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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Real Noah, Part 1, The Other Epics

In 1999 a computer expert and inventor with a BS in Physics self-published one of the best books on Noah and the Ark that you’ve never heard of and probably haven’t read. But if you are interested in Old Testament studies, you should put this volume on your shelf, especially in light of the recent Hollywood rendition of the story. It’s called Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic, published by Enlil Press, distributed by Eisenbraun, a well-established publisher of scholarly works on the Ancient Middle East (ANE). The author, Robert MacAndrews Best, spent years researching and designing it. In a future post, I will give a little bio of Mr. Best, who is still alive at this writing, but in this post, I want to tell you why you should read it if you are at all interested in the story of Noah’s Ark.

In my fundamentalist days (the Bible is truth without error and was pretty much dictated by God and reflects His thinking without being diluted by ancient cultural biases) I was studious enough to know that there were other Flood stories. It wasn’t until my Ph.D. program that I actually read that older literature. There are several Flood stories in which a deity told a human to build a boat to save his family and the seed of animals. Decades ago, the idea of Sumerian and Babylonian stories made me uncomfortable, but not too much so because those stories weren’t easily available, therefore I didn’t have to deal with them. Certainly no one else I knew was confronting them. It was easy to forget that they existed. I also shelved the knowledge that there was no worldwide Flood layer in geological deposits. There is evidence of several major local floods in Sumer.

However, I was historically savvy enough to understand that Noah of the Hebrew story lived in a Proto-Sumerian, Mesopotamian world and would not have been named Noah, a Hebrew word which suggests ‘rest.’ The name carries with it a narrative that traces back to the curse on the soil due to Adam’s sin. The original cuneiform story, written on clay tablets in the Sumerian language, would not involve Yahweh, and would not be associated with the Fall in Genesis. In the Hebrew version mankind was wicked and violent, so God disturbed normal seasons from Adam to the Flood, making agriculture difficult. Then he wiped out the known world of the Hebrew author to punish the corruption of mankind. He sent the rainbow as a promise to not repeat that particular judgment.

In my doctoral program I read parts of the several recensions of the legend, but never had the time to organize them all in one place. By that time, I was way past seeing the Genesis story as inerrant history. Robert Best has done a fabulous job in chapter 2 of setting up all six versions of the tale, comparing them to one another. This excellent comparison makes it clear that the stories are literarily connected, various recensions of the first one, even maintaining parallel passages and ideas.

The first was the story of Ziusudra, king of the ancient city-state of Shuruppak, who lived in what archaeologists call the Jemdet Nasr period of history. Ziusudra was told that he should tear down his house and build a boat. That inundation was a river flood limited to Sumer. Only a third of the whole epic remains today. Best theorizes that as king, Ziusudra built a large river barge for hauling animals and goods from Shuruppak to Eridu on the coast of the Persian Gulf. As he develops the theme of the book, he speculates that the barge drifted downstream into the Persian Gulf, where it would seem that all life had been destroyed. When the boat finally beaches, the hero is elevated to godlike status and goes to live in Dilmun (today’s Bahrain). Best is not careless with the text or the language. He has plausible reasons why didn't come to ground on a mountain.

Next was Atrahasis, the Assyrian Flood hero. Written in Akkadian, two thirds of this longer epic remains today. Best feels that much of what is missing in the first story can be found in this recension. His approach in the book is to weave them all together to get the whole picture of what may have happened. Enlil commands the other gods to swear that they will bring a flood to destroy mankind. He gives no reason, but they all agree with no debate. Enki tells Atrahasis, who serves in the temple in Eridu. He shows him how to make the boat, which is made of wood and reeds and is called Saver of Life. A huge storm arises; it pours for 7 days and nights. The banks overflow, the dams break, and the levees crumble, and all local life on the river dies. Then the gods begin to grieve and wail and blame themselves for concocting such a plan. Enlil is angry when he finds out that a few humans survived. Anu points the finger at Enki, who confesses. Atrahasis offers a sacrifice, and the gods crowd around like hungry flies.

In the Babylonian Flood Story, which has many parallels with the Atrahasis epic, the names of the gods have changed somewhat. The hybrid man-god Gilgamesh interviews the Flood hero, Utnapishtim, who is a demi-god living in Dilmun. Utnapishtim relates that Enki/Ea informed him of the coming river flood, which was concocted by the deity Enlil. In these versions the towns people help in the building and are allowed on the boat when the river flood comes. It ends in a similar fashion as the Assyrian version except that the boat grounds on Mt. Nisir and Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice on the top of a ziggurat. Best writes, “The most complete copy was written in Akkadian and was found in the library of Ashurbanipal. Several fragmented copies survive in the Akkadian, Middle Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian languages.” (p. 23)

The Genesis story came next. Best incorporates the long expanse of time for the floodwaters to recede by speculating that the barge floated downstream into the Persian Gulf, where it was just blown about for many months. During that time, the family on board eats most of the cargo, which was destined for Eridu. Noah had no idea where he was and could only see seawater from horizon to horizon.

In my opinion, it was a Hebraized version of the general legend. It was written by a monotheist who inserted Yahweh into the story to show that Yahweh is in charge of such disasters. Hebrew issues like sin and judgment, redemption, and God’s covenant-making interaction with the family of Israel were foremost in the narrative. References to Mesopotamian locations were deliberately dropped out, as was any suggestion of other deities. Noah is not raised to god status as were other heroes. I personally think it’s possible that the Flood was elevated to oceanic status in order to disassociate it from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but Best’s theory about the Persian Gulf is quite plausible. Either way, the Genesis author doesn’t want to remind you that the original story, which he undoubtedly had before him, was a Sumerian river flood, called up by scheming gods for no good reason. The author wasn’t necessarily being deceptive. He may have figured that everyone already knew about the other versions anyway. It probably never dawned on him that one day there would be immense religious division over whether the story was literally true.

Shortly before the Masoretic Hebrew text was translated into the Greek Septuagint, a Babylonian priest names Berossus wrote the story in Greek (c. 281 BC), calling the Flood hero Xisuthros. Although it is similar to other versions, there is the added aspect of tablets buried in the flood debris in Shuruppak that need to be retrieved. On these tablets were the history of all beginnings of mankind. This version was lost, but parts of it were preserved by other Greek writers.

Last of all was Moses of Khoren who wrote History of Armenia in the Armenian language in the eighth century AD/CE. His hero was Khsisuthros, and there are echoes in the fragments of the complex family story mentioned in other recensions.


One of the great features of Best’s book is that he provides the text of all six narratives. These texts are difficult to find unless one has acquired an extensive ANE library. In my next post, I want to reproduce Best's collection of parallel passages common to two or more versions of the flood story. It would also be useful to ponder a little on what it means for the Christian or Jew who has been taking this story literally for years or decades.