The Great Flood or Deluge, archaeological evidence

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Bible Story of the Flood   (Genesis. 6:5-9:17) 

According to the biblical story-tellers, God decided that mankind was totally corrupt. There was only one good man left on earth, and that was Noah. Mankind must therefore be destroyed. But Noah was forewarned and ordered to build the Ark in which he, his household and a pair of‘ every living thing on earth might be saved. Noah was given exact dimensions for building the ark and instructions for provisioning it. He “did all that the Lord commanded.” 

When the flood began Noah filled the ark as instructed. The heavens opened and “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth”. The rain fell for forty days and forty nights and the waters rose until even the tops of the mountains wereNorman Adams, The Flood covered and every living thing had died, except for Noah and those with him in the Ark.  After 150 days the waters abated and “on the seventeenth day of the seventh month” the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 

As the tops of the mountains appeared, Noah began to send out birds, like all ancient mariners, to find dry land. First, he sent out a raven, which hesitated and returned. Then he sent out a dove. It returned, but after seven days (seven was a sacred number) when he sent it out again, it came back with a sprig of olive in its beak and, after another seven days, disappeared. As dry land appeared, Noah lifted the top of the Ark and emerged. God promised that never again would he curse the earth. Instead, he blessed Noah and made a covenant with him, promising that floods would never again destroy the earth. As a token, God placed the rainbow in the sky. 

Mesopotamian Flood Stories 

There are three similar stories that came from the Mesopotamian region: 

  • the oldest, the Sumerian story of Ziusudra

  • the Atra-basis Epic

  • the most detailed, the Assyrian-Babylonian revision of the story of the 
    flood in which the hero is Utnapishtim. 

    14th century stained glass window from Germany; the story has a timeless appeal

All of them may have been the prototype of the biblical story. 

The Sumerian Story of Ziusudra 

This account, dating from the first half of the second millenium BC, occurs on a fragmentary clay tablet found at Nippur (northern Mesopotamia). It deals with the flood as part of a Sumerian epic which begins with creation and describes the heavenly foundation of earthly kingdoms. The passages relating to the flood read as follows: 

“The flood . . . “Give ear to my instructions. By our . . . a flood will sweep over the cult centres to destroy the seed of mankind . . . is the decision, the word of the assembly of the gods . . . All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked at once . . . After - for seven days and seven nights the flood had swept over the land and the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters, . . . . Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat . . . Ziusudra the king prostrated himself before Utu (the sun-god) the king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep." 

The Assyrian-Babylonian Story of Utnapishtim

This was found on a tablet in the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, dating from the 7th century BC. The flood story took up most of the eleventh of twelve tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

11th of 12 clay tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, relating 
the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh Tablet showing its size

Gilgamesh set out on a quest for the secret of immortality, which was known only to Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood. To find him, Gilgamesh travelled across the Waters of Death, found Utnapishtim and persuaded him to reveal the secret. It seemed that the gods of the ancient city of Shurrupak on the River Euphrates had decided to destroy mankind by a flood. Although their decisions had to be kept secret, one of the gods, Ea, had a favourite, Utnapishtim, whom he wished to warn. So he spoke, not directly to Utanpishtim, but to the wall of his reed-hut, "Reed-hut, reed-hut! Wall, wall! Reed-hut, hearken! Wall, reflect!" He ordered Utnapishtim to build a ship, giving precise dimensions and telling him to take on board "the seed of all living things“, but also to “give up possession, seek thou life, despise property and keep the soul alive." 

Utnapishtim carried out his instructions with the help of his family. "The little ones carried bitumen (tar), while the grown ones brought all else that was needful." Within seven 
days the ship was completed and then loaded: “Whatever I had I loaded upon her; Whatever I had of silver I loaded upon her Whatever I had of gold I loaded upon her; Whatever I had of all living things I loaded upon her . . " With all his family, Utnapishtim boarded the ship and prepared for the storm. 

When it broke, “the wide land was shattered like a pot!” and even “the gods were frightened by the deluge"; they “cowered like dogs crouched against the outer wall.” The deluge lasted for six days. On the seventh, Utnapishtim opened one of the hatches and looked out at a scene of desolation: “I looked at the weather; stillness had set in, And all of mankind had returned to clay. The landscape was as level as a flat roof.“ 

Sending out a land bird (as opposed to a bird who can land on water) is an old mariner's trick. A land bird, knowing it will drown if it lands, will immediately fly straight up as high as it can, to try to spot land. If it sees land, it will head for it and thereby show the mariner below which way land lies. If it cannot see land, it will return to the boat, and the mariner knows he must continue searching.

Utnapishtim “bowed to the ground and wept” and the gods themselves “all humbled sit and weep, their lips grown tight, one and all.” However, at last the great ship came to rest on Mount Nisir, according to the Assyrian version, which lies in the mountainous country 175 miles northeast of Baghdad. Utnapishtim waited seven days then sent out a dove, which came back, followed by a swallow which also returned. Then he sent out a raven who “eats, circles, caws and turns not round.” Encouraged, Utnapishtim and those with him emerged and Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice to which the gods responded:  “The gods smelled the sweet savour, The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer" and, as a reward, conferred immortality upon Utnapishtim and his wife. 

A 17th century imagining of the Ark by Athanasius Kircher: 'Arcanae', Amsterdam, 1675

A 17th century imagining of the Ark by Athanasius Kircher: 'Arcanae', Amsterdam, 1675

 

The Atra-hasis Epic is an older version of the Babylonian story. Found on scattered Akkadian fragments, and relating to one or possibly two epics, it tells the story of Atra-hasis, meaning the Exceeding Wise One. 

As mankind multiplies, their noise interferes with the sleep of the god Enlil, and he appeals to the “great gods” to find a solution. First they send a famine for six years but as this does not succeed in disciplining the unruly humans, a flood is sent to destroy them. The god Ea betrays the plan to his favourite, Atra-hasis who, in the familiar pattern, builds a boat according to an outline drawn by the god, and thus escapes with his family. 

lt is unlikely that the Hebrew writers consciously borrowed from Mesopotamian lore. More probably, stories about the great flood were common throughout Mesopotamia and reached the remote ancestors of the Hebrews, becoming part of their traditions just as they survived in Sumerian and Babylonian literature. 

 

 

Generations “Before the Flood”

Photograph of the Sumerian King List

The Sumerian King List

The Sumerian King list (see right), which bears a passing reference to the flood, using the significant words: the “noise" and the god “Enlil“ who was annoyed by it, lists eight (or in another interpretation, ten) kings who lived before the flood in five Mesopotamian cities. This comes very close to the ten antediluvian generations of Genesis 5. Both heroes were the tenth generation after the first man. King Ziusudra reigned 36,000 years, equivalent to 600 “ner” in the Mesopotamian numerical pattern. This denomination is parallel to the figure (in years) which the Bible gives for Noah's age at the time of the flood, which suggests that the older mythological tradition had been reduced by biblical writers to more reasonable proportions. 

 

 

Similarities and Differences 

  • The flood stories all have in common the destruction of the world and mankind, with the exception of one man and his family. 

  • In all of them, the man is ordered to build a vessel and to take his family and certain animals and plants with him in order to escape the universal devastation. 

  • The rains fall for a traditional number of days, 7 or 40. 

  • Birds are sent out of the vessel to signal the end of flood - Utnapishtim sends out a dove, a swallow and a raven, Frank Wesley, Noah sends out the dove Noah a raven and then a dove twice. 

  • The disappearance of the bird is a sign that the waters have abated. 

  • The hero goes forth from the vessel, offers a sacrifice and thereafter enjoys a special relationship to the gods. In the Sumerian epic he becomes a god. ln the Babylonian he is granted eternal life “like unto us gods”, while God makes a covenant with Noah which is valid for all men and all time. 

Other Flood Stories

Flood stories are known in many other countries. The Jewish historian Josephus quoted a flood story told him by Berossus, a Babylonian priest of the 3rd century BC who had written a history of his country’s past in Greek. He gave the name of the last king before the flood as Xisouthros, the Greek form of the Sumerian hero of the flood story. There is also a Greek story of a flood sent by Zeus to punish the sins of mankind, from which only Deukalion and his wife were saved. 

Evidence of Floods 

Floods were common in Mesopotamia and layers of mud have been found at many ancient sites. The most dramatic was found at Ur, where there was nearly three metres (about l0 feet)  of mud at about the time of the composition of the flood stories. However in excavated mounds nearby, no traces of such a mud layer were found and in other sites where they did occur, they appeared at different levels, in different thicknesses, and did not belong to the same century. 

Moreover, they do not always represent the complete destruction of a particular settlement and its replacement by a new one. Sometimes the same culture continues above the mud level showing that whatever damage may have been suffered, the population of the pre-flood age was not wiped out. 

The most reasonable conclusion seems to be that there was no universal flood. Localized floods in the Mesopotamian plain, however, may have given rise to the stories which, with all their embellishments and exaggerations, became part of the religion and mythology of Babylon and spread their influence to the authors of the Bible. 

A further possibility is that the origin of the story lay in traditions going back to the last great pluvial period in the Paleolithic age. With successive movements of peoples these traditions were spread all over the world. Other examples of the transformation of Mesopotamian motifs can be found in the legends of Genesis. The “Tower of Babel", for instance, had its actual model in the Ziggurat, the high temple tower of Babylon. 

Reconstruction of a ziggurat

Links between Babylonian and Biblical Stories

Opinions differ however, as to the way in which these Sumerian stories found their way into Hebrew lore. National myths in general take shape at a very early stage in a people‘s history, and the majority opinion is now that the essentials of the story were brought to Palestine from Mesopotamia by the ancestors of the Hebrews. There is also an alternative view that the theme reached the Hebrews from the Canaanites, who had already learned it from its original eastern creators. 

Tablet from excavations at Megiddo, with part of the Gilgamesh story

This theory has been strengthened by the discovery at Megiddo of a tablet (see above) from the period just before the lsraelite entry into Canaan. This tablet contains part of the Gilgamesh story, which suggests that, by the time the Israelites came into contact with them during the settlement, the Canaanites were already familiar with Babylonian literature. Contact between Hebrews and Canaanites was a long drawn-out process and far from exclusively war-like. Canaanite ciulization, indeed, had a deep and lasting effect on Hebrew culture. Many scholars claim that the Megiddo tablet is powerful testimony for a Canaanite source for the Babylonian material in the Bible. 

 It seems that the flood story came originally from Mesopotamian epics and was integrated into a Hebrew or Canaanite epic about Noah, which was later interpreted, revised and written in prose. The “documentary” school of biblical criticism has also advanced the theory that the story as it stands combines two strands or documents: the J (Jahwist) source, representing the popular epic, and the P (Priestly) document which provided the religious tone and theology of the present version. This theory implies a priestly editor who, naturally, revised and rewrote the older story in keeping with his views. This would be the version we have in the Book of Genesis.

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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology 
The Flood or Deluge, Mesopotamia, the stories of
Ziusudra and Utnapishtim and the Atra-basis epic

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