Procedure (Cuneiform Monographs 38; Leiden: Brill, 2009) and Neo-Babylonian Trial Records (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014) and Praying Legally (Brown Judaic Studies, 2019).
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