Re-Discovering the Darkness of the Biblical Flood Account: Brief Comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 8

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

As I suggested in my previous blog post and as is well-established in scholarship, the Hebrew Bible is within the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean region. It is culturally related to societies in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Assyria, and others. Because it is embedded within that environment, there are certain words and narratives for which we are unable to fully grasp the significance. Before I explore my example within the Hebrew Bible, allow me to provide a modern example.

Imagine that 2,000 years in the future a person discovers a newspaper. This newspaper contains an descriptive article about Donald Trump’s political stance. It is dated to June, 2016. While the person who discovers the article may understand how Trump is understand from one perspective, without other sources, such as other articles, books, blog posts, etc., the person will never fully appreciate the depth of the article. In order to do this, the person must explore literature which is culturally related to the topic of Trump. Only then can they begin to fully grasp the article about him.

epic

 

Likewise, the Hebrew Bible can sometime only be fully understood in light of other, culturally related texts. One account in particular is the flood account, which finds an amazingly similar parallel in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, written c. 2100 BCE (Tablet XI; read it for free here). But first, Genesis 7. As the flood begins in Genesis 7, we see several phrases for which modern readers may easily miss the significance:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open… The Flood continued forty days on the earth… When the waters had swelled such more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered… all the flesh that stirred on the earth perished… All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out… they were blotted out from the earth

– Genesis 7:11-23, Jewish Study Bible

Any keen reader recognizes the darkness in this passage in terms of the destruction of the entire earth. Perhaps some readers may even recall that death, originally introduced in Genesis 3, has been moved to an entirely new level: the destruction of humanity. What the

modern reader misses, though, is one major cultural element only apparent to those situated within the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu: the divine realm[1].

 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), we read about how the gods caused, and reacted to the Flood:

Just as dawn began to glow
there arose from the horizon a black cloud.
Adad rumbled inside of it,
before him went Shullat and Hanish,
heralds going over mountain and land.
Erragal pulled out the mooring poles,
forth went Ninurta and made the dikes overflow.
The Anunnaki lifted up the torches,
setting the land ablaze with their flare.
Stunned shock over Adad’s deeds overtook the heavens,
and turned to blackness all that had been light.
The… land shattered like a… pot.
All day long the South Wind blew …,
blowing fast, submerging the mountain in water,
overwhelming the people like an attack.
No one could see his fellow,
they could not recognize each other in the torrent.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
‘The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!’
The gods–those of the Anunnaki–were weeping with her,
the gods humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief(?),
their lips burning, parched with thirst.

Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), at Academy for Ancient Texts

Note a few things within this passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Several gods are depicted as violently beginning the flood, allowing the dikes to overflow, releasing a torrent of rain, submerging the mountains in a way akin to an attack. Eventually, the gods are unable to recognize each other in the chaos: “No one could see his fellow, they could not recognize each other in the torrent.” Following this phrase, the Flood account indicates that all of the gods cowered in fear, retreated to heaven, wept, and sobbed.

Although it is too much to claim that the ancient Judahite who compiled/wrote Genesis 7 was fully aware of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is reasonable to claim that, to a certain extent, the divine conflict which occurs during the epic is present in the conceptual, cultural, and historical weight of the language of Genesis 7. Consequently, when reading Genesis 7, we should remember the weight of what the text means by Flood. It is not merely about the death and destruction of all humanity, a conflict between humanity and divinity. When we peel back the layers of Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern culture, it becomes apparent that the Flood incites fear within the divine beings, causing them to retreat into the heavenly realm due to terror.

Remembering this when we read Genesis 7 allows to be more understanding of reality of the Flood. The Flood, in the mind of the author, is a horrific, terrifying occurrence. Beyond the realm of earth and destruction of all life, the Flood casts a dark shadow within the divine realm and divine beings therein.

[1] There is absolutely more than one element; however, for the sake of time and interest, I am focusing on one element.

 

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