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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Real Noah, Part 3, The Mountain



In two recent posts I discussed Robert Best’s self-published book Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic, 1999, distributed by Eisenbrauns. This post follows on those and it is recommended that the reader refer to them before reading this one. For this post I also referred to Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.

In the original Sumerian epic, Ziusudra is a king in Mesopotamia (ANET, 42; Best, 256), but most of the narrative has been destroyed. According to one of the Sumerian King Lists, (ANET, 265) the king in Sumer at the time of the Flood was Ubar-Tutu, King of Shuruppak. In another, it’s Ziusudra (Best, 125). He probably lived sometime in the third millennium BCE (Best offers a flood near Shuruppak in 2900 BCE.) In the assembly of the gods, Anu and Enlil commanded that the kingship and rule of mankind should come to an end. Other deities lament, and Enki warns Ziusudra to build a boat to save himself and the seed of animals and mankind. The flood waters raged for seven days and nights, inundating the cult centers of ancient Sumer: Eridu, Badtibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak (the same cities named in the King List). So little of the tale remains today that we don’t know where the boat grounded, how long he was on it, who else may have been with him, or where he offered his sacrifice to the sun god Utu when it was over. Thus the scholar looks to the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh account to fill in the gaps.

In the Sumerian version, it would be logical that the boat or barge would float in the flat valley land and ground somewhere near Eridu, which in those days was near the shore of the Persian Gulf. The difficulty in tying Genesis in with that theory is that the biblical account and other accounts report that the ark/boat grounded on a mountain.

Best answers this problem by studying the linguistic difficulties on transferring the tale from Sumerian to Akkadian. “Gilgamesh XI,141a reads ‘KUR-úKURni-ṣir.” Best goes to great lengths to demonstrate linguistically how this can indicate a country or region. I need to way oversimplify his explanation here, which ends with the confusion of the meaning of KUR as it is translated into Akkadian where it can mean ‘hill,’ ‘mound,’ or ‘mountain.’ In line 156, Utnapishtim offers his sacrifice on a ziggurat, which would be found in Eridu, in the river valley. Early scholars took the ziggurat to be a metaphor for a mountain, but more current scholars accept that it means ziggurat, a mud brick pyramid-like structure with an altar at the top (278).

In addition, in the other narratives there is a Shem story that involves a mountain in Armenia and another about a priest in Eridu where the ziggurat would be. Best feels that these stories caused more confusion for ancient translators as to where the ark grounded. He dedicates a chapter as to how the epic may have moved from account to account.

In a personal correspondence, Best wrote:
Most of the attention given to the Noah's ark story focuses on the flood, boat, and animals. Hardly anybody mentions the sacrifice scene in Genesis 8:20-21:
"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, ..." But I believed the sacrifice scene to be so important, that I put it on my front cover and on page 63. Years ago I was talking to a Hebrew professor and mentioned that the Hebrew word hare (plural harim) is ambiguous and can mean hill or mountain. He responded "Yes, and it is the same in Akkadian."

Hence, when you read English translations of Gilgamesh from Akkadian, as in Parpola's "Epic of Gilgamesh", and find the word shadu (Akkadian) or KUR (Sumerian), it could mean either hill or mountain or country. The 3-triangle sign for hill/mountain/country was the same in Egyptian.

Since the sign is ambiguous, how can anybody be certain of its meaning? There is no certainty and those who expect certainty are only kidding themselves and relying on older experts who were also expressing certainty in spite of uncertainty. Even the word Ararat is ambiguous because Aratta was a god of Shuruppak, Noah's city, and there was another country called Aratta. (my page 75). It is the responsibility of a translator to choose a word that does not result in absurdities or impossibilities, and not repeat the mistranslations of the past. Hence, anybody who says "yes, but it clearly says mountains" should be taught about mistranslations, uncertainty, ambiguity, and ancient errors.

While I think of it, are you aware that English translations of the Sumerian King List which gives ages of kings in thousands of years, is a modern mistranslation. The cuneiform sign for thousand is very similar to the archaic sign for year. An ancient translator did not understand the archaic sign for year and copied the archaic sign next to the cuneiform sign for year for each king. So for example, in English translation, one entry would be "20 years years", not 20 thousand years. Or maybe the ancient translator did understand and copied both the archaic sign and translation, just as we might write "years (anni)" for English text translated from Latin.

The Epic of Gilgamesh lines 155-167 provides more details:
"I placed an offering on top of a hill-like ziggurat... The gods smelled the sweet savor; the gods gathered about the sacrificer. As soon as the great goddess arrived, she lifted up the large flies [amulet] which Anu had made according to her wish. You gods here, as surely as I shall not forget the lapis lazuli [blue stone] on my neck, I shall remember these days and never forget them. Gods, approach the offering. [But priests of] Enlil shall not come near the offering."

If you look in the Akkadian version (Simo Parpola) "The Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh", page 111, line 157 and page 145, he clearly translates "ziq-qur-rat" as "temple tower, ziggurat". Maureen Kovacs "The Epic of Gilgamesh" translates it as ziggurat (page 102). But the highly respected professor Andrew George, who did a thorough translation "The Epic of Gilgamesh", expurgated the word ziggurat (page 94) from the sentence "Incense I placed on the peak of the mountain".

I wrote a letter to Prof. George asking him why he omitted "ziggurat". He did not reply. What is it with these people that they are still covering for nameless priests who have been dead for four thousand years? The reason I believe this sacrifice ceremony on the ziggurat is important, is it ties together several pieces of the puzzle. It places the ark and Noah near the city of Eridu, near the north end of the Persian Gulf, after the flood. It indicates that other people, priests of Enki, outside the ark survived the flood. It explains why Noah went "down [the river] to the apsu [on the shore of the Gulf] to dwell with my lord [in the temple of] Ea". (Gilgamesh XI line 42)

Genesis 7:18-20 (NIV) reads, “The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire mountains were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet.” However, checking the Hebrew in Owen’s Analytical Key to the Old Testament, I find that it literally reads, “The waters prevailed fifteen feet and the mountains were covered.” Best writes, “The fifteen cubits refers to how much the water rose, not how deep the water was. Depths would be different at different locations. As a modern news reporter might say, the water rose 22 feet above flood stage.” (44)

If the ark/barge/boat floated into the Persian Gulf and floated there for months, it would seem as if all land and all existence had been wiped off the earth. You wouldn’t be able to see the mountains of Iran, Arabia, or Armenia. You might not see land at all.

Beyond all that, the idea of sea water or brackish water covering the entire globe because mankind was corrupt and violent demonstrates that God Himself was violent and madly punitive. It doesn’t fit God’s nature, but it matches well the capricious, silly gods of Mesopotamia. All flora and fauna on the planet would be destroyed for lack of sunlight. The pressure of the sea water, the salt, the absolute destruction of a million varieties of eco-systems, every bug, all culture, even the sea creatures…God would have to completely recreate the earth. Only our utter ignorance of biology and ecology allows us Christians to suffer such a doctrine. In this case ignorance is truly bliss. Our naiveté makes it easy. Too easy.

We think the Creator is saying of us, “Ah, my faithful child, standing firm for my holy Word, my faithful soldier wielding the shield of faith, my witness in the unbelieving world.” But what if the global Flood story was never God’s intention? What if it’s our misunderstanding of where the Flood narrative came from? What if God is up there head slapping Himself wishing we would trade childlike belief for some serious education?


Coming soon, a bio of Robert M. Best and some words about what drove him to write his book.