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SBL e-journal

Guy Darshan

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2017

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The Motif of Releasing Birds in ANE Flood Stories

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-motif-of-releasing-birds-in-ane-flood-stories

APA e-journal

Guy Darshan

,

,

,

"

The Motif of Releasing Birds in ANE Flood Stories

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TheTorah.com

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2017

)

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-motif-of-releasing-birds-in-ane-flood-stories

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The Motif of Releasing Birds in ANE Flood Stories

The ancient Near East had many versions of the flood story, such as Atrahasis, Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, etc., most of which predate the Torah’s account of Noah’s flood. But what is the earliest extant version of the releasing birds motif?[1]

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The Motif of Releasing Birds in ANE Flood Stories

Noah. Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco, Venice Date XII-XIII century

Noah’s Birds

When the flood waters recede and the ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat (Gen 8:4-5), Noah realizes that the end of the deluge is near. Noah then comes up with a strategy to look for dry land without leaving the ark:

בראשית ח:ו וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וַיִּפְתַּח נֹחַ אֶת חַלּוֹן הַתֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.
Gen 8:6 At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made.
ח:ז וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
8:7 And he (Noah) sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.
ח:ח וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
8:8 And he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground.
ח:ט וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה.
8:9 But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him.
ח:י וַיָּחֶל עוֹד שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִיםוַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מִן הַתֵּבָה.ח:יא וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ כִּי קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
8:10 He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. 8:11 The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.
ח:יב וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה וְלֹא יָסְפָה שׁוּב אֵלָיו עוֹד.
8:12 He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.

Utnapishtim’s Birds

A very similar scene was deciphered by George Smith in 1872, in an Akkadian text about Utnapishtim, who survives a great flood by building a boat and taking animals with him. Smith describes his reaction:

On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge.[2]

According to the well-known story, he became so excited that he began undressing himself in his office—to the astonishment of those present.[3]

The description of the boat grounding upon the mountain and Utnapishtim’s sending out birds appears in Neo-Assyrian Gilgamesh XI:

The boat had come to rest on Mount Nimush. The mountain Nimush held the boat fast and did not let it budge. The first and second day the mountain Nimush held the boat fast and did not let it budge. The third and fourth day the mountain Nimush held the boat fast and did not let it budge. The fifth and sixth day the mountain Nimush held the boat fast and did not let it budge.
When the seventh day arrived, I put out and released a dove (summatu). The dove went; it came back, for no perching place was visible to it and it turned round.
I put out and released a swallow (sinuntu). The swallow went; it came back, for no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.
I put out and released a raven (āribu). The raven went, it saw the receding of the waters…eating, bobbing up and down, it did not return.[4]

The discovery of the Utnapishtim story is clear evidence of the shared origin of the Babylonian and biblical flood stories. As the late Assyriologist Wilfred Lambert (1926-2011) observes in regard to the parallels between Babylonian literature and Genesis:

Even the most sceptical had to yield when confronted with the passage in the Babylonian text which described how three birds were sent out of the ark as the waters were subsiding.[5]

The Raven and the Dove

Utnapishtim sends out three different birds (dove, swallow, raven), whereas Noah sends out two different birds (raven, dove).[6] Noah’s behavior here is actually strange, since the first bird flies back and forth until it eventually finds dry land, so what did he need the dove for?[7]The raven is thus manifestly “out of place” in the text.

This problem as well as many contradictions, doublets, stylistic and linguistic variations, and sequential disturbances has led critical scholars to suggest that the biblical Noah story is compiled or redacted from two freestanding accounts, J and P, that have been woven together.[8] When separated into sources, the raven and dove accounts are parallel alternatives[9] and not originally meant to be read together as one sequence:

A. Timetables for the End of the Flood

J

ח:ו וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וַיִּפְתַּח נֹחַ אֶת-חַלּוֹן הַתֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
8:6 At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made

P

ח:ד וַתָּנַח הַתֵּבָה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּשִׁבְעָה-עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ עַל הָרֵי אֲרָרָט
ח:ה וְהַמַּיִם הָיוּ הָלוֹךְ וְחָסוֹר עַד הַחֹדֶשׁ הָעֲשִׂירִי בָּעֲשִׂירִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ נִרְאוּ רָאשֵׁי הֶהָרִים
8:4 In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 8:5 The waters went on diminishing until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.

B. Sending out the Birds

J

ח:ח וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
ח:ט וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה.
ח:י וַיָּחֶל עוֹד שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִיםוַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מִן הַתֵּבָה.
ח:יא וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ כִּי קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
ח:יב וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִיםוַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה וְלֹא יָסְפָה שׁוּב אֵלָיו עוֹד.
8:8 Then he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground
8:9 But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him.
8:10 He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark.
8:11 The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.
8:12 He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him anymore.

P

ח:ז וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
8:7 And he sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.

C. The Dry Ground

J

ח:יבb וַיָּסַר נֹחַ אֶת-מִכְסֵה הַתֵּבָה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה חָרְבוּ פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
8:13b Noah removed the covering of the ark, and he saw that the surface of the ground was drying.

P

ח:יבa וַיְהִי בְּאַחַת וְשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה בָּרִאשׁוֹן בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ חָרְבוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ // ח:יד וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּשִׁבְעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ יָבְשָׁה הָאָרֶץ
8:13a In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to dry from the earth; // 8:14 And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

Once we remove the verse about the raven, which derives from P’s parallel account, we can see that the bird account in J and in the Gilgamesh epic are very close; both contain a three step process of sending out birds to check for dry land. Both even share a “seven days” motif, though in the Gilgamesh Epic, this is found only in relation to the first dispatch. The details in each story are different: whereas Utnapishtim sends out a different bird for each mission, Noah sends out only a dove, and whereas Noah waits seven days between each mission, it is unclear how much time if any Utnapishtim waits between sending out birds.

Xisouthrus’ Birds in Berossus

An even closer parallel to J’s episode appears to be Berossus’ Babyloniaca (FGrH 680 F 4b), which constitutes an early third century B.C.E. Greek reworking of ancient Babylonian sources into a continuous historical narrative.[10] Berossus’ account includes a version of the flood story, whose hero is Xixouthros (likely a Greek adaptation of the Sumerian flood hero, Ziusudra), and which includes a bird account.

Like J—but in contrast to the Gilgamesh Epic—Berossus describes a gradual process of three dispatches. Berossus does not identify the birds; like J, he focus is on what the birds do on each trip rather than their species:

After the waters of the great flood came and quickly left, Xisouthros freed several birds. They found neither food nor a place to rest, and they returned to the ship. After a few days he again set free some other birds, and they too came back to the ship, but they returned with claws covered with mud.[11] Then later for a third time he set free some other birds, but they did not return to the ship. Then Xisouthros knew that the earth had once again appeared.

When the last birds do not return, Xisouthrus “broke open a portion of the seams of the ship” and disembarks at his own initiative. This is again parallel to the J text, which describes Noah removing the cover of the ark (8:13b). Berossus is almost certainly not familiar with J or the Pentateuch; he is probably basing his account on a late-Babylonian flood version prevalent during his days.

In the Gilgamesh Epic, in distinction, Utnapishtim only leaves when “Enlil came up into the boat” and ushered him and his wife out (XI, 199–202), which parallel’s the Priestly account that has Noah leave only when God commands him (Gen 8:16), precisely a year and ten days after entering it (Gen 7:11, 13–15, 8:14)—as befitting a man who “walked with God” (6:9).[12]

Is the Bird Motif Late?

Most scholars suggest that the biblical deluge story is dependent upon Mesopotamian literary traditions. The sending of the birds motif has nonetheless raised challenging questions, since it is extant only in the Neo-Assyrian version of the Gilgamesh Epic, from 750 B.C.E., and in Berossus, who wrote in the 3rd century B.C.E. This motif may have been present in earlier sources, but tablet three of the Atrahasis epic (the oldest Babylonian flood story which goes back to around 1700 BCE) is damaged in this very spot, and is missing about 58 lines. The same is true for the Sumerian version, about Ziusudra, which is broken in many places. As for the earlier versions of the Gilgamesh Epic, none of the fragments contain the flood story.

This absence has led a handful of scholars to speculate that the biblical story may actually be the first to include the birds motif. Thus, David Freedman has argued that “the Assyrian poet borrowed a Hebrew topos” and that,

[The] biblical version is in complete accord with maritime practice, whereas the Akkadian mention of dove-swallow-raven obscures the original motif. [13]

In his view—since the raven is a better choice for the task of scouting for land vs. the dove, who was a better indicator of habitable land—the landlocked Assyrians changed the original order due to their lack of navigational experience.[14]

Whether the biblical version of the narrative is preferable or not, it is difficult to accept the idea of Assyria borrowing from the Israelites; considering the fact that the flood story appears in the Mesopotamian world already in the beginning of the second millennium BCE, many years before the formation of the Israelite culture. This debate does illustrate, however, how scholarship has struggled with the question of how far back the birds motif might have gone, considering the missing sections of Atrahasis and Ziusudra, and the relatively late date of Berossus.

Wilfred Lambert even raised the option that,

[B]oth Sumerians and Amorites held independent flood traditions, and from the latter the episode of the birds passed to both Hebrews and Babylonians.[15]

Birds in an Akkadian Text in Ugarit

But the possibility that the bird motif was a late addition to the story can now be put to rest with the decipherment of a new Akkadian text from Ugarit (RS 94.2953) discovered in 1994 and published by Daniel Arnaud in 2007.[16] Its 14 lines, dated to around 1250 BCE, constitute a first-person account of how Ea appeared to the story’s protagonist (his name is unknown from the text) and commanded him to make a window (aptu) at the top of the construction he was building. Although Arnaud believed the text to be about the building of a temple,[17] in the same year Antoine Cavigneaux suggested a number of emendations, which change the picture considerably.[18] Here is my English translation of the Akkadian text according to Cavigneaux’s reading:[19]

At the time of the disappearance of the moon, at the beginning of the month, Ea, the great lord, stood at my side (saying:) “Take a wooden spade[20] and a copper axe and make a window at the top. Release a bird and it will find the shore for you!” I heeded the words of Ea, my great lord and advisor. I took a wooden spade and a copper axe. I made a window at the top above me. I released a dove–strong of wings. It went forth and came back. It exhausted her wings. I did the same again and released a water-bird (pelican?).

In this reading, Ea’s command relates to the opening of a space to let out a bird. The protagonist initially sends forth a dove (summatu), who, despite being “strong of wings,” returns exhausted, presumably from having found no place to rest. He then sends a “water-bird” (kumâ)—perhaps a pelican—who is better equipped to cope with the conditions. Since Ea is the patron deity of the flood-hero and humankind in the Mesopotamian flood story, the connection between this account and the story of Utnapishtim is hard to miss, and thus Cavigneaux views this fragment as part of a flood narrative, most likely from the GilgameshEpic or Atraḫasis, which, according to the version discovered in Ugarit (RS 22.421)—just as our text (RS 94.2953)—contains a first-person account of the Flood by the story’s protagonist.

If this suggestion is correct, RS 94.2953 currently preserves the earliest evidence of the motif of the releasing of the birds by the flood hero. In this unique version, a water-bird is sent after the dove, in contrast to Utnapishtim’s dispatching of a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven and Noah sending of a dove three times (J) or raven (P). It is also the only text to designate the use of tools to make a window. It thus appears to reflect a distinctive tradition of the flood story circulating in Western Asia during the second half of the second millennium b.c.e.

Ea’s command to make a window in the Ugarit tablet is reminiscent of God’s command to Noah to make a window in a P verse (צהר; Gen 6:16), although this divine order precedes the Flood in P rather than coming in its wake as in the Akkadian text.

The tablet also exhibits another similarity to P–the interest in specific dates. While RS 94.2953 mentions precise lunar date ina rēš arḫi (“at the beginning of the month”), the opening of the Priestly episode mentions an exact calendrical data: בָּעֲשִׂירִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ נִרְאוּ רָאשֵׁי הֶהָרים (“the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen”, 8:5).

Although interest in precise dates is characteristic to P, all other calendrical dates in P appears from Exodus 12:2 onwards (“this month shall be unto you the beginning of months”), corresponding with the Priestly view that all dates commemorate the Exodus. The only Priestly pre-Exodus narrative to be framed in explicitly chronological terms is the flood account. Perhaps this too reflects a distinct strand among the flood stories that circulated in the Levant?

An Adaptable Tale

This diversity of traditions testifies to the free manner in which this bird motif was transmitted during the second and first millennium B.C.E. Although all the versions discussed above contain the principal theme and seem to derive from the same basic story, they are not identical.

The biblical text contains two different forms. In contrast to frequent claims, neither appears to depend directly on the Gilgamesh Epic. Unique similarities on occasion occur between the biblical traditions and RS 94.2953 or Berossus’ version. The latter—most probably reflecting a late Babylonian version—is notably the closest to J, customarily regarded as an early version. P, on the other hand—often considered the latest biblical source—demonstrates some similarities with the earliest Akkadian evidence from Ugarit, such as the interest in specific dates.

The biblical accounts appear thus to have been acquainted with the flood story probably via oral transmission. Either way, we can be more certain now that the birds motif at the end of the flood story was known among Akkadian traditions already in the second millennium B.C.E. If full versions of Atraḫasis are ever found in the future, it will be interesting to see what the earliest form of this motif may have been.

Published

October 15, 2017

|

Last Updated

September 19, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Guy Darshan is a faculty member in the department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Classics from the Hebrew University and served as a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica in the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His book, After the Flood: Stories of Origins in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Mediterranean Literature is forthcoming.