The Babylonian Flood Legends

Last week, we mentioned the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story turned up by British archeologist Austen Henry Layard during the excavation of the great mound of Kuyûnjik, across the Tigris from the Iraqi city of Môsul. The mound contained the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, known to Bible readers as Jonah’s mission field. Archeologists found about 25,000 fragments of clay tablets, many of which were in the ruins of the palace of Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria from 669 to 633 B.C.  Ashurbanipal was an avid collector of ancient tradition, including an immense assortment of Sumerian literature.

In 1872, George Smith, a scholar at the British Museum, was given the task of copying these clay tablets to make them available to foreign scholars. As he was copying one of the fragments, Smith translated lines that read:

“The mountain of Nisir stopped the ship. I sent forth a dove, and it left. The dove went and turned, and a resting place it did not find, and it returned.” 

Smith reportedly “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.”

When Smith calmed down, he began looking for other fragments of this story. When he had finished translating the rest of the fragments, he had parts of three copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The London Daily Telegraph paid for Smith to return to Nineveh to search for missing fragments of the tablets. In 1873, almost miraculously, Smith recovered a fragment that contained “the greater portion of seventeen lines of inscription belonging to the first column of the Chaldean account of the Deluge, and fitting into the only place where there was a serious blank in the story.”

In the story, Utnapishtim is told to tear down his house and build a ship to save his life. He is told to cause the seed of all living creatures to go into the ship. The ship was shaped like a cube, 120 cubits on each side. It had six decks and was seven stories tall. Utnapishtim waterproofed the ship with thousands of gallons of pitch and asphalt.

After loading his family, possessions, and “the seed of all living things,” he shut the door. The gods then caused a “destructive rain” to fall. Black clouds and thunder appeared; all light turned to darkness, and the land “broke like a pot.” The violence was so terrific that even the gods were terror-stricken and ascended to the heaven of Anu, the sky god.

After seven days and nights of storm, the ship came to rest on Mount Nisir. Utnapishtim sent out a dove, which came back because it had no place to land; then he sent a swallow, which also came back. Finally, he sent out a raven, which did not return. After disembarking, Utnapishtim offered sacrifices to the gods.

This account was very ancient even in Ashurbanipal’s time. The tablets state that they were copied from an older tablet that was read with difficulty in the seventh century B.C. Archaeologists have found fragments of the Epic that were written around 2,000 B.C. during the reign of the fourth successor to Hammurabi.

The Epic of Gilgamesh isn’t the only Flood story from Babylon.  Scholars had long been aware of an account written by Berosus, a Babylonian priest of Bel who lived on a Greek island during the third century before Christ.  Berosus wrote a three-volume work on the history and culture of Babylon. Berosus’ account of the flood parallels the biblical narrative so closely that some skeptics have suggested that the author of Genesis borrowed from Berosus:

After the death of Ardates, his son, Xisuthros, reigned eighteen sari. In his time happened a great Deluge, the history of which is thus described. The Deity, Cronus, appeared to him in a vision, and warned him that upon the fifteenth day of the month Daesius there would be a flood, by which mankind would be destroyed. He therefore enjoined him to write a history of the beginning, procedure, and conclusion of all things; and to bury it in the City of the Sun at Sippara; and to build a vessel, and take with him into it his friends and relations; and to convey on board everything necessary to sustain life, together with all the different animals, both birds and quadrupeds, and trust himself fearlessly to the deep. Having asked the Deity whither he was to sail? he was answered, “To the Gods”: upon which he offered up a prayer for the good of mankind.

He then obeyed the divine admonition; and built a vessel five stadia in length, and two in breadth. Into this he put everything which he had prepared; and last of all conveyed into it his wife, his children, and his friends.

After the flood had been upon the earth, and was in time abated, Xisuthros sent out birds from the vessel; which, not finding any food nor any place whereupon they might rest their feet, returned to him again. After an interval of some days, he sent them forth a second time; and they now returned with their feet tinged with mud. He made a trial a third time with these birds; but they returned to him no more: from whence he judged that the surface of the earth had appeared above the waters.

He therefore made an opening in the vessel, and upon looking out found that it was stranded upon the side of some mountain; upon which he immediately quitted it with his wife, his daughter, and the pilot. Xisuthros then paid his adoration to the earth, and, having constructed an altar, offered sacrifices to the gods, and with those who had come out of the vessel with him, disappeared. They, who remained within, finding that their companions did not return, quitted the vessel with many lamentations, and called continually on the name of Xisuthros. Him they saw no more; but they could distinguish his voice in the air, and could hear him admonish them to pay due regard to religion; and likewise informed them that it was upon account of his piety that he was translated to live with the gods; that his wife and daughter, and the pilot, had obtained the same honor.

To this he added that they should return to Babylonia; and, it was ordained, search for the writings at Sippara, which they were to make known to mankind: moreover that the place, wherein they then were, was the land of Armenia. The rest having heard these words, offered sacrifices to the gods; and taking a circuit journeyed toward Babylonia.  A portion of Xisuthros' ship, which finally went aground in Armenia, is still found in the Gordyæan Mountains in Armenia, and pilgrims bring away asphaltum, which they have scraped from the fragments; they use it against witchcraft. As to the companions of Xisuthros, they arrived in Babylonia, dug up the writings buried at Sippara, founded a number of cities, built temples, and restored Babylon.

Berosus claimed to have based his history on ancient Babylonian chronicles and inscriptions preserved in the temple of Bel in Babylon. Cuneiform inscriptions found in the libraries and temples of Babylonia and Assyria have verified many of his statements. Berosus does not treat the Deluge narrative as part of Babylon’s mythology but rather as part of its history.

As noted by an 1872 story in the New York Times commenting on George Smith’s discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, there are two ways to react to these Flood legends:

“For the present the orthodox people are in great delight, and are very much prepossessed by the corroboration which it affords to Biblical history. It is possible, however, as has been pointed out, that the Chaldean inscription, if genuine, may be regarded as a confirmation of the statement that there are various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest.”

But even assuming that all accounts of the deluge, including the biblical account—and there are hundreds of Flood legends, not just the two well documented Babylonian versions--are “legendary,” the odds are still overwhelming that they are all variant histories of a real historical event.  The idea that there should be hundreds of versions of an entirely fictional event makes no sense at all.  The obvious inference is that the Flood really happened, and there are many different accounts of it held and told by the various ethnic and linguistic groups around the world. 

That being the case, how little faith does it take to accept that the Bible’s account is true, because it was inspired by God, and the other accounts have to some extent been corrupted?  Little enough, I say.